Main Temple

Kellis was the cult centre for the worship of the god Tutu (Tithoes), his consort Tapshay (Tapsais) and mother Neith. This temple is the only surviving one dedicated to Tutu, who warded off evil and is represented either as a sphinx or in human form. The temple complex and its ancillary buildings occupy a sizeable portion of the village and were operational by the reign of Nero.

The complex comprises a stone sanctuary with colonnaded portico, main gate and contra-temple, a colonnaded forecourt, three shrines occupying the corner areas of an inner temenos and a fourth set beside the main temple, a west court and well area, an inner east stone gate which is connected to the inner temenos, and an outer east stone gate which is connected with an outer temenos.

As a whole, this complex occupies an area of approximately 40m x 80m. The inner temenos measures approximately 27m x 70m and at a later time, the outer temenos was added which increased the area by 5-6m on the east, north and south sides and 2m on the west side. All of these structures are surrounded by another enclosure wall (Enclosure 1).

A plan of the Main Temple Complex.

Only the lowest sandstone courses of the temple are preserved in situ as most of the superstructure has suffered from quarrying. Additionally, several sandstone pedestals associated with the portico/forecourt and the lower stone courses of the main and east gateways have remained in place. The sanctuary and the four associated shrines combine pharaonic and classical style architecture and decoration. Notable architectural elements include a paired doorway, pylons, torus- and cavetto-moulded lintels, and plaster-moulded Corinthian capitals. Most of the decorated stone blocks bear scenes that are typical of pharaonic-style engagement between the gods and royal personages while surviving painted wall plaster, namely that in Shrine 1, displays a combination of elements. The lower portions of wall in this shrine contain classical-style rectangular panels with grapevine motifs shown around the borders and above these panels are registers which contain hieroglyphic inscriptions, figures of Egyptian deities and scenes with human figures garbed in traditional Egyptian dress.

The west court was an open space and contained two free-standing sandstone basins, each one cut from a single block. They were part of the original layout and it is likely that both served as lustral basins. Later, chambers were added to the south and to the east of the basins. Many Greek ostraka of 4th-century CE date were found in these chambers. The floor of the court is of earth, but traces of what may have been a plaster coating were also discovered during excavation. Deposits above the floor contained numerous sandstone blocks from the temple. A similar deposit was found in an area between the contra temple and Shrine 1. One of these blocks depicts the emperor Pertinax (193 CE) making an offering to Tapshay. Other decorated blocks were located in an outer court that is connected with the West Gateway; however, these are stylistically different from those identified with the Main Temple and indicates that there may have been an earlier religious structure on the site of the present temple. An intact sandstone stela was found between Shrine 4 and the inner east gate. It depicts a king making offering to seated figures of Neith and Tutu below the sign for heaven. The lunette contains a winged sun’s disc with two dependent uraei and the cartouche in front of the king allows him to be identified as Septimius Severus (193-211).

Investigation of the northwest corner of the inner temenos revealed a series of rooms that appeared to be related to food production and storage. The corner also has a mud-brick well. Excavations below the original surface level in this area have unearthed three phases of constructions. At first, the area had a mud-brick structure with a barrel-vaulted roof. A stone-lined, rectangular structure was then constructed within the area and truncated the earlier building. The walls were built of roughly-shaped sandstone blocks laid without mortar and it has been tentatively identified as a well. In the third phase an oval mud-brick well was constructed at the eastern side of the stone well. It had a wooden beam across it to assist in the raising of water. A series of mud-brick chambers surround the remains of this well and were built against the western and northern sections of the inner temenos.

The structures around the well were constructed on two levels and probably functioned as magazines. Although dates for the first two phases cannot be determined, ceramics and ostraka associated with the structures of the third phase suggest a 3rd-century date. This accords well with information from other parts of the Main Temple, which indicates that the final modifications to the temple took place in the 3rd century. The earliest date attested for activity in the temple area of the site is before the reign of Nero (54-68 CE). Further excavation in this area in following field seasons unearthed numerous clay sealings, several of which preserve the impression of a seated griffin with a tail that appears to end in a crowned serpent’s head. The device upon the sealings depicts Nemesis, who is often depicted accompanying Tutu of his mother Neith. The finds suggest that this storage area was constructed and used at a time when Tutu was still worshipped, which is believed to have lasted until the second quarter of the 4th century. Further excavation in the area unearthed a small limestone stela depicting Tutu. Tutu is shown as a sphinx with a lion’s head attached at the rear of its human head (wearing the nemes-headcloth and a crown), while a crocodile emerges from his chest and his tail ends with a cobra wearing the white crown. The stela was inlaid with coloured glass and it has been tentatively dated to the 1st or 2nd century.

Shrine 1 is situated in the southwest corner of the Main Temple. A study of the wall decoration and schemes has permitted an identification of the shrine as a mammisi (Birth House). Some of the reliefs show the days of the lunar month and there is also a scene depicting Khnum potting at his wheel in front of the seated figures of Isis and Tapshay. One of the registers shows a procession of priests bringing offerings to figures of Tutu and Neith. Other registers depict the nome-gods of Upper and Lower Egypt in procession and there is one register which shows Tutu worshipped by other gods. The classical-style decoration consists of alternating coloured panels with female heads set within squares topped with birds at their centres. Upon the inner face of the northern doorjamb, a male figure in Egyptian style is painted at the same level as the classical panels. On the east wall, there is a representation of Tutu as a sphinx; he sits upon the sign for the union of the two lands of Egypt (sm3-t3wy). The elaborate decoration accorded to the shrine exceeds that of the Main Temple and this highlights the importance of such structures within temple theology in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

Shrine 2, located on the north side of the temple, was also decorated. Sections of painted wall plaster are preserved in one of the rooms. The design consists of green panels below a foliate-scroll motif. This same design has been detected in Shrine 3 and it is possible that the entire inner face of the Inner Temenos wall from its east corner along the north wall of Shrine 3 to Shrine 2 was originally decorated with the same design. One of the more impressive artefacts found in Shrine 2 is a gilded wooden naos. The panels are carved in high relief and depict a seated and a standing figure of Isis, a seated Nephthys, a standing figure of Onuris-Shu and a standing figure of a king (named only as ‘Pharaoh’) making an offering. Fragments from a life-size, painted bust of Isis-Demeter were also found in the shrine. Some of the inscribed material included ostraka, jar dockets, fragments from inscribed wooden boards and papyrus. Two fragments from a wooden board inscribed in Greek date to the reign of Claudius II (268-270 CE) and two papyrus fragments also inscribed in Greek provide reference to the reign of Commodus (177-192). Three coins of Trajan (98-117) were also found amongst the material in two of the rooms of the shrine and are the earliest discovered at the site thus far.

Excavations in Shrine 3, located in the northeast corner area, unearthed important sub-floor deposits. These contained pottery that is similar to that found dumped under the houses of Area A and in the lowest deposits of Area B. This ceramic material may be ascribed to the 1st to 2nd centuries CE. Nine fragments from wooden boards inscribed in Greek, nine reed pens and 30 Greek ostraka were also found in Shrine 3. The text written upon the boards has been identified as a school exercise and it is possible that this part of the temple was dedicated to scribal activities. One of the inscribed boards preserves four lines of Homer’s Iliad.

The East Gateway comprises two stone gates, each set within the mud-brick temenos walls. Both are a similar size, approximately 4m wide and 4m deep, and they are set 3m apart. The two gates are constructed of sandstone, but they have limestone paving which is a unique feature at the site as this stone was usually reserved for sculpture.


An extensive list of publications relating to Ismant el-Kharab is available for consultation.

Main Temple Photo Gallery

View through the inner and outer east gates, looking east.
Excavation of the Main Temple area in progress.
View of the Main Gate which is associated with the sanctuary, looking northwest.
Decorated block from the inner door of the contra-temple showing the emperor Pertinax offering a sistrum to Tapshay.
Bronze Figure of Tapshay which was found in the north-eastern corner area of the sanctuary.
General view of the Main Temple showing the stone sanctuary, looking east.
General view of the Main Temple showing the colonnaded portico, looking southwest.
Inscribed sandstone pedestal in the forecourt.
View of the ancillary rooms located to the south of the stone sanctuary, looking west.
Overview of the stone sanctuary and Shrine 2 (left), showing also the inner temenos (center horizon), looking east.
Detail view of the stone sanctuary, looking southeast.
View of the west court showing the stone basins (center), looking southwest.
Detail view of the sanctuary, looking southwest.
A selection of pottery found in Zone XX, the well area.
The Tutu stela (Object Registration Number D/1/294) which depicts the god as a sphinx with a lion’s head attached at the rear of its human head and wearing a nemes head-cloth. Its tail ends with a cobra’s head and a crocodile’s head emerges from its chest; below is serpent. This stela was found in Room 1 of Zone XX. Note: it is decorated with blue, red and white glass inlays.
View of the pavement and outer east gate.
The paved space between the two east gates.

Shrines Photo Gallery

View of ceiling collapse in Shrine 1 showing the state of preservation of the decorated walls.
Excavation of the east end of Shrine 1 in progress.
The west end of Shrine 1, showing the preserved wall decoration: a combination of classical panels and pharaonic-style scenes.
Detail view of the wall decoration in Shrine 1, showing the combination of pharaonic and classical styles.
Detail view of the wall decoration in Shrine 1, showing the combination of pharaonic and classical styles.
Gilded-wooden naos from Room 4 in Shrine 2. The panels are carved in high relief and depict a seated and standing figure of Isis, a seated Nephthys, a standing figure of Onuris-Shu and a standing figure of a king making an offering.