The Temple of Horus at Edfu
The town of Edfu, on the west bank of the Nile 56km south of Esna and 105km north of Aswan, is today an important centre for sugar production and pottery-making. The modern town derives its name from the ancient Egyptian Djeba which was established on a mound on the east bank. The site of Edfu Tell was known as Wetjeset-hor (classical name Apollinopolis Magna), the place where the god Horus was worshipped and where the battle between Horus and his traditional enemy Seth in ancient mythology took place. The main monument at Edfu is the Ptolemaic Temple of Horus of Behdet on the edge of the town. Even though it was well covered by desert sand and human settlement debris, Edfu temple was visited by many early travellers. The sand has helped to preserve the building which was found to be almost completely intact when it was first cleared and excavated by Auguste Mariette in the 1860s.
The Temple of Horus
Of all the temple remains in Egypt, the Temple of Horus at Edfu is the most well-preserved and the only one we know to have been completed. Built from sandstone blocks the huge Ptolemaic temple was constructed over the site of a smaller earlier temple, oriented east to west, towards the river. The later structure faces north to south and leaves the ruined remains of the older temple pylon to be seen on the east side of the first court. Little is known about the first temple of Horus at Edfu, but there is inscriptional evidence that New Kingdom rulers Seti I, Rameses II and III did building work there. From building texts inside the later Ptolemaic temple which survives today, we know that this was begun by Ptolemy III Euergetes I in 237 BC, but was not completed until 57 BC.
Until recently, visitors approached the temple past its massive enclosure wall on the western side, carved with figures of the Ptolemaic kings offering to various deities. There is now a newly constructed coach park, cafeteria and open-air museum which leads directly to the front of the temple. The first structure we come to, at the south-west corner before the great temple pylon, is a rectangular colonnaded building peculiar to Graeco-Roman temples, known as a mammisi or birth-house, built to celebrate the divine birth of Horus. The Roman mammisi at Dendera was modelled on this structure. Reliefs show the god Bes, birth scenes and the infant son of Horus and Hathor, Ihi (Harsomptus), nursed by Hathor in the marshes.
Carvings on the massive twin towers of the 36m high entrance pylon are almost mirror images of each other with the traditional scenes of the king smiting his enemies before Horus. We can also clearly see the mast grooves for the flags which would have fluttered at the entrance. Two statues of the Horus falcon stand before the main gateway. Inside the entrance is a paved courtyard flanked by colonnades on the east and west and on the south which depicts relief carvings of the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’. This was a long and important festival in which the cult statue of Hathor of Dendera was brought to Edfu on a barge with much elaborate ritual and celebration, to meet her consort Horus for their annual reunion. Other ceremonies of the festival can be seen around the walls of the courtyard.
Ahead is the main temple façade in front of which stands the famous colossal black granite statue of Horus as a falcon, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The façade has screen walls with engaged columns in the usual style of Late Period and Ptolemaic temples.
Inside, the first thing which strikes the visitor is the almost deafening twittering of birds up in the roof. This is the outer hypostyle hall or pronaos, with 18 tall carved columns to support a ceiling decorated with astronomical figures representing the sky. The usual offering scenes decorate the walls but there are also well-preserved reliefs from the temple foundation ceremony. In the south wall there are two small chambers: a robing room (House of the Morning) on the west and the library (House of Books) on the east.
The inner chambers of Edfu temple are similar to Dendera. The second hypostyle hall, the naos or Great Court, is older and smaller than the pronaos. The ceiling is supported by 12 slender columns. This hypostyle has a number of chambers leading off to each side, including two ‘Chambers of Offerings’ and a laboratory with texts describing recipes for incense, ointments and other temple necessities. On the opposite (eastern) side of the second hypostyle is the treasury where gold, silver and precious stones would have been stored along with protective amulets and valuable ritual implements.
Beyond is a small transverse hall leading to the eastern and western staircases giving access the roof, which still provides wonderful views of the temple site. A procession of priests carrying ritual implements and standards is carved on the walls of both staircases. Nearby is an open-air offering court where there is a kiosk-like shrine, ‘The Pure Place’, which is echoed at Dendera Temple and which also has a ceiling depicting the sky-goddess Nut.
Next we come to the holy of holies, the sanctuary which was the most sacred area of the temple. The sanctuary contains the oldest object in the temple, a granite naos shrine which would have contained the cult statue, with cartouches of Nectanebo II of Dynasty XXX. This must have come from an earlier building. In a chapel behind the sanctuary there is a low pedestal, also from an earlier structure, on which stands a reproduction of the barque of Horus. There are a number of chambers surrounding the sanctuary dedicated to various gods and the daily rituals of the temple, some having hidden chambers within their walls. These rooms also contain the crypts, but they are undecorated and inaccessible to visitors.
Around the inner temple is an ambulatory or corridor carved with more foundation and building texts and also scenes from the Edfu Drama, the ‘Triumph of Horus’ that tells the story of Horus’s mythological triumph over Seth which was celebrated each year as a mystery play. On the inner face of the northern enclosure wall is a beautiful set of reliefs depicting another important ritual celebrated at Edfu. This was known as the ‘Installation of the Sacred Falcon’ in which a live falcon representing both the god Horus and the king, was crowned.
Since the first excavations many people have worked to understand Edfu temple. Serious ground-breaking studies have been undertaken in an attempt to clarify the complicated hieroglyphic texts which are now revealing so much about ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. The Ptolemaic carving on the stone walls of Edfu temple, unread for two millennia is now considered by Egyptologists to be a vast and highly important source of knowledge of temple ritual and Egyptian history.
To the west of the temple is the huge mound of the ancient town site, Tell Edfu, which has been excavated periodically since the 1920s. It is currently being excavated by Dr Nadine Moeller’s team. This is a settlement site which includes walls and building remains from the Old Kingdom through to the Late and Ptolemaic Periods. One of the earliest walls found in situ dates to the First Intermediate Period, confirmed by red pottery bowls of the period. During recent excavation seasons several large granaries have been found within the mound as well as a courtyard and a possible columned hall which may have been an important dwelling or administrative building. Seal impressions are thought to date the building to Dynasty XIII.
The oldest cemeteries within Tell Edfu are to the south-west of the Temple of Horus and contain several Old Kingdom mastabas, including the mastaba of Isi, a Dynasty VI provincial governor, as well as more recent burials. Several ostraca have been found in demotic and hieratic script, which give details of the administrative system of the town. The 2009 report of excavations at Tell Edfu by director Nadine Moeller can be downloaded here.
In the hills beyond the town are the tombs of the elite of Edfu but these are largely unexplored and not open to visitors.
A number of robbed oval graves have been found which are thought to be possibly from the Early Dynastic Period.
The remains of one of seven small provincial step pyramids built along the Nile Valley, is situated about 5km north of Edfu near the west bank village of Naga el-Goneima. The structure was built from rough reddish sandstone and rises to a present height of 5.5m. The pyramid has been loosely attributed to King Huni of Dynasty III. The purpose of these pyramids is not known.
How to get there
The temple is often included on Nile cruise itineraries but can also be reached from Aswan or Luxor, by train or road. The railway station is on the east bank and coaches often only stop on this side too. A taxi from Luxor takes around two hours and one and a half hours from Aswan. As of 2009 visitors no longer need to travel as part of the police convoy. Tickets cost EGP 50.