The Temple of Beit el-Wali in Nubia

The Temple of Beit el-Wali in Nubia

by Craig Hildreth

The entrance to Beit el-Wali Temple

Beit (Beyt) el-Wali, today, is located just south of the Aswan High Dam, very close to the Kalabsha Temple, making it easily a part of any tour that explores Nubia's monuments. Of the cluster of moments that were moved to New Kalabsha during the construction of the High Dam in order to avoid their burial beneath this great lake, this temple is the oldest, and for a long time, was by far the oldest though now the Temple of Gerf Hussein also dating to the reign of Ramesses II resides on the island after having been dismantled since its rescue from the rising waters of Lake Nasser back in the 1960s. However, Beit el-Wali probably even predates that temple by a few years. Beit el-Wali was rescued from Lake Nasser by a Polish archaeological team financed by a joint Oriental Institute of Chicago/Swiss Institute of Cairo Project.

Artists Illustration of a scene in which Ramesses II strikes a Nubian chief

Artists Illustration (Rosellini) of a scene in which
Ramesses II strikes a Nubian chief

Beit el-Wali represents another of Ramesses II's Nubian monuments dedicated principally to Amun, together with other gods, that was carved from the sandstone hillside and is probably unique as the smallest of its gender. The other monuments located here, consisting of the Kalabasha temple, a birth house and the kiosk of Qertassi, all dating to the Roman era of Egypt's history and the Temple of Gerf Hussein.

The Groundplan of the Temple

This temple was originally located in a remote area from any towns. It was built probably for show rather than public worship, and the conducting of temple services by small priestly staffs may have been only occasionally maintained, or minimally observed. Though the temple was altered during the Christian era, the brightly painted reliefs in the inner part of the temple are well preserved.In fact, this temple is sometimes also referred to as "the house of the holy man", because it was also once used as a hermit's dwelling.

The temple was probably originally fronted by a brick pylon not unlike that at Gerf Hussein and Abu Simbel. The temple itself was built on a symmetrical cruciform plan, and consisted of a deep hall, a transverse antechamber with two columns and a sanctuary. Known as a speos, the temple was mostly hewn from the surrounding rock, except for the front wall of the deep hall with its central doorway.

Ramesses II Charging Nubians, South Wall, Forecourt of Temple

Ramesses II Charging Nubians, South Wall, Forecourt of Temple

Originally, a pathway along both inside walls of the deep hall was roofed over with a vault, while the central portion of the this hall was left open to the sky. Here, the low reliefs are of considerable historic value because they provide depictions of the Syrian, Libyan (right wall), and Ramesses II's triumph over the Nubians (left wall). The scenes of the Nubian campaigns also depict several sons of Ramesses II engaged in battle, including Amunhershepeshef, the original crown prince, and Khaemwese, later famous as a High Priest of Ptah in Memphis near modern Cairo. However, at this time the older could not have been much older than eight, while Khaemwese was probably only about five, so in reality, while they may have accompanied their father on the Nubian campaigns, they could not have actually been evolved as warriors in the battles.

The fourcourt of the temple

There are also records of the tribute paid to the king by the Nubians. Interestingly, the style of these reliefs shows a certain freedom in their rendering. They feature some slight forms of perspective, and there sometimes even appears to be humor. While their execution is rather simple and even sketchy, their artistic value is considerable.

Nubians providing tribute to the king

Nubians providing tribute to the king

The wall at the end of the hall is well worn and battered. Here, there is a central doorway, to which to lateral ones were later added, that communicates with a transverse antechamber measuring some 4.15 by 10.4 meters and somewhat over three meters high. Its rock ceiling is supported by two architrave oriented north-south, in turn supported by two sturdy fluted columns. The columns are rather unusual, being a type known as "proto-Doric", with four vertical plane sides, inscribed, having entasis, a blank horizontal fillet at the top, and a square abacus.

Interior of the two columned vestibule

At each end of this transverse hall in the rear wall is a niche containing a statuary group consisting of Ramesses II between two deities. Behind the plinth are low-relief scenes depicting religious motifs. Here, paint inside a red outline has been applied on a thin stucco layer. A frieze of Kheker elements crowns the walls, just below the ceiling. In the middle, the ceiling is decorated with a series of vultures with outstretched wings.

Interior of the two columned vestibule showing a statue niche and the two, massive pillars

Interior of the two columned vestibule showing a statue niche and the two, massive pillars

From the rear wall of the antechamber, a single doorway gives way to the single sanctuary, which measures 2.8 meters by 3.6 meters and with a ceiling about 1.7 meters high. In the rear wall of this chamber, a niche with three statues representing Ramesses II between two deities, is cut into the wall.

Ramesses II making offerings in a wall relief at Beit el-Wali

Ramesses II making offerings in a wall relief at Beit el-Wali

Archaeologists have suggested that there were as many as four stages of construction resulting in this small temple, and perhaps as many as three artists who's hands sculpted the walls. During the early Coptic era, the temple was transformed into a church. The deep hall became a basilica with three aisles that was roofed over with three brick vaults on supports. At that time, the niche in the sanctuary was further hewn into an altar.

Anukis, the

Ramesses II grasps the hair of a kneeling Syrian captive

Anukis, the "lady of Elephantine", suckles Ramesses II as an adult;
Ramesses II grasps the hair of a kneeling Syrian captive






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.

Badawy, Alexander


University of California Press

LCCC A5-4746

Ramesses II

T. G. H. James



IBSN 1-58663-719-3