Edfu is most often associated with the Temple of Horus built there during the Ptolemaic Period, but the Tell Edfu Project, directed by the Oriental Institute’s Dr. Nadine Moeller, is literally uncovering a much older story. Ancient Edfu was a persistent city that took a two-fisted approach to adversity and not only survived the first two Intermediate Periods, but flourished.
In Edfu Part One: Ancient Djeba we will look at the history of this ancient mid-sized town that shattered the myth of Egypt being a “civilization without cities.”
Edfu is the modern name of the ancient capital of the Nome of Horus in Upper Egypt, and it has long been sacred to that deity, particularly in his role as Horus of Behdet. For those familiar with Egypt, the name Edfu usually conjures up an image of the majestic pylons fronting the Great Temple of Horus that was constructed there during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. But the town itself has a much older history.
The Tell Edfu Project, headed up by Dr. Nadine Moeller of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, has shown that a thriving town once existed on the site, with roots going at least as far back as the Old Kingdom.
Long before the Ptolemies built their grand temple, Edfu served as an important political, religious, and economic center throughout much of ancient Egypt’s history. In a future article we will look at the Great Temple of Horus in detail and explore what we know of the beautiful and complex rites performed there in honor of Horus, Hathor, and Harsomtus. But in this article will be focusing on the ancient town, particularly as it has been revealed by the Tell Edfu Project.
In ancient times this capital city was known as Djeba, which means “place of retribution,” a reference to the justice meted out to the enemies of Horus, who fought his mythical battle with the god Set at this location. By the time of the Copts the name was pronounced as Atbo, which has been handed down to us as Edfu. The sacred name of the city was Wetjeset-Hor, which means “the place where Horus is exalted.”
Tell Edfu—Layers of Egyptian History
The archaeological site, known as Tell Edfu, lies just to the west of the Great Temple of Horus. In archaeological terms, the word “tell” comes from the Hebrew tel or the Arabic tall, and refers to a mound that forms over time as a result of the by-products of human habitation. In the case of Tell Edfu, much of the mound is a result of mudbrick structures being built, eroding, and replaced with more mudbrick. Of course, that is an oversimplification—there is also a thick layer of ash resulting from early industry and a variety of other detritus. But the layers of the mound at Edfu conceal evidence of occupation from the Byzantine Period all the way back to the Old Kingdom, possibly earlier.
Located at the crossroads between the prosperous mines in the Eastern Desert, Nubia in the south, and the great Oasis of Kharga in the west, Edfu was as much a center of commerce as it was a religious center. The work of Dr. Moeller, as well as those who preceded her, shows an ancient urban center where foreign and domestic trade was conducted, taxes were paid, and social services were rendered.
The Tell Edfu Project is engaged in what is called “settlement archaeology” which shows more of an everyday view of ancient urban life as opposed to the lifestyles of the rich and famous we normally get from tomb and temple archaeology. For many years Egyptologists tended to think of Egypt as a “civilization without cities.” Of course, we knew of Thebes and Memphis, but outside of the major population centers Egypt was thought of as either farmland or desert, with no medium-sized cities to speak of. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The earliest part of the tell excavated thus far is the Old Kingdom enclosure, which extends from the western walls of the Great Temple into the lower part of what is called the North Quarry. The North and South Quarries are sections of the Tell that were stripped down to the natural bedrock in the last century by local farmers who used the soil and mudbrick remains to bolster their fields. Fortunately much of the Old Kingdom part of town was left intact, including remains of the old city walls that run along the west side of the Old Kingdom section and then angle east in the direction of the Mammasi (a much later addition associated with the Great Temple).
In the northern part of the Old Kingdom enclosure five walls were exposed and left in place by the farmers who quarried the area in modern times. Ceramic artifacts found in the vicinity allow these walls to be dated to the time of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. Additional pottery fragments found in a nearby structure show that administrative functions were carried out from the Old Kingdom Period through the Middle Kingdom Period without interruption. In fact, seal impressions recovered from this area indicate that this part of Tell Edfu served as an administrative center well into the Second Intermediate Period.
Great Chief Isi: From Excellent Leaders Come Happy Citizens
One of the beloved city patriarchs of the Old Kingdom Period was Isi, the “Great Chief of the Nome of Edfu,” whose career spanned the rules of Pharaohs Djedkare and Unas of the Fifth Dynasty and Teti of the Sixth. His long rule was apparently happy times for the people of Edfu, which was not the case elsewhere in the country. Isi’s legacy was a city prepared for rough times, which earned him the adoration of his people for centuries to come.
Isi constructed a large mastaba for himself in the Old Kingdom Cemetery that lies in the southwestern section of Tell Edfu, just beyond the Middle Kingdom enclosure walls. By incorporating elements of already-existing mastabas into his own, Isi created for himself a nice little complex complete with a courtyard and a corridor that led to a cult chapel where he would be worshipped as a god much later.
Isi’s tomb seems to have been repaired and possibly renovated during the Seventeenth Dynasty, when his mastaba became the center of a local cult devoted to him. The presence of devotional stelae in the corridor and courtyard show that his cult thrived until well into the Middle Kingdom Period. There is also a Middle Kingdom addition to the Old Kingdom Cemetery, possibly added so his faithful could be near him in the afterlife.
One may infer that some of Isi’s popularity may be a result of his policies. When the prosperity Isi’s constituents enjoyed is compared to the national situation, it is clear he was a highly effective administrator. Edfu was a robust little city at a time when much of the rest of Egypt was in serious decline.
The late Fifth and Early Sixth Dynasties were a time when Egypt was hurtling toward the First Intermediate Period. But even as famine and warfare were destabilizing most of the country, Edfu was entering a boom period. Provincial leaders throughout Egypt were enjoying increased power and independence at the expense of the pharaohs, but the decentralization of pharaonic power alone cannot account for Edfu’s growth and stability. Chief Isi clearly exemplifies a line of local rulers who knew how to wield their new powers.
As the bottom was falling out everywhere else, Edfu was expanding. City enclosure walls built during the First Intermediate Period stretch from the northwestern corner of the tell all the way to the southwestern corner, in the vicinity of the Old Kingdom Cemetery. Although most of the architecture from this period was destroyed by the quarrying of the last century, the enclosure walls alone show that Edfu nearly doubled in size during First Intermediate Period.
In addition to the enclosure walls, Dr. Moeller’s team discovered pottery shards, fragments of administrative seals, and jar stoppers in the Old Kingdom section of Edfu showing that commerce and government continued unabated through the First Intermediate Period. Judging from the abundance of ostraca related to accounting alone, in Edfu it was always business as usual.
The Administrative Center
The Tell Edfu Project has spent a great deal of effort carefully excavating the area within the Old Kingdom enclosure walls because that was the least disturbed section. As fortune would have it, this area seems to have been the administrative center of town, and remained such even after the expansion of the Second Intermediate Period. One of the most dramatic finds was a great columned hall dating from the late Middle Kingdom Period, another monument to Edfu’s confidence when facing an approaching storm.
The hall appears to date from the Twelfth Dynasty at end of the Middle Kingdom and the Thirteenth Dynasty at the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. Showing again Edfu’s propensity for stability during times of trouble, the Tell Edfu Project found discarded scarab seal impressions, evidence of sealed papyri, and ceramic jars and stoppers and boxes from this time. The court of Edfu remained a hive of civil and economic activity from the Middle Kingdom straight through the Second Intermediate Period.
The columned room measured at least 30 by 40 feet and contained sixteen large wooden columns mounted on sandstone bases, five of which have been located in place (the bases, not the columns). The hall was probably a part of the governor’s palace, and Dr. Moeller thinks it was probably in use for a considerable period of time. Even after the administrative center was moved elsewhere, the courtyard was converted into a granary that shows continued prosperity.
Built in the area once occupied by the columned hall, the Tell Edfu Project discovered the remains of eight very large silos, the largest discovered in any Egyptian urban center to date. Built of mudbrick and sunk slightly lower than the floor of the courtyard, the silos were between 18 to 22 feet in diameter and probably stood over 25 feet tall. Despite the thinness of their walls, which were only one to two bricks thick, there is no evidence of any of the silos having collapsed while in use. The silos date from the Seventeenth Dynasty, toward the end of the Second Intermediate Period.
It is thought that the silos would have stored barley and wheat, which would have been collected as taxes and used in trade to support the local economy. However, it seems that there may have been more going on at Edfu’s granary than storage of local stock. Granaries were common in Egyptian cities, but the size and number of silos at Edfu are out of proportion for the town’s size.
Dr. Moeller’s team speculates that part of the Theban royal family of the Seventeenth Dynasty may have had its roots in Edfu and that locals may have used this clout to expand their operations during this time. The Edfu granary may have served as a depot, being in a strategic location for Thebes during this tumultuous time.
When the granary was scaled back, some of the silos were used for collecting rubbish—always a treasure trove for archaeologists. In one of the abandoned silos, the Tell Edfu Project discovered thirty ostraca which included ration lists and the names and titles of various Edfu officials and administrators of the Second Intermediate Period.
Changing Times, Changing Neighborhoods
The New Kingdom Period marked a time of transition for Edfu, and it appears that during this period the granary in the Old Kingdom enclosure was decommissioned and administrative functions were moved elsewhere. The New Kingdom town center has not been identified yet, and we can only hope it did not lie in either of the areas quarried for their soil and minerals.
What is clear is that no new construction took place in the Old Kingdom neighborhood, which appears to have served as a dump. There is also a heavy layer of ash, in some parts of the courtyard as much as 8.5 feet thick. The quantity of ash does not seem to be indicative of a catastrophic fire, but rather as the result of industrial functions, such as ash from the ovens of bakeries.
There is evidence that Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III may have done some building in and around Edfu during this time, and shards of imported Mycenaean pottery indicate that trade continued during the New Kingdom Period. For the most part, however, the archaeological record for this period is either still awaiting discovery or has been destroyed.
Pharaohs Shabaka and Nectanebo II commissioned some work in the Edfu area during the Late Kingdom Period, but the most interesting discovery from this time is what could very well be the ruins of an Osiris chapel build by Psamtik I. In the 1921-22 digging season, Henri Henne of the Institute for Egyptology in Lille excavated what appeared to be a small chapel which he dated to the Late Kingdom or Ptolemaic Period. Dr. Moeller believes that the remains may be those of the Osiris Chapel.
The site Henne excavated contained two large stone door jambs, two sandstone baboons, a uraeus frieze and other decorative stone architectural elements. A large number of Osiris bronzes were discovered in the area, which together with the baboons, seem to indicate an Osirian motif for the chapel.
Unfortunately, Henne did not leave good records of his work in the chapel area, making it difficult for the Tell Edfu Project to resume where he left off. Making matters worse, there are no foundations or walls remaining to demark the chapel proper, so an accurate reconstruction will require more excavation, if it is possible at all.
The Tell Edfu Project has not only revealed much about the history of Edfu, but has forced a re-evaluation of the nature of ancient Egyptian urban centers. Far from being a civilization without cities, ancient Egypt had mid-sized towns that served much as modern mid-sized cities do today. As a crossroads for ancient interstates, a junction for domestic and foreign trade, and a depot for larger cities, Edfu was a vital element of the Theban economy, an important trading partner with Nubia, and a cultural center for Upper Egypt.
In Edfu Part Two we will pick up with the Ptolemaic Period and the wonderful temple built during that time.
Additional Online Resources
The Tell Edfu Project
The official website of the Tell Edfu Project has all the Annual Reports in pdf format, along with 360-degree panoramic displays using Microsoft’s Photosynth.
Administration Building & Silos found at Edfu, Vincent Brown’s coverage of the Tell Edfu Project. Vincent also has some wonderful photography related to the Ptolemaic Temple, but that is more relevant to Edfu Part Two, now in the works.
Edfu, by Marie Parsons.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.
The photos “080701 TellEdfu-print,” “080701 silos-print,” “080701 excavationarea,” “080701 columnedhall-print,” “080701 moeller1_print,” and “080701 moeller2_print” by G. Marouard are available in larger and higher resolution format as downloads from The University of Chicago. Photos “Temple of Edfu” by Girolame, “IMG_1136” by Gloria Euyoque, and “2009-09-22 at 17-52-46,” by Rick Manwaring are all used in accordance with this CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo “EdfuHorusTempleEgypt LeftSide 2007feb7-84 byDanielCsorfoly” by Daniel Csörföly is public domain. Satellite image of Tell Edfu is courtesy of Google Maps.
Tags: Djeba, Djedkare, Edfu, Fifth Dynasty, First Intermediate Period, Harsomtus, Hathor, Henri Henne, Horus, Isi of Edfu, Middle Kingdom, Nadine Moeller, Old Kingdom, Oriental Institute, Osiris Chapel at Edfu, Psamtik I, Ptolemaic Dynasty, Second Intermediate Period, Seventeenth Dynasty, Sixth Dynasty, Tell Edfu, Tell Edfu Project, Temple of Horus at Edfu, Teti, Thebes, Thirteenth Dynasty, Twelfth Dynasty, Unas, Wetjeset-Hor