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This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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The Temple of Soknebtunis

 

aerial photo of temple ruinsPtolemy I (305–285 BCE) built the temple dedicated to a local form of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, Soknebtunis. His limestone temple was enlarged and completed by Ptolemy XII (80–58 and 55–51 BCE) about 200 years later. The temple enclosure was approached by a long, wide processional way flanked by sculptures of lions and sphinxes, which was rebuilt and extended in the early Roman period. A pylon gate gave entrance to a walled temple precinct, which included the temple, other cultic buildings, and associated structures.

The temple in the region's capital would have housed the manifestation of the crocodile god, embodied by a living crocodile (see P.Tebt. I 33, below). When the crocodile died, the priests of the temple would mummify and bury it in a specifically designated tomb, and begin the search for a new animal in which the god made himself manifest. It is not clear that Tebtunis had such a crocodile of its own, but thousands of the mummified animals testify to the activity of the cult.

 

Aerial view of the walled temple enclosure taken in 1934 Aerial view of the walled temple enclosure taken in 1934

Courtesy of Tebtunis–Bagnani Archive

 

 

 

 

Small limestone stela depicting a crocodile Small limestone stela depicting a crocodile
Ptolemaic period (3rd BCE – 1st centuries BCE) (No large image link.)

This stela was uncovered in the temple enclosure and depicts the living manifestation of the crocodile god. He wears the atef crown worn during certain religious festivals and stands on a pylon gate, possibly to be understood as that leading to his temple.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20315

 

Small faience crocodile figurine Small faience crocodile figurine
Ptolemaic period (3rd BCE – 1st centuries BCE)

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20960

 

papyrus fragment Sobek temple as tourist destination for a Roman senator
5 March 112 BCE (No large image link.)

Greek and Roman visitors to Egypt were no less surprised and intrigued by Egyptian animal worship than we are today. Administrative authorities in Alexandria appear to have capitalized on the sensational aspects of the cults by incorporating visits to temples into sight-seeing tours. Herodotus (fifth century BCE) and Strabo (first century BCE) visited living manifestations of crocodile god and were invited to feed them. Their accounts illuminate the following letter in which a temple functionary is ordered to make preparations for the visit of a Roman Senator named Lucius Memmius. Although the papyrus was extracted from a crocodile mummy at Tebtunis, the crocodile temple referred to in the letter is probably the main Sobek temple at the nome capital Ptolemais Euergetis (previously Krokodilopolis) and the "Labyrinth" is the mortuary temple of the pharaoh Amenemhet III (1818–1770 BCE).

Hermias to Horos, greeting. Appended is a copy of the letter to Asklepiades. Take care that its instructions are followed. Good-bye. The fifth year, Xandikos 17, Mecheir 17. To Asklepiades. Lucius Memmius, a Roman senator, who occupies a position of great dignity and honor, is making the voyage from Alexandria to the Arsinoite nome to see the sights. Let him be received with special magnificence, and take care that at the proper spots the chambers be prepared and the landing-places to them be got ready, and that the gifts of hospitality below written be presented to him at the landing-place, and that the furniture of the chamber, the customary tidbits for Petesouchos and the crocodiles, the necessaries for the view of the Labyrinth, and the offerings and sacrifices be provided; in general take the greatest pains in everything that the visitor may be satisfied, and display the utmost zeal... (here the papyrus breaks off)

 

Mummified Crocodiles

Thousands of crocodiles, ranging from mummified eggs to fully-grown specimens, were found in a special cemetery at Tebtunis. These do not appear to have been the divine manifestations of the crocodile god (which the papyri tell us had their own tomb), but were perhaps votive offerings to the deity. The excavators destroyed many of the adult-size crocodiles when they realized that a very small proportion of mummies contained papyri. Rolls of papyri measuring up to several meters were wrapped around some of the animals and smaller sheets were stuffed into their body cavities. These documents generally date to the second and first centuries BCE.

 

Adult crocodile mummies excavated at Tebtunis Adult crocodile mummies excavated at Tebtunis, 1900

Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society, London

 

 

Small crocodile mummy Small crocodile mummy
Roman period (1st century BCE – 4th century CE)

This is one of several crocodiles from Tebtunis still held by the Hearst Museum on the Berkeley campus. Whether or not this particular mummy contains papyri is unknown, although it is unlikely as only about three percent of the crocodiles destroyed in fact contained papyri.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21633