Journal: Thursday 14 December 1995
Sometime during the night we docked at Edfu, though I didn’t know it until I woke next morning. After breakfast we sailed on towards Esna, arriving at 11.00am. The air was cold with mist and cloud covering the sun and Salah told me that Esna is considered the coldest place in Egypt because the agricultural landscape is so flat and open. I found that hard to believe, being so far south, but maybe it was his personal opinion as he was a city man from Cairo.
As soon as we arrived we left the boat for the short walk through the bazaar to Esna Temple, which stands today in its excavation pit in the centre of town, 9m below the modern ground level. The temple, dating to the Ptolemaic and Roman Period and one of the last temples to be built in Egypt, was dedicated to the god Khnum and several other deities, including the goddesses Neith, and Menheyet. It is thought that the structure would once have been built to a plan similar to the temple at Edfu but all that now remains is the hypostyle hall that was built by the Roman Emperor Claudius who extended earlier buildings. The remaining part of the temple is around a quarter of the size of the original building, and the oldest part of the structure still standing is the back wall which would have been the facade of the original temple. The roof of the hypostyle hall is still intact, supported by 24 columns each with varied floral capitals. They are decorated with texts describing the religious festivals of the town and several Roman emperors before the gods. The age-blackened ceiling is decorated with Egyptian astronomical figures and Roman signs of the zodiac. The dark single hall reminded me of old engravings I had seen in books and in the open space in front of the temple I was captivated by a lovely statue of Menheyet who was a little known lion-headed goddess named at this temple as the consort of Khnum.
Walking back down through the bazaar we had a little excitement when my friend gave pens to some children and almost caused a riot. An older man in a tattered galabeya who should have known better, began to grab the pens out of the children’s hands, while other nearby stall-holders who had witnessed the episode tried to get them back. After much loud shouting and cursing in Arabic, which inevitably drew many onlookers, the tourist police turned up and we were able to beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the boat, returning to the bazaar after lunch to buy our souvenirs in peace.
Later that night as I sat listening to the musical chanting of ‘Allahu Akhbar’ in the last call to prayer of the day and watched the pale crescent moon rise on its back in traditional Islamic shape over the darkened buildings and minarets of Esna, I thought, ‘Yes, God is Great’, whichever gods they may be.