A little gem at the edge of the desert within easy reach of Luxor –
a mini version of the precinct of Isis at Philae.
The road to this temple goes south from the Memnon ticket office, passing the front of the temple of Medinet Habu and through the modern village of Habu. (The attraction is so new they don’t have printed tickets and reuse those for Howard Carter’s House with deir el shelwit, scribbled over it in Arabic). One winds one’s way through the village and is soon in the desert. For several miles the dirt track passes many tantalizing mounds and bumps in the desert. This is the lost city and royal colony of Malqata at the edge of the cultivation. The long ridge east of the track was called the hippodrome but is in fact the remains of a long dike that in ancient times held a vast artificial lake.
Deir el Shelwit was built when Egypt was ruled by the Romans and is thus one of the last temples of the Egyptian religion. It was discovered in the 19th century but has only recently been fully renovated and opened to the public. It is in a remote region just south of Luxor. Luxor itself is such a treasure house of high Egyptian culture it is easy to ignore these later monuments, but they are well worth adding to your itinerary. It is similar to several local related temples such as that of Hathor at Deir el Medina . Deir el Shelwit is dedicated to the goddess Isis, and is thus a very rare exception in this region where the god Amun is king.
Most published sources are difficult to obtain and only available in French or Japanese! Check Wikipedia as well as what’s here on mandoxegypt.
Theban temples from this period each share something special. These days they often bear the modern prefix “Deir” meaning monastery, a consequence of their final use by Egyptian Coptic Christians. Hence Deir el Medina – the home of the famous village of pharaonic craftsmen, is dedicated to Hathor. Deir el Roumi in valley of Queen, dedication unknown, Kasr el Aguum “Castle of Old Woman” is dedicated to Thoth and Deir El Shelwit for Isis. We could also include the extension to the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak known as the Opet – although this is not currently open to the public.
Because this basically is one holy of holies and the imagery is obscure you may have a quick look then think you’ve seen it. Deir el Shelwit gets very few visitors – if you ask the guard he will leave you for some quiet meditation. Explore the pro-pylon and sacred lake, wander around and see the desert setting and mud brick temenos, see how these bricks looked when newly laid. To get a sense of the shrine start with the western wall which has four main scenes, sandwiched between a strip of hieroglyphs showing the dedication and a bottom scene of nile gods bringing their riches.
The temple of Deir el Shelwit is well preserved, especially the images of the interior of the Naos. the layout also gives some clue as to the mechanics of cult worship at the shrine including the presence of a well preserved “corridor of the mysteries”, which surrounds the naos and by which visitors circumambulated the shrine before making offerings at the entrance to the holy of holies. There is also a place of purification (webit) with a discrete crypt, whose function is unknown. Perhaps it was used for storage or there again for some initiatory function in the cult. All of these late temples show evidence of the evolution of Egyptian religion into the syncretic, mystery cults that proliferate at the beginning of the new age. The cult of Isis is a prime example of this new cult that assimulated older elements and added some new religious activity. Christianity grew from this same milieu.
From the east door of the Naos one’s gaze falls upon the west wall, pride of place is given to Isis and the other deities to whom the shrine is dedicated and to whom one presumes she has an ancient connection. Although the hieroglyphic inscription only mentions the dedication to Isis, the four main images tell a different story. Isis shares the temple with Monthu – an ancient warrior god. This may prove significant when we follow in the footsteps of the goddess to India where Isis is paired with a south Indian god called Murugan – the spear bearer! (see Isis in India)
Concentrating on the west wall of the noas, the lowest register shows multiple images of the Nile god Hapi, representing the devotions from stations along the Nile at each settlement or nome.
[picture of hapi]
Above this are the four most important scenes, perhaps of the whole monument. Conventionally these are numbered from bottom left as 152, bottom right 153, top left 154 and top right 155. There are two horizontal strips of hieroglyphic text that record additional information about the contents of each scene, its dedication to Isis.
In scene 154 at top left of the wall, the emperor Hadrian is shown in adoration before the goddess Isis. To the modern eye the image is rather obscured by blocks of text. These are exactly like the speech bubbles one finds on graphic novels and record the words, in this case hymns to Isis. The strip of hieroglyphs above the scene records additional information about the text – and reads:
“(This is) ISIS, the great, the mother of God, the eye of Ra, who resides in the mountains of the West, the great stellar womb that takes the “Sun God” and the stars from evening to the morning. Who makes a sarcophagus into which Ra descends along with his stars, so he can get to his place each day, after he has illuminated the underworld and traversed the Kingdom of the dead. Where those in the afterlife gave praise, when (his) rays merge with the body of Osiris (“the heart of mats”) and the disks are combined in one disc, and after its shinning appearance as a child in the morning, rests in the arms of the two claimants (ISIS and Nephthys), going into the horizon after its (heavenly) crossing in the night bark, enormous in its power, whose great name is Monthu of Hermonthis so that Apophis is felled by (his) fire.” (after D Kurth’s translation in “Einfuhrung im Ptolemaische… 2007 scene 157)
The great block of hieroglyphs, ten lines, in the centre of the picture is actually quite a pleasant hymn to the goddess. In it she takes on the attributes of several older, sky goddesses, principally Nuit. Apart from its beauty, this hymn also captures precisely the way Isis assimilated the mythology of other goddesses. Thus the preponderance of astronomical imagery is actually more appropriate to the ancient sky goddess Nuit. The reference to her eating her own piglets, is taken directly from the Dramatic text of Nuit. The Hymn reads something like:
“Praise you ISIS! Hail you, you magic oak, mistress of the two lands, rejoice!
Hail to your Ka, hail your Majesty, great ISIS, mother of the gods
The disk it hymns you, it sings to you (“in your womb”);
Atum praises you “in your body” at night.
Because you are the sky, inside which the Sun travels, in whose region find the shining moon and the star in the sky!
The mouths of the horizon pay homage to you, because you are the mother sow who eats her piglets and gives birth to them everyday.
In the sektet boat rising, allowing the affairs of the two truths to reside in the mandjet boat
Ra rises Because of you in the early morning and Atum sets in the night
The immortal Star: who offered the Southern sky it praises you
Because you’re the Lady of new year Satis (sothis). Mistress whose light is at the side of the Orion
The imperishable Star Gods of the northern sky, elevate you
The circle of the gods resting in the necropolis, are satisfied, because you are the great IPET, the guard of the Big Dipper (Seth)
The cave dwellers in their lairs rejoice for you, because you’re hathor, the Princess of the westerners
These which are sleeping on their bellies choose you, (for) the images on their standards
The two truths in the Hall of two truths, because you the truth about the two truths are
By your saying what is what in duat, you live! (after A von Lieven (2006) “Der Isishymnus Deir Chelouit”
Ayman el Tayb’s picture of the west wall, the guard very kindly provided a seat so I could meditate. I got the message that the goddess was happy for me to write a chapter of her story. And that would be the Isis in India book (forthcoming from mandrake).
(to be continued …)
Also in De Cybèle àIsis ed by Jean Piere Montessino
Marie-Eve Colin “Naos of Deir Cheluite for tenth International Congress of Egyptologists Forthcoming .)