Qasr El-Ghueita

Qasr El-Ghueita

Qasr El-Ghueita, situated a short distance north of Qasr El-Zayyan, is a remarkable hilltop fortress in Kharga Oasis, Egypt. Like many other fortress sites in the region, it also incorporates a temple. The Arabic name “Qasr el-Ghueita” translates to ‘fortress of the small garden,’ providing evidence that it was once a part of a thriving agricultural community.

Long before the Romans arrived in Egypt, this settlement was known as Per-Ousekh and is believed to have existed as early as the Middle Kingdom period. During this time, it was renowned for its vineyards and the production of wine. Texts found in the tombs of nobles in Thebes during the New Kingdom describe the excellent quality of grapes from the vineyards of Per-Ousekh. Grape-harvest scenes were frequently depicted alongside desert hunt scenes, suggesting that grapes were primarily cultivated for winemaking in the desert oases rather than the Nile Valley. Wine from the oases was highly esteemed and favored by royal courts.

The fortress at Qasr el-Ghueita, perched atop a hill, likely served as a headquarters for Roman troops guarding the desert trade routes. Although numerous mudbrick buildings are contained within its high fortified walls, little is currently known about the Roman occupation of this site.

The village that once thrived on the slopes below the fortress is evident in the scattered remains of ruined houses. There is even evidence of human habitation in the area dating back to prehistoric times.

Within the Roman walls of Qasr el-Ghueita stands a sandstone temple measuring 10.5 meters by 23.5 meters, occupying roughly one-fifth of the fortress’s space. Its earliest surviving portion, consisting of three rear chambers, dates back to the reign of Darius I of Persian Dynasty XXVIII. However, it’s possible that it was constructed on the site of an earlier sacred structure.

The plastered and painted decoration inside the central sanctuary, though damaged, still bears the cartouche and titles of Darius I, including “Son of Re, Lord of Appearances, the Great, Darius, given life.” Raised reliefs on the rear wall of the central sanctuary have also been attributed to Darius I. Research into the temple’s decoration and its surroundings is an ongoing project of the Theban Desert Road Survey by Yale University, known as the ‘Gebel Ghueita Project,’ which has made significant discoveries that have enhanced our understanding of the site.

While it has been suggested that Amasis II of Dynasty XXVII was responsible for constructing the four-columned hypostyle hall in front of the sanctuary, the Yale team has found no conclusive architectural or archaeological evidence to support this claim. Inscriptions on the door jambs of the sanctuary and forecourt attribute the construction of both the columned hall and the temple forecourt to Ptolemy III Euergetes I.

The temple at Qasr El-Ghueita is dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut, and Khons. Visitors enter through a sandstone gate on the southern side of the enclosure walls, leading to a courtyard fronting the temple. This courtyard features a pronaos with screen walls constructed by Ptolemy III. Beyond this area is a hypostyle hall decorated in Ptolemaic style with scenes of Nile gods holding nome symbols. The exquisite capitals atop three of the original four columns are noteworthy. The temple’s decoration includes the names of Ptolemy III (Euergetes I), Ptolemy IV (Philopator), Ptolemy IX (Soter II), and Ptolemy X (Alexander I).

An offering chamber with a staircase to the roof, offering a panoramic view of the fortress’s interior and the surrounding landscape, follows the hypostyle hall. Three parallel sanctuaries for the cult statues of the Theban triad, with the largest being the sanctuary of Amun, can be found to the rear of the offering room. While these walls bear decorations, they have darkened over time due to smoke and age.

Within the fortress’s enclosure, toward the southeast of the main temple building, stands the columned screen façade of another stone structure that may have served as a “Mamizi” or birth-house, although it remains unexcavated. In front of the gate, there is a processional platform.

Qasr El-Ghueita is surrounded by the remnants of many mudbrick buildings from the Roman town, which likely expanded during its use. The outer fortress walls still stand at approximately 10 meters in height, making it a commanding presence atop a circular volcanic hill. Remains of structures sprawl down the southern slopes of the hill toward the oasis floor below.

The temple has been visited by travelers since the 19th century and was excavated by Ahmed Fakhry in 1972. It has also undergone more recent excavations by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and Yale University, though the results of these excavations are yet to be published.

Ruins of mud brick walls and arches in a desert
The weathered beauty of a forgotten desert architecture
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