Egypt: Al-Zayyan, Temple and Fortress in the Kharga Oasis

Temple and Fortress in the Kharga Oasis

By Jimmy Dunn

The southern gate to the fortress and temple of al-Zayyan

One of the major monuments of the Kharga Oasis is the Roman (actually of Greek origin) temple of Qasr al-Zayyan (Qasr el-Zayyan, Qasr Ain el-Zaijan, Qasr Zaiyan), which was and is situated in the ancient village called Takhoneourit, which the Greeks called Tchonemyris.

The town itself is mostly unexcavated, but it was almost certainly of great importance as a major water source during antiquity, and would have been a place where travelers stopped for the night. The remains of the well itself can still be seen close to the mudbrick enclosure wall on the western side. There was a major desert route that led from Qasr al-Zayyan to Esna during the Roman Period.

The anceint well from which the site derives its name

Actually, the temple itself is only a part of a fortress, one of a chain built during this period, with the remaining area being given over to living quarters. It was initially built during the Ptolemaic Period when it was known as the Great Well (Tchonemyris), but was restored and enlarged by the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in 138. The ruins are surrounded by a rectangular mudbrick enclosure (actually almost square) wall measuring about 26 meters by 28 meters,. Within, this Roman temple was dedicated to Amun-Hibis, who was know to them as Amenibis. The sandstone temple was very small when it was first built during the Ptolemaic Period, measuring only about 7.5 by 13.5 meters. The Romans then built a brick hall, some 22 meters long, in front of the main older structure. The temple faces south and can be entered through a sandstone gate erected in the mudbrick enclosure wall. On the cage, a dedicatory inscription reads, "To Amenibis the great god of Tchonemyris and to the other gods of the temple, for the eternal preservation of Antoninus Caesar, our Lord and his whole house..." The inscription, dated 11 August 140 AD, goes on to name the governor and other officials involved in the restoration. The main temple building today consists of a court leading to the sanctuary or offering chamber which has an elaborate cult-niche in the north wall, and to an antechamber with a staircase leading to the roof.

The niche in the sanctuary at al-zayyan in the Kharga Oasi - Photo copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte

The German geographer, Georg Schweinfurth, visited the site during the latter part of the 19th century and found potter, coins, glass and cast bronzes in the area. He recorded that one of the village families kept a bronze as a fertility amulet. Apparently, the local villagers thought that it possessed great powers.

Between 1984 and 1986, the temple went through an extensive restoration. Also, new excavations were recently begun by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. They reconstructed parts of the temple, cleared a portion of the interior and discovered kilns, a water cistern and a cache of Roman coins. Other efforts have included a measuring project by a Japanese team from Osaka University.

An overall view of the ruins at al-Zayyan

An overall view of the ruins at al-Zayyan

Just below Qasr al-Zayyan, the plain is 18 meters below sea level, the lowest point in the oasis. Here, the cemeteries of the ancient community can also be found.

A small pylon gate within the temple of al-Zayyan

A small pylon gate within the temple of al-Zayyan

Some photos copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte






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