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. The modern Egyptian town, in Arabic, is Behbeit el-Hagar, which comes from the ancient Egyptian Per-Hebitet, meaning the House (that is, Temple) of the Festive Goddess, which is an epithet of Isis. A papyrus from the Third Intermediate Period also calls Isiopolis “the place where offerings are set down.”
In addition to Isis, Her Beloved Osiris and Their Holy Child were honored at Isiopolis. According to Christine Favard-Meeks, an archeologist who has studied the site extensively, the temple complex seems to have been an important center for the rebirth of Osiris (and thus the pharaoh), renewed and protected by Isis.
Isiopolis was one of the most important Egyptian temples of the Goddess, probably serving as a northern counterpart to the southern Isis temple on the island of Philae in the Nile. The northern Isiopolis temple is located in the middle of the Delta on the Damietta branch of the Nile. If we may imagine the lush, green, and fertile delta as the pubic triangle of the Goddess, Isiopolis could be Her holy clitoris.
Today, the once-beautiful temple is in ruins. We know it was indeed once beautiful for the carving on the remaining red-granite blocks is much finer than that on any of the surviving Ptolemaic temples in Upper Egypt. The visible remains are late—from the 30th Dynasty—which included pharaohs who were particularly devoted to Isis. Yet there is textual evidence for an Isis temple having been at that location from at least the New Kingdom.
In 1743, early anthropologist Richard Pococke (A Description of the East and Some other Countries, Vol. 1) described the site as he saw it like this:
…A large temple dedicated to Isis, there being great remains of a temple here, the most costly in its materials of any in Egypt: it is built of granite, and appears by the hieroglyphics and capitals of the pillars to have been a temple of Isis….it seem’d to have been about two hundred feet long, and hundred feet broad, for it is all a confused heap of reuins. At about one hundred feet distance is a mound raised round it, as to keep out the Nile, with an entrance on each side; the walls of the temple seem to have been ten feet thick, and to be built on the outside with grey granite….the Inside was built of fine red granite…what commanded our attention still more, was the exquisite sculpture of the hieroglyphics; and tho’ the figures, about four feet high, was the exquisite Egyptian taste, yet there is something so fine, so divine, in a manner, in the mein of the deities and priests, that it far exceeds any thing I ever saw in this way.
Archeologists think that the sanctuary may have collapsed prematurely in antiquity, perhaps due to an earthquake. Once collapsed, blocks from the temple were scavenged by the locals and became parts of other buildings. One block from this temple was taken to the important Isis sanctuary in Rome, the Iseum Campense.
Among the inscriptions and carvings that have been found on the site is a particularly beautiful carving—probably Ptolemaic—that showed Isis kneeling on a lotus flower between the outspread wings of two other Goddesses, Who protect Her. Above what would have been the entrance to the sanctuary, an inscription dedicated the place to Isis: “the Queen of the Gods, the Venerable Djerit-Sanctuary of the Lady of Inheritance, the Heret-Sky of the Divine Female Falcon.” In yet another inscription, Isis is described as “shining like Re, the Divine Falcon illuminating…” while a carving from the sanctuary’s Wabet, or Pure Place, also showed Isis in Her bird form.
This seems to speak to the ancient nature of this site. Winged Isis is the ancient Bird Goddess and Her avatars include the falcon, the kestrel, as well as Her most common sacred bird, the black kite; called, in Egyptian, djeret (or djerit). In fact, I believe that the Bird of Prey, the Djeret, is the oldest form of the Goddess Isis. That this Delta temple was called the Djerit-Sanctuary connects these relatively recent remains with Isis’ most ancient roots.
In fact, some Egyptologists believe that the site at Isiopolis may be the location of the oldest Temple of Isis in Egypt and that, buried beneath the top layer of ruins, they will someday find evidence that Isis was worshipped there from the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium BCE). Other researchers believe that if it can be established that the area was able to be cultivated (rather than being a Delta swamp), we may discover that Isiopolis was inhabited from prehistoric times. And if so, I am quite certain we will find the worship of Isis—or perhaps, proto-Isis—in evidence from that time as well.
I am happy to say that, at present, Egyptological interest in the site is growing. The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities recently decided to try to reconstruct the temple using computer models. Someday we may have some answers. In the meantime, you are most welcomed to visit my own little City of Isis, here at Isiopolis.