The little known gem on the shores of Upper Egypt’s stretch of the Nile known as Esna might be tiny but it sure is mighty. It is home to some of ancient Egypt’s most magnificent temples. It may be a small city today that is relatively unknown but once upon a time Esna was actually one of the most famous and important cities in all of Egypt. This is attributed to its stellar location, as it situated between a handful of other critically important cities. In fact it was once a very vital stop along the route for trading in the ancient world. The remnants of this amazing past still exist today and are sorely underappreciated. However, lately, the Egyptian government as well as other foreign powers and international entities have been working avidly to restore it.
Esna is one of the most special spots along the Nile. If you have the opportunity to hop on a Dahabiya, it is well worth exploring its historic areas and markets and admiring its dynamic local life. It is not just Egyptian monuments that are found here. There a number of temples from the Roman and Ptolemaic period including the striking Temple of Esna which also goes by the name of Khnum.
Where is Esna in Egypt?
Esna sits quietly on the serene banks of the Nile. Located about 500 away from Cairo, Esna is home to the beautiful Temple of Esna and a number of other charming gems from the vast span of Egyptian history. Only 34 miles from Luxor, Esna has a stunning Ottoman caravanserai known as the Wekalat al-Gedawi, which was once the main commercial center of the small town along with other charming relics.
The Many Names of Esna
In antiquity, it was known by Egyptians as Senat and later on when the Greeks took power, it took on the name of Latopolis. The name actually translates to the city of the fish but this is not because it is a popular fishing site, it is because this was once a site where fish were worshipped as holy and sacred deities.
What Makes Esna So Unique?
Esna is a small town along the Nile, so it is only accessible by Dababiya or a felucca. The charming Nile-side city of Esna is a marvelous time capsule, preserving a unique, multi-cultural history that represents centuries of Egyptian history. Esna was a very significant trading hub along the camel-caravan route that runs between Sudan and Cairo vertically and the Nile Valley and the Western Desert horizontally.
The city’s unique urban tapestry is one of the few remaining instances of peaceful coexistence between different peoples, cultures and religions in Egypt and the region at large. Alongside its historical importance, Esna is also famous for its distinct handicrafts, textiles and food products. Many of these items are actually in danger of going completely extinct. This is the reason the USAID, Egyptian government and other development entities stepped in to preserve these practices and traditions from completely disappearing off the map.
Esna in Modernity
Buttressed by its magical past, the modern city of Esna attracts tourists who stop while on Nile cruise tours to marvel at its barrage bridges that were constructed by the British occupation period in the early 20th century. Another popular attraction for travelers while exploring Esna is its vibrant outdoor market which is located just a couple of streets from the Nile Corniche.
Spotlight on the Temple of Esna
Enshrined to the ancient Egyptian god known as Khnum, the Temple of Esna was commissioned by King Tuthmosis III reign during the 18th Dynasty. However, the temple was not completed until much later during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, finally being completed by 250 A.D. Inscriptions on the temple’s interior depict the individuals who were behind the construction of the temple, something of a signature of the creators.
The remnants of the Temple of Esna are a hall of columns lined with a set of 24 pillars carefully embellished with lotus and palm motifs in stunning details. The walls are also decorated with multiple rows of reliefs, depicting Ptolemaic and Roman Emperors in Pharaonic dress, as they perform sacrificial rituals to the creator god Khnum. There are a series of chambers on both sides of the temple entrance. These were used as storage rooms by the priests and maintenance people of the temple.
Along the temple’s western wall exterior, there is a depiction of the mighty God Horus and the creator God Khnum. They are captured here pulling a net overflowing with fish along the banks of the Nile juxtaposed with an array of reliefs of birds. Even more importantly, at the bottom of this façade, you will find the last ever known hieroglyphic inscriptions recorded, marking the completion of the temple by Roman Emperor Dios.
The Restoration Work Happening in Esna
Thankfully, Esna has been receiving the attention needs to preserve its unique heritage. There has been a big push to increase the city’s touristic potential and attract more visitors. So far, the restoration works have brought back to life a handful of the city’s intangible heritage sites including the traditional Oil Press, several weaving workshops and the charming Al-Qisariya Market.
Brimming with ancient temples and historic sites, the small and peaceful town of Esna is home to a treasure trove of underappreciated cultural gems distinct to Upper Egypt. Among them is a old Ottoman-era caravanserai called Wekalet Al-Geddawy in Arabic.
The 18th century market was once the commercial center of Esna. It provided housing to traveling merchants and was the site of a lively bazaar teeming with exotic goods laid out in its tiny courtyard. USAID and the Minisry of Tourism and Antiquities came together to renovate the market and bring it back to its original state. These renovations are helping place Esna on the tourist map and invite curious visitors to come and discover its one-of-a-kind mix of culture and history. From historical sites and weaving shops to the oil press, Esna has a world of hidden gem waiting to be discovered by the world.