The temple of Hibis was once part of the ancient capital of Kharga Oasis, known as Hebet, meaning ‘the plough’, or Hibitonpolis (‘city of the plough’) to the Greeks. It is situated in a palm-grove where it dominates the desert road about 2km north of El-Kharga and is the largest and best-preserved temple of its period in the oasis.
Much of the ancient town, which covered about 1km square, now lies buried beneath the modern cultivation, but excavations in the early part of the 20th century led by Herbert Winlock of the Metropolitan Museum of Art uncovered a few mudbrick houses with vaulted ceilings and fresco paintings on the edges of the town.
It is not clear how long Hebet remained capital of the oasis. Recent exploration by the local Supreme Council of Antiquities (2002) has unearthed a cemetery at the site which is thought to date from the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom, while excavations in an area to the south of the temple have revealed that the Christian era buildings dating to around AD350 were destroyed by a great fire. This indicates a very long period of occupation.
The earliest extant parts of Hibis Temple date to the reign of the Persian ruler Darius I, although it was probably begun during the Dynasty XXVI reigns of Psamtek II, Apries and Amasis II, or built on the site of an even earlier structure for which foundations were found by Winlock.
The temple was constructed from local limestone blocks on the edge of a small sacred lake and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun-Re, Mut and Khons. It was decorated by Darius I, and possibly Darius II, with additions by Nectanebo II and the Ptolemies, and a Christian church was constructed on the northern side of the portico during the 4th century AD.
It was Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II who surrounded the temple with a stone enclosure wall so that it is now approached through a series of gateways leading to the inner parts. A sphinx-lined avenue led west from a quay on the edge of the lake along a paved processional waylaid by an official of the oasis named Hermeias during the 3rd century AD.
A massive sandstone gateway through an outer enclosure wall still stands almost 5m tall and was constructed during the Ptolemaic or Roman periods. Numerous inscriptions and decrees were written on the gateway – a kind of notice-board which has greatly contributed to our understanding of Roman rule in the oases. These include a variety of topics such as taxation, inheritance, the court system and rights of women, with the earliest dating to AD49. On the inside of the gateway are the bases of two obelisks or colossal statues.
The Dynasty XXX construction of the inner enclosure wall enclosed a monumental kiosk or colonnade with eight columns, which fronted the main part of the temple. Because of the wide span of the kiosk (7.4m), the roof was supported by wooden beams and the composite capitals on the columns are the earliest of this type known in Egypt. Although thought to be built by Nectanebo I only the cartouches of Nectanebo II remain on the decoration.
A larger hypostyle hall, rather than the traditional pillared court, was added to the original temple by Hakor (Achoris) of Dynasty XXIX and it was this king who probably strengthened the foundations and buttressed the west wall against collapse, which had begun in the original structure soon after it was built.
The hall contains 12 palm-columns of an early composite type and those at the front open on to a narrow courtyard. The inner parts of the temple, probably constructed over the foundations of a New Kingdom shrine of Amun, illustrate the transition between the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic architecture, showing that what we consider to be Ptolemaic inventions actually originated in the Saite or Late Period.
Behind the hypostyle hall of Hakor is an early form of pronaos with four smooth papyrus columns and screen walls, thought to be similar in style to the temple of Shoshenq I at el-Hiba. The earlier hypostyle hall lies beyond this, and contains four columns, with an offering chamber, sanctuary and chapel of the deified king at the rear. There are several side-chambers and stairs lead up to the roof which contained an extensive complex of cult chambers dedicated to Osiris.
Hibis is the finest example we have in Egypt of a Persian Period temple and its reliefs are very well-preserved owing to its burial in the sand for many centuries. The temple contains a rich religious iconography and a wealth of theological texts in a very unusual style, perhaps the influence of a local style of art which until recent years has barely been studied.
One large and unique wall-relief depicts a winged figure of Seth, god of the desert oases, with the head of a falcon. He is painted blue, a colour usually reserved for air deities and is fighting the serpent Apophis. Many deities are represented in the sanctuary and Min, another desert god, was also venerated here.
A complete wooden codex from Hibis was purchased on the antiquities market in Luxor in 1906. The codex, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, was written in Greek and contained two texts, the first a list of names and accounts and the second, dated circa 246-249AD, a report by a government official detailing a survey of water sources in the oasis.
Hibis Temple has undergone sporadic excavation and restorations throughout the 20th century. Efforts have been made to control the subterranean water, which has risen sharply as a result of irrigation projects in the surrounding area and has threatened the structure with total collapse.
This is not only a recent problem – the temple seems to have been originally constructed on unstable ground and attempts by Ahmed Fakhry in 1980 to protect the temple by building a cement ceiling resulted in putting more stress on the walls, accelerating the deterioration. The situation became such that, in 1989, the temple was declared off-limits to the public. It was left unattended, with its scaffolding still in place.
In 2000 the Egyptian Ministry of Culture gave the go-ahead for a huge salvage operation which had been planned for several decades, to resume. The plan was to dismantle the temple, consolidate the blocks from which it was built, and reconstruct it in a more suitable dry and rocky area some 400 metres north of its present location.
Unfortunately, when this long-envisioned and frequently- delayed project eventually began, it proved to be totally unsatisfactory. Far from salvaging the temple, the work appeared to be accelerating the decay. The project to dismantle and relocate it has been postponed indefinitely while restorations of the temple in its present position continue.
Meanwhile, scholars have been studying the temple’s texts. An epigraphic survey of the graffiti has been carried out by an American team led by Eugene Cruz-Uribe and currently, Harco Willems of Leuven University is conducting a four-year research project investigating the Theban theological creation texts.