THE CITY OF ANTINOOPOLIS
In October of the year 130, the Imperial flotilla of ships visited the remote, ancient city of Hermopolis, which was sacred to Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and magic. Something mysterious must have occurred during the visit, because as the flotilla departed and made it's way around a bend in the river, Antinous mysteriously fell into the Nile and drowned. Hadrian was overcome with grief, and is said to have wept openly when the dead body of Antinous was brought before him. It was the local people who first indicated that Antinous had become a sacred being...they believed that all those who drowned in the Nile had been embraced by Osiris, that the drowned person would become Osiris, rising up from the underworld to live forever as an immortal, and that through their death, the Inundation of the Nile would be assured. Reports were brought to the grieving Emperor that the local people had begun worshiping Antinous as though he were a new god. Hadrian consulted with the local Egyptian priests in private and within a few days, emerged from his chamber to make an extraordinary declaration.
On October 30th of the year 130, Hadrian made a formal declaration of his intent to found a new city on the shore where Antinous drowned, the City of Antinoopolis.
As Pontifex Maximus, Hadrian also issued a formal
proclamation of the Apotheosis of Antinous, that because of his sacred
death in the Nile, that Antinous was to be Deified, an honor which
was previously only conferred upon Roman Emperors. In the ancient
Greek past, hundreds of years before Antinous died, apotheosis had
been conferred upon heroic individuals such as Achilles and Hercules,
and also upon beautiful boys who were loved by gods, but had died
early deaths, such as Hyacinthus, Adonis, and Narcissus. Antinous
was to be numbered among these gods, and also as a member of the Imperial
Cult, which has led to unending speculation about the relationship
between Hadrian and his beloved young Antinous. Hadrian declared that
a new religion dedicated to Antinous was to be founded, and that temples
and sacred images of Antinous were to be established everywhere in
the world. Copies of this formal declaration were sent to Rome and
every corner of the Empire. And in obedience to this decree, hundreds
of temples and small shrines were constructed and so many thousands
of statues, images and busts were constructed that the image of Antinous
is now one of the most recognizable faces from ancient history.
Hadrian personally set to work surveying the plans for the new city, he spared no expense and indicated every aspect to the last detail. Antinoopolis was a triumph of architectural design, the fulfillment of Hadrian's dream to create a Roman city in Egypt which would rival Alexandria, and stand as an outpost of Greco-Roman civilization at the southern extreme of the Empire. Hadrian had traveled to Egypt with the intention of founding such a city. Morosely, it was the death of Antinous which would determine the location of his plan. Providentially, it was the death of Hadrian's favorite, which gave Antinoopolis the Emperor's particular, heart-felt attention. And Disastrously, it was the aura of homosexual mysticism that eventually led to the eventual destruction of the city. In contrast to the nearby ancient mud-brick city of Hermopolis with its twisting lanes and centuries-old temples, the new city was a forest of white-marble temples, monuments and colonnades laid out on a grid pattern and strewn everywhere with images of the New God Antinous. The main avenues of Antinoopolis were lined with HUNDREDS of statues of Antinous.
As Sacred Synchronicity would have it, the new city
was located at the very fulcrum of Egypt, the sacred dividing line
between Upper and Lower Egypt. It was here, only a few short miles
to the south, that the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten had established
his "City on the Horizon" Akhetaten 1,400 years earlier
at the midway point between the traditional capitals of Thebes and
Memphis. Antinoopolis is located on a bend in the river between Akhetaten
and Hermopolis (sacred city of Thoth). This bend in the Nile was the
very heart of Egypt, as indeed, it still is today. Throughout the
ages, this area has been a center of religious controversy and fervor.
On the site where Antinoopolis was founded, a small temple of Rames
II stood, and the area was known alternately as Hir-wer or Besa. From
the name, Besa, it has been supposed the region was sacred to the
Egyptian God Bes, who is a dwarf god of wild things, similar to the
satyr Silenos, who is intimately connected to Dionysus, who is in
turn synchretically linked to Osiris.
The new city was a visible representation of the new religion based on Hellenistic principles of beauty and harmony, a vision of the Cosmos as a well ordered place in which civilized people could live in accordance with ancient Greek philosophic ideals. A great arch welcomed travelers by boat at the marble docks. Broad streets lined with fine shops and luxurious homes led to the central intersection, where a colossal gilded bronze statue of Antinous Epiphanes “coming forth” towered over the square, permitting Antinous to gaze down languidly in blessing upon new arrivals to his city, and upon the daily lives of his sacred inhabitants. A north-south Colonnade was matched by an East-West Colonnade which ran the length of the city, linking the Mausoleum of Antinous at one end with the Theater at the other. Beyond the city walls, on the dusty plain between the River and the Eastern Cliffs, an enormous Hippodrome dominated the elevated land east of the city gates.
Special privileges, such as tax exemption, were given to any Greek who took up residence in Antinoopolis, and further privileges were certainly given to all those who joined the new religion of Antinous, though we can be sure that participation in the cult was to some degree compulsory. Antinoopolis was to somewhat like a gated community for the rich and privileged, as the residents enjoyed all the comforts of Greco-Roman civilization in the middle of the Egyptian desert. To have been a Citizen of Antinoopolis was once held as a measure of pride and privilege. The Citizens of Antinoopolis were given special dispensation to intermarry with the local population, the children of which were given automatic Roman Citizenship, with all of the legal protections and privileges provided as such. Evidence of what it meant to be a Citizen of Antinoopolis is demonstrated by the large number of papyrus fragments found all throughout the region, many of which are legal contracts where one of the parties is specifically named as a Citizen of Antinoopolis, meaning that their claim is to be taken into special consideration.
In Egypt, a land which measured its past in vast millennia, Antinoopolis was unavoidably new and distinctive. Even centuries after its founding, it was considered a place for novel and innovative approaches toward spiritual endeavour. A sacred brotherhood of priests was consecrated to service the sacraments and litanies prepared by Hadrian for the Temple and Mausoleum of Antinous. There his name was ritually sung and his oracles were read for almost five hundred years. The people of the city were Greek in every way. They had luxurious baths, a beautiful amphitheater, a gymnasium, and a library where philosophers met to speak and debate. Antinoopolis was home to the famous mathematician, Serenus of Antinoopolis, who devised an innovative method of calculating the geometry of a cylinder which is still used to this day. The city was a magnet for the finest sculptors of the day. It may well be that many of the sculptures, which now proliferate the museums of the world, were produced here, where the image of Antinous was held in sacred regard. The Deification of Antinous was celebrated in the Antinoean Games, which were athletic competitions, footraces, and boat races on the Nile, not unlike the Olympic games, held with a deep infusion of religious symbolism and athletic sacrifice. Theatrical performances in the amphitheater, musical competitions, and poetry were the more graceful aspect of the festival which were held in the late summer in celebration of the miraculous flooding of the Nile which occurred after his death. The Antinoean Games attracted the best athletes, poets, playwrites, actors, and musicians in all of Egypt. The prize for the victor was symbolically a crown of Pink Lotus, the Antinoeios Flower, and also Citizenship of Antinoopolis and a lifetime stipend of all expenses paid...which was of course immensely valuable. There is a payrus fragment of an athlete who sold his lifetime stipend for a very good price.
Antinoopolis was the pageant ground for a lavish and outrageous new mystery religion to rise up at the dawn of the new celestial epoch. Surrounded by opulence and well funded by the state, the priests of Antinous sought to absorb the wisdom of all creeds of the Roman Empire. They were Greco-Roman Pagans trying to uphold Olympus in the middle of the Egyptian desert, surrounded by wild Gnostics, austere Catholics, genius Mathematicians and natural philosophers, the Roman garrison and every assortment of conjurer, and prophet of debauchery that could make his way up the Nile. It was a haven for educated and mystically inclined homosexuals of this high point of the Roman Empire. Taking after the example of the Emperor, and surely approved by his successor, the gentle Antoninus Pius, there must have been an explosion of sacred homosexuality across the face of the world, especially in the Greek East, and in the southern deserts with Antinoopolis as the sanctified capital of Gay Spirituality.
The Priests of Antinous venerated the beauty of young men, as living examples of Antinous, one superb manifestation of which was held to be the Divine Ephebe in living flesh, a boy of about nineteen years of age, perhaps the winner of the Antinoean Games, who was worshiped as the carnal and spiritual habitation of Antinous the God. We can be certain that the elegant priests were of the doctrine of the Libertines, placed as they were on the very edge of the world, surrounded by unknown Africa, clinging to the edge of the fertile Nile, with endless desert all around. The citizens of Antinoopolis must have felt as though they were not part of the world, that they were special, not subject to the normal rules and customs, and that they were the champions of civilization in the very extreme of barbarity.
The rituals of the priests of Antinous followed the Greek manner of singing chants, of blood sacrifice, and the burning of incense. To this was brought the Ancient Egyptian method of chanting as used in reading the Book of the Dead. The priests of Antinous kept the fire of the name of Antinous burning by reciting his ceremonies and oracles with a combination of Greek Chant and Egyptian bells. Flutes and harps accompanied the gestures of their ritual. The Christian Fathers tell us that all inflamed with drink, the priests fell upon each other in unholy lust. The Ancient Priests were also well-known for their magical spells, and a papyrus fragment bearing an Antinous Love Spell survives to this day. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims came to Antinoopolis over five centuries to worship the beautiful god, and to hear the sayings of the oracle. Toward the end...as the Empire disintegrated, Antinoopolis became a place of magic and superstition, and the evidence from this period is that Antinoopolis had become a market for charletans.
Antinoopolis was a center of trade and commerce, a Roman road called the Via Hadriani connected it to the Red Sea, from where ships returned from India and faraway China, bearing exotic spices and silk, and all manner of otherworldly curiosities. Antinoopolis was a fabulously rich little city, surrounded by extreme and eternal poverty. It soon became the administrative capital of the region, from which a Roman military and political official called the Epistrategos, which translates essentially as Commander General, served as the direct representative of the Emperor. During the reforms of Emperor Diocletian, Antinoopolis was made the lead city of the Nome of Thebaid, and the civil leader was called the Nomearch.
Antinoopolis is also famous for having been the scene of the Roman effort to stamp out Christianity in the Thebaid. It was here that all those who were arrested for the crime of being a Christian were brought for interrogation by the Nomearch. They were given every opportunity to deny their Christianity and make a burnt offering to the images of the Divine Emperors and of the Gods as a sign that they were not guilty of treason against the Roman State and Roman Religion. Many people falsely accused denied the charges and willingly made religious sacrifice of burning incense and pouring wine before the image of the Divine Emperors and the Gods. But the stories of those who refused to renounce their illegal faith were recorded as Martyrs. When found guilty of the crime, they were sentenced to death and executed, usually by having their heads severed from their necks. Antinoopolis is remembered by Christians for the persecutions and martyrdoms that took place within it's walls.
Eventually the Christians were victorious over the Pagans in Rome and Constantinople, but even after the official imposition of Christianity in 391, Antinoopolis continued to be an outpost of pagan religious fervor. The Greeks in Antinoopolis clung to their pagan gods, Bes, Isis, Serapis, Hermes, Aphrodite and especially Antinous, while the Christians converted the temples into churches. One intriguing sign of the mingling of religious beliefs survives in the form of a 4th Century AD grave stele depicting a naked boy, with a form and hair style resembling Antinous, holding aloft in one hand a cross and in the other the grapes of Dionysus. Antinoopolis was one of the last bastions of the ancient pagan faith to survive the fall of the Roman Religion. And though no names are recorded, one can be sure that the pagans were subjected to persecution and death just as the Roman officials had inflicted upon the early Christians.
During the Byzantine Period, after the fall of the Western Empire, Antinoopolis was renamed Ansena, perhaps as a way to diminish the memory of the Gay God for which the city had been founded. Legends were invented that the Holy Family had visited Ansena, when Jesus was a child, and that a well from which he drank still runs clear water. Ansena was the seat of an Orthodox Bishop and an Arrian Bishop. The famous doctor of the catholic church Athanasius took refuge in Ansena when Emperor Julian attempted to restore the Roman Faith, and it was there that he heard the news that Julian had died in battle.
When the Byzantine Empire was overrun by the Moslems, Antinoopolis was abandoned,and vanished from history. No one knows why Antinoopolis was eventually abandoned, but most likely it was because for civilized (albeit Christian) Greeks, Antinoopolis was no longer defensible. It is known that the Caliph brought the heavy bronze doors of the Temple of Antinous to his new city of Cairo, but the doors have since vanished.
The tradition of local sanctity persisted into the Moslem era, the very name of the squalid village presently on the site, Sheik Abadeh, "the pious sheik", is said to come from an Arab chieftain martyred for his conversion to Christianity. Religious fervor and mystery have haunted the place throughout the centuries and indeed even today the area is off-limits to tourists because of Islamic fundamentalist extremists. Local villagers say the ruins are "haunted" by powerful jinns and spirits.
When Napoleon's surveyors came in 1798-1801 on five visits, there were still many visible ruins and the outlines of streets and monuments could still be discerned. But as the 19th Century progressed the columns, panels and architectural blocks of the city were broken up and carted away to build a sugar factory, highways, and later a dam at Assiut. The remaining fragments of marble were consigned to ovens to make chalk and lime. Now virtually nothing is left of the once-great city of Antinoopolis.
Historian Royston Lambert so poignantly writes of the scene today: "By the irony of time, the scene which meets modern eyes at that bend of the Nile, with its desolate plain, fringe of palms, miserable village and archaic temple of Ramesis, has reverted back two millennia to that which Antinous may well have glimpsed in his expiring struggles before his head sank finally beneath the waters." Lambert writes in Beloved and God in talking about the "strange religious fervor" that was always the hallmark in Antinoopolis: "Sacrifice, devotion and consecration haunted the place to the end."
Antinoopolis has not yet reached its end, another chapter in the long history of the forgotten city has begun. Antinoopolis is more than just a pile of ruins covered by sand in the far-way desert of the Thebaid. We Who Believe in Antinous are the new bricks of the Beautiful City of Antinoopolis and we are rebuilding our city within ourselves as the ancient priests of Antinous welcome us back with open arms into the eternal existence of their sacred city of marble colonnades. We are the rightful successors and vindicators of all that was lost and destroyed. The city rises up again in our hearts as the sacred place on earth, a forgotten heaven, a paradise lost, where once, long, long ago, sacred Gay Men journeyed forth to the end of Civilization to worship the image of the Beautiful Boy-Savior, at the place where he had so mysterious took his leave of our world and entered the Next World.
Antinoopolis is like our own Gay Jerusalem, the sacred city from which we are no longer permitted to worship or pray...but even so...Antinoopolis is not a place anymore...there is nothing there to touch, expect sand and rumble...Antinoopolis is a spiritual city, a state of being...Antinoopolis is what connects all those who worship Antinous despite any differences we may have about doctrine or belief, we are all citizens of Antinoopolis. To be a Citizen of this Ancient Sacred City implies membership in the Hadrianic idea of Greco-Roman civil harmony and cosmopolintanship...with Antinous the Gay God as our Patron God.
The Priesthood of Antinous now offers Citizenship of Antinoopolis by request.
Below are the Demoi or neighborhoods of Antinoopolis as divided by Hadrian, and translated by Anthony R. Birley
The Ten Phylai and Demoi of Antinoopolis: