Behbeit el-Hagar, a village just a few kilometres to the north of Samannud (Sebennytos) in the central Delta, marks the site of an important, though now destroyed temple, thought to have been known to the Greeks as The Iseum. The temple was probably linked to the town and temple of Sebennytos, home of the Dynasty XXX kings towards the end of the Late Period, as well as to the nearby Nome capital of Busiris.
The modern village derives its name from the ancient ‘Per-Hebit’, meaning ‘The domain of the Festive Goddess’ and the temple, ‘Hebit’, seems to refer to a festival pavillion dedicated to the goddess Isis and the funerary rites with which she was associated. The site covers an area of about 7.6 hectares and is surrounded by cultivation on all sides. Ruins of a massive mudbrick enclosure wall constructed around the perimeter of the temple can still be seen on the northern and southern sides, but inside the enclosure only a tumbled mass of granite blocks lying on the surface remain to define the position of the temple, an area measuring around 80m by 55m. The great attraction to visitors of the site today is in the very finely carved reliefs on the broken granite blocks, much more delicate in style than the Ptolemaic reliefs in temples of Upper Egypt.
Little is known of the early history of the site, though textural evidence suggests that there may have been a structure here from the late Saite Period. The names of the builders of the early Ptolemaic temple recovered from extant blocks, begin with Nectanebo II Senedjemibre of Dynasty XXX. Although his name does not appear on inscriptions from the temple, Nectanebo I Kheperkare is named in an inscription on a statue of Harsiesis (Vizier of Nectanebo II), which mentions work carried out on a waterway close to the site by the earlier ruler.
Nectanebo II seems to have built a ‘Chapel of Osiris-Hemag’ on the northern edge of the later structure. This aspect of the god Osiris, crowned with the Atef plumes, was also associated with Nectanebo I, who was given the epithet ‘Beloved of Osiris-Hemag’ on the Harsiesis statue. Nectanebo II was probably also responsible for the construction of a dromos, lined with sphinxes, in the centre of the later main entrance.
The main part of the temple was either constructed or at least decorated by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, whose names appear in inscriptions on blocks from the façade of a Sanctuary of Isis. On the façade the King is depicted being introduced to various gods by Isis who is named as ‘Isis the Great, the Divine Mother’ next to the King’s own cartouches and a huge lintel decorated with a winged disc described the dedication of the façade. There is evidence of a columned hall behind the Isis façade, but the remains of red granite columns were scattered over the site and many were later re-used. The Isis sanctuary was the largest element of the temple and the goddess is portrayed on blocks, together with her son Horus, in many aspects of kingship. The Sanctuary was surrounded by chapels on the northern, eastern and southern sides, while the roof appears to have contained more chapels associated with the rejuvenation and worship of aspects of Osiris.
Ptolemy III Euergetes I probably constructed the main entrance to the temple and a dedicatory inscription containing cartouches of the ruler and his wife and sister Queen Berenice II can be seen on blocks of the northern wing which has toppled backwards. The entrance façade seems to have been dedicated to Osiris-Andjety by the King and to Isis by the Queen.
It is not clear when the temple collapsed. Its destruction may have been due to an earthquake in ancient times or some other cause, and much of the stone was subsequently quarried away. One of the blocks was re-used in an important Temple of Isis and Serapis founded in Rome during the 1st century AD which establishes a latest date for an extant monument at Behbeit el-Hagar.
No methodical excavation has yet been undertaken at Behbeit. It was visited and described by early travellers in the 18th century and some of the inscriptions copied during the 19th century and by Montet, Naville and others in the mid-20th century. In 1991, French Egyptologist Christine Favard-Meeks, published a proposed reconstruction and plan of the site based on inscriptions of the surface blocks.
How to get there
Behbeit el-Hagar is only a short distance to the north-east of Samannud, on the western side of the Damietta branch of the Nile. It can be reached from the towns of el-Mansura to the north or Tanta to the south. There is a gafir at the site.