The temple of Esna, dedicated to the god Khnum, his consorts Menhit and Nebtu, their son, Heka, and the goddess Neith, was remarkable for the beauty of its site and the magnificence of its architecture. It was built of red sandstone, and its portico consisted of six rows of four columns each, with lotus-leaf capitals, all of which differ from each other. The temple contains the very late hieroglyphic inscriptions dating from the reign of Decius (249–251 AD).
Location of Esna Temple
History of the Temple of Khnum
Historians generally believe the site’s origin dates back to Tuthmosis III. Construction of the Temple of Khnum, the ram-headed creator god who fashioned humankind on his potter’s wheel, was begun by Ptolemy VI Philometor (180–45 BC). Some records suggest that Romans constructed it on an earlier ancient temple. The Romans added the hypostyle hall, with well-preserved carvings from as late as the 3rd century AD. Currently, it is the only part of the temple excavated and can be visited today.
The Temple of Khnum today sits in a 9m-deep pit, representing 15 centuries of desert sand and debris. It accumulated on the temple since Egyptians abandoned it after the appearance of Christianity. Most of the temple is similar in size to the temples of Edfu and Dendera. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius built a quay connecting the temple to the Nile (AD 161–180).
The central doorway leads into the dark, atmospheric vestibule. Eighteen columns with wonderfully varied floral capitals in the form of palm leaves, lotus buds and papyrus fans support the temple’s roof. Some columns also have bunches of grapes, a distinctive Roman touch. Romans decorated the ceiling with astronomical scenes while they covered the pillars with hieroglyphics accounts of temple rituals. Inside the front corners, besides the smaller doorways, are two hymns to Khnum. The first is a morning hymn to awaken Khnum in his shrine. The second is a beautiful ‘hymn of creation’ that acknowledges him as the creator of all, even foreigners. According to an inscription on the temple’s walls:
All are formed on his potter’s wheel, their speech is different in every region, but the lord of the wheel is their father.
On the walls, Roman emperors dressed as pharaohs make offerings to the local gods of Esna. The northern wall has scenes of Emperor Commodus catching fish in a papyrus thicket with the god Khnum and, next to this, presenting the temple to the god.
The back wall, to the northeast, constructed during the Ptolemaic period, features reliefs of two Ptolemaic pharaohs, Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (170–116 BC). Several Roman emperors, including Septimus Severus, Caracalla and Geta, added their names near the hall’s rear gateway. Outside, an underground pump struggles to move groundwater away from the structure.