The 1714 visit of Paul Lucas to Antinoupolis

Another early visitor to the ruins of Antinoupolis in Egypt, made by order of Louis XIV, no less, was the French knight Paul Lucas (1664-1737). His rather derivative account appears in his Voyage Du Sieur Paul Lucas, Fait En M.DCCXIV, &c. Par Ordre De Louis XIV. Dans La Turquie, L’Asie, Sourie, Palestine, Haute Et Basse Egypte, &c Ou l’on trouvera des Remarques très-curieuses, comparées à ce qu’ont dit les Anciens dur le Labyrinthe d’Egypte, volume 2 (1720).  Large sections are copied or condensed from Sicard, which makes one wonder how much Lucas really saw.

I was able to locate copies of this volume online without difficulty.[1]  But as with the letter of Father Sicard, these copies, one and all, were scanned with the illustration folded over!  Fortunately I was able to find a copy of the illustration online here, which is as follows (click on the picture for full size):

The triumphal arch at Insine [Antinoupolis] / The gate of Iron.

On p.333, in the catalogue, we find this plate described as follows, however “The plan and elevation of the triumphal arch at Insine or Antinoupolis, with the design of two large pillars, of an unusual order of architecture, which are in the same town.”  This no doubt is the real caption of the plate.

The drawing of the pillars is very bad, as Sonnini de Manoncourt notes in his account (with better illustration) from 1778.

Lucas gives the following account of his visit, starting on p.59.  As before I have turned this into English with the aid of Google Translate.

    *    *    *    *

In the evening we reached the town of Insîné, which is 50 or 55 leagues from Cairo on the east bank of the Nile, where valuable remains of royal magnificence can still be seen today. This town is in fact the same as Antinopolis, which the Emperor Hadrian built in honor of the youth Antinous.  It is known that this emperor had a mad passion for this favorite, and that this led him, after he had lost him, into outrageous extravagances. The historians do not agree on the circumstances of his death.  Some say he died of illness; others that he immolated himself as a sacrifice, where impiety and magic were also employed, for the recovery of the health of the Emperor; still others, and this is the most general opinion received, say that he drowned in the Nile, on which he was sailing with his master.  This event happened in the year 132 of Jesus Christ. The grief that Hadrian had at the loss of this young man, whom some scholars believe to have been of noble birth, was extreme and went to unexampled excess.  He forgot nothing to make his memory immortal:  he built on the Nile a city, magnificent through the various ornaments with which he embellished it, and gave it the name of this favorite.  He dedicated Temples to him, and he instituted games in his honour; he then celebrated with lavish pomp, the ceremonies of his apotheosis; and so that nothing might be wanting to the glory of this new deity, he established in these temples an Oracle, whose answers he composed himself. These are the ruins of this city, now called Insiné, which I will describe.

This city was divided by two great streets, about 45 feet wide and 850 yards long, and they ended in four large gates.  From the two streets, which formed a kind of cross, several other transverse streets were drawn, which were less wide; but of an equal length, all perfectly straight; as may still be seen from some remains, along the whole length of these streets there were two galleries, five or six feet wide, which were supported on one side by houses and on the other on finely-worked stone columns, so that this city was a continuous peristyle, where people on foot were always covered from the heat of the sun and from other injuries of the air. Many of these columns can still be seen, overthrown, in all districts of the city, and also some remains of the arcades.  There is debris everywhere, so that one is obliged today to walk in the middle of the streets.  I noticed outside of the city a place now called the Meidan; it’s a place about eight hundred yards long, and only 70 wide.  It was probably the circus, where they celebrated the games established by the Emperor in honor of Antinous.  Its length and shape marked the course of the horses and chariots which were part of the celebration of these festivals.  This place is surrounded by very large stones, and I have seen up to eight rows of them on top of each other, which formed perhaps a kind of amphitheater where were the boxes for the spectators.  Now let’s go back to the city, where everything is now ruined, except for three or four buildings, and some pillars which are still standing; what is today called the Iron Gate, and of which the folding doors, covered with plates of that metal, were taken to Cairo to be used to close an arch which is near to the palace of the Grand Provost, where I saw them.  There is nothing complete except for two pillars with their capitals, such as may be seen in the illustration that I give here.  They are forty feet high, without counting the part which is buried in the earth, and eighteen feet wide.  They are square, and there is fifty feet distance from one to the other.  Two former palaces can still be seen, one of which was called Abu Elquerou, the “father of the horns”, because of its sharp edges, cornices & capitals; and the other Melab-Elbenat; that is to say, the pleasure house of the princesses.  I saw them examined them both.  I measured the columns of the Corinthian order, which are grooved from their base to the middle, and joined beyond that to the capital.  These columns are of a beautiful white stone that seems to have been drawn from the neighboring mountains, where we still find similar stone today; they are fourteen to fifteen feet in circumference, and about 40 feet high; the capitals are made of two parts, and are each seven feet and a half in diameter.

I cannot agree that these two buildings were the gates of the city; because what purpose would this many porphyry and granite columns have served, which are around the area, and of which there are still about twenty which are on their bases?  I believe, without hesitation, that they were magnificent palaces, of which today only the porticos, or main entrances, remain; the names that they are given today confirm this conjecture.

I discovered a third of them at some distance beyond, which I call the triumphal arch of Insiné, and of which I give here an illustration.  This is a large portico, where there are three arched openings, each of which has an upper window proportionate to its size, and there is a staircase to ascend within the wall.  There is in this portico four beautiful square columns, all the stones united with their capitals, and above the window which is over the middle door, there is a beautiful stone entablature which makes the top of the building a triangle.  The scale which I give for this purpose, shows all the dimensions exactly.  Leaving by the iron gate, I was led by an Arab to a tomb believed to be that of a companion of Mohammed named Abon, and which is under a very beautiful vault.  There are around twelve others, which the Arabs say are the twelve main friends of this false prophet, or rather his main advisers, as appears by the name of Sanbey which is given to them.

The town of Insiné is now only a wretched Village, whose houses, built mostly of earth and mud, are backed and supported by these beautiful columns of porphyry and granite, which I mentioned.  This hamlet can only be recommended today by a very attractive mosque, which I am assured was once a Christian Church; it is built of very large stones and decorated inside with several columns that were transported from the city, and which are placed in an extremely odd order.  It is the custom of the Turks throughout the Levant to take the most valuable pieces of antiquity for their mosques, which they employ without genius and without design, confusedly mixing different kinds of architecture, and large columns with small.  The chief of the mosque came to receive us with great politeness, and showed us the apartments that once apparently served to accommodate the monks, and which are used today by the Turkish pilgrims that devotion attracts to this place, which is of great veneration among them, because of a Sheik who is buried there, and whom they treat like a saint, without knowing, however, if he was of their religion.  I was assured that he had once been the Bishop of Insiné; his name was Ammona or Abona Abede: the word “Abona” means a monk: adding that he had shed his blood to uphold the faith of Jesus Christ; his tomb, which is in a chapel of the mosque, is shown.  This Sheikh gave his name to the village which is among the ruins of Insiné, and that is now named Sheikh Abade.

After visiting this mosque, I went to a place where several beautiful columns can be seen, of which there is one that is still standing with its capital, which is a beautiful white marble stone that once supported a statue; it was undoubtedly of Alexander Severus who is mentioned in the inscription. The pedestal of this column is of eight courses of stone, and about thirteen feet high; the column is four feet in diameter, and its foot is of five parts.  The first, which is the the nearest to the pedestal, is three and a half feet in height, and is surrounded by foliage that gives it much grace.  The other four parts were each seven feet tall.  On the pedestal was the inscription which will be found at the end of this book.  As it is much mutilated, I had great difficulty to copy it; the curious may compare it with that of Father Siccard, and I beg the reader to read the scholarly reflections that he has made on the subject.  Near this column of Alexander Severus may be seen three others which are overturned, and whose inscriptions are now so effaced that it is impossible to read them; one pedestal may still be seen which is not at all destroyed.

The place where these four columns were was a square, or rather a crossroads, where met the two large streets crossing the city from one end to the other, and which was large enough to receive the ornaments which I have just mentioned.  That is all that now remains of a city once so beautiful, that the Emperor Hadrian built it to perpetuate the memory of a mad passion, which will  forever tarnish his glory.  Having spent much of the day in this place, and suffered much from the excessive heat that day, I went up on to a little eminence, formed by a heap of ruins, from where all these ruins can be viewed, and it seemed to me that this city must indeed have been four or five miles round.  When I left Insiné, the Arabs who were with me, told me that it was Muhammad himself who had once made himself master of this city; but that it revolted as soon as he left, which angered the conquering legislator so much, that he sent his lieutenants, with orders to destroy it, and to put the inhabitants to the sword, and that since that time it has been deserted.  Because the few Arabs who live there at present count for nothing, who live under the obedience of Sheikh of the mosque, which is called Sheik Abade, and gives its name to the area, and which is exempt from paying any tribute to the Sultan; but all this is simply a fable which marks the profound ignorance in which the Arabs live; Muhammad never carried his arms into Egypt and did not leave Arabia.  That the same people told me that the city was once called Insiné is more likely, and we cannot doubt that the name is a corruption of that of Antinous, whose name the city which I just visited bore.  All the ancients agree with Ptolemy and the Antonine Itinerary, that it was in the district of Upper Egypt, on the eastern bank of the Nile, and that it gives rise to the adjective Antinopolite: but I cannot share the feeling of those who say that the Emperor did but restore an ancient city that was in that place, and named it after his favorite: because as I have just described it, it appears that it was built anew, as we learn from Xiphilinus, despite what Casaubon says, who claims that the city was in that place was previously called Besa, and was dedicated to the deity of that name.

After I had carefully examined the antiques of Insiné and its surroundings, I went to re-embark, and after four hours I reached Meloüé, a very pretty town, where there are a large number of Coptic Christians…

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The reader may wonder where is the fresh transcription of the inscription on the column of Alexander Severus, to which Lucas alludes.  Well may we wonder: for it is not to be found in the text as printed.  There are a couple of short inscriptions on p.131 and 136, from Dendera; but I was unable to locate any transcription of that at Antinoupolis, either at the end of “book 5” or of the volume itself.  Oh well.

  1. [1]Located via, and I made use of the Bavarian State Library copy here.

Did Antinous pull Zeus from Olympus? Did Hadrian pave the way for Christ?

The emperor Hadrian made the curious decision to deify his deceased favourite, Antinous, and to build temples and a city in his memory.

It’s worth reflecting a little Hadrian’s absurd-seeming action of deifying his bum-boy.  It’s too easy to dismiss this action as merely the product of grief.  To do so makes  a good story, but politicians are very capable of exploiting grief.  Men like Hadrian, who have obtained supreme power by virtue of their own ability, do nothing without a reason.

Let’s be realistic.  Is it really possible that Hadrian himself  supposed that a boy, whom he picked up while on tour, and whose pleas and tears and cries of pain he ignored for his pleasure, was any sort of deity whatsoever?  Can anyone else in Rome have thought so either?  Surely every ordinary Roman must have smirked or scowled at the very thought, precisely as they would have laughed at the emperor deifying a mistress. It’s either a joke or an impiety.  So … why did the wise, intelligent emperor – and Hadrian was both these things – do this?

If we leave aside the picture of an oriental despot enacting his whims – for Hadrian’s rule was not that absolute – then we have to ask what practical effect the measure had.  The most obvious effect is that it subordinates the gods to the emperor.  A god is nothing, if Antinous is a god.  What matters is the emperor.  Indeed we already see this attitude in Martial’s flattery of Domitian.  There can be no sensible criticism of an emperor as impious, if piety is whatever the emperor says it is.  I wonder, in fact, whether this action is related to some kind of now lost criticism of Hadrian as impious for not spending more of his time in Rome?

If the gods are the creatures of the emperor, then this is a measurable step towards despotism, towards the late empire.  It’s impossible to imagine Augustus doing this.

We must also ask what the effect was, on Roman social capital. The effect, obviously, is to degrade Roman self-image.  Romanitas and pietas and virtus are all diminished by the act of deifying Antinous.

Finally we have to ask what the effect in the long term was.  If a god is just a man – even a vile one – whom a ruler has marked out for distinction, then what becomes of Olympian Zeus and his band of allies?  Are they too just men, “deified” by men of the past?  It must be a natural inference that they are.  So … are there any real gods at all?  And, if there are, mustn’t they be something quite other than the regular pagan pantheon, which is populated at the whim of a man?  Something like the Sun, which no ruler can affect?  Something like the God of the Hebrews, who is universal?

It’s impossible to say.  It is a strange act by a clever man.  Maybe it really did lay open the way for the Christians.

Sicard’s illustrations of Antinoupolis

My last post gave an account of a visit to Antinoupolis in Egypt in 1715.  But without the illustrations!  Well, I have spent several days now, attempting to locate online a copy of Father Sicard’s Letter to the Count of Toulouse which had undamaged illustrations in it.  Not all copies were bound with illustrations, I note.

The text of the letter is printed in the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses series, which is an utter mess of original volumes of letters, jumbled all anyhow, plus reprints in different orders, etc etc.  Somebody ought to draw up a table of this series in its various versions.  It is NOT fun, attempting to locate something.

Today, using the Europeana portal, I had a lucky break, and discovered the existence of a separate volume of plates for the series!  A copy is held at Gallica here.  It indicates the volume and the page numbers.

So, finally, here are Father Sicard’s three illustrations!

South gate of Antinoe


West gate of Antinoe

and finally the column of Alexander Severus:

Column of Alexander Severus, in the ruins of Antinoe, 50 leagues south of Cairo. 1715.

It’s wonderful to have all this stuff online, but there is still plenty for researchers to do, in simply locating it all!

A visit in 1716 to Antinoupolis by Fr Claude Sicard, SJ

One of the earliest explorers of Egypt was the Jesuit missionary Claude Sicard.  His 1715 journey is recounted in a letter which he wrote to the Count of Toulouse on 1st June 1716, which was printed as “Lettre d’un missionaire en Egypte a S.A.S. Mgr le Comte de Toulouse”, in a collection of Jesuit missionary letters, Nouveaux mémoires des missions de la Compagnie de Jésus dans le Levant, vol. 2, 1717 (online here).[1]  There are numerous reprints in various formats under various titles.[2]

The “letter” also includes three images, two of which, sadly, are not reproduced properly in any online copy that I could find.  Invariably the scanners left the plates folded over, which is very strange.  The third image I append to this post.

  • [Update: the three illustrations I found later and posted here.]

His account of Antinoupolis is as follows.[3]  The plates are at the end.  I have added a couple of labels in square brackets like [South Gate].

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After traversing the famous Solitudes of the Thebaid, which were once the asylum of fervent servants of God, who lived a life more angelic than human, I went to take some rest at the Monastery of St. John that I mentioned earlier.  After spending two days there, I found myself able to continue my journey; but it was not the same for my companions, who found themselves so fatigued, that they dared not engage themselves to follow me.  So I was forced to take new guides.  I went with these, and we advanced to the North between the Nile and the mountain caves, which is not far, only two miles.  We walked for about an hour on a sandy plain, which led us to the ruins of two cities, which are close to one another.  The first appears to have been like the suburb of the other; its circumference is two miles.  It contains only the remains of some very ordinary hovels.  The second city is twice as large as the first, and presents first to the eye some the public buildings of royal magnificence: they were in fact the work of the Emperor Hadrian.

The historians have told us of the love, or rather the mad passion, that this prince had for the youth Antinous.  This seemed excessive during the life of this favorite; but it broke out more than ever after his death.  He died during a voyage that Hadrian made in Egypt, following the example of Antony, Augustus, Germanicus, and Vespasian, who had the curiosity to be witnesses themselves to the wealth and beauty of that Kingdom.  The historians do not agree among themselves on the causes and circumstances of the death of Antinous.  Some say that he died of natural disease, others claim he sacrificed himself for his Prince in a sacrifice, others argue that he drowned himself while sailing on the Nile with his Master.  Whatever the uncertain manner in which this catastrophe happened, it is agreed by all historians, that the grief that the Emperor conceived was without limit, and that he took it to unexampled excess.  The passion that he had for this young man, and the regrets that he had for his death, made him do all that his authority and power could do in order to immortalize the name of his Antinous.  He built and dedicated Temples to him; he instituted games in his honour.  The Greeks, to please him, claimed that he had given Oracles, which it is known were secretly composed by Hadrian himself.  The prince then celebrated ceremonies of his apotheosis with lavish pomp.  Not content with all this, he built a small but beautiful city on the banks of the Nile, near where it is claimed that the young man died, and he gave this city the name of Antinoe or Antinopolis.

The situation of this city, of the order of its buildings, its figure, and greatness, are spoken of variously.  I have seen it, I was long in the middle of all that is left to us.  I observed with great attention all that seemed to deserve it.  I will, my Lord, here faithfully set forth to your Serenity, my exact observations. The city is square; it has a diameter of about 2,000 common paces.  Two large and long streets, which intersect in the middle, and that both run from one end of the city to the other, are its backbone.  These two crossing streets are eighteen paces wide, or forty-five royal feet, and lead to the four great gates of the city.  Besides these two main streets, which divide it into four equal parts, there are several other traverses, less wide but long, all perfectly straight, and placed from space to space to give the houses convenient exits.  This is easy to recognize from the vestiges that remain.  The two main streets, and the other traverses all on had each side their own small gallery, five to six feet wide, and of the length of their street.  These small galleries were vaulted.  Their vaults were supported on one side on columns of stone of the Corinthian order, very delicately worked, and rested on the other on the roofs of the houses, which were so built on purpose.  The vaults of the galleries of the two major streets, wider than the tranverse streets, were supported by more than a thousand columns, ranged on the same line in order to make a spectacle as agreeable to the eyes as magnificent.  One can say that this City was one continuous peristyle; from which we can judge that the Emperor Hadrian had as much regard to the convenience of the citizens, as to the magnificence of a monument that he wanted to leave to posterity.  For by means of these galleries, that adorned the streets, one could walk in all the neighbourhoods of the city, covered from the heat of the sun, and from other injuries of the air.  Of all these vaults, and of the prodigious number of columns that supported them, there only remains today some pieces here and there, and which serve only as witnesses of what they once were.

In terms of the four major gates of the city, which I have already mentioned, those that were to the north and the east, are ruined to the point of being no longer recognizable by their shapes: the other two of the south side and west are almost complete.

[South Gate] I have drawn up a very accurate plan and elevation to better explain the description that follows (Plate II).  The south gate, which is represented by the second attached illustration, is a species of triumphal arch, which has three large vaulted doorways, which serve three passages.  The middle arch was about twenty-two royal feet wide, and forty tall.  It was closed by two large folding doors of wood, covered with iron, which were in the course of time transported to Cairo to close a vault which is called the Bab Ezzouailé, near the Palace of the Grand Provost.  The two arches that are alongside the largest, which is in the middle, are about twenty-four feet high, ten or twelve wide.  They have above them a square opening smaller than the two gates which are shown below.  The width of this whole edifice is about sixty-six feet, the thickness is fifteen or twenty, the height forty five.  The two facades are enriched with eight Corinthian pilasters in bas-relief, fluted from the middle to their base.  The angle of projection of their capitals is so great that it gave opportunity to the Moors to call the gate “abou elqueroum”, that is to say, the father of the horns.  Facing these eight pilasters, and about five or six paces from there, eight Corinthian columns of white stone were erected which were four feet around.  Each was of five equal parts, and fluted from the bottom to the middle.  Time has respected the two columns resting on their pedestals, marked A and B, which face the City; the other two marked C and D are more than half destroyed.  As for those facing the country and which are labelled E, F, G, and H, only ruins can be seen.

[West Gate] The west gate, whose architecture is shown in the third figure attached hereto (Plate III), is as complete as that of the south, but much more massive, and in a different style.  It likewise has three doors or three large archways.  The arch in the middle is sixteen feet wide, and about twenty feet high.  The other two are half as high and wide.  Above the three vaulted arches there are likewise three large square openings, which make a kind of platform.  The middle one is much larger than the other two; one may climb up there by two stairs of about fifty steps, made in the thickness of the walls on both sides. This whole building is about fifty feet long, thirty-five high and forty five deep.  The locals call it “Qualaa”, that is to say “Castle”, because it is a solid building.

[Portico] A few steps from the main gate of the city, which is to the west side, as I have already said, we encounter a magnificent portico, which is the entrance to a thirty or forty paces square tower, closed with high and strong crenellated walls with a niche cut in the wall next to the gate.  This portico seems to have been built there to act as a guardpost. The Arabs give to this portico, and to the great tower, the same name that they give to the portico of Ashmounain, i.e. “Melab Elbenat”, that is to say, the pleasure house of the Princesses.

The magnificence of Hadrian for his favorite Antinous was not confined to the construction of these four large gates, and all the galleries of the streets, of which I spoke.  There may still be seen in various districts of the city the rubble of several palaces and temples.  It is not possible to judge what their structure was then.  Today there is only a pile of stones and of columns of all kinds of marble.

I found, a hundred yards from the great west gate, fourteen granite columns which were still standing; and, a little further on, four porphyry columns.  What time had spared was destroyed by the Turks, who removed large pieces of well worked marble and columns which they wanted in order to decorate their Mosques.  I have seen in many of their Mosques the terrible use they made of these riches, placing these marbles and columns without  order, a large one next to a small, the Corinthian with the Doric.  I witnessed this particularly in a famous oratory of Dervis, named Sheikh Abade.  This was formerly a church dedicated to St. Ammonius, Bishop of Assena and martyred at Antinoe.  The Turks have made it into a small mosque, and intended to decorate it, filling it with different columns placed next to each other in confusion.

[Column of Alexander Severus] It must however be admitted that we are very obliged to them, not to have touched a column of Alexander Severus, which they have left whole.  In the main street, which goes from the south to the north of the city of Antinoe, there is a place at the point where the main street is crossed by another smaller one, going from East to West.  At the four corners of this place, or this junction, there were four large columns of Corinthian stone.  Of these four only one remains, together with the pedestals of the other three.  This column which remains to us (plate IV), and of which I give here a picture, is four feet in diameter; its is made up of five pieces. The first piece next to the base is three and a half feet tall, surrounded by oak leaves, which gives it great grace.  The other four pieces are seven feet each: its capital is topped by a square stone three feet high and two wide.  This stone apparently used to support a statue that was put on it.  The pedestal is thirteen feet high, composed of eight courses of stone.  On the fourth, fifth and sixth stones we read the following Greek inscription.  It contains thirteen lines, of which time or the Arabs have erased more than half.  Here’s what I’ve been able to decipher:


That is to say, “For prosperity. To the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Pius Blessed…  Aurelius being Prefect of the new Greeks of Antinoe. And Apollonius…  on these monuments…  Caius Chremes.”

As soon as I saw this inscription, I took out my tablets to transcribe it.  I was afraid that the Arabs would discover me in my operation, and they might take me for an enchanter, or a necromancer, seeing me writing without ink or pen, and this fear, I must say, made me so nervous, that I transcribed only those words whose letters were the most recognizable.

The inscription which was on two of the four pedestals is completely erased; the one that was on the other two, is a little better preserved, except for some words which no longer appear.  This is the inscription taken from the two pedestals, from which I extracted what I give here.  About this inscription there are four points to make.  The first is that the same inscription had been engraved on the four pedestals; from which we must conclude that these four columns were erected in honour of Alexander Severus.  His name is engraved distinctly, as I have written it, with a small omega.  The second reflection is that in all likelihood, this word “tinoeon” has been truncated, and that the two initial letters “an” should be added at the front, which will give the full name of “antinoeon”.  Just as nothing resists time, which corrupts and destroys everything, so it has corrupted the old name of the city of Antinoe, which the Arabs call today Ansiné.  I consulted on this subject an old Coptic-Arabic Dictionary which the Coptic Priests use; I found in this that the ruined city, where Sheik Abade is, that is to say, the oratory of Dervis, called “Ansiné” in Arabic, is translated into Coptic as “Antinoe”.  The third point to make is that the four columns placed in one of the great streets of Antinoe were erected after one of the victories of Alexander Severus; perhaps after the one that he won in person against Artaxerxes king of the Persians in the year 233 of Jesus Christ.  The oak branches that surround the bottom of the column, appear to be a symbol of his triumph.  The names of Aurelius, Apollonius, Caius Chremes mentioned in the inscription, are the names of the magistrates of the city, and of the architect, or an officer of the Emperor, who all presided over the construction of this monument in honour of their Master.  The final point to make is that, in this inscription, the inhabitants of Antinoe are called the new Greeks.  I do not see any other reason than this, which is that Hadrian, in the year 175 being initiated into the mysteries of Ceres Eleusine at Athens, might have brought from that city, or from some other city of Greece, priests and ministers to serve, in his new colony of Antinoe, the temples which he had devoted to the memory of Antinous.

This young man whom the Emperor wanted to deify, died in the year 132 of Jesus Christ.  The city that bore his name filled up shortly afterwards with Christians.  It became a suffragan bishopric of Thebes.  Eusebius has preserved a letter written to the Antinoïtes by St. Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, in the late third century.  Palladius assures us that at the end of the fourth century, the city was so populated by Christians that there were twelve convents of Virgin consecrated to God.  This celebrated city is now only a heap of ruins, with the exception of those antiquities of which I have given pictures, and whose strength has withstood time and the avarice of the Arabs.  It is located fifty-two leagues from Cairo, three from Mellavi, to the northeast, on the Eastern bank of the Nile, near the famous Monastery of Dervis, of which I have spoken.  In spite of all these ruins of Antinoe, I did not depart from it without regret, its antiquity making it dear and respectable.  I left to go and spend the night at the Monastery of St. John.  I traversed a plain, which is to the east, between the mountains and the city.  It is covered with beautiful mausoleums erected next to neighboring ruins.  The Turks of the city of Mellavi, and several other places, have their cemetery in the plain.

Having arrived at the Monastery of Saint John, I assembled all the families currently occupying those places, where solitary holy monks once sang, day and night, praises to God. …

    *    *    *    *

Thus far, Fr. Sicard, who died of plague in Egypt, his work incomplete.

One plate, plate IV, is more or less complete in one of the online copies, and shows the column of Alexander Severus and the inscription.


The other two may be found here.

  1. [1]Also reprinted in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères – Nouvelle édition, vol. 2, Mémoires du Levant, 1810 and reprints.  The collection of letters was originally made by C. Le Gobien [et al.] and first published in 34 v. in Paris, 1702-76. This new edition of the rearrangement edited by Querbeuf.  I have not been able to work out which are the correct volumes of the original edition, although I know that the volume numbers are listed here on p.224 (but inaccessible to me).
  2. [2]E.g. This one at the Bavarian State Library here from 1810.
  3. [3]Translation mine, via Google translate

Faces in the streets of Antinoupolis

A google images search, undertaken for other reasons, gave me a sudden picture of the people of Antinoupolis.  Here it is:


Fascinating to see, isn’t it?

I suppose some of them are from elsewhere in the Fayoum; but even so, this is a fascinating collection of people!

An inscription from Antinoupolis preserved by Richard Pococke

An earlier visitor to Antinoupolis was the Jesuit Father Sicard, whose work I have yet to locate.  But Richard Pococke gives (p.279) an item on his authority as follows:


We’ve seen a reference in Vansleb to a “pillar of Marcus Aurelius”.  This must be the inscription.

I don’t profess any skill with Greek inscriptions whatsoever, but even I can see autokratori kaisari marco aurelioi seoueroi alexandroi eusebei eutuxei” in the above; i.e. Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander.  So in fact the inscription is not for Marcus Aurelius, but for the later emperor Alexander Severus.

Can anyone read more?

An English visitor to Antinoupolis in 1737

Another early visitor to Antinoupolis was Richard Pococke, whose Observations on Egypt, vol. 1, 1743, begin with a picture (before page 73) of one of the gates still then standing at the city.

Gate at Antinoupolis. Pococke, plate 24, between p.72-3.

He describes his visit as follows:

On the fourteenth [of December, 1737] we had a good wind, and passed by Minio [Minya] on the west, a neat town in comparison of the others, and the residence of the Cashis of the province of that name; higher we passed Souadi, a small town to the east.

We came up with the ruined city of Antinoopolis, now called Ensineh; Some say there was anciently a city here called Besa; but Antinous, who accompanied Hadrian into Egypt, being drowned there, that Emperor built this city, and called it after the name of his favourite, to whom he instituted games and divine honours: It was made also the capitalw of a new province of that name, taken out of the last of the seven provinces, called Heptanomis.

It is said the city was three or four miles round. I saw a large pillar with a Corinthian capital, and a square stone or plinth on the top, which was probably to set some statue on; it is said there were four of these.

I had also a view of a very fine gate of the Corinthian order, of exquisite workmanship; a plan and upright of which may be seen in the twenty-fourth plate, marked  A.  B.

Near this place is a village of Christians, called Ebadie, whose greatest security, among such very bad people, seems to be a notion that has prevailed, that no Mahometan can live in that place. Higher is the convent of St. John (Der-Abou-Ennis) where there are several priests; and a little further on is Meloui, near a mile to the west of the river.

w. Ptol. iv. c.15.

The gate is, of course, long since destroyed by the inhabitants of the area.  How interesting to discover that in Pococke’s time the village of Sheikh Ibade was a Coptic village,

The plate 24 also shows part of the now vanished temple at el-Ashmounein, or Hermopolis.

Aerial photo of Antinoupolis in 2011 – before the destruction of the circus began

Never rely on Google Maps for an aerial view of an archaeological site.  Always screen-shot it.  You may be grateful in future that you did.

This thought was provoked by finding an aerial image of Antinoupolis in Egypt, modern Sheikh Ibeda, here.  Here it is:


Comparison with the current view will quickly show that part of the circus at the top, the hippodrome, has been demolished.

That’s within the last five years.

Treasure your snapshots!

The journal of a French visitor to Antinoupolis in 1672-3

There are many good things to be found online these days.  Among them is Father Vansleb Nouvelle Relation … d’un Voyage fait en Egypte, Paris 1702; the diary of a journey into Egypt in 1672-3.  On p.386, we find an account of his visit to Antinoupolis.

I don’t guarantee the accuracy of my translation; but I want to see what he has to say, so as I am reading it, I thought that I would share it.

On April 3, Monday of our Easter, I had myself taken to the ancient town of Insine, so  named in the Coptic dictionaries, once known as Antinoe, once as Thebes.

First I went to see the tomb of Mahomet Bey, who was Bey of Girga forty years ago.  But after taking up arms against Gaza Pasha, he lost the battle at Melave; and, abandoned by his allies, he was defeated, captured and strangled.  His tomb is outside the town, in the communal cemetery, and, although nothing out of the ordinary, I still wanted to see it because he had, and has still, a great reputation among those of his country.  His justice and his good government is missed even today in all of Upper Egypt.

After visiting his tomb, I went into the town; and the first thing that I looked at, as a very remarkable antiquity, was the column of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.  It is made of five parts, of which four are joined together and the fifth, closest to the ground, is surrounded with decoration.  On the pedestal there is a Greek inscription of thirteen lines.

Near this column I saw three others, very similar to it, scattered on the earth, and only the pedestal of one was standing.

From the column I went to see the triumphal arch, which is still almost complete.  I gave myself the pleasure of ascending it, by means of a little staircase made in the body of the wall of the arch, which contained fifty steps, or thereabouts.  I lay down at the largest window, which was over the principal arch, from where I had the satisfaction of seeing the entirety of the ruins, and the situation of the town, once so illustrious.

This triumphal arch was alone, and entirely detached from the rest of the ruins, being only four steps from the Nile.  But in the absence of an inscription, one cannot say by whom or for whom it was raised.  There are no sculptures, as with those at Orange or Rome; but it does not fail to be one of the most beautiful that I have seen.

One of its faces is 80 royal feet in length, and one side is 24.   The great arch in the middle, which is between two small ones, is 60 feet high, and each of the little ones is 7 feet high.  The thickness of the wall between the large and the little arches, which is only a single stone, is 6 feet and 2 inches.  The spacing between the little arch and the outside angle of the Arch is 5 feet.  The side that faces the Nile faces south-east.

There are still forty fine columns of granite on the right hand side of the arch, in a straight line, leading towards the Nile.  Some still have their capitals.  Some stand alone, and others are attached to the huts of the Arabs who live there.  On the same side, going towards the monastery of Abuhennis, one can see three fine columns of porphyry, two of which are still standing and one which has fallen down.

In the mosque of this town there is a “sheikh” or “saint” whom the Arabs called Sheikh Abade, and for whom they have a particular veneration, believing him to be a muslim.  But here they are mistaken. He was a Christian, the bishop of Esna, and was martyred at Insine.  They call him Sheikh Abade by mistake, caused by the surname of this bishop.  He was called Ammonius the Abed, i,e. Ammonius the Devout; and the Arabs have manipulated the adjective of Abed and turned it into a proper name.  His relics are preserved in the “Heikel” of the church, which is now a mosque.

I was going to view the remains of a magnificent palace, which the Arabs call “Abulkerun”, or “the horned building”, because, I think, the columns which stand before this building have such large capitals that they resemble horns; this is the true signification of the word “Kern”.  But the multitude and variety of so many fine antiquities left me with a tired spirit, and the heat was violent.  I was constrained to retire to the monastery, with the intention to return another day, to examine it all more carefully.

On Wednesday, the fifth of the month, I went for the second time to the town of Insine, to examine the ruins with more attention, and particularly the columns before the Abulkerun, on the northwest side.

There are four in all, planted before the frontispiece of the palace, once very magnificent, but of which only a small part now remains, surrounded by its own ruins.  … [description of the columns] …

There were also behind the palace to the south east four other columns of the same grandeur, of the same form and the same material as those that I have just described.  But these were thrown down on the ground, and I could only see their pedestals.  The column of Marcus Aurelius was to the north west of the ruins of this palace.  [Then measurements of the column of Marcus Aurelius]

I saw that there were once two avenues in the town, which were more considerable than the others.  One commenced from Abulkerun, and finished at the four columns of Marcus Aurelius, running from east to north.  This road was bordered by columns on both sides.  The second commenced at the triumphal arch, which is at one end of the town to the south east, and which runs toward the north east.  These roads are very long, very wide and very straight, and filled with ruins of magnificent palaces.

In Insine, as well as in the caves in the mountains, there are found pitchers in the earth, in which the inhabitants of the Thebaid kept their wine … they are pointed at the bottom, in order to plant them in the ground.  My guide had the address to find them … I took two to Paris.

That’s a lot of words for not very much information.  The actual measurements might be of value in some cases, admittedly.  But what a pity that he didn’t give us a sketch!

(I also found online an Italian encyclopedia article here,[1] But probably this merely repeats information gathered at the time of Napoleon.)

  1. [1]Francesco Milizia, Dizionario delle belle arte del disegno, 1797, vol. 1, p.39.

Antinoupolis at the British Museum – a project

I was delighted to discover that the British Museum has initiated a project to catalogue its holdings from Antinoupolis in Egypt.  It seems that in 1913-14, John de Monins Johnson excavated at the site; but did not publish his work.  All that appeared in print was literary and documentary texts on papyrus!  The link above takes you to a bunch of objects that the BM holds; and they intend to sort the matter out and publish his papers, etc.

Truly this is a solid and worthwhile enterprise – but then I expect no less from the British Museum, an organisation that has consistently understood what the internet age means for museums and outperformed expectations.

One item on their site caught my eye:

EA1648. Limestone(?) monumental inscription broken away at the right-hand side and bearing seven lines of Greek. The text honours Flavius Maecius Severus Dionysodorus, Platonic philosopher, in a dedication by the Senate of Antinoopolis.

Here it is:


The British Museum link gives a transcribed text, and a translation:

For Good Fortune.
Flavius Maecius Sev[erus]
Dionysodorus, one of those
maintained by the Museum, exempt from taxes,
Platonic philosopher and
bouleutes (is honoured by)
the Boulê of the new Hellenes of Antinoupolis.

The city was founded in 130 AD.  The item was purchased on site, not excavated.  If it relates to the Platonic philosopher Severus – quoted by Eusebius, Porphyry and Proclus – then it must be late 2nd century.  This I learn again from the exemplary British Museum page.

An interesting item, on an interesting web site.