In ancient times the town of KOM OMBO stood at the crossroads of the caravan route from Nubia and trails from the gold mines of the Eastern Desert; under Ptolemy VI (180–145 BC), it became the capital of the Ombos nome and a training depot for African war elephants, which the Ptolemies required to fight the pachyderms of the Seleucid Empire. More recently, many of the Nubians displaced by the creation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s settled around the town.

In 2007 Belgian archeologists discovered what may be Egypt’s oldest rock art, on boulders in the village of Qurta, outside Kom Ombo. Provisionally dated to fifteen thousand years ago (like the famous Lascaux Caves in France), the painted carvings of cattle, gazelles, hippos, fish, and humans with exaggerated buttocks are sure to be off-limits for the foreseeable future, and Kom Ombo remains far better known for its Ptolemaic Temple of Haroeris and Sobek. Unlike other temples in the valley, this still stands beside the Nile, making the approach by river one of the highlights of a cruise.

Temple of Haroeris and Sobek

The Temple of Haroeris and Sobek stands on a low promontory near a bend in the river whose sandbanks were a basking place for crocodiles in ancient times. This proximity to the Nile has both preserved and damaged the site, covering the temple with sand which protected it from Coptic iconoclasts, but also washing away its pylon and forecourt. What remains was aptly described by Amelia Edwards as a “magnificent torso”; truncated and roofless yet still imposing.

Its defining characteristic is bisymmetry, with twin entrances, sanctuaries and halls nominally divided down the middle. The left side is dedicated to the falcon-headed Haroeris, the “Good Doctor” (a form of Horus the Elder) and his consort Ta-Sent-Nefer, the “Good Sister” (an aspect of Hathor). The crocodile-god Sobek (here identified with the sun as Sobek-Re), his wife (another form of Hathor) and their son Khonsu-Hor are honoured on the right side of the temple.

Approaching the temple, you first sight the Gate of Neos Dionysos. Its provenance is obscure, as scholars disagree over the number, order and dates of the various Ptolemies, each of whom adopted a title such as Soter (Saviour), Euergetes (Benefactor) or Philometor (Mother Lover). Some identify Neos Dionysos as Ptolemy XII, others as Ptolemy XIII, but all agree that he fathered the great Cleopatra and was nicknamed “The Bastard”.

The facade
With the forecourt (added by Emperor Trajan in 14 AD) reduced to low walls and stumps of pillars, your eyes are drawn to the facade of the Hypostyle Hall, whose surviving columns burst in floral capitals beneath a chunk of cavetto cornice bearing a winged sun-disc and twin uraei above each portal, their colours still vivid. Bas-reliefs on the outer wall show Neos Dionysos being purified by Thoth and Horus, and yet again in the presence of Sobek, whose face has been chiselled away.

The Outer Hypostyle Hall
Wandering amid the thicket of columns inside the Outer Hypostyle Hall, notice the heraldic lily of Upper Egypt or the papyrus symbol of the Delta carved on their bases. On the inner wall of the facade are splendid carvings of Neos Dionysos’s coronation before Haroeris, Sobek, Wadjet and Nekhbet (the goddesses of the north and south), and his appearance before Isis, Horus the Elder and a lion-headed deity. Neos Dionysos makes offerings to the same deities at the back of the hall, whose right side retains part of its roof, decorated with flying vultures.

The Inner Hypostyle Hall
Entering the older, Inner Hypostyle Hall, you’ll find a relief of Sobek in his reptilian form between the portals. Ptolemy II receives the hps (sword of victory) from Haroeris (accompanied by his sister Cleopatra III and his wife Cleopatra IV) in the southwest corner of the hall and makes offerings to gods on the shafts of the pillars, while his elder brother does likewise to Haroeris at the back of the hall, where a list of temple deities and festivals appears all along the wall on the bottom register.

Vestibules and sanctuaries
Beyond the Inner Hypostyle Hall lies the first of three, now roofless, vestibules (each set slightly higher than the preceding one) decorated by Ptolemy VI. Scenes at the back depict the foundation of the temple, with Sheshat, goddess of writing, measuring its dimensions; and offerings and libations to Sobek. To maintain the temple in a state of purity, these rituals were periodically repeated in the Hall of Offerings. The ruined chamber to the right once held vestments and sacred texts, as at Edfu and Dendara. Offerings to Haroeris, a description of the temple and an address to Sobek appear on the southern wall, which also features a tiny relief of a woman giving birth, at roughly chest height. Notice the painted vultures on the ceiling, too.

A fine relief between the doors of the sanctuaries shows Ptolemy and his sister-wife being presented with a palm stalk from which hangs a Heb-Sed sign representing the years of his reign. Khonsu does the honours, followed by Haroeris and Sobek (representing air and water, respectively); Ptolemy himself sports a Macedonian cloak. Because so little remains of the sanctuaries, you can glimpse a secret corridor between them, whence the priests would “speak” for the gods; it’s accessible via an underground crypt in one of the shrines behind the inner corridor.

The outer corridor and precincts
In the outer corridor between the Ptolemaic temple and its Roman enclosure wall, pilgrims scratched graffiti on the pavements to pass time before their appointment with the Good Doctor, who was represented by a statue behind the central chapel. Ears carved on the walls heard their pleas and the eyes symbolized the health they sought. Though these have been gouged away by supplicant fingers, you can still see reliefs depicting scalpels, suction cups, dental tools and bone saws, and Marcus Aurelius offering a pectoral cross to Ta-Sent-Nefer, the Good Sister. Ancient Egyptian medicine is known to have at least eight hundred prescriptions, including one for eye-cataracts, consisting of mashed tortoise brains with honey.

Other rituals centred on a Sacred Well with two stairways descending to its depths, which drew water from the Nile to feed a pool used for raising sacred crocodiles, accessible by an underground corridor.

The Crocodile Museum
South of the Sacred Well, the intriguing Crocodile Museum exhibits over twenty mummified crocodiles, votive tablets and effigies, found in a cemetery at the nearby village of El-Shabta in the 1970s. The Ancient Egyptians feared and revered crocodiles – associating their stealthy killing skills with the might of the pharaoh – and used crocodile-hide as military body armour. Crocodiles were worshipped at many cult-sites, from Qasr Qaroun in the Fayoum to Kom Ombo, and buried in cemeteries in the vicinity.

Further south stands the ruined Birth House of Ptolemy VII – or what’s left of it since half the ruins fell into the Nile in the nineteenth century. A customary relief of the king hunting birds appears on its southern wall.