The protective ceiling on the Temple of Hathor at Dendera // © 2010 Skye Mayring
Don’t expect unsullied tradition at Egypt’s Temple of Dendera, but do expect to be amazed by the religious monument’s undeniably colorful past. Located about 40 miles north of Luxor, Egypt, Dendera is among the best-preserved monuments in the country and one that was built for both the Ptolemaic dynasty and for the Romans, who took possession of Egypt from Ptolemaic rule in 30 B.C.
On a recent trip to the greater Luxor area, my tour group and I were led directly to the crown jewel of the Dendera complex, the Temple of Hathor. The Temple of Hathor is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who was associated with the cosmos, music, love and drunkenness. She was an extremely popular deity during Ptolemaic times and is often depicted as a woman with the horned head of a cow.
Sadly, the six Hathor-headed columns fronting her temple have been defaced — most likely at the hands of the Christians or of the pre-Christian Romans who wanted to abolish the ancient religion. Despite the vandalism of the temple’s facade, the interior of the building is largely unblemished. One of the reasons why the temple is so well preserved is that, unlike the temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Temple of Hathor’s ceiling is still intact, protecting the intricate carvings and paintings within.
Some sections of the ceiling are still covered with soot from fires made by those who inhabited the temple, while other sections have recently been cleaned to reveal vibrant blue paint and carvings of celestial scenes, such as the signs of the zodiac and the figure of Nut, the sky goddess.
As we continued deeper into the temple, we noticed that the ceiling was getting lower and that the walkways were getting narrower. Our guide informed us that this architectural technique meant that we were entering a more sacred part of the temple, leading to a chamber where Hathor could be worshiped.
As part of the ancient religion, in order to enter any of Hathor’s six small chambers, kings would have to undergo certain purifications, including being fully shaven. Pharaohs would then have an opportunity to honor the goddess with a sacrifice of just about anything of value (with the exception on human beings). It was common for worshipers to bring jars of wine, flowers, oxen and birds to show their respect. Geese were the most precious gift to bear as the word for “fear” was synonymous with the word for “goose” in the ancient language, and slaughtering a goose in front of a god symbolized the slaying of one’s fear or becoming fearless, our guide said.
Beneath the chambers and through a very narrow corridor are 12 subterranean crypts where treasure, sacred relics and cult emblems were once stored. Brave visitors are allowed to climb down into one of the crypts under the presence of a warden (some reliefs were stolen in the 1960s, warranting increased security), but they must be willing to crawl at one point. Therefore, the claustrophobic and those with bad backs will want to sit this ancillary excursion out.
Those who have the courage to descend into the crypt will find a limestone wall decorated in full bas relief of Horus in the form of a falcon, depicting one of the Egyptian myths of creation.
We continued walking through the temple, marveling at the elaborately decorated walls. In some areas of the wall scenes, our guide pointed out, the cartouches were left blank due to political uncertainty. However, much of the work on the temple was preformed under the rule of Cleopatra VII, the queen who is most famous for her affair with Mark Antony.
On the outside of the temple, visitors will see an impressive relief carving of the queen and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion. According to our guide, this carving is the only representation of Cleopatra VII on a temple in Egypt.
Also on the building’s exterior is Greek text written by the Romans, which states that the structure belongs to “… the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the new Augustus, son of the divine Augustus …”
Adding to its diversity and storied history, the temple is surrounded by a number of other ancient sites, including both Ptolemaic and Roman birth houses, a shrine to Isis, a dried-up sacred lake and a Coptic church, where monks came to celebrate Easter as early as the 5th century A.D.