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. …

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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

12 thoughts on “A visit in 1716 to Antinoupolis by Fr Claude Sicard, SJ

  1. This is splendid – thank you very much! What a lucid overview, with lots of interesting context and detail! Maybe these granite (and porphyry) columns eventually ended up indoors, somewhere, too. And, I wonder about the later history of the Bab Ezzouailé doors? Do you happen to know more, or have ideas, about his tablets – what they were, and how he marked them?

  2. It is curious that the engraved text of the inscription not only, like the printed one, substitutes alpha for lambda in the ‘Aurelius’ (the Prefect) instance, but, unlike the correct printed one, does this for the first instance, too!

  3. The Eusebius reference is to Book VI, ch. 11, 3-4: “3. Alexander, himself, in private letters to the Antinoites, which are still preserved among us, mentions the joint episcopate of Narcissus and himself, writing in these words at the end of the epistle:

    4. ‘Narcissus salutes you, who held the episcopate here before me, and is now associated with me in prayers, being one hundred and sixteen years of age; and he exhorts you, as I do, to be of one mind.’ ”

    (As translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert and transcribed, revised, and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.)

  4. For those interested, this is the official site of the Antinoupolis Foundation :
    The Bibliography section is pretty interesting and most of the articles are available in PDF format.
    In particular I advise the reading of the two volumes edited by Rosario Pintaudi of Istituto Papirologico Girolamo Vitelli of Florence.
    The page inaccessible to Roger and cited in his first note is available here :
    To conclude, the British Museum owns a series of maps of Antinoupolis realized by the Italian excavation team in 1998 and published in occasion of the International Congress of Papyrology held in Florence the same year.
    The relevant item is here :

  5. Thanks for this quotation from the reports of Sicard. It is so long and detailed I am hopeful that something of his words survive concerning his visit to the Faiyum region of Egypt – especially Arsinoe/Medinet Fayum, Hawara, Biahmu, and maybe Qasr Qarun, and some of the Greek cities such as Tebtunis, Narmouthis (Medinet Madi) etc. This would be valuable for me as I am writing a book section on the early visitors to the region. Any sources? Thanks, Dylan

  6. Well, you’ll have to grab the French of his letters, and read through it. I’d scan the text into electronic form, and then see what Google Translate makes of it!

  7. Where can I find the texts of his letters? I can find nothing on the web? French is not a problem.

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