September 26, 2013

The Isis Temple Complex

The Isis Temple Complex
The huge Entrance Pylon (P. 1) lies ahead. It is eighteen metres high and forty-five metres wide. Each of the two towers is decorated with mighty figures of Neos Dionysos, Ptolemy XII, depicted as pharaoh and wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. He clasps enemies by the hair and raises his club above their heads to smite them in the presence of Egypt’s best loved deities: Isis and Nephthys, Horus and Hathor. Thus did the Ptolemaic kings give themselves credit for suppressing Egypt’s traditional enemies and honouring local traditions.

Isis Temple Complex
Two granite lions guard the entrance; they are of late Roman times and reflect Byzantine influence. On the lintel of the gateway between the two towers of the pylon is a representation of the pharaoh Nektanebos I in a dancing attitude in front of Osiris, Isis, Khnum and Hathor. Much of the dignity and austerity of the divine pharaoh as the powerful and unapproachable ‘Son of the Sun-god’, was lost during the Late Period, when representations tended to show informal attitudes.

Passing through the gateway, we come to the Great Court (g). To the right is a colonnade and priests’ quarters. To the left is the Birth House (which may also be approached from a doorway at the centre of the left-hand tower of the entrance pylon (h).

The Birth House is an elegant little building. The entrance portico has a roof supported by four columns and is followed by three chambers, one behind the other. Around three sides of the building runs a colonnade with floral capitals surmounted with sistrum capitals and Hathor heads. The reliefs throughout the building relate to the birth of Horus, son of Isis, and his growth to manhood to avenge his father’s death. All are in a fine state of preservation.

Isis Temple Complex
The first chamber is not decorated. In the second some quaint protective deities are depicted among the papyrus plants where Horus was born. In the third chamber is a scene (on the rear wall near the bottom) showing Isis giving birth to her son in the marshes of the Delta. With her are Amon-Ra and Thoth. Behind Amon-Ra is the serpent goddess of Lower Egypt and the god of ‘wisdom’. Behind Thoth is the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt and the god of ‘reason’. Above this scene Horus, as a hawk, stands among the papyrus plants crowned with the Double Crown.

On the left-hand wall the standing child Horus suckles at the breast of Isis. Ptolemy IX (Euergetes II) hands two mirrors to Hathor, who places her hands in blessing on the head of the child.

The colonnade surrounding the Birth House is completely decorated. The scene at the beginning of the right-hand colonnade shows the youthful Horus, nude, but wearing the Double Crown. He is with his mother Isis before the serpent goddess of Buto, who plays the harp to them. Augustus stands behind the serpent goddess carrying a vase. The relief of a cow in the marshes that is depicted above the vase indicates the ornamentation within it.

Returning to the Great Court (g) we approach the Second Pylon (P. 2) which is smaller in size than the entrance pylon and is not aligned with it. To the right (i) is a large granite block inscribed by the Kushite pharaoh Taharka (730 BC), which is therefore the earliest piece of work on the island. Constructed into the base of the right-hand tower, is a large rock. It is inscribed with the text about the tithe on fishermen. Beyond lies the Isis temple proper.

The Temple of Isis comprises a tiny open court (j), a hypostyle hall (k), an ante-chamber (1) and a sanctuary (m). The walls have fine reliefs of the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors repeating traditional, and by now familiar - if not somewhat wearisome ritual scenes relating to offerings to the Egyptian gods, staking out the temple and consecrating the sacred area.

The Hypostyle Hall (k), which is separated from the court by screen walls between the first row of columns, is adorned with coloured relief from the lower to the upper reaches of the wall, across the ceiling, and from shaft to capital. The columns and capitals provide a good example of the style, decoration and colouring of the Graeco-Roman period, when less regard was paid to natural colours. For example, the blue ribs of the palms stand out somewhat garishly from the light-green palm twigs on the capitals of the columns.

Isis Temple Complex
This hall was converted into a church in the Christian Period, when the wall reliefs were covered with stucco and painted. Christian crosses were chiselled in the walls and on some of the columns. In fact, a Greek inscription on the right-hand side of the doorway leading to the ante-chamber (1) records the ‘good work’ (of destruction of pagan reliefs!) carried out by the Bishop Theodorus in the reign of Justinian, in the fifth century AD.

The sanctuary (m) has two tiny windows and a pedestal on which the sacred barge bearing the statue of Isis stood. This pedestal was installed by Ptolemy III (Euergetes I) and his wife Berenice. Surrounding the sanctuary are the usual priestly chambers and storerooms.

Above the sanctuary are the Osiris Chambers, which are approached from a stairway to the left of the temple (n) but currently closed to visitors. In these chambers interesting reliefs relate to the death of Osiris and his rebirth. Among the scenes are: Osiris among the reeds where his body came to rest; the body lying on a bier being prayed over by the jackal-headed Anubis along with Isis and her sister Nephthys; Isis and Nephthys spreading their wings beside the bier as Osiris regains his powers. It is to such graphic portrayals of ancient Egyptian traditions by the Ptolemies that we owe much of our interpretation of ancient Egyptian mythology.

To the left of the stairway (n) is a doorway leading out of the Temple of Isis. A road leads to the temple of Horus (Harendotus), son of Isis (2), and Hadrian’s Gateway (3). The latter contains the famous relief relating to the source of the Nile on the right-hand wall, in the second row from the top. It shows blocks of stone heaped one upon the other, and standing on the top is a vulture (representing Upper Egypt) and a hawk (representing Lower Egypt), beneath the rocks is a circular chamber which is outlined by the contours of a serpent, within which Hapi, the Nile-god, crouches. He clasps a vessel in each hand, ready, at the appointed time, to pour the water from the ‘eternal ocean’ to earth in his urns.

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