A little to the north of Qasr el-Zayyan, is the magnificent hilltop fortress of Qasr el-Ghueita which, like most of the other fortress sites, also contains a temple. The architectural elements appear to be similar to the fortress temple at Nadura. The Arabic name of the mudbrick Roman fortress means ‘fortress of the small garden’, evidence that it was once part of a thriving agricultural community.
Long before the Romans came to Egypt, this settlement was called Per-Ousekh and is thought to have existed from at least as early as the Middle Kingdom, when it was famous for its wine. Texts in the New Kingdom tombs of the nobles at Thebes describe the excellent quality of the grapes from the vineyards of Per-Ousekh. Grape-harvest scenes often accompany the desert hunt rather than other scenes of food production, perhaps suggesting that grapes were grown for wine in the desert oases in preference to the Nile Valley. Wine from the oases was favoured by the royal courts.
The fortress which dominates the hilltop at Qasr el-Ghueita may once have served as a headquarters for the garrisons of Roman troops who guarded the desert routes and numerous mudbrick buildings are contained within the high fortified walls, though little is known at present about the Roman occupation here. The village which once occupied the slopes below the fortress can be seen in the scattered remains of ruined houses and there is some evidence that the area was inhabited even in prehistoric times.
The yellow sandstone temple within the Roman walls measures 10.5m by 23.5m and occupies about one-fifth of the space within the fortress. Its earliest extant part, the three rear chambers, dates to the reign of and Darius I of Persian Dynasty XXVIII, though it was possibly built on the site of an earlier sacred structure. The damaged but still readable plastered and painted decoration of the central sanctuary contains the cartouche and titles of Darius I,” Son of Re, Lord of Appearances, the Great, Darius, given life“, which was first identified by Ahmed Fakhry in January 1972 when he began his clearance of the temple. Raised reliefs on the rear wall of the central sanctuary have also now been ascribed to Darius I.
A detailed examination and survey of the temple decoration and its environs is now part of the ongoing mission of the Theban Desert Road Survey of Yale University, named the ‘Gebel Ghueita Project’, which has already made several discoveries that have greatly improved their understanding of the site. Amasis II of Dynasty XXVII has been suggested as the ruler responsible for constructing the four-columned hypostyle hall in front of the sanctuary but the Yale team have found no convincing architectural or archaeological evidence for such a suggestion and epigraphic evidence seems to argue against any Saite Period construction here. Inscriptions on the door jambs of the sanctuary and forecourt, state that Ptolemy III Euergetes I built both the columned hall and the temple forecourt.
The temple, dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons, is entered through a sandstone gate on the southern side of the enclosure walls. A pronaos with screen walls was constructed by Ptolemy III in a courtyard which fronts the temple.
This leads to a hypostyle hall, richly decorated in Ptolemaic style with scenes of Nile gods holding nome symbols in the lower registers and with exquisite capitals on top of three of the original four columns. Decoration in the extant temple contains the names of Ptolemy III (Euergetes I), Ptolemy IV (Philopator), Ptolemy IX (Soter II) and Ptolemy X (Alexander I). Beyond the hypostyle is an offering chamber with a staircase to the roof, from where the visitor can get a birds-eye view of the interior of the fortress and the surrounding countryside. To the rear of the offering room are three parallel sanctuaries for the cult statues of the Theban triad, with the largest, the sanctuary of Amun, on the right-hand side. These walls too are decorated but blackened by smoke and age.
To the south-east of the main temple building, within the enclosure, is the columned screen façade of another stone structure which may have been a mammisi or birth-house, as yet unexcavated. In front of the gate there is a processional platform.
The temple is surrounded by many mudbrick buildings of the Roman town which must have been extensive when in use. The outer fortress walls still stand at around 10m high and its location on top of a round volcanic hill is an impressive sight. Remains of buildings still sprawl down the southern slopes of the hill towards the oasis floor below.
Visited by 19th century travellers and excavated by Ahmed Fakhry in 1972, the temple has undergone more recent excavations by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and Yale University which are not yet published.
For more information see Yale Egyptological Institute – Gebel Ghueita
How to get there
The imposing fortress of Qasr el-Ghueita can be found 3km to the east of the main road and about 18km south of the city of el-Kharga, on the crest of a sandstone hill from where it commands a strategic view over the desert plain.