The village of Dendera is situated 60km north of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile opposite the provincial town of Qena, where the Nile Valley road branches off to the Red Sea town of Hurghada. Its ancient name was Iunet and it was known as Tentyris during classical times. The temple of Hathor is largely a Ptolemaic structure but the site spans many periods from Early Dynastic through to Christian.
The Temple of Hathor
Oriented towards the Nile the Temple of Hathor follows the fairly typical plan of other temples from the Graeco-Roman Period. It is among the most extensive and best preserved of these remaining temples due to its late construction although there are texts which refer to earlier shrines on the site from the Old Kingdom onwards. It is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and her mythology relating to her consort Horus of Edfu. The present temple building was begun before the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II whose name is found in the crypts, continued through the Ptolemaic kings and was completed during Roman times.
The main temple has an imposing façade constructed as a low screen wall divided by 6 massive Hathor-headed columns and a huge curved cornice with a winged sun-disc over the entrance. This leads straight into the hypostyle hall containing a forest of 18 Hathor columns similar to those in the façade. The ceiling of the first hypostyle hall is of particular interest, divided into 7 bands of well-preserved astronomical figures featuring the goddess Nut, vultures and winged sun-discs and the Roman signs of the zodiac. The walls are decorated with scenes of Roman emperors as pharaohs making offerings to Hathor.
The rear wall of the first hypostyle was the façade of the original temple and a doorway leads to a smaller hypostyle known as the ‘hall of appearances’ where the statue of the goddess would first appear on her annual journey from the temple. 6 smaller Hathor columns support the roof which admits light through square apertures. The walls here depict scenes of the king involved in ritual foundation ceremonies, though the cartouches are left blank due to the uncertain times of the period. On each side of this hall are three chambers which were the storerooms or chapels connected with the daily rituals and also on each side there is access to the staircases leading to the roof.
Beyond the second hypostyle is a ‘hall of offerings’ where daily rituals were carried out by the priests and priestesses of Hathor. In front of this chamber is the ‘hall of the ennead’ or the ‘hall of the cycle of the gods’ where the statues of associated divinities were assembled on feast days. A central barque shrine once contained the naos where the cult statue of Hathor would have been housed. On either side of the door the king is depicted offering a copper mirror, one of Hathor’s sacred emblems, to the goddess.
A passageway around the sanctuary contains 11 chapels dedicated to various divinities and religious symbols. The most important of these is the chamber directly behind the sanctuary which would have held a shrine with images and symbols of Hathor. High up in the wall of this chamber is a niche containing a relief of Hathor and this point corresponds with a shrine of the ‘hearing ear’ on the outside of the temple, where prayers to the goddess would have been offered.
Beneath the floors of the cult chambers there were 14 crypts which stored the treasures of the temple. 11 of these were decorated and painted and it is presumed that some of the most secret rituals of the goddess were associated with these small chambers. The most important cult object stored in the crypts was an icon of the ba of Hathor which was taken in its shrine to the roof of the temple at each New Year’s festival. One of the crypts is at present accessible and well worth seeing and in quiet times visitors may be allowed to go down into it. Beware of the bats, however!
To the right of the sanctuary is a small open-air court where sacrifices were performed during the New Year’s feast. A flight of steps at the end of the court leads to a kiosk known as the ‘pure place’ which has a beautiful ceiling depicting a huge figure of the sky-goddess Nut showing the birth cycle of the sun whose rays are shining down on Hathor.
The western staircase ascends to the roof in the company of a procession of priests carrying standards and symbols of the goddess, and also depicts various aspects of the New Year’s festival. Note that the priests are ascending on the right and descending on the left of the staircase which winds around to encompass rooms at different levels. The staircase is dark, lit only by small apertures in its walls and at the top is a suite of chambers known as the ‘Osiris suite’. In the inner of the two rooms Isis and Nephthys are shown mourning the death of Osiris who lies on his funeral beir waiting to be resurrected by magical rituals. Here also Isis is magically impregnated with the seed of her son Horus as the myth unfolds. Astronomical figures can be seen on the ceiling.
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.
In the south-western corner of the roof is a kiosk or chapel with 12 Hathor-headed columns known as the ‘chapel of the disc’. Here the statue of the goddess was brought out on New Year’s morning to be reunited with the sun’s first rays, the solar disc.
The festival procession would have left the roof by the eastern staircase which descends straight down to the lower floor accompanied by its descending file of priests.
The Temple Precinct
A massive mudbrick enclosure wall still survives to encircle the temple complex with heaps of debris from many years of excavation and clearance scattered around. Originally a stone wall enclosed the temple on three sides with an entrance through a gateway built by Domitian, the remains forming the modern temple entrance. If you look up to the inside of the lintel of the gateway an unusual carving of a scarab can be seen on the underside.
To the right are two birth-houses. The Roman mamissi was built by Augustus with later reliefs by Trajan and Hadrian. The reliefs on the exterior walls are superbly preserved, and portray the divine birth and childhood of the infant Horus, celebrated in rites to legitimise the divine descent of the king. The god Bes, protector of women during childbirth is portrayed on the columns of a colonnade. The grotesque appearance of this dwarf god was thought to ward off evil spirits at the moment of birth.
An earlier mamissi to the south was built by Nectanebo I and celebrated the birth of the young god Ihy, the son of Hathor and Horus of Edfu. 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 with Hekat the goddess of childbirth seen in her image of a frog.
Between the two birth-houses are the remains of a Coptic Basilica dating from the 5th century AD. This is presently being excavated with a great deal of restoration work.
Next to the ruined church are the mudbrick remains of a sanitorium, thought to be the only one still extant. It had benches around its sides where the sick rested waiting for cures affected by the priests. An inscription on a statue base found here 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.
A rectangular sacred lake is in the south-western corner of the temple precinct. It is now empty apart from tall trees growing inside its walls. A flight of steps lead down to a terrace from each corner and another flight concealed in the walls would have given access to water when it was at a lower level. Next to the lake is a well with rock-cut steps leading down to give access to water for daily use in the temple.
Behind the Temple of Hathor is an Iseum, a small temple dedicated to the goddess Isis dating from the time of the Roman emperor Augustus. It contains a sanctuary and two side chambers and on the back wall a niche which once contained a statue of Osiris and 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.
Finally the exterior rear wall of the Hathor temple is worth noting. Reliefs depict the royal figures of Cleopatra VII with her son Caesarion who was her co-regent before the Roman era. A huge false door, the rear of the central Hathor shrine inside the temple, was placed for pilgrims to submit prayers to the goddess, and you can see how worn it has become from countless hands rubbing the stone. High up on the back wall is a scene depicting the festival of ‘Raising the Sky’. Lion-headed water spouts which drained water from the temple roof can be seen around the tops of the exterior walls.
On returning to the front of the temple there are many interesting blocks and pieces or architecture from the temple buildings including several beautiful Hathor heads and a lovely relief of the little god Bes who features so prominently throughout the complex.
The site of Dendera Temple has a long history and there are many remains of Old Kingdom tombs scattered in the desert behind the mudbrick enclosure.
A temple dating to king Mentuhotep Nebhepetre of Dynasty XI, which came from the west side of the temple enclosure, has now been removed to Cairo Museum.
How to get there
A few years ago Dendera Temple was closed to visitors, its cafeteria and gift shops almost derelict. It is now once more a thriving tourist attraction which is often incorporated into the itinerary of a Nile Cruise. Alternatively it can be reached by taxi or coach tour from Luxor. Tickets at the gate cost EGP 35.