The agricultural town of Esna is on the west bank of the Nile 55km south of Luxor. Cruise boats often make this town their first port of call after leaving Luxor to visit the remains of a Ptolemaic temple in the centre of the town.
The ancient name for Esna was Iunyn or Ta-Senet, classical Latopolis. The temple, dating to the Ptolemaic and Roman Period and one of the last temples built in Egypt, stands today in its excavation pit, 9m below the modern ground level. It was dedicated to the god Khnum and several other deities, including Neith, Heka, Satet and Menheyet.
Esna Temple would once have been built to a plan similar to the temples at Edfu and Dendera but all that now remains is the hypostyle hall which was built by the Roman Emperor Claudius who extended earlier buildings. The oldest part of the structure seen today is the west (back) wall which would have been the façade of the original temple, depicting reliefs of Ptolemy VI Philometer and Ptolemy VIII Neos Philopator. The earliest king mentioned here is Ptolemy V, who is being offered a libation by his son Ptolemy VII. The part of the temple we see today is around a quarter of the size of the original building.
The roof of the hypostyle hall is still intact, supported by 24 columns each with varied floral capitals. They are decorated with texts describing the religious festivals of the town and several Roman emperors before the gods. One of the columns shows the Emperor Trajan dancing before the goddess Menheyet. Another nearby temple which was also mentioned in the texts, has been excavated at Kom Mer, south of Esna.
The north wall of the hypostyle shows a traditional scene of the king netting wildfowl (representing evil spirits). Just at the corner, on the east wall is a puzzling relief on the lower part of a calendar which is said to be a cryptographic hymn to Khnum, its hieroglyphs mostly crocodiles, and echoed on the opposite corner of the same wall in hieroglyphs of rams. Also, built into the east wall inside the entrance is a small chamber which may have been a priest’s robing room, similar to a feature found at Edfu Temple, or possibly a chapel with cartouches of Domitian. Decoration of the south wall was carved for Septimus Servus and his sons, Geta and Caracalla, depicting them before several divinities. There are calendars on the upper parts of the north and south walls.
The ceiling of the hypostyle shows Egyptian astronomical figures on the northern half and Roman signs of the zodiac on the southern half. The temple façade is constructed in the style of the period with the usual screen walls inset with columns. The reliefs show the Roman Emperors named by their cartouches, before many of the Upper Egyptian deities. There is a frieze of Nile gods along the base of the façade.
In the courtyard in front of the temple there is a statue of the goddess Menheyet or Menhyt who was a little known lion-headed goddess named as the consort of Khnum at Esna.
Down by the river Nile is an ancient quay with cartouches of Marcus Aurelius which would have been connected to the temple by a processional way. This is still in use today.
There was also a ‘North Temple of Khnum’ two and a half miles north-west of Esna that was dated to Ptolemy III Euergetes I, but this is now completely vanished.
The ancient necropolis associated with Esna contains burials from the Old Kingdom to late Ptolemaic date.
How to get there
Esna is around 45 minutes journey from Luxor. It is possible to hire a taxi from Luxor or take one of the small mini-bus tours arranged by travel agents. Alternatively both a local bus from Luxor and the Cairo to Aswan train stop at Esna and cost very little. The railway station is on the east bank and to get to the temple you must cross the bridge over the Nile and follow the river as far as the bazaar. The temple is at the far end of the bazaar (where you can also find many bargains at a much better price than in the main towns). Tickets cost EGP 20.