This brief article doesn't claim to explain in detail, by any means, all aspects of the temple of Behbeit el-Haggar, but to propose to you the discovery of an ignored site of the delta, which badly needs protection and restoration
This text was produced based on a public lecture by Mrs. Christine Favard-Meeks. Acknowledgements to her, and for agreeing to correct this short text.
Situated right in the middle of the Delta, Behbeit el-Hagar is to about fifteen kilometres to the north of Busiris.
The research on the site have been led by Mrs. Christine Favard-Meeks, who proposed a reconstitution analysis for it.
The site is currently very ruined, and continuously ravaged by the villagers in the vicinity, who have all cut all antiquity found there, from the blocks of granite, but associated with it also are more recent acts of vandalism with reliefs cut destined to be resold.
The temple was founded by Nectanebo II (360-342 BC), the last indigenous sovereign, and one finds there traces of the work of Ptolemy II (285-246 BC) and III (246-222 BC). Then no proof which can be dated to a following reign. One can affirm therefore that the temple was abandoned very early, because if a building as important had been in use there after Ptolemy III, the Lagide Pharaohs and the Roman Emperors would have certainly left a trace.
This is confirmed by the fact that, in spite of the great surface available, no building has been found in the temenos. Besides, the farmers who regularly come closer to the temple for their agriculture don't seem to have taken from the ground any objects of the Greco-Roman period.
It is likely that the temple collapsed prematurely in antiquity, possibly following an earthquake. For a very long time, it was believed that the sanctuary was dedicated solely to Isis. From early times, the Greek then authors then the Roman authors visiting Egypt spoke of a famous "temple of Isis".
Although collapsed, it is probable that excessively pious devotees of the goddess remained around the temple, a long after the activity of worship was interrupted. It is certainly a fact that a block was recovered from the only decorated chapel of the reign of Nectanebo II (the chapel of sheathed Osiris, which this king worshipped in particular) in the temple of Isis in Rome, which illustrates the importance of the place for the goddess's cult. Confusion was perpetuated by the first travellers to have described the site during the 17th and 18th century.
The presence of numerous Hathor heads, on the blocks of a collapsed frieze, thus reinforced the hypothesis of a feminine goddess, and these scholars assimilated the site with the Isein of the classical authors.
The temple was built entirely in granite, and surrounded by a defensive wall of the same stone while the surrounding wall which delimited the temenos was in raw brick. Its measurements had to be of about 100 m. in length by 60 m. width. At the front, a hypostyle room, including the columns whose number is difficult to specify because of their fragmentary state, had to be in front of the entry of the sanctuary. None have survived intact, but their diameter can be estimated at 1.50 m.
One supposes the existence of a monumental door of very large size at the entry of the sanctuary of Isis itself.
Thanks to a data base of all the blocks, numbered and photographed by Mrs. Meeks, many walls could be restored and arranged in their specified registers.
Thus, it is for example, known that all bases of the walls were decorated by geniuses of the Nile.
The temple was designed to have some chapels on the roof, but its collapse brought the blocks these components to mingle with those of the rooms beneath, making the reconstruction very difficult. Isis is very present at Behbeit el-Hagar but in the very form of universal primordial goddess, and especially as the one who presents the offerings to her brother Osiris and the one who protects him.
Isis also plays the role of goddess of the festivities, since there were many festivals which borrowed all of the different ways in the temple. The temple included an
wabet (place of purity) to the south of the sanctuary, where the image of Isis was preserved, in her form of a falcon.
At the exit of the
wabet, a monumental covered staircase lead to the roof where important rituals took place. The parallel corridor to the sanctuary of Isis, whose external walls were also decorated, lead to the four Osirian chapels situated at the bottom of the temple. From north to south, these Osirian chapels were all dedicated to a different form of Osiris.
They included a low part and a high part on the roof.
Only one block was recovered from the double chapel of
Hwt-sr but a few more of the chapel dedicated to "Osiris who awakens healthy". This one represents a synthesis of all Osirises of the Delta.
It is proposed that the chapel of the
sheathed Osiris was placed on the roof, which dates from Nectanebo II and which is different from the others. It included only one register of images of offerings to Osiris who, regenerated by these offerings, lost his covering while being born again as a young god. In the upper register, is found only one royal offering to a group of seated divinities which had to occupy the whole circumference of the chapel. Annually, semblances of Osiris were manufactured there, according to a specific ritual. These Osiriform statues were not the vegetating Osirises (no plant seed was used in their manufacture) but were assembled from clay. The chapel called "high house" or
per-qa is the place of conservation of the small statues of Osiris. It is thought that on the roof had to be a tabernacle to preserve the statue of the year. It is also here that one finds the greatest concentration of zoomorphic divinities.
Finally, it can be said that Behbeit El-Hagar is essentially a temple destined for the rebirth of Osiris, and therefore of the king, in all conceivable ways. Before the reign of Nectanebo II, a cult of the funeral statuaries of the Saite kings already existed, probably in this place relating to a building or a cemetery. Probably having this fact in memory, the Egyptian theologians, in a last attempt, called on all cults of the Delta, to all rituals which they had in their possession to try to protect the traditional royal function and its protective role of the land of Egypt.
Here, Isis is the supplier of offerings to Osiris and assume a role of protector of the god's aspects. In return, she is assimilated in her sanctuary as a universal goddess, compared in Atum. She acquired a role which she didn't always have in Egyptian religion. It is in this role of universal and protective goddess that her cult spilled into the whole Mediterranean basin.
It is certain fact that the temple of Behbeit El-Hagar represents a unique monument, including blocks whose reliefs are of an exceptional quality. It therefore appears urgent to preserve and to restore this structure before the deteriorations linked to the actions the wind erosion, pollution and depredation cause the disappearance of one of the most beautiful monuments of the Delta
You can find a more complete text on the temple and numerous photos in a document
Raymond Betz has much expanded this presentation, you can download this PDF (754 Kb) .