In Egypt’s Aswan Governorate, 30 miles north of the eponymous city, stands one of the unique buildings of Ancient Egypt: the Temple of Kom Ombo.

Built on a rocky promontory at a bend in the Nile, the temple was dedicated to two gods, the crocodile deity Sobek and the falcon god Haroeris, better known as Horus.

Constructed during the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the temple still holds many secrets, which we will explore in this article. We embark on a tour of this great symbol of Ptolemaic architecture that will take us into the heart of Ancient Egypt.

Alexander the Great Lays the Foundation of a New Kingdom

The long history of Pharaonic Egypt was finally ended when the Persians under Artaxerxes III finally reconquered Egypt in 343 BCE, thus ending the last period of native rule in The Land of Pharaohs.

Persian rule over Egypt would remain uncontested until Alexander the Great, the King of Macedon, defeated the Persians in a series of battles that resulted in the overthrow of the Persian Empire, which was replaced by Alexander’s growing global empire.

The Greek Ruler Is Hailed as the Egyptian Pharaoh

Having defeated the Persian King Darius in the Levant, Alexander marched into Egypt unopposed in late 332 BCE, where he was greeted as a liberating hero. Egypt had been a mere satrapy of the Persian Empire for centuries, and its past glory was largely forgotten, except by the priests who preserved Egypt’s ancient traditions.

The great conqueror did not stay in Egypt for long: he departed in the following spring, but his brief stay changed the course of world history. His founding of Alexandria, a new city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea that would serve as the capital of Egypt until the Arab conquest, was of singular importance for the history of the classical world.

His next act was no less important, for he traversed the Libyan Desert to reach the Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis and was greeted as a Pharaoh by the priests of Amun. Moreover, the priests bestowed the lofty title of the son of Amun on the Greek general, which gave both him and his heir’s legitimacy to rule over Egypt.

Egypt Regains Its Old Splendour Under the Rule of Ptolemaic Dynasty

Alexander’s premature death in Babylon (323 BCE) threw his young empire into turmoil known as the Wars of the Diadochi. Alexander’s generals vied for power and soon carved up his conquests.

Ptolemy, one of the prominent generals in Alexander’s army, was appointed as the satrap of Egypt and quickly moved to take possession of his satrapy. As a consequence of Alexander’s Empire descending into chaos, Ptolemy established himself as the independent ruler of Egypt.

Ptolemy captured Alexander’s body and brought it to Egypt, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria, where it was laid to rest in a magnificent tomb. Ptolemy reigned as the first ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and ushered in a new era of Egypt’s history.

Ptolemy’s Uses Religion as a Tool to Solidify His Control of Egypt

Ptolemy I Soter ruled Egypt both as Pharaoh and King. Both he and his heirs had to rely on the small Macedonian elite in ruling Egypt. The Macedonians stood at the top of the hierarchy, above other Greeks colonists, with the native Egyptians at the bottom.

Ptolemaic Egypt remained a highly stratified society during the three centuries of its existence as an independent polity. Ptolemy knew he needed to secure his rule in Egypt against both internal and external threats. To achieve that, he used religion to win over the hearts and minds of both his own Macedonians and the native Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian Gods Meet Their Greek Counterparts to Form a New Syncretic Religion

Greek cities had come in contact with Pharaonic Egypt long before Alexander’s conquests, and Greek mercenaries fought in the pharaoh’s armies against the Persians. Nevertheless, the establishment of Greco-Macedonian rule in Egypt meant the two different cultures were forced to coexist.

Early on, Ptolemy realized the key to legitimize his rule was to establish a direct link with Egypt’s pharaonic past and the ancient deities as the source of the pharaoh’s earthly power and authority.

At the same time, Ptolemy was well aware that his position as a basileus – a Greek term to denote a monarchical ruler – and the heir of Alexander was of paramount importance. Therefore, Ptolemy used religious cults to bridge the gap between the Greco-Macedonian elite and the native Egyptian population and unite them politically.

To this aim, Ptolemy promoted the new cult of Serapis, a syncretic deity based on the worship of the god Osiris and the sacred bull Apis and was later linked with Greek gods Hades and Demeter.

The Ptolemies as the Guardians of Egyptian Religion

Ptolemy’s heir continued with his religious policy. Subsequent rulers took great care to restore the ancient temples, many of which had fallen into ruin during the years of Persian rule. Under the Ptolemies, the powerful priests of Memphis significantly increased their influence.

New temples were built throughout Egypt and dedicated to Egyptian as well as Greek deities. Most notably, the Ptolemies built the temples at Edfu, the Serapeum of Alexandria. A century after the death of Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemy VI Philometor (180 – 164, 163 – 145 BCE) began the construction of a new temple at Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt.

Kom Ombo Temple: A Jewel on the Nile

An older temple dating back to the New Kingdom era existed on the site but is now mostly reduced to ruins. In the temple’s layout, we detect the builders’ intention to achieve perfect symmetry between the different deities the temple was dedicated to.

The eastern side of the temple was dedicated to the crocodile God Sobek, the god of fertility and creation, whereas the western side was dedicated to Horus and Hathor. The temple has twin entrances, two linked hypostyle halls, and twin sanctuaries. Egyptologists assume that there were also two priesthoods.

Inside the hypostyle hall (an interior space with columns), we can observe another curiosity: carvings of the two sets of gods on either side. Successive Ptolemaic rulers continued enlarging the temple complex in the next hundred years. Ptolemy XIII Neos Philopator added the inner and outer hypostyles. Cleopatra VII’s father, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, completed the decoration.

Ptolemy VI: A Pharaoh in a Garb of a Greek King

Much like his predecessors, Ptolemy VI placed great importance on his role as pharaoh and the representative of Egyptian deities. He sponsored the priests of Ptah and Apis in Memphis and was said to have personally made offerings to the gods during his frequent visits to the city. Ptolemy granted tax reliefs to priests in exchange for their political support.

Crocodile Worship in Ancient Egypt

The Kom Ombo temple was one of the cult centers of Ancient Egyptian crocodile worship. As we have already noted, the Ptolemies were determined to preserve the ancient Egyptian religion, which meant that the most prominent Egyptian deities continued to be worshiped in temples across Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic period. Crocodile worship had played an important role in Ancient Egyptian religion.

Sobek: The Crocodile God of Fertility and Crops

Sobek was one of the oldest Egyptian deities. The deity is first named in the pyramid texts that appeared in wall inscriptions inside the royal burial chambers. In one of these texts, the pharaoh himself is represented as the ‘living incarnation’ of the Crocodile God.

A fertility god, Sobek is also one of the three deities the Egyptians commonly linked to the creation of the universe, with Hator and Khonsu. Some sects believed that Sobek was the creator of the Nile.

The worship of Sobek extended to all crocodiles; these sacred animals could not be harmed, and they were frequently mummified and placed in tombs. Archeologists have discovered a significant number of mummified crocodile remains of all ages and sizes.

The early cult of Sobek was centered on the Faiyum region and the city of Shedet, commonly known as Crocodilopolis, where the Temple of Sobek was located. During the Greco-Roman era, Kom Ombo developed into the biggest cult center of Sobek.

Kom Ombo Temple During the Roman Era

The Temple of Kom Ombo remained in use even after the end of Ptolemaic Egypt following the defeat of Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony by Octavian in the Battle of Actium and their subsequent suicides.

Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire as the personal property of Emperor Augustus and was governed by a prefect, an official of equestrian rank. Unfortunately, the temple had fallen into ruin sometime during Late Antiquity and was inundated by the Nile.

In the late 19th century, the site where the temple was built was cleared of debris and restored, thanks to the efforts of the French geologist and archeologist Jacques de Morgan.

The Egyptian government has initiated a conservation effort to protect the temple from groundwater. In 2018, archeologists unearthed an ancient shrine and the head of a bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Inside the Ancient Temple: The Art of Ptolemaic Egypt

As we step inside the temple’s forecourt, we immediately notice the double altar in the center dedicated to the two sets of gods. Further on are the shared inner and outer hypostyle halls. There are ten columns in each hall.

In the outer hall, we find a relief that depicts Ptolemy XII, the father of Queen Cleopatra, who completed most of the temple’s artwork in mid 1st century BCE. Ptolemy is shown in the company of Isis, Horus (Haroeris), the solar goddess Raet-Tawy, and Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom.

On another wall, we see Ptolemy XII receiving the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, a symbol of pharaonic authority over Egypt. In the inner hypostyle, another Ptolemaic ruler is depicted on a wall relief.

– Surgical Instruments or Objects Used in Religious Rituals?

Visitors who take time to visit the outer passage which follows the temple walls can spot a rather puzzling scene on the inner face of the rear wall, which seems to show a collection of surgical instruments.

According to another theory, the objects do not represent surgical instruments but the equipment used in the rituals performed at the temple. It is also possible that they were indeed surgical instruments.

In Ancient Egypt, it was a common practice to perform surgeries at temples that functioned as hospitals where the ill sought help from the priests.

– Crocodile Museum at Kom Ombo

A new Crocodile Museum was built near the ancient temple to house the remains of crocodile mummies discovered near the site. They found as many as 300 mummified crocodiles in the temple’s vicinity, but only a few mummies were preserved.

Conclusion

The Temple of Kom Ombo stands as a witness to the ingenuity of Ptolemaic architects and artists who kept the ancient traditions alive centuries after the demise of the last native Egyptian pharaoh.

Even though the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt were of Greco-Macedonian origin, they regarded themselves as direct successors of the old pharaohs. They also made every effort to preserve Egypt’s rich cultural and artistic legacy. At Kom Ombo, we discovered the following secrets:

  • Ptolemy VI built the temple to emphasize his role as pharaoh and gods’ earthly representative.
  • Kom Ombo was the main cult center dedicated to the worship of the crocodile god Sobek.
  • Crocodiles in Ancient Egypt were considered sacred, and their remains were often mummified and placed in tombs.
  • As was the case with many other Egyptian temples, Kom Ombo had continued to function as a place of worship until the decline of polytheism in the Roman Empire.

The Temple of Kom Ombo is a unique example of Ptolemaic architecture famous for its double structure and mummified remains of crocodiles.

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