Egypt: Dush, the Temple, Fortress and Ancient Town of Kysis near the Kharga Oasis in Egypt

Dush, the Temple, Fortress and Ancient Town of Kysis
near the Kharga Oasis of Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn

The Fortress at Dush in Egypt

What we refer to today as Dush, some 125 kilometers south of Kharga deep in the Sahara Desert of Egypt was, in ancient times, Kysis, a border town that held a garrisoned fortress to protect a small community with a cultivated area. Few of Egypt's ruins are more remote, but this was a major military installation during the Roman Period of Egyptian history at its location where five ancient desert tracks met.

Today, the area is strewn with thousands upon thousands of potsherds mixed in among two ancient temples and several cemeteries including about 150 Ottoman tombs, attesting to the continued use of the site. The area was excavated by the Institut Francais d'Archeologie Orientale, whose dig house is at the base of the hill.

The town itself probably existed before the Greek Period, perhaps even with temporary settlements dating back to the Old Kingdom (possibly the 4th Dynasty), and there is evidence that the community was of great importance, having a rather robust merchant class who traded with the caravans that passed by going both north-south and east-west. There were also potters, jewelers, metal workers and other craftsmen, as well as schools, and gaming houses filled with good food and wine from the excellent oasis grapes, to fill the need of the soldiers. The ancient town is scattered over the hillside around the fortress. The discovery of an elaborate system of clay pipes, irrigation channels and a Christian church suggests that the town was abandoned when its wells dried up, some time after the forth century AD.

Ancient cemeteries surround the town on the north and west. Although the Roman cemeteries running southeast almost to the escarpment are the largest, the most impressive is a tiny version of Bagawat that lies to the north of the fortress. Dating to the late Ptolemaic Period, the tombs are, however, undecorated.

Another view of the ancient fortress at Dush in Egypt

The fortress surmounts the highest hill in the area about two kilometers northeast of the modern village of Dush. It is situated about 79 meters above sea level. The oldest building found so far on this site dates from the Ptolemaic era, though there is some evidence that the fortress could even date to the Persian period prior to Greek control of Egypt. The Romans enlarged the Ptolemaic structure. Its ruined walls, rising to six meters and even twelve meters in some places, enclose a rectangular space densely covered with barrack structures, while four or five stories lie underground. Many scholars now believe that it may have guarded the southern end of the Darb el-Arba'in, an important trade route.

Abutting the Roman fortress on the eastern side are the remains of a sandstone temple, originally dedicated to Osiris, who the Greeks transformed into Serapis, and also to the goddess Isis.

The main temple at Dush dedicated to Osiris (Serapis) and Isis

The temple was probably erected under the reign of Domitian, enlarged by Trajan, who added a courtyard, and then partly decorated and further enlarged by the Emperor Hadiran during the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. Though there are actually few decorations, the temple is believed to have been covered in gold. However, all three Roman Emperors are depicted in scenes carved on the temple walls.

A monumental stone gateway fronts the temple and contains a dedicatory inscription by Trajan dated to 116 AD, as well as graffiti by Cailliaud (who claimed to be the first European traveler to reach the site) and other nineteenth century travelers. To the north is a large forecourt containing five columns with a pylon at its northern end. The main part of the temple measures about 7.5 by 15.5 meters and contains a pillared hall with four slender columns, a staircase to the roof, an offering table in an outer chamber and an inner sanctuary with a vaulted roof. Two long side chambers also had barrel-vaulted roofs. A taller pronaos was later added to the front of the main building.

A closer view of the monumental entrance to the Temple at Dush

From the Temple courtyards, many artifacts have been discovered, including pottery, coins and ostraca including a large collection of demotic ostraca dated from the Persian Period. Some were also written in Greek, and appear to date from the early 4th to 5th centuries. They specifically consist largely of receipts and payments for supplies for the Roman army, but also include names of individual soldiers and civilians. Though the names include a blend of Egyptian, Greek and Roman origin, there are also numerous instances of biblical Hebrew names, demonstrating that Christianity was practiced at Dush during this period. Some of the most interesting items from Dush include a few brief private letters in the form of ostraca, which have allowed scholars to piece together the human elements of life at this Roman outpost.

An excavation in March 1989 in one of the magazine complexes at Dush on the west side of the temple unearthed a magnificent collection of artifacts, now known as the Dush Treasure, which is now in the Egyptian Antiquity Museum in Cairo. At fist, they discovered a linen wrapped gilded statuette of Isis, along with a small bronze figure of Horus dressed as a Roman legionary and a bronze figure of Osiris. Nearby, they also found a large, loose-lidded pottery jar which had been concealed by masonry. It contained a hoard of magnificent gold religious jewelry and votive objects. These objects had clearly been gathered for safety and hidden in the jar during the 4th to 5th centuries AD.

Depictions within the temple, once said to be covered in gold

The religious objects are of the highest quality craftsmanship and include a golden crown depicting the Roman god Serapis, as well as bracelets and pendants of gold and semi-precious stones. These items have provided scholars with valuable information about Roman worship in Egypt.

There is a second temple located at Dush that probably dates to the Roman Period. It lies about 200 meters west of the first. It has vaulted ceilings, small rooms and a staircase. It was built entirely of mudbrick, but little else is known of this temple.

The French team has recently been investigating another site at 'Ayn Manawir, discovered during the 1992 and 1993 seasons, about five kilometers northwest of Qasr Dush. It consists of an entire ancient village buried in the sand, with houses, fields, orchards, irrigation channels and even the hoof prints of bovines in the dried mud of a pond where the animals were watered. The establishment and survival of the community was secured by a novel means of access to the subsurface water, trapped in a complex system of irrigation consisting of lines of channels or aqueducts (known as qanats), which radiated from a well. The discovery of these has been instrumental in dating the different occupation and construction periods of the site. The site was a Persian and Roman settlement with a small mudbrick temple, although archaeologists have now confirmed occupation from the end of the Palaeolithic Period. The excavations have so far uncovered a house to which a small temple of Osiris was attached. Hundreds of archival texts have been found, written in demotic on large ostraca, including one from the reign of Xerxes (27th Dynasty) This was the first instance of this king's name written in demotic. Others date to the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The documents provide evidence of relations between the temple at 'Ayn Manawir and Hibis Temple, further to the south in the Kharga Oasis. Archaeologists have been able to work in ideal conditions using a combination of archaeological evidence and precisely dated written sources. Unfortunately 'Ayn Manawir is directly in line with an advancing field of sand dunes which are marching towards the site and will soon bury it, preventing further work.

A view within the fortress at Dush in Egypt






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor


Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-3276-8

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Western Desert of Egypt, The

Vivian, Cassandra


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011