Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2004
Issue No. 712
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Both pagan and Christian

Plans are afoot to dismantle and relocate the Temple of Khnum at Esna. Jill Kamil suggests a fitting location

Click to view caption
Elegantly carved capitals in the Temple of Khnum at Esna; The new Monastery of the Martyrs at Esna is a large and elegant construction in neo-Coptic style; One of the rock-hewn sanctuaries in the oldest church in the monastery

There are sadly few archaeological opportunities to demonstrate the inherent continuity of Egyptian culture. The divisions with which we are all familiar have been created by historians, who have grouped the nation's past into four distinct periods: Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, early Christian (Coptic), and Islamic. Each of these periods has not only its own scholars, but also its own separate museums that emphasise the differences and special characteristics of each era. It is not surprising therefore that the general public has come to accept this fragmented rendition of history. And the archaeological record does not help, as there are only a few surviving examples of how these different cultures merged -- as when a Christian or Islamic building is erected within an Ancient Egyptian temple. There are still fewer places where Pharaonic and Christian monuments exist in close enough proximity to one another to illustrate this historical reality.

However, we now have a real opportunity to correct this tendency. The Graeco-Roman Temple of Khnum at Esna currently stands below ground level in the centre of the city, where it is subject to daily seepage from wastewater. The Supreme Council of Antiquities has decided to save what remains of the temple from any further damage by dismantling it and relocating it to a more suitable location. The decision as to where exactly it should be relocated has yet to be made.

So while the cultural authorities reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of various potential locations, Al-Ahram Weekly would like to take the liberty of proposing an imaginative yet eminently practicable solution.

Why not move the Temple of Khnum to the edge of the desert, and re-erect it a short distance from the Monastery of the Three Thousand Six Hundred Martyrs (Deir Manaos wa Al-Shohadaa) that stands at the foot of the limestone plateau to the west of the city? Here not only would the temple be quite safe from further damage, but the juxtaposition of these two monuments, with their roots in the same period of Egyptian history, would also provide a vivid insight into an important historical reality -- the persecution of the Christians under the Roman emperors who are depicted in the temple's reliefs.

Esna was a centre for local commerce from early times, but the city only rose to importance during the 18th Dynasty when Thutmose III led his army into Nubia. Trade with the south began to be actively pursued in around 1386 BC, but the small temple of Khnum was built much later, during the first and third centuries AD. All that remains of the original structure today is the 32.8x16.4-metre hypostyle hall, with its harmonious proportions and relief decorations.

The heavily inscribed columns describe the year's religious rituals and festivals, set out in the form of a calendar. One interesting scene depicts the Emperor Commodious as the god Horus assisting the ram-headed god Khnum to draw in a net full of waterfowl and fishes. Among the catch, we can see some of Egypt's traditional enemies, who have been caught along with the river creatures!

The temple is adorned with reliefs of various emperors wearing Pharaonic garb, and paying homage to local gods. Many are cited by name, including Claudius, Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Decius. Of these, the name of Decius that appears in a royal cartouche was the last to be identified.

The Roman occupation of Egypt, while ostensibly a continuation of the Ptolemaic regime, differed markedly from its predecessor. The former had re-established the crumbling world of the Nile Valley as once more the most important country in the eastern Mediterranean. Under the Romans, an impoverished Egypt was shorn of its glory. The Egyptian artists who adorned the Temple of Khnum undoubtedly required a certain measure of hypocrisy, or cynicism, to eulogise a Roman emperor who lived on the other side of the sea in the guise of a Pharaoh. There is no evidence that Egyptians of this time had much respect for their conquerors, and there is practically no trace of any Roman deities in the monuments of the Nile Valley.

The reign of Decius marked the first of the great persecutions against the Egyptian people. On taking over as leader, Decius decreed that municipal councils should be set up in all the nome capitals. Little wonder that the already dissatisfied population, overtaxed and hard-pressed to meet the demand for grain, rebelled. Apart from the wheat tax that was collected directly from the farmer as part of the quota for Rome, the produce of the vineyards was taxed, along with palm groves and fig plantations. Taxes were levied on domestic animals -- sheep, oxen, horses and donkeys. Traders were taxed. Oil-sellers, bakers, spice and perfume sellers were taxed. Even the land used for garden produce was subject to imposition.

Hunting and fishing licences also swelled the resources of the Roman state, and Egyptians now had to pay even for the right to go fowling in the marshes or fishing in the lakes -- activities that their ancestors had pursued freely for several thousands of years.

The Upper Egyptians never submitted easily to Roman rule. As early as 29 BC, in the reign of Augustus, there was an insurrection in Thebes against tax collectors. The repercussions were drastic. Within five days, five neighbouring towns had been totally razed in retaliation. It is not surprising, then, that so many Egyptians found it expedient to court the new rulers rather than confront them, and ordered their artists to depict them on temple walls in the manner of the ancient Pharaohs, honouring the gods and defeating traditional enemies.

During this period, Egypt was bereft of leadership. There was no Pharaoh whose legitimacy was recognised by the people and who was able to preserve order. The people laboured, but reaped only scant reward. It was in this context that many Nile Valley dwellers sought refuge in the desert, in ancient tombs, or in the caves that pit the mountain ranges which flank the river. For the foreign rules, Christianity soon came to symbolise this resistance. Egyptians were obliged to join in traditional Pharaonic (pagan) rites and make sacrifices to the gods, with the aim of testing their faith. In return for these acts, they were provided with formal papyrus certificates of their religious correctness.

Surviving texts bear such declarations as: "I have in your presence sacrificed and made libations and tasted the offerings, along with my wife, my sons and my daughter, acting through me, and I request you to certify my statement." But for every individual who submitted to this command, there were many who refused. Self- professed Christians were routinely tortured or killed, and many, fearing for their safety, sent in false certificates.

Thousands went even further, abandoning society in favour of a solitary life devoted to God. Among them was Saint Paul, who found refuge on the Red Sea coast, and later Saint Anthony, who became the spiritual leader of another large community there. In and around Esna, hermits could be found living in ancient tombs, whether in a communal settlement or a hermitage, as well as in isolated caves near the edge of both Eastern and Western deserts. That still left a large number, however, who were willing to die rather than abjure their faith.

In front of the altar in the old church at the Monastery of the Martyrs stands a metre-high granite column which marks the place where many Egyptians were beheaded.

Situated south-west of the town on the edge of the desert, close- by a Muslim burial ground, the Monastery of the Martyrs was described by 19th century travellers in terms of reverence and admiration. One declared it "without question one of the most beautiful in Egypt", while for another it was distinguished as being "second only to Jerusalem in the number of Christians that suffered martyrdom".

The older of the two churches in the large complex, which was built in the 1930s, now houses the remains of these saints and martyrs. It was erected around the three ancient rock- hewn sanctuaries dedicated to Saint George, the Blessed Virgin, and the Holy Martyrs of Esna, which appear little different today than they must have done when they were first carved out some seven centuries ago. Evidence of earlier wall paintings can be made out beneath a layer of plaster on the sanctuary walls -- an image of Christ flanked by angels, and another of Saint Theodore on horseback.

The new church, which is dedicated to the Holy Virgin, contains three sanctuaries dedicated to Saint George, the Holy Virgin and Saint Michael. The paintings in this spacious house of worship were made by pilgrims who came to the monastery for the annual moulid of Saint Amonius, the revered Bishop of Esna. Tradition holds that it was St Amonius himself who built the original monastery.

Unlike other ancient provincial capitals, which can boast an abundance of monuments from different periods, Esna has but one important temple and one monastery. The temple is no longer included in the standard Nile cruise because of its inconvenient location in the centre of a heavily-populated town, and it is seldom visited by tourists because of the inconvenience of having to travel in convoy. The monastery, for its part, is hardly ever visited at all, except by travellers on tailor-made Christian tours.

It would, therefore, be both historically appropriate and advantageous for the tourist industry, if serious consideration were given to developing the city of Esna as a destination of unique interest by relocating the Temple of Khnum, with its portraits of the Roman emperors who were responsible for the persecution of the region's Christians, close to the Monastery of the Martyrs, which memorialises the lives of those who died at their hands. To do so would not only make both these monuments more accessible and interesting to the visitor, but would tangibly demonstrate the co-existence of two distinct yet overlapping cultures during a crucial period of Egyptian history.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 712 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Profile | Cartoon | Listings | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map