The Upper Egyptian town of Kom Ombo rose to greatness under the rule of the Ptolemaic kings, who made it the capital of the Ombite nome and selected it as the site for the double temple now known as the Temple of Kom Ombo. Built on the east bank of the River Nile on an outcrop once frequented by basking crocodiles, the temple is unique in that it has two identical entrances, two linked hypostyle halls and twin sanctuaries dedicated to two different gods; Sobek and Horus the Elder. It is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis and its remaining walls and columns are the first ancient sight to greet Nile cruisers traveling north from Aswan to Luxor.
History of the Temple
The existing Ptolemaic temple was pre-dated by an older temple built in the same spot during the rule of 18th dynasty pharaoh Thutmose III. All that’s left of this temple is a sandstone doorway built into one of the current structure’s walls. The Temple of Kom Ombo as we know it today was constructed under the orders of King Ptolemy VI Philometor, who lived from 186-145 BC. His successors added to the temple and its elaborate reliefs, many of which are credited to King Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, the father of Queen Cleopatra VII.
The western half of the temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god of fertility. Ancient Egyptians worshipped him to ensure the fertility of both people and crops, and to protect themselves against the real-life crocodiles living in the River Nile. The eastern half of the temple is dedicated to Horus the Elder, one of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon. A creator god, Horus is usually depicted with a falcon’s head. Over the centuries the temple has been damaged by river flooding, earthquakes and looters who used its stones for other building projects.
The Temple of Kom Ombo was restored along with many other ancient sights by French director of antiquities, Jacques de Morgan, at the end of the 19th century. It still yields fascinating archaeological discoveries today. In 2018 a project to drain groundwater from the temple uncovered a magnificent sandstone sphinx sculpture and two sandstone stelae. One depicts King Ptolemy IV alongside his wife and a triad of gods while the other depicts the much older King Seti I standing in front of Sobek and Horus the Elder.
It is possible (although not yet confirmed) that the latter originates from the temple of Thutmose III.
Things to See
Your visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo starts in the forecourt, where the remains of a double altar and a three-sided colonnade can clearly be seen. Inside, the inner and outer hypostyle halls boast 10 columns each, all with exquisitely carved palm or floral capitals. Everywhere you look there are magnificent reliefs carved into the walls, the ceiling and the columns themselves. Some still retain traces of their original color. The reliefs depict hieroglyphs, deities, kings and queens and several of the Roman emperors (including Trajan, Tiberius and Domitian).
Notable reliefs to look out for include the presentation of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos to Horus the Elder; the crowning of Ptolemy XII with the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, signifying the nation’s unification; and a set of what appears to be surgical instruments on the back wall of the temple’s outer passage. The latter is thought to refer to the temple’s role as a place of healing for local people, many of whom left their own graffiti on the outer wall. In the grounds you can also find a shrine dedicated to Hathor, a birthing house and a pool where sacred crocodiles were once kept.
For more information about the role these reptiles played, visit the nearby Crocodile Museum. Its air-conditioned rooms house a collection of mummified crocodiles found interred in the temple’s crypt as well as several interesting ancient carvings.
How to Visit
If you are planning a Nile cruise, the Temple of Kom Ombo will almost definitely be included as a stop on your itinerary. Tour operators also offer day trips from Aswan or Luxor and usually combine a visit to Kom Ombo with a tour of the amazingly well-preserved Temple of Horus in Edfu. Tours should include hotel pick-up, transport, temple entrance fees and the services of an English-speaking Egyptologist who can tell you exactly what you’re looking at. These are full day tours, so check whether lunch is included and bring your own if it isn’t.
If you’re exploring Egypt by hire car, it’s also possible to drive to Kom Ombo yourself.
Tickets to the Temple of Kom Ombo are priced at LE80 per adult (approximately $5) and the site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.