Middle Egypt in the Graeco-Roman Period

Almost facing each other across the Nile in Middle Egypt, the cities of Hermopolis Magna and Antinoöpolis were two of the most important urban centres of the Graeco-Roman Period in the Nile Valley. They also provide a fascinating comparison in the development of cities of this era, since the former had a long and illustrious history, and was able to retain much of that character well into the Roman Period, while the latter was, essentially, a creation of the early Roman Period.

A Favourite City – Antinoöpolis

The foundation of Antinoöpolis (modern Sheikh Abada) can be dated with a rare precision – 30 October AD 130. Although the presence of a temple inscribed by Ramesses II indicates that there was an existing dynastic settlement at the site, the desire of the emperor Hadrian to found a city to commemorate his drowned favourite Antinous seems to have resulted in the establishment of a city – the only polis founded by the Romans, to add to Alexandria, Naukratis and Ptolemais Hermiou – on a much greater scale than whatever was there. It is interesting to note that this new city was founded on a, presumably, under-used piece of land on the east bank of the Nile, not far away from Amarna, where Akhenaten had had a similar idea.

The tetrastyle at Antinoöpolis drawn in Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte. Since then, it has, unfortunately, been destroyed. From Description de l’Égypte, 1809–1829.

Initially the city seems to have had a Hellenistic character; it was called ‘Antinoöpolis of the New Hellenes/Greeks’ and this would accord with Hadrian’s well-known Hellenophilia. More practically, it formed the Nile Valley terminus for the Via Hadriana, which crossed the Eastern Desert from the Red Sea port of Berenike. The city benefited from being settled by army veterans under the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138–61) and from building works by another emperor, Severus Alexander (222–35).

The skeleton of the city was, unsurprisingly, its main thoroughfares, the north–south 1,162-metre (3,812-ft) long cardo and the east–west 1,014-metre (3,327-ft) long decumanus major, which were both provided with colonnades totalling over 1,000 stone columns; the decumanus minor was a second important east–west street. The intersections of these streets formed the major hubs of Antinoöpolis and each was marked by a tetrastyle – a monument comprising four large columns topped with statues.

The city was surrounded by a double enclosure wall on three sides. The fourth – the river side – was dominated by a triumphal arch at the western end of the cardo. Although the site has only been patchily excavated, the most obvious large structures to have been built at Antinoöpolis are its baths, its theatre and, outside the town, an extraordinary hippodrome 307-metres (1007-ft) long and 77-metres (253-ft) wide.

City of Hermes – Hermopolis Magna

Hermopolis Magna was very different from Antinoöpolis in that it had a long and distinguished history, which was reflected in its appearance in the Graeco-Roman Period. Known anciently as Khmunu ‘Eight Town’, it was mythologically connected to eight local creator gods, the Ogdoad. In this way, the city could be said to be as ancient as it was possible to be, since the creation of the world itself took place here.

The large and impressive town-mound at Hermopolis Magna attests to its long period of significant occupation, from the remains of mudbrick settlements (background) to stone statues like these seated colossi of Ramesses II (in the foreground). Rutherford Picture Library.

Not much remains of the city from before the New Kingdom apart from the limestone gateway to a Middle Kingdom temple, built by Amenemhat II. One other survival from this period is the name Khmunu, which finds an echo in the current name for the large village that covers the southern part of the ancient mound, el-Ashmunein. Up to the Late Period the city seems to have been a typical temple-town: a main temple complex orientated north–south, which was added to by Amenhotep III (his embellishments included eight colossal quartzite baboons), Horemheb and Ramesses II (who used talatat-blocks of the Amarna Period as the fill for a pylon (monumental entranceway) he erected). The temple was dedicated to the god Thoth, an association that continued into the Graeco-Roman Period, as Thoth became identified with the Greek god Hermes. Additions to the temple-complex took place under the 20th Dynasty, and during the Third Intermediate Period houses were built to the west of the temple area.

Plan of Hermopolis Magna in the Graeco-Roman Period, showing both new buildings and those adapted from earlier periods. Steven Snape.

The Portico (pronaos) of the temple built by Philip Arrhidaeus for the god Thoth at Hermopolis Magna, as illustrated in the Description de l’Égypte. Only the column bases of this structure now remain, as it was destroyed in 1826. From Description de l’Égypte, 1809–1829.

The importance of Hermopolis Magna in the early Christian Period is attested by the impressive granite columns of a now largely destroyed major church. Steven Snape.

During the 30th Dynasty, a massive mudbrick enclosure wall surrounded an expanded temple area and effectively created a huge temple enclosure that dominated the northern part of the city, while most of the later residential area probably still lies under modern el-Ashmunein. This enclosure gave shape to the city, and later additions fitted within its existing structure. The temple of Thoth was extended at the very beginning of the Ptolemaic Period and the main processional route that ran to this new building, and south out of the temple enclosure, the Dromos of Hermes became the main north–south street of the city. The main east–west road, Antinoe Street, crossed the Dromos at right angles immediately to the south of the temple enclosure; this became the heart of the Graeco-Roman city, marked by a tetrastyle and a series of Classical-style buildings. Also at this important crossroads was a temple to Ptolemy III and Berenike, later overbuilt by a Christian cathedral whose red granite columns are the most striking part of the site visible today. Within, and outside, the temple enclosure, small Egyptian-style temples continued to be built or added to by later rulers, including the emperors Nero and Domitian.

One of the largest and most important cities of the Graeco-Roman Period, Hermopolis Magna is an intriguing combination of the ancient and the modern.

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