the capital of the twentieth Upper Egyptian nome (province), at the entrance to the Faiyum. The exact location of Herakleopolis is unclear, and the name is a general designation for an area encompassing the present-day villages of Ihnasiya, Kom el Aqarib, and Sedment, which are in close proximity (29°5′N, 30°56′E). To the southwest of Ihnasiya are the remains of a temple to the ram-headed deity Heryshef, who was known to the Greeks as Harsaphes and equated by them with Herakles, after whom the city was named in the Classical period. The earliest occupation of Herakleopolis is not known. The first phases of the temple date to the twelfth dynasty, and it remained in use throughout the Late period. The other important archaeological remains are the cemeteries that date from the First Intermediate Period through the Roman occupation.

Until the Late period, the city was known in Egyptian as Nn(w)-nswt. Many variant spellings existed, the most important of which was Ḥnn-nswt. In the Late period, that alternative spelling was reinterpreted as Ḥwt-nn-nswt, which became Hnes in Coptic and then Ahnas or Ihnasiya in Arabic. The full designation for the current village Ihnasiya is Ihnasiya el-Medina.


Haerakleopolis. Portal and columns. The portal is probably a Ptolemaic period gate leading into the temenos of the local god. The columns are from the city’s agora. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

Herakleopolis was the capital not only of its nome but also of Egypt's northern kingdom during the time of intermittent civil strife known as the First Intermediate Period. Almost nothing is known of the Herakleopolitan kings, some of whom were named Kheti. The most famous king was Merikare, who was the addressee of a Middle Egyptian treatise on kingship, Instructions for Merikare. The Herakleopolitan kings were buried at Saqqara and perhaps elsewhere; no royal burials have been found at Herakleopolis itself. Toward the end of the twentieth dynasty, Libyan groups moved east into Egypt and settled in and around Herakleopolis. One of their descendants came to the throne in the twenty-second dynasty as Sheshonq I. Still another Libyan king, Peftjau(em)awybastet, ruled from Herakleopolis during the Third Intermediate Period, but his exact chronological position is not certain because he ruled concurrently with other rival pharaohs in other parts of Egypt. During the Late period, the city was home to a family of important shipping magnates.


Heraleopolis. Inscribed Ramessid-era blocks. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

Herakleopolis was first explored in 1891 by the Swiss archaeologist Edouard Naville on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) in London. Naville's most important finds were “Coptic” reliefs distinguished by their angular and deep carving. Herakleopolis is the type site for works in this renowned style. Whether all the reliefs found at the site were made there or in other areas is not certain. Although these reliefs are most often termed “Coptic,” the predominance of scenes from classical mythology has been cited often to indicate the problems of identifying Coptic art as Christian. In 1904, the British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie excavated at the temple. Among Petrie's many finds was a large quantity of ceramic oil lamps and molds. The lamps, now in the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, University College London, became an important dating tool. However, the most important campaign did not begin until 1966, when a Spanish mission explored the First Intermediate Period cemetery. A group of coffins and niche stelae was then discovered, whose epigraphy has done much toward the development of criteria for distinguishing between monuments of the Herakleopolitan period and the later, similar works of the Middle Kingdom. The Spanish excavations have continued sporadically, and the finds have been divided between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid.


  • del Carmen Perez-Die, María. “La réutilisation de la nécropole de la Troisième Période Intermédiaire début de l'Époque Saïte à Êhnasya Medina (Hěrakléopolis Magna).” In Stationen: Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte Ägyptens. Rainer Stadelmann gewidmet, edited by Heike Guksch and Daniel Polz, pp. 473–483. Mainz, 1998.
  • del Carmen Perez-Die, María, and Pascal Vernus. Excavaciones en Eh-nasya el Medina (Hěracleópolis Magna). Madrid, 1992. Contains important summary of work at Herakleopolis and extensive bibliography.
  • Gomaà, Farouk. “Herakleopolis Magna.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2: 1124–1128. Wiesbaden, 1971.
  • Lopez, Jesús. “Rapport préliminaire sur les fouilles d'Hérakléopolis.” Oriens Antiquus 13 (1974), 299–316; 14 (1975), 57–78.
  • Mokhtar, Gamal. Ihnâsya el Medina (Herakleopolis Magna). Bibliothèque d'Ètude, 40. Cairo, 1983.
  • Monneret de Villard, Ugo. La scultura ad Ahnâs. Note sull'origine dell'arte copta. Milan, 1923.
  • Naville, Edouard. Ahnas el Medineh. London, 1894.
  • Roccati, Alessandro. “I testi dei sarcofagi di Eracleopoli.” Oriens Antiquus 13 (1974), 161–197.

Donald B. Spanel