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.

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