Temple of Horus at Edfu

Edfu Town

The city of Edfu, located in Upper Egypt on the west bank of the Nile River, was a flourishing Greek city in ancient times and was commonly known as Apollinopolis Magna, after the chief God Horus-Apollo. Today the town rich with history is a friendly and commercial town. Locals produce sugar from farm-grown sugar cane and decorative pottery.

Location of Edfu Town

Edfu, also spelt Idfu, is an Egyptian city located on the west bank of the Nile River between Esna and Aswan, with approximately sixty thousand people. The historical Edfu is the site of the Ptolemaic Temple of Horus and an ancient settlement, Tell Edfu. About 5 km (3.1 mi) south of Edfu are remains of ancient pyramids.

Ancient History of Edfu

Ancient Tell Edfu

The remains of the ancient settlement of Edfu are situated about 50 m to the west of the Ptolemaic temple – to the left of the older temple pylon. This settlement is known as Wetjeset-hor, and the Greek name was Apollinopolis Magna. According to Notitia Dignitatum, part of Legio II Traiana Fortis was camped in Apollo superior, the Roman name for the town.

Although direct and unglamorous to the visiting tourists, Tell Edfu is a monument containing evidence of more Egyptian history and more archaeological interest than the Ptolemaic temple. Although significant parts of the settlement show severe signs of erosion, cut away or exposed during organic trash digging, enough is preserved to gain information from as far back as the Predynastic Period. The settlement remains (Tell) provide an insight into the development of Edfu as a provincial town from the end of the Old Kingdom until the Byzantine period.

The territory at Edfu was the capital of the Second Upper Egypt nome and played an essential role within the region. The oldest part of the town, dating to the late Old Kingdom, lies on the eastern part of the tell, not far from the Ptolemaic temple. There is evidence that the town flourished during the First Intermediate Period when it expanded extensively to the west. One of few settlements in southern Egypt thrived when the north, especially around the delta, was in economic decline.

Today, the ancient mound of Tell Edfu is preserved in some areas up to 20 m high. It contains complete archaeological sequences of occupation dating to the Old Kingdom until the Graeco-Roman period, more than 3000 years. Therefore, it provides ideal conditions to study the development of a provincial town.

Henri Henne explored a central part of the Institute for Egyptology in Lille in 1921 and 1922. His team identified the remains of a small sanctuary from the Late or Ptolemaic period, possibly the Osiris chapel built by Psamtek I. Henne was followed by Octave Guéraud in 1928, then by Maurice Alliot in 1931, who each explored and excavated different aspects of the settlement remains. The top layers of the territory containing the Byzantine, Roman and Ptolemaic remains and the Old and Middle Kingdom cemetery at the southwestern corner were recorded by a Franco-Polish expedition in 1937–39.

The expedition was organized in cooperation between the University of Warsaw and the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo, and was directed by B. Bruyère, J. Manteuffel and Kazimierz Michałowski. Three detailed reports on the archaeology of Tell Edfu were published. Unfortunately, since mid-1939, no new explicit discoveries or thorough research has been completed except for recent work done by Barry Kemp from the University of Cambridge. Since 2001, the Tell Edfu project has been directed by Nadine Moeller (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago). The current work focuses on the eastern part of the site.

So far, the administrative centre of the ancient town has been discovered with remains of a columned hall dating to the late Middle Kingdom and a large granary courtyard that functioned as a grain reserve for this provincial capital. At least seven large round silos have been excavated here, between 5.5 and 6.5 meters. It makes them the largest ones discovered within an ancient Egyptian urban centre—the latter dates to the Second Intermediate Period (17th Dynasty).

No more considerable remains dating earlier than the 5th Dynasty have been found at Edfu. The ancient cemetery comprised mastabas of the Old Kingdom and later tombs. Before the beginning of the New Kingdom, the necropolis was transferred to Hager Edfu, to the west, then in the Late period to the south at Nag’ el-Hassaya. The entire area was called Behedet. The god Horus was herein worshipped as Horus Behedet.

One of these mastabas belonged to Isi, a local administrator, who, it was quoted, was the “great chief of the Nome of Edfu” in the Sixth Dynasty. Isi lived during King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth and into the reign of Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasties. He was an administrator, judge, chief of the royal archives and a “Great One among the Tens of the South”. Isi later became a living god and was worshipped during the Middle Kingdom. As the Sixth Dynasty and the Old Kingdom drew close, local, regional governors and administrative nobles took on a more significant power in their areas, away from the central royal authority.

Temple of Horus

Of all the temples in Egypt, the Temple of Horus at Edfu is wholly preserved. The town is known for the central Ptolemaic temple, built between 237 BC and 57 BC during the reign of Cleopatra VII. The huge Ptolemaic temple was constructed from sandstone blocks over a smaller New Kingdom temple, oriented east to west, facing toward the river. The later structure faces north to south and leaves the ruined remains of the older temple pylon on the east side of the first court.

Pyramid ruins

The remains of one of seven small provincial step pyramids built along the Nile Valley are situated about 5 km south of Edfu near the west bank village of Naga el-Goneima. The structure was built from rough reddish sandstone and rose to a present height of 5.5 m. The pyramid has been loosely attributed to King Huni of the Third Dynasty. The purpose of these pyramids is unknown. Further investigations and a detailed survey have been carried out by the Oriental Institute, the University of Chicago, since 2010.

Apollonopolis Magna

During the Hellenistic period and under the Roman Empire, the city’s name changed to Apollonopolis Magna or Apollinopolis Magna. Ptolemy assigns Apollinopolis to the Hermonthite nome. But it was more commonly regarded as the capital town of the nome Apollopolites. Under the Roman emperors, it was the headquarters of the Legio II Trajan. Its inhabitants were enemies of the crocodile and its worshippers.

The ancient city derived its principal reputation from two temples, which are considered second only to the Temple of Dendera as specimens of the sacred structures of Egypt. The more prominent temple is in good preservation and is being excavated. Sometimes, the smaller temple, improperly called a Typhonium, is an appendage of the former. Its sculptures represent the birth and education of the youthful deity, Horus, whose parents Noum, or Kneph and Athor, were worshipped in the massive edifice.

Egyptians devoted the principal temple to Noum, whose symbol is the sun’s disc, supported by two asps and the extended wings of a vulture. Its sculptures represent (Rosellini, Monum. del Culto, p. 240, tav. xxxviii.) the progress of the Sun, Phre-Hor-Hat, Lord of Heaven, moving in his bark (Bari) through the circle of the Hours. This deity also forms at Apollinopolis, a triad with Athor and Hor-Senet’s goddess. The triad members are youthful gods, pointing their fingers towards their mouths and, before the decipherment of the hieroglyphics, were regarded as figures of Harpocrates. The local name of the district around Apollinopolis was Hat, and Noum was styled Hor-hat-Kah, or Horus, the tutelary genius of the land of Hat.

The entrance into the more prominent temple of Apollinopolis is a gateway 50 feet high, flanked by two converging wings in the form of truncated pyramids, rising to 107 feet (33 m). The wings contain ten stores and are pierced by round loop-holes for the admission of light. These stores probably served as chambers or dormitories for the priests and servitors of the temple. The propylaeum leads into a large square, surrounded by a colonnade roofed with squared granite. On the opposite side is a pronaos or portico, 53 feet (16 m) in height, and having a triple row of columns, six in each row, with variously and gracefully foliaged capitals. From the jambs of the door appear two blocks of stone. These jambs were intended, as Ddnon supposes, to support the heads of two colossal figures.

The temple is 145 feet (44 m) wide and 424 feet (129 m) long from the entrance to the opposite end. Hieroglyphics cover every part of the walls. The central court ascends gradually to the pronaos in broad steps. The whole area of the building was surrounded by a wall 20 feet (6.1 m) high, of great thickness. Like so many Egyptian temples, Apollinopolis could be employed as a fortress. It stood about a third of a mile from the river. Although carefully and beautifully executed, the sculptures are of the Ptolemaic era. Ptolemy VI Philometor established the earliest portion of the temple in 181 BC.

Apollonopolis Magna became a Christian bishopric, a suffragan of the metropolitan see of Ptolemais, the capital of the Roman province of Thebais Secunda. Papyrus documents record the names of perhaps five of its bishops. No longer a residential bishopric, Apollonopolis Magna is today listed by the Catholic Church as a titular see.