Archaeologists Discover Rare Zodiac Carvings at Egypt's Temple of Esna
Archaeologists engaged in restoration and re-coloring work at the Temple of Esna in Egypt have succeeded in uncovering a remarkable representation of celestial bodies together with all 12 signs of the zodiac.
Announcing the findings, Dr. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, explained that the only previous publication on the temple of Esna, by French Egyptologist Serge Sonron, made no mention of these zodiac carvings, adding that this makes the discovery very significant.
According to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the reliefs were discovered by a joint Egyptian-German team. The Egyptian Antiquities Recording Center and University of Tubingen mission includes restoration, recoloring, recording and documentation of the unique features found at the Temple of Esna.
The zodiac signs were discovered at the Temple of Khnun, or the Temple of Esna in Egypt. (merlin74 / Adobe Stock)
Archaeologists Uncover the Zodiac at the Temple of Esna
The city of Esna was known as Senat in ancient Egypt and Latopolis in the Greek period. Esna lies on the west bank of the Nile River at a distance of 485 miles (780 km) from modern Cairo and 37 miles (60 km) south of Luxor. The temple complex was constructed during the Ptolemaic (Macedonian Greek dynasty) and Roman era. Although the foundations of the Esna temple were laid by King Thutmose III of the 18th dynasty, the temple was completed between 40 and 250 AD.
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The temple was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian god, Khnum or Khnemu, and his consorts Menhit and Nebtu, Khnum’s eldest son and successor Heka, and the goddess Neith. Khnum is the ram-headed god of creation, while Neith was another creator deity of the ancient Egyptians.
This stunning ancient temple contains a beautiful colonnaded vestibule with 24 pillars decorated with lotus and palm tree capitals. The walls are covered with four rows of reliefs showing Ptolemaic and Roman kings dressed in Pharaonic attire offering sacrifices to Khnum.
The vestibule or pronaos is the only surviving part of the temple, but it has remained in its entirety. A sandstone structure 37 meters (121 feet) long, 20 meters (65 feet) wide and 15 meters (49 feet) high, it was placed in front of the temple itself under Roman Emperor Claudius (41 to 54 AD) and was probably so grand as to overshadow the temple. It was in this hall that the fresh zodiac reliefs were found at the Temple of Esna.
Before (left) and after (right) the restoration work which revealed the zodiac at the Temple of Esna. In this example, the zodiac sign of Sagittarius. Source: Ahmed Emam / Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
A “Heavenly” Ceiling: The Zodiac at the Temple of Esna
The Egyptian restoration team, led by Ahmed Emam, succeeded in completely restoring and recoloring a section of images on the ceiling of the structure that depicts the heavens, as per a University of Tubingen press release. The images carved in relief include a complete representation of the zodiac alongside planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Mars as well as several stars and constellations that aided the ancient Egyptians in time calculations.
Professor Christian Leitz of the University of Tubingen, along with Hisham El-Leithy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that representations of the zodiac are very rare in ancient Egyptian temples. The zodiac originated in Babylonian astronomy and the ancient Egyptians were not familiar with it until Ptolemaic times.
One of the zodiac signs discovered on the ceiling of the Temple of Esna in Egypt during restoration work. (Ahmed Emam / Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
The Introduction of the Zodiac in Ancient Egypt
Ideas surrounding the zodiac are believed to have been introduced to Egypt by the Greeks, after which they became very popular. “The zodiac was used to decorate private tombs and sarcophagi and was of great importance in astrological texts, such as horoscopes found inscribed on pottery sherds,” said Dr. Daniel von Recklinghausen, a Tübingen researcher.
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Other than the celestial bodies found at the Temple of Esna, the researchers also came across colorful images of snakes, crocodiles and mythical beasts. These included a snake with a ram's head and a bird with a crocodile's head, the tail of a snake and four wings. The restoration also uncovered new inscriptions in black ink with divine names.
The zodiac reliefs found at the Temple of Esna were covered by layers of accumulated dust and soot that dulled their vibrant colors. Nevertheless, this also helped to preserve them for nearly 2,000 years. Restoring the ceiling images to their original state has been particularly challenging because they were hidden under such thick layers of dirt for centuries so as to be hardly visible. The restoration work has been ongoing for five years.
The discovery of the zodiac at the Temple of Esna is made more notable due to the rarity of its occurrence in ancient Egyptian temple structures. “It is rare in temple decoration: Apart from Esna, there are only two completely preserved versions left, both from Dendera,” concluded Von Recklinghausen.
Top image: Representation of decans, zodiac signs used to measure the twelve hours of the night, on the ceiling of the Temple of Esna. On the left pre-restoration and on the right post-restoration. Source: Ahmed Emam / Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
By Sahir Pandey
Milligan, M. 21 March 2023. “Celestial reliefs depicting the heavens uncovered in the Temple of Esna” in Heritage Daily. Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2023/03/celestial-reliefs-depicting-the-heavens-uncovered-in-the-temple-of-esna/146614
Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. 19 March 2023. “Revealing a complete zodiac for the first time on the roof of the Esna Temple” in Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Available at: https://mota.gov.eg/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%83-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84-%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%88%D9%84-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%B3%D9%82%D9%81-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%AF-%D8%A5%D8%B3%D9%86%D8%A7/
Press. 2023. “Research team uncovers further ceiling paintings in the temple of Esna” in University of Tubingen. Available at: https://uni-tuebingen.de/en/university/news-and-publications/press-releases/press-releases/article/research-team-uncovers-further-ceiling-paintings-in-the-temple-of-esna/