Temples of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

There are two temple sites associated with the ancient city of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis, Kom el-Ahmar). The Predynastic temple sits in a settlement near the desert to the west of the main settlement of Nekhen; the second (and later) temple was built within the town walls of the city of Nekhen. Excavations in the area indicate that by around 3500 BC Nekhen was one of (if not the) most important settlement in the Nile Valley, and the temple can be seen as a national shrine for Upper Egypt.

Predynastic temple

The Predynastic Temple of Nekhen (HK29a) is the oldest temple of Ancient Egypt to be excavated to date (Hoffman 1985 and later Adams and Friedman) with the earliest find at the site being dated to Naqada IIc. This early temple consisted of a large oval courtyard (around thirty two meters by thirteen meters) surrounded by a reed fence which was plastered with mud. The pavement of the courtyard was formed by compressed mud which seems to have been relaid a number of times (confirming that the structure was in use for some time and so repairs were required from time to time).

At the southern end of the courtyard a large deep hole had been excavated. Fragments of stone found at the bottom of this hole led archaeologists to propose that the hole was the foundation for a single tall pole which was probably topped with the totem of a falcon, representing Nekheny or Horus. As well as the Scorpion Macehead and Narmer Machead, archeologists found a Golden Horus head (below left) possibly dating to the 6th dynasty, and a limestone vase featuring falcons and scorpions (below center) was also found in the deposit.

Golden Horus
Golden Horus
Limestone vase featuring scorpions and falcons, main deposit Hierakonpolis (Nekhen)
Limestone vase featuring scorpions and falcons
Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) Temple basement
Temple Basement

At the north end of the courtyard there was a deep long trench which was thought to have supported a wall of tall posts around gateway and several small rectangular buildings thought to be the workshops which served the shrine. Also within the courtyard there was a large mound of sand which probably represented the first mound of earth to emerge from the waters of Nun (chaos) at the beginning of time and a mudbrick platform which was added some time after Naqada IId.

Barbara Adams has suggested that this may have been where the ruler sat to watch the sacrifice of animals to honour the gods. She has also pointed out that this is an interesting parallel to the scene depicted on the Narmer macehead in which the king sits on a throne on a raised platform watching the ceremonies being performed in an oval courtyard with a double wall at one side and a tall pole, the top of which is unfortunately missing.

Scorpion mace head and cylinder seal found in the main deposit

The shrine itself had a facade supported by four large timber pillars each around one meter thick possibly made of Lebanese cedar. Behind this there were three main chambers formed by wooden poles and reed mats. It is thought that the roof of the shrine formed a curved slope reminiscent of the form of the mummified falcon associated with Nekheny and the hieroglyph representing an Upper Egyptian shrine.

Fragments of predynastic pottery found in the temple seem to be from two distinct phases. The first, dated to Naqada IIc (probably around 3400BCE), displays a high degree of sophistication and suggests that Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) was very prosperous at that time. The second phase is placed at Naqada IId – Naqada III (perhaps around 3200BCE), when the finds are notably cruder, and is limited to oval platters and simple pottery jars so it is suggested that the site may have fallen on hard times. However, there is also evidence that structures which were initially built of wood and reed matting were replaced with mudbrick at around this time.

Males statutes, main deposit, Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)
Male Statuettes, Main Deposit

A large quantity of smashed pottery was discovered in a pit cut into the floor of the courtyard. This pottery dated to the later predynastic phase of the temple and as the vessels are formed from durable materials such as porphyry and basalt it is most likely that they were intentionally smashed before being buried at the foot of the pit. Many of the vessels had been imported from as far away as Palestine. There is also evidence that the walls of the temple were dismantled at this time so Adams has suggested that the temple was decommissioned after a major ceremony – possibly even the coronation or Heb festival of Narmer himself.

There were other significant finds dating to the first dynasty (Early Dynastic Period). Black topped “hes” (libation) jars found here are particularly interesting as this form of pottery was usually associated with the Predynastic Period and so it is thought that by making this old fashioned pottery worshippers were intentionally echoing an ancient form. However, the rather poor quality of the pottery makes it clear that these are later imitations and not the work of predynastic potters.

Town Enclosure Temple

At the end of the Naqada II period the predynastic temple was abandoned and a temple was constructed within the town enclosure of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis). The earliest phase of this temple is thought to have been a circular stone wall surrounding a large mound of clean sand supported by limestone blocks on which there may have been an Early Dynasty shrine. A number of limestone fragments which may have been the pedestals for statues or the bases of large pillars were found within the stone enclosure wall.

Two Dogs Pallete
Human Figurine Main Deposit, Nekton (Hierakonpolis) Heidi  Kontkanen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Heidi Kontkanen, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A stone temple complex was added on the eastern side of the mound during the Old Kingdom. It was in the floor of this structure that the famous “main deposit” was discovered. This incredible find included the Narmer Palette and Macehead, the Scorpion Macehead, the “two dog” Pallette (above), two statues of Khasekhemwy and a variety of ivory carvings (some inscribed with the names of Narmer and Den), bone carvings, beads and stone vessels (some of which are from the reign of Khasekhemwy).

A mudbrick structure was built on top of the sacred mound, although the excavators (Quibell and Green) suggested that this did not take place until the Middle Kingdom. The sanctuary of the mudbrick temple was composed of five small chambers. A beautiful golden statue of Nekheny (the falcon god who was assimilated by or was an early form of Horus) was found buried in the floor of the central chamber.

  • Adams, Barbara and Cialowicz, Krzysztof (1998) Protodynastic Egypt
  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Malek, J (2000) “The Old Kingdom”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
  • Wilkinson, Toby A H (1999) Early Dynastic Egypt
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. (2000) The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt

Copyright J Hill 2016