Close to the entrance to Al-Fayoum, Ehnasya el-Medina is the modern village, perched on a hill above the site of ancient Henen-nesw, capital of the 20th Upper Egyptian nome, which the Greeks named Herakleopolis Magna.
The extensive remains of the ancient city cover an area of 67 hectares and incorporate a number of cemeteries and temples spanning the Middle Kingdom to Roman periods. Modern names include Ihnasya el-Medina and Ahnas el-Medina.
It was from this city that the rulers of Dynasties IX and X originated, who later came into conflict with the early rulers of the Theban Dynasty XI. Henen-Nesw was the cult centre of the ram-headed god Herishef (Harsaphes) during pharaonic times, a deity which the Greeks identified with their Herakles, giving the town its classical name.
Attested from as early as Dynasty I, Herishef was a local fertility deity and may possibly be considered as a creator-god, whose name means ‘he who is upon his lake’ and who at different times was associated with the sun-god Re, wearing the sun-disc and with Osiris, wearing the Atef crown. He is usually depicted as a ram-headed human.
On the south-western side of the site a temple, founded at least as early as the Middle Kingdom and dedicated to Herishef, was enlarged during Dynasty XVIII, with major additions during the reign of Rameses II of Dynasty XIX, when a hypostyle hall was added.
This temple was first excavated in 1891 by Naville and D’Hulst, who found only Ramesside remains and afterwards re-dug by Petrie in 1904, who found a superb gold statue of Herishef. On the base of the statue the hieroglyphic inscription names the Dynasty XXIII King Neferkare Peftjauaybast, who is mentioned on the victory stela of the Nubian king, Piye.
The Temple of Herishef consisted of a forecourt with side-chambers depicting colossal statues of Rameses II in front of columns – the lower part of one of these statues has been recently uncovered.
Beyond the forecourt was an entrance hall containing a double row of eight palm-columns, possibly dating back to the Old or Middle Kingdom. Behind this, a hall with six pillars led to the inner chambers of the temple.
The temple continued to be used during the Third Intermediate Period and into the Late Period. Rising groundwater and blown sand now obscure much of the plan of the Temple of Herishef, but there are many column bases and fine Ramesside reliefs on the remaining scattered blocks.
The temple complex once contained a small sacred lake. To the south-east of the Herishef temple at Kom el-‘Aqarib a second smaller temple was constructed during the reign of Rameses II.
Excavations of the site of Ehnasya el-Medina were conducted during the 1960s and 1970s by the Archaeological Spanish Mission in Egypt and since 1984 have been under the direction of Maria del Carmen Perez Die of the Archaeological National Museum of Madrid.
The recent work has been concentrated on the necropolis areas, bringing a great deal of insight into the occupation periods of the First and Third Intermediate Periods.
The First Intermediate Period cemetery is of great importance since the townsite of this era has not been uncovered.The necropolis, located in 1968, is situated close to the southern wall of the city, near the modern village.
Here a series of tombs were uncovered which revealed on one wall, an example of one of the earliest versions of the ‘Coffin Texts’, incorporating revised extracts from the earlier ‘Pyramid Texts’.
The tombs, lined up in ‘streets’, were constructed from stone and mudbrick and were very jumbled when found, but some still contained fallen false-door Stella and offering tables as well as many artefacts and wall reliefs. Inscriptions on the stelae gave important information about the tomb-owners and subsequent epigraphic studies have allowed the Spanish team to give names and titles to prominent figures of the period, linking them to the royal Herakleopolitan court.
In the excavation season of the year 2000, the tomb of a high official named as Wadjit-htep was found to contain painted scenes of the funerary feast.
Although the existence of a First Intermediate Period cemetery was established here, it is likely that this was re-used during the Middle Kingdom, with the earlier tombs being mostly destroyed. Current stratigraphic evidence based on parallel ceramics and similar finds seem to indicate the Middle Kingdom as a more likely date for the cemetery, but the exact chronology of this area has still not been firmly established.
A little to the north of the First Intermediate Period necropolis, also within the city walls, another area of excavations revealed burials from Dynasties XXI to XXVI.
Once more these tombs, constructed from stone and mudbrick, were found to have been re-used for successive burials. In some cases, there were corridors linking tomb-chambers together and new floors and roofing slabs put into place according to the needs of the new owners.
Examples of this practice are shown in a lintel of a tomb belonging to a Libyan ‘Chief of the Meshwesh’ which was found to have been re-used in another tomb.
Third Intermediate Period names abound in this cemetery and important finds include tombs whose owners are named as Tanetamon, son of Smendes (in which much of the inscribed burial equipment was found), Osorkon, ‘Chief of the Army and Priest of Herishef’ and Techret, son of Nimlot.
Many of the Libyan names found on artefacts in the dismantled tombs, including a royal seal of Osorkon, confirm the presence of important figures from this little known period of history and are beginning to reveal information about the political, religious and military links between Ehnasya and Tanis – two power centres in northern Egypt during the early Third Intermediate Period.
Also of great importance, the cemetery has allowed the verification of Phoenician trade links with the area during this period. Excavation of the cemetery has now been completed and is currently undergoing restoration by the Spanish team as well as the study of ceramics found at the site.
The existence of a town at Ehnasya el-Medina continued into the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic Periods. Part of this area of large mounds was excavated by Petrie in the early 1900s when he uncovered and published a few of the houses.
Here he found coins which allowed him to roughly date the structures – the latest belonging to the time of Heraclius of the 7th century AD. A number of Roman lamps were also found and published by Petrie.
Around the same time, Petrie investigated a necropolis about 7km to the south-east of Ehnasya, at Sedment el-Gebel which incorporates a cemetery of the First Intermediate Period and rock-cut tombs of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods and which probably served as the town’s main burial ground.