A rock shrine known as Speos Artemidos is situated on the south side of an isolated wadi about 3km east of Beni Hasan. The speos is a small temple hewn completely out of the rock, in an area where there are many ancient quarries. Although the origins of the structure may go back as far as the Middle Kingdom, it was first decorated in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut of Dynasty XVIII. It was dedicated to the goddess Pakhet (or Pasht), a local lion-headed goddess of the desert and an aspect of Hathor, who was given the title ‘She Who Scratches’. She is known from the Coffin Texts as a night huntress but her cult is not attested in the area before the New Kingdom. Later the Greeks identified Pakhet with Bastet, a feline deity who they associated with their own huntress Artemis, and the temple became known as the ‘Cave of Artemis’. Other titles attached to Pakhet at Speos Atemidos are ‘Goddess of the Mouth of the Wadi’ and ‘She Who Opens the Ways of the Stormy Rains’. The modern name for the speos, Istabl Antar, comes from Antar, who was a local pre-Islamic poet.
The façade of the speos is 15m wide with four square pillars cut from the rock, two on each side of the entrance. These had been prepared for decoration with Hathor-headed capitals on the outer face and Osiride capitals on the inner face, but remained unfinished, although the sides have added texts and cartouches of Tuthmose III and Seti I. The doorway leads into a transverse hall, or pronaos, its ceiling supported by four more unfinished pillars and decorated with hieroglyphs and reliefs which are now very worn and difficult to read in some parts. The most important of these was inscribed by Hatshepsut on the architrave over the entrance and denounces the ‘Asiatics of Avaris’ (the Hyksos) who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. In the lengthy text the queen describes the chaos of Hyksos rule and extols the benefits of her own reign and her restoration of the damage they caused. It is possible that the Hyksos may have been used in the text as a metaphor for chaos and the sovereign’s duty which was to bring order to the land, since their expulsion happened three generations before Hatshepsut’s reign. The queen did, however, undertake the restoration of several monuments in Middle Egypt which had suffered under the rule of the Hyksos.
The wall on the south side of the transverse hall on either side of the doorway into the sanctuary is decorated with painted scenes depicting Hatshepsut before the gods. The western part of the wall was usurped from Hatshepsut although has the appearance of being decorated by Seti I and shows little trace of alteration. Scenes depict the queen/king receiving the Khepresh crown from Amun and Pakhet-Weret-Hekau and making offerings of incense and libations to the goddess, who wears a Hathor head-dress and offers a menat and double uraei. On the eastern side there are two scenes from Hatshepsut’s reign, later altered to contain the cartouches of Seti I. A scene on the far left of the wall represented an iunmutef priest before the Ennead of Thebes. The figure of the iunmutef was altered by Seti I to the god Thoth and the order of the Ennead was also modified.
A short corridor and doorway, decorated in the name of Seti I and showing the king before Pakhet leads into the sanctuary. On one side of the doorway Seti is presenting a clepsydra (waterclock) to Pakhet, who is wearing a sun-disc head-dress, a scene similar to those representing Seti before Sekhmet in the hypostyle hall at Karnak. On the opposite side the king, wearing the festival crown, presents wine to Pakhet who this time wears an elaborate feathered sun-disc with Hathor horns, mounted on a modius. At the entrance to the corridor there is an inscription from year 1 of Seti I commemorating his coronation. On the inside of the door jamb, the Theban ruler Pinudjem I (Theban Dynasty XXI) is depicted wearing the red crown. This king also added to the decoration. The ceiling of the corridor is painted with vultures and cartouches of Seti I.
The sanctuary is mostly unfinished and was left undecorated during Hatshepsut’s reign. Seti I added a few reliefs here but left it incomplete. There is also graffiti from the Pharaonic, Greek and Coptic eras. In the rear wall of the sanctuary a high niche would have been intended to contain a cult statue. On the left hand side of the niche a rock-carved sculpture of Pakhet emerges from the rock, but the opposite side of the niche is too worn to make out any carving there.
Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure are credited with the construction of another smaller rock-temple nearby, just to the right before reaching Speos Artemidos. This chapel, badly defaced during the reign of Tuthmose III, was also dedicated to Pakhet. Although left unfinished, it was later decorated during the reign of Alexander II. Its modern name is Speos Batn el-Bakarah.
The rock temples are surrounded by plundered burials of cats in a Late Period cemetery where animals were buried in honour of the goddess Pakhet. There are also many caves in the area which were inhabited by early Christians during the first millennium AD.
How to get there
Speos Artemidos is on the east bank of the Nile, about 20km south of el-Minya. From Beni Hasan, follow the road along the river for a few kilometres and after going through a village a track turns eastwards into the desert. The speos is in the cliff on the right-hand side of the wadi. A police escort is currently required when visiting this site.