There was a time not so long ago when a fair amount of imagination was needed to picture what the ancient Egyptian temples must have looked like when originally built and painted. Over recent years, however, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism has led major programs of work to clean, conserve and, in some cases, renovate and restore the temples.
On my recent trip to Egypt I was keen to visit Esna Temple for the first time to see some of this cleaning and conservation work for myself. Located approximately 50 miles south of Luxor on the West Bank of the Nile, the temple is dedicated to Khnum, a god of the Nile who moulded the “ka” on his potters wheel.
Esna is the last temple built in Egypt in the traditional style, a Ptolemaic temple dating from the Graeco-Roman period. It was completed under the Roman Emperor Decius in circa 250 AD. As with all Ptolemaic temples, it was built on the site of an earlier shrine, this one dating from the reign of Thutmosis III in the New Kingdom. The temple sits in a hollow pit some 9 meters below ground level with the modern town enclosing it on all sides. Only the hypostyle hall has been excavated, with remains of the rest of the temple still buried under the surrounding streets.
This short video clip shows the approach to the temple through narrow streets lined with market stalls, and you can see how the temple sits in a pit surrounded by the modern town.
A team was there working hard on the cleaning and conservation work as this next short clip shows:
The work cleaning the capital-headed columns and the astronomical ceiling is revealing some stunning colors as this gallery of photographs shows. So it’s no longer necessary to use your imagination to see what the temple must have looked like when originally carved and painted.
What also sets Esna Temple apart is some of the unique reliefs carved into the walls and columns. On the northern wall the pharaoh is shown hunting wild birds, beautifully carved in raised relief into the sandstone.
These next carvings are unlike anything I have seen on temple walls before… as I understand it depicting a hymn to Khnum.
There is also a depiction on one of the columns of the Emperor Trajan dancing before the goddess Menhet, and another of an Emperor presenting a garland. And finally, on the outer wall apparently the only image in Egypt of a man riding a horse.
All in all, a fascinating visit to an atmospheric and evocative temple being restored to something of its former glory. And, of course, for a writer of fiction such as myself, impossible not to imagine what might be waiting to be discovered buried for millennia under the modern town that surrounds it. Surely, there must be a story there …