Temple Restoration Reveals Vibrant Art of Vulture-Like Egyptian Goddesses

Millennia of grime, soot and bird poop had covered up—and preserved—the archaeological treasure

The restored ceiling of an Egyptian temple shows vulture-like depiction of goddesses
The ceiling was once so filthy, these depictions of Egyptian goddesses could not be seen. University of Tübingen

For decades, researchers knew there were inscriptions all over the Temple of Esna in Egypt. Millennia of muck coated the walls, but one could make out that something was there, even though it was difficult to see exactly what was depicted.

Now, Al-Monitor’s Hagar Hosny reports, the interior of the ancient temple has been restored, revealing the same rainbow of brilliant color its builders would have seen thousands of years ago.

Not only are the drawings and inscriptions now clearly visible, they’re in full color. That’s common, says Christian Leitz, who heads the University of Tübingen’s Egyptology department, in a statement. “Temples and representations of the gods of antiquity were often painted with bright colors, but they have mostly faded or completely disappeared due to external influences,” he says, per Google Translate.

The University of Tübingen led the major restoration effort alongside Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

In addition to hieroglyphics and some Greek inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the temple, there are 46 depictions of the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet.

The team used alcohol to remove layers of soot, dust, dirt, bird poop, and cobwebs from the 49-foot-tall vestibule that, per Live Science’s Owen Jarus, is the only part of the temple still standing. Located about 30 miles south of Luxor, it was once used as a haven where early Christian Copts escaped Roman persecution.

A worker cleans a temple wall
Workers used toothbrushes and alcohol to remove millennia of grime from the temple.  University of Tübingen

The candles and lamps they burned contributed to the accumulation of grime on the temple walls and ceiling, per Al-Monitor. But the accumulated filth that hid the artwork allowed it to endure.

Ceiling of Egyptian temple
There's still more of the ceiling, shown here in its entirety, to clean. University of Tübingen

Researchers have determined the temple was dedicated to the god Khnum, his consorts Menhit and Nebtu, his son Heka, and the goddess Neith. Khnum was the Egyptian god of fertility, associated with water and represented as a man with a ram’s head. Menhit was a lion goddess associated with war, Heka was the god of magic and medicine, and Neith was the patroness of the city of Sais.

There are also numerous depictions of the Nekhbet and Wadjet, whom the ancient Egyptians sometimes referred to as the “two ladies,” per Live Science. Nekhbet was a vulture goddess viewed as a protector of Upper Egypt, and Wadjet was a cobra goddess that protected Lower Egypt.

The 46 depictions of the goddesses envision them in the form of vulture bodies with outstretched wings. Nekhbet is depicted wearing the bowling-pin-like crown of Upper Egypt with a vulture’s head, and Wadjet wears the red crown of Lower Egypt with a cobra’s head.

In a statement, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says Greek inscriptions were also found on the temple’s western wall.

Drawn in red ink, the inscriptions include dates and likely commemorate the year the temple was completed. Based on hieroglyphs on the temple, it was likely in use between about 180 B.C.E. and 250 C.E.

Those dates encompass parts of Egypt’s Ptolemaic and Roman rules. Bassam el-Shammaa, an Egyptology researcher and tour guide, tells Al-Monitor that the Temple of Esna is one of a number of temples the Greeks built in dedication to Egyptian gods as a means of fostering positive relations with the people they ruled.

It’s likely there are buried parts of the Temple of Esna that are yet to be discovered, Shammaa says, and Live Science reports restoration is still ongoing—a little less than half of the temple is yet to be fully cleaned.

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