Greek Bathing Culture in Hellenistic Thebes?

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?

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  1. The basins you see in the photo are tubs for bathers to sit in. They are known from a number of sites, also elsewhere in Egypt, most famously at Dionysias/Qasr Quarun in the Fayum.

  2. Great web page Troels!

    I think this is a very interesting discovery indeed, given the underprioritised state of ‘secular/social/settlement’ archaeology in Egypt. Not to mention the state of ‘Graeco-Roman Egypt’ archaeology with our hopeless chronologies/typologisation.

    I think the Dionysias baths are from the Roman Period, since they were thermal baths with frescos and glass decoration?

    The proper ritual wash for tempel service in Karnak is traditionally believed to have been performed in the Isheru lake inside the general temenos area. It was possibly dug out in Dyn. 18 during the reign of Amenhotep III, since other ‘ritual lakes’ were part of his overall Theban temple project (like temple of Mut and Birket Habu). Ritual papyri from the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II in Dyn. 19 provide insight into the purification rites of the New Kingdom Royal Solar Cult at Thebes.

    The Lake was restored during the 25th Dynasty by Montuemhat, commemorated on an inscription from the Temple of Mut (i think on a Montuemhat Statue?). Nectanebo II build a series of storage facilities by the lake in Dyn. 30 as part of his nationwide temple program.

    Consequently we have continous use of the Isheru lake from New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period.

    But whether this lake was also used by private people who were not part of the priest hood is a matter of dispute and so is the overall debate over ‘who had access to the Egyptian temple’ within Egyptology.

    In the Ptolemaic Period some private people could bath in the ‘ritual lake’ at the Hathor temple in Dendara for medicinal purposes.

    Apart from having probably over problematised this whole comments thread, I think the baths points to the overall social change in Egyptian elite culture that began to integrate hellenistic culture with their own as the elite egyptians did with language, personal names, art, and other leisure activities like watching chariot races in the hippodromes etc.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Ole. I’ll get back to you when I have more time.

    Bedste hilsner fra Alexandria,

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