Discovered sensational constellations of the ancient Egyptians
The Khnum Temple in Esna is one of the great buildings of the ancient Egyptian late period. Now scientists have freed the reliefs and inscriptions from dirt from two millennia and made spectacular discoveries in the process.
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D.he ancient Egyptian god Khnum is said to have formed the first humans on a potter’s wheel. As the creator god, he also had the extremely important task of providing for the annual flood of the Nile, which was of existential importance for the fertility of the land of the pharaohs. Consequently, the centers of his cult were in Upper Egypt, on the island of Elephantine on the 1st cataract of the Nile and in Esna, about 150 kilometers downstream, south of Thebes / Luxor.
The temple of the ram-headed god there is one of the great buildings of the late Egyptian period. A German-Egyptian research team has been working since 2018 to free the famous relief scenes and inscriptions from the dirt of the centuries. The scientists are making amazing discoveries. Because under thick layers of soot and bird excrement, the names of numerous constellations come to light.
“So far we have been able to record more than 60 names of ancient Egyptian constellations and astral deities, many of which were previously unknown,” says the Tübingen Egyptologist Christian Leitzwho is leading the project in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The scientists only restored two of the seven sections of the huge temple ceiling, on which the reliefs of the images and their names were attached.
The hall that adorns the astronomical ceiling is 37 meters long, 20 meters wide and 15 meters high. The roof is supported by 24 columns, the ends of the 18 free-standing columns are designed with different plant motifs. The building is the last extension of a temple that the Greco-Macedonian Ptolemies built in the 2nd century BC. Built on the site of a cult center, in which the god Khnum was probably already worshiped under the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty (approx. 1550-1300) of the New Kingdom.
The inner temple was lost in the Middle Ages. However, the vestibule (pronaos), which the Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54) had placed in front of the building, is almost entirely preserved. After the end of cult operations in late antiquity, this hall served as a residence or stable for centuries, which explains the massive patina. The entrance is now nine meters below the level of today’s city.
Only rediscovered in the course of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt expedition at the end of the 18th century, the Khnum sanctuary of Esna was systematically explored in the late 1960s by Serge Sauneron, director of the French archaeological institute in Cairo. The project came to a standstill after his accidental death in 1976.
“Because of the thick deposits, Serge Sauneron was unable to make out many of the hieroglyphic inscriptions that were written in ink next to the numerous constellations on the hall ceiling,” says the Egyptologist Leitz. Because only the astronomical constellations were designed as reliefs and then decorated with color, their names were written next to them rather casually.
After the purge, it became clear, for example, that the bizarre constellation of a snake with two heads of people and two geese at each end was called the Geese of Re by the ancient Egyptians. However, further research must show which images of the sky are meant by this. Because with the Greeks and Romans the twelve signs of the zodiac came from Mesopotamia to the Nile. Of numerous other constellations, however, we only know the name. The constellations that they designate, however, are just as unclear as the religious ideas and cult acts that were associated with them.
The scientists in Esna still have to clean five ceiling segments. “We assume that we will find numerous, previously unknown names of constellations,” says Leitz. A key to this could be a comparison with the astronomical images in the temple of Dendera, about 60 kilometers north of Thebes / Luxor. The place of worship dedicated to the sky goddess Hathor is the only one in Egypt where numerous astronomical ceiling representations have also been preserved.