el-Ashmuneim (Ancient Hermopolis)

el-Ashmuneim (Ancient Hermopolis)

by Jimmy Dunn

The site of the ruins of the ancient city of Hermopolis (Magna) are situated to the northwest of the modern city of Mallawi in the governorate of el-Minia in Middle Egypt. It's location does not inspire a large number of tourists and yet, this was an important city, particularly during the later ancient times.

The southern side of the ancient hill, or tell, is covered by the large village of el-Ashmunein, while today the village of el-Idara is located on the northern side. Sandy mounds, swept up by an ancient arm of the Nile in the middle of the cultivation area, formed the foundation for a settlement, which is attested only from the time of the 4th Dynasty by inscriptions. They are found in its necropolis near Bersheh, but the settlement may well be older. From an early date, the place was called Khemenu, meaning "the City of the Eight", referring to the number of primeval gods of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. It was also at times called Wenu, "the City of Hares", probably derived from the name of the fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome, which had as it's emblem the royal hare standard. Hermopolis was its administrative center. The present day name, el-Ashmunein was derived from Khemenu by way of the Coptic place-name, Shmun.

One of two colossal statues of the god Thoth as a baboon at Hermopolis

The chief god of the region was Thoth, the god of the moon, but also scribes and administration, whom the Greeks identified with Hermes. Hence, the name Hermopolis, meaning "the City of Hermes". During the Greco-Roman Period, Hermopolis was the metropolis of the nome of Hermapolites, which belonged to the larger administrative unit of the Upper Egyptian region of Thebais.

From 1673, reports from European travelers about the ruins of of Ashmunein began to appear. The first archaeological map with a detailed description of Hermopolis is found in the French Description de l'Egypte by Jornard, a member of Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition during 1798-1799. The hall of columns (portico) of the temple of Thoth, an addition inscribed with the names of Alexander the Great and Philip Archidaeus with two rows of columns, which was still standing at the time, was destroyed in about 1825. During the 19th century, the cultivated fields of the ancient city were given over, with official government sanction, to the surface extraction of organic fertilizers. Later, trains were used to transport the material. While this was going on, numerous small objects that were found led to a lively trade in antiquities, which continues even today.

Standing columns and lintels at Hermopolis, as drawn by Vivant Denon and published in his Voyages in 1802

Many years later (1902-1905), papyri, most of them in Greek, were unearthed in the ruins of houses from the Roman Period by German (Rubenssohn and others) and Italian (Breccia and others) investigators. Between 1929 and 1939, the central part of the hill, the area south of the temple of Thoth itself, was explored by a Hildesheim expedition under the leadership of Gunther Roeder. Among the discoveries were the hypostyle hall of the temple of Thoth, the southern sacred complex at el-Ashmunein and the area of the central basilica of Ptolemy III, which was transformed into a Christian church in the 5th century AD.

Columns of the temple of Ramesses II dedicated to the gods of Hermopolis

Under the direction of A. Spencer, the British Museum resumed the excavations in the central area between 1980 and 1990. As a result, burial sites of the First Intermediate Period were uncovered north of the Ramessid Amun temple. In the northwestern sector, houses from the Third Intermediate Period and from the beginning of the 26th Dynasty were unearthed. More recently a joint Polish-Egyptian project re-excavated and restored the Ptolemaic basilica, and even more recently P. Grossman did research on a church complex from the late Roman Period for the Deutche Archaologische Institut in the southern sector.

Plan of the Temples of Thoth and Amun at Hermopolis

Population pressure has resulted in a large number of smaller excavations by the Egyptian Archaeological Service in recent years. The modern excavations face two obstacles. First, the oldest layers of the settlement and ruins are located below the water table, which is currently very high. Secondly, the excavations of the settlement hill have left behind a fragmented and irregular surface contour. Therefore, and especially underneath the modern village of el-Ashmunein and in the eastern sector, there are still parts of the city left standing, including a water tower, that date from the late Greco-Roman and early Arabian period. Elsewhere, broad areas with their more ancient layers have been completely destroyed.

During its entire history, Hermopolis was always an important administrative city and also, because of its temple of Thoth, a significant religious center. It was surrounded by fertile farmland. From the time of the New Kingdom, a wide elevated canal connected the city with the Nile, and a westerly route to Tuna el-Gebel led on to the Bahariya Oasis. The royal administrators of the District of the Hare had themselves buried in the necropolis of Sheikh Said and Deir el-Bersheh. Beginning in the New Kingdom, they were buried to the west near Tuna el-Gebel, while the mass of the population often merely sought out free spots within the city itself

The nomarch (governor) of Hermopolis, who was often also the high priest and thus controlled the temple of Thoth, must certainly have played a decisive role in the unification of the kingdom of Thebes under Montuhotep I, and again later during the unrest that occurred when Amenemhet I was removed from the throne. For a long time, the nomarch was probably able to enjoy a largely independent status. Under his control were the calcite (Egyptian alabaster) mining areas in the east, which were important to the pharaoh from the time of the Old Kingdom, particularly the quarry at Hatnub.

From the Middle Kingdom, a structure from the temple of Amun dated to Amenemhet II has been preserved. As early as the end of the Middle Kingdom, after the breakup of the districts of the Old Kingdom, Hermopolis, together with the northern fortification and temple cities of Herwer and Neferusi, was the center of a larger territory characterized largely by farming, which extended from Tuna el-Gebel in the north to Gebel Abu el-Foda to the north of Asyut. At that time, officially, Hermopolis was in the region of Neferusi.

The legs of a colossal Statue of Ramesses II at Hermopolis

During the New Kingdom, the temple of Thoth at Hermopolis was constantly rebuilt and expanded. An altar of Amenhotep II stood near the entrance at the Dromos. In the foundations of the temple of Thoth of the 13th Dynasty were found pieces of colossal baboons made of quartzite, dating from the time of Amenhotep III. They have since been erected in the northern sector. Horemheb erected a new southern entrance pylon for the temple of Thoth. Nearby Tell el-Amarna, with the easily accessible blocks of the ancient residence of Akhenaten, provided the material for the numerous new buildings erected under Ramesses II.

In the area of the temple of Thoth, Ramesses II erected an entrance pylon, cobbled the court to the south of the Horemheb pylon and rededicated the cult to Amun by means of a temple that was oriented on an east-west line. Within Ramesses II's pylon, more than 1,500 decorated blocks from the dismantled temples of Akhenaten at al-Amarna were discovered during the 1930s. Further decoration was afterwards added by Merenptah and Seti II. The temple took into consideration the cemetery of the First Intermediate Period, which had long existed. Possibly this slightly elevated spot was seen as the place of the primeval hill in the Hermopolitan myth of creation. The location of the sacred lake is unknown, but it must have corresponded to the Lake of Fire or the Island of the Hermopolitan Creation.

Another sacred complex, dating from the time of Ramesses III, was situated in the southern part of the temple of Thoth. Here, there were possibly chapels of various gods. In some cases, the texts refer to numerous buildings in Hermopolis in honor of Osiris, Ptah, Horus, Hathor, Mut and the southern version of Thoth. There were also statues of the protector gods of the city in the shape of baboon and ibis which stood in the courts. As yet it has been impossible to locate most of the chapel, or the very ancient :house of the (bird) net."

In the Libyan Period of late antiquity, Osorkon III established numerous new productive estates for the temple of Thoth, but as Libyan central control became weaker, the Libyan military leader of Hermopolis was able to claim for himself the title of Pharaoh. A certain Namlot became the founder of his own Hermopolitan royal dynasty. It is suspected that his palace was in the western part of the temple area and separated off by a wall. When the Kushite Piya of Thebes pushed northward (25th Dynasty), he met resistance from another Namlot, who had entered into an alliance against Herakleopolis with the ruler of Sais and Memphis. Finally, after a prolonged siege by the fleet of Piya he was subverted to Kushite hegemony and was obliged to supply horses. However, he was able to retain the title of king. His successors maintained friendly relations with Thebes. It was only Psamtik I who finally managed to put an end to the city's autonomy.

A subsequent renovation of the central part of the temple of Thoth took place under Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II, and the temple was further expanded under Philip Arrhidaeus. Nectanebo I seems to have, for unknown reasons, especially favored the Temple of Thoth, perhaps because the people of the region had assisted him in his coup against Nepherites II. During his fourth year, he built a new temple for Nehemet-awy, the creator goddess and consort of Thoth. This structure measured 15.75 by 31.5 meters and stood within the precinct of Thoth and at a right angle to the temple itself. It may have been a birth house for the god Neferhor. The front part of the temple was probably a pronaos with Hathor columns. A hypostyle hall followed and led into a triple shrine.

About the same time, the sacred precinct was surrounded by a thick quadrilateral wall made of mud brick. It stood some 15 meters thick and measured 630 by 603 meters. The southern access to the temple (later called the Dromos of Hermes), at the pylon of Ramesses II, was the so-called Gate of the Sphinx. In front of it stood obelisks, stelae, a pair of granite sphinxes and two colossal statues of the king. A new gate, 45 meters in front of the Sphinx Gate, conducted through the new south wall, while three more gates pierced the east, west and north walls. The Antinoitic Road, running along the southern wall of the temple, led to Tuna el-Gebel in the west and to Antinoopolis in the east, and divided the city into a northern and southern half.

In year eight of Nectanebo I's reign, the New Kingdom temple of Thoth was demolished and work begun on a new temple measuring 55 by 110 meters with a huge pronaos. It was at this time that the two colossal baboon statues from the reign of Amenhotep III were dismantled and buried in the foundations of the new pronaos.

A Ptolemeion for Ptolemy III and Berenike II was built in front of the enclosure of Thoth during Ptolemy III's reign. The west-east oriented, 66 by 122 meter court was surrounded by colonnades and contained the actual temple. Details of the temple inside the court, a relatively small trikonch-building, were probably classical. This Ptolemeion is the earliest known example of this specific temple type for the royal cult in Greek style.

To the east of the temple of Thoth there was a temple built under the Roman emperor Domitian, probably dedicated to the goddess consort of Thoth, Nehemet-awy. Under Nero, the southern temple of Ramesses II was expanded. During the Roman Period, Hermopolis increasingly evolved into a major regional center, probably due to its agricultural nature. Its main harbor was situated on the eastern bank of the Nile near the later city of Antinoopolis. Greek and Roman soldiers were served by religious and social institutions such as the Komasterion, several Serapis shrines and a Mithras shrine.

Today, the general outline of the original Thoth structure can be made out, but is apparently underwater. However, the small limestone sanctuary of Amun to the south has a relatively well preserved entrance pylon and hypostyle hall, but the ear part of the structure is destroyed. A little more to the south, parts of the facade and entrance passage to the Middle Kingdom temple of Amenemhet II survive, but are unfortunately badly damaged and surrounded by ground water. There are also some remains of the Roman Period Christian basilica which was built from the earlier Ptolemaic temple. The structure retains most of its granite columns and is the only building of its kind to have survived to this degree anywhere in Egypt. A couple of hundred meters further to the south, two seated colossi of Ramesses II stand before the completely ruined remains of a temple which has not been clearly dated, as well as those of the small temple expansion dating to the time of the Emperor Nero.






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

Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The

Arnold, Dieter


Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-11488-9

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011