A reconstruction of the Isis temple complex at Isiopolis

As you might know if you read the “Isiopolis” tab of this blog, Isiopolis is the Greek name of the ancient Egyptian city in which the greatest Lower Egyptian temple of the Goddess Isis once stood. It means simply, City of Isis. Ancient Roman visitors called the temple there the Iseum (from Greek, Iseion), meaning the Sanctuary of Isis. Pliny, in his book Naturalis Historia, also took note of the Egyptian Delta’s City of Isis—in Latin, Isidis Oppidum.

The finely-carved ruins of Isiopolis

The modern Egyptian town is Behbeit el-Hagar in Arabic and comes from the ancient Egyptian Per-Hebitet, meaning the House (per means “house” or “temple”) of the Festive Goddess, an epithet of Isis. In Egyptian, the hebit part of the name may refer to a special festival pavilion used during the Isiac rites there. In Arabic, “Per-Hebitet” became Behbeit and “el-Hagar” means “of the stone blocks,” which makes sense given the state of the site. A papyrus from the Third Intermediate Period also calls Isiopolis “the place where offerings are set down.”

If you’d like to learn more about the site itself, read more here.

For today, I’d like to tell you a legend about Isis and a temple neighboring Isiopolis that I recently came across and which I hadn’t heard before.

We only have part of it, but here’s what we have:

Ptolemy offering to Isis; from the Temple at Isiopolis
Ptolemy offering to Isis; from the Temple at Isiopolis

Pharaoh Nektanebos, a king of the 30th dynasty and a devotee of Isis, came to Memphis to make sacrifice to the Deities there and to ask Them to reveal to him the future. He performed the proper rites, then went to sleep and dreamed. In his dream, he saw Isis enthroned in Her sacred boat and surrounded by all the Deities. Presently, the God Onuris (Anhur) came before Isis and complained that Nektanebos—of whom Onuris had taken particular care, by the way—was neglecting the completion of His temple at Sebennytos. (In Sebennytos, Onuris was a warrior God and assimilated with Shu. He was said to have been the one Who brought back the raging Lioness Goddess, that is, His consort Mehyt, Who we learned about here.

Upon waking, the pharaoh immediately sent for the priest of Onuris to ask how the work was going. Apparently, everything was done except the hieroglyphs. So they sent for the famous carver, Petesis (whose name means “given by Isis”). Well supplied with money, Petesis set off for Sebennytos. But Petesis well-liked both women and wine, so he stopped off in town before heading to work. As good storytelling would have it, he met a beautiful apothecary’s daughter and…

That’s where the text breaks off. Argh. So many hints like this remain to us, but so often we lack the whole picture. Onuris’ temple wasn’t completed until 60 years later, so apparently Petesis never did finish his work.

The main Isis temple at Isiopolis

Just north of Onuris’ temple lay the great temple of Isis at Isiopolis (I know, that’s the Greek name, but I just love the word; say it a few times and you might, too). Judging by the remains, the temple was built entirely of granite, which was rather unusual. Most of it was made of black granite, with some blocks of fine, red granite. The carvings are particularly beautiful, yet today, the entire site is in complete ruins…just a bunch of “stone blocks” littering the area. One of the blocks from this important Isis site has been found in Rome, apparently taken there to become part of the main Roman Isis temple.

Osiris of Isiopolis, looking pretty spry
Osiris of Isiopolis, looking pretty spry

Isis was known as the Lady of Hebitet and Osiris as the Lord of Hebitet. But at Isiopolis, Osiris was not shown as the mummiform God. Rather, He was depicted as the renewed king, wearing the atef crown. Surely this is the magic Isis worked at Her temple in Isiopolis: nothing less than the renewal of Osiris. The roof of the temple seems to have had a number of shrines to various aspects of Osiris and would seem to have been a logical place for the festival pavilion of Isis mentioned earlier. Embalming often took place in special tents or pavilions and temple roofs often served in rites of renewal. Perhaps at Isiopolis they performed a combined rite of death and renewal that left Osiris young by virtue of Isis’ powerful magic and protected beneath Her beautiful wings.