Bathe with a Holy Goat Amid the Ruins

The sandstone temple of the ram-headed fertility god, Khnum, remains one of the most enigmatic archaeological sites hailing from the sultry days of ancient Egypt. It’s still a large and splendid monument, but severely truncated: only the hypostyle hall of the pronaos (or “front porch-before-the-inner-sanctum”) remains intact while the rest of the sanctuary—chapels, liturgical storerooms, corridors, crypts, subsidiary shrines, and the holy of holies—was obliterated or disassembled for use in other building projects over the centuries.

Interestingly, too, the temple was one of the last truly massive religious building projects in ancient Egyptian history. Built in the Second and Third Centuries CE under Roman rule, it was astonishingly ambitious for a period when the old religion was on the downswing and Christianity was beginning to make inroads despite imperial persecution. The gigantic columned hall has proved a theological goldmine for Egyptologists; every inch of space on the interior walls is covered with relief work and inscriptions telling us much about the unique religious, mythical, and cultural ambience of that fertile region in Southern Egypt.

Like most Egyptian temples, this edifice was not dedicated solely to its chieftain god, Khnum, the horned Lord of creation who fashioned human beings from clay on his potter’s wheel. The complex was also dedicated to a doppelgänger solar “form” of Khnum (Khnum-Ra) and to the great northern goddess, Neith, who was also considered a creator of the world—only she didn’t need a potter’s wheel; she simply spoke the earth into existence. In this sense, each of these divine manifestations “owned” a third of the temple. There was also plenty of room for Khnum’s concubines, the ferocious goddess of the fields, Nebtu’u, and … I forget who his other wife was in this town. Maybe Rata’away. But I do know that Khnum’s child, Heka (the personification of magic) was wined and dined in the mystical chambers of this sacred dwelling, too. Of course, the Osirian family of gods (Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, etc.) were part of the picture, attached like barnacles to the local religious landscape just as they were throughout the rest of Egypt.

If one is planning a trip to Egypt, Esna is well worth a visit, even if the great temple is not often on the usual itineraries for whatever reason. Adding to the site’s interest, a Roman-era bathhouse was very recently excavated behind the temple precinct, further reminding us that Esna was a town of considerable prestige and population in its long-ago heyday. Be an intrepid wanderer and consider a side-trip to see Khnum and his cronies if Egypt is in your travel plans in 2023.

Happy New Year, citizens of the West.

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