The temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim stands on a massive rocky outcrop at an altitude of 850m above sea level in the highlands of Sinai, roughly 50km from the coastal town of Abu Zenima. It is not the easiest place for tourists to reach and perhaps should be considered more of a trekking expedition than just a monument visit, but the experience is worth the muscle-ache endured afterwards. The recent increase of tourists to the site has prompted the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation to begin to restore the area and they have constructed a tourist centre and a less strenuous route with a path and steps up the western side of the mountain. On the occasion of my visit in 2006 we were unaware of the ‘easy route’ and having enjoyed the hospitality of the Bedouin at Sheikh Barakat village overnight, we set off at dawn to climb straight up the eastern side of the mountain with a guide from the village, a steep route which takes about an hour.
Although the Bedouin tribes had long known of its existence, the temple at Serabit el-Khadim was first reported by Carsten Niebuhr’s campaign in 1762, and several stelae contain 19th century graffiti left by early visitors to the site. The remains of the monument gained recognition when Sir WM Flinders Petrie published his excavations there in ‘Researches in Sinai’ in 1906. The site was later surveyed by R Starr from Harvard University in 1935 and excavations were again undertaken by an Israeli team from 1968-78, though still unpublished. A more recent survey and reinterpretation was published by Dominique Valbelle and Charles Bonnet and the SCA in 1996.
The temple of Hathor lies in a vast area of turquoise mines dating mostly from the Middle Kingdom and was built by Semite labourers during Dynasty XII on the site where it is said that a local deity, Soped, ‘Lord of the Eastern Desert’ or ‘Lord of the Foreign Lands’ was worshipped. Inscriptions in the temple date from Senwosret I of Dynasty XII, who established the first construction here, through to the reign of Rameses VI of Dynasty XX, after which time the temple was abandoned. From the beginning the temple had a dual purpose, both to honour the goddess Hathor who acted as guide to the ‘Chancellors of the God’ during their expeditions undertaken in order to exploit the turquoise mines and also to praise the rulers who instigated the expeditions. The chapels built by successive rulers were equally divided to celebrate the rites of both divine and royal cults.
The archaeological site is today bounded by the reconstructed original Middle Kingdom enclosure wall built by Senwosret I and recent conservation work has provided two paths for visitors, which follow the two ancient processional routes to the rock-cut shrines at the eastern end of the site. These routes lead to the sanctuaries of Hathor and Ptah and are lined with many groups of commemorative stelae in various states of preservation. The ancient miners erected a great number of memorials carrying the dates of the missions, number and job of each worker and the names of their chief. For this reason, Serabit el-Khadim is often called the Temple of the People. The two main axes of temple converge in a courtyard before the speos porticos. Because the original plan of the temple was expanded and reconstructed by successive kings, it is not easy to visualise the layout when you are there, especially as the remains are very scattered and ruined and the inscriptions and decoration of the temple are in poor condition.
Beginning at the northern part of the processional way the route consists mostly of the Middle Kingdom remains. Following this route, through the northern gate of Amenemhet II, recreating the original approach towards the speos, there are two ‘Chapels of the Kings’, built by Amenemhet III and Amenemhet II which contain remains of columns and decoration. A large stela stands in situ in front of the colonnade, surrounded by a stone pavement in which an offering table is embedded. The route then proceeds towards the Hathor speos before doubling back to the main entrance and into the second processional way through the main gate.
At the north of the main entrance there is a massive foundation of stonework, with a similar foundation to the south, flanking the entrance which is reminiscent of the mounds of a pylon. This gate is dated to Senwosret I and Amenemhet II, and opens into large courtyard of Senwosret I at the beginning of the processional way. Remains of foundations of walls for ten small rooms can be seen following this route before reaching a pylon about half way along. The rooms contain a wide variety of stelae, statue fragments and inscriptions mostly from New Kingdom constructions in the temple, first from the Tuthmoside then the Ramesside periods. The pylon gate was built by Tuthmose III and nearby there are several stelae with inscriptions which give the years of his reign. There are also many references to Rameses II and other rulers as well as to their representatives, the mining expedition chiefs. The following areas are confusing because some of the inscriptions were originally Middle Kingdom but the rooms were re-used during the New Kingdom. Moving eastwards the processional way opens out into chapels for the royal cults, built by Amenemhet III and re-used by New Kingdom rulers. Petrie named the western chapel the Hathor Hanafiya and the eastern the Lesser Hanafiya and they contain New Kingdom reliefs interspersed with statue remains from the Middle Kingdom, including the lower part of a seated statue of Senwosret III and several fallen Hathor heads. There are also basins and tanks for offerings.
The outer areas of the sanctuary are split into two separate approaches to the shrines of Hathor and Ptah. On the northern side of the Hathor courtyard is a ‘Temple of Millions of Years’ according to the SCA notice board, erected by Rameses IV. The decoration depicts reliefs of Rameses IV before Amun, superimposed on an earlier scene. This room leads into the portico court before the ‘Cave of Hathor’. There may have once been several stelae in this area which were moved away to build the portico as sockets in the floor of the portico suggest an ancient building stage – this was the first speos or rock-cut chamber in the temple. The Hathor speos was hewn out of the rock during the reigns of Amenemhet III and IV, whereas the portico was constructed later by Amenemhet IV. Extant scenes seem to depict offerings with texts listing the names of some of the expedition leaders. The speos or cave itself is in very poor condition and currently has metal girders to shore up the roof and walls. A very badly damaged pillar or rock-stela still stands erect and has remains of a text dated to Year 3 of Amenemhet III. An offering table stands in front of this.
Much of the complex of the sanctuary of Ptah, to the south of the Cave of Hathor, was reconstructed during a later building phase, though it originally dates to Amenemhet III and IV. The approach contains remains of a pair of sphinxes of Tuthmose III as the Tuthmoside kings replaced the Ptah sanctuary with a new chapel dedicated to Hathor, Amun of Thebes and Soped. The interior of the Soped shrine has a niche in the rear wall, but nothing of the decoration completed by Rameses IV and VI can now been seen there. However there are some interesting statue fragments and stelae standing outside the shrine. Even when walking the ancient processional paths used by the priests during their daily cult rituals, I found this is a difficult temple to imagine in everyday use. The difference in topography between the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom levels, along with the mounds of rubble and stone blocks and the forest of standing stelae now open to the scorching desert sun no longer feels like a temple but is no less fascinating to those of us who love to read the stones.
The remote location of the temple is awe inspiring and the views over the mountain and desert landscape are fabulous. But there is still more to this site. On the long path down the western side of the mountain there is a cliff face called by the Bedouin, Rod el-Air, on which are carved and bruised depictions of boats and animals, along with texts dating from the Middle and New Kingdom.