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The Temple of Kalabsha (Kalabshe)

The temple at Kalabsha was built by the last of the Ptolemy Pharaohs (and thus Cleopatra) and by Roman Emperor Augustus to honor the local god Mandulis, considered a form of Horus, and to Osiris and Isis. It is one of the finest, as well as one of the largest Egyptian temples in Nubia.

Both Kalabsha and nearby Beit el Wali temple were relocated to an island above the waters of the Aswan dam in the 1960's as part of an extensive rescue project. A free standing granite gate from Kalabsha temple, previously unknown and found during the rescue project, was given by Egypt to Germany and now is in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

Excerpt from: Travels in Nubia by John Lewis Burckhardt

A Journey along the Banks of the Nile
Published in 1819. Adapted for, 2006.

The great Temple at Kalabsha

March 28, 1813.
After a slow ride of six hours we reached el Kalabsha (Kalabshe, Kalapsche or Kalabshee), the largest village on the west bank of the river between Aswan and Derr. At the foot of the hill, in the midst of the village, and reaching down to the river, is the ruin of a very large temple.

The Temple at Kalabsha - scattered stone fragments and an imposing set of columns.
The Temple at Kalabsha,
by David Roberts, 1838

The front of the portico consists of a large propylon (pylon) of great beauty and simplicity, with a gate in the center, by which the portico is entered; there had been a colonnade along the side wall of the latter, but one column only now remains, three feet three inches in diameter; the fragments of the others are lying in the area. On each side of the portico, and communicating with it, is a narrow, dark passage, with a door opening into the area which surrounds the temple, opposite a large gateway formed in the wall of the outer or general enclosure.

The front of the pronaos is decorated with four beautiful columns, and two pilasters; the columns are united by a wall rising to half their height, similar to what is seen at Meharraka, Dakke, Dandour, Kardassy, and Debot, a mode of construction belonging apparently to the times in which the temples at Tintyra and Philæ were built. The roof of the pronaos has fallen in, and now covers the floor; of the columns which supported it, two only remain. There are no sculptures of any kind, either on the propylon, or in the pronaos, except on the back wall of the latter, or rather on the front wall of the cella.

Kalabshe Temple.
Cut away view of the Temple at Kalabshe,
by François Chrétien Gau, 1819

The cella is fifteen paces in length, by nine in breadth, and projects several feet into the pronaos, thus forming, as it were, an insulated chamber in the midst of the temple, a mode of construction which I observed at Dakke, and afterwards at Philæ: two low columns stand within the cella. In the adytum are the remains of columns, lying on the ground, the only instance of the kind I have seen in any Egyptian temple: in its walls are some low dark recesses, and windows or loop-holes like those in the temple at Tintyra: its roof is formed of single blocks of stone reaching the whole breadth, and upwards of three feet in thickness.

There is a chamber behind the adytum, as at Dakke, and communicating with it by two doors; the roof has fallen in, but it may be seen that this chamber was lower than the adytum, and had a chamber over it. In the walls of this chamber are several cells, or recesses, each of which forms two small apartments, one behind the other, divided by a narrow entrance, and just sufficiently large to hold one person; they are closed in front by a stone, which may be removed at pleasure; and were, perhaps, prisons for refractory priests, or places of probation for those who aspired to the priesthood; the persons who were placed in them may be literally said to have been shut up in the wall, as there is not the slightest appearance of any recess being there, when the stones which close the outer entrance are in their places. I observed a hollow stone in the interior of one of them, but I am not certain whether it was a sarcophagus or not.

Pharaoh brings incense, flowers and other gifts to the gods at Kalabshe.
Wall art from the the Temple at Kalabshe,
by François Chrétien Gau, 1819

The walls of the cella and adytum are covered with painted figures, the colors of which still remain tolerably perfect, more so than those at Philæ, owing to a coat of plaster having been laid upon the walls by the Greeks, to receive the paintings of their saints; but which has for the most part fallen off; the colors generally used are red, blue, green, and black. The hawk-headed Osiris, with a staff in one hand, is painted of a light green color, some females, holding the lotus in their hands, are quite black; the variously colored striped robes of the Osiris with a tiara on his head have a most gaudy appearance; the hair, in general, of all the figures is painted black, though in some it is blue; the spaces between the different figures are covered with hieroglyphics, painted red.

On the lower part of the side walls of the adytum are single human figures, each with an animal by its side, generally an ox, a gazelle, or a goose. The exterior walls of the temple are covered with sculptures of colossal figures, like those at Tintyra and Edfou; though not so large: they are rudely executed, and by no means correspond with the beauty of the sculpture on the interior of the chambers. Heads of sphinxes project from the walls, as at Tintyra; through which perhaps the priests delivered their oracles.

The Temple at Kalabshee.
The Temple at Kalabshee,
by François Chrétien Gau, 1819

The walls of the portico are prolonged the whole length of the temple, and by means of a transverse wall in the rear of the chamber behind the adytum, form a high enclosure all round; at about twenty feet beyond which, is the general enclosure to the whole building; this is carried to the foot of the hill, which has been cut down perpendicularly, so as to serve as the end wall. In the south-west corner of the area thus formed around the temple, is a small quadrangle formed on one side by three columns, and on the adjacent interior side by a short wall built across the area; here a grotto, or sepulchre, has been hewn in the perpendicular rock, similar to what I noticed behind the temple at Dandour; it consists of a single chamber, with the winged globe over its entrance, but without any other sculpture. A flight of steps leads from the propylon down to a paved terrace which extends to the foundations of an oblong building, standing just over the river, where are some fragments of columns. Visitors by water, during the inundations, might have stepped from their vessel into this building.

The Temple at Kalabshe - a solid block of stonework.
The Temple at Kalabshe,
by David Roberts, 1838

The temple of Kalabshe deserves to rank, with that of Dakke, amongst the most precious remains of Egyptian antiquity. I have given merely a rapid description of it, but, I hope, sufficient to show, that it deserves to be investigated closely in all its details. In its site, it is to be compared with the temples of Tintyra and Edfou; and it belongs to the best period of Egyptian architecture, though it bears traces, in several of its parts, of a less careful and more hurried execution, than that of the two temples just mentioned. The walls are uncommonly well built: the existing columns have the Philæ capitals, but are less nicely worked.

wings of the Sun.

The Temple of Kalabshe (Kalabsha)
excerpt from: Travels in Nubia

by John Lewis Burckhardt, published in 1819

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