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Greek Bathing Culture in Hellenistic Thebes? 20 December 2007

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology, Quick Notes , 6 comments

National Geographic brings exciting news from Karnak, one of my top 5 archaeological sites in Egypt. Excavations in front of the First Pylon of the Temple of Amun-Re have uncovered the Nile-side embankment and a royal ramp. But even more interesting in terms of post-Pharaonic archaeology is the find of several ‘ritual’ baths, dating to the Hellenistic period. The circular baths with minitubs (that surely don’t live up to the standards of modern day Luxor resorts) are seen in the photo on the right.

Judging from the photos, these baths at Thebes look very similar to other Hellenistic examples such as Gortys (Arcadia, Greece) and Gela (Sicily). Here’s what the National Geographic article has to say about the baths:

While excavating the embankment, archaeologists also discovered two public baths and a jar holding more than 300 coins dating to the era of Macedonian rule of Egypt, from the first to the fourth centuries B.C. One of the giant circular baths has been completely excavated, revealing an intricate mosaic tile floor and seating for 16 people. The other partially excavated bath has been found to have seats flanked by statuettes of dolphins. The baths were found just outside the wall, and experts believe they were built on the plateau of silt left behind after the Nile moved to the west. The jar of bronze coins, featuring the likenesses of Macedonian rulers Ptolemy I, II, and III, were discovered near the baths and are currently being cleaned to reveal their inscriptions. The baths may have served as purification sites where visitors could wash before entering the temple complex. Other experts suspect they may be the first signs of a much larger residential area that has yet to be explored.

The quote is a good example of the interpretative challenges that such baths pose. In the Hellenistic period, they are often found in close vicinity to temples. Did they then function as ‘purification sites’? Or were they part of the amenities of a residential/civic quarter? Are the categories of secular and sacred even applicable in this context? And to what degree do the baths reflect the appropriation of Greek bathing culture in Hellenistic Thebes?