The Upper Egyptian town of Esna is located around 55 km south of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile. Known as Senat in ancient Egypt, and later as Latopolis by the Greeks, Esna, also known also as “the city of fish”, as the perch was once worshipped there as divine, is home to important Ancient Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic, and modern layers of history.
The town was one of the most prestigious in ancient Egypt, as well as during the Roman and Ptolemaic eras, and the influence of these periods can be strongly felt at the Khnum, or Esna, temple.
In the town’s streets and alleys, visitors can feel as if they are walking through history. The town’s 19th-century houses are connected to the old Ottoman market of Al-Qissariya adjacent to the Esna Temple, the Al-Amry Mosque, and the Wekalet (caravansary) Al-Geddawi. Moreover, Esna enjoys a rich intangible heritage of traditional crafts.
It is famous for its barrage bridges built on the Nile by the British in 1906 as well as for its eloquent details, stone masonry work, and the “Electricity Bridge” built in the 1990s.
Earlier this week, Esna was back on the limelight when Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, US Ambassador in Cairo Jonathan R Cohen, and Luxor Governor Mustafa Alham inaugurated the recently restored and developed Wekalet Al-Geddawi, a caravansary built in 1792 to store goods and lodge travelling merchants, on Sunday.
The renovation work was carried out in collaboration with Takween Integrated Community Development, an NGO, and funded by USAID.
El-Enany expressed his pleasure at inaugurating the Wekalet Al-Geddawi after the completion of the restoration and development work. This had taken two years, he noted, and now the wekala had regained its original splendour.
The opening of the wekala embodies the ministry’s work to preserve Egypt’s archaeological heritage and revitalise the city’s tourism potential by reviving and opening new tourist attractions, the minister said, adding that this would also raise awareness and create job opportunities for Esna’s inhabitants.
El-Enany said the US was one of the ministry’s main partners, as several US archaeological missions are working in the country along with the Chicago House in Luxor and the American Research Centre in Cairo.
This is not the first time the ministry has collaborated with USAID, he said, as it had also financed several similar projects in Luxor, Giza, Karnak, Aswan, Alexandria and Historic Cairo.
El-Enany announced that visitors could enter the wekala for free, as the cost will be included in the ticket for the Esna Temple.
Cohen said that “over the past 25 years, the US has contributed more than $102 million to preserving dozens of cultural heritage sites throughout Egypt.
“We look forward to seeing the tourism industry rebound in Esna and across the country. The US stands with the people of Egypt as we help to make this happen,” he added.
Hisham Samir, assistant tourism and antiquities minister for projects, said that the development project in Esna involved the restoration and consolidation of the wekala’s foundations, columns, walls, roofs and wooden ceilings, the implementation of internal ground and soil replacement, the restoration of wooden elements such as doors and windows, and the restoration and consolidation of the façade.
A modern lighting system had been installed and work had been done to develop the overall site and facilities, he added.
The Wekalet Al-Geddawi is part of a beautiful archaeological panorama, with the Roman Temple of Esna located beside it together with the minaret of the ancient mosque, making it a unique model for the rest of Esna’s development.
It is a commercial facility built by Hassan Bey Al-Geddawi in 1792 CE and was called “Al-Geddawi” because Hassan Bey had taken over the emirate of Jeddah (pronounced “Geddah”).
It is built on two floors of mud bricks. On the ground floor, there is a group of shops for displaying goods, while the upper first floor was used as a rest house for merchants. It can be reached through two staircases on the northwestern and northeastern sides.
The main façade of the wekala overlooks the famous shrine of the god Khnum in the Esna Temple, and in the middle of the entrance block there is a pointed arch with three pointed arches inside decorated with brick.
Esna Temple: At the adjacent Esna Temple, one of the most famous ancient Egyptian temples still standing in Egypt, conservators are busy working on wooden scaffolding inside the temple’s hypostyle hall, brushing the dust of time off its ceiling and walls and uncovering the vivid colours of the original painted scenes.
The temple dates back to the Roman period. Construction began during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, and its decoration was finished during the time of the emperor Decius between 249 and 251 CE.
The temple is dedicated to the ram god Khnum and his divine consorts. The roof of the hypostyle hall is still intact and is supported by 24 columns, each with a varied floral capital. They are decorated with scenes depicting the religious festival of the town and several Roman emperors before different deities.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the temple suffered from urban encroachment, and the houses of the villagers were built around it. The temple was also accessed through one of the houses. It was reported to have been used as a storage facility for cotton during the reign of Mohamed Ali in the earlier 19th century.
Over the centuries, the temple has suffered from the accumulation of thick layers of soot, dust, and dirt. Bird droppings and wasp nests covered the temple’s inscriptions and salt crystals affected the colours of the designs, causing some flaking of the reliefs.
Hisham Al-Leithi, head of the Documentation Centre at the ministry, said that since December 2018 a conservation and documentation campaign had begun at the temple. The conservation team had cleaned layers of soot, dust, and dirt, and the bright colours of the inscriptions could now be appreciated, especially the astronomical decoration of the ceiling of the temple, he said. Work is continuing to uncover more inscriptions and return the Temple to its original look.
To the south of the Esna Temple is the Al-Qissariya Market, also renovated as part of the Esna development project. This is a traditional covered market established more than a century ago and is one of Esna’s most significant features. The market was famous for the sale of fabrics, sewing tools, and tailors’ shops.
The Al-Amry Minaret is the only remaining part of the historic mosque of the same name, which collapsed and was rebuilt in the 1960s in a modern style. The mosque was established between the years 474 and 476 AH by Badreddin Al-Gamali, and it was the first to be built in Esna in the Fatimid era.
There is also an oil press that belonged to the Bakour family for over 200 years and is the only remaining historic oil press in Esna.
The Martyrs Monastery, established during the sixth century CE, is of great significance for Christians since it was established by St Helena after a battle between the Romans and Coptic Egyptians that led to the death of 3,600 martyrs.
The Roman emperor Diocletian was then persecuting the Christians, including those living in Egypt. On the day of the massacre, the then bishop of Esna, Father Ammonius, fled with the population to the monastery, but they were later found there and killed by Roman troops.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly