Temple Restoration Reveals Previously Unknown Names of Ancient Egyptian Constellations

The restoration of an ancient Egyptian temple in Esna, located about 60 km south of the ancient capital of Luxor in Egypt, has uncovered the original colors of the temple inscriptions and images, and revealed previously unknown names of ancient Egyptian constellations.

Egyptian constellations on the ceiling of the temple of Esna, inscriptions as yet unknown. Image credit: Ahmed Amin.

The temple of Esna, dedicated to the Egyptian deity Khnum, is one of the last examples of ancient Egyptian temple architecture.

Only the vestibule, called the pronaos, of the original temple complex survived, because it was used as storage facility for cotton during the 19th century CE.

The building measures 37 m long, 20 m wide, and 15 m tall, and was decorated mainly during the Roman period (1st to 3rd century CE).

The roof is supported by 18 columns with wonderfully varied floral capitals in the form of palm leaves, lotus buds and papyrus fans; some also have bunches of grapes, a distinctive Roman touch.

It is decorated with astronomical scenes, while the pillars are covered with hieroglyphic accounts of temple rituals.

The temple of Esna in March 2019. Image credit: Ahmed Amin.

“In Egyptian temple architecture this is an absolute exception,” said Dr. Daniel von Recklinghausen, a researcher in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Tübingen.

“The work on the elaborate decorations probably took up to 200 years.”

“The real wealth, the inscriptions, was recognized by the French Egyptologist Serge Sauneron, who pushed ahead with the excavation of the temple and published the inscriptions in full,” the researchers said.

“But without the original colors, Sauneron could not recognize them under the layers of soot and bird excrement.”

“Now, the layers have been removed and the temple looks in part as it may have done some 2,000 years ago.”

The restoration work in the temple of Esna shows that under many layers the original colors are preserved. Image credit: Ahmed Amin.

“In addition, it now offers new approaches for Egyptology research,” said Professor Christian Leitz, director of the Department of Egyptology at the University of Tübingen.

“The hieroglyphics that Sauneron explored were often only very roughly chiseled out, the details only applied by painting them in color.”

“This means that only preliminary versions of the inscriptions had been researched. Only now do we get a picture of the final version.”

The circumpolar constellation, the Big Dipper, in the shape of a bull’s leg. It consists of seven stars and is tied to a stake by a goddess in hippo form. Image credit: Ahmed Amin.

During the restoration, the scientists found the descriptions of the Big Dipper (Mesekhtiu) and Orion (Sah) constellations.

They also discovered inscriptions about the previously unknown constellations, including the Geese of Ra (Apedu n Ra).

The constellation Orion as Osiris (left) and Sothis as Isis (right). Image credit: Ahmed Amin.

“In the area of the astronomical ceiling, many inscriptions were not executed in relief, but only painted in ink,” Professor Leitz said.

“They were previously undetected under the soot and are now being exposed piece by piece.”

“Here we have found, for example, the names of ancient Egyptian constellations, which were previously completely unknown.”

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