BMCR 2008.01.05

Deir el-Bahari in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods: A Study of an Egyptian Temple Based on Greek Sources. The Journal of Juristic Papyrology, Suppl. IV

, Deir el-Bahari in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods: A Study of an Egyptian Temple Based on Greek Sources. The Journal of Juristic Papyrology, Suppl. IV. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology, Warsaw University and Fundacja im. Rafala Taubenschlaga, 2006. xviii, 462; ills. 28. $119.00.

Few new publications should be of as much interest to scholars of ancient religion as epigraphical corpora devoted to the finds from individual sanctuaries, especially those sites omitted from our literary sources. Among these is the Egyptian sanctuary of Amenhotep son of Hapu and Imhotep at Deir el-Bahari, where a rich collection of scratched and painted wall inscriptions composed primarily in Greek and Demotic illuminates the beliefs and practices of those visiting the site during the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Late Antique periods. It is the 323 Greek graffiti and dipinti, representing roughly 60 percent of the surviving total, that are the subject of this outstandingly interesting and useful new corpus by Adam Lajtar. Lajtar (henceforth L.) has participated in Polish and Polish-Egyptian missions at Deir el-Bahari over a period of two decades, and the great investment of time both on site and in the library shows: the publication is an exemplary work that should be emulated by others undertaking work on a corpus of artifacts linked to a particular site, whether inscribed or uninscribed.

Deir el-Bahari, located in “western Thebes” (i.e., the series of communities and complexes, mainly funerary, established across the Nile River from Thebes beginning in Pharaonic times) in the immediate vicinity of the Valley of the Kings, is most famously associated with the 18th-Dynasty female pharaoh Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple (15th cent. B.C.). While most of the enormous complex is built outwards from the base of a cliff, a significant portion consists of rock-cut chambers carved into the cliff, some of which were originally devoted to a sanctuary of the Theban god Amun. It was into these chambers that the official cult of Amenhotep son of Hapu was introduced in the early Ptolemaic period, nearly a millennium after Hatshepsut’s mortuary cult had faded and three centuries after a short-lived revival of the cult of Amun at the site. Almost two centuries later, Amenhotep would be joined by the healing god Imhotep, who by then was closely identified with Asklepios in many worshipers’ minds. Like his future associate Imhotep, who had served the 3rd-Dynasty king Djoser (27th cent. B.C.), Amenhotep in life had been a priest, chief royal architect, and high-ranking court official with considerable accomplishments and talents, and in death came to be revered as a divinity with oracular and healing powers. Unlike Imhotep, however, Amenhotep appears to have played a significant role in his own apotheosis, with the permission of the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (14th cent. B.C.), Amenhotep erected statues of himself at Karnak that proclaimed his power to convey visitors’ messages to Amun in return for a libation or offering, thus establishing himself as an intermediary between worshipers and their god. After Amenhotep’s death, he was venerated at the mortuary temple he had built for himself in the Theban necropolis at Medinet Habu, where his cult had been established three years before his death. This mortuary cult continued to flourish at least until the end of the 21st Dynasty (10th cent. B.C.), but as it declined in the 3rd Intermediate Period or Late Period (10th-4th cents. B.C.) Amenhotep also came to be worshiped in the series of rock-cut chambers on the upper terrace of Hatshepsut’s temple, with the site replacing Medinet Habu as the locus of his worship sometime around 300 B.C. It was here that Amenhotep (“Amenothes” in Greek) can best be seen as an oracular god and a god who healed his worshipers directly or gave them prescriptions in a manner strikingly similar to that of Asklepios.1

While evidence for the career and subsequent post-mortem worship of Amenhotep during both Pharaonic and Greco-Roman times can be found at multiple sites in the area of Thebes, his rock-cut shrine at Deir el-Bahari provides far more information about his cult than any other site, thanks to the more than 500 graffiti in addition to painted wall reliefs bearing hieroglyphic texts. These wall inscriptions, however, do not simply alert us to the fact that Amenhotep along with Imhotep was worshiped there: they richly document the worshipers’ religious activities and beliefs, as well as certain other aspects of their lives and life in Greco-Roman Egypt.2 While editing or reediting the full body of Greek texts from Deir el-Bahari, which also includes three ostraka and two inscriptions on stone, L. has extensively mined them for information and greatly enriched both his catalog and the introduction that precedes it, and this will benefit scholars from a broad range of fields.

The aforementioned introduction is divided into fifteen short chapters:

Chapter 1 (“Deir el-Bahari before the Ptolemaic Period: Topography and History”) traces the history of Deir el-Bahari during the Pharaonic period, with a particular focus on the construction and function of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple and her cult’s development and eventual disappearance.

Chapter 2 (“Amenhotep son of Hapu and Imhotep”) recapitulates the biographies of Imhotep and Amenhotep, each of whom was among the most accomplished and respected men of their day, and then traces their respective transformations into divinized mortals and eventually gods.

Chapter 3 (“The Cult of Amenhotep son of Hapu and Imhotep at Deir el-Bahari: The Sources”) surveys the types of hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek documents found in situ, the two ostraka, and one wooden tablet that are of unknown provenience but likely to have originated at Deir el-Bahari, and papyri from western Thebes that appear to refer to this shrine.

Chapter 4 (“Early Period of the Cult before the Construction of the Ptolemaic Sanctuary”) analyzes several documents, including more than a dozen wall inscriptions from the first half of the Ptolemaic period, in order to show that in the shrine’s early days its popularity among Greeks living in the area grew, partly because of the priests of Amenhotep engaging in propaganda meant to increase his appeal among non-natives.

Chapter 5 (“The Rebuilding in the Second Half of the Second Century BC”) details the nature of the major rebuilding effort at Amenhotep’s shrine that took place under Ptolemy VIII, most likely around 124-117 B.C., when the king built or rebuilt many temples in an attempt at reconciliation in the aftermath of the recent civil war.

Chapter 6 (“The History of the Cult of Amenhotep and Imhotep in Deir el-Bahari in Late Ptolemaic and Roman Times”) uses dated and datable inscriptions to reveal the shrine’s increased popularity during the late-Ptolemaic and early-Roman periods, which was followed by a marked decline in the second half of the second century A.D. and the cult’s apparent disappearance around 200 A.D.

Chapter 7 (“Topography of the Cult”) studies the placement of the wall inscriptions in order to determine which sections of the vast Hatshepsut complex were reused for the worship of Amenhotep and Imhotep, and thus what the temple’s sacred boundaries were. Partly on the strength of this evidence — but also based on a crucial passage in one dipinto and the decorative scheme — L. concludes that the Bark Shrine and the two chambers to which it led probably comprised the sanctuary itself, since they have no graffiti and thus seem to have been generally inaccessible to the public.

Chapter 8 (“The Gods”) infers from the number of times Amenhotep and Imhotep were addressed separately or jointly that, despite the efforts of the cult officials who spearheaded Imhotep’s installation at Amenhotep’s shrine and treated the two as equals, the god from Memphis never gained complete acceptance with the local Theban populace. Moreover, L. concludes that at Deir el-Bahari Egyptian Imhotep was completely identified with Greek Asklepios in the minds of visitors, since none of the Demotic graffiti names Imhotep and the Greek graffiti use the name “Asklepios” rather than “Imouthes.” The Greek graffiti also show him to have been worshiped alongside Hygieia and identified as the son of Apollo rather than Hephaestus.3 In addition, documents from the site can show that visiting Greek worshipers were referring to Amenhotep as a god several decades before native Egyptians, who for some time continued to consider him as a divinized mortal but not a proper god (a transformation which L. elsewhere attributes to the priests’ introduction of the god Imhotep to the shrine and their need to elevate Amenhotep so that he would be an equal of the newcomer).

Chapter 9 (“Aspects of the Cult”) examines four aspects of worship at Deir el-Bahari: the continuation of Amenhotep’s official mortuary cult; Amenhotep’s role as divine physician who, sharing his medical practice with Imhotep, cured both through healing miracles and by providing treatments or prescriptions for those engaging in therapeutic incubation, but who did not provide long-term sanatorium-like facilities of the sort seen elsewhere in the ancient world; the cult’s oracular function, which probably involved both written oracles and dream-oracles (and at times may have depended on hidden cult officials simulating Amenhotep’s voice for a worshiper’s benefit); and, the cult of the Ptolemaic royal family, which can be detected as far back as the mid-third century B.C.

Chapter 10 (“Forms of the Cult”) discusses the various types of religious practices evident in the sources, including the singing of hymns (some of which are partly quoted in wall inscriptions), celebration of festivals, holding of feasts, and composing of proskynema texts.

Chapter 11 (“The Personnel of the Temple”) establishes what can be known regarding the cult’s hierarchy and identities of Amenhotep’s priests, based primarily on Demotic papyri from elsewhere in western Thebes.

Chapter 12 (“The Economic Side of the Cult”) gleans what little is possible about the cult’s finances from these Demotic papyri, which pertain to Amenhotep’s ownership and leasing of property, while also drawing parallels to other cults for which there is richer documentation of revenue sources.

Chapter 13 (“Visitors to the Temple”) delves into the nomenclature and ethnicity of the worshipers who left on the walls messages written in Greek. L. shows that before the reconstruction under Ptolemy VIII, Greek graffiti were produced almost entirely by worshipers with Greek names, whereas contemporary Egyptians preferred to write in Demotic, but after this watershed event in the sanctuary’s history the majority of those producing Greek graffiti bore Egyptian or Greco-Egyptian names. Since many of these are theophoric names derived from those of gods worshiped in western Thebes, L. concludes that the majority of visitors to the site were locals, and therefore — despite some exceptions coming from farther away — Deir el-Bahari should not be considered a pilgrimage sanctuary. While most of these visitors did not record their occupations, enough of them did for L. to determine that the sanctuary was visited mainly by those from the middle and lower classes of Theban society.

Chapter 14 (“Visitors’ Inscriptions: Some General Observations”) explores issues associated with the composition, quality and placement of the roughly five hundred Greek and Demotic graffiti associated with the cult of Amenhotep and Imhotep, which L. believes to have once numbered around a thousand. Based on these criteria, L. argues that cult officials may have had a hand in determining where certain wall inscriptions went — especially in terms of whether they would be permitted within the temenos — and also would have assisted those who lacked writing skills.

Chapter 15 (“Deir el-Bahari in Late Antiquity”) investigates a dozen dipinti from around 280-330 A.D., many decades after the cult of Amenhotep and Imhotep appears to have become defunct, at least half of which were left by a corporation of iron-workers from nearby Hermonthis. As L. demonstrates, the unnamed god in whose honor these men would hold ritual banquets, drink beer, and sacrifice a donkey may well have been Amenhotep — but if so, it would appear that he had evolved into a cosmic god by then.4 By the mid-fourth century all traces of pagan worship had disappeared at the site, but around 600 A.D. a Christian monastery that was probably named for St. Phoibamon was established in the former temple of Amenhotep and Imhotep. This monastery flourished for two centuries, and even after it was abandoned continued to draw Christian pilgrims until the thirteenth century, as Coptic graffiti reveal. It is particularly noteworthy that under St. Phoibamon the site’s healing function continued (or was restarted), for several of the Coptic texts from the eighth century show worshipers being treated for illnesses at the site, and even engaging in incubation. L. concludes both the chapter and the introduction with a brief description of current folk beliefs and rituals associated with the local saint Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, whose help in conceiving children is sought by women with fertility problems — just as Amenhotep and Imhotep at Deir el-Bahari had earlier been visited by the infertile, according to Demotic sources. Thus, as was common at so many other places in the ancient Mediterranean world, a pagan healing shrine was eventually replaced by a Christian one, and in this case may even have influenced later Muslim traditions in the area.

L.’s catalog begins with the graffiti, which are arranged topographically, and ends with the ostraka and stone inscriptions. He treats each with admirable thoroughness, typically providing archaeological context, lemma, bibliography, text, apparatus criticus, facsimile (and, in a dozen cases, a representative photo), interpretive discussion, and commentary. L. also deserves commendation for his user-friendly approach to bibliographical listings for inscriptions that have been discussed elsewhere, as he potentially saves the reader much time by stating how much attention the inscription in question receives in these other studies (e.g., “only mentioned” or “brief discussion”). The commentaries show tremendous learning on a large range of subjects: in addition to informative philological discussions of such issues as phonology, morphology, dialect and syntax, L.’s catalog entries are packed with discussions of nomenclature, religion, political and social history, economics, literature, linguistics, and several other areas. This is not an epigraphical corpus whose editor was content to publish the texts and let others explore their meanings and significance: instead, L. himself has already done so, enriching the work with a wealth of insights. This was no small undertaking, since this exceedingly complex project required not only a mastery of Greek epigraphy, but also some amount of expertise in Demotic and hieroglyphics, as well as in many elements of Pharaonic and post-Pharaonic religion. Moreover, L. has actually looked at each text that still survives, enabling him both to improve significantly on the readings in André Bataille’s 1951 corpus and to publish more than 130 new texts that were either missed previously or have been discovered because of more recent archaeological work.

The majority of these graffiti are proskynema texts or texts consisting solely of worshipers’ names. There are, however, several documents that provide considerably more insights into the nature and functioning of the cult, though some of these are extensively damaged. Such is the case with a dipinto left by a Roman soldier named Athenodoros, who was stationed at Koptos, the condition of which is so bad that the lengthy narrative can hardly be reconstructed after the opening lines (Cat. No. 208). This is especially vexing, as the experiences he recounted are of great interest: while visiting the sanctuary to worship “Asklepios,” Amenhotep, and Hygieia, he received a nocturnal epiphany from Amenhotep but also apparently committed a religious transgression by entering the sanctuary, whereupon as punishment he seems to have fallen ill but then been restored to health by the gods, who instructed him to leave a written record of these events.

We have been far more fortunate with the preservation of a broken ostrakon dating to 261/0 B.C. — the earliest Greek text from Deir el-Bahari — which features a nearly complete text in which a Macedonian Greek named Polyaratos details a miraculous recovery achieved under the care of Amenhotep (Cat. No. A1). According to his account, for eight years Polyaratos had been suffering from a debilitating glandular illness that physicians had been unable to cure, and since he had heard that Amenhotep “has accomplished numerous miraculous healings, that he is merciful and that many desperate people have found salvation through him,” Polyaratos came to Deir el-Bahari and was successfully cured through incubation, leaving an account of the god’s “miracle” for others to see.5

These two documents stand out in particular because they are so richly detailed, and also because the first represents an important parallel for “confession” inscriptions from Asia Minor and the second for healing testimonies from certain sanctuaries of Asklepios, but several other inscribed sources are also worth noting:6 at least three metrical inscriptions, including a previously unpublished hymn to Amenhotep that has parallels with a hieroglyphic hymn inscribed at the sanctuary and reveals a possible Egyptian influence on its poetic language (No. 219; cf. Nos. 100, 209, 210); a graffito by a Macedonian laborer stating that he came to visit “Amenothes, a good god, and became sick and the god helped him on the same day” (Cat. No. 68);7 a damaged ostrakon that appears to preserve an oracular saying or question by or for Amenhotep (Cat. No. A3); a proskynema text with an imprecation against erasure (Cat. No. 123); and, a broken limestone flake bearing a third-century B.C. text entitled the “Precepts of Amenothes” that included a series of ethical and practical maxims (e.g., “Exercise prudence with justice,” “Respect in the same way the gods and the parents”) belonging to the same tradition as both the Delphic “Sentences” inscribed at Apollo’s temple and the written collections of maxims circulating in Greece beginning in the archaic period, and thus appears to represent an attempt by the priests of Amenhotep to make their oracular divinity more popular with the Greek community (Cat. No. A2).

No significant flaws in L.’s research or argumentation stand out, though one conclusion might be questioned: his treatment of Imhotep as a full partner with Amenhotep in the sanctuary’s oracular function. While there is clear evidence for Amenhotep issuing oracles at the site — at least some through dreams — no source from Deir el-Bahari links Imhotep to an oracular inquiry or response (although a few of the hieroglyphic wall paintings do allude to Imhotep’s prophetic powers, as is also true of Amenhotep). L.’s determination that Imhotep, who undoubtedly was involved in the sanctuary’s healing function, also helped Amenhotep to meet worshipers’ demand for oracles seems to be partly based on his belief that the Roman soldier Athenodoros may have been visiting Deir el-Bahari for an oracular consultation. This, however, is not stated in the surviving portions of Athenodoros’s dipinto, which only records that he “was praying and invoking the good Asklepios, as well as the honored Amenothes and the greatest goddess Hygieia.” An oracular consultation is but one possible explanation for his presence; it is no less likely that he was invoking Asklepios for medical assistance or advice, perhaps for someone unable to make the 40-kilometer trek from Koptos. While L. is correct that elsewhere in Egypt there is unambiguous evidence for Imhotep-Imouthes functioning as an oracular god as well as a healer, L. himself argues that the god worshiped at Deir el-Bahari was perceived by Greek visitors as their own Greek god Asklepios, rather than the Greco-Egyptian fusion, and further demonstrates that Egyptian visitors who employed Demotic had decidedly little interest in the god worshiped there alongside Amenhotep. And though Asklepios in Greece did on occasion respond to inquiries that were not health-related, his worshipers valued him much more for his therapeutic skills than for his prophetic abilities. Therefore, while L. may well be correct that both Amenhotep and Imhotep-Asklepios provided oracles at Deir el-Bahari, this is not clearly indicated by the sources, and therefore should be considered as possible, but not proven.

The only significant problem with the volume itself is that eight plans of the Hatshepsut complex, some of which show the distribution of wall inscriptions by their catalog number, were prepared for the book, but the rooms and structures were not labeled. Since the captions indicate that labels were intended, this omission appears to be an accident. The result is that the reader is inconvenienced by having to identify the different parts of the complex from the catalog’s information about where each wall inscription was located. Also regrettable is the decision not to supplement the word and name indexes with a subject index and an index locorum, especially since so many noteworthy discussions fill the pages of both the introduction and the commentaries.

The few problems highlighted here hardly detract from the great quality and value of L.’s book. As a site of religious worship from Pharaonic times through the Byzantine period, Deir el-Bahari is especially important for the study of religious continuity and change in ancient Egypt; as a site frequented by hundreds of ordinary individuals who left behind messages attesting to their visits, it provides an important glimpse into the lives of those inhabiting western Thebes in Ptolemaic and Roman times. In producing an outstanding corpus of the Greek texts that includes such an extensive introduction to the site, L. has made an invaluable contribution to multiple fields of scholarship, and set a high standard for future works of this genre.


1. No sources shed light on the installation of Amenhotep at Deir el-Bahari, leading to two schools of thought on the timeline: either Amenhotep’s official cult relocated to the vacant chambers of Hatshepsut’s temple, or an unofficial shrine of Amenhotep had been established at this site before the official relocation. Amenhotep should not be confused with the pharaoh Amenhotep I, who came to be venerated as an oracular god at nearby Deir el-Medina.

2. In addition to the previous corpus of Greek texts by André Bataille ( Les inscriptions grecques du temple de Hatshepsout à Deir el-Bahari [Publications de la Société Fouad I de Papyrologie, Textes et Documents 10; Cairo, 1951]), the hieroglyphic wall reliefs have been published in Ewa Laskowska-Kusztal’s excellent study of the site ( Le sanctuaire ptolémaïque de Deir el-Bahari [Deir El-Bahari 3; Warsaw, 1984]), and Dietrich Wildung has included the most important Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphic texts from the sanctuary of Amenhotep and Imhotep in his fundamental study of the two gods ( Imhotep und Amenhotep [Münchner Ägyptologische Studien 36; Berlin, 1977]). Most of the hieroglyphic texts left by visitors, however, remain unpublished. A corpus of the 180 or so Demotic texts from Deir el-Bahari is currently being prepared by Dr. Jan Krzysztof Winnicki. L. also reports that “a number” of Greek ostraka excavated at Deir el-Bahari in the 1890’s are in the collection of the British Museum but remain unpublished — a most unfortunate oversight by the papyrological community, in light of the tremendous value of other ostraka from the site, especially for the study of its oracular and healing functions.

3. “Imouthes,” the Greek name for the interpretatio graeca of Imhotep, can be seen in numerous Greek sources from Memphis and elsewhere in Egypt. Imhotep’s father, Ptah, was identified with the Greek Hephaestus — thus a reference to Asklepios’s father as Apollo rather than Hephaestus is significant.

4. On these graffiti, see also Adam Lajtar, ” Proskynema Inscriptions of a Corporation of Iron-Workers from Hermonthis in the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari: New Evidence for Pagan Cults in Egypt in the 4th Cent. A.D.,” JJP 21 (1991), 53-70.

5. This ostrakon is almost certainly a draft for a larger inscription that has been lost. Polyaratos’s decision to seek divine assistance through incubation after a long period of chronic suffering that the physicians could do little to cure perfectly matches a pattern evident in the cult of Asklepios, on which see Bronwen Wickkiser, “Chronicles of Chronic Cases and Tools of the Trade at Asklepieia,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 8 (2006) 25-40.

6. This list does not include some Demotic graffiti and ostraka either found at Deir el-Bahari or assigned to the site that are no less fascinating, and also receive significant treatment from L.

7. L. does not note that this is the only known inscription in which an individual reports having been healed by a god on the same day that he had become ill.