To support the Egypt Centre, please click the button below

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Saved from the Murky Depths: The Temples at New Sebua

The blog post for this week has been written by Linda Anderson. Linda is a retired research biochemist and science teacher. She first became interested in Ancient Egypt in 1992 following a trip from Cyprus to Cairo. After a further visit to Egypt in 1998, her sister Merlys became a volunteer at Swansea’s newly opened Egypt Centre, which further fuelled their romance with all things ancient Egyptian and subsequently several more excursions to Egypt as a family. One of the trips involved a week on Lake Nasser visiting the various rescued temples. This trip was so good that Merlys and Linda went back for another look in 2009. Linda now holds a Certificate in Egyptology and is a regular attendee of courses and lectures hosted by the Egypt Centre.

The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s resulted in the formation of Lake Nasser, which would have submerged many of the temples near the banks of (or on islands in) the course of the Nile. Fortunately, many of the threatened temples were dismantled and relocated to higher elevations thanks to a coordinated international effort by UNESCO. Not all were lucky, however, as there were many Egyptian temples built in this area of Nubia and sadly many disappeared under the waters of the lake, lost forever.

Whilst most of the Nubian temples are of traditional Egyptian design, some incorporate the more exotic features of the region and honour deities not usually seen in other areas of Egypt. In this blog, we will travel 85 miles south of the Aswan Dam to the site of New Sebua to visit three temples relocated there. These are the temples of Wadi es-Sebua (fig. 1), the Temple of Dakka, and the Temple of Maharraqa. Three temples from three different eras, not originally together, but now within walking distance from each other in this lonely area of the Sahara Desert.

Fig. 1: Wadi es-Sebua

The Temple of Wadi es-Sebua

Wadi es-Sebua was built in the reign of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II and dedicated to Amun-Re, Re Horakhty, and the deified Ramesses. The temple was originally situated 4km further east. The pylons and courts are (or were) free-standing whilst the twelve-pillared hypostyle hall and sanctuary are a form of speos and are cut into the surrounding rock (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Plan of Wadi es-Sebua

The temple originally had three pylons, (only the third remains), plus three courts in addition to a rock-cut hypostyle hall and inner sanctuary, which has four side chapels. The trip to Wadi es-Sebua can only be done by boat. On approaching the temple from the boat, we first encounter an avenue of leonine sphinxes. Hence the name given by the locals, Wadi es-Sebua - The Valley of the Lions. These consist of human-headed sphinxes of the pharaoh and formed the first court (fig. 3). The second court features four falcon-headed sphinxes representing four different forms of Horus; namely Horus of Maha, Miam, Baki, and Edfu.

Fig. 3: Sphinx of Ramesses II

Onto the third and surviving pylon, which was originally fronted by four colossi of the pharaoh. Only one remains in situ, which features the pharaoh with his daughter Bint-Anath. One other lies a short distance away alone in the desert (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Fallen statue of Ramesses II

The surviving pylon is decorated in the conventional way with Ramesses smiting his enemies and making offerings to the gods. Passing through the pylon we reach an open colonnaded court with ten Osirid pillars of the pharoah decorated with various processions of princes and princesses and further offering scenes.

Ascending a ramp, we enter the rock-cut part of the temple (fig. 5). This was used as a Christian church at one point and had, until it was restored, a double doorway with arches. The twelve pillars of the hypostyle hall were adorned with even more statues of the pharoah but were chiselled off by the Christians. However, in some respects they did us a favour, as by plastering over the decoration, the offering scenes remain and have retained their colour both here and in a vestibule with two side chapels. The vestibule then gives access to the richly decorated inner sanctuary flanked by a further two chapels.

Fig. 5: The entrance to the temple

It seems the nearer you get to the sanctuary we lose the smiting scenes and family processions and gain more worshipping and offerings to the gods scenes (fig. 6). In addition, we see depictions of the sacred barques of Amun-Re and Re-Horakhty (fig. 7).

Fig. 6: Ramesses offering to the gods

Fig. 7: The sacred barque


In the inner sanctuary is the traditional central niche where the statues of the gods reside. These were hacked away and replaced with an image of Saint Peter wearing a halo and holding the key to Heaven. A bizarre sight indeed as here the pharaoh seems to be offering flowers to the saint (fig. 8)!

Fig. 8: Ramesses offering to St. Peter


This photo doesn’t do it justice, but a colour reproduction painting exists, which was actually once used as an image for a stamp issued by the Vatican (fig. 9)!

Fig. 9: Vatican stamp (


The Temple of Dakka

Only a short walk (or camel ride) from the above temple, on a small hill, can be found an unlikely neighbour, the Ptolemaic temple of Dakka (fig. 10). Originally situated 40km further south at the ancient city of Pselkis, it was built in the third century BC by the Kushite king Arkamani or Eurgamenes. Dedicated to Thoth of Pnubs (an unidentified Nubian city translated as ‘Sycamore tree’), it was decorated by the Ptolemies but enlarged in Roman times by the addition of a 12m pylon separated from the rest of the buildings. Its innermost sanctuary was also refurbished in the age of the emperor Augustus.

Fig. 10: Dakka Temple


Throughout the temple the Ptolemies are depicted worshipping many of the Egyptian gods. Interestingly, when the temple was moved several reused blocks were found from an earlier temple dedicated to Horus of Baki (Quban) by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.

Fig. 11: Offering to the gods


The Temple of Maharraqa


At a lower elevation to the temple of Dakka stands the small temple of Maharraqa (fig. 12), usually visited on the way back to pick up the tender to return to your boat. It was originally located 50km further north near the Graeco-Roman city of Hierasykaminos, ‘the place of the sacred sycamore tree’. The temple was built in the time of Augustus and dedicated to Serapis, (a mixture of the gods Osiris, Apis, Isis, and the Greek god Zeus). However, it was never finished. It contains a spiral staircase, the only example attested in ancient Egypt. Sadly, the temple is almost completely devoid of wall decoration. Importantly the temple was located at the extreme southern frontier of Roman Egypt. It was converted into a Christian church in the sixth century CE.

Fig. 12: Maharraqa Temples

Although not originally located together, these three temples are well worth a visit on your way to Abu Simbel, (go by boat, not plane!) and represent a combined span of over 1200 years of ancient Egyptian temple design and decoration. Additionally, from an aesthetic point of view, they form a lovely setting against the backdrop of the lonely Sahara Desert (fig. 13).

Fig. 13: Camel ride at Wadi es-Sebua


Oakes, L. (2014) Pyramids, temples and tombs of ancient Egypt. London: Hermes House, Anness Publishing Ltd.

Shafer, Byron E. (ed.) 1997. Temples of ancient Egypt. Ithaca NY; London: Cornell University Press; I.B. Tauris.

Siliotti, Alberto 2000. Abu Simbel and the Nubian temples. Egypt Pocket Guide. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. 

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The complete temples of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. 

Monday 20 May 2024

Isis in the Shadows of Vesuvio: Ancient Egyptian Influence at Pompeii

This blog post has been written by Syd Howells, the Volunteer Manager at the Egypt Centre. Syd visited Pompeii in April 2023 and reports here on some of the Egyptological highlights at the site.

A visit to Pompeii makes clear the influence other civilisations had upon the city and its people. As an example, there is evidence of Hellenistic architecture and decoration, including the Alexander mosaic depicting Alexander the Great, which was originally discovered at the House of the Faun, as well as the worship of Greek gods such as Apollo and Dionysus. In 30 BC, Egypt was brought into the Roman Empire and as would be expected began to be frequently featured in Roman art, with Pompeii being no exception. Perhaps the most obvious connection to ancient Egypt within the city is the Temple of Isis (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Temple of Isis

Originally constructed during the late second century BC, the temple was destroyed during the earthquake of AD 62. It was later rebuilt and following the volcanic eruption of AD 79 was relatively well preserved underground. It was rediscovered in 1764. The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a young man visited in June 1770, a brief time after Pompeii had begun to be uncovered. It is believed his visit to the city, and in particular, the Temple of Isis, had an influence upon his later work, the Magic Flute, an opera set in ancient Egypt and infused with Freemasonry. It seems entirely likely the young Mozart would have gained inspiration from his visit to the Temple, particularly as it was one of the first complete buildings uncovered from the debris. Its excavation and its exotic nature, in perhaps the same way as the opening up of Egypt, inspired the imagination of others. For example, in 1818 the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley also visited and mentioned the temple in glowing terms.

Why was there a Temple of Isis at Pompeii? The Romans were enamoured with some ancient Egyptian deities, in particular Isis and Bes. It is not surprising that conquerors adopt aspects of those they rule. Initially viewed with suspicion by the likes of Augustus, eventually, the cult of Isis was to rival the homegrown gods of Rome. Introduced into Pompeii during the second century BC, this initiate cult based upon the myth of Isis resurrecting her husband Osiris, following his death at the hands of Seth, was very much an affirming and reassuring entity to those who wished to continue to exist after death. Besides her role in resurrection and the belief of a life beyond death, Isis was also considered to be a patron of sailors and a goddess related to safety; aspects particularly useful to a port city such as Pompeii.

All of the reliefs and artefacts from the Temple of Isis can now be found at the Naples National Archaeological Museum/Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN). An essential place to visit if you are in the area, it also contains an exceptional Egyptological collection created from formerly private collections including that of the Borgia family.

Fig. 2: Sistra from the site

The Temple of Isis had two main parts. The sistra above (fig. 2) were discovered at the Ekklesiasterion (ritual area). The faience statue (fig. 3) was found within the Sacrarium (the shrine).

Fig. 3: Faience figure from the shrine


This relief of a priest (or priestess, according to the museum label) wearing an Anubis mask (fig. 4) also originated at the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. It is an interesting connection to our collection at the Egypt Centre as at present we have a cartonnage (a mixture of bandages and plaster then decorated) mask of Anubis on display in our House of Death gallery in our mummification case (fig. 5). It is on loan from Harrogate Museums and is thought to be the only known surviving example of a cartonnage Anubis mask.

Fig. 4: Priest(ess) dressed as Anubis

Fig. 5: Anubis mask (HARGM10686)


It was not just the appropriation of the odd Egyptian god that appeared in Pompeii. Domestic decoration is a key element of this cultural synergy. There are examples of gardens being modelled upon branches of the Nile, shrines to Egyptian gods in houses, etc. Many of these surviving relics can now be seen at the Naples Archaeological Museum. At the House of the Faun, a table stand in the form of a sphinx was discovered. The House of Julia Felix meanwhile is believed, within its garden water features, to have featured a branch of the Nile Delta.

Nilotic scenes were particularly popular, for example, the previously mentioned House of the Faun contained an exceptional mosaic of the Nile featuring exotic Egyptian creatures such as a hippo, crocodile, snake, waterfowl, and ibises (fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Nilotic scene

The Casa dell’Efebo (the House of the Ephebus) is another example that features images of the Nile, for example, this painted fresco of fish (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Fresco of fish

While these Nilotic images were often of flora and fauna to be found on the Nile, other examples were diverse. For example, the House of Menander featured an image of pygmies boating on the Nile.

The Casa del Frutteto (the House of the Orchard) features several Egyptian-influenced frescos such as this image of the Apis Bull (fig. 8).

Fig. 8: The Apis Bull

As can be seen, ancient Egyptian themes and motifs can be found throughout Pompeii (at least those parts that have been excavated). Professional and proportional excavation continues throughout the site. What unknown treasures may we one day see?

Fig. 9: Figure of Bes


Beard, Mary 2010. Pompeii: the life of a Roman town. London: Profile Books.

Berry, Joanne 2013. The complete Pompeii. London: Thames & Hudson.

Butterworth, Alex & Ray Laurence 2006. Pompeii: The Living City. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Ellis, Simon P. 1992. Graeco-Roman Egypt. Buckinghamshire: Shire.

Sadie, Stanley 2006. Mozart: the early years 1756–1781. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Witt, R. E. 1997. Isis in the ancient world. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

Monday 13 May 2024

Sudan in Swansea

In just under two weeks (Saturday 25 May), the Sudan Archaeological Research Society’s annual colloquium will take place at Swansea University. The W.Y. Adams Colloquium: Sudan Past & Present will see colleagues from across the globe present on topics such as giraffe hairs and beer filters to Byzantium in Nubia. For the first time, the event will take place both in-person and online (via Zoom), thus allowing a wider audience to participate. Tickets for the event are now available via the Society’s Eventbrite page:

In-person or online.



9.30-10.00: Introductions

10.00-10.25: Sudan in Swansea, Ken Griffin & Christian Knoblauch (Swansea University)

10.25-10.50: God, King, and Church; the driving powers behind Nubian society, Karel Innemée (University of Warsaw)

10.50-11.15: Dirt and deep histories of South Sudan, Nicki Kindersley (University of Cardiff)

11.15-11.30: Coffee break and handling session.

11.30-11.55: Survey of the Meroitic site of el-Hassa: Understanding the links of the Amun temple of Amanakhareqerama with the settlement, Marie Millet and Tomasz Herbich (Musée du Louvre; Polish Academy of Sciences)

11.55-12.20: A window into the Nubian diet: food crops and agricultural production at Old Dongola (14th–17th centuries AD), Mohammed Nasreldein Babiker (University of Tübingen)

12.20-12.45: Digitisation of Paul Wilson and Natalie Tobert’s photographic collections from Darfur (1979–1985) at the British Museum, Zoe Cormack (the British Museum)

12.45-1.45: Lunch (participants to make their own arrangements) and handling session.

1.45- 2.10: Conflict or Climate? The decisive factor for change in Sudan’s history, Zainab Osman Madjub Jafar, Michael Mallinson & Helen Mallinson (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Mallinson Architects)

2.10-2.35: Life and death at the town of Kawa: Osteological analysis of the Kushite cemetery assemblage, Anna Davies-Barrett & Rebecca Whiting (University of Leicester; the British Museum)

2.35-3.00: Giraffe Hairs and Beer Filters. Investigating a unique craft of the Kerma period, Theophile Burnat, Elsa Yvanez & Matthieu Honegger (Université de Neuchâtel; University of Copenhagen; Université de Neuchâtel)

3.00-3.25: Chains of supply and local practices in the colony: kohl and gold in New Kingdom colonial Nubia, Rennan Lemos and Caterina Zaggia (University of Cambridge)

3.25-4.00: Coffee break and handling session

4.00-5.00. Keynote Lecture. Footsteps of Byzantium in Nubia. One more attempt. Dobrochna Zielińska (University of Warsaw)

5.00: Drinks reception (at the Egypt Centre)

EC2: Offering table from tomb 307 at Meroe

Dr. Christian Knoblauch and I will also be presenting on the Nubian collection in the Egypt Centre. This includes objects from the sites of Meroe and Sanam, which were excavated by John Garstang and Francis Llewellyn Griffith. Those who are joining us in-person will also have an opportunity to handle items from the collection, including pottery, archer’s rings, tiles, and offering tables. Ahead of the colloquium, I have been creating 3D models of these objects with our Artec scanner. This will allow those who are not able to attend in-person to interact with the collection in fun ways. A selection of some of the objects can be found in the links below.

Archer’s thumb ring (W933)

Architectural fragment (EC1295)

Meroitic bow (W742)

Offering table (EC2)

Pottery tile inlay (EC403)

Other objects are available on our Sketchfab page.


We look forward to welcoming all those who are joining us!

Monday 6 May 2024

Decoding the Divine: Egyptian Temple Decoration

Following on from the two successful courses Causing Their Names to Live, the next Egypt Centre course will be starting in just a few weeks. This course is called Decoding the Divine: Egyptian Temple Decoration.

Egyptian temples stand as testaments to a civilisation obsessed with the divine. Far from mere structures, their walls served as canvases, intricately decorated with hieroglyphs, reliefs, and paintings. This short course delves into the fascinating world of Egyptian temple decoration, equipping you with the skills to decode their symbolic language.

We will embark on a journey through the “grammar of the temples”, exploring the recurring themes, motifs, and compositional techniques employed by the ancient Egyptians. You will learn to identify the deities depicted, decipher the meanings behind ritual scenes, and understand the significance of plant and animal symbolism.

The course will delve into the concept of the “zoned temple”, where different areas were designated for specific purposes. We will explore the symbolism of the imposing pylons, the sacred hypostyle halls, and the inner sanctuaries, each adorned with decorations tailored to their function.

By analysing these elements, you will gain insights into Egyptian mythology, pharaonic ideology, and the daily rituals performed within the temple walls. This course is designed for anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt, unlocking the stories etched in stone and painted on the walls of these magnificent structures.

Take, for example, the image shown above, which appears twelve times on the intercolumner screenwalls at Dendera. This cryptographic scene may look like just a decorated frieze to the untrained eye, but a close examination of each of the elements reveals that it has a specific meaning. It can be read as “the domain endures, containing the mistress of Dendera, like the sky will endure containing Re, all the rekhyt-people making for her praise”. This is just one of many scenes that will be analysed during this course.

In order to be as accessible as possible, this course will be run twice a week: Sunday evenings 6–8pm (UK time); Wednesday mornings 10am–12noon (UK time). Additionally, one of the sessions will be recorded and made available for a limited time to registered participants.


Week 1 (Sunday 26 and Wednesday 29 May)

Week 2 (Sunday 02 and Wednesday 05 June)

Week 3 (Sunday 09 and Wednesday 12 June)

Week 4 (Sunday 16 and Wednesday 19 June)

Week 5 (Sunday 23 and Wednesday 26 June)


Tickets for the course are now available via our Eventbrite page:

Fees for this course go directly to supporting the redevelopment of Egypt Centre: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Swansea University). If you would like to support the Egypt Centre with a donation, you can do so here:

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Senenmut's Astronomical Ceiling

Pippa Dell retired from a long academic career in Psychology and now pursues her interests in Egyptology, art, and gardening. She recently went to Egypt with the Kemet Klub on their Sacred Landscapes tour and had the privilege of visiting Senenmut’s tomb (TT353), including its wonderful astronomical ceiling!

Like many others, I was first introduced to the wonders of ancient Egypt as a child when I went to the Tutankhamun and His Time exhibition in Paris in 1967. This started a long-term interest in Egyptology, which has been honed over the years with trips to Egypt and attending a range of excellent courses. Ken Griffin’s recent Egypt Centre series Causing Their Names to Live, which focused on some of the individuals who make up the history of Egypt, is a case in point.

One of the individuals Ken introduced was Senenmut, son of Ramose and Hatneferet. Senenmut (fig. 1) described himself as Treasurer and Overseer of the House of Amun (ceiling, TT 353) and Hereditary Prince, Count, Administrator of the Great Ones of Upper and Lower Egypt, Overseer of Places of Refreshment, and Spokesman who speaks when other mouths are silent (false door, TT 353). He was also the Steward of the God’s Wife, and Steward (Tutor) of the King’s Daughter (Neferure). As a non-royal, he is known for an extraordinary number of statues (at least 25), many with Neferure. He is probably best known for being the architect of Hatshepsut’s Memorial Temple complex at Deir el-Bahari, and for supervising the erection of twin obelisks at Karnak. He disappears from the historical records in the later years of Hatshepsut’s reign and seems to suffer a Damnatio Memoriae after death. Unusually, for a private individual, he also built himself at least two tombs in the Theban necropolis (TT 71 and TT 353).

Fig. 1: Senenmut (copyright Dr Ahmed Abdul Ella)

TT71 is to be found on the northeast brow of the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna cliffs that overlook Hatshepsut’s temple complex. It is laid out as a typical tomb chapel of the time; a transverse hall with columns, an inner chamber, and decoration that is similar in content to contemporary private tombs (funerary procession, pilgrimage to Abydos, agricultural, and workshop activities). Innovations include rock cut stelae and the design of the ceilings (Dorman, 1988; 1991). The tomb appears not to have been used.


At the base of the cliffs is a quarry. Carved into its floor Herbert Winlock found the entrance to Senenmut’s second tomb (TT 353) in January 1927. This is a subterranean rock cut tomb, with a ground plan of three chambers laid out sequentially, accessed via three descending passageways. The first passageway, with a vaulted ceiling 2m high descends some 61.2m at a 25-degree angle to the first of the three chambers (Chamber A). A daunting climb, as I found out recently on a Kemet Klub tour of Sacred Landscapes (fig. 2). Towards the end of the staircase is a rare drawing of Senenmut (fig. 1).

Fig. 2: The person pictured is about half way down the stairs!


The reason people visit this tomb is because of the decoration of Chamber A and its wonderful astronomical ceiling. The chamber itself is small (3.6m x 3m), with dressed and plastered walls. The main focus of the walls is a false door on the West side opposite the entrance to the tomb. The walls contain what Assmann (1982) has identified as a new corpus of funerary liturgies, reminiscent of both Pyramid and Coffin Texts, and some of the earliest known examples of Book of the Dead spells. These were chosen to provide Senenmut with the topography of the netherworld and knowledge of how to move freely through it. 

The ceiling, recorded by Charles Wilkinson (Wilkinson and Hill, 1983) and published by Neugebauer and Parker (1960–69), is the earliest astronomical ceiling known (fig. 3), the next being that of Seti 1 (KV 17).

Fig. 3: Overview of ceiling (Wikipedia)

The ceiling is divided into two panels of astronomical representations by several transverse bands of text, containing Senenmut’s name (fig. 4) and Hatshepsut’s titulary. Each panel is surrounded by rows of stars.

Fig. 4: Senenmut’s name in transverse band


The southern panel (top panel in the ceiling overview [fig. 5]) contains a list of named decans (stars), whose arrangement is related to the star clocks of the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom. These are clearly laid out on the right-hand side. They are interspersed with star cluster constellations (for example the ship and sheep). Left of these are the planets, from right to left Isis, Jupiter, and Saturn, and in the last columns Mercury and Venus.

Fig. 5: Part of the upper panel


The northern panel (bottom in the ceiling overview [fig. 6]) contains the 12 lunar months (Dorman, 1991) of the year, schematised as 12 circles each divided into 24 sectors (hours of the day?). The top four (of eight) on the right-hand side are the months of Akhet (Inundation) and the lower four, Shemu (Harvest). The four on the left-hand side are Peret (Emergence). Each month has associated feast days, and are accompanied along the bottom by various deities, including the four sons of Horus.

Fig. 6: Part of the lower panel

For me, the most interesting part of the northern panel is the middle section with three constellations depicted, the so-called “Northern Constellations”. Meshketyu (fig. 7), a bull-covered oval body; Anu, a falcon-headed standing figure piercing the oval bull with a spear; and Sekenet (Serket) the goddess behind the bull. What is happening here? And what is the figure below doing? The standing hippo, grasping a crocodile, with a second one on her back is named as Iset-Djamet-Heb-Pet (Isis-Djamet, Festival of the Sky [fig. 8]). How is she involved with the Northern Constellations? Are these images part of a theology that Senenmut was developing to explain the cosmos? And why was the oval bull being pierced?

Fig. 7: Spearing Meshketyu

Fig. 8: Iset-Djamet-Heb-Pet

Finally, and intriguingly, Dorman notes that “there is no evidence of a burial in Tomb 353, nor was there any article from Senenmut's burial equipment”. So, either all the funerary equipment was destroyed, or more tantalisingly, was never there in the first place. I fondly imagine Senenmut having an afterlife as an effective spirit interred peacefully elsewhere. But in the meantime, may we “cause his name to live” and make a voice offering for his ka (fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Offerings for Senenmut


Assmann, J. (1982) Funerary Liturgies in the coffin texts, Third International Congress of Egyptology, Toronto, September 1982

Dorman, P.F. (1988) The monuments of Senenmut: Problems in historical methodology. New York: Kegan Paul International Ltd.

Dorman, P.F. (1991) The tombs of Senenmut: The Architecture and decoration of Tombs 71 and 353. Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 34. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Neugebauer, O. and Parker, R. (1960–69) Egyptian astrological texts. Brown Egyptological Studies 3, 5, & 6. London: Lund Humphries.

Wilkinson, C. and Hill, M (1983) Egyptian wall paintings: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of facsimiles. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monday 15 April 2024

The Mysterious Life and Death of Antinous

The blog post for this week is written by Linda Kimmel, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the United States. When she retired from full-time work as a data research manager in late 2020, she began studying about the ancient world, and serving as a docent at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Linda had never heard of the Egypt Centre before the pandemic but has taken every course offered since she first noticed a tweet about the museum in the fall of 2020 and has been taking online courses there ever since. Linda is looking forward to another trip to Egypt this fall.

In the fourth session of the latest Egypt Centre class (Causing Their Names to Live Part II: The Lives of the Ancient Egyptians), we covered notable Egyptians from the Old Kingdom through the Roman Period. When our instructor, Ken Griffin, told us he would cover Antinous in the class, I knew that was who I wanted to write about. In addition to studying a lot about ancient Egypt, I have also taken numerous courses on ancient Rome and am particularly interested in the intersection of the two. In an odd coincidence, in a Roman art history course I am currently taking, we touched on art during Hadrian’s reign this week, and discussed several images of Antinous (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Statue of Antinous (Vatican Museums)

Antinous is one of the more well-known individuals we have covered in the class. However, the ancient record lacks details about his life. It is known he was born in the city of Claudiopolis in the Roman province of Bithynia c. 111 CE (fig. 2). In 123 CE the Roman Emperor Hadrian was traveling through Bithynia, and was introduced to Antinous. The boy joined the royal entourage, perhaps with the intent of becoming an imperial page boy (Matyszak and Berry 2023). During their time together, Antinous became a favorite of the Emperor, and Hadrian may have provided him with a formal education. At some point, Antinous became Hadrian’s lover and accompanied the Emperor on his many travels.

Fig. 2: Map highlighting Bithynia (

While traveling with Hadrian in Egypt in 130 CE, Antinous died before his twentieth birthday under mysterious circumstances. We know he drowned in the Nile, but was it an accident, a suicide, or murder, either by Hadrian or someone close to Hadrian? Or was it perhaps a human sacrifice offered to the Nile? All that is known is that Hadrian was reported to be bereft after his death. So why should people interested in ancient Egypt care about Antinous? After all, he was born and lived most of his life outside Egypt. It is because of the ways in which Antinous was memorialized by Hadrian.

After his death, Hadrian had Antinous deified. While numerous Roman Emperors were deified (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Vespasian, to name just a few), it was highly unusual for a commoner to be deified in Rome (The Fitzwilliam Museum). The cult of Antinous spread throughout the Mediterranean until it was eventually abolished as Christianity became dominant in the fourth century CE.

Fig. 3: Statue of Antinous (Vatican Museums)

Vout (2005) suggests that more statues were created of Antinous than any other figure from ancient Rome, with the possible exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian. Some of the statues have been found with Antinous in deified form such as this full-figure statue, containing both Egyptian and Roman features (fig. 3). In this format, Antinous is typically shown wearing the nemes headcloth, which is normally associated with pharaohs (fig. 4). Ken noted that Antinous was frequently associated with Osiris, taking the form of Osiris-Antinous.

Fig. 4: Statue of Antinous in Munich (


But Antinous was also portrayed in classical Greek style, as a Greek or Roman god, including Apollo, Mercury (or the Greek god Hermes), and Dionysus, as in this bust in the Fitzwilliam Museum (fig. 5). In addition to all of the statues, Vout (2005) reports that coins were minted in honor of Antinous in over thirty cities of the Roman provinces.

Fig. 5: Bust of Antinous as Dionysus (Fitzwilliam Museum)

In an even more lavish display than all of the images of Antinous, Hadrian founded an Egyptian city, Antinoopolis, in memory of Antinous. Antinoopolis is located in Middle Egypt, close to Amarna and Beni Hasan. It is said the location is close to where Antinous died, although the exact site of his death is unknown. Ken noted that with the exception of an existing temple to Ramesses II, everything else was essentially leveled to create a new city. Texts report that close to a million people lived in the city at one time. Bagnall and Rathbone (2004) note that Antinoopolis was built with Greek architecture and special Greek privileges, with its population coming from other Greek cities throughout Egypt. Ryan (2016) calls Antinoopolis a Greek city within Egypt, and notes that at its centre, the city was dominated by a temple to Osiris-Antinous.

Fig. 6: Pincian Obelisk (,_Rome,_Italy.jpg)

The inscription on the Pincian Obelisk created in memory of Antinous provides more details about Antinoopolis (fig. 6):

A city is named after him; to it belongs a population of Greeks and sons of Horus and children of Seth, resident in the cities of Egypt; they have come from their cities, and valuable lands have been given to them, to enrich their lives greatly. There is a temple there of this god – his name is Osiris Antinous, justified” – built from fair white stone. Sphinxes stand on its perimeter, and statues numerous columns like those once made by the ancients, and also like those made by the Greeks. All the gods and all the goddesses give him there the breath of life, and he breathes in of it, having rediscovered his youth.


The Pincian obelisk also contained an image of the deified Antinous receiving gifts from the god Thoth, another strong link to Egypt for this Bithynian youth (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Antinous before Thoth (

In addition to the mysteries surrounding his death, the burial site of Antinous also remains a mystery. Some say that he was mummified, but where he was buried is uncertain. Perhaps his tomb is at the site of Antinoopolis. Then again, it may have been at one of Hadrian’s villas.

While he was not Egyptian, the numerous images and texts about Antinous that were spread throughout the Mediterranean, have definitely caused his name to live and be remembered. Perhaps, with continuing excavations at Antinoopolis, even more will be discovered about Antinous. I know I will be keeping a watch out for new information.



Bagnall, Roger S. and Dominic W. Rathbone (Eds.) 2004. Egypt: From Alexander to the Copts. London: The British Museum Press.

Matyszak, Philip and Joanne Berry 2023. A History of Ancient Rome in 100 Lives. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

Ryan, Garrett 2016. Placing Power: Greek Cities and Roman Governors in Western Asia Minor, 69-235 CE. Dissertation, University of Michigan (Greek and Roman History).

The Fitzwilliam Museum. Bust of Antinous as Dionysos, [accessed 04/10/24].

Vout, Caroline. 2005. Antinous, Archaeology and History. The Journal of Roman Studies 95, 80-96.