Color restored to temple of Esna

The temple of Esna is a Greco-Roman era Egyptian temple decorated mainly in the Roman era (1st-3rd century A.D.). Only the pronaos (the front vestibule) of the temple survives today; the rest was lost in the Middle Ages.

The temple is in Esna, 60 kilometers south of Luxor in Egypt. Only the vestibule (called the pronaos) remains, but it is complete. At 37 meters long, 20 meters wide and 15 meters high, the sandstone structure was placed in front of the actual temple building under the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and probably eclipsed it. The roof is supported by 24 columns, the capitals of the 18 free-standing columns are decorated with different plant motifs. “In Egyptian temple architecture this is an absolute exception,” says Tübingen Egyptologist Daniel von Recklinghausen.

The work on the elaborate decorations probably took up to 200 years. The temple of Esna is famous for its astronomical ceiling and especially for the hieroglyphic inscriptions. They are considered to be the most recent coherent hieroglyphic text corpus that has been preserved today and which describes the religious ideas of the time and the cult events at the site.

Its location in the middle of the city center probably contributed to the fact that the vestibule was preserved and was not used as a quarry for building materials as other ancient edifices were during the industrialization of Egypt. Indeed, the temple had become part of the modern city. Houses and shacks were built directly against some of its walls, in other places it protruded from a mountain of rubble, as can be seen on postcards from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the first half of the 19th century, the hall served temporarily as a warehouse for cotton.

The inscriptions were studied and documented in the 1960s and 1970s by French Egyptologist Serge Sauneron, but the temple was so caked in thick layers of soot, dirt and bird poop that photography was deemed an unnecessary extravagance when the inscriptions were published. In 2018, a joint campaign of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the University of Tubingen’s Institute for the Cultures of the Ancient Orient was launched with the objectives of aiding in the cleaning and conservation of the temple and doing a full photographic documentation of the inscriptions and decorative elements once the layers of grime obscuring the original polychrome paint are removed.

The results have been a revelation. The cleaning revealed iconographic features — a wedjat-eye gradually exposed in stages representing the phases of the moon, new Egyptian constellations, details of clothing, inscriptions rendered in paint rather than carved in relief so Sauneron never ever knew they were there. The painted inscriptions on the astronomical ceiling record the name of previously unknown Egyptian constellations. The cleaning of a column capital revealed intricate depictions of grapevines and date palms that are striking for their verisimilitude and for the information they provide of the temple’s original color scheme — red, yellow, green, blue.

The restoration project continues even under the looming shadow of COVID. When a new section is cleaned, it is photographed and documented.