Spectacular ceiling paintings discovered in the temple of Esna

Two of the 46 vulture figures on the central ceiling area (central travée) of Es
Two of the 46 vulture figures on the central ceiling area (central travée) of Esna. Above the Upper Egyptian crown goddess Nechbet with vulture head, below the Lower Egyptian crown goddess Wadjet with cobra head.

German and Egyptian researchers have uncovered a series of colourful ceiling paintings in the temple of Esna in Upper Egypt. As Professor Christian Leitz of the University of Tübingen reported, the relief-like images of the central ceiling section are a total of 46 depictions of the Upper Egyptian crown goddess Nechbet and the Lower Egyptian crown goddess Wadjet. Both goddesses are depicted as vultures with outstretched wings. While Nechbet wears a vulture’s head and the Upper Egyptian crown, Wadjet is recognisable by the Lower Egyptian crown, which sits on the head of a cobra.

Researchers from the Institute for Ancient Oriental Cultures at the University of Tübingen and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (Dr. Hisham el-Leithy) have been working since 2018 to uncover the temple’s reliefs, paintings and inscriptions and to make the original colours visible again. "Temples and representations of the gods in antiquity were often painted with bright colours, but these have usually faded or disappeared completely due to external influences," said Leitz. In the temple of Esna, the colours were covered by a layer of dirt and soot for almost 2000 years and thus preserved.

The colourful representations of the two crown goddesses that have now appeared were previously unknown even to experts. Serge Sauneron, a French Egyptologist, systematically documented the Temple of Esna and the images visible at that time from the 1950s onwards," said Dr Daniel von Recklinghausen, a scientist from Tübingen: "The pictorial programme of the temple is unique in terms of the richness of the depictions and the state of preservation of the colours."

More than half of the ceilings and eight of the 18 columns have been cleaned, conserved and documented by a team led by Ahmed Emam. In addition, the two architraves of the central ceiling section - horizontal beams that support the superstructure - have now been freed of soot. For the first time, all the decorative elements can be placed in relation to each other," said Christian Leitz. This was impossible with the publication of Sauneron alone. The Egyptologist from Tübingen is now planning a complete translation of the Esna inscriptions and is also working on the connections between the various inscriptions and representations inside the temple.

Of the temple in Esna, 60 kilometres south of Luxor in Egypt, only the vestibule (the so-called pronaos) has survived, but it is complete: At 37 metres long, 20 metres wide and 15 metres high, the sandstone structure was placed in front of the actual temple building at the latest under the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and probably dwarfed it. Its location in the centre of the city probably contributed to the fact that the porch was preserved and not used as a quarry for extracting building material during the industrialisation of Egypt, as other buildings were. Even in Napoleon’s time, the Pronaos attracted great attention among experts, as it was considered an ideal example of ancient Egyptian temple architecture.

The restoration work of the entire project was financially supported by the American Research Center in Egypt , the Ancient Egypt Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.