Dendara Temple

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Dotted about the landscape of modern Egypt are many ancient temples from the Mediterranean coast all the way to the southern border with the Sudan, most located in the Nile Valley but scattered elsewhere as well. Some of these temples are famous and stand out from the others, such the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, Philae, Kom Ombo, Esna, Edfu and others. Among these most important temples may also be counted Dendera, which provides examples of a particularly rich variety of later temple features.


Dendera is located about 60 kilometers north of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile River opposite the provincial modern town of Qena.


Dendera is located in an area that in ancient times was known as Iunet, or Tantere (Greek Tentyris), which was a provincial capital and and important religious site during several periods of Egyptian history. Early texts mention a temple at Dendera dating from the Old Kingdom, which was later embellished and modified by New Kingdom kings including Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III, Ramesses II and Ramesses III. However, the temple at this site today dates from the Graeco-Roman Period, and is one of the best preserved temples of this period in Egypt, even though the nearby temples dedicated to Hathor's consort, Horus, and their child Ihy or Harsomptus, were destroyed. It was begun before the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, whose name is found in the crypts.

This temple is dedicated to Hathor, as well as her mythology relating to her consort Horus of Edfu.

Hather capitals in the first Hypostyle Hall

To a certain extent, Dendera is an anomaly, for though it faces the Nile like most other ancient Egyptian temples, here, due to a bend in the river, it actually faces north rather than the east-west orientation of other temples. Also atypical of Egyptian temples, Dendera lacks a colonnade and the two pylons which normally precede the inner temple.


High Relief of Bes in the forecourt of the temple at Dendera

Dendera, like most of the important temples, is actually a complex surrounded by a mudbrick enclosure wall. Originally, a stone wall enclosed the temple on three sides with an entrance through a gateway built by Domitian and Trajan. This gateway is all that remains of the original stone wall. If one looks up to the inside of the lintel of the gateway, an unusual carving of a scarab can be seen on the underside.

Suggested Layout of the Temple Proper.

1. Large Hypostyle Hall

2. Second, Small Hypostyle Hall

3. Laboratory

4. Storage Magazine

5. Offering Entry

6. Treasury

7. Exit to Well

8. Access to Stairwell

9. Offering Hall

10. Hall of the Ennead

11. Great Seat (central Shrine)/Main Sanctuary

12. Shrine of the Nome of Dendera

13. Shrine of Isis

14. Shrine of Sokar

15. Shrine of Harsomtus

16. Shrine of Hathor's Sistrum

17. Shrine of Gods of Lower Egypt

18. Shrine of Heathor

19. Shrine of the Throne of Re

20: Shrine of Re

21. Shrine of Menat Collar

22. Shrine of Ihy

23. The Pure Place

24. Court of the First Feast

25. Passage

26. Staircase to Roof

In the temple itself, an unfinished inner enclosure wall of stone surrounds a courtyard with side entrances which open before the large hypostyle hall which was added in the 1st century AD by the emperor Tiberius. Unusually, the facade of this hypostyle hall is constructed as a low screen with intercolumnar walls (divided by six Hathor-headed columns) exposing the hall's ceiling and the Hathor sistrum-capitals of its twenty-four columns. Though vandalized in antiquity, each capital is carved on each of its four sides with the face of the cow-eared goddess. The ceiling of the hall, which retains much of its original color, is decorated as a complex and carefully aligned symbolic chart, divided into seven bands, of the heavens, including signs of the zodiac, which were introduced by the Romans, and images of the sky-goddess Nut who swallows the sun disc each evening in order to give birth to it at dawn. The walls of this hall are adorned with scenes of Roman emperors as pharaohs making offerings to Hathor.


A doorway aligned to the central axis of the temple leads from the large hypostyle hall into an inner hall with six Hathor columns that is known as the hall of appearances, because it was here that the statue of the goddess "appeared" from her sanctuary for religious ceremonies and processions. The front wall of this hall was actually the facade of the original temple. Lighting within the hall is provided through small, square apertures. In this smaller hypostyle hall, scenes adorning the walls depict the king participating in the foundation ceremonies for the construction of the temple, and on either side, doors open into three chambers which were used as preparation areas for various aspects of the daily ritual. Offering goods were brought into this area through an opening in the outer eastern wall, and a parallel passage from one of the western chambers led to a well.

The innermost core of the temple was built by several late, Greek kings. Their uninscribed cartouches carved upon its walls reflect the often uncertain nature of their reigns. This area included an offering hall just beyond the small hypostyle hall, where sacrifices were dedicated, and a "hall of the ennead" (also known as the "hall of the cycle of the gods) beyond that, where statues of other deities were assembled with Hathor before processions began. There is also a sanctuary for the goddess herself following the "hall of the ennead". Now empty, scenes on the sanctuary walls evidence that a stone shrine which would have held her statue, and her portable barque once stood in this chamber. To either side of the this inner sanctuary, the king is depicted offering a copper mirror, one of Hathor's sacred emblems, to the goddess. Around the central sanctuary are eleven chapels for the other deities who were associated with Hathor at this site, as well as for her chief attributes, the sacred sistrum and the menat necklace. Behind the main sanctuary is the most important of these rooms, with a niche which would have held a relief of Hathor in the wall at a point where, on the external rear of the wall, a shrine of the "hearing ear" is located, so that the goddess could hear the prayers of common Egyptians. Depiction within the crypts


There are fourteen crypts beneath the floors of the chambers in the rear part of the temple where temple treasures were probably stored. Eleven of these crypts were decorated. The inclusion of secretly accessed crypts in temples can be traced back to the 18th Dynasty. By the Late Period crypts were included in the architectural design of most temples. The finest examples of crypts are to be seen here. One of the most important objects contained in these crypts was a statue of the ba (soul) of Hathor which was taken from its hiding place to the roof of the temple during the important New Year's festival celebrated at this site. François Daumas tells us that:

" But most prestigious of the statues was that of the ba of Hathor. According to the texts written on the walls, we know that the kiosk consisted of a gold base surmounted by a gold roof supported by four gold posts, covered on all four sides by linen curtains hung from copper rods. Inside was placed the gold statuette representing a bird with a human head capped with a horned disc. This was Hathor, Lady of Dendara, residing in her house... It was certainly this statuette that was carried in the kiosk on the evening of the New Year."

François Daumas also described the easternmost of the five crypts along the southern end, telling us that:

"In the last room, one sees, carefully carved on the Southern wall, a falcon with detailed feathers, preceded by a snake emerging from a lotus blossom within a boat. Whereas the whole of the temple is constructed of sandstone, to facilitate a relief of fine quality there was placed in the wall, at the level of the figures, a block of limestone suitable for very detailed work, and of this the artist took full and perfect advantage. These reliefs are cosmological representations. The snake that comes out of the lotus is equated with the shining deity Harsamtawy (Ihy) as he appears for the first time out of the primordial sea. He is again represented near the bottom of the crypt in the form of two snakes also coming forth, but this time wrapped in lotuses like protective envelopes. Sometimes those that were on the Mesktet-barque collaborated with Horus; other times the Mandjet-barque with its crew helped to reveal the god: Djed raises his body, a supreme manner of worship, attendant of the god's prestigious ka. The statuettes appear to have been used for the New Year celebration and the festival of Harsamtawy. It is likely that on these solemn occasions these objects were transported to the vault [i.e. the room above the crypt]."

Chapel of the New Year

To the west of the offering hall, a staircase with the ascending figures of the king and various priests with the shrine of the goddess carved on its right hand wall gave access to the roof of the temple. These representations also depict various aspects of the New Year's festival. The goddess stayed overnight in a chapel, with twelve Hathor headed columns, on the roof before beholding the rising sun in a symbolic union with the solar disc. Another stairway to the east, with corresponding scenes of descending figures, was used for the processions return.

There was also two parallel sets of rooms on the roof of the inner temple on its eastern and western sides which functioned as chapels dedicated to the death and resurrection of Osiris, and known as the Osiris suite. Within these, the walls were also adorned with representations of the goddess Nut and various chthonic deities. In the inner of the two rooms, Isis and Nephthys are shown mourning the death of Osiris, who lies on his funerary bier waiting to be resurrected by magical rituals. Isis is also depicted, magically impregnated with the seed of her son Horus as the myth unfolds.


A corresponding suite on the eastern side of the roof depicts the lunar festival of Khoiakh in which an 'Osiris bed' was filled with earth and grain seed as part of an important fertility rite. The walls of the first room show scenes of the burial goods of Osiris, including his canopic jars and on the ceiling Nut is again shown with other astronomical figures. On the other half of the ceiling is a plaster copy of the famous 'Dendera Zodiac', the original is now in the Louvre in Paris. The inner room depicts scenes from the Osiris myth, similar to that of the western suite as well as reliefs of cosmic importance. These two suites of chambers are dedicated to the death and resurrection myth of Osiris, which reflect the mysteries of the divine birth of Hathor's own son, Ihy.

The roof of the hypostyle hall was also accessible by a flight of steps with various gods carved along its walls, and this highest area of the temple was used by pious, ancient pilgrims who awaited signs and miracles from the goddess. There were gaming tables carved into the stone blocks to help these faithful pass the time during their vigils.

Beneath the apotropaic lion-headed waterspouts that drained water from the roof, at the very rear of the temple on the exterior walls, there is a scene depicting a massive figure of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesair, Caesarion, who became the great queen's co-regent as Ptolemy XV. In the center of the wall, directly behind the the sanctuary, is also a large false door with a huge emblem of Hathor. This was slowly diminished over the centuries by pilgrims who would scrape at it to obtain a little of the sacred stone at the point where they could come closet to Hathor herself. High up on the back wall is a scene depicting the festival of 'Raising the Sky'.

Outside of the stone wall surrounding the open courtyard at the entrance to the temple proper are the ruins of various outlying buildings that belonged to the temple complex. Here, moving towards the main temple from the enclosure wall gate and on its western side are the remains of Dendera's well known Roman period birth house (mammisi) which was built by Augustus shortly after Egypt was added to the Roman Empire. Trajan and Hadrian each contributed to the structures decorations. The reliefs on the exterior walls are superbly preserved, and portray the divine birth and childhood of the infant Horus, who's rites legitimize the divine descent of the king. Within, the scenes which adorn its walls depict Augustus' later successor, Trajan, making offerings to Hathor, are among the finest to be found in Egypt. This structure was dedicated to the goddess and her child Ihy, and its birth theme is evidenced by the figures of the god Bes, who was a patron of childbirth, carved on the abaci above the column capitals.

To the south of the birth house are the remains of a Christian basilica that can be dated to the 5th century AD, and an earlier birth house begun in the 30th Dynasty by Nectanebo I and completed during the Greek Period. However, this earlier birth house was split by the Roman enclosure wall, necessitating the building of the later birth house. Within this older structure, the walls of the wide hall depict the Ptolemaic kings offering to Hathor. A scene on the north wall shows the creator god Khnum fashioning the child, Ihy, with Hekat the goddess of childbirth seen in her image as a frog.

Next are the remains of a mud-brick sanatorium, the only one of its type known from ancient Egyptian temples. Here, visitors could bath in the sacred waters or spend the night in order to have a healing dream of the goddess. It had benches around its sides where the sick rested while waiting for cures affected by the priests. An inscription on a statue base found in this location suggests that water was poured over magical texts on the statues, causing it to become holy and to cure all sorts of diseases and illnesses. Basins used to collect the holy water can still be seen at the western end.

West of the sanatorium, there was a small 11th Dynasty chapel of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, which was apparently dedicated to the cult of the king rather than that of the goddess Hathor. However, this temple was moved during the modern era and is now located in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo.

Further to the south, on the main temple's southwest corner, is the compound's rectangular sacred lake which provided water for the priests' ablutions. Today, it is empty of water and tall trees grow within its walls. On each of its corners were stairs that descended into the pool. This ceremonial basin is the best preserved of its type in any Egyptian temple. Next to the lake is a well with rock-cut steps leading down to give access to water for daily use in the temple.

Immediately to the south of the main temple is the Iseum, a temple where the birth of Isis was celebrated which apparently dates to the time of Augustus. This temple was uniquely split, with the main part of the structure and its hypostyle hall facing east, but the sanctuary oriented to face north towards the main temple of Hathor. Within the rear wall of the sanctuary a statue of Osiris in a niche, which is now destroyed, was supported by the arms of Isis and Nephthys. Here, there was also a figure in high relief of the god Bes. The walls of the small temple depict scenes of Hathor suckling Horus the child, with depictions of Hathor as a cow-goddess on the east and west walls.






Reference Number

Art of Ancient Egypt, The

Robins, Gay


Harvard University Press

ISBN 0-674-00376-4

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egypt in Late Antiquity

Bagnall, Roger S.


Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-1096-x

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Sacred Sites of Ancient Egypt

Oakes, Lorna


Lorenz Books

ISBN (non stated)



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