Temple of Hibis was once part of the ancient capital of Kharga Oasis, is situated about 2km North of El-Kharga and is the largest and best-preserved temple of the Persian period in the Oasis, the temple known as Hebet, meaning ‘the plough’, or Hibitonpolis (‘city of the plough’) to the Greeks.
The Hibis temple is oriented along an east-west axis and consists of a pylon, open court, pillared hall and sanctuary. The temple would have originally also had a lake and boat quay along its eastern side. The lake would have allowed access to the temple for festival purposes.
Today the first thing a visitor encounters at the temple is the outer or Roman gate that contains several Greek inscriptions. The most important one is the decree that was by the Roman governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander during the second year of the reign of Emperor Galba (69AD). The decree outlines the raising of taxes, the state of Kharga’s economy and the oasis’ system of administration. It was this gate that was moved from the old location to the new location.
Much of the ancient town, which covered about 1km square,now lies buried beneath the modern cultivation, but excavations in the early part of the 20th century led by Herbert Winlock of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, uncovered a few mud brick houses with vaulted ceilings and fresco paintings on the edges of the town. It is not clear how long Hebet remained capital of the oasis.
Hibis Temple date to the reign of the Persian ruler Darius I, although it was probably begun during the Dynasty XXVI reigns of Psamtek II, Apries and Amasis II, or built on the site of an even earlier structure for which foundations were found by Winlock. The temple was constructed from local limestone blocks on the edge of a small sacred lake and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun-Re, Mut and Khons. It was decorated by Darius I, and possibly Darius II, with additions by Nectanebo II and the Ptolemies, and a Christian church was constructed on the northern side of the portico during the 4th century AD.
It was Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II who surrounded the temple with a stone enclosure wall, so that it is now approached through a series of gateways leading to the inner parts. A sphinx-lined avenue led west from a quay on the edge of the lake along a paved processional way laid by an official of the oasis named Hermeias during the 3rd century AD. A massive sandstone gateway through an outer enclosure wall still stands almost 5m tall and was constructed during the Ptolemaic or Roman periods. Numerous inscriptions and decrees were written on the gateway – a kind of notice-board which has greatly contributed to our understanding of Roman rule in the oases.These include a variety of topics such as taxation, inheritance, the court system and rights of women, with the earliest dating to AD49. On the inside of the gateway are the bases of two obelisks or colossal statues.
The Dynasty XXX construction of the inner enclosure wall enclosed a monumental kiosk or colonnade with eight columns, which fronted the main part of the temple. Because of the wide span of the kiosk (7.4m) the roof was supported by wooden beams and the composite capitals on the columns are the earliest of this type known in Egypt. Although thought to be built by Nectanebo I only the cartouches of Nectanebo II remain on the decoration.
A larger hypostyle hall, rather than the traditional pillared court, was added to the original temple by Hakor (Achoris) of Dynasty XXIX and it was this king who probably strengthened the foundations and buttressed the west wall against collapse, which had begun in the original structure soon after it was built. The hall contains 12 palm-columns of an early composite type and those at the front open on to a narrow courtyard.
Hibis is the finest example we have in Egypt of a Persian Period temple and its reliefs are very well-preserved owing to its burial in sand for many centuries. The temple contains a rich religious iconography and a wealth of theological texts in a very unusual style, perhaps the influence of a local style of art which until recent years has barely been studied. One large and unique wall-relief depicts a winged figure of Seth, god of the desert oases, with the head of a falcon. He is painted blue, a colour usually reserved for air deities and is fighting the serpent Apophis. Many deities are represented in the sanctuary and Min, another desert god, was also venerated here.
Hibis Temple has undergone sporadic excavation and restorations throughout the 20th century. Efforts have been made to control the subterranean water, which has risen sharply as a result of irrigation projects in the surrounding area and has threatened the structure with total collapse. This is not only a recent problem – the temple seems to have been originally constructed on unstable ground and attempts by Ahmed Fakhry in 1980 to protect the temple by building a cement ceiling resulted in putting more stress on the walls, accelerating the deterioration. The situation became such that, in 1989, the temple was declared off-limits to the public. It was left unattended, with its scaffolding still in place.