The Upper Egyptian town of Esna is located around 55 km south of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile. Known as Senat in ancient Egypt and later as Latopolis by the Greeks, Esna, also known as “the city of fish”, as the perch was once worshipped there as divine, is home to important Ancient Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic, and modern layers of history.
Location of Esna
Esna is a city in Egypt. It is located on the west bank of the Nile, some 55 km south of Luxor. The town was formerly part of the modern Qena Governorate, but as of 9 December 2009, it was incorporated into the new Luxor Governorate.
History of Esna Town
The town was one of the most prestigious in ancient Egypt and during the Roman and Ptolemaic eras, and the influence of these periods can be strongly felt at the Khnum temple; or Esna temple.
The city of Esna within Luxor Governorate fell into decay and was forgotten by visitors after a new dam was built in 1994, allowing for faster passage by cruise ships. Residents fled the area searching for employment, and the city centre became dilapidated.
Ancient city Latopolis
This city of Latopolis (πόλις Λάτων) in the Thebaid of Upper Egypt should not be confused with the more northern town of Letopolis (Λητοῦς Πόλις), ancient Khem, modern Ausim, in the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt.
The name “Latopolis” is in honour of the Nile perch, Lates niloticus, the largest of the 52 species which inhabit the Nile, which was abundant in these stretches of the river in ancient times. And This appears in sculptures among the symbols of the goddess Neith, associated by the ancient Greeks as Pallas-Athene, surrounded by the oval shield or ring indicative of royalty or divinity. The sacred Lates niloticus was buried in a cemetery west of the town.
The Temple of Khnum at Esna
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 a very late hieroglyphic inscription dating from the reign of Decius (249–251 AD).
Another temple of the same period has been identified at Kom Mer, about 12 km to the south, but cannot be excavated because a modern village is built over it.
There was a smaller temple, dedicated to the triad of Latopolis, about two miles and a half north of the city, at a village now called el-Dayr. There is a small zodiac of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221 BC). This latter building was destroyed in the 19th century as it stood in the way of a new canal. The temple of Esna was cleared of the soil and rubbish which filled its area when Vivant Denon visited it and served as a cotton warehouse in the mid-19th century.
Except for the jamb of a gateway—now converted into a door-sill—of the reign of Thutmose II (Eighteenth Dynasty), the remains of Latopolis belong to the Ptolemaic or Roman eras. Ptolemy III Euergetes, the restorer of many temples in Upper Egypt, was a benefactor to Latopolis. He is depicted upon the walls of its temple, followed by a tame lion and in the act of striking down the chiefs of his enemies. The name of Ptolemy V Epiphanes was also inscribed upon a doorway. Although the scale of the ruins is impressive, their sculptures and hieroglyphics attest to the decline of Egyptian art. The west wall features reliefs of Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Physcon. The pronaos, which alone exists, resembles a style of Apollonopolis Magna (Edfu) and is begun not earlier than the reign of Claudius (41–54 AD) and completed in that of Vespasian. Their name and titles are carved on the dedicatory inscription over the entrance. On the ceiling of the pronaos is the larger Latopolitan Zodiac. The name of the emperor Geta, the last ruler that can be read in hieroglyphics, although partially erased by his brother and murderer Caracalla (212), is still legible on the walls of Latopolis. Before raising their edifice, the Romans seem to have destroyed even the basements of the earlier Egyptian temple. The proper way, which probably linked the quay to the temple, has disappeared. The quay bears cartouches of Marcus Aurelius.
The cemetery west of the town, where the Lates niloticus was buried, also contains human burials dating from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period.
The Temple of Esna conveys a sense of the importance that the Ancient Egyptians placed upon their places of worship. All Egyptians who entered the confines of an Egyptian temple were required “to comply with the strict rules regarding ritual purity.” According to inscriptions carved on the walls of the Temple of Esna, those who entered this temple were expected to fastidiously cut their fingernails and toenails, remove other body hair, wash their hands with natron (a naturally-occurring salt), “be dressed in linen (they were forbidden from wearing wool), and not to have had sexual intercourse for several days.”
Medieval Heritage City
Esna enjoys a rich intangible heritage in its unique social structure. The city centre is subdivided into spatial domains inhabited by deeply-rooted Esna families and its traditional crafts – all on the verge of extinction as a living heritage extended since the medieval eras. Forms of this life-heritage are other monuments and buildings of historical significance in Esna from various periods, like Wekalet El Geddawy, a caravanserai from the Ottoman era, established in the 18th century by the Ottoman Ruler Hassan El-Geddawy (Ruler of Jeddah -KSA). It was named after him, it represents one of three caravanserais in the south of Egypt, and it is the only one that still maintains its unique original design. The Wekala was one of the most important trade centres in the South of Egypt in the 18th century, with traders from all over Africa coming through the west desert and the red sea. And It now stands as a testament to the strength of trade and the strategic position of Esna as a trade centre in the south of Egypt at the time. Historically, the building was used to sell enslaved people, animals, crops, and crafts. The historic market is one of a few still standing markets in the south of Egypt. It gets its significance from being a local landmark market that portrays Esna’s authentic local life. Products sold in the market include home supplies, local crafts and bridal needs. El-Amry Minaret is the only remaining part of the historic mosque with the same name, torn down and rebuilt in the 1960s in a modern style. The Mosque was established between 474 & 476 AD on the Islamic Calendar by Badr El-Deen Gamaly, and it was the first to be built in Esna in the Fatimid Era. The oil press has belonged to the family of Bakour for over 200 years, and it is the only still standing oil press in Esna. Martyrs’ Monastery It was established in the 6th century. The Monastery is of great significance for Christians since it was established in the age of Christine persecution in Egypt by Saint Helena after a battle between the Romans and Coptic Egyptians, which led to the death of 3600 Martyrs. The Roman emperor Diocletian led the struggle and started an attack against Christians in Egypt. On the day of the Martyrs’ Massacre, an attack was started that caused the Bishop of Esna “Father Ammonius”, to flee with the whole Christian population to the monastery to hide there from the emperor’s troops. They were later found there and killed. The sanctuary is visited by thousands of Egyptians from all over the country every year due to its significant value.
Like any other function that needs space or a built environment, trade caused the existence of several types of buildings and public open spaces to help facilitate its process in Esna. Historically, the public open area between Khnum Temple and al-`Amriyya Minaret functioned as Esna’s main square – where various historic photos of Esna depict this area as the city’s central marketplace. Wakālat al-Jiddāwī (caravanserai), one of the city’s main trading buildings, existed on this square. And to the north and south of the square, al-Qīsāriyya Street extended -parallel to the Nile River- for almost 1.5 km. The street is named after Esna’s renowned al-Qīsāriyya Market. Qīsāriyyas are an urban market typology that is believed to have existed since the Roman times, possibly since the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) They consist of a long and narrow covered street and sometimes a network of streets in the heart of a city. The street is surrounded by 2-3 story buildings on both sides, where shops and workshops are located on the ground floor – directly opening to the street. The upper floors include living quarters – sometimes for traders visiting the city. Wakālas (caravanserais) exist along- or close to this street. Such street markets are famous for traditional goods such as textiles, spices, traditional clothing, etc. Qīsāriyyas exist in many Upper Egyptian cities such as Asyūt, Sūhaj, Qenā and Esna; and they are all functioning until today as popular local markets. Al-Qīsāriyya Market in Esna is one of the city’s main attractions for tourists and residents of Esna and its surrounding villages. It plays a regional trade function as the hub for many commercial activities until today. It includes different trades and goods such as textiles, clothing, houseware, haberdashery, tailoring, upholstery, etc. Hence, it is a major destination for families preparing for marriage and newly-married brides. Esna’s Qīsāriyya Market consists of two main parts. The northern part starts from Wakālat al-Jiddāwī, passing by the Church of Mother Dūlāji, and heading northward. This part is buzzing with life, and the local atmosphere as residents and villagers wander there for shopping activities. This part gets busier on its northern edge, covered with modern sharing elements since it is close to Esna’s public transportation hub. Many architecturally significant buildings along this part of the street -dating back to the turn of the twentieth century- exist. It also includes, tucked in a small alleyway, the significant façade of Bayt al-Shabrāwī, built in 1874 with its intricate decorative fired brick and woodwork. On Saturdays, the northern part of al-Qīsāriyya is even more lively since it merges with Esna’s weekly Saturday Market – famous for its local gastronomic and clay tableware products.
On the other hand, the southern part starts directly from the south of Khnum Temple, heading southward. This part is quieter, but it is a unique market part. It still maintains its traditional wooden cover and is surrounded by mud-brick buildings that retain classic features, such as their colourful wooden doors, until today. This covered part of the market extends for almost 130 m (425 feet). It opens doors on the route from the Khnum Temple area to many Esna attractions, such as the traditional Bakkūr Oil Press, the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and many of the city’s architecturally significant buildings. More than 120 local shops exist in this part. They mainly encompass traditional tailors (tailoring formal dresses such as Jalābiyyas) and sell textiles – including women’s traditional textiles and shawls indigenous to Esna such as al-Ḥabra, al-Farkha and al-Nishra. This southern part of al-Qīsāriyya Market still includes the remains of a conventional wakāla- accessed through one of the textile shops. The market’s traditional wooden cover and direction from north to the south provide a cool breeze that makes the shopping and wandering a pleasant experience, especially on a hot summer day.
Dam of Esna
Two barrage bridges straddle the Nile: one built by the British in 1906 and the “Electricity Bridge” made in the 1990s. Navigation, mainly Nile cruisers ferrying tourists from Luxor to Aswan 155 km further upstream, can be held for hours while vessels negotiate through the lock system.
The two main points of interest in Esna are its lively tourist-oriented market, which fills a couple of streets leading inland from the corniche. The other is the temple of Esna. The temple has only been partially excavated and is about 200 meters from the river and some 9 meters below street level.
Attackers on patrol killed a policeman and a civilian and wounded three other victims.
Under the older name of “Latopolis,” the city is now a Roman Catholic Latin titular see. It is sometimes confused with the titular Diocese of Letopolis in modern Ausim, a suffragan of Hermopolis Parva.