AL-ASHMUNAYN (Hermopolis Magna)
History and Architecture
In the pharaonic period, al-Ashmunayn was the capital of the fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome of the Hare and of the Greek Hermopolite nome. Known as an episcopal see since the second half of the third century, the city sheltered the chief shrine of Thoth, god of the art of writing and of science, who was represented as a dog-headed baboon (cynocephalus) or as an ibis. For this reason there exist extensive cemeteries for each animal in the necropolis of al- Ashmunayn, the present-day Tunah al-Jabal.
The late Roman settlement expanded principally in the area of the temple of Thoth, which after its desecration lay open for civilian Christian rehabitation. Numerous papyrus finds that date to the beginnings of the Mamluk period offers information about life in al- Ashmunayn. Regarding the architecture of the city, however, less is known.
Remains of early Christian churches were discovered at the propylaeum of the temple of Thoth in the area of the temple of Amon, which was located in the same region of the city, and more recently in the neighborhood of the temple of Ramses II. Apart from this, seven churches and a monastery dedicated to Saint Severus are known by name and partly by location.
The great cathedral, which was probably founded in the first half of the fifth century, lies outside the area of the Thoth temple, however; it was erected on the remains of a Ptolemaic shrine belonging to the Greek garrison once stationed there. It constitutes an independent complex enclosed by porticoes, and is entered by two monumental and richly decorated gateways at the north and west sides. From the northern gate one enters the church immediately, after crossing a couple of minor vestibules.
The western gate, however, leads at first into a vast atrium, which is divided into four square sections by a portico erected along the entrance axis and open on both sides, with a transverse passage crossing it at right angles. The church proper, which was one of the largest and richest churches in Egypt, is set off a little to the south within the complex. Architecturally, it belongs to the type of transept basilica of which the three-aisled transept ends on both sides in a semicircle. Otherwise, the church is traditional in form, with a return aisle and a separate narthex, which is slightly staggered to the side.
The sanctuary is subdivided into several rooms and includes the baptistery at the far north end. For the division between the nave and the aisles, a series of tall Roman granite columns were reused. In all probability, these originated from the Roman agora of al-Ashmunayn. Several staircases introduced at various points indicate the existence of a gallery.
A second very large church is situated in front of the temple of Ramses II. It also has a very broad nave (it spans 13 yards, or 12 meters), but it is less well preserved than the transept basilica. However, the two stylobates with some column bases and the southern side of the apse are almost visible. Beside the southeast corner of the church, a fairly well preserved underground tomb was found with a staircase and two rooms separated from each other by a flattened archway.
Both rooms are equipped with niches. The ceiling (probably a sailing vault) is missing. West of the tomb, remains of some installations are visible. They have been erroneously taken for a wine press (Bailey, 1982, pp. 15-18). More likely the whole installation belongs to the former baptistery tank situated on this side of the church while the small channel apparently served for leading away the used water when the ceremony of baptism came to an end.
The architectural decoration of the great church of Hermopolis Magna is by no means chronologically homogeneous, as reported in a 1959 monograph (Wace et al., 1959). Most of the decorated building segments were reused, as, for example, the majority of the column bases and shafts and the series of Corinthian capitals, which may have been taken from older buildings of the second to the third centuries.
Certainly prepared for the church were individual Corinthian capitals and some pieces of work at special positions, including corner pilaster capitals; sheath-leaves, helices, and volutes were here merged into a single motif. Dating to the first half of the fifth century yields an important fixed point for the typological classification of Middle Egyptian capitals.
Fragments of the heads of niches and of cornices that were found in or near the building may come from the same period, but cannot yet be indisputably assigned to definite positions in the history of church architecture.
Beside a basilica situated in the south, which was not recognized as a church building by the authors of a recent report (Bailey et al., 1982), a two-chambered subterranean tomb structure was excavated (also not recognized there as a tomb). The construction had most probably a homogeneous decoration (especially Corinthian full-leaf pilaster capitals and bases) and is to be dated to the fifth century.
- Bailey, D. M. “A Late Roman Building and a Wine Press.” British Museum Occasional Paper 32, pp. 11-18. London, 1982.
- Bailey, D. M.; W. V. Davies; and A. J. Spencer. Ashmunein (1980). British Museum Occasional Paper 37, pp. 11-19. London, 1982.
- Deichmann, F. W. Die Spolien in der spätantiken Architektur, pp. 60-62. Munich, 1975.
- Grossmann, P. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte, Supplement 1. Berlin, 1977.
- . “Neu frühchristliche Funde aus Ägypten.” Actes du XIe Congrès international d’archéologie chrétienne. Lyons, 1986.
- Hoepfner, W. Zwei Ptolemaierbauten, pp. 81-87. Berlin, 1971. Kessler, D. Lexicon der Ägyptologie. Wiesbaden, 1977.
- Le Quien, M. Oriens Christianus, 3 vols. Paris, 1740. Mähler, H. Papyri aus Hermopolis. Berlin, 1974.
- Roeder, G. Hermopolis 1929-1931. Hildesheim, 1959.
- Wace, A. J. B.; A. H. S. Megaw; and T. C. Skeat. Hermopolis Magna Ashmunein: The Ptolemaic Sanctuary and the Basilica. Alexandria, 1959.