The site of the ruins of the ancient city of Hermopolis (Magna) lies to the northwest of the city of Mallawi in the governorate of el-Minia in Middle Egypt. The southern side of the ancient hill (or tell) is covered by the large village of el-Ashmunein, while today the village of el-Idara is situated on the northern side. Sandy mounds, which were swept up by an ancient arm of the Nile in the middle of the cultivation area, formed the foundation for a settlement, which is attested only from the time of the fourth dynasty by inscriptions from its cemetery near Bersheh, but may well be older. From an early date, the place was called Khemenu (“the City of the Eight”)—that is, the city of the eight primeval gods of the so-called Hermopolitan creation of the world. Another name was Wenu (“the City of Hares”), probably derived from the name of the fifteenth Upper Egyptian district, which had as its emblem the royal hare standard, and its administrative center in Hermopolis. The present-day name el-Ashmunein was derived from Khemenu by way of the Coptic place-name Shmun. The chief god of the place was the god of the moon and administration, Thoth, whom the Greeks identified with Hermes, hence their name Hermopolis (“the City of Hermes”). During the Greco-Roman period, Hermopolis was the metropolis of the district (Gr., nomos) of Hermapolites, which belonged to the larger unit of the Upper Egyptian region Thebais.
From 1673, reports from European travelers about the ruins of Ashmunein began to appear. The first archaeological map with a detailed description of Hermopolis is found in the French Description de l'Égypte by Jomard, a member of Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition in 1798–1799. The hall of columns (portico) of the temple of Thoth, which was still standing at that time, was destroyed in about 1825. In the nineteenth century, the cultivation fields of the ancient city were given over, with official sanction, to the surface extraction of organic fertilizers; in the most recent period, trains were used to transport the material. The numerous small objects that were found led to a lively trade in antiques, which continues even today.
Toward the turn of the twentieth century, papyri, most of them in Greek, were uncovered in the ruins of houses from the Roman period by official investigators—Germans (Rubenssohn and others) and Italians (Breccia and others) between 1902 and 1904 or 1905. Between 1929 and 1939, the central part of the hill, the area south of the temple of Thoth itself, was explored by a Hildesheim expedition under the leadership of Günther Roeder. Among the areas unearthed were the hypostyle hall of the temple of Thoth, the southern sacred complex at el-Ashmunein, and the area of the central basilica of Ptolemy III, which was transformed into a church in the fifth century CE. Under the direction of A. Spencer, the British Museum resumed the excavations in the central area between 1980 and 1990. As a result, burial sites of the First Intermediate Period were uncovered north of the Ramessid Amun temple. In the northwestern sector, houses from the Third Intermediate Period and from the beginning of the twenty-sixth dynasty were uncovered. In the context of a joint Polish-Egyptian project, the area of the Ptolemaic basilica was recently reexcavated and restored. Most recently, P. Grossman did research on a church complex from the late Roman period for the Deutsche Archäologische Institut in the southern sector.
Up to the present time, population pressure has been the cause of a large number of smaller excavations by the Egyptian Archaeological Service. The modern excavations run into two obstacles. The first is that the oldest layers are located below the water table, which is presently high. The other is that the excavations of the settlement hill have left behind a fragmented and irregular surface contour. Thus, especially underneath the modern village of el-Ashmunein and in the eastern sector, there are still parts of the city left standing (including a water tower) that date from the late Greco-Roman and early Arabian period. Elsewhere, broad areas with their more ancient layers have been completely destroyed.
Hermopolis was always an important administrative city and also, because of its temple of Thoth, a significant religious center. It was surrounded by fertile farmland. From the time of the New Kingdom, a wide elevated canal connected the city with the Nile, and a westerly route to Tuna el-Gebel led on to the Bahariya Oasis. The royal administrators of the District of the Hare had themselves buried in the necropolises of Sheikh Said and Bersheh. Beginning in the New Kingdom, they were buried to the west near Tuna el-Gebel, while the mass of the population often merely sought out free spots within the city itself. The nomarch of Hermopolis, who was often also the high priest and thus controlled the temple of Thoth, must certainly have played a decisive role in the unification of the kingdom of Thebes under Montuhotep I, and again later in the unrest that occurred when Amenemhet I was removed from the throne. For a long time he was able to enjoy a largely independent status. Under his control were the calcite (Egyptian alabaster) mining areas in the east, which were important for the pharaoh from the time of the Old Kingdom, particularly the quarry of Hatnub. From the Middle Kingdom, a structure from the temple of Amun dated to Amenemhet II has been preserved. As early as the end of the Middle Kingdom, after the breakup of the districts of the Old Kingdom, Hermopolis—together with the northern fortification and temple cities of Herwer and Neferusi—was the center of a large territory characterized largely by farming, which extended from Tuna el-Gebel in the north to Gebel Abu el-Foda to the north of Asyut. Officially, at that time, Hermopolis was in the region of Neferusi. Under the New Kingdom, the temple of Thoth of Hermopolis was constantly rebuilt and expanded. An altar of Amenhotpe II stood near the entrance at the Dromos. In the foundations of the temple of Thoth of the thirtieth dynasty were found pieces of colossal baboons made of quartzite, dating from the time of Amenhotpe III: they have since been erected in the northern sector. Horemheb erected a new southern entrance pylon for the temple of Thoth. Nearby Tell el-Amarna, with the easily accessible blocks of the ancient residence of Akhenaten, provided the material for the numerous new buildings erected under Ramesses II. In the area of the temple of Thoth, Ramesses II erected an entrance pylon, cobbled the court to the south of the Horemheb pylon, and rededicated the cult to Amun by means of a temple that was oriented on an east—west line. Further decoration was subsequently added by Merenptah and Sethos II. The temple took into consideration the cemetery of the First Intermediate Period, which had long existed. Possibly this slightly elevated spot was seen as the place of the primeval hill in the Hermopolitan myth of creation. The location of the sacred lake is unknown; it must have corresponded to the Lake of Fire or the Island of the Hermopolitan Creation. Another sacred complex, dating from the time of Ramesses III, was situated in the southern part of the temple of Thoth. Here there were possibly chapels of various gods; in any case, the texts refer to numerous buildings in Hermopolis in honor of Osiris, Ptah, Horus, Hathor, Mut, and the southern Thoth, and also statues of the protector gods of the city in the shape of baboon and ibis which stood in the courts. As yet it has been impossible to locate most of the chapel, or the very ancient “house of the (bird) net.”
In the Libyan period, Osorkon III established numerous new productive estates for the temple of Thoth. As Libyan central control became weaker, the Libyan military leader of Hermopolis was able to claim for himself the title of pharaoh. A certain Namlot became the founder of his own Hermopolitan royal dynasty. It is suspected that his palace was in the western part of the temple area and separated off by a wall. When the Kushite Piya of Thebes pushed northward (twenty-fifth dynasty), he met resistance from another Namlot, who had entered into an alliance against Herakleopolis with the ruler of Sais and Memphis. Finally, after a prolonged siege by the fleet of Piya he was subverted to Kushite hegemony and was obliged to supply horses; however, he was able to retain the title of king. His successors maintained friendly relations with Thebes. It was only Psamtik I who managed to put an end to the city's autonomy.
A subsequent renovation of the central part of the temple of Thoth took place under Nektanebo I and Nektanebo II, and the temple was further expanded under Philip Arrhidaeus. The sacred precinct was surrounded by a thick quadrilateral wall made of mud brick. The southern access to the temple (later called the Dromos of Hermes), at the pylon of Ramesses II, was the so-called Gate of the Sphinx. The Antinoitic Road, running along the southern wall of the temple, led to Tuna el-Gebel in the west and to Antinoöpolis in the east, and divided the city into a northern and a southern half. To the east of the temple of Thoth there was a temple built under the Roman emperor Domitian, probably dedicated to the goddess consort of Thoth, Nehmetaway. Under Nero, the southern temple of Ramesses II was expanded. In Roman times, Hermopolis increasingly evolved into a major regional center. Its main harbor was situated on the eastern bank of the Nile near the later city of Antinoöpolis. Greek and Roman soldiers were served by religious and social institutions such as the Komasterion, several Serapis shrines, and a Mithras shrine.
- Arnold, D. “Zur Rekonstruktion des Pronaos von Hermopolis.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 50 (1994).
- Hanke, Ranier. “Amarna-Reliefs aus Hermopolis.” In Hildesheimer Ägyptische Beiträge, 2. Hildesheim, 1978.
- Mysliwiec, K. “Der Kopf einer Statue Nektanebos I aus Hermopolis Magna.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 47 (1991), 263–268.
- Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Preservation Mission at el-Ashmunein. Reports from Ashmunein. 2 vols. Warsaw, 1989, 1992.
- Roeder, Günther. Hermopolis 1929–1939: Ausgrabungen der Deutschen Hermopolisexpedition in Hermopolis, Ober-Ägypten. Hildesheim, 1959. Summary of earlier expeditions, also described in detailed preliminary reports of the German Archaeological Institute, 1931–1939.
- Roeder, Günther. “Zwei hieroglyphische Inschriften aus Hermopolis.” Annales du Service des Antiquités Égyptiennes 29 (1939), 315–442.
- Roeder, Günther. Amarna Reliefs aus Hermopolis: Ausgrabungen der Deutschen Hermopolis-Expedition in Hermopolis 1929–1939. Vol. 2. Hildesheim, 1969.
- Spencer, A. J. Excavations at el-Ashmunein, British Expedition to Middle Egypt. 4 vols. London. Vol. 1 covers site topography; vol. 2, the temple area; vol. 3, the town; and vol. 4, Hermopolis Magna (buildings of Ashmunein).
- Wace, A.J.B., et al. Hermopolis Magna, Ashmunein: The Ptolemaic Sanctuary and the Basilica. Alexandria, 1959.
Dieter Kessler; Translated from German by Robert E. Shillenn