At the border where lush farmland meets arid desert on Luxor’s West Bank is the Early Roman Isis Temple at Deir el-Shelwit. Constructed in the first century, the temple is a fascinating fusion of cultures, a Roman temple dedicated to the cult of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, who was worshipped for her ability to heal. Unassuming and unfinished, the small square temple contains four chapels, a central chamber (Naos), an antechamber (Pronaos) and a short staircase leading to a rooftop terrace. The interior and façade of the central chamber are decorated in colorful, carved wall reliefs that depict Roman emperors making offerings to ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, as well as cartouches containing the names of a number of Roman emperors. The reliefs are raised rather than carved into the stone walls, creating a visually stunning textured effect.
Prior to restoration, these decorative elements of the temple were largely obscured by centuries of dirt build-up and smoke residue. Soot deposit is a common feature in many temples across Egypt, given how many were reused and inhabited by people over time. Despite its location less than three miles (five kilometers) from the Valley of the Kings, Isis Temple has seen few tourists or members of the conservation and archaeology communities. As a result, there were never any appreciable conservation or restorative treatments, nor an effort to provide visitor facilities. In 2011, the American Research Center in Egypt, with funding through the Unites States Agency for International Development, undertook a project to clean and conserve the site, as well as update it with new visitor and management infrastructures.
The initial phases of work on Isis Temple required the site be prepared for conservation and construction work. This involved cleaning the surrounding landscape of weed overgrowths, humanely removing the bats that had taken up residence in the temple, removing obstructive power poles and a guard shack, leveling out the ground, and documenting the temple’s condition and reliefs through photography and epigraphy. In 2012, conservators from ARCE’s Conservation Field School for the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities began to work on the site. Concurrent with work on the temple, conservators were provided a rigorous schedule of trainings and lectures on pertinent topics like conservation ethics, effective workflows, and archaeological documentation.
Conservation work on the temple included closing cracks and holes in the temple’s façade and roof, chemical cleaning of the interior reliefs, micro-sandblasting the temple’s uninscribed internal corridor walls to remove smoke residue, capping the site’s original surrounding mudbrick wall with new mudbrick, and adding new flooring and guard rails inside the temple. The work by the field school continued for three seasons until the completion of all primary conservation work in 2013. In June of that year, a graduation ceremony was held for the 53 field school participants celebrating their remarkable work on the Isis Temple. An additional 45 conservators participated in an advanced field school from 2013-2014 and carried out a final round of cleaning and photographic documentation.
In tandem with the conservation work, the site underwent a number of operational and structural improvements that relied on sustainable resources and functions. Unused sandstone from a nearby project was used to construct the façade of a newly built on-site security office and visitor restroom and an outdoor seating area. Limestone chips from a project in Qurna make up the walking paths and visitor parking lot. Additionally, mudbrick debris from Qurna was reused to repair and finish the site’s mudbrick wall. To ensure energy efficiency, solar panels backup the power required for the internal lighting of the temple and solar-powered security lighting was placed in selected areas. Motion sensors inside the temple also guarantee that the lights shut off after visitors exit the building, making the overall site very low-maintenance and low-waste.
The opening of Deir el-Shelwit in January 2014 coincided with the United Nations World Tourism Organization conference in Luxor and was attended by officials of five Egyptian ministries, as well as members of the diplomatic community. The conservation and overall improvements carried out at Isis Temple are a landmark effort in the practice of sustainable cultural heritage management in Egypt, and the final result continues to be enjoyed by local and international visitors alike.