Since it is low water season of the Nile, we could not sail from Luxor to Qena and instead had to drive about 60km north in order to visit the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor in Dendera. Hathor was one of the most popular goddesses in ancient Egypt. She was the goddess of the sky, of women, of beauty, of joy, of love, of music and of celebration. The Greeks often associated her with Aphrodite. She has also been associated with the cycle of birth and rebirth after death. Most of the time Hathor is depicted with the horns of a cow with the red sun disk of Horus between her horns. Sometimes she was even depicted as a woman with the head of a cow. The Dendera Temple Complex is one of the largest and best preserved in Egypt covering an area of 40,000 square meters. It was well preserved because it was completely covered with sand for over two thousand years. Within this complex are the Temple of the Birth of Isis, a sanatorium, a sacred lake etc with the most impressive being the Temple of Hathor.
Temple of Hathor at Dendera
Entering the temple complex under the wings of the vulture symbolising protection.
Ruins of a coptic church built on the grounds of the Dendera Temple complex
The Temple of Hathor was largely built during the reign of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VII with later additions made during the Roman period. My favorite part of this temple is the outer hypostyle hall. The gigantic columns here are topped with capitals in the form of the head of Hathor surmounted by a sistrum which is her sacred musical rattle and a symbol of joy and celebration. On the Astronomical Ceiling is the relief of Nut with her dress as the sky. Between her legs is the birth of the sun which she swallows at night and births again with Hathor being illuminated by the sun’s rays.
One of the most beautiful part of the astronomical ceiling on the western most strip is the outstretched body of the sky goddess Nut swallowing the sun which will then travel through her body and be reborn in the morning at the other end portrayed in the photo below. In the upper register, there are two goddesses with stars above their heads. This is the personification of the first and second hour of the night with the zodiac sign of Capricorn between them represented by a goat-headed fish.
On the upper register is the zodiac sign Leo portrayed by a lion standing on a snake. In front of Leo is the goddess of the 12th hour of the night with a star above her head. On the bottom right is the rising sun in the form of a winged scarab bettle being born from the lap of the sky goddess Nut. On the top right you can see the feet of Nut. On the left of the scarab bettle is the decanal star 36 standing in the boat. There are 36 stars near the ecliptic whose rise and transit were used to tell time during the night.
On the easternmost strip is another outstretched sky goddess Nut swallowing a winged setting sun. On the upper register next to Nut’s hands is the goddess of the first hour of the night. Next to her is the bull-headed god representing the planet Saturn.
On the easternmost strip is the rising sun being born from the lap of sky goddess Nut. Here you can see her feet on the bottom right. From the rising sun are rays shining on the head of the goddess Hathor sitting on top of an image of a temple. On the first day of the Egyptian New Year, a statue of Hathor was said to be placed on the roof to be rejuvenated by the first rays of the new year sun. Upside down on top next to the sun is a boat carrying a lotus flower with a snake emerging from it. For the ancient Egyptians, the snake is a symbol for the rising sun on the first day of the new year, while the lotus flower is believed to be the first thing that appeared on the primordial sea on the first day of the creation of the world.
On the lower register is the sun god Ra standing on his sun boat sailing across the sky pulled by three men. On the left of the boat are four baboons paying respect to another boat carrying the rising sun pulled by three jackals.
On the top register is a black raging bull portraying the zodiac sign Taurus with a large moon on its back. Following Taurus is a god wearing a two-feather crown and holding a ram-headed serpent. Behind him is the planet Mercury carrying a staff. The two goddesses with stars on their heads next to Mercury are the goddesses of the 10th and 11th hour of the night.
Here you can see the moon decorated with the eye of Horus on a boat. According to Egyptian mythology, Horus lost his eye during his battle with Set who murdered his father Osiris and the eye was subsequently healed by Thoth. The destruction and healing of the eye represent the waning and waxing of the moon. Above and below the moon are 14 sitting deities representing the 14 days of the waning moon. There are four human-headed birds on the left called the “Souls of the sixth day of the month” and they honor the moon when it starts waning on the 15th day of the month.
From the hypostyle hall is the inner hall known as the Hall of Appearances with six Hathor columns where the statue of the Goddess Hathor appeared from her sanctuary for ceremonies. Further in is a small chamber housing the sanctuary of the goddess Hathor with a 2-meter high statue. Inside are murals depicting the king offering to the goddess. There are eleven other chapels dedicated to the other deities. Beneath the central core are 14 crypts which can be accessed by hidden trapdoors and were believed to store the treasures of the temple. The entrance is quite narrow and at places I had to crawl to enter. There is one relief here known as the Dendera Light because some suggest that it is a representation of an ancient lightbulb. The relief depicts a djed pillar and a lotus flower spawning a snake within.
Restoration works still in progress in the Inner Hall of Appearances.
Chapels dedicated to the gods
Chapels dedicated to the gods
Chapels dedicated to the gods
Down in the crypt
The famous Dendera Light relief with human figures standing next to what look like giant light bulbs. It is believed that this is a scene of the creation of the cosmos where the lotus is considered the first thing that floated on the primordial sea. Within the lotus is a snake which represents the rising sun and the god Harsomptus, the son of Horus and Hathor. On the left you can see the bulb being supported by the god of infinity, Heh, kneeling on a square base. On the right, the bulb is supported by a Djed pillar with arms which is a symbol of continuity and stability.
The god Harsomptus, child of Horus of Edfu and Hathor of Dendera, in the form of a falcon. There was an annual festival where Hathor traveled from Dendera to Edfu where she met Horus and conceived their child Harsomptus.
This is a Menat necklace which produced a rustling sound when shaken thought to please the goddess Hathor. The four sistrums on top were musical instruments each decorated with the face of Hathor with cow ears.
Hathor being presented with the sistrum which is a ritual musical instrument decorated with the head of Hathor on top
There are stairs leading to the roof of the temple where there is a small temple to greet the rising sun, the Chapel of Osiris, and the birthing temple. The stairwell going up to the roof is a spiral, just as a bird would ascend, while the corridor to come down is straight, just as a bird would dive. During the New Year festival, the soul or ba of Hathor would emerge from the crypt beneath the temple and be carried up the western spiral staircase to the roof for her to await the first light of the dawn of the New Year and symbolically be revitalized by the Sun. Once revitalized by the sun, she was carried down via the eastern straight staircase back to the crypt. Here on the ceiling of the portico of the Chapel of Osiris is the Dendera Zodiac with the images of Taurus, the bull, and Libra, the scales. This relief which is a replica is believed to depict the complete map of the ancient Egyptian sky with the original on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Western staircase going up to the roof with goddesses carrying trays of offerings.
Western staircase with reliefs of standard bearing priests. These priests were part of a procession carrying a shrine with the statue of Hathor to the roof where the statue will be revitalized by the sun on the first day of the Egyptian new year.
Priests with boxes of offerings
The pharaoh wearing the upper and lower crowns leading the procession of priests bearing standards.
Hathor shrine to greet the rising sun
This is where the statue of the <em>ba</em> of Hathor was brought so that the rays of the sun could rejuvenate the statue on the first day of the Egyptian new year.
Here outside the Osiris Chapel are two human-headed birds depicting the soul of Osiris. They are facing the sun rays coming down from the sun in the sky which connect to the sun that is sitting on the horizon.
Two human-headed birds depicting the soul of Osiris facing the sun rays coming down from the sun in the sky which connect to the sun that is sitting on the horizon.
Inside the Chapel of Osiris
Dendera Zodiac shows the heavens held up by female figures assisted by falcon-headed gods. In the circumference are 36 decans which were stars used in the ancient Egyptian calendar to keep track of the days of the year.
Although built by non-native rulers, the Temple of Hathor was built according to the traditional Theban architectural style. Also similar to the native Egyptian pharaohs, these rulers used the temples to show the people their piety towards the gods of Egypt. Inside the hypostyle is a fresco of Emperor Nero offering a model of the mammisi to the goddess and outside of the rear wall are images of Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion by Julius Caeser. On the rear wall is a large False Door with an emblem of Hathor which pilgrims rubbed and scraped at in order to become closer to their goddess. There is a hearing ear shrine here where Hathor can hear the prayers of those commoners who were not allowed to enter the temple.
On the southern exterior wall is Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarian, son of Julius Caesar, making offerings to Hathor and all the other gods. In front of Hathor is Ihy, her son, playing the sistrum.
There is a large False Door with an emblem of Hathor which pilgrims rubbed and scraped at in order to become closer to their goddess.
To the west of the temple is the sacred lake which was used for the priests’ purification.
Egyptian birth houses or mammisis are an important feature of many Late Period and Ptolemaic temple complexes where the reliefs depict scenes of nativity and bringing up of the king as the child of the gods. Here at Dendera, it is positioned at the front of the complex and was quite intricately decorated with reliefs of the births of gods and the pharaoh.
Birth House at Dendera
The Birth House is surrounded by a row of columns embellished with relief images of the God Bes who was the chief god of childhood driving evil spirits away from the babies. Bes was depicted as a dwarf with a big stomach and long whiskers.
The pharaoh as a child with all the gods coming to bless him
On the left, the young pharaoh sitting on the lap of Horus and on the right, he is suckling from Hathor’s breast
Other scenes of the young pharaoh with the gods
Dendera is by far one of my favorite temple complexes in Egypt. It laid buried under the sand and was left untouched by time for over two thousand years. Craning your neck to take in the myths and legends of the astronomical ceiling with the Hathor faces on top of the giant columns gazing down at you is like stepping into an ancient Egypt time machine. If only the walls could speak, the stories they would tell. Take a moment here and imagine the priests busying around, preparing offerings, and bringing the statue of Hathor’s soul up from the crypt to the roof for it to be rejuvenated by the first rays of the sun on the first day of the Egyptian new year thousands of years ago. It is truly a privilege to visit such a beautiful and well preserved temple and I will definitely try to come back someday.
From Luxor we set sail towards Esna and Edfu. Stay tuned!
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