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.

Update (18 August 2023): Comparing this with the Manoncourt drawing and the drawing of the theatre portico in pl. 56 and 57 of the Description de l’Egypte, especially zooming in on the upper storey – the lower may have been buried by sand earlier – I wonder if this “gatehouse” is in fact the theatre portico?


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.


Antinoupolis in 1843 – the traveller John H. Allan

The English traveller John H. Allan went up the Nile, and published his account, with drawings, in 1843, under the name A Pictorial Tour in the Mediterranean (online here).

Coming back down the Nile from Nubia, he visited Antinoe or Antinoupolis, and included a sketch:

John H. Allan. Antinoe. 1843
John H. Allan. Antinoe. 1843

He wrote as follows:

January 31st. – Sheik Abadeh, site of the ancient Antinoe, founded by the Emperor Hadrian.  A walk the village brought us to the remains of a colonnade of granite pillars without capitals. At the back of heaps of rubbish containing many architectural remains we saw a large enclosure said to be the ancient Hippodrome. The direction of its streets is still to be traced running in a regular manner, and judging from the fragments, it must have been a city of great magnificence. A large portion of the ruins were used in constructing the Pasha’s sugar manufactory at Al Rairamoun, on the opposite side of the river, amongst large plantations of sugar cane.

I wonder what became of the granite columns?


Antinoupolis today

After my last post about Antinoupolis in Egypt in the Napoleonic period, I find that Google Maps can give us interesting pictures of the modern site, a village named Sheikh Ibada / Abada / Ebada (etc).

I also learn from this site that the revolution in Egypt has been a disaster for the site, where the locals have been bulldozing the Hippodrome and other sites.  James B. Heidel, president of the Antinoupolis Foundation writes:

“Each year vast new swathes of ancient cemetery, parts of the ancient city wall, and in the last two years even half of the ancient hipprodrome, have been bulldozed flat, raked with a front loader and marked out with white blocks for new cemetery plots,” Heidel says.

“Two years ago fully half the hippodrome was leveled, and in spite of our protests to the Ministry of Antiquities, no protections were put in place,” he says.

“This year a further, smaller area of it was bulldozed flat, and the construction of walls for tomb plots were completed which were the year before only marked out with pebbles,” he adds.

Those wishing to locate the site will find that the name is given as El-Shaikh Ebada, 10km north of Mallawi in Menia governorate, which is here on Google Maps.


The satellite view of the ancient city area is as follows, with the Hippodrome clearly visible!  The dark area is the ancient city:


Zooming in, I get this:


This shows the damage to the Hippodrome clearly, and the encroachment of the fields of modern tombs.

In fact the blog post linked above gives the following picture of the damage, recorded by the Italian excavation team.


Few of us perhaps would ever visit Antinoupolis.  But somehow we are all impoverished by this useless, needless destruction.

UPDATE: I found this small satellite image, from a site dated 2008.  At that time, the left hand side of the Hippodrome was complete.  Apparently “building cemeteries” is a standard ploy for those wishing to dig without permission in Egypt.

2008 Roman circus of Antinoupolis.
2008 Roman circus of Antinoupolis.

The lost city of Antinoupolis in Egypt, as seen by Napoleon’s expedition

The emperor Hadrian founded (or refounded) a city in Egypt which he called Antinoupolis or Antinoe, in memory of his favourite Antinous.  The city was of considerable extent, and existed into the Islamic period.

The ruins were destroyed in the 19th century for building materials to erect a sugar factory.  However they were still visible as late as 1798, and the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte (list of volumes here) contains plans and drawings which are, frankly, rather impressive.

Book 14 (1809), Volume IV – Planches : Antiquités, online at Heidelberg, gives us the pictures and plans.  Planches 53-61 are the images from Antinoupolis.  Here is a view of the site:

The ruins of Antinoupolis. Description de l'Egypte.
The ruins of Antinoupolis. Description de l’Egypte.

And here is the plan of the city, albeit at low resolution.  Note the Hippodrome at the top, and the Nile and the modern village at the bottom.

Antinoupolis.  Plan of the city ruins.
Antinoupolis. Plan of the city ruins.

I recommend downloading the PDF from Heidelberg – you can zoom into the pictures and see incredible details.

There are still ruins at Antinoupolis, of course.  A Pharonic temple of Ramasses II still stands, sort of.  Modern excavators have been at work.  But I think we must all mourn the loss of the magnificent colonnades still visible to Napoleon’s men.