Dime es-Seba, the ancient Soknopaiou Nesos (Fayyum) and the Italian excavations of the University of Salento

BY DR. PAOLA DAVOLI AND DR. MARIO CAPASSO

  • View of the west side of the temenos.

 

The town of Soknopaiou Nesos was abandoned by its inhabitants around the middle of the 3rd century AD and it was soon covered by the desert. Its buildings started to ruin and the collapse of their roofs and upper floors sealed and preserved, together with the sand, the objects that were left behind by the inhabitants. During Late Roman and Medieval Periods people continued to visit the site from time to time, and to live inside the great enclosure of the temple, as it has been demonstrated by the evidence found in recent archaeological excavations of the University of Salento (Lecce). Thanks to the remoteness of the ruins from the green land of the Fayyum and Nile Valleys, the site has not suffered heavy damage and it is still well preserved. The whitish walls of the temple area stand out against the sky for a height of 15 meters and are a secure landmark for desert travellers.

The settlement was set up in the 3rd century BC, at the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period, during a massive project of land reclamation carried out in the region during the reign of Ptolemy II (282-246 BC). This project enabled the maximum extension of cultivable land in the Fayyum, one of the main fertile areas in Egypt. Hundreds of kilometres of artificial channels were dug in the desert surrounding the oasis to convey and drain water, and numerous settlements were found to host new colonies and foreign owners. The newly acquired lands were distributed to foreign soldiers and officers recruited by the Ptolemies, rulers of Macedonian origin who inherited Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Fayyum continued to be a region with a high density of foreign residents and owners of lands during the Roman Period. Among them there were veterans and relatives of the imperators.

Soknopaiou Nesos is the Greek name of the town, set in the desert as an important temple area and, probably, a centre for commerce. The modern name of the place is Dime es-Seba, “Dime of the lions”, where the lions are statues representing lions and sphinxes originally placed on the dromos, a 400-metre-long paved road that connected the main temple to the south gate of the town. It was a monumental road on which the gods were transported in processions during the numerous feasts celebrated in the year. The ancient name, instead, means “the island of the god Sobek, lord of the island”. The Greek name of the god, Soknopaios, is an adaptation from the Demotic name “Sobek lord of Pai (the island)”. For long, scholars were convinced that Soknopaiou Nesos was built on an island in the Birket Qarun, but recent research has demonstrated that it was not, at least during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

 

The pseudo-oasis of the Fayyum lies in the desert about 80 km southwest of Cairo. The region (1900 km2; 2.098.250 inhabitants) is a vast natural depression in the Libyan desert, supplied with Nile water through a natural canal called Bahr Yussuf. In Medieval times it was famous for the cultivation of roses, used in the production of perfumes, while in the Roman Period it was considered the granary of Egypt and Rome. The grain was transferred to Alexandria through navigable channels and then to Rome. Nowadays, the most widespread crops are olive trees, date palms, cotton, sugar cane, and several different kinds of vegetables and fruits.

The pseudo-oasis of the Fayyum lies in the desert about 80 km southwest of Cairo. The region (1900 km2; 2.098.250 inhabitants) is a vast natural depression in the Libyan desert, supplied with Nile water through a natural canal called Bahr Yussuf. In Medieval times it was famous for the cultivation of roses, used in the production of perfumes, while in the Roman Period it was considered the granary of Egypt and Rome. The grain was transferred to Alexandria through navigable channels and then to Rome. Nowadays, the most widespread crops are olive trees, date palms, cotton, sugar cane, and several different kinds of vegetables and fruits.

Birket Qarun, a salty lake, lies in the deepest area of the Fayyum depression. In Prehistoric times it covered the whole region. Its present level (-45 metres below sea level) is regulated by the sluices located at El-Lahun, at the mouth of the oasis. Fayyum became a fertile and densely inhabited region only after a land reclamation project promoted by the pharaohs of the XII dynasty, who built a dense network of artificial channels and a system to control the quantity of water entering the depression. Since the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, and in particular during the Graeco-Roman Period, the extension of the lake has been under control thanks to efficient hydraulic management.

At present, the northern shore of the lake is completely deserted. This explains the good state of preservation of many ancient sites and cemeteries belonging to several periods of Egyptian history. One of these was already famous in the 17th century for its monumentality and richness: Dime es-Seba.

The site was visited by G.B. Belzoni on 4th May 1819. He carried out some excavations in houses, described the ruins in his famous book Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, and published a watercolour representing the town from south-east.

During 1824, J. Gardner Wilkinson, the father of British Egyptology, visited Dime and drew the first plan of the archaeological site. A second plan was drawn by K.R. Lepsius in 1843 for his monumental publication Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. The first scientific excavations were carried out by famous papyrologists in search for papyri. B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt were the first in 1900, followed by F. Zucker in 1909.

The first account on excavations carried out in the temple area is an article by Ahmed Bey Kamal, who excavated there on behalf of an antiquities dealer (Sayed Bey Khashaba) in 1914. The most informative archaeological report on Dime was published by A.E.R. Boak in 1935. It followed a three-month expedition of the University of Michigan during which excavations were conducted in two domestic blocks of the town. They discovered that the site is composed of, at least, four superimposed levels of houses. From 1932 to 2001 no other archaeological missions operated in Dime due to the difficult location of the site.

In 2001 the University of Salento (Lecce) resumed scientific archaeological research on the site. The Soknopaiou Nesos Project is a research project of the Centro di Studi Papirologici which is focused on the study of the Graeco-Roman town of Soknopaiou Nesos. The project includes archaeological excavations, which began in 2003, the study of the thousands of documents in Greek and Demotic found in the past and during new excavations, and the organization of an archive of images, documents and publications relating to it. The Project is directed by Mario Capasso, Professor of Papyrology, and Paola Davoli, Professor of Egyptology, and it is supported by the University of Salento, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the members of the “Cultural Association Soknopaiou Nesos”.

  • Glass inlay representing a crocodile. It was originally inserted with other inlays into the wooden panels of a naos to form scenes or hieroglyphic inscriptions.

The ruins extend over an oval-shaped area which is 660 metres long from north to south and 350 metres wide. It is a mound in the flat desert and its elevation is due to the fact that the settlement was originally placed on a hill and that the wind-blown sand continued to deposit on the area raising the ground and the floor levels of houses and streets, which need to be periodically rebuilt. A layer of potsherds covers the entire surface of the site. The potsherds are the result of the ancient daily use of pottery.

Plan of Soknopaiou Nesos

Plan of Soknopaiou Nesos

The town is divided into two parts by a paved road, the dromos, originally 400 metres long. It leads to the great temple of the god Soknopaios, protected by an impressive wall and originally built on top of a hillock. The road follows a light slope from south to north. It is set on a foundation composed by two parallel walls in stones that retain a filling of sand on which the grey limestone slabs are placed. Thanks to these deep foundations, the road can run horizontally over steep ground. The survey and documentation of the dromos allowed us to understand that the two walls were exposed and that two parallel roads ran on both sides of the dromos, 3 metres below the surface of the sacred road. Tunnels and stairways enabled people to cross the dromos, a real architectonic barrier dividing the town into two districts, named in the papyri as the east and the west quarters.

Dromos is a Greek name for the processional way of a temple. It is a characteristic feature of Egyptian temples, through which they extended into the settlements. During the feasts, the processions passed through this monumental way, on which the statue of the god (or a mummy in the case of the sacred crocodile) was carried by the priest on a stretcher into a naos. During these feasts people crowded along the sides of the dromos and could see the god. Many feasts were celebrated at Soknopaiou Nesos during the year, the most important being the birthday of Soknopaios and Isis Nepherses, which lasted 19 days each, and the Feast of the Roses, which lasted 13 days.

 

The temple of Soknopaios is protected by high walls built with mud bricks (temenos) following a building technique that has resulted in its fairly good state of preservation. The walls were built in several sectors, so that the collapse of one of them would not cause the collapse of the whole. The precinct is about 122x80 metres. The Dime temple area is the best preserved in the Fayyum: inside the temenos temples, priests’ houses and other buildings are still relatively well preserved. The main temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknopaios, to the goddess Isis Nepherses and to the god Soknopiais, is in the middle of the area. The sanctuary is composed of two buildings built with different materials and in two subsequent periods. The most ancient is also the smallest one and was probably built at the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period (3rd century BC). The temple was later extended through the addition of a second structure in yellow limestone blocks. Between the two buildings there is a paved courtyard with two auxiliary structures in mud brick.

During the Roman period the buildings were part of the temple of Soknopaios. Its main gateway at the centre of the southern wall of the older temple was built with limestone blocks. It is only partially preserved and was ruined after the 2011 revolution. After the first door, there are a series of rooms partially filled with collapses from the walls and roof. Originally the temple was covered with a thick layer of plaster, of which only patches are preserved in different rooms. A staircase led to a second floor and probably to the flat roof. The last central room was the proper sanctuary where the statue of the god was kept, but its use changed after the construction of the new temple to the north. A doorway was opened at the centre of the rear wall during the extension of the temple. It leads to the paved courtyard and to the new temple made with yellow limestone blocks.

  • The south entrance of the temenos.

This temple was built at the end of the Ptolemaic period to enlarge the old sanctuary and was finished at the beginning of the Roman period. The names of the rulers who built it are unknown, but a king and a queen are represented on a bas-relief found in 2007, which has been moved to the general storehouse of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. For unknown reasons, the decoration of the temple was not completed. The new building (19.40x25 metres) was partially demolished in Late Antique and Medieval periods in order to re-use the blocks in new constructions. However, what was left is enough to create an ideal reconstruction of the temple. It had two entrances, the main one from the south and the other from the west. The presence of two staircases suggests that there were at least two storeys. In 2007 some chapels and subterranean crypts have been found, but unfortunately they had already been plundered by previous diggers. The first central hall was called in Egyptian wesekhet; a short ramp introduces to the offering room, in which the king and the priests presented on altars to the gods the offerings. In the third central room the vestibule can be found in front of the naos, the most sacred place where the statue of the god was kept. The sanctuary was very similar in dimensions and plan to the well-preserved one in Qasr Qarun, ancient Dionysias, in the Fayyum. Similar architectonic features have been found scattered in the excavated area and testify to the presence of at least a second storey and a terrace on the roof, with a double system of gutters, such as in Dionysias. The main gutters were decorated with the forepart of recumbent lions, two of which have been found in 2012 in perfect conditions and are now stored in the Kom Aushim SCA storehouse. Several fragments of statues representing gods, kings and priests were found together with pieces of the sacred furniture, such as naos in stone and wood, and incense burners. Most of these objects were demolished and re-used during the Late Roman period, after the temple was closed to the pagan cults.

The temple of Soknopaios has been scientifically excavated and studied for the first time by the Soknopaiou Nesos Project of the University of Salento. A maquette reproducing Dime in scale 1:200 is exposed at the Museo Papirologico at the University of Salento. It was made by Maestro G. Manisco with stones, sand and mud, following precisely the present state of conservation of the archaeological site and the original materials. A 3D model of the temple is under construction by M. Limoncalli.

More information about the excavations and publications can be found at: www.museopapirologico.eu/snp

 

Visit the Site

The site is not open to the public and it is guarded by local guards. A small modern building houses the guardians of the archaeological area; it is located on the north of the site on a flat surface that is used as parking area. It is strongly recommended to park out of the archaeological area to avoid damaging the ruins. In accordance with the SCA regulations and law, it is forbidden to climb the ruins with vehicles and to damage in any way the antiquities.

 

Paola Davoli and Mario Capasso are respectively Professor of Egyptology and Professor of Papyrology at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Dr Hawass' views.
All information and media on this website are © Laboratoriorosso and cannot be used or distributed without permission.

 

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