From tekhenu to obelisk: From Kemet to Rome


Tekhenu, Karnak

When you ask many people to describe something from Kemet they will often reference a tall thin structure, but not remember its name. What they are referring to is what the Greek’s called an obelisk (obelisks), but its original Kemite name was tekhenu. The earliest surviving tekhenu dates to what we now call the Middle Kingdom, and bears the names of the king Sensusret Kheperkare (Senusret I, as we call him). Senusret ruled from around 1956-1911 BCE, and commissioned two tekhenu to celebrate his 30 year jubilee, or Heb Sed festival. Only one survives and it stands today in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. However, the form dates back much earlier to the Old Kingdom (around 2686-2181 BCE).

Tekhenu at Karnak

The largest tekhenu to survive can be found at the temple now known as Karnak. These gigantic monuments date to the reigns of Thutmose (I) Aakheperenre who ruled from 1504-1492 BCE and Hatshepsut Maatkare, the female pharaoh who ruled from around 1479-1458 BCE. Those that remain at the site are a fraction of the original number.


Not all tekhenu were as large as the examples at Karnak. The people of ancient Kemet actually distinguished between small and large with the appropriate adjective. Larger tekhenu were placed at the entrances to temples, often in front of the pylon (gateway). Smaller scale examples were also found at the entrance to tomb chapels, and the smallest were in the form of amulets (charms). But what did they mean?

Pyramid, Giza

A tekhenu is related to the benben, which was the sacred mound that the people if Kemet believed rose from the primeval waters from which creation arose. The benben stone was referenced at the top of a pyramid and the tekhenu was effectively an elevated version. In essence a tekhenu lifted this sacred stone to the sun and was closely associated with the sun god Ra. It is likely that the summits of both pyramids and tekhenu were covered with precious metals.

From Kemet to Rome

Examples of stone carving at the Aswan ancient quarry

Many tekhenu that originated in Kemet were taken from their original locations. And in fact even in ancient times there are examples of kings of Kemet usurping a tekhenu by adding their own inscriptions to those of an earlier ruler. Why? Well because manufacturing a colossal tekhenu was not an easy task. In fact a failed attempt can still be seen at the Aswan quarries. You can see from the photograph above that quarry workers would use rock to pound out the form of the items the chief stone mason would then work upon. Why go through the labour and expense of manufacturing and then transporting such a monument when you could just as easily inscribe one belonging to someone else?


The Roman emperor Augustus clearly saw the value of the earlier tekhenu. He transported the example above, which dates to the reigns of Seti (I) Menmaatre (1290-1279 BCE) and Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) from Iunu or Heliopolis in Kemet. The obelisk was initially placed in the circus maximus in Rome, where events such as chariot races were held. Augustus was so enthused by the monuments that he had two small versions placed in front of his own tomb; although this and the transportation of earlier tekhenu was probably for political reasons; he had defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt.

A continuation of a Kemite tradition?

The obelisk of Antinous, Rome

The last example of an inscribed obelisk dates to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who commissioned a monument to honour his dead lover Antinous. Antinous had accompanied the emperor to Egypt for an official visit. Hadrian, a keen devotee of Egyptian cults reportedly hired the services of a Kemite priest to act as a guide during the trip. Part way through the expedition, Antinous drowned in the Nile; Hadrian was inconsolable and in honour of his lover built a city that he named Antinoopolis (The city of Antinous) and initiated a cult to the dead youth.

The river Nile near the ancient city of Antinoopolis, where Antinous drowned

As part of that cult the obelisk was commissioned and brought to Rome. Unlike many of the Roman period obelisks that have nonsense hieroglyphs inscribed on the sides, the obelisk of Antinous must have been carved by a Kemite artist under the supervision of a Kemite priest. It shows that in spite of over 500 years when colossal tekhenu were not produced, the skills and religious traditions had not been lost in Kemet.


A curious statue of a Kemite King

A curious statue

Not only is this statue unusual in its form, but it was first recorded in the 16th century (common era) by the Renaissance architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio at the site of an Ancient Roman temple in Rome, Italy called the Pantheon. This was not, however, where it had originated.

The statue represents a much early king of Kemet: Amenemhat Nimaatre, or Amenemhat III as he is generally called today. Amenemhat was the sixth ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty and ruled Kemet for around 45 years from 1859-1813 BCE. He is perhaps best known for the pyramids he built in the region of the Fayoum. There is a second statue that shows the King with the same hair and beard. This statue (below) was found at the site of Tanis and is in the form of a double representation that shows Amenemhat as a marsh deity (god). It is inscribed with the title “The offering bearers of Tanis”. References to the marshes can be seen on the tables in front of the King; they are decorated with plants and fish.

A double statue of King Amenemhat III as a marsh god, found at the site of Tanis in Egypt.

I remember seeing this statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when I first went to Egypt, when I was still studying Classics and before I knew anything about Ancient Kemite art. It stood out from all of the other statues in the museum and I recall being struck by how unusual it was.

Fragment of a statue of Amenemhat Nimaatre. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

Both statues show the king with thick locks of hair cascading down from a shorter twisted style at the front of the head. The sheer volume of hair suggests that the hair type was African, and this is confirmed by the two types of locks that create this incredible hairstyle. The beard is also unusual in its form but complements the head hair.

The facial features on both the Cairo and Rome statues are strong and typical of this period. The broad face, strong cheekbones, and wide nose are reminiscent of the portraits of the previous ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Senusret Kakaure. Suffice to say that the shorter hair style and the facial features that appear on Amenemhat’s statues are those that are typically now categorised as ‘Nubian’.

From Kemet to Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome. Although now a church this building was originally a Roman temple.

As noted, the statue of Amenemhat was first recorded at the Pantheon in Rome (above). In fact, it had originally been placed in the largest Egyptian temple in Rome: The Iseum Campense. There had been a cult to the goddess Isis at the site of the Iseum before the Roman’s took control of Kemet. However, the emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 CE, destroyed the sanctuary following a scandal involving a man named Decius Mundus. Decius pretended to be the god Anubis and seduced a devotee of the cult of Isis named Paulina. When she discovered the truth Paulina complained to the emperor, who responded by throwing all of the statues from the temple into the River Tiber. The sanctuary continued to have chequered history. It was was rebuilt by the Emperor Calligula (37-41 CE), burnt down during the reign of Titus in 80 CE, and then rebuilt by the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE).

It was probably during the reign of Domitian that the statue was brought over to Italy from Kemet. Domitian was a strong supporter of Egyptian cults, especially Isis. It was typical of such cult centres to have a combination of both ancient statues from Kemet and newly manufactured representations of the emperor as an Egyptian king.

As for Amenemhat, he was worshipped as a god in his own right in Kemet during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE), possibly even before. In the Late Period there was a renaissance that looked back to the period of the reigns of Senusret and Amenemhat. During this period artists even copied the portraits and styles of statues that were produced in the earlier period. Whether the Romans who took the statue from its original location were aware of this tradition, we will probably never know.

Gods of Kemet: Anukhet

The goddess in Kemet

Like many traditional African religions, women played a key role in the Kemite pantheon. Perhaps the best known is Isis, the mother of Horus and wife and sister of Osiris, who can be identified by the throne hieroglyph on her head, which spells out her name Iset or Aset (see below).

The goddess Isis, who was called Iset by the Ancient Kemites. She appears with King Seti on a relief at his temple at Abydos

The role that gods played was often flexible and varied, depending on region for example. In the case of Isis, the goddess’ roles expanded to such an extent that in the Roman period she was given a second name to define which characteristic was being worshipped, for example Isis Pelagia was associated with seafaring by association with the lighthouse at Alexandria.   Even in traditional temples in Egypt, the goddess’ crown was adapted during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE); she wore a sun disk and cow’s horns (see below).

Ptolemy II makes an offering to Isis and his sister Arsinoe II. Temple of Isis at Philae

The last Cleopatra took the title ‘New Isis’, presenting herself as a living embodiment of the goddess from the middle of her reign, and appearing in the image of the goddess at a temple in Rome (below). Goddesses, and divine royal women, often wore a vulture headdress. You can see this on the relief above and on the statue below.

Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome


The goddess Anukhet makes an offering on a relief from the temple at Dakka in Nubia

Many people have heard of Isis. However, there are a number of less well known deities. One of these is Anukhet (above). Anukhet was the daughter of Khnum and Satet, who were gods from the region we now call Nubia. Khnum, who was from the New Kingdom presented as a ram-headed god, was seen to be the guardian of the source of the River Nile at Elephantine. He was also powerful creator god; the potter’s wheel that represented him is a reference to the idea that he created children from the clay of the river. It was this aspect of Khnum that was celebrated at his cult centre in Esna. Satet, her mother, appeared in the form of a human and was identified as the giver of water, which she presented to the deceased as purification. Her cult centre was Elephantine, in modern Aswan.

gods_of_Kemet_anukhet_Dakka_ temple
Anukhet, left receives an offering from the King

Anukhet, therefore, was the offspring of two powerful parents. Like her mother she appeared in the form of a human, but can be distinguished from other goddesses by the headdress she wore, which was made of feathers. Although human in form, she was associated with the gazelle. A reminder that many of the animals of Kemet, that are no longer found there, are those that we associated with other African countries further south.

Anukhet was primarily associated with the River Nile, and the annual festival that celebrated her powers involved worshippers dedicating precious items by placing them in the river. The cult centres for Anukhet were on the Islands of Seheil and Elephantine, which are in the modern city of Aswan (below).

Map showing Aswan and the Island of Seheil

On the Island of Seheil, the goddess appears on a number of rock cut inscriptions, left by Kemite officials from the New Kingdom who were travelling further south (below) and who made offerings for protection. She also appears on temples further south, including a number in Kush.


The goddess Anukhet (left)