AHNAS (Ihnas al Madinah, Ihnasyah al-Madinah, Byzantine Herakleopolis)

Settlement on the site of pharaonic Nn-nswt, Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine . The Coptic and Arabic names go back to Egyptian Hwt-nn-nswt, Hnn-nswt, the Greek name comes from the identification of Hrj-š.f (Herishef, Greek Harsaphes), the town’s ram-headed local deity, with Heracles (Herishef was also identified with Dionysus). Ahnas lies in Middle Egypt 75 miles (120 km) south of Cairo and about 10 miles (16 km) west of Bani Suef, close to the entrance to the Fayyum, between the canals al-Sultani and al-Manafrah.


From the Sixth Dynasty until the Late Period, Ahnas served as the capital of the twentieth and twenty-first Upper Egyptian nomes n‘rt hntt and n‘rtpht (Helck, 1974, pp. 121ff). The royal center of the First Intermediate Period of the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties and the seat of the family of local kings of Libyan origin, it also housed the shipmasters of between 940 and 630 B.C. (Kitchen, 1973). During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods it became the capital of the Herakleopolitan nome; after the reorganization of the Egyptian administration early in the fourth century A.D., it was a metropolis; after 539, it came under the Comes of the province Arcadia; and after the Arab conquest, it became the center of a district.

The settlement was built around the temple of Herishef, part of which has been excavated, with a sacred lake of the deity attested since the First Dynasty. Other temples are mentioned as well: late sources name the Temple of Nehebkau; Roman mention temples of Anubis and Kronas, as well as the cults of Apollo and of Rome. A Roman city wall of the second or third century B.C. appears in some records, and names of city quarters and of streets further the existence of an agora of the Greeks (246 B.C.) and an agora of the Egyptians (165 B.C.) as recorded in Ptolemaic documents. A gymnasium of the first or second century A.D., baths (A.D. 188), a hippodrome of about 193, and a palaestra with colonnade (176-180) are enumerated in the Roman papyri.

The necropolis of the pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman settlement was situated at Sadamant al-Jabal, west of the Bah?r  Yusuf. A First Intermediate Period (2160-2000 B.C.) necropolis was, however, discovered within the territory of the ancient city.  The fourth and fifth century A.D. pagan and Christian sepulchral buildings, from which some limestone sculptures originated, were situated near the Herishef temple. A mosque built under the Umayyads is mentioned in Ahmad Kamal’s Le livres des perles enfouies et du mystère précieux.

Apparently its administration between the first and fourth centuries was similar to that of capitals of other nomes. And although a pagarch (administrator of a nome) is still attested in 647 and a dioketes (finance minister) between 643 and 647, the recorded activities of the senate after the reforms of Diocletian are sporadic. The first governor of the district of appears in 653.

Tradition knows of several third-century Christian martyrs of Herakleopolis. According to the Patrum Nicaenorum nomina, Peter, bishop of Herakleopolis, participated in the Council of NICAEA in 325. According to a more reliable source, in 431 Heraklios, bishop of Herakleopolis, appeared at the Council of EPHESUS. Monophysite bishops of are recorded at Ahnas between the sixth and the fourteenth centuries by Severus, Dioscorus Stephanus, Georgius, and others.

A papyrus dating from 405 first mentions a church building— perhaps identical to the bishop’s church of 534 and that recorded in later documents. Churches are also chronicled in 590-596 and in 604. A carving from an obviously expensive tomb building erected toward the middle of the fourth century shows the importance of the Christian community. Marble capitals discovered by E. Naville (Strzygowski, 1904, no. 7350) that belonged to a late fourth-century Christian structure—perhaps a funerary chapel—proclaim the influence of the Christian community. ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN and AL-MAQRIZI mention a monastery dedicated to the archangel Gabriel and the monastery of Saint George at Sadamant.

Before 1164 al-Idrisi speaks of Ahnas as a prosperous city, but Yaqut al-Hamawi (Y. ibn ‘Abdallah al-Rumi) describes it as almost totally ruined by the early thirteenth century (Maspero and Wiet, 1914, p. 28).


The mounds and the debris of ancient cover a 2/3 square mile (1 sq. km) surface, extending from Bahi Yusuf to the al-Sultani canal. The area of the ancient city is encircled, and to a great extent covered, by Ihnasyah al-Madinah and by small villages and ‘izbas, or farms.

Excavations at the Herishef temple were started in 1891 by Naville, who also made diggings to the east of the temple at a site called Kanisah and perhaps at a further mound. In 1904, W. M. F. Petrie worked at the Herishef temple and cleared Roman houses. In 1961, Ahmad al-Tahir of the Antiquities Department discovered a Roman temple that may have been converted into a church north of the Kom al-Aqrab.

A Spanish mission in 1966-1969 and 1976-1977 excavated a necropolis of the First Intermediate Period within the territory of the ancient city. The pharaonic necropolis had been excavated by Naville in 1891 and by Petrie in 1920-1921, and in 1904 Petrie had also signaled a Roman cemetery at the village of Sadamant. The late antique architectural fragments and Ahnas sculptures came from clandestine diggings in one or two presently unidentifiable sites investigated by Naville. The carvings were found, however, in secondary position, as filling materials.

The Ahnas Sculptures

The excavations of Naville in 1891 and of Petrie in 1904, and clandestine diggings after 1904 have yielded a number of limestone architectural fragments with ornamental and figural decoration. These can be dated from late antique to early Coptic. Art historians still regard them as chronologically and stylistically within Egyptian late antique-early Coptic plastic art. Connections with sculptures from Oxyrhynchus had been stressed by E. Kitzinger, but relationships and sequences between Ahnas carvings and other sculptures from al-ASHMUNAYN, BAWIT, SAQQARA, and elsewhere in fourth- to sixth-century Egyptian art are not understood.

The majority of the Ahnas finds are conserved in the Coptic at Old Cairo; others are in the Greco-Roman Museum at Alexandria and in the State Museum in East Berlin. There are others in some museums in Egypt as well as in museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. The finds from Naville’s excavations went first to the Egyptian Museum where they were cataloged by J. Strzygowski, two pieces going to Alexandria. Earlier pieces were later transferred to the Coptic Museum in Cairo where they were exhibited together with fragments of sculptures acquired from art dealers.

In 1923, U. Monneret de Villard published a list of the Ahnas carvings known at that time. He also identified the Ahnas finds in Trieste and East Berlin.

Due to Naville’s misleading report, art historians generally maintain that the Ahnas carvings were made for Christian cult buildings. This belief resulted in an erroneous of early Coptic iconography. The Christian context of the mythological motifs was first doubted by Monneret de Villard and then by Kitzinger. In 1969, H. Torp proved that Ahnas carvings with non- Christian representations belonged to pagan tomb buildings and suggested that the building where Naville unearthed the majority of the sculptures was a funerary chapel built over the walls of a pagan sepulchral building. Torp’s interpretation of the small quadrangular building with a small apselike niche to the north was confirmed by Severin, who identified analogous and related buildings at Oxyrhynchus, Bawit, and Saqqara. It is thus highly probable that the majority of the Ahnas carvings belonged to the architecture of medium-sized tomb buildings of late antique character, provided with one or more niches, doors, and corner pilasters, and cornices in their interior.

The material of the Ahnas sculpture consists of niche heads, column and pilaster capitals, fragments of cornices, and a small number of other architectural members (figural pilaster base, large tondo, etc.). The majority belonged to buildings of rather small dimensions. Some friezes come from the interior architecture of larger, perhaps public, edifices. The capitals made of imported marble are Egyptian works. The niche pediments are partly semicircular, partly variants of a broken pediment type known from the architecture of the eastern Roman provinces, the prototype of which seems to have been developed within late Hellenistic “miniature” architecture in Alexandria. It is also probable that the semicircular niche heads similarly followed late Hellenistic Alexandrian models.

Most niche heads show figure work representing Greek mythological subjects that had a specific sepulchral significance in Roman and late antique art and were further personifications of Hellenistic and Roman characters. An exceptional broken pediment is decorated with two genies holding a cross. The friezes are also decorated with figural representations of Greek mythological subjects or with foliate ornaments including peopled scrolls. From the preserved fragments no canonical order(s) can be reconstructed but the use of traditional elements in niche heads (bead and reel, egg and dart, bracketed cornice, shell) and in cornices (egg and dart, leaves, frieze) does not differ to a considerable extent from the average reduced orders of late antique architecture.

Some of the themes on Ahnas sculptures are: personification of the Earth, the Earth and the Nile, the Nile alone, Tyche, the birth of Aphrodite, Dionysus, Leda and the swan, Daphne, Orpheus, and Herakles and scenes from his legend.

According to Monneret de Villard, the Ahnas carvings date from the period between the late second and late fifth centuries. Kitzinger distinguished a soft-style and hard-style group and demonstrated close connections between the soft style and the developed phase of Oxyrhynchus carvings. He proposed a date between the late fourth and the mid-fifth centuries for the first group. The hard style postdates in his view the soft group and predates the early phase of Saqqara and Bawit, that is, the sixth century. A later study classified the broken pediments according to a typological-chronological scheme, the starting point of which is the example in the Coptic Museum (No. 7050). The figural decoration displays connections with late tetrarchic-early Constantinian porphyry sculptures. The late phase of the development is marked, for example, by the sculpture in the Coptic Museum (No. 7065) and dated in the fifth century. This chronological scheme was accepted by H. G. Severin, who demonstrated that the so-called south church at Bawit? was built originally in the fourth century as a pagan sepulchral chapel and was rebuilt in the sixth century with the use of fourth-century architectural elements left in their original place, of fourth- and fifth-century , and of members (capitals, pilaster, bases, friezes) carved for the rebuilding.

In a later study Severin maintained (in contrast to Kitzinger’s low, mid-fifth-century dating) the high dating of the Ahnas pilaster capitals, but also allowed other datings before the middle of the fifth century, thus disregarding the considerable differences between these and the firmly datable carvings in Suhaj from the middle of the fifth century.

A recent investigation tried to show that (1) Kitzinger’s soft and hard styles were largely contemporaneous; (2) the Ahnas sequence is contemporary with the Oxyrhynchus sequence; (3) trends observed in the Ahnas and Oxyrhynchus material occur also in the fourth- and fifth-century architecture at al-Ashmunayn, Bawit, and Saqqara; and (4) the early phase of the figural sculpture at Ahnas is related to Constantinian porphyry sculpture, and its further development received inspirations from Constantinople; however, the form of mediation is unknown.

The Ahnas material and related carvings from other sites can be divided into three chronological phases, each consisting of pieces demonstrating the survival of different traditions and trends. As a key monument of stylistic plurality, an example is a frieze showing side by side all soft and hard types of acanthus scrolls occurring in the course of the fourth century. The date of Phase I is indicated by two pieces in the Coptic Museum (Nos. 7051 and 7348), and further by Oxyrhynchus capitals: first third of the fourth century. The Coptic Museum’s exhibits 7276, 7050, 7052, the Alexandria Greco-Roman Museum’s No. 14145, and a series of mythological reliefs of unknown provenance also belong in Phase I.

Phase II embraces carvings made around the middle of the fourth century: foliage friezes from Ahnas and Oxyrhynchus, hard-style niche pediments with figural decoration and interlaced acanthus foliage (the latter also appears independently on larger friezes). A niche head decorated with two genies holding a cross (Coptic Museum, No. 7285) belongs to this phase, and the characteristic acanthus foliage forms, as well as the angular style of the Ahnas pieces made in the third quarter of the century, also appear in al- Ashmunayn, Bawit, and Saqqara. Phase III is stylistically and typologically connected to marble capitals found at Ahnas and al- Ashmunayn and to limestone capitals from Ahnas, Oxyrhynchus, Bawit, and Saqqara. They are characterized by leaves with touching tips, degenerate or entirely omitted caulicdes, and unorthodox proportions; the uppermost tips of each acanthus lobe are curved up to the lowest tips of the next lobe in such a way that there appear small elliptical eyes between the lobes. These capitals slightly predate the propylaeum capitals of the Hagia Sophia and the capitals from the Golden Gate and other pieces in Jerusalem from the last quarter of the fourth century.

The type survived in Ahnas and Saqqara in a still more angular and dry style in the first half of the fifth century. Acanthus forms of capitals such as those mentioned above occur on friezes and niche heads with figures, in a rather clumsy execution attempting a graphic, linear effect as to the foliage. Monuments of Phase III range from the last quarter of the fourth century to the middle of the fifth. Its end is represented, for example, by the capitals in the Coptic Museum (Nos. 7074, 7068, 7035, 7062), and by some Oxyrhynchus fragments. The mid-fifth-century date of some pagan sepulchral buildings at Ahnas and Oxyrhynchus is indicated by the occurrence of the specific “Golden-Gate-type” acanthi. In Oxyrhynchus also appears an acanthus scroll type that goes back to the decoration of the entablature on the Hagia Sophia propylaeum.


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