Sunday, December 5, 2010

2,300 year old temple discovered at Thmuis in Egypt – built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus

A column from the newly discovered temple of Ptolemy II at Thmuis. It may have been built as a memorial temple for his dead queen - Arsinoe II. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman

The cartouche of Ptolemy II, found on the temple. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman
Mudbrick structures jut out from the ruins of ancient Thmuis. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman

A figure of the hippo goddess
Taweret. It was discovered near
the harbour of Thmuis. Photo
courtesy Professor Robert Littman
A temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus has been discovered at the ancient city of Thmuis (also known at Tell Timai) on the Nile Delta in Egypt.
Ptolemy II was a king of Egypt and the son of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. During his reign Egypt had a vast navy and controlled harbours and territory throughout the eastern Mediterranean. He erected a stela (a stone carving) at Thmuis and inaugurated a building and restoration program in the city.
Archaeologists believe that the newly discovered temple may have been built as a memorial to his dead queen – Arsinoe II. She was held in such high regard that the king deified her after she died.  
“We suspect this was a temple that was built for Arsinoe (the second) – a memorial temple for Arsinoe,” said Professor Robert Littman of the University of Hawaii. He leads the research team along with Jay Silverstein, an archaeologist at the same institution.  
More work needs to be done on the structure, “right now all we have are fluted columns and one inscription, one cartouche of Ptolemy,” said Professor Littman. He added that they have also found fragments from an art relief.
The size of the columns suggests that it was a large temple. The team plans to use Ground Penetrating Radar and magnetic survey to determine its dimensions and get clues as to its layout. 
Arsinoe II was Ptolemy II’s sister and second wife, becoming his queen after he disavowed his first bride, Arsinoe I. She has been in the news recently with new research suggesting that she ruled Egypt as a female pharaoh alongside the king.
After Arsinoe II’s death in 268 BC “Philadelphus used the name of Arsinoe to give an identity, a colour, to the representation of his empire as a sea power,” writes Celine Marquaille, of Kings College London, in a book on Ptolemy’s life.
The king had a powerful navy and “linked this power to his dynasty by creating a deity Arsinoe-Aphrodite-Kypris,” Marquaille said. The newly created goddess became a protector of seafarers.
That wasn’t the only aspect of Arsinoe II’s deification. After her death statues were created depicting the queen as the goddess Isis. Silverstein said that archaeologists from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities have found an example at Thmuis itself, some distance away from the newly discovered temple. 
The growth of Thmuis
In 332 BC Alexander the Great entered Egypt, chasing out the Persians and inaugurating a line of Greek rulers that would last nearly 300 years. Historians refer to this period as the “Ptolemaic Dynasty,” so named after the general that took control of Egypt after Alexander’s death – Ptolemy I Soter.
The city of Thmuis flourished during this time. Located on the eastern Nile Delta it grew in population and size.
The area around it has a long history.
Just 500 meters to the north there was another ancient city, called Mendes. That site was founded more than 5,000 years ago, but was in decline at the time of the Ptolemies. “Apparently the course of the Mendesian branch of the Nile started to change - the northern tell, Mendes, fell into disuse,” said Professor Littman. “(It) severely wanes in the 5th and 4th centuries and Thmuis increases in size and population.”
Silverstein added that the team is “looking at the possibility a branch of the Nile River, or a tributary of that, ran between the two cities.”
The harbour of Thmuis was important to the city’s success. The team has been trying to locate it by using core samples, excavation and magnetic survey. “We think we’re right at the water line now,” said Silverstein.
Among the finds they’ve made is a five inch statue of the hippo goddess Taweret, it dates back about 2,200 years. “By the Ptolemaic Period, Taweret had the title Lady of the Birth House,” writes Geraldine Pinch, of Oxford University, in her book on Egyptian Mythology. “Female hippopotamus was respected as a fierce protector of her young and the embodiment of the life-giver power of water.”
The Siege of Jerusalem - Thmuis as a staging ground
In 30 BC, Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, committed suicide, reportedly by snake bite. The Roman emperor Augustus took over Egypt, incorporating it into his empire as a province.
Thmuis continued to play an important role. In AD 70 the Roman army used the city as a staging ground while on their way to lay siege to Jerusalem. Jewish residents throughout Palestine were revolting against Roman rule.
The legions were led by their commander, Titus.
“Titus accordingly proceeding by land as far as Nicopolis, distant twenty furlongs from Alexandria, there put his army on board long galleys, and advanced up the river, along the Mendesian prefecture, to the city of Thmuis,” wrote Flavius Josephus, in AD 75, telling how the Roman army gathered together to attack Jerusalem.
Littman said that the team hasn’t found firm archaeological evidence of this army. One possible artefact from these legions is a coin from Judea that was found north of Thmuis, at Mendes. “The coin comes from a period after the sack of Jerusalem,” said Littman.
He said that it’s possible that the coin was dropped by a soldier returning from the battle. “Even though the sources don’t say that Titus marched on back, there’s a good chance that he did,” said Littman. “The garrison that he was taking came from Alexandria to begin with.”
Thmuis today – an endangered site
The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans arrived. In the fourth century AD the writer Ammianus Marcellinus named it one of Egypt’s most important towns.
As Egypt converted to Christianity in the time after the 1st century AD, the city came to have its own bishop. In AD 305 the bishop of Thmuis, a man named Phileas, was beheaded in Alexandria. He was later canonized as a saint.
Thmuis continued to be occupied into the Coptic and Islamic Periods, declining, it seems, during the Middle Ages. Even today there are people living near the site – a fact which poses a conservation challenge. All throughout the Nile Delta populations are growing, putting pressure on its archaeological sites.
“15 percent of the Tell in the last decade has been lost to encroachment of the villages building on the site.” said Littman.
But the biggest challenge being faced at Thmuis is a stadium that is going to be built. “The stadium is a fait accompli, there’s no way to stop it, but we hope that this will be the last encroachment on the site,” said Littman.
Silverstein added that the University of Hawaii team is working on a conservation plan that hopefully will save a good portion of Thmuis. “We hope that 80 percent of the site will be preserved – we’re working on a plan of conservation with the Egyptian authorities and Egyptian scholars.”
Right now there is no tourism traffic at the site whatsoever – something which makes it more difficult to get the story of Thmuis known to the outside world.
 “We have never seen a tourist at Timai (modern name for Thmuis) except for the occasional archaeologist who comes to visit,” said Littman. He explained that tourists rarely venture into the Nile Delta, and when they do they usually visit Alexandria or Tanis.
“Typically the tourist who comes to Egypt will go to the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Valley of the Kings and Aswan – that’s sort of the typical route.”
This may change in the years ahead. “One of the things that the antiquities authority wants to do is (to) work on some of these sites in the delta to promote tourism there.”
For now the archaeological team is using their research to let people know about Thmuis, an awareness that hopefully will translate into conservation and keep the ancient city intact for years to come.

The platform of a first century BC temple at Thmuis. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman


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