Slontha Temple is a small, ancient, Libyan temple dating to the period before the Greek occupation; the Berber period often excluded from Libya's history, except in that where it comes in violent contact with the various conflicts it consumed. Even the late Ancient Egyptians made a habit of mentioning Libyans and Berbers more to do with wars rather than in relation to any other aspect of their life and culture. Many of the records reached us via Egypt were part of war records.
The temple, also known by the names Slonta, Aslonta, Slontha, Suluntah, or Salantah, was partially damaged during flooding due to heavy rain, but was restored in 1993. Located in the village of Aslanta Lasamisis, about 24 km south of al-Bayda, the temple is hidden high in the Green Mountain's groves, just where ancient temples were expected to be. In an area rich in caves, most of which are facing south, the Slontha structure incorporates a local architecture unique to the area, consisting of a low semicircular entrance, with cylindrical columns in the middle of the cave, 96 cm high and 120 cm in diameter. Circular tombs and stone circles are found all over North Africa and the Sahara, some of which date from prehistoric times.
The cave was first mentioned by G. Haimann (La. Cirenaica, Milan 1886), and then J. W. Gregory, Professor of Geology in the University of Glasgow, came across the site when he was studying the area in 1911; he introduced the name Slonta Limestone (from the Upper Eocene epoch) after the village Salantah: a beige-white, hard or porous limestone and chalky in places, and hence an ideal platform for carving.
The temple is rich in carvings of human faces, unusual human figures and animals, disembodied heads, and slender bodies engraved directly onto the rocks, in a style totally unique to the temple. Some of these figures, unlike any of the ancient representations of the surrounding cultures, are in a seated position, in what appears to be a deeply religious gathering, probably in association with the worship of the dead. Burials and statues in seating position, like the statue of Libyan Amon, are characteristic of several Berber cemeteries of the time, well recognised by scholars.
The most prominent feature is the group of five heads on the top left-side of the entrance, the eternal guardians of the sanctuary. The features of the heads are clearly African in origin, with somewhat mysterious emotions emanating from their faces. The heads appear as if they once had full bodies beneath them and may have been destroyed.
A drawing of Dali-like Slontah Snake, from Cyrene Museum.
One of the most striking carvings of the site is the giant snake (see middle photo below, and the drawing of the actual carving from Cyrene museum, above), surrounded by more figures in what appears to be a ceremonial procession in association with the Libyan Snake Goddess Lamia. Snakes were very abundant in Libya, which according to Greek mythology were created from the blood droplets that fell from the Libyan Medusa's severed head; which is a clear testimony to the Libyan origin of snake worship in Libya. The snake cult in Libya is indigenous to Libya, stemming from the abundance of snakes in the Libyan desert. Oric Bates, on the authority of Agatharchides, Pliny and Callias, points out that the ancient Berber Psylli were serpent masters who were employed as doctors to charm snake-bites and scorpion-stings, and that their services were requisitioned by Octavius to restore Cleopatra to life. Among all people, the Psylli were immune to snake-bites. The methods by which they cured snake-bites include spitting into the wound, and rinsing the mouth in water and then giving it to the patient to drink in a cup.
Slontah Cave Temple, Eastern Libya: three different sections from the site displayed together.
The only Libyan publication about the temple is a
booklet by Dr. Fadhi Ali Muhammad titled Aslonta Temple,
published by Dar Al-Anies, Misrata, Libya, 2005. In
this booklet, which contains a 14-page section in English,
the author divides the excavation rocks in the temple
into five groups, which can be summarised as follows.
1 - The first group of six people on the right side of the temple, including three women in long dresses and two boys, and some animals; preceded by a portrait of four people, two animals, and some heads.
2 - The second group consists of an altar on a stone table with four pigs, the heads of three pigs, and two bearded human heads, with a stone relief of two rows of women and men, all of whom had their hands rising beside their heads.
3 - The third group consists of five heads.
4 - A group of figures divided by a long snake into two sections (middle photo, above), with two human heads with curly hair at the eastern upper section, followed by two people with their hands over their heads, and other statues. In the lower section (below the snake): human head, a deer, a dog, a crocodile attempting to devour a veal and a woman.
5 - The fifth group consists of more statues on the western side of the temple, which were damaged during the flooding incident, including those of two human heads, an animal head (probably of a horse), and what appears to be a group of wrestlers.
The cave of Slontah is also known as the Pig Grotto, probably from the carvings of pigs found inside the temple. The idea that the pigs and the other carved animals indicated a sacrificial nature of the temple needs to accommodate the historical reference that pigs were sacred to the Goddess Isis and as such were a taboo. The punishment for killing a cat in ancient Egypt was death. The cat was sacred to the Libyan Goddess Bast, whom the Egyptians worshipped at Bubastis, in the Delta. Sacrificial ceremonies are often secondary in nature in relation to the main purpose of the dedication was offered. Ceremonies are the means through which intentions are expressed. This could be "the worship of the dead". Or it could be: "the worship of the snake goddess", a temple dedicated to Lamia. One can think of other possibilities, but instead of guessing, it is best to leave some questions for future students to attend to.
The Entrance to the Slontah Grotto.