Regarded among the best preserved in Egypt, the temple of Hathor at Dendera is not one of the most visited, as it lies off the beaten track. On the left bank of the Nile, Dendera is about 60 km north of Luxor. In ancient Egypt, this was the capital of the sixth “nome” (or region) of Upper Egypt, later relocated to what is now Qena.
The Temple found there is dedicated to Hathor, a celebrated ancient Egyptian goddess of love, desire and music, later assimilated by the Greeks in the form of Aphrodite. The site was already a sanctuary, as evidenced by texts referring to earlier shrines there from the Old Kingdom onward; but construction of the temple started in Ptolemaic times at the beginning of our era (1st century BCE).
The name of Ptolemy VIII is found in the crypts, however, the complex was continuously redesigned and rebuilt throughout the Ptolemaic period, and added onto by various rulers up to Roman times. As it was built relatively late compared to other temples in Upper Egypt, Dendera is remarkably well preserved, allowing visitors to easily imagine the life of an Egyptian temple at the height of its splendor.
Like most Ptolemaic temples, Dendera is built of sandstone. It has well-conserved walls, flat roofs, crypts and typical columns with tops showing the head of the goddess Hathor in her bovine aspect, with cow’s ears; as in the famous Hypostyle (having weight-bearing columns) Hall with its impeccable, majestic columns.
Hypostyle hall of Dendera temple
Special rituals, worship and mysteries associated with the popular goddess Hathor existed in Egypt starting from the most ancient of recorded times. As the manifestation of a heavenly goddess, the walls show Hathor in one of her many aspects and typical myths. As archetypal woman or primordial cow, she carries the sun, with horns enclosing a solar disk. As sacred cow, she suckles and protects other deities, and by extension, the Pharaohs, rulers of Egypt and representatives of the gods on earth.
Although her rituals were practiced throughout Egypt, Hathor was particularly revered at Dendera, as well as at the temple of Deir El-Bahari, in the Valley of the Kings, Thebes (present-day Luxor), where we find the same Hathor-headed columns.
Hathor was particularly revered at Dendera
On the ceiling of the main temple, we see Hathor with her cow ears as the iconic “Lady of the West”: on the horizon, she rises between twin sycamore trees (her sacred trees), welcoming the deceased to the afterlife with purifying, sacred water.
Some of the chambers around the temple are dedicated to the different rituals in the mysteries of Hathor. Among them is the “Union with the Sundisk” ceremony, documented on the ceiling and reliefs of the staircase. On the roof of this part of the temple complex, at a designated time every year, the high priests transported the ritual statue of Hathor to meet the Sundisk God Re, in the rising rays of the early-morning sun. Through this ritualistic meeting, the ancients believed Hathor to be regenerated.
Procession of priests for the “Union with the Sundisk” ceremony
There are isolated chapels around the main temple complex, known as “mammissi” or “birth-houses”, and designated as mythical birthplaces of gods. One such chapel dedicated to the birth of goddess Isis, is partially preserved until today and lies outside the main temple, surrounded by a mud brick wall. The reliefs suggest that this holy place is precisely where the goddess Nut gave birth to Isis. Beyond the walls, remains of a rectangular sacred lake are now filled with tall palm trees instead of water.
Priests in the procession leading to the roof for the “Union with the Sundisk” (photo: passion-egyptienne.fr)
Two more points of interest, taken from the many fascinating facts about Dendera Temple, are the Zodiac Ceiling and the Coptic Basilica. Among the sacred chapels, there are the remains of a Coptic Basilica that researchers have dated back to the Roman era, in the 5th century AD. The inner sanctuary of the church is turned toward the east. Ongoing excavation work there will hopefully yield more details in the future.
Dendera ceiling showing Hathor (photo: passion-egyptienne.fr)
In another of the surrounding chapels, the mysterious and beautiful Dendera Zodiac Ceiling was found; it has one of the earliest known representations of the zodiac signs as we know them.
Zodiac of Dendera (photo: passion-egyptienne.fr)
Made out of sandstone, it was brought intact to Marseille, France, in 1821; then onto Paris, where it was sold for an untold sum, destined for the National Library’s antiquities collection. Records show it reaching the Louvre Museum in 1918. Luckily, in its exact place in the ancient domain of Hathor, Dendera, there remains today an exact replica for visitors to admire.
Scene from the ceiling of the Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Hathor (photo: passion-egyptienne.fr)
Passion Egyptienne, Academia, Egyptsites and Brigham Young University websites