Saturday 18 November 2017
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KARANIS/ KOM AUSHIM: the mound of granaries and gold coins

The city of ancient Karanis, "City of the Lord", is situated 160km southwest of Cairo in the natural depression of the oasis of Fayum (30km north of the capital city of Fayoum) and is said to have been founded in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus for his mercenaries and their families, a little more than 3,000 men.

But that is making things too simple, because at Karanis (its Greek name - also called Aushim Kom in Arabic) there is a juxtaposition of much earlier periods below the few Ptolemaic walls, now freed from sand. Despite a severe lack of funds, beautiful objects are still being discovered, indicating that long before the Greco-Roman period the site was important, and it contains a past full of promise for our understanding of many mysteries of ancient Egypt.

The south temple and the doorway of Vespasian overlooking the Fayum oasis. Photo: Gigal 2009 You can see different periods in the building of the walls in Karanis. Photo:Gigal 2009

As we shall see, Karanis is certainly more than a simple rustic village, and provides much more than just a snapshot of life in a large settlement under Greco-Roman domination. Of course the fact that it is a town testifying to the transition from a Hellenistic influence to Roman influence is already interesting in itself, and a wealth of papyri describing every detail of life in Karanis at that time has been found there. May I remind you that this period, after the conquest by Alexander the Great to the dominance and then the decline of Rome, was a time marked by great changes in the Mediterranean basin. But as you know, I'm mainly examining traces of the Old Kingdom and traces of pre-dynastic times.

So I went to take a close look at this vast place, not at all easy to understand, in fact it's one of the most enigmatic sites I've ever had the chance to visit, to try and find out what sort of legacy it might have left us.

Karanis lies in the fascinating Fayum depression, 45m below sea level, and in the Ptolemaic era it was on the very edge of Lake Fayum, which was then much larger. In ancient Egyptian it was called Mr-wr, "the Great Sea", and in Greek Moeris. Today, due to drying out, Karanis is located 3km from the lake, which is now 214km2, roughly a third of its original size.

Karanis is essentially a mound that rises 12m above the limestone plain at the edge of a geological fault, between the road that leads to Cairo and a former major irrigation canal that definitely existed during the reign of the Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty, and certainly before that. They were great civil engineers and carried out huge hydraulic projects in the whole Fayoum area. Amenemhat I (1991-62 BC) for example built dams, locks and tributary canals, and even restored and deepened older pre-existing canals. We also know that the Yussef canal was enlarged in 2300 BC, right in the middle of the dynastic period! This canal also connects the lake to the Nile, branching into eight main channels which irrigate the entire depression to this day.

In fact these channels were not only used for irrigation, but also to modulate the great annual floods of the Nile. And one of the main channels is precisely the one that runs close to Karanis.

The Fayum canals have survived from the time of the pharaohs and are still used and maintained. (GIgal)
Thus, activity of major importance certainly took place in the dynastic period in Karanis, which was one of the few ridges of high ground in the region and the crossroads of several very busy routes. A crossroads of routes running in several directions: that of the lake, which to the north included a paved trade route via the fortress at Dimeh (which I talked a lot about in my previous article), continuing to Lake Mariotis further north and on to Alexandria; the crossroads also of the route to Memphis, Cairo and the Delta; and to the east, a link with the Nile via the canals and the docks recently discovered in front of the pyramid of Hawara, dating from around 2000 BC, and used for importing merchandise from the south. This gives us a better idea of the strategic importance of this high ground, where beneath the Greco-Roman ruins there must be immense dynastic structures. And it is not surprising either that in recent months sizeable complexes of Neolithic and proto-Neolithic remains have been found there.
View of the north temple in the distance from the roof of the south temple. Mounds and ruins as far as the eye can see.

Before taking a look at the site together, it is intriguing to first consider the name of the place. Indeed Kom Aushim, the Egyptian name for modern day Karanis (the Greek name), contains a hidden significance that is very enlightening and surprising. Strangely enough it is not the first time the present-day name contains more information than the name from the Ptolemaic period (there are plenty of examples of this in the region of Abydos for instance). "Kom" comes from the Coptic Khem, the Coptic name for Egypt (the Copts claim to have knowledge of ancient Egypt that they alone possess). We are also told it comes from kem, meaning the "black earth" of Egypt.

But if you accept the ancient oral tradition that is kept alive in Egypt by certain elders, they will tell you that the word kom in Egyptian Arabic means a "mound" (which is very true of Karanis). It is well to remember that this comes directly from the old Egyptian word "Khemit" which meant "the land of mounds" and not the "black earth". Thus the Egyptians were the Khemites, "people of the mounds". It is true that all the important sites in Egypt are built on high ground, and pyramids can be also considered to be mounds. In any case, for Aushim, everyone agrees that the word au meant "gold" in ancient Egyptian.

"Shim" would also be Shem or Chem, one of the nations descended from Noah according to the Bible, or the name of Egypt in the Kabbalah, thus Aushim would roughly mean "Egyptian people of gold". According to still others, Khem refers to the people of Osiris. For my part, listening to the oral tradition of ancient Egypt that persists today, shim is the root of the word "chemistry" and al khemia, "alchemy"; so Aushim would mean "the chemistry of gold". Thus, the full name would be "the mound of the chemistry (processing) of gold" - and you'll see that's exactly what it is …

As soon as you set foot on the site you can see that it is on a grand scale and very complex - it could not be otherwise for a place where more than 100,000 objects have been found! Amongst these artefacts are perfume bottles from Syria, glassware from Alexandria, terra cotta lamps, statuettes, textile pieces, wooden toys, tools and musical instruments, among other things.

Glasses found at Karanis Glasses found at Karanis Wooden toys at Karanis

A pathway leads across a flat area where several objects discovered here are displayed, then past the archaeologists' buildings from early last century to the foot of the mound. The first excavations (it was the first Greco-Roman site excavated in Egypt) were carried out from 1895 by the English papyrus specialists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt. Flinders Petrie also passed through here, but the most extensive excavations were those undertaken by Francis W. Kelsey, professor at the University of Michigan, from 1924 to 1936 thanks to the funding and the very professional team he was able to put together. He discovered a tremendous amount: five different layers of debris that could be dated, and three very specific areas of the city.

Kelsey said that his goal was "to increase accurate knowledge rather than to amass collections", though if he obtained a great amount of data from his research, it is still true that there are no fewer than 44,000 objects (not counting a hundred or so papyri), which is a huge number, now thousands of miles from Karanis in a museum bearing his name, the Kelsey Museum in the state of Michigan, in a university department.

The entire site of Karanis is exciting because you can guess and sometimes even see that there are still very old structures hidden in the sand dunes, as well as those visible in the main areas of the site such as the South Temple, the North Temple, the public baths and the houses. On all sides there are so many half-revealed structures showing but not yet unearthed that you hardly know which way to look.

As soon as you reach the mound, you come to what is known as the South Temple, the larger of the two excavated so far. This temple was once linked to a dock by a processional way; remember that the water of the lake has receded since those days by three kilometres, but once it practically bordered the site. The temple faces east and has several fascinating details.

Columns displayed in the entrance of Karanis.
Gigal beside the torso of a Pharaoh at the entrance of Karanis.
At the foot of the south temple. Photo Gigal 2009.
First of all its location: right in front of the main door is a sacred crocodile pool. This rectangular pool is several metres high (currently 3-4 metres because it is still half buried), which would be very impressive to someone arriving in the place, who would have to walk past it below the heads of the crocodiles peering over the edge. This is not surprising because this temple is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek through his dual representation of Pnepheros and Petesuchos.
The sacred crocodile pool, Karanis/ Photo Gigal 2009 Detail of the pool. Photo Gigal 2009

Petesuchos means "son of Sobek" and he was represented in temples by a crocodile mummy deified during its lifetime. Pnepheros is a late transcription of the Egyptian adjective pa-nefer-her ("the benevolent"), used already in the time of Amenehat III to describe the god Sobek. He is represented with a human head facing forwards (very rare in ancient Egypt) and wearing the pharaonic headdress, because the temple was dedicated to granting the wishes of the faithful. In effect, a full face in the iconography of the god indicates that he was listening to his worshippers, who came to the temple with their wishes and to consult the oracle.

Once inside the temple with its three chambers, at the back of the sanctuary is a high stone altar where it is said they placed a sacred crocodile to which one could put questions. Underneath this altar is a small door leading into a tiny chamber in which a priest could give answers in place of the animal, so it seems that the oracles were given in this way. Nothing is less certain, but the texts specify that it was the interpretation of the crocodile's movements (of its legs, muzzle, tail and eyes) when the pilgrim made him an offering of food that signified the oracle's reply.

In any event, the temple was certainly dedicated to Sobek, and one can see in the walls of the hall right before the sanctuary, niches that once contained the mummies of sacred crocodiles. The walls are built in Ptolemaic style typical of the first century, but the foundations of the temple show that it was certainly built in exactly the same style as a much older temple just below it, as was often the case everywhere in Egypt.

Niche for a crocodile mummy in the South Temple. (Photo Gigal)
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Crocodile on its altar. Photo Gigal 2009 The altar in the South Temple where the crocodile used to make its predictions, with a tiny room beneath it. Photo Gigal 2009

In this temple there have also been found statues and cippus (stelae) of Harpocrates (over 8 of them) walking on two crocodiles; I'll talk about this further, because it is very much to the point. The Greeks transformed the Egyptian god Horus into a child Harpocrates, from Har-pa-khered ("Horus, the child"). Harpocrates is also found everywhere in the granaries of the city. To the west, a corridor in the storage area of the temple overlooks a magnificent view of the green oasis of Fayum below, where once you could have admired the boats in the distance sailing on the lake.

When you climb on the roof of the temple you can see below to the west the extraordinary crocodile pool. Strabo tells us that in the first century BC, they were fed grain, meat, wine and milk mixed with honey, and he himself saw the processions and the oracles.

On the west side of the pool you can see the impressive open vista through the doorway of Vespasian, which now looks out over the crops grown in the Fayum depression. To the east, you can see the North Temple in the distance on its small hill, and all around are hundreds of sandy mounds from which emerge a few chunks of wall and stones here and there. It is clear that there are sizeable structures by the hundred still buried ... years of work ahead!

Cippus of Harpocrates.
View from the North Temple of the Fayum oasis, where the lake used to be. Photo Gigal 2009. Gigal in front of the doorway of Vespasian. Photo Gigal 2009

The North Temple, smaller than the southern one and more ancient, was once surrounded by a brick temenos of which some impressive traces remain, and you reach it from the south side up a steep flight of steps. It too was built on the foundations of a much older temple, which sadly cannot be accessed without destroying the one above. The style of this temple is deliberately modelled on those of ancient Egypt because after the steps, you pass between two remaining sides of a monumental gateway. As in the South Temple, there is an altar for the oracle of the sacred crocodiles, with an entrance just below where a priest could go, but the walls of this section are better preserved and higher. Here too there are niches in the walls for crocodile mummies, and an interesting cavity in which there might have been a sliding cover - nobody knows what it might have concealed.

In this temple late Greek graffiti have been found at intervals that possibly indicate storage spaces for merchandise. We know from the papyri found on the site that various things were sold in the temple: wool for the garments for the deities' statues, wine for purification rites and libations, and jewellery for the sacred crocodile, who wore earrings made of glass and gold in its ears and bracelets of precious stones on its legs. The atmosphere in this temple is very compelling and you almost seem to hear the sound of a teeming crowd, yet there is nothing but desert and desolate ruins all round it.

Inside the North Temple, Photo:Gigal 2009
The crocodile altar in the North Temple. Photo Gigal 2009You can see the small door under the altar in the North Temple.
What is also interesting is that in the inner courtyard of the temple a marble statue was found of a torso of Isis in the Greek style. This is not surprising since several representations of Isis have been found at Karanis. Let us not forget that the worship of the crocodile is very often associated with Horus, the son of Isis. In the same courtyard was found a curious statue of the sacred crocodile in the form of Soknopaios, a body of a crocodile with a head of Horus. The crocodile god thus took on the characteristics of the son of the goddess Isis. In the many granaries nearby, representations of Isis have been found in the form of the cobra goddess Thermonthis who guarded the crops: a body of Isis with a serpent's tail, a syncretism that was often found during the Greek period. In fact in this whole area traces of 27 different deities have been recorded, and there are religious amulets absolutely everywhere.

In any case, the imposing walls of the two temples show that these rites had a central place in the lives of those who lived in Karanis, which now seems less and less like the supposedly poor little back-country garrison that is still portrayed in some books. Under the Ptolemies Karanis had a real moment of glory - an echo, as we now know for sure, of a much greater one in the past. In any case, in later years it was not only the place where Greek mercenaries were sent to work with the Egyptian population so as to make better use of the richly fertile Fayum oasis, but it had another vital importance, as we shall see shortly.

A little farther on we come to the incredible public baths (excavated by the University of Cairo and the French Institute of Archaeology), which contain a great secret. How, on a site more than 15m above the main canal that flows past the base of the mound of Karanis, did the water rise to reach six bath houses? We do not yet know, and yet there are pottery pipes everywhere going from the frigidarium (the cold pool) to the warm pool (tepidarium) and the sauna (calidarium), further proof of the richness of the place. There are splendid stone baths and remains of painted tiles.

Isis of Karanis found in the North Temple.
Bath with ceramic tiling. Photo: Gigal 2009 Monolithic bath. Photo :GIgal 2009
Traces of painting in the public bath house. Photo: Gigal 2009

In addition Karanis had more than 6 enormous pigeon houses, dozens of granaries and storage rooms and hundreds of dwellings with upper floors and vaulted cellars where they stored their goods. The largest of the granaries, the grain silos, were used to pay taxes annually to Rome and were guarded night and day by Roman soldiers. This grain tax was then sent to Rome from Alexandria, and we know that it was enough to feed the whole city for four months of the year. So besides its agricultural wealth and the busy trade routes that had to go through the town, what else might be found in Karanis that could justify its ancient name of "the mound of gold processing"? We shall see, but first back to the worship of the crocodile for a moment.

Why was there a cult of the crocodile throughout Fayoum?
For one thing, under the Ptolemies the crocodile was associated with Saturn, who ruled over agriculture and was supposed to protect the sowing of crops - something very important in the farmlands of Fayoum. Associated with Saturn/Chronos, he personified Time and the flow of the seasons. That's why Harpocrates, the child Horus represented so often on stelae at Karanis, is standing on two crocodiles, one looking towards the past and the other towards the future. Thus the sacred child holds the keys of Time and can influence it, becoming the Master of Time ...

But most important of all, the crocodile-god Sobek was already mentioned in the so-called Pyramid texts, the oldest religious corpus ever found in Egypt, recorded in the Pyramid of Unas (5th Dynasty, about 2356 BC). Sobek is deemed to have created the Nile and to have endowed Nature with all its fertility and powers of rebirth. He was represented wearing the Atef crown with tall feathers (we're not far from the feathered serpent), a sun disk, a Was sceptre and an ankh. (Remember that about 100 million years ago the dinosaurs ruled the earth.)

Besides, "Sobek" comes from "Sevekh", who according to the oral tradition is Sut, the son of Seth, that's to say Saturn, the Sevekh Chronos, the crocodile-dragon, the Egyptians' dragon of life. Let me remind you that the lake of Fayum was considered to be the first ocean (Nun), from where all life forms came and where the first mound broke the surface of the waters, bringing life, thanks to the crocodile that moved from one realm to the other. In ancient Egypt he was also called "he who makes green again", "The Lord of the Waters." By his amphibious nature he wedded Heaven to Earth, which made him even more sacred.

Soknopaios with crocodile body and falcon head inside North Temple

It did not escape the sagacity of the chief priests that crocodiles have in addition to their remarkable intelligence, a sophisticated breathing system that enabled them to remain under water for hours without having to take a breath. Since they mummified them, it is not impossible that they observed something that has only recently been discovered in Australia at the University of Queensland: that in its heart the crocodile has a unique valve, shaped like a tooth, which makes this possible. (When the crocodile relaxes, in the absence of adrenalin, this "tooth valve" closes, moving blood away from the lungs and thus allowing it to remain submerged for a long time.)

The crocodile was also seen as the source of the Pharaoh's strength, and indeed in hieroglyphics the word "sovereign" is written with two crocodiles and a hawk. During his consecration the Pharaoh was anointed with crocodile fat called messeh, which made the Pharaohs messihas ("messiahs", curious, isn't it?).

The crocodile was also considered to be a prophet, as it forecast the Nile floods - always difficult to predict exactly - by going up the Nile and the canals some time before so that the females could lay their eggs just above the level of the floodwaters, which they were able to guess exactly. No wonder then that the crocodiles were used to prophesy in the temples of Fayoum.

To sum up, the cult of the crocodile was very ancient in Fayoum, much older than in the era drowned in the syncretism of the Ptolemies. And the existence under the present temples of much older ones, the settlement on high ground next to a very ancient canal, the Neolithic sites discovered recently on the spot - all this indicates to us that Karanis already existed in dynastic and proto-dynastic times and that it was a place of great wealth.

Now in Egypt crocodiles, like dragons in other cultures, have always been guardians of treasure, and the timid current excavations are trying to show that it's true: gold coins from the Greco-Roman era are turned up all the time. In one house 26,000 coins were found in storage jars, and more are being found bit by bit. Some experts have even concluded very recently that Karanis was the place where the currency for the whole Roman Empire was minted. The coins were then sent by boat across the beautiful lake of Fayum then via Dimeh, continuing north as far as the lake near Alexandria, then loaded onto seagoing boats in the port and shipped off to Rome. When you think that the Romans often took over and intensified an activity that was already established in a particular place, the ancient name of Karanis as the "mound of gold processing" could well be perfectly justified.

To unearth all these marvels would need a huge influx of funds because the site needs so badly to be shown to better advantage. The task is colossal but this magnificent site would be worth every penny of investment.

Antoine Gigal
Text and Photos: Antoine Gigal
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Bibliographie :

  • Elaine K. Gazda, ed., Karanis, an Egyptian Town in Roman Times: Discoveries of the University of Michigan Expedition to Egypt (1924-1925), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, 1983.
  • Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt, David G. Hogarth, Fayum Towns and their Papyri, London: Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1909.
  • Mary Hamilton, Incubation, or the Cure of Disease in Pagan Temple and Christian Churches, London, 1906.
  • Jimmy Dunn, Karanis in the Fayoum of Egypt, 2007.
  • Gerald Massey, The Natural Genesis, 1883, republished Black Classic Press, 1998.

Gigal Research 2013 - 2015