A few interesting items

Here are three items that might be of interest.  I had intended to blog about these, but they have sat in my inbox for more than six months, so clearly I never will.  So I thought I’d post a quick note about them.

Firstly, how many people know that there is an 1885 volumes, China and the Roman Orient, published in Shanghai, with text and English translation of a Chinese account of embassies to Antioch and Constantinople?  It was edited by F. Hirth, and can be found at Archive.org here.

Next, a dossier of documents relating to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798-1809) is online at the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais here.  I’m not certain what these are, but they look as if they might be the original drawings used to produce the Description de l’Egypte.  If so, it would be great to get behind the printed version.

Finally, among the manuscript digitisations at the Vatican library, is Barberini latini 2154 part B.  This is a manuscript containing the pictures from the Chronography of 354.  The Chronography was a lavishly illustrated volume of calendrical and other lists, produced by a known artist for a Roman nobleman in that year, complete with portraits of Constantius II and his nephew, the soon-to-be-disgraced Gallus.  The volume is lost, but copies of it, with or without the pictures, have reached us.  Long ago I found a printed version of the images and scanned it in; and I have enjoyed seeing those drift, unacknowledged, around the web.  But here are the originals.

We are fortunate to have such things online, aren’t we!

How I met I.E.S. Edwards

A good long time ago, before I ever heard of the internet, I was a member of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES).  This society was founded in Victorian times in order to raise funds for archaeology in Egypt, and to promote interest in the country.

Every year I used to receive a thick, uninviting-looking copy of The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, bound in some dull coarse paper wrapper, and containing a variety of technical articles of no real interest to the ordinary person.  It was my first encounter with an academic journal; and although I dutifully worked through it, I learned nothing.  Someone eventually realised the madness of this proceeding; for the society in my later years issued instead a glossy magazine full of accessible articles.  My copies of the JEA have long since gone to the landfill.

The EES also ran lectures.  I remember going to one at the Egyptian Embassy, which was held in a room that stank of unwashed curtains – a familiar smell to anyone who has visited Egypt! – and being looked down on by some of the smartly dressed embassy staff, for I was just a young man and dressed informally, and they evidently thought me of no importance.  Of course they were right, and I was too humble to take offence, but it seemed a curious way to promote the country to people who might grow up to be important.  I asked them what to read for news about Egypt; and they mentioned al-Ahram.  In those days, of course, there was no way to access that paper, and I never saw a copy until the web came along.

Another lecture was advertised “for the public”, to be given one Saturday at a university building by no less a person than I. E. S. Edwards, author of The Pyramids of Egypt, a widely read popular volume.  In fact I saw it a few moments ago, in the Penguin paperback, on my shelf, which sparked these old memories.

All the EES lectures that I ever attended were in London.  So that Saturday I took the train down and made my way across the city, and sat in a lecture theatre just like those from college.

The lecture itself was disappointing.  There were lots of references to other lectures in a series, which of course I had not heard.  And, although quite well informed on Egyptology, for a layman, it was pretty dense and dry.  I reached the end, somewhat dissatisfied.

But I did have a question about pyramids.  I knew that there were structures around the step-pyramid at Saqqara – the “south tomb” for instance – of which I knew nothing.  Perhaps Dr Edwards could point me in the right direction so that I could read more?

So I went down to the front at the end, and waited to talk to him.  There was a gang of young folk already talking to him; and of course I didn’t grudge them this.  So I waited … and waited … and waited.  Much of the talk seemed inconsequential, which was odd at a public lecture.  Finally one girl yawned and said to Dr E., “See you next Tuesday” and off they went.  Plainly these were his students!  I wondered at the time whether they could not have found some other opportunity to talk to their supervisor, than at a lecture open to the public.

At last I got my chance. But I was disappointed to find that Edwards simply wanted to get out of there.  My words were brushed aside brusquely. I was made to feel a nuisance.  Persisting, my enquiry was met with “Perhaps in Lower?” which meant nothing to me (I realised later that it was a reference to J.-P. Lauer, the French excavator – nothing that a member of the public could do anything with).  And off he went, leaving a sour impression behind.

I was a member of the public, and of the EES, in whose name this lecture had been given.  I had travelled a considerable distance at some expense to do so.  And … I felt rather cheated.  Of course I didn’t complain to the EES – I was far too humble to do what I would do today.

In retrospect, it seems clear what had happened.  Edwards had long since ceased to deliver that “public lecture”.  Instead he had used the time as part of his ordinary course of lectures to his students.  Nobody from the public was expected or wanted, and nothing was done for them.

Did the EES pay him an honorarium to deliver that lecture?  I would be surprised if it was not so. For I can think of no reason why a man would choose to mislabel a lecture otherwise.  No doubt he had come to consider it a perk, requiring no special work on his part.

It’s a shame.  He’s dead now, and he certainly did some good in his time.  All the same, I do wish that he had found five minutes for that harmless youth, all those years ago.  I think I will put his book where I don’t see it so easily.  It’s a good book.  But looking at it, I find the memory leaves a funny taste behind.

We must never be rude to the youthful amateur enquirer.  You never know who they will grow up to be.  They will, without doubt, be those who write our obituaries.

Low life in Cairo before the war, with Bimbashi McPherson

The passing of the British Empire has deprived the world of the memoirs of colonial officials.  Doubtless some were leaden; but many a character, who might have been lost to obscurity in Britain, bloomed under an Eastern sun.  Last night my eye fell upon A Life in Egypt by Bimbashi McPherson, and I pulled it down from my shelf and began to read it again.

McPherson joined Egyptian service before World War One, and died in 1946.  Egypt at the time was still under Ottoman rule, at least in theory, so he held the rank of “Bimbashi”, equivalent to Major.  His first role was in teaching Egyptian students; not an advanced one, and indeed he never held any official post of importance.  But he mastered Arabic so completely that he could pass for a native Egyptian with ease; and his personality meant that he loved the Egyptians and they him.  With stuffy official expatriates, on the other hand, he had less in common.

One of his friends was the Grand Mufti:

To Isabel. 21 November 1903

I propounded to him a question which was rending my servant Hagazy’s soul; whether he has broken his fast by swallowing some of my cigarette smoke accidentally. His reply strangely coincided with my argument to Hagazy: ‘Tell the boy’, he said ‘that if swallowing smoke is the breaking of one’s fast then the smelling of food is more so. Yet if he smells the best of food throughout Ramadan, he will die of starvation before the feast of Bairam, and he will die because he has not broken his fast; and here,’ he said, ‘is a suffragi (steward) who would rather thrust out his eyes than break his fast, bringing your excellencies’ coffee, lacoum, and lighted Narghilehs.’ …

Some of what went on was more seedy.  Cairo still has a reputation as “sin city”, even today.

To Jack 1902

Many of the lady visitors to Cairo are pretty hot and one wonders sometimes whether they are attracted most by the antiquities or the iniquities of Egypt. On Xmas night, when Hamid and I rode out to the Sphinx we saw in the moonlight in the sand hollow a colossal bedouin and from beneath him appeared a little feminine attire, so little that it would not have betrayed its wearer, but that a little voice said in English: ‘Mind tomorrow night’. When we called for our bikes at the Mena House Hotel a little gentleman was looking for his wife and fearing she would catch a cold through her stupid habit of wandering ‘alone’ in the moonlight.

You know how frightfully rigorously the Moslem ladies are kept, but in spite of Eunuchs and all sorts of precautions they often bribe their custodians and escape to keep assignations in apartments which are kept up for the purpose – usually over fashionable shops. The pimps who keep these ‘private houses’ either accommodate the (amateur) friends of these ladies or more often procure boys for them. Perhaps the most characteristic and worst vice of Cairo is this traffic in boys as no handsome European boy of poor circumstances is not liable to be tempted to become the lover of one of these women, for the Egyptian ladies as a rule prefer European youths and men to Arabs. (And the vice is not limited to Moslem women only but is I believe more common amongst European residents than is generally supposed.)

A few nights after my arrival in Cairo I lost my way in an after dinner stroll and after vainly trying to get directions from Arabs, I met a gentlemanly well-dressed chap who spoke Spanish and a little French and Italian (he was half-Spanish, half-Greek). He politely conducted me back to the Hotel Bristol, and on the way and more particularly over a cafe cognac, he told me that he had a ‘lover’ who paid him well, but although she was nearly seventy, she was very exigeante and compelled him to consummate the act every night. He was barely sixteen and sometimes he said it half killed him but she would never let him go until he succeeded.

Stories of this kind go round today about western women in Egypt, and not always without foundation.

Returning to Antinoupolis by satellite photo

Today I found myself looking at the splendid map of Antinoupolis in the Description de l’Egypte, made by Napoleon’s engineers.  When it was made, in the 1790’s, the Roman city still stood on the high ground – above the level of the Nile flood – to the east of a wretched village named Sheikh Abade.

On a whim I went to Google Maps.  The site is between Minya and Mellawi in middle Egypt.  I rotated the aerial photo as best I could (with ctrl-click+drag), to line it up with Jomard’s plan.  Then I screen grabbed them both.

Looking at Jomard requires the high-resolution scan available at Heidelberg, and you can zoom and zoom.  So this is just a low-res overview:


And here is a screen grab of the site today – for the inhabitants are busily bulldozing the monuments, so it may not be so tomorrow.  Link is here, so you can zoom for yourself!


The surveyors did make some mistakes.  The massive brick wall that surrounded the late antique city is not a rectangle, but tapers toward the top.

But it is amazing to see that the main two streets can clearly be seen, even at this resolution.

In fact I started to mark up a few sites:


In the southern section of the city, to the right, the grid of the streets seems almost visible to me, running north of the street “with Doric columns” marked by Jomard.  The “amphitheatre” must be a theatre, I suppose.

I was looking for the site of the magnificent west gate, labelled a triumphal arch.  On the plan it is thus:


The gate is marked clearly, with two avenues of granite columns before it.  Notice the point B marked on it – this is the place from which the drawing below was made.

Zooming in on the modern image, nothing is to be seen.  The road from the north is plainly the Roman road, however.


It is amusing to note that Jomard marks palm trees in the area; and palm trees are still visible, their hard black shadows plain on the aerial photo.

Hadrian’s monumental stone arch is gone; but the palm trees that once stood nearby remain.

Jomard gives us this impression of what it looked like, looking from Antinoupolis west towards the village and the Nile.


I would surmise that the side facing the village had suffered more losses of stone.

Jomard also gives detailed measurements and drawings of elements of the arch.

In his “explication des planches” in the same volume, he gives the following description of the scene.

This monument is the best preserved in the whole city.  Nothing is missing from the edifice that would make its restoration at all doubtful.  In front of the little Corinthian pilasters, there were granite columns, which are all missing; only the pedestals remain, and these are very ruinous, as may be seen in the engraving.  In front of the triumphal arch, the village of Sheikh Abade may be seen; between the houses and the monument are the columns of granite that still exist (see the explanations of plate 58 and 53).  The date palms, which are very numerous around the building, contribute to render this view one of the most picturesques of the ruins of Antinoe.  here and there some villagers can be seen, attentively watching the French engineers and artists engaged in recording the triumphal arch.

Plate 58 consists of plans and elevations of the arch, and the “explication” of measurements.

The note for plate 53 mentions that the engraver has drawn too small the streets in the village of Sheikh Abade.

I do wish that it was possible to safely visit the site today.  Doubtless an archaeologist with local contacts could do so; a lone tourist might risk abduction.

18th century Egypt and a travelling Frenchman

In C. S. Sonini de Manoncourt, “Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt”, vol. 3, (1807), p.292, I find this anecdote.  The Reis is the captain of the boat on which de Manoncourt is travelling up the Nile, and he is in the region of Antinoupolis.

Among those persons whom the Reis had put on board, there were four soldier’s servants who had run away from the army. Well pleased at escaping from the toils of war, their insolence had no bounds. Having been informed that we were Europeans, their insults and impertinence were particularly pointed at us. I had determined to chastise them at the first town where we should stop; but having arrived at Mellawi in the night, I was obliged still to restrain myself. The four unruly gentlemen continued their invectives the following day. They carried their audacity so far as to strike two of my companions; the latter were not long in returning the blow; the engagement, began, and guessing from the noise what had happened, I hastened to the spot with my sabre in my hand, and applied a few strokes to the shoulders of the aggressors with the flat side. They immediately quitted their hold; but an exclamation was heard over all the boat. An infidel to strike a Mussulman!  It was an offence unpardonable, and which threatened me with instant death. They were talking of throwing me overboard. The Reis, instead of appeasing the tumult, as great a fanatic as the rest, cried louder than any of them. I retired with my companions into the chamber which we occupied, and we entrenched ourselves as well as we could, fully expecting to be attacked. The fire-arms, however, with which we were supplied, appeared to the desperadoes who surrounded us, formidable enough to prevent their approach, and they contented themselves with murmuring and concerting plans of revenge.

Through the lattice of my chamber, I perceived at Scheick Abade, the ruins of Antinoe, and on the same eastern coast, Benihassan, a village at the foot of a mountain of rock, rising perpendicularly, in which the ancients have hollowed out sepulchral caverns. A little tower and a forest of palm-trees form a beautiful contrast with the rugged aspect of the rocks which border this bank of the Nile. The village of Savouadi succeeds to this. There the ruins of several ancient buildings are perceptible. The rock has been carved and hollowed in various places ; the entrances of a vast quantity of catacombs are arranged over the front of the mountain, and near them I observed hieroglyphics and symbolical figures.

The vessel dropt anchor at Miniet. The Reis immediately disembarked with about twenty of the passengers, and made the best of his way to the Kiaschef, in order to prefer a complaint against me, for having had the audacity to strike a Mussulman. These wicked people took care to relate every fact, and to represent it in the worst light possible. The populace of Miniet thronged in crowds ; a flock of fanatical barbarians demanded the head of the dog who had abused a favourite of Mahomet. I had dispatched my two Egyptian servants after the Reis, in order to observe what might come to pass. They returned to acquaint me with the ferment which the accusation of the Reis had raised in the minds of the people; they had advanced into the court of the house of the Kiaschef, where an assembled mob were calling for vengeance, and they had heard it reported, that I was to undergo the punishment of the bastinado on the soles of the feet. I had not a moment to lose after this information. It was necessary, they said, either to conceal myself or to make my escape. I could not, with propriety, have chosen either of these alternatives : I took a resolution directly opposite. I determined to face the danger, and to present myself openly, in order to avert it. I quitted.the boat immediately with one of my attendants; my habit prevented me from being recognised. We passed through several streets. Every where the topic of conversation was the Franc who had beaten a Mussulman. I arrived at the house of the Kiaschef; I penetrated through the crowd, who little supposed that the person on whom their thoughts were employed was in the midst of them; at length I stood before the Kiaschef. An immense number of persons surrounded him. The Reis and my other accusers stood forward and pointed me out to the commandant. “Is it you, then,” said the Kiaschef to me in the most angry tone imaginable, “who was audacious enough to offer violence to a believing Mussulman?” “Give no heed,” I replied, in a determined tone, “to the vain clamour of these paltry fellahs, to whom, for the honour of a valiant Mameluc, you have already paid but too much attention. You are the slave of Mourat Bey; you know very well that I am his friend; I have some important intelligence to communicate to you from him; attend.” I immediately approached, and pretending to whisper in his ear, I slipped a few chequins into his hand, which I held ready in my own.

The Kiaschef, who had raised himself a little from his cushion to hear what I had to say, now took his seat again, and darted menacing glances at the Reis. “You know not,” said he to him, with anger feigned, or at least purchased, “what a Franc is.” He then pronounced a long and absurd encomium on the qualities and the power of the Francs, which he knew nothing at all about. The Reis wished to reply ; but the Kiaschef rose, and bestowed on him a hearty box on the ear, and then ordered him to receive several blows with a cane. In an instant this mob, ignorant and foolishly habituated to despotism, after having regarded me as the greatest criminal, dispersed, crying up the justice of the Kiaschef, and extolling, the excellent qualities of the Francs.

Corruption in men of exalted stations, which is an undeniable testimony of the depravity of manners, and a certain presage of the fall of empires, and the dissolution of the bonds of society, appeared among the despots of Egypt to be customary, and a system universally adopted. They were unanimous in opinion, that with the assistance of money every thing might be obtained.  Too great sacrifices, even in this respect, were not requisite to obtain the object desired. It is only in those countries, where they are continually speaking of virtue and of honour, and where, in fact, they do not exist, that the price of corruption is an effect of a considerable commerce to which few people can attain: but it is moderate in those places where honour not being in common use, it is unnecessary to distribute gold to purchase silence. I had just experienced a signal act of justice, which, considering the manners of the people of Egypt, and the circumstances under which I had obtained it, might have passed for injustice. A single minute had proved sufficient to appease the most furious anger, and to make its effects recoil on those who had provoked it; and, nevertheless, it had only cost me from seven to eight chequins.

The obelisk of Antinous – the text written upon it

Among the actions of Hadrian after the suspicious death of his “favourite” Antinous was the construction of an Egyptian-style obelisk in Rome, which still stands.  Each of the four faces has a text upon it in hieroglyphics.  It was constructed in Rome, where someone who knew how to write the ancient language wrote the text.

The first two faces read as follows.  I’ve made this from the rather splendid French translation of Jean-Claude Grenier, “L’Osiris Antinoos”, CENIM 1, Montpellier, 2008, which I found online here, and which comes with some very learned notes.  There are some dreadfully unreliable English versions online, I find.

Face 1 (South-facing)

Words said by the Osiris Antinous, [justified], “Come to the master of life.”  The blessed one who is in the afterlife and who lies in this sacred place which is found inside the gardens of the domain of the Prince in Rome.  He is known for becoming a god in the “abatons”[1] of Egypt, and shrines have been built for him (where) he is worshipped as a god by the prophets and priests of Upper and Lower Egypt and (by) the inhabitants of Egypt also.  A city is named after him; to it belongs a population of Greeks and sons of Horus and children of Seth, resident in the cities of Egypt; they have come from their cities, and valuable lands have been given to them, to enrich their lives greatly.  There is a temple there of this god – his name is “Osiris Antinous, justified” – built from fair white stone.  Sphinxes stand on its perimeter, and statues, numerous columns like those once made by the ancients, and also like those made by the Greeks.  All the gods and all the godesses give him there the breath of life, and he breathes in of it, having rediscovered his youth.

Face 2 (west-facing)

Next to an image of Antinous is a damaged inscription, which now reads only, “Words spoken by the Osiris Anti[nous]…”

Facing him is Thoth, with the legend, “Words spoken by Thoth, twice great, Lord of Khemenou (Hermopolis): ‘I make your heart alive for you every day.'”

The blessed, the Osiris Antinous, justified!  He has become an ephebe with a beautiful face that makes the eyes rejoice, a strength […] and an intrepid heart like (man) with strong arms.  He received god’s decree of the time of his death.  All the rites of the “Hours of Osiris” were renewed for him, and all the operations of his mummification in secret, then his bandages were put on, and the whole earth was (then) in a just distress, fed by disagreements.[2]  Nothing of the kind was done for those of ancient times until today like (what was done for) his altars, temples, and titles, and, because he breathes in the breath of life, his glory grows in the hearts of men.  The one who is the Lord of Hermopolis, the master of the divine words, Thoth, regenerates his ba like […] in their time.  By night and day, at any and every instant, the love that he inspires is in the hearts of his faithful, the respect that he inspires [is in…] of all […] and the praise which he excites is widespread among the men who venerate him.  His rightful place is in the Court of the Justified and of the Perfect Lights which are in the following of Osiris within the sacred world of the Master of Eternity; and a triumph has been accorded to him; they (the justified &c) have established his renown on the earth and their heart delights in him.  (When) he goes to any place that he wishes, the doorkeepers of the Afterlife say to him “Praise be to you!”  They pull back the bolts and open the doors before him, and (this) every day for millions and millions of years (for) [this will be] the duration of his existence […] ? […]

That’s quite a series of statements about someone who had no known quality to deserve such praise, other than being the “favourite” of an emperor.

It is a pity that the meaning of the text is as uncertain as it is.  It is not certain, I learn, that the tomb of Antinous was in Rome, rather than in Antinoupolis.  It all depends on how you read the text.

The obelisk of Antinous on the Pincian Hill in Rome.  By Carole Raddato.
The obelisk of Antinous on the Pincian Hill in Rome. By Carole Raddato.
  1. [1]The shrines of Osiris in Egypt, each preserving a relic of the god.
  2. [2]This is Grenier’s reading of the glyphs; but apparently there is wide disagreement as to how they should be read.

There is nothing like a Dane… Frederic L. Norden at Antinoe in 1737

Another early traveller who voyaged up the Nile in 1737-8[1] was the Danish naval officer, Capt. Frederic L. Norden.  His Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, vol. 2, Copenhagen (1755) describes his trip, and mentions Antinoupolis during the account for Tuesday 26 November 1737.[2]  Sadly it does not give us much.

Here is an excerpt of plate 79, showing Antinoe.  Sadly this section of a river  map is all that Nordern gives us by way of illustration.

His written note, on p.131, gives us no more than Fr. Siccard did almost a century earlier.

On the other side of the river, with its mosque, stands the town of Sheikh Abadé, once Antinoé, capital of the Lesser Thebaid.  Various antiquities can be seen, which are not built of the enormous stones of which the buildings of the ancient Egyptians are composed; but rather with stones of moderate size, like those used to build the triumphal arches in Rome.  Among the ruins are three large gates, the first of which is adorned with fluted columns of the Corinthian order, the other two, which correspond to the first, have much less ornamentation.  These ruins of ancient Antinoé are at the foot of the mountains, and close to the Nile.  The walls of the houses were built of brick, which are still as red today as if they had been recently manufactured.  It looks as if the village of Rodda, mentioned a little earlier, was the Mokkias of Antinoé.[3]

Other than the remark about the bricks, we learn little that is new.  But I suspect that Mr Norden did not step off his boat; or not much.

The illustrations in general look as if they reproduce the sketches made on the spot.  Many are just  landscapes from the Nile, but the most interesting are from Luxor, and after.  Here is one of Luxor temple, as he saw it.

Frederic Norden, Luxor Temple, 1737
Frederic Norden, Luxor Temple, 1737

The statues were buried up to their breasts in debris at this time, of course.

An interesting book, but not of great value for our knowledge of Antinoupolis.

  1. [1]The date is from Wikipedia, so beware.
  2. [2]A 1757 English version is online here, but omits much.  Antinoe is vol.2, p.28.
  3. [3]“De l’autre côté du fleuve, s’élève avec sa mosquée la ville de SCHECH ABADE, autrefois Antinoé, capitale de la Basse-Thebaîde. On y apperçoit diverses antiquités, où l’on n’a pas employé de ces pierres énormes, dont les edifices des anciens Egyptiens font composes; mais des pierres d’une grandeur médiocre, & à peu près telles que celles dont on a fait usage pour bâtir les Arcs de triomphe â Rome. On remarque principalement, parmi lés ruines, trois grandes portes, dont la première est ornée de colonnes de l’ordre Corinthien, cannelées: les deux autres, qui répondent à la première, ont beaucoup moins d’ornemens. Ces ruines de l’ancienne Antinoé sont au pied des Montagnes, & voisines du Nil. Les murailles des maisons avoient été construites de briques, qui se trouvent encore aujourdhui aussi rouges, que si on ne faisait que de les fabriquer. Il y a grande apparence, que le village de Rodda, dont fai parlé un peu plus haut, était le Mokkias d’Antinoé.

Another patristic source on Antinous and Antinoupolis

At the end of the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria mentions the deification of Antinous in his Against the Heathens c.4 (online here):

Another new deity was added to the number with great religious pomp in Egypt, and was near being so in Greece by the king of the Romans, who deified Antinous, whom he loved as Zeus loved Ganymede, and whose beauty was of a very rare order: for lust is not easily restrained, destitute as it is of fear; and men now observe the sacred nights of Antinous, the shameful character of which the lover who spent them with him knew well.

Why reckon him among the gods, who is honoured on account of uncleanness? And why do you command him to be lamented as a son? And why should you enlarge on his beauty? Beauty blighted by vice is loathsome. Do not play the tyrant, O man, over beauty, nor offer foul insult to youth in its bloom. Keep beauty pure, that it may be truly fair. Be king over beauty, not its tyrant. Remain free, and then I shall acknowledge thy beauty, because thou hast kept its image pure: then will I worship that true beauty which is the archetype of all who are beautiful.

Now the grave of the debauched boy is the temple and town of Antinous. For just as temples are held in reverence, so also are sepulchres, and pyramids, and mausoleums, and labyrinths, which are temples of the dead, as the others are sepulchres of the gods.

He then goes on to quote the Sybilline oracles.  The statement that Antinous was buried at Antinoupolis, if not rhetorical, is interesting.


The Antinoupolis inscription of Alexander Severus, in the “Description de l’Egypte”

We’ve reviewed the earlier visitors to Antinoupolis.  It’s time to go back to the Description de l’Egypte, made by Napoleon’s engineers, and the detailed description of the city made by them.

Jomard, The triumphal arch at Antinopolis / Insine

In fact it’s a relief to do so.  The shoddy engravings of Paul Lucas are not to be compared to the excellence of the material prepared by the French military engineers.  Compare the picture above of the “triumphal arch” with Perry’s reprint of Lucas’ miserable image, inaccurate because of damage even in Perry’s day:

Perry / Lucas, "Triumphal arch" of Antinoe
Perry / Lucas, “Triumphal arch” of Antinoe

There is rather a lot of material about Antinoupolis in the Description, and all of it is by Jomard.  The material is in three places:

  • There is a details 41 page description of the city in Book 02 (1818), Volume II – Antiquités, Descriptions.  GoogleGoogleHeidelberg.
  • There is a bunch of maps, plans and drawings, plates 53-61, in Book 14 (1809), Volume IV – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • There are several pages in the same volume describing the plates, with detailed measurements and orientation, starting here (the pages are helpfully unnumbered).
  • Finally Jomard also discusses the inscription on the column of Alexander Severus elsewhere.  At the foot of p.22 of the description of the city, he adds unhelpfully, “Voyez mon Mémoire sur les anciennes inscriptions recueillies en Égypte, A. tom. II, et la pl. 56, A. vol. V”.  Indeed we would, monsieur, if we could locate so vaguely described a work.  (Update: in fact the “memoire” is a paper in the same vol. 2 as the 41 page description; but says nothing useful.  The “plate 56” is in vol. 5 of the Description here, and contains nothing less than a drawing of the inscription!  I add it at the end.)

At the cross-roads in the centre of the city, there stood four columns, on bases.  An inscription on each of the bases recorded that the pillars were erected by Alexander Severus, although only two bases remained by modern times.  Here is Jomard’s plate of the cross-roads:

Jomard, Description de l'Egypte, plates vol. 4, plate 59. The column of Alexander Severus at Antinoupolis /Antinoe / Insine/ Sheikh Abade.
Jomard, Description de l’Egypte, plates vol. 4, plate 59. The column of Alexander Severus at Antinoupolis /Antinoe / Insine/ Sheikh Abade.

I wrote here about Richard Pococke’s publication of the inscription.  But Jomard makes a much better job of it.  In his description in vol. 2, p.22, he gives this image of what he could actually see on-site:

Jomard, Inscription of Alexander Severus
Jomard, Inscription of Alexander Severus

And then this reconstruction with Latin (!) translation.


I.e. “For good luck.  To the emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, Pious, Lucky, Augustus; and to Julia Mammaea the Augusta, his mother and also mother of the army camp, for safety and their perpetual stability, and of all their house, by Mevius Honorius …  prefect of Egypt … [i.e. at his order] … of the new Greeks of Antinoe, Aurelius Origenes being Prytaneus and Apollonius the senator being gymnasiarch, on account of the [triumphal] crowns that also by the action of the senate of Athens, in the 11th year …”

Jomard tells us that the inscription appeared on all four column bases, facing the crossroads, and was of 14 lines.  It was carefully engraved on the flat spaces left for it.

It’s all gone now.  Blown up, smashed to pieces, and used for building materials by the local inhabitants.

There are people who take things so much for granted that they scoff at scholarly literature as simply making copies on paper of what can be seen more easily in the round on the ground.  That is, of course, exactly what the literature does.  For what is on the ground can vanish.  That’s why it has to be recorded, in multiple copies.

Thanks to the effort of Edme François Jomard the column and the inscription of Alexander Severus is preserved for us all today.

UPDATE: I finally located Jomard’s drawing of the inscription, in vol. 5, plate 56, of the Description de l’Egypte (online here).  The plate contains a bunch of inscriptions.  Two, numbers 18 and 19, are labelled as from Antinoupolis.  Here they are:


Presumably these are transcribed from the two pedestals.

1743: publication of the visit of Charles Perry to Antinoupolis

The English traveller Charles Perry visited Antinoupolis in the early 18th century, although I have not been able to see in his book the exact year without reading the whole thing through.  His account was published in 1743 as A view of the Levant: particularly of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt and Greece (London: Woodward & co, 1743; online here; better copy with plates at UCL here).  His account of Insine, or Antinoupolis, is on p.328.  There is a plate also, at the end of the volume (although missing, I notice, in many Google copies), which has two items from Insine, but mostly the pyramid of Giza (which is what the diagram in the middle relates to).  I’ve chopped off the bottom.  Click to enlarge.

Charles Perry
Charles Perry

The choice of images is pretty clearly derived from Lucas;  Perry tells us that the “triumphal arch” had been damaged since Lucas, but his image does not show this.

His dependence on the words of Father Sicard appears at one or two points.  But let’s hear him.  Note that I have slightly modernised the spelling, and capitalisation.

    *    *    *    *

…we prevail’d on him[the boat captain, who was afraid of bandits], though not without much difficulty, to fall down to Insine, which is about four miles lower, on the east of the river, to visit the ruins and remaining antiquities of that once famous city. Indeed we had made very strict inquiry after it, with design to visit it in our way from Minio to Meloue, being inform’d it was not above three leagues below the latter; but notwithstanding we carry’d a pilot with us extraordinary, who had once been as far as the third cataract, and had many times been as far as Asoan with his own bark, and pretended to know every creek and corner of the Nile so far, yet he could give us no manner of intelligence where Insine was. But here lay the mistake, or the cause of our difficulty – though Insine was the ancient name of the city, and is the name given it by all writers, as well modern as ancient, yet the people of the Country call it Sheik Abadie from a Turkish saint that lies buried there. Whenever we talk’d to the Pilot of Insine, he imagin’d, and consequently would persuade us we meant Esne, which is another village about 150 leagues higher, lying on the west of the Nile, 35 leagues below the cataract of Asoan.

The extent of the present ruins of Insine (which we judge to be near four miles in circuit) serve to shew that of the ancient city, as the great Number of porphyry, and other pillars, do to shew its ancient splendor and magnificence.

A certain French Author (a reverend father) says, there are no less than fourteen pillars of red granite yet standing and whole, besides many others broken. But though the travellers of that nation seldom undervalue or under-rate the marvels they see and recite, yet this gentleman has been very short in this particular, though he has made amends for it in others; for we told so many pillars, that the account grew too perplex’d and heavy for our memory; and, at least, we can aver they far exceed the number by him given. Many of these fine pillars are disposed in lines, in a regular good order, before the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius, as ’tis called, and have doubtless been parts of some very superb edifice: But there are several others of them, further to the left-hand, which now serve as parts of, or props to miserable Arab houses, or rather huts.

The edifices, or parts of edifices yet extant, are the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius afore-mentioned, the Porta Ferrea, and the palace called Abulkerun. We compar’d the two former with Lucas’s draughts of them, and found them to agree very exactly, which we shall therefore exhibit for the curious reader to see. Of these the Triumphal Arch is the most considerable, being yet perfect and entire, as represented by Lucas; except only that since the time when he took a draught of it, the front is broken, just under the angle, which discovers, that the stone work, which terminates in a triangle, was sustained by an arch of brick-work.

Of the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius.

This edifice is seventeen yards in front, and half that sum in flank: its height is about fifty-six feet: the grand arch is five yards and an half wide, and eight yards high: Each of the small arches is two yards broad, and six yards and an half high. Besides those three arches, which pass from side to side, there is another which runs from end to end, and intersects all the other arches at right angles. But this Lucas does not mention in his reading, nor does he give it any appearance in his draught, which might have been done by drawing the face a little obliquely, or sideways. This edifice has in its front four pillars, made of square stones, with beautiful capitals, all which are very well express’d by Lucas. A few paces distant from this portico, on the left side of it, are three noble pillars of porphyry, placed regularly in a line. When we see and consider so many fine pillars, some in front, and others in flank of this portico, which seem to have been appendages to it, we are at a loss to guess what this fabric may formerly have been, and to what use and purpose designed.

For though ’tis commonly called the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius, yet it may have preceded his era many centuries, and have had another name, use, and design originally. However, we neither do, nor can suppose this city, or any of its remains were coeval with the ancient Egyptians; because throughout all its ruins we discover neither hieroglyphics, nor any of their divinities in relief; which are look’d upon as the only undoubted arguments and testimonies, that things were of their time, because none of their works (whether temples, statues, or grots) are without them.

Of what they call the Porta Ferreat there remains no more, at present, than two large pillars, with beautiful capitals, which are very well taken off by Lucas.

The palace called Abul Kerun, or the Horn’d Building, is now so far gone to ruin, as to admit of no good description. We find lying on the ground, before this palace, two capitals of pillars, whose angles are extravagantly large and prominent; and from thence, as ’tis said, the palace was called the Horn’d Building.

We found the remains of another public edifice, which we could learn no name for: it appears in front much like the Triumphal Arch above-describ’d, having one large arch in the middle, with a small one on each side, but ’tis not above seven feet thick. It had four noble large pillars, with beautiful capitals standing before it, at four yards distance, and as many behind it. These latter are partly standing and entire, but the former are all broken, and lying on the ground. At the distance of about 500 paces from thence, to the north-east, we find one pillar yet standing and entire: Its shaft consists of five stones, each seven feet high. The capital, and lower stone of the shaft, are each adorn’d with a very noble beautiful foliage. The pedestal is composed of several stones, is about four yards high, and has a Greek inscription on it, which is so much effaced by the injuries of time, that we could not make it out. ’Tis evident that there were formerly four of these pillars, disposed in form of a square; for there is the pedestal of another yet standing, with an inscription on it, which agrees, far as we could read it, with the other: there are likewise three capitals, besides many other fragments of the pillars, lying upon the ground. What assures us, that they were disposed in form of a square, is the position of the pedestal, now standing, with regard to the entire column ; for we found them bearing thus, to one another.


The Square c represents the situation of the entire Pillar, and d that of the pedestal, yet standing; so that, without doubt, a and b were the situation of the other two. But what may serve as a further proof of the ancient splendor and magnificence of this city, there are now extant two rows of marble pillars, or at least their bases in the earth; which run in right and parallel lines, at about twelve paces distance from each other, for about a mile; and those were of no other use or design, than to support a range of large balconies, which ran along on each side of the principal street; so that People might walk secure from the inclemencies and injuries of weather, whether of heat or rain. This principal street was cut in its middle, at right angles, by another street of equal form, bigness, and beauty, adorn’d in like manner with large balconies, supported with marble pillars. These two streets (according to ancient history, and what we may conclude from its present ruins) constituted the major part of the city; and the four pillars stood in that part where the streets crossed each other. Besides what we have made particular mention of, we found, as we rang’d over the ruins, a great many other stately pillars, yet on foot and entire. Without the limits of the present ruins, and consequently without those of the ancient city, doubtless, is a place about half a mile long, but not above sixty paces broad, which they now call the Meidan. This doubtless was the Circus, where they celebrated the Sports instituted by the Emperor Adrian, in Honour of his Favourite Antinous, after his Death, (being drowned, as ’tis commonly thought, in the River Nile near that City) for which he was inconsolable. History informs us, that the Emperor Adrian had (to his eternal ignominy) a most extravagant and unnatural passion for that youth; and therefore he omitted nothing that might serve to perpetuate his Memory. He called this City Antinopolis, in honour to him: He dedicated temples to him, in which he established oracles; and caused his deification to be celebrated with great pomp and solemnity. But before we finish our observation on this city, we must observe, that besides the two capital streets above-mentioned, there were several other streets, though of less extent and bigness, which were laid out with the utmost order and exactness, and ran in right and parallel lines: And these likewise had their ranges of balconies before the houses, sustain’d by fine marble pillars, as the others; so that the whole city seemed to be one continued peristylion. The ruins of this city are indeed very great, and far exceed any others that we found in all Upper Egypt, But, O tempora! O Mores! its ancient grandeur, glory, and splendor, are now reduced to a poor miserable village, consisting only of a few huts made of dirt; but their materials, however, are very well proportioned to their height, as they are both emblems of great humility, or rather poverty.

All places of the Turkish Dominions, which we have as yet visited, are very well stock’d with mosques, for their public worship; but no other Part is in any Proportion so full of them as Egypt, and especially Cairo; in which, according to the report of the people, there are no less than 8000, with minarets, besides a great many others: And when one sees what an infinite number of fine pillars, and other precious remains of antiquity are employ’d in them, (which they place without any beauty, order, or symmetry, mixing pillars of different orders, materials, and magnitudes promiscuously) ’tis astonishing to think where they found them. But whoever has seen what Egypt, especially the upper part of it, is, and well considers what it has been, will necessarily conclude, that there must have been an inexhaustible fund of them.

We return’d on board our Vessel that evening, and the next morning set forward under a fair, but gentle gale. In about an hour and half we went ashore again, near a Coptic Convent, call’d Abuhennis, which is situate on the same side of the Nile, about two or three Miles above Insine. ….