Akhmim is a city in the Sohag Governorate of Upper Egypt. Referred to by the ancient Greeks as Khemmis or Chemmis and Panopolis, it stands on the east bank of the Nile, four miles (6.4 km) to the northeast of Sohag.
Location of Akhmim Town
History of Ahmim Town
Akhmim was identified in Ancient Egypt as Ipu, Apu (according to Brugsch, the name is related to the nearby village of Kafr Abou) or Khent-min. It was the capital of the ninth (Chemmite) nome of Upper Egypt. The city is a suggested hometown for Yuya, the official of Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III. The ithyphallic Min (the Greeks identified with Pan) was worshipped as “the strong Horus.”
Herodotus mentions the temple dedicated to Perseus. he also asserts that Chemmis was remarkable for the celebration of games in honour of that hero, after the manner of the Greeks, at which they distributed prizes. Some representations belong to Nubians and people of Punt clambering up poles before the god Min.
Min was primarily the desert routes god in the east of Egypt. Trading tribes likely joined the Min festival for business and pleasure at Coptos (near Neapolis) in significant numbers than Akhmim. Herodotus perhaps confused Coptos with Chemmis. Strabo mentions linen-weaving and stone-cutting as ancient industries of Panopolis. It is not altogether a coincidence that the cemetery of Akhmim is one of the chief sources of the beautiful textiles of the Roman and Christian ages that are brought from Egypt.
Church of Abu Seifein in Akhmim
In the Christian Coptic era, Akhmim was written in Sahidic Coptic: ϣⲙⲓⲛ/ⲭⲙⲓⲛ/ⲭⲙⲓⲙ Shmin/Kmin/Kmim but was probably pronounced something like Khmin or Khmim locally. Monasteries abounded in this region from a very early date. Shenouda the Archimandrite (348–466) was a monk at Athribis near Akhmim. Some years earlier, Nestorius, the exiled ex-patriarch of Constantinople, had died at an old age in the neighbourhood of Akhmim. Nonnus, the Greek poet, was born at Panopolis at the end of the 4th century. The diocese of Panopolis, a suffragan of Antinoë in Thebais Prima, is included in the Catholic Church’s list of titular sees.
Among the bishops of Panopolis, Le Quien mentions Arius, a friend of Saint Pachomius who had built three convents in the city, Sabinus and Menas. Excavations at Akhmim have disclosed numerous Christian manuscripts, fragments of the Book of Henoch, the Gospel, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus, and numerous other Christian inscriptions.
In the 13th century AD, a very imposing temple still stood in Akhmim. However, nothing survived from the town, as the temples were almost completely dismantled. Moreover, Egyptians reused their material in the later Middle Ages. Today, little of its past glory remains. The extensive cemeteries of ancient Akhmim are nevertheless to be fully explored. Archaeologists discovered a destroyed corner of a Greco-Roman period temple with colossal statues of Ramesses II and Meritamen in 1981.
Akhmim is the largest town on the east side of the Nile in Upper Egypt. In 1907, the city’s population was 23,795, of whom about one third were Copts. Akhmim has several mosques and two Coptic churches. The Monastery of the Martyrs stands approximately 6 km northeast of the city. Akhmim maintains a weekly market, and manufactures cotton goods, notably the blue shirts and check shawls with silk fringes worn by the poorer classes of Egypt. Outside the walls are the scanty ruins of two ancient temples. On the west bank of the Nile, opposite Akhmim, there is railway communication with Cairo and Aswan.
Important Religious Centre of the Ancient World
Although the city is almost unknown today, it was one of the most important religious centres in antiquity. As early as the protohistorical period, Akhmim was the leading site for worshipping the fertility god Min, later equated with the Greek god Pan. Min’s temple was one of the largest in Egypt, built in the Ptolemaic era. Before its destruction in the 14th century AD, Arab historians described it as a world wonder. The city was equally famous for its stonemasonry and textiles. Akhim is still well-known as a centre of artisanal textile production today.
Many Famous Figures Came from Akhmim
Numerous famous people are closely associated with the city. For example, Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten, Pharaoh Ay, the alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and the poet Nonnus came from Akhmim. Also, Some evidence suggests that Nefertiti hailed from the town Akhmim. In the early Christian era, the legendary abbot Shenoute founded a flourishing monastery near Akhmim. Rules that he established influenced the Rule of Saint Benedict and continue until today.
The chief deity of Akhmim is the fertility god Min who, possessing powers of regeneration, is an important national god venerated throughout ancient Egyptian history. The claim of the cosmographer Leo Africanus (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries AD) that Akhmim was the oldest town in all of Egypt is highly uncertain. Still, archaeological evidence proves that the city was already important during the Predynastic period and remained so throughout the centuries to the present day. Most of what we know about ancient Akhmim comes from the town’s cemeteries.
Two cemeteries dating to the Old Kingdom, el-Hawawish on the east bank of the Nile and el-Hagarsa on the west bank, have been systematically excavated and recorded by the Australian Centre for Egyptology. El-Hawawish contains 884 rock-cut tombs, making it one of the most extensive Old Kingdom provincial cemeteries. Although most of its burials are undecorated, many of these once possessed inscribed stone stelae are now located, with other artefacts such as statues and coffins, in museums throughout the world. About sixty tombs have retained most or part of their scenes and inscriptions; they enable the study of the development of art, architecture, administration and other fields in this province through at least ten successive generations, or some 400 years in the latter part of the Old Kingdom.
One of the earliest governors of the province, Memi (late 5th Dynasty), decorated the walls of his tomb with twenty-four engaged statues representing the tomb owner and, occasionally, his wife, cut into the native rock. A brilliant architectural scheme was designed to protect the valuable possessions, undoubtedly buried with a rich man like Memi. A long sloping passage leads to a burial chamber that appears to be a proper and final burial place. However, a vertical shaft in the corner is cut, initially filled and concealed, which descends for an additional 7m leading to a second, identical burial chamber where Memi was interred. Despite the architectural ingenuity, this tomb’s fate was no better than that of the great majority of others throughout Egypt.
As Governor of the South, Hem-Min (tomb M43) was probably the most powerful man in Upper Egypt at the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th Dynasty (circa 2350 BC); at Akhmim, he was positioned in the centre of the area under his jurisdiction. Hem-Min had an ambitious design for a single-roomed chapel (20.2×9.2m), with a ceiling 3.9m high that was to be carried on two rows of five pillars each. As his chapel was excavated into the heart of the mountain, the quality of the rock deteriorated, preventing him from leaving standing pillars.
Large areas of rock from the ceiling then collapsed, totally spoiling the appearance of this magnificent chapel. The decoration was subsequently finished on a much-reduced scale depicting three extended registers of offering bearers, spearfishing, an offering table and dancing. Although incomplete and fragmentary, these scenes show great artistic merit, particularly regarding the detail depicted in fish, birds, baskets, etc.
One of the most remarkable features of the governing family at Akhmim is their extraordinary love of art. A governor named Shepsipu-Min left a surprising inscription in the tomb (G95) of his father and predecessor, Nehewet, stating that he was the artist who decorated the tomb. There is no reason to doubt his claim, but no other man in such a position in ancient Egypt claimed to be an artist, and the paintings in Nehewet’s tomb certainly corroborate his son’s artistic talent.
The following generations of governors were perhaps not so gifted artistically. Still, to maintain the same high standard, they employed probably one of the most exceptional artists, Seni. He decorated two tombs, those of Kheni (H24) and Tjeti-Iker (H26), belonging to father and son. Unlike most Egyptian artists who remained anonymous, Seni left the following inscription in the tomb of Teti-iker: “the painter Seni says: it was I who decorated the tomb of the Count Kheni, and it was I also who decorated this tomb, I being alone.”
The scenes in the two tombs are similar, and, luckily, wherever part of a scene was damaged in one burial, it was intact in the other. Thus between the two tombs, we have a complete record of the work of one of the most talented Egyptian artists of the Old Kingdom. While following the general traditions of Egyptian art, the artist drew what he knew rather than what he saw, such as a frontal eye on a profile face and a frontal shoulder on a profile body; Seni did not lack originality. For example, in his treatment of a hand holding a spear in the spearfishing scene, the foreshortening of the fingers is both unusual and very successful.
All the scenes are painted on mud plaster, and these depict various aspects of the owner’s daily life, including those in which he participated and those he watched and enjoyed. Fishing, fowling, harvesting, various workshop activities, sports and entertainments are represented. Although occasionally depicted in other Upper Egyptian cemeteries, watching bullfighting seems a particularly favoured form of entertainment at Akhmim.
The importance of a tomb should not only be judged by its richness and size; some of the poorer, smaller tombs are equally informative. One of the later tombs of the cemetery, belonging to Rehu (BA17), is small and exhibits neither grand architecture nor a high art style. However, dating to the very end of the Old Kingdom, the biographical inscription of the owner is of inestimable value for the understanding of this dark and little-known period. The inscriptions and the scenes were cheaply and hastily painted on mud plaster and reflect the poor quality of the time. Still, the information presented about war, famine and complex conditions is of great value.
Tombs of el-Hawawish
From the same period as the tombs of el-Hawawish, those of el-Hagarsa were generally smaller and belonged to officials of lesser status. The discovery of two burials, one belonging to an Overseer of the Army named Wahi and the second belonging to a Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt named Hefefi, throws significant new light on the last years of the Old Kingdom before its collapse around 2200 BC.
The undisturbed burial chamber of Hefefi contained six mummies in coffins belonging to one family, men and women, forming three generations, including two children, four and seven years old. Complete medical and DNA examinations currently in progress are adding to our information on family relationships in ancient Egypt and on the results of the probable civil war which erupted at that time between the northern and southern parts of Upper Egypt. Akhmim was apparently at the borderline between the two warring factions.
Except for a stela belonging to a provincial governor named Intef, egyptologists knew nothing about Akhmim in the Middle Kingdom. However, more knowledge came from the New Kingdom; King Ay, the successor of Tutankhamen, originated from Akhmim. As a proud native of this town, Ay restored its temples and erected a new rock-cut temple for Min at el-Salamuni following the end of the Amarna Period and the return to polytheistic religion. Most of his building projects were assigned to his architect, Nakht-Min, another citizen of Akhmim. Yuya and Tuya, the parents of Queen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III), are also known to have come from Akhmim.
Excavations in the town of Akhmim by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization have uncovered a temple built by Ramesses II. Giant statues of the king and his daughter-wife, Merytamen, were found, and part of the temple’s layout has been discerned. Whether this was the famous temple, the so-called “Birba” referred to by the Arab historians, remains uncertain.
Of particular interest is the recently investigated large tomb of Sennedjem at Awlad Azzaz. The owner was an overseer of tutors, possibly of Tutankhamen, whose cartouches occur in several places in the tomb. The human figures are depicted in the Amarna style, but modifications to the original reliefs show an attempt to eliminate the Amarna features. Although incomplete, the scenes in this tomb include unique themes like Tutankhamen in his chariot and represent the “window of appearances.” The burial casts some new and important light on the leading personages in Egypt during the tumultuous closing years of the 18th Dynasty.
Akhmim seems to have maintained its importance during the Late period and throughout the Ptolemaic dominance of Egypt when the town was called “Panopolis,” i.e. the city of Pan, the Greek god who was identified with Min. In earlier AD, Christianity was introduced in Egypt, resulting in conflict with the old pagan traditions in specific centres like Akhmim. During the Roman period, the Egyptian Christians (Copts) were persecuted, with this movement reaching its peak under the Roman emperor Diocletian.
Many Christians escaped to the surrounding mountains, living in ancient tombs after replastering the walls to cover what they considered to be scenes of pagan idolatry. Shortly afterwards, however, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and many monasteries were built at Akhmim. The most important of these is the “white monastery,” also called the monastery of St Shenute, which was constructed in the fourth century AD, reusing many decorated stones from ancient Egyptian temples.
Akhmim is an important archaeological site that preserves valuable information on Egyptian history during the pharaonic, classical, Coptic, Islamic and more recent periods. While its cemeteries at the edges of the desert have now received scholarly attention, the original settlement remains, like most others in Egypt, mostly buried under the modern town.