History of the City

The site of Antinoupolis is located in Egypt on the east bank of the Nile, about halfway between Cairo and Luxor, adjacent to the modern village of el Sheikh Abada.  Unlike many ancient cities, the city of Antinoupolis has a firm foundation date:  it was founded by the Roman Emperor Hadrian on his imperial tour of Egypt in October of 130 CE.  There are very few earlier remains on the site, but they include a temple of about 1250 BCE from the reign of Ramses II.  Whether there are other early remains is a question archaeology has yet to answer.  The city celebrates the apotheosis of a young Greek man in Hadrian’s entourage named Antinous who drowned in the Nile nearby.  Following ancient Egyptian custom, by drowning in the Nile Antinous became joined with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, who still had an active cult in Egypt at that time.  The city of Antinoupolis was created to be the new god’s (the compound deity Osir-Antinous’s) cult center, and the city was lavishly endowed with elaborate monuments to celebrate the new god, some of which were still extant at the turn of the eighteenth century, were documented by the French at that time, and were published by them in the multi-volume "La Description de l'Egypte." (See gallery below.)  As it turned out, Osir-Antinous may well have been the last god to be added to the ancient Egyptian pantheon, and indeed to the Greco-Roman pantheon, before Egypt and the rest of the Roman Empire was Christianized, largely in the fourth century.

Antinoupolis did not vanish, however, but became an active Christian center continuing well into the medieval period.  Many early travellers’ accounts from this time detail the features of the city including dozens of monasteries and churches and many impressive Roman monuments from the era of the city's foundation, some remaining in use.  The city’s population finally suffered a severe decline at some time in the medieval period, and dwindled to the small Moslem village on the riverbank which exists today.  Most of the ancient city has no current occupation on top of it, and travellers’ accounts continue to tell of the impressive ruins visible above ground until the early nineteenth century, just after the moment of the French documentation, when all of the major limestone monuments above ground were burned in lime kilns to produce quicklime (calcium oxide) for mortar to build sugar factories as Egypt joined the industrial revolution.  Today the circuit of the city walls (visible as linear hills) enclose about 279 acres or about 113 hectares (They form a rough trapezoid about 1.5 km by 0.75 km.), and this area is largely covered with tumbled architectural fragments and enormous mounds of pottery and debris.  In addition to the central city within these walls, the outlying associated features are extensive and include cemeteries, monasteries, quarries, and other ancient remains. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century the site's surface was well turned and pitted both by locals looking for treasure and fertilizer from the silt-rich mud brick and by early excavators, such as Albert Gayet and J. de M. Johnson, looking for inscribed papyrus fragments and mummies.  These early efforts were neither scientific, nor archaeology in the modern sense, and though some interesting bits of papyrus were recovered, the work recorded little information about the city’s inhabitants or urban form.

The current ongoing archaeological expedition from the Istituto Papirologico "G. Vitelli" from the University of Florence, supported by The Antinoupolis Foundation for specific targeted projects, seeks to redress this imbalance and create a complete archaeological picture of the ancient city and its inhabitants from its Hadrianic foundation to its abandonment in the medieval period.

These engravings show some of the monuments of Antinoupolis destroyed in the nineteenth century just after they were published in "La Description de L'Egypte" from which these images were taken.