Egypt: Deir al-Hagar in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt

Deir al-Hagar Temple

in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn

A view of the Temple of Deir el-Hagar in the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt

Deir al-Hagar (Deir el-Hagar, Deir el-Haggar) can be translated as "Monastery of Stone", and in ancient times this was a lone Roman Period temple located south of the cultivated area of the Dakhla Oasis about ten kilometers from el-Qasr in the desert. Its ancient name was Setweh, Place of Coming Home.

This is a sandstone temple erected during the reign of the Emperor Nero (54-67 AD), and decorated during the time of Vespasian (69-79 AD), Titus (79-81 AD) and Domitian (81-96 AD), who decorated he monumental gateway. Other Roman rulers made small contributions to the decorations, with the latest inscriptions dating to the 3rd century AD. The temple was mainly dedicated to the Theban triad, consisting of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu, though Seth, who was the principle god of the Oasis, was also honored here. Here, Seth is depicted with a falcon head and a blue anthropomorphic body.

Plan of the Deir al-Hagar Temple in Egypt

There are cartouches of Roman emperors on the temple walls mixed among more recent additions, for almost every traveler who came to Dakhla in the nineteenth century etched there names, including Edmondstone, Houghton, Hyde and Cailliaud, as well as the entire Rohlf expedition. Edmondstone recorded the date of his visit as February 1819, at Aim Amur as evidence of his departure from the Dakhla Oasis. This demonstrates that he visited the Oasis prior to Drovetti. Drovetti, in his diary, maintained that he visited the temple "toward the end of 1818, which would have made him the first. He only recorded his name at Deir al-Hagar, but an ex-Napoleon solder who deserted in 1801 and remained in Egypt accompanied Drovetti on his journey to Dakhla. He recorded the date of the visit as 26 F. 1819. It was almost 100 years before another foreign traveler passed by, found the inscriptions at Deir al-Hagar and Ain Amur, and offered proof that Edmondstone had actually discovered Deir al-Hagar.

A depiction of Khonsu at the Temple of Deir el-Hagar (Copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte)

Edmondstone found the temple half filled in with sand and he tried to clear it, though he soon abandoned the project and simply measured the structure. At that time, the sanctuary still had a roof and parts of three front columns were standing. Rohlfs related that Remele removed the sanctuary roof to clear the sand.

The back of the temple, where most of the outer walls are intact

There is an interesting legend surrounding the visit of Gerhard Rohlf to the temple. Local residents believe that he came to the oasis, with a treasure book in hand, to find a buried treasure. When he was unsuccessful, they believe he sacrificed one of the workers of his group to the afrit, a spirit, who was guarding the entrance to the treasury. Then he took the treasure and departed.

In 1995, restoration efforts on the temple were carried out by the Dakhla Oasis Project under the direction of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The restoration was done entirely with the technology and materials used by the original craftsmen. Many stones were replaced, as were the doors, and a fence of palm branches was erected to

protect the temple grounds from encroaching sands. A visitors' center was also erected, which includes photographs depicting the restoration efforts. Today, the temple of Deir el-Hagar represents one of the most complete Roman monuments in this Oasis.

Doorway to the Sanctuary of the Temple of Deir el-Hagar (Copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte)

The temple building measures 7.3 by 16.2 meters and has a well preserved outer mudbrick enclosure wall where some remains of painted plaster can still be seen. The main gate is situated in the eastern side of the enclosure wall, though there is another gateway on the south side, in the temenos wall of the sanctuary. This is where most of the early travelers recorded their names, but there are also later Greek inscriptions. There is a processional way that leads from the main gate up to the temple entrance, and along it are the remains of round, mudbrick columns which would have been part of pillared halls flanking the entrance. A few small sphinxes found in this area can now be seen in the Kharga Heritage Museum.

A depiction of Thoth at el-Hagar in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt

Entrance into the temple was gained through a screen wall that led into a wide pronaos, which contains two columns. From there, a doorway leads to a small hypostyle hall with four columns, which in turn gives way into a hall of offerings before reaching the central sanctuary. The sanctuary is flanked by two side chambers. The one to the south contains the stairway that would have given access to the roof. To the north, the second chamber was a storage annex.

The sanctuary was decorated with a magnificent astronomical ceiling, dating to the rule of Hadrian (117-138 AD), which had pained reliefs including an arching figure of the goddess Nut, representing the sky and the god Geb, who symbolized the earth. In the center of the ceiling, the god Osiris is represented by the constellation of Orion, while other astronomical features are represented by various deities whose task was to maintain the universe. It is on the west wall at the rear of the sanctuary where the main Theban gods, Amun-Re and Mut are depicted, while on the south wall the Triad of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu are represented, along with Seth, Nephthys, Re-Horakhty, Osiris, Isis and Min-Re. The north wall includes the Theban Triad alongside the Heliopolitan creator gods, consisting of Geb, Nut, Shu and Tefnut.

A rather interesting depiction, not carved, apparently of Serapis, a Greek god that was associated with Osiris

Also on the northern wall is an important representation of the Dakhla god, Amun-Nakht, and an inscription in the sanctuary records his earliest known visit to the oasis. This desert god, who appears to have characteristics of both Amun-Re and Horus, is shown with his consort, Hathor. Thoth, who is frequently depicted elsewhere in the Oasis, is also represented with his consort, Nehmetaway.

All about the temple are the other ancient remains, much of it evidencing the Roman farms that surrounded the temple. Many of these are pigeon houses in various stages of ruin. There is a field containing cut, stone blocks to the west of the enclosure, and about 800 meters to the northwest of the temple is a Roman Period cemetery with about 250 tombs. Here, very crude, human headed terracotta coffins of the roman period were unearthed. When Rahlfs excavated the cemetery, he found a complete terracotta coffin in one tomb, and seven mummies covered with a mat in another.

Photo Credits:

Some photos copyright Alain Guilleux Une promenade en Egypte

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X