Near modern el-Ashmunein, on the west bank of the Nile, north-west of Mallawi, was a town known as Khmunw in Pharaonic times. During the Old Kingdom the town was of great importance as a cult centre of Thoth, god of wisdom, healing and writing. In the Graeco-Roman Period the city was capital of the 15th Upper Egyptian nome, when it was called Hermopolis Magna – the Greek god Hermes was associated with the Egyptian Thoth, who dominates the site in the guise of two famous colossal baboon statues.
Khmun, in the ancient Egyptian language means ‘town of eight’, named after the Ogdoad. These were eight primeval deities (four frog-gods and four snake-goddeses) who were associated with the Hermopolitan creation myth and who symbolised different aspects of chaos before they eventually brought the primeval mound into being. There are no remains of the earliest development of the city and the only surviving elements of the site now comprise of crumbling mounds of mudbrick ruins and destroyed stone temples. The once great Temple of Thoth at el-Ashmunein was visited by several early explorers and in the early 19th century some of the columns of the hypostyle hall were still standing. During the 1930s a German expedition directed by Gunter Roeder excavated the pylon of a temple built by Rameses II, finding over one thousand re-used talatat blocks brought from the dismantled Aten temples at el-Amarna. During 1980 to 1990, several seasons of excavations were directed by Jeffrey Spencer and Donald Bailey of the British Museum. The excavators found remains of temples from the New Kingdom and later, including many artefacts and a major processional street from Hermopolis known as the ‘Dromos of Hermes’. The town site also revealed mudbrick houses dating to the Third Intermediate Period as well as Roman monuments.
Most visitors will arrive first at the site of the old archaeological mission house, which has now been turned into an open-air museum containing blocks, statues and stelae from excavations at el-Ashmunein. At the entrance to the museum are two huge reconstructed baboon statues, their bodies over 4.5m high, representing the god Thoth. These are only two of several baboon colossi which were erected at the site during the reign of Amenhotep III (Dynasty XVIII).
Another road leads to the east through an overgrown area and past the great Temple of Thoth, one of the site’s main attractions which was constructed in several stages throughout the city’s long history. The monuments at Hermopolis have suffered from stone quarrying from early Christian times down to the early Islamic Period, but some of the stone masonry from the temple complex has remained in place. Archaeologists have uncovered foundations of the great pylon gateways built by Horemheb (Dynasty XVIII) and Rameses II (Dynasty XIX) during the excavations of the Thoth temple. It was in this area that the re-used talatat blocks from Akhenaten’s city on the east bank were found.
The largest remains of the Temple of Thoth date to the reign of Necatnebo I (Dynasty XXX), who rebuilt parts of the structure and enclosed the temple precinct within huge mudbrick walls, 15m deep. Nectanebo’s gateway is on the southern side of the temple enclosure, followed by the pylon of Rameses II and a processional way. A structure in front of the Ramesside pylon contained oblelisks, royal statues, stelae and sphinxes of Nectanebo. Alexander the Great extended the Late Period temple by constructing a magnificent portico, or pronaos, consisting of two rows of six limestone columns and much colourful decoration, which was decorated by Phillip Arrhidaeus and Ptolemy I (Soter I). Only the foundations of the columns remain today since the portico was demolished in 1826 and the stone re-used in the building of a sugar factory.
To the south-west of the Temple of Thoth and lying at right-angles, are remains of an east-facing limestone sanctuary of Amun, protected by a turreted fortress wall. This was constructed during the reign of Rameses II with reliefs of Merenptah and Seti II (Dynasty XIX). The entrance pylon and part of the hypostyle hall of this structure can still be seen, but the rear parts are reduced to ground level and surrounded by water.
South-east of the Amun temple there are remains of a monumental gateway dating to the late Middle Kingdom reign of Amenemhet II, perhaps the original entrance to the Temple of Thoth. Remains of the façade and a passage of this structure still survive. Further south another small temple was built in the reign of Rameses II with additions by Nero, where two seated colossi of Rameses stood before the entrance. On the edge of the village there are fragmentary remains of a temple dedicated during the time of the emperor Domitian to the goddess Nehemetaway, wife of Thoth which was the latest temple to be built at Hermopolis.
Outside the temple enclosure on the eastern side of the site are substantial remains of a Roman agora and a restored Coptic basilica, constructed with many blocks from Ptolemaic monuments and following an entirely Greek style of architecture. Most of the graceful granite columns still stand in the rectangular structure of the church – the best example of a monument from this period in Egypt. Nearby, a long architrave inscribed with a Greek text lies on the ground. The inscription informs us that ‘the cavalry militia serving in the Hermopolite nome dedicated the statues, temple and other buildings in the sanctuary, to the deified kings Ptolemy II and III and their wives . . . for their benevolence towards them’.
The British Museum excavation team also uncovered parts of the town site of Hermopolis. At the western side of the site there are well-constructed mudbrick houses dating to the Third Intermediate Period and objects found here indicated that the majority of buildings belonged to the wealthier families of the town. Three successive levels of construction were identified. In the Graeco-Roman part of the town, the ‘Dromos of Hermes’ was uncovered, its existence previously known from papyrus texts. This is a paved processional street running from north to south through the city and which, when excavated, was found to contain re-used stone from earlier times. One of these elements, an alabaster altar inscribed with scenes and titles of Amenhotep III, was found set into the pavement. It would appear that the Graeco-Roman parts of the town were built over the top of many earlier destroyed structures dating to the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Also from the Third Intermediate Period, over 300 fragments from a large alabaster stela of Osorkon III were discovered, which is thought to describe donations of lands and property.
The oldest feature to be found at el-Ashmunein is a Middle Kingdom cemetery which was also excavated in the 1980s by the British Museum team. Enclosed by a massive mudbrick wall, the tombs consist of small vaulted chambers, originally with a superstructure. Over time new graves were superimposed over older ones to the top of the enclosure. Many pottery jars were found at the site, offerings for the deceased typical of the period, but the graves were poorly preserved. The later cemetery associated with Hermopolis can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel.
How to get there
El-Ashmunein is on the west bank of the Nile, about 8km north of Mallawi and 7km east of Tuna el-Gebel. The ticket office for the site is at the open-air museum and tickets cost EGP 20.