Dendera and the Temple of Hathor

Dendera and the Temple of Hathor

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

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The facade of the main Hathor Temple at Dendera

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.

Ancient Egyptian Iunet or Tantere, known to the Greeks as Tentyris, was the capital of the 6th nome of Upper Egypt and a town of some importance. Today, we know it as Dendera, though the population of the town has, since antiquity, moved to Qena across the Nile on the east bank. Now, the ancient temple lies isolated on the desert edge.

A look at the overall Dendera complex

Along with the temple itself, there is also a necropolis that includes tombs of the Early Dynastic Period, but the most important phase that has been identified was the end of the Old Kingdom and the 1st Intermediate Period. The provinces were virtually autonomous at that time and, although Dendera was not a leading political force in Upper Egypt, its notables built a number of mastabas of some size, though only one has any decoration apart from stelae and false doors. On the west end of the site are brick-vaulted catacombs of Late Period animal burials, primarily birds and dogs, while cow burials have been found at various points in the necropolis. Of course, this was a significant site for the Hathor cult, whose forms included a cow.

Suggested Layout of the Temple Proper

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

The main temple complex is oriented, as usual, toward the Nile, which here flows east-west, so that the temple faces north. However, to the ancient Egyptians, this was symbolically east, since the temple faces the Nile.

The main temple area is fronted by several Roman Period kiosks. After those, the monumental gateway of Domitian and Trajan is set in a massive mud-brick enclosure wall that surrounded the complex, and leads to an open area. Although the site lacks a colonnade and the two pylons which ought to precede the inner temple, an unfinished inner enclosure wall of stone surrounds a courtyard with side entrances which open before the large hypostyle hall added in the 1st century AD by the emperor Tiberius.

A panel from the Roman mammisi, showing a detailed relief of the pharaoh making an offering to Hathor

However, prior to the temple proper is the Roman Period birth house of Dendera on the west, perhaps built by Nero, though more probably by Trajan. Although the dedication inscriptions refer to Trajan, Nero is depicted in the main hypostyle hall of the of the Hathor temple, offering the model of a birth house. This is the latest preserved temple of its type.

The new sanctuary was well designed and followed Ptolemaic models. In order to match the level of the Hathor temple, the new building was erected on a high platform. A temporary access staircase led up at the side of the platform. The roofing slabs were not positioned, as usual, beneath the level of the cavetto molding around the buildings top, but would have probably been hidden by a parapet wall. The core building contains a sequence of three rooms. Two corridors that isolate the large sanctuary are notable. These passages are too narrow to be used and must have been added for symbolic and optical effect. The rear wall of the sanctuary is dominated by an enormous false door that is framed by a double cavetto molding on slender columns and topped by an uraeus frieze. A cult niche high up in the wall corresponds to the location of the statue niche in the sanctuary of the main temple.

Trajan making offerings to Hathor in the Roman birth house

Its scenes depict Trajan, Augustus' later successor, making offerings to Hathor, and are among the finest to be found in Egypt. It was the ritual location where Hathor gave birth to the young Ihy or Harsomtus, two alternative youthful deities who stand for the youthful phase of creator gods in general. There are also, of course, figures of the god Bes, a patron of childbirth, carved on the abaci above the column capitals. The reliefs on the exterior walls are superbly preserved, and portray the divine birth and childhood of the infant Horus, whose rites legitimize the divine descent of the king.

The birth house was surrounded by an ambulatory. The composite capitals of the columns carry high pillars with Bes figures. The frontal ambulatory extended by the addition of three columns into a kind of kiosk, with the front corners formed by L-shaped pillars. The kiosk had a timbered roof that somehow must have connected to the stone structure of the birth house. This merging of the ambulatory with a kiosk is a novelty. At older birth houses, a court was attached as a separate structure.

The Roman era Birth House at Dendera

The Roman Birth House (mammisi) was built when the earlier structure, begun by Nectanebo I and decorated in the Ptolemaic Period, was cut through by the foundation of the unfinished first court of the main temple of Hathor. Only a false door at the eastern exterior wall of the main temple of Hathor reminds one of the original sanctuary. Originally, this birth house measured about 17 by 20 meters and consisted of a triple shrine opening to a transverse hall. It was built mainly of brick but received an interior stone casing. 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.

Both birth houses are now accessible. They differ considerably in plan and decoration.

Between the new and old birth houses are the remains of a Christian basilica that can be dated to the 5th century AD. It is an excellent example representative of early Coptic church architecture.

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

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

South of the earlier birth house is a mud-brick "sanatorium.. This sanatorium is the only one of its type known in association with an ancient Egyptian temple. Here, visitors could bathe 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.

The Sanatorium

To the west of the sanatorium, a small chapel of Nebhepetre' Mentuhotep dating to the 11th Dynasty was recovered from the site and has been re-erected in the Cairo Museum. The building, which has secondary inscriptions of Merneptah, was as much for the cult of the king as for the goddess, and was probably ancillary to the lost main temple of its time.

The main temple at Dendera is the grandest and most elaborately decorated of its period. It is also one of the most important temple sites of Egypt, providing examples of a rich variety of later temple features. It is also one of the best preserved temples of this period, surviving despite the destruction of the temples of Hathor's consort Horus and their child Ihy or Harsomtus which originally stood close by.

The massive foundations probably contain many blocks from the earlier structure it replaced. Early texts refer to a temple at Dendera which was rebuilt during the Old Kingdom, and several New Kingdom monarchs, including Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II and III are known to have embellished the structure. However, while fragments of earlier periods have been found on the site, there have been no earlier buildings unearthed. Pepi I and Tuthmosis III in particular were recalled in the new temple's inscriptions.

Cleopatra VII Philopator and Caesarion from the rear of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera

The temple of Hathor was constructed over a period, we believe, of thirty-four years, between 54 and 20 BC. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, the temple was, after four years of building activity, still in its early stages, although it did contain some underground crypts. It seems that the remainder of the temple was build during the twenty-one year reign of his successor, Queen Cleopatra VII. At the time of her death in 30 BC, the decoration work had just begun (on the outer rear wall).

The temple plan is classical Egyptian, completely enclosed by a 35 by 59 meter wall standing 12.5 meters high. However, unlike those of earlier temples, the facade of the hypostyle hall that fronts the main temple is constructed as a low screen with inter-columnar walls exposing the hall's ceiling and the Hathor style sistrum capitals of its 24 columns. According to a dedication inscription on the cornice thickness above the entrance, this part of the temple was built under Tiberius between 34 and 35 AD. The structure measures 26.03 by 43 meters and is 17.2 meters high. It has an 8 meter long architrave that spans the central intercolumniation. Above, a towering cavetto, built from one course, and the massive volume of the corner tori cast heavy shadows and articulate the edges of the facade.

Hather capitals in the first Hypostyle Hall

Hathor capitals in the first Hypostyle Hall

A sistrum is an ancient Egyptian musical instrument closely associated with Hathor. Each column bears a four-sided capital, which occupies about one third of the column height, carved with the face of the cow-eared goddess, though every one of the faces was vandalized in antiquity (probably during the early Christian Period. The shafts are profusely decorated with scenes, and their straight bases stand on flat plinths. The paint, which was still preserved in the 19th century, was dominated by the blue of Hathor's wig.

Ceiling in the First Hypostyle Hall

Nevertheless, the ceiling of this hall retains much of its original color. It is decorated as a complex and carefully aligned symbolic chart of the heavens, including signs of the zodiac (introduced by the Romans) and images of the sky goddess Nut who swallowed the sun disc each evening in order to give birth to it once again at dawn. The outer hypostyle hall was decorated by emperors ranging from Augustus to Nero. Note that at the center of the south outside wall was a relief of a sistrum that was gilded, both to show its importance and to evoke Hathor, the "gold of the gods".

Since tradition rule that the processional approach should gradually descend from the inside to the outside, the builders had to lower the floor of the central nave of the hypostyle hall to obtain the required progression of floor levels.

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. 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. The chamber has columns in two rows of three. They also have Hathor heads. The bases and the lower parts of the drums are made of granite, while the upper parts are of sandstone. Scenes on the walls of this hall 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. For example, one room was probably used as a laboratory for preparation of ointments. An opening through the outer eastern wall allowed offering goods to be brought into this area, and a parallel passage from one of the western chambers led to a well.

Uninscribed cartouches in the inner sanctum

The rear part of the temple was built first, probably in the early 1st century BC. The earliest king named is Ptolemy XII Auletes, but mostly the cartouches are blank, probably because of dynastic struggles in the mid 1st century. This inner core included an offering hall, in which sacrifices were dedicated, and a "hall of the ennead" (also known as the "hall of the cycle of the gods), where statues of other deities assembled with Hathor before a procession began.

These are followed by a 5.7 by 11.22 meter barque shrine which once enclosed the four barques of Hathor, Horus of Edfu, Harsomtus and Isis, which apparently were not enclosed by wooden shrines.

Replica of a Barque Shrine

After this small chamber there is the sanctuary of the goddess herself. It is embellished by a splendid, temple-like facade topped by a cavetto with an uraeus frieze. Inside the sanctuary was an expensively decorated wooden naos that held the gilded, two meter high seated cult image of Hathor. The naos stood in a niche of the rear wall, and it is not known how the niche, three meters above the pavement, could be reached. 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.

About the central sanctuary on its sides and rear are located eleven chapels dedicated to the other deities who were associated with Hathor's chief attributes, the sacred sistrum and the menat necklace.

Within the temple the most distinctive parts are the fourteen crypts, of which eleven were decorated. They far surpass those of other temples. 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.

These are suites of rooms on three (and sometimes even four) stories, set in the thickness of the outside wall, and beneath the floors of the chambers in the rear part of the temple. The elongated, narrow chambers and passages are arranged one above the other, with the lowermost laid deep within the temple foundations. Access was gained through trapdoors in the pavement and behind hidden sliding wall blocks. Unlike other crypts, those at Dendera are decorated in relief. The decorations in these chambers conforms to the temple's axis. The most important reliefs, among which sistra are prominent, were on the axis itself. Apparently, these rooms were decorated before the roof blocks were set.

Depiction within the crypts

Depiction within the crypts

Depiction within the crypts

Franois Daumas 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]."

The large roof of the temple of Hathor at Dendara

Their main use of these crypts was for keeping cult equipment, archives and magical emblems for the temple's protection, though the most important object kept in the crypts was a statue of the ba of Hathor.

Also within the wall thickness are the staircases, which lead up to and return from the roof which, because of the unequal ceiling heights of the rooms below, was built into terraces. The huge roofing slabs must at one time have been covered with thinner paving stones. Their surface was slightly inclined and had channels to guide rainwater from the roof.

Hathor's Kiosk on the roof of her temple

On the roof in the southwest corner is a kiosk, in which the ritual of the goddess's union with the sun disk was performed. It has four Hathor columns on each side. Sockets in its architraves suggest a barrel-shaped timber roof with a double hull and segmented pediment, though for its purpose it must have had roof windows to let in the sun's rays. In the floor of the chapel one may also note the light well for the Horus chapel below, on the main floor.

The ba of Hathor would have been taken from its hiding place to the roof of the temple for the significant New year's festival celebrated where it would have spent the night prior to beholding the rising sun in a symbolic union with the solar disc.

Franois 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."

Chapel of the New Year

Chapel of the New Year

The staircase to the west of the offering hall, which was used by the priests to ascend to the roof, has ascending figures of the king and various priests with the shrine of the goddess carved on its right hand wall. These representations depict various aspects of the New Year's festival. The stairway to the east has corresponding scenes of descending figures, and was used for the procession's return.

There is also a pair of parallel shrines on the roof's eastern and western sides dedicated to Osiris. They are concealed in a kind of mezzanine floor. Both of these sanctuaries have open courts, surrounded by a cavetto. From the rear wall of the court, three doors lead into two succeeding chambers.

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.

The well known zodiac

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 shown with other astronomical figures. On the other half of the ceiling is a plaster copy of the famous 'Dendera Zodiac', representing the cospic aspect of the Osiris mysteries. 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.

Dendera was considered one of Osiris' many tombs, and the shrines, which have no link with Hathor, were used to celebrate his death and resurrection. His death may have been re-enacted at the sacred lake to the west of the temple.

The roof of the hypostyle hall was reached by another flight of steps with various gods carved along its wall, and this highest area of the temple was used in antiquity by pious pilgrims who awaited signs and miracles from the goddess. There remain gaming boards carved into the stone blocks that helped these faithful pass the time during their vigils.

The back end of the Temple of Hathor at Dendara

On the rear outside wall of the temple directly behind the sanctuary, beneath the two lion-headed waterspouts (there are also three more on each of its side walls) which drained rainwater from the roof are scenes showing the massive figure of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, who became the great queen's co-regent as Ptolemy XV. At the center of the wall is the large False Door with a gigantic emblem of Hathor, diminished over the centuries by pilgrims who scraped at it to obtain a little of the sacred stone at the point where they could come closest to Hathor herself. This is the location of the "hearing ear" shrine, which allowed the goddess to "hear" the prayers of common folk not otherwise allowed into the main temple.

The Isis Birth House

Immediately south of the Hathor temple is the temple of Isis, known as the Iseum, which used foundation blocks from a destroyed Ptolemaic building and was decorated under Augustus. The east gateway, also Roman in date, leads to this temple, which is almost unique in having a dual orientation with the outer rooms or main part of the structure and hypostyle hall facing east and the inner ones north toward the temple of Hathor. The central high relief in the sanctuary, which showed Isis giving birth, has been mutilated. Within the rear wall of the sanctuary a statue of Osiris (now destroyed) was supported by the arms of Isis and Nephthys.

Plan of the Isis Birth House at Dendera

Further to the south, at the temple's southwest corner, lies the compound's sacred lake which provided water for the priests' ablutions. With flights of stairs descending from each corner, this stone-lined ceremonial basin is the best preserved of its type in any Egyptian temple. Today, it is empty of water and tall trees grow within its walls. Next to the lake is a well with rock-cut steps leading down to give access to water for daily use in the temple.

The sacred lake

East of the temple was a part of the town, which the temple texts mention as having a temple of Horus of Edfu in its midst. This may be the same as some remains of the Roman Period about 500 meters from the main enclosure. The triads of deities worshiped at Edfu and at Dendera were similar, consisting of Horus, Hathor (or Isis), and Ihy or Harsomtus. Hathor of Dendera and Horus of Edfu met at a sacred "marriage" ceremony, when she made a progress to the south.

Roman Gate East of the Hathor Complex

Roman Gate East of the Hathor Complex






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