Temple of Dendara

The Temple of Dendara was known as the ‘Castle of the Sistrum’ or ‘Pr Hathor’ – House of Hathor. Hathor was the goddess of love, joy and beauty. With the exception of its supporting pillars, which had capitals sculpted in the image of Hathor and were defaced by the Christians, the walls, rooms and roof are complete and extraordinarily well preserved. The stone steps of the spiral staircase are time worn but still used to ascend to the roof, where there is a small chapel decorated with Hathor-headed columns – the Christians seemed to have missed these

What really grabbed my artistic attention among all this magnificence was a small detail. The place sings with the music of birds. Hundreds of them roost in small cracks and hollows in the walls seeming to contemplate their carved likeness in the hieroglyphic reliefs.

There is one other thing that stirs the imagination; the building bares the name of the famous Cleopatra and her son, whose father was Julius Caesar.

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.

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.

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

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.