Deir El-Hagar




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Deir El-Hagar Temple

Introduction 

Translated as ‘The Monastery of Stone’, Deir el-Hagar is a temple built out of sandstone located on the western end of the Dakhla Oasis at a distance of about 10,000m from Al-Qasr. In the distant past, Deir el-Hagar used to be called ‘Set-whe’ which basically means ‘The Place of Coming Home’. Archaeological expeditions discovered the city after years of being tucked away under sand and rubble. Reconstruction work was carried out on the monastery to restore it to a similitude of its initial appearance. It is now accessible to tourists and the general public thanks to the efforts of the Supreme council of Antiquities and the Dakhla Oasis Project which commenced work on it in the 1990s. Deir El-Hagar which means in Arabic {The Monastery of Stone} is among the most intact monuments in the Dakhla Oasis to have survived from the period of Roman occupation. According to Olaf Kaper who is with the Dakhla Oasis project, the temple was more for festivities rather than being dedicated to a cult which was more rampant at the time.

During The Roman Era

It was during the rule of Nero (whose frame hangs in the Monastery), the Roman emperor between AD 54 and 68 that the construction of the temple was started. On completion, the temple was dedicated to Thoth and Theban Triad. The purpose of establishing the monastery alongside an irrigation system and Roman farmyards in that area was in order to encourage the influx of farmers.

The emperor who took over from Nero, Vespasian (AD 69-79) also accentuated the design of the sanctuary within the monastery. Also Emperor Titus who ruled between AD 79-81 included the porch while Domitian, the emperor between ad 81 and 96 was responsible for including decorations on some doorways and the monumental gateway. Other emperors chipped in their bits with the latest being in the 3rd century AD. With dimensions that measure 7.3m x 16.2m surrounded by a wall made of mudbrick. Some of this wall is still visible as well as its paintings and plaster.

The major entrance to the temple is located on the eastern wing, and a less popular one can be found in the south. The sanctuary’s temenos wall features a display of graffiti by travelers trying to leave their marks as well as some scrawling in the Greek language. The influx of sightseers and pilgrim makers responsible for the graffiti began in the 19th century, and the presence of the inscriptions is an indication of how high the sand filling was at the time.

Modern Excavation Projects

In January 1874, Gerhardt Rohlfs led an expedition that journeyed to the west of Dakhla towards the Great Sand Sea. However, their mistake was underestimating the size of the sand dunes which they found impossible to surmount and so they had to reroute, going through Siwa this time. The names of the member of the expedition can be found sketched on a column in the hall. In the same year, Remale cleared sand from within the Sanctuary. A detailed report which thoroughly described the temple was published by Winlock in 1908. An excavation of the Porch’s frontage was also carried out by Ahmed Fakhry in the 1960s.

The Interiors Of Deir El-Hagar

There are still columns made from mud-brick on the main path that links the gate to the entrance of the monastery. There were also a couple of miniature sphinxes which have since been moved to the Kharga Heritage Museum.

A screen wall marks the monastery’s entrance, flanked by two columns with a doorway that opens into a room supported by four columns. Following this path, there’s another hall, known as a hall of offerings, before which the central sanctuary will now be approached.

The sanctuary itself is bordered by two chambers, one of which contains a store, most likely for keeping religious items, while the other opens on to a flight of stairs that might have led up to the roof. It was during the reign of Hadrian between 117 and 138 AD that the sanctuary got its ceiling which was adorned with beautiful paintings of the goddess Nut and the god Geb.

That’s not all. Another god Osiris is represented using the Orion constellation as well as the god Tutu represented as a sphinx. It is worthy of note that Tutu’s temple was also excavated at Kellis. Although the zodiac ceiling was initially damaged, it has been reconstructed and displayed outside the building to reenact its initial appearance. This is not very common and it is one of the peculiarities of the Deir el-Hagar temple.

Amun-Re and Mut, the major gods to whom the temple was dedicated are prominently featured on the temple’s western wall. To the south, the wall has depictions of Amun-Re, Khons and Muth; the Theban Triad. There are also paintings of other gods like Seth, Nephthys, Re-Horakhty, Osiris and Isis, Min-Re.

To the North, the wall again shows representations of the Theban Triad, but this time the Helipolitan gods are featured and they are Nut, Geb, Shu, and Tefnut. Amun Nakht, the Dakhla god is also represented alongside a carving from a column in the sanctuary recording one of his earliest recorded visits to the oasis.

Thought to be a crossover between Amun-Re and Horus, the desert god is also represented in the depictions at the temple as well as Nehmetaway, his local associate. Going by their appearances in the temple, most of these deities most likely originated within the vicinity as their representations can also be seen in a shrine at Kellis and also the Ain Birbiya temple. There are still visible signs of the crumbled remains of buildings half-collapsed buildings all around the monastery.

The environment is also awash with signs of the Roman occupation as can be seen in the pigeon house and other agricultural symbols. There is also a cemetery dating back to the Roman occupation, located in a North West direction from the temple. Coffins made from terracotta with distorted human forms were found in the cemetery.

Updated on 29 May 2019