“The Temple of Amun at Medinet Habu: Birth Place and Burial Place of the Primordial Deities” Lucia Gahlin

At the beginning of July Lucia Gahlin visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about the Small Temple at the site of Medinet Habu which was actually more important to the ancient Egyptians than the big temple of Ramesses III that we go to visit as modern tourists. Click here to see my write up of this talk on my sister blog, Other People’s Tales.

Plaster Head of a King or Deity

This rather haunting face with an enigmatic smile dates to the 4th Century BCE and belongs to a genre of sculptural works that was popular in the Late Period. It’s made of plaster and would once have had inlaid eyes and been painted (there are traces of paint remaining on it).

Plaster Head of a King or Deity. Provenance unknown. Late Period to Ptolemaic Period, c. 4th Century BCE. Acc. No.: 82.22

It’s not entirely clear what the function of pieces like this was. They’re pretty small (this one is big at 23cm tall), and are rarely of a full figure. Some, although not this one, have grid lines and depth guides still visible on their surface.

The Brooklyn Museum offers two hypotheses on their label for the case this was in: they might be sculptors’ trial pieces, or they might be temple offerings. From what they say about the flaws in each theory I’m more convinced by the idea that they are trial pieces.

It’s not known where it was found, but it’s now in the Brooklyn Museum (acc. no.: 82.22).

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/45/

Jigsaw puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=12ec0f2f6c75
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=2d5478891f48

I’ve been posting short pieces like this on my social media accounts for a while, and I’ve decided to experiment with putting them on the main blog too!

Dendera Temple

One of the sites on the standard tourist itinerary is the temple at Dendera – it’s near modern Qena, a bit under 100km north of Luxor on a large bend on the river Nile. When I’ve visited we’ve done it on the way back to our Luxor hotel from Abydos. Dendera isn’t the original Egyptian name of the site, it’s derived from later Greek names (Tantere and Tentyris) – the Egyptians called the town Iunet. It’s positioned near the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat, which was an important route to the Red Sea as well as providing resources itself (including all the siltstone that Predynastic palettes were made from). As a result it was a strategically important place, and was the capital of the sixth Upper Egyptian Nome (nomes were administrative districts). Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are indications that the site was occupied from early on – the necropolis has graves at least as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.

It’s not clear when the temple complex at Dendera was first built, but there is evidence that there was a temple there during the time of Pepi I and that this may’ve been an older temple which was rebuilt during the reign of Khufu. After this there is definitely a chapel dating to the Middle Kingdom (dedicated to Montuhotep II, now in the Cairo Museum). And there is quite a bit of evidence to show that New Kingdom kings built and extended the temples at the site. The surviving temple, the one you’ve been to see if you’ve been to the site, primarily dates to the Ptolemaic Period. One reason archaeological evidence preceding this is slim is that it appears when the current structure was built the site was flattened and it’s built directly on top of the remains from the Old Kingdom. The first surviving structure at the site dates to the reign of Nectanebo I (the founder of the 30th Dynasty in the Late Period, the last native dynasty of Egyptian kings). But most of what you see is Ptolemaic or Roman. The earliest Ptolemaic cartouche in the main temple is that of Ptolemy XII Auletes (Cleopatra VII’s father, really very late, tho see below when I come back to empty cartouches at the site), and Kent Weeks suggests that most of the building work for the Ptolemaic parts of the temples took place in the reign of Cleopatra VII.

The temple was first visited by Europeans quite early in the Western “rediscovery” of Egypt. The first European to write about it was Peter Lucas who visited in 1716 CE. And the site was also one of the places that Napoleon’s great expedition in 1798 visited – they removed the Dendera Zodiac from a roof chapel and sent it to the Louvre (replacing it with a copy that has been painted black to resemble the surroundings).

Like any large Egyptian temple there are several structures on the site which are part of the temple complex as a whole, and the surviving ones are only some of those that once stood there. The primary dedication of the complex is the triad of Horus, Hathor and Ihy. The surviving main temple at the site is the one dedicated to Hathor, but there would once have been two more – the others dedicated to Horus and to Ihy (and this was Ihy’s main cult centre). Dendera is the principle cult centre of Hathor, and has been since at least the Old Kingdom. As well as the temple here there is also a burial ground for cows, the sacred animal of Hathor. The local form of Hathor is closely associated with Nut – emphasising her roles as a sky goddess and a daughter of Re. She is also a goddess with strong links to the west and the dead.

As I said, there are many structures on the site not just the main temple. These include a couple of mammisis, a sanatorium, a temple of Isis and even a Coptic church! The main temple lies on a north-south orientation and most of the other structures are at right angles to this with their entrances to the east. This is actually quite an unusual orientation, and has to do with the direction the Nile is flowing in this part of Egypt. Despite our labelling the axes according to the cardinal directions, from an Ancient Egyptian perspective it was often the case that these were relative to the flow of the Nile rather than the true cardinal directions. So temples were often situated with their main axis at right angles to the Nile, which is notionally an east/west axis (as the Nile flows from south to north). But at Dendera there is a great bend in the Nile, and it’s actually flowing to the east at this point – hence a temple pointing towards the Nile is oriented from north to south in terms of cardinal directions but is still symbolically facing east towards the Nile.

The whole thing is surrounded by a mudbrick enclosure wall, built with a technique called “pan bedding” – this produces a wavy profile to the wall, as there are alternating areas of convex and concave courses of bricks. This does have practical implications (it may improve stability on ground that expanded and contracted as the waters of the Nile rose & fell with the inundation), but in typical Egyptian fashion they may also have had a symbolic meaning. The wavy profile may symbolise the waters of Nun – the boundary wall is thus holding chaos back from the sacred ground of the temple (which is thus the domain of order or ma’at). There are a couple of gateways in the wall, one in the north (the primary gate) and one at the southern end of the east wall. The main gateway is actually rather smaller and less imposing than is the case for other temples. It’s not the typical huge pylon, but instead a structure called a “propylon gateway” and it was built during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Outside this gate are some other Roman structures – chapels of a type we call kiosks. And within the mudbrick enclosure wall there is also an inner wall – this was built in stone but was never finished.

As well as buildings within the walls there are also a couple of water-related features. Unlike the one at the Precinct of Mut at Karnak this is a typical example – it is rectangular in shape. At the corners were flights of stairs descending into the water, down which the priests would walk to purify themselves. There are also wells on the site, one of which may be a nilometer used to measure the annual inundation.

To the west of the main temple between the gateway and the outer hypostyle hall of the main temple are four buildings. Two of these are mammisis – mammisi is a word that was coined by Jean-François Champollion (as a new word in the Coptic language). It means “birth-place” or “birth-house” and it used for a particular type of building found associated with several Egyptian temples dating from the Late Period through to the Roman Period. The two at Dendera pretty much cover the date range. The older one was built during the reign of Nectanebo I and the other was built by the Emperor Augustus and decorated by Trajan. As is typical they are both small temples placed at right angles to the main temple. The decorations within focus on the marriage (in this case of Hathor) and the birth of Ihy (the child of the triad) and the Pharaoh. The decoration in the Roman mammisi is particularly fine. One of the most famous scenes is of Ihy being formed on the potter’s wheel, and there are also scenes of other deities praising Ihy. The texts include hymns to all three members of the triad. And in keeping with the theme of birth the god Bes (a patron of childbirth) is depicted around the tops of the columns.

The temples were the site of “mystery plays” (so-called by analogy to medieval European mystery plays, I think, rather than being an Egyptian term). The play had 13 acts, with 2 intervals, and re-enacted the birth of Ihy and of the Pharaoh – symbolically linking them together and ensuring the continued existence of the royal line. Although not quite the same idea there are resonances between these plays and the reliefs from the New Kingdom that depict the parentage of the king as being the god Amun impregnating his human mother. Both link the king’s birth explicitly with the gods, even though the link is different in each case.

The other ancient Egyptian building in this group i that’s still on the site is a sanatorium – the chapel dedicated to Montuhotep II that I mentioned above isn’t on the site any more. The sanatorium is where pilgrims to the site would’ve stayed and was also for their healing. It is possible it was a place where they slept in order to receive healing dreams (an “incubation chamber”), but it’s more likely that the primary function was as a centre for cippus healing (where water would be poured over a stela called a cippus depicting Horus and covered in spells, and the now magical water was ingested by the ill person). The presence of a sanatorium at this temple may be because Hathor has healing associations (in one myth she restores the sight of Horus after Seth put his eye out), but they were also more generally attached to temples regardless of dedication from the Late Period onward. Although, having said that – this one is the only one that is known to’ve been built for this purpose, at other sites the evidence is less clear cut.

And finally, nestled between the mammisis, is a Coptic church which was built in the 5th Century CE. This seems a little incongruous but it’s something that often happens – a lot of Ancient Egyptian temples have Coptic churches or monasteries built in or next to the ancient structure. This isn’t restricted to Christian buildings, for instance there’s a mosque inside Luxor Temple. Sacred sites seem to hang on to their sacredness even as the religion around them changes.

Unlike Christian churches, temples in Ancient Egypt were not places where the general public could go inside and worship. And so there had to be more accessible structures for personal petitions to the gods. On the outside of the southern wall of the main temple there is a false door which is shaped like a Hathor sistrum which once had a wooden canopy. This is a place where those who could not enter the temple itself could leave their offerings and make their prayers. Inside the temple, in a chapel that backs onto this false door there is a niche that matches up with the outer structure, which once contained a statue of the goddess.

As a tourist visitor to the temple one is also taken to this wall, but not to leave one’s prayers for Hathor. Instead what we look at is the large relief on the western end of the wall that shows Cleopatra VII (“the” Cleopatra) and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, standing and making offerings to the gods. A part of Cleopatra’s campaign to promote Caesarion as the heir to her throne. Whilst with hindsight we know it was doomed, she must’ve been hoping that with Rome as her ally (and her Roman son lined up to take the throne) there might be a new period of stability for Egypt. The Ptolemaic Period in general, and particularly towards the end of it, was a time of great political instability with multiple civil wars and a high turnover of rulers. You can maybe see signs of that elsewhere in the decoration of Dendera Temple as well – there are reliefs where the cartouches are empty and the name of the king hasn’t been filled in, and some just contain the word per-aa (Pharaoh). One possible explanation is that as the king kept changing the people carving the reliefs didn’t have time (or want to commit) to carve a name in them. But I’ve also heard an alternative explanation that it’s more about symbolising eternal kingship rather than one particular king, and I’m not sure if there’s convincing evidence to determine which is the case.

The rest of the decorative scheme of the outer side of the walls of the main temple focuses on scenes of the king laying out the temple, placing the first stones (symbolically one assumes!) and dedicating the temple to Hathor. There are similar scenes in other more public spaces of the temple, including the outer and inner hypostyle halls (see below) – this tells us something about how the kings (mostly Roman Emperors) who commissioned this decoration wanted to be seen. Not as much emphasis on warmongering as earlier kings (perhaps a little close to the bone in a country they conquered?), and more on building houses for the gods.

Immediately behind the main temple is a structure called the Iseum – it’s a temple dedicated to Isis and build by the Emperor Augustus re-using stones from earlier structures on the site. The axis of this temple is unusual – it’s split with the main part of the temple facing towards the east like all the other subsidiary temples on the site, but then the sanctuary faces north towards the sanctuary of Hathor in the main temple. Once there was a statue of Osiris supported by Isis & Nephthys in the sanctuary.

Temple of Dendera

Entering the temple proper (finally!) the facade that greets you consists of six columns joined by a half-height wall between them and a central doorway that leads into the temple. This part of the temple, and the outer hypostyle hall behind it, was built after Cleopatra’s time – in the 1st Century CE, at the orders of the Emperor Tiberius. There’s a Greek inscription above the door that tells us this, saying that the temple is “for the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the new Augustus, son of the divine Augustus […]”. The columns in this area are all topped with four heads of Hathor arranged to make a cube. These heads are themselves topped with a naos-shaped sistrum. The heads were pretty much all deliberately damaged in antiquity. Hathoric columns are not unique to this Roman structure at Dendera – there are examples seen from the Middle Kingdom onward at a variety of different sites. This is just the most well known example.

Inside the outer hypostyle hall is a spectacular ceiling – it still retains a lot of its colour, and has recently been cleaned, so it looks pretty impressive. It’s decorated with a chart of the sky, mixing newer ideas about the stars brought in by the Greeks and Romans with traditional Egyptian ideas about the sun’s journey. For instance there are signs of the zodiac that came, ultimately, from the Babylonians mixed in with images of Nut swallowing the sun so that she can give birth to it again which is a very old Egyptian belief. The walls include the decorative motifs I talked about above – the king (or rather, Emperor in this case) laying out, building and dedicating the temple. There are also scenes of the purification of the king.

Moving further into the temple you come to the inner hypostyle hall. This room is called the Hall of Appearances, and is where the statue of the goddess was brought to appear at the beginning of rituals and processions. The hall has 6 columns, and the walls are decorated once again with depictions of the king participating in the building of the temple. There are six small rooms opening off the hall, 3 on the east side and 3 on the west. One of the eastern ones we call a “perfume laboratory” as the reliefs have to do with the making of perfume and show the king offering incense – this also has representations of the god Shezmu, originally the god of wine & oil presses but by the Ptolemaic Period known as the Provider of Perfumes for the gods. In another room on the east the king offers food to the goddess. And on the western side there is a room where the king offers silver, and another where he pours libations of water. The rearmost room on each side is a treasury. An opening to the east allows offerings to be brought in, and to the west another opening leads to a well. The area as a whole appears to be for the preparation of offerings and the storage of items needed for the daily ritual at the temple.

Continuing deeper into the temple you come to a room called the Hall of Offerings, to the sides of this room are the stairs to the roof. This hall was the area where sacrifices were dedicated to the deities of the temple, and the scenes on the walls show the king making these offerings . From each side of this room are stairs leading to the roof. The room after this is called the Hall of the Ennead (the name for “group of nine gods”) which is immediately outside the inner sanctuary – here the statues of other deities assembled before joining processions. Amongst the various deities represented in the temple at Dendera were Shezmu (who I just mentioned), Shepet (a form of Taweret, in the Roman mammisi), the Heliopolitan Bull Mnevis and the lion god Mahes. To the left and right are chambers that sorted the clothing and other accessories of these gods – the western room is a linen chamber, and the eastern room is a treasury. If you go through this treasury you come to a courtyard with a set of stairs at the end leading up to a room called the wabet or “Pure Chapel”. In this room ceremonies of offering to Hathor are performed, and these are shown on the walls of the courtyard (along with scenes of processions of deities from Upper & Lower Egypt).

The sanctuary itself is now empty, but it would once have held a shrine containing the statue of the goddess Hathor and her ceremonial barque in which she would travel during processions. These items are depicted on the decoration of the sanctuary. Surrounding this room were 11 chapels dedicated to the other deities who were associated with Hathor at this site. These included deified forms of two of Hathor’s chief attributes – her sistrum and the menat necklace.

Underneath the main temple and within its walls there are crypts, which were used to store cult objects used in the temple. I remember when I visited the temple I’d assumed that this usually invisible and functional space would also be plain – but that is not the Egyptian way, the walls of the underground one I went into are decorated with reliefs that depict the items that were once stored there. This includes a ba statue of Hathor which was once used in processions, such as one at New Year. In this procession the statue was taken out to visit various parts of the temple, including a chapel for Nut and a chapel on the roof where the ba statue was placed overnight. In the morning with the first sunrise of the New Year the statue was bathed in sunlight, which was seen to infuse it with new life for the new year. The staircases on which the procession travelled were decorated with representations of the procession itself – participated in by gods & kings for eternity. On the western staircase the procession carved into the walls leads up to the roof, and in the eastern one the procession goes down into the temple once more.

This was not the only chapel on the roof of the temple at Dendera – there were also others, including two symbolic mortuary chapels for Osiris. These were mirrored with one suite on the east and one on the west of the roof. The roof of one of these was the famous Zodiac ceiling which is now in the Louvre as I mentioned above. The zodiac design itself is primarily a Babylonian zodiac, and is not the same as earlier Egyptian depictions of the heavens (such as those in tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Having said that, it’s not purely a foreign import, elements of Egyptian ideas are incorporated – just like the outer hypostyle hall ceiling combines both ideas of the heavens. Nonetheless even the idea that the stars can influence human destiny wasn’t part of the Ancient Egyptian mindset until the Ptolemaic Period – presumably imported from the Greek culture of the new rulers – previously unlucky and lucky days were based on mythology and the timing of festivals. The date that this zodiac depicts isn’t clear, as it’s difficult to be sure how to match the Egyptian constellations and planet names to our own. However one suggestion is that it may’ve originally represented the conception date for Caesarion, but was later altered to a significant date in the Emperor Augustus’s life. I don’t think that’s widely accepted, however.

There are other more typically Ancient Egyptian elements to the decorative scheme of these chapels. These include figures of Nut (so a more typically Egyptian sky than the Babylonian zodiac) and scenes depicting elements from the mythology of Osiris. This includes the conception of Horus, with Isis as a falcon hovering over the phallus of the mummified body of her dead brother-husband Osiris in order to receive his seed. An inscription also details the annual ceremonial burial of a corn mummy made of soil and grains of barley mixed together. This would then sprout, symbolising the rebirth of Osiris.

Another chapel is one of the earlier structures of the temple – at the southwestern corner of the roof is a kiosk with 12 Hathor-headed columns surrounding it which once supported a wooden roof. This has cartouches of Ptolemy XII on it. And demonstrating that the roof continued to be important ceremonial space the roof of the outer hypostyle hall (the newest part of the temple proper) was used by pilgrims in antiquity who waited there for signs & miracles from Hathor herself.

And also on the roof are waterspouts. Even though it doesn’t rain often in Ancient Egypt, when it does it can be as substantial rainstorms – so the flat roofs of temples need some sort of drainage. The spouts at Dendera (as at some other temples) have lion heads decorating them. These are thus symbolically protective as well as functional pieces of architecture. And as well as these protective associations they are also harnessed to generate water imbued with magic powers – in a vertical line on the wall directly below the waterspout are written magical texts. In the Egyptian belief system the written word itself had power, and pouring water over words (like with the cippi I mentioned above) would transfer this power into the water.

So here ends our tour of the temple complex at Dendera – it’s a delight to see, as it’s so well preserved. But equally it’s so well preserved because it’s so new, relatively speaking – although a lot is Ptolemaic, it’s late Ptolemaic and a lot is also Roman.

Resources used:

Park, Rosalind. 2015. “Reflections on the Dendara Zodiac: Addressing the What, When and Why.” Spring Lodge Centre, Witham, Essex, December 6.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums.American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt.Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad

Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.

The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).

The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.

As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.

So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.

One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).

Standing Faience Hippopotamus

And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.

Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).

So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!

The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).

Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!

Resources used:

Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013.
———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.


Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.

In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.

There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.

Vulture Rock

The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.

The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.

Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.

As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.

It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.

Resources used:

“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018