The rediscovery of (one of) the Roman Baths of Hermopolis Magna (Egypt)
By Hesham Ahmed Abdel Kader (Archaeologist and PhD Candidate at Ain Shams University)
The city of Hermopolis Magna, the present-day el-Ashmunein, located in Middle Egypt, was an important cult center dedicated to the god Thoth. The archaeological remains of the city of Hermopolis Magna, including the temples and catacombs, currently cover a circular area of 1.5 km from north to south and 1 km from east to west. It is surrounded by three villages, el Ashmunein to the south, Ibrahim Awad’s village to the west and southwest, and el Edara’s village to the north, and agricultural land to the east. The site is quite complex, with remains from several periods, including carved blocks from several eras. Vegetation covers much of the ancient site.
The site was excavated and surveyed by a German mission, led by G. Roeder of the Hildesheim Museum from 1929 to 1939, which resulted in the discovery of eight buildings interpreted as baths (K. Bittel, “Acht Bädehauser”, in G. Roeder, Hermopolis 1929-1939, Hildesheim, 1959, pp. 129-132). One of them is dated to the Ptolemaic period, while the others are likely Roman and Late Roman in date. The publication is very short, and does not give enough detail to reconstruct the functioning and layout of the buildings.
The re-evaluation of these buildings is part of an ongoing doctoral thesis undertaken by Hesham Ahmed Abdel Kader (Ain Shams University under the direction of Professors Nour Galal Abdel Hamid, Abdel Hamid Masoud and Bérangère Redon) which aims to study and reconstruct the baths and water management in the city of Hermopolis Magna in the early and late Roman period.
In addition to archival work, in order to locate and re-evaluate the ancient documentation provided by the German mission, fieldwork is also planned, in order to improve our knowledge of certain buildings, in terms of plans and chronology.
A first field campaign took place from 19/3/2022 to 4/4/2022, with the permission of the Ministry of Tourism and Archaeology, and the support and funding of the EES Centenary Awards, which the author would like to thank very much.
An excavation was carried out in one of the most important sites, bath 5 (of the classification of Bittel), located east of the cemetery el Ashmunein.
Here, a Roman to late Roman type bath was uncovered. This building is the only one still standing in Hermopolis that is certain to be a public bath. It was still quite well preserved when we started to clean the building, probably because the site was backfilled by the German expedition with a huge amount of pottery sherds (more than 2 meters thick) to keep it in good condition.
The building itself has not been fully uncovered. For three weeks, we managed to clean the southern part of the site. Built of red brick and limestone blocks, it has a complete drainage system on the east side with red brick tunnels covered with a thick layer of waterproof mortar. The drainage system runs along the outside of several rooms that were part of the hot part of the baths.
They are equipped with small rectangular bathtubs and a larger circular bathtub in the hot room, very similar to other Egyptian examples such as at Kom el-Dosheh in Lower Egypt or at Suez/Clysma in Sinai. Two areas with very dark red bricks that have obviously burned a lot could mark the location of two furnaces, intended to heat the baths.
The excavations of bath 5 at Hermopolis Magna, even limited in time, has brought a lot of information that will be very useful for the future reassessment of this building, and more generally on the water management of the city of Hermupolis Magna in the Roman and Late Roman period.
It is very well preserved, and the plan will be easy to reconstruct, thanks to the many parallels that are known in Egypt at the same time. The building is for example very similar to other Egyptian baths such as at Kom el-Dosheh in Lower Egypt or at Suez/Clysma and Sheikh Zawyet in Sinai, both dated to the 4th to 6th c. AD.
Baths n° 5 have not yet been entirely cleared, for lack of time. This will be the objective of a second field mission, if we can manage to find the funds, which will be dedicated to the excavation of the northern part of the building, which should include the main entrance and the cold room(s).