This installment chronicling my Nile voyage of October 2007, this post should follow the one entitled “Barging down the Nile,” dated May 13, 2008

Kom Ombo

The first evening of the cruise brought us to Kom Om Bo, and it was there that I got my real sense of why the Egyptian economy relies so heavily on tourism (second only to the Suez as the the principal source of national income — and only sometimes second at that. Other times it ranks #1). To disembark the boat, we had to go through others (sort of a flotilla of adjoining boats, and not all from the same company) and I counted 14, if I remember right before I lost track. And nor were we the only such flotilla of tour boats along the bank. This population made itself felt as we toured the temple. And although the temple is new in the relative timescale of Egypt – dating to mere 180 B.C., its Graeco-Roman rather than of the Old, Middle Kingdoms or 17th etc dynasties – the site was amazing, not the least for me as a historian of science and medicine.

The reason for the medical connection is that the left side of the Kom Ombo temple (which is unusual among Egyptian temples in that it is a double temple) is dedicated to the god Haroeris, which literally translates as “the good doctor.” He is supposed to be a form (in India we would have said avatar) of the better known, falcon-headed Horus. The medical aspect of this deity is evident in the carvings, unique to this temple I believe, of medical instruments of the day – scalpels and ugh! forceps among other things – etched into the walls of the outer chambers of this temple (see the photo at the beginning of this post). I heard the Roman Emperor Trajan, who built the outer enclosures of the temple in the 2nd century A.D. not only added these carvings (or had them carved) he also brought and made special offerings of medical instruments to Haroeris.

The presiding deity of the right side is Sobek, the crocodile God, to whom so many of the smaller Graeco-Roman temples such as the one we saw in the Fayoum valley. Actually here the diety is Sobek-Re, a combination of the croc-god and the sun god, Re. The very real presence (and threat) of crocodiles in the lives of the Egyptians of yore is brought home by the presence of three rather large mummified crocs in glass cases in a small free-standing shrine in the Kom Ombo temple complex.

An interesting factoid from the ever-informative John (Swanson) that I must add here is that in the smaller Sobek temples the deities were assumed to be a combination of the personae of the croc god and the victim of his earthly selves. Consumption by a crocodile, in other words, conferred divinity. Crocodiles, which are humungous beasts by the way, were as I mentioned a very real threat to the folks living by the Niles and it was not unusual for folks to be attacked. It may have been small consolation to the victim of course, but their names are etched into cartouches for all eternity or at least till the temples stand!

Kom Ombo also gave me my first sight of colour in ancient Egypt (which I proceeded to get more of and in from wider spectra, as the trip progressed). One of the explanations offered by my guide for the lack of color in the temple walls etc, is the fact that the temples were buried in sand in the centuries intervening their construction and rediscovery in the past 200-300 years. Over this time the color was literally sanded away, which explains why the only places where we do see it is on the ceilings which are less exposed to abrasion than vertical walls. The faint blue color represents the sky against which we can see vultures flying.

Credits: In addition to my guides on the trip and John Swanson, of course, I must also credit the following travel information site “sacred destinations” for the historical information included in this post.