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June 6, 2012

When General Desaix was leading his French division in the Campaign in Upper Egypt (August 1798 – 29 May 1799), and while they were marching from Minya to Asyut, they came to an area somewhere between Saqiyat Moussa[i] and Mallawi in the Governorate of Minya. That they reached at 11 am on the 22nd December, 1798.  Vivant Denon, the French archaeologist and artist, was with the army. He realised that they were marching over land that fell between the two great ancient cities, Antinopolis and Hermopolis. Antinopolis (Antinoe,[ii] or Ansena[iii]) is situated a little over six miles south of Beni Hassan[iv] at a village called Sheikh Abada (or ‘Ibada), and just a little bit north of Dayr Abu Hinnis (Monastery of St. John),[v] on the eastern bank of the Nile. It was founded by Emperor Hadrian[vi] in 130 AD, and later on, in 286 AD, became the capital of the Thebaid under Diocletian.[vii] Hermopolis (or Hermopolis Magna), which is also El Ashmunin (or Al-Ashmunein),[viii] is located almost opposite Antinopolis, on the western bank of the Nile, but a bit further inland. It was built on the site of the ancient Khmun, the main cult centre of Thoth, the ibis-headed god of knowledge, wisdom and writing – and it was there that ancient Egyptians built a magnificent temple for the local deity (the Hermopolis Temple of Thoth).[ix] Hermpolis was also the site of a prestigious Coptic bishopric, and boasted a large Coptic cathedral which is now destroyed, but its remain still exist. It was the seat of the famous tenth century Coptic writer, Bishop Severus,[x] to whom is attributed the known History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.[xi] It isn’t surprising then that both Denon and Desaix, who were both interested in archaeology, were full of excitement at the prospect of exploring the sites. Denon was not keen to visit Antinopolis because, as he tells us, he was familiar with the monuments of the age of Hadrian. He, however, was curious to see Hermopolis, where he had heard there was a celebrated portico (of the temple of Hermopolis); and so he was delighted when Desaix told him that he would make an incursion to Ashmunin,[xii] taking three hundred cavalry with him for protection, while the infantry continued their march to Mallawi.


Figure 1: Map (Bing Maps 3D) showing the area in the Nile Valley in Minya Governorate between Saqiyat Moussa and Mallawi where Desaix and Denon found themselves at 11 am on the morning of 22 December 1798. This is where Antiopolis (Ash Shaykh ‘Ibadah) and Hermopolis (Al Ashmunayn) were.

So, Denon, accompanied by Desaix and his cavalry, galloped on horseback to where the village of Al-Ashmunin was.[xiii] As they approached the temple’s portico, he was struck by the gigantic features of that beautiful monument, that relic of the highest antiquity, which to him symbolised the perfection of ancient Egyptian architecture:

I was enchanted with the delight at thus seeing the first fruit of my labours; for, excepting the pyramids, this was the first monument which gave me an idea of the ancient Egyptian architecture; the first stones that I had seen which had preserved their original destination, without being altered or deformed by the works of modern times, and had remained untouched for four thousand years, to give me an idea of the immense range and high perfection to which the arts had arrived in this country. [xiv] [xv]

Denon soon set to sketch the portico. He writes to tell us of what he considered, with a remarkable humility, an impossible task:

The only idea which disturbed my enjoyment here was, that I must so soon quit this magnificent object, and that it required the hand of a master, and ample leisure, to do it justice with the pencil; whereas, my powers were humble, and my time measured out. But I could not quit it without attempting the sketch which I have given to my readers, which can but faintly express the sensations which this noble fabric conveys, and which I sincerely hope some future artist will be enabled to finish under more fortunate circumstances.

If a drawing can sometimes give an air of greatness to little things, it always diminishes the effect of great objects: so in this instance, the capitals, which appear too heavy in proportion to the bases, have, in reality, something in the massiveness which strikes with wonder, and disarms criticism: here one cannot venture either to admit or reject any rules of criticism: but what is truly admirable, is, the beauty of the principal outlines, the perfection in the general construction, and in the use of ornaments, which are sufficient to give a rich effect without injuring the noble simplicity of the whole. The immense number of hieroglyphics which cover every part of this edifice, not only have no relief, but entrench upon no part of the outline, so that they disappear at twenty paces distance, and leave the building all its uniformity.[xvi]

Denon published his sketch in the atlas which he attached to his book Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte,[xvii] in Planche XXXIII (Plate 33) under the title “Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis”[xviii] (Ruins of the Temple of Hermopolis), which I reproduce here:

Figure 2: Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis (Ruins of the Temple of Hermopolis) by Vivant Denon, and an accompanying map.

Figure 3: Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis (closer view).


Figure 4: Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis (zooming in view).

Figure 5: Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis (inset showing Denon’s attention to detail).

As Denon was being mesmerised by the grandeur and beauty of the temple of Hermopolis, he gave himself up for some pondering:

A peasant who should be drawn out from his cottage, and placed before such a building as this, would believe that there must exist a wide difference between himself and the beings who were able to construct it; and without having any idea of architecture, he would say, this is the work of a god, a man could not dare to inhabit it. Is it the Egyptians who have invented and brought to perfection such a beautiful art? This is a question which I am unable to answer; but even on a first glimpse of this edifice we may pronounce, that the Greeks have never devised nor executed anything in a grander style.[xix] [xx]

Denon’s contemplation is not unique. How many times one finds himself standing before ancient Egyptian monuments, and, feeling inadequate compared to our ancestors, asks similar questions. But the direct descendants of the Pharaohs, who should not doubt their blood, ought to ask different questions: How can we become yet again as great as our forefathers had been? What holds us back?   Probably Coptic nationalists are better equipped to answer such questions – that must form part of their work in the years to come.

[i] Also written as Ash Shaykh ‘Ibadah (as in the Bing Maps 3D). In my text, I have used names as they are spelled in Google Egypt Map.

[ii] Vivant Denon uses the name Antinöe rather than Antinopolis.

[iii] Ansena is the Coptic form.

[iv] Beni Hassan is the famous place of ancient Egyptian cemeteries from the Old and New Kingdoms.

[v] Also written as Deir Abu Hennes.

[vi] Roman Emperor (117 to 138 AD).

[vii] Roman Emperor (284 to 305 AD).

[viii] From the Coptic form, Shmounein.It is also written as Al Ashmunayn (as in the Bing Maps 3D)

[ix] The Greeks called the town Hermopolis because they identified Thoth with their god, Hermes.

[x] Also known as Sawiris (or Sawires) ibn al-Muqaffa’, Severus of Ashmunein (or Ashmunin).

[xi] The truth is that that work was written and compiled by so many Copts.

[xii] Denon calls it in his book Achnusuin and Achmunin.

[xiii] Denon, who calls it the village of Achmunin, says it was large, and peopled by about five thousand inhabitants, “to whom we were as great an object of curiosity as their temple had been to us.” Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country: and published under his immediate patronage by Vivant Denon; tr. Arthur Aikin. New York; printed by Heard and Forman for Samuel Campbell; January 1803; p. 204.

[xiv] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country; p. 202.

[xv] Denon adds, describing more of what he had seen: “Among the hillocks, within three or four hundred yards of the portico, enormous blocks of stone may be seen half buried in sand, and regular architecture beneath them, which appear to form an edifice containing columns of granite, just rising above the present level of the soil. Further on, but still connected with the scattered fragments of the great temple of Hermopolis, which I have just described, is built a mosque, in which are a number of columns of cipoline marble of middling size, and retouched by the Arabs.” Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country; p. 203-4.

[xvi] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country; pp. 202-3.

[xvii] Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les Campagnes du Général Bonaparte (Paris; P. Didot l’aîné; An X 1802).

[xviii] In fact, the full title for Planche XXXIII is “Ruines du temple d’Hermopolis / Tombeau égyptien à Lycopolis / Plan du tombeau”, which translates into “Ruins of the temple of Hermopolis / Tomb Egyptian at Lycopolis / Tomb map). This is because the full plate shows two sketches of the above mentioned structures, with their maps.

[xix] Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: during the campaigns of General Bonaparte in that country; p. 202.

[xx] It is regrettable that what was seen by Denon of the Temple of Hermopolis in 1798 is almost destroyed now by Egypt’s rulers in the 19th century who felt no connection with Egypt’s Pharaonic past. The same has also happened to the archeological buildings at Antinopolis.

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