The Temple of Hathor at Dendara lacks the sublime quality of Seti’s edifice at Abydos, but its fabulous astronomical ceiling and nearly intact rooftop sanctuaries offer a unique insight into the solar rituals at other cult sites where they have not survived. Dendara also shows how Egypt’s Greek and Roman rulers identified themselves with the pharaohs and deities of Ancient Egypt by copying their temples, rituals and iconography down to the last hieroglyph – though they did tinker with a few details of reliefs and murals. Goddesses and queens became bustier, and the feet of royalty were shown with all their toes (instead of only the big toe, as the Ancient Egyptians did).

The temple is also pleasing for the completeness of its mud-brick enclosure walls and its rural setting, with rooftop views of lush countryside and the arid hills of the Western Desert. Approaching it by road from Qena, across the Nile, you’ll pass fields of onions and clover, donkey carts and camels – an enjoyable ride by calèche if you’ve got time to spare or decide to stay in Qena. Most tourists visit Dendara together with the temple at Abydos.

The Temple of Hathor

Although there have been shrines to Hathor, the goddess of joy, at Dendara since Pre-dynastic times, the existing Temple of Hathor is a Greco-Roman creation, built between 125 BC and 60 AD. Since the object of the exercise was to confer legitimacy on Egypt’s foreign rulers, it emulates the pharaonic pattern of hypostyle halls and vestibules preceding a darkened sanctuary, with vast mud-brick enclosure walls surrounding the complex.

The facade
The temple facade is shaped like a pylon, with six Hathor-headed columns rising from a screen, their headdresses still blue, red and white. Here and inside, Hathor appears in human form rather than her bovine aspect (see The Hypostyle Hall). Because this section was built during the reign of Tiberius, its sunk-reliefs depict Roman emperors making offerings to the gods, namely Tiberius and Claudius before Horus, Hathor and their son Ihy, and Tiberius as a sphinx before Hathor and Horus (hard to see). Nineteenth-century engravings show the temple buried in sand almost to the lintel of its portal, which explains why its upper sections bore the brunt of Coptic iconoclasm.

The Hypostyle Hall
Entering the Hypostyle Hall with its eighteen Hathor-headed columns you’ll be transfixed by its astronomical ceiling, now largely restored to its vibrant original colours (mostly blue and white). This is not a sky chart in the modern sense, but a symbolic representation of the heavenly bodies, the hours of the day and night, and the realms of the sun and moon.

Above the central aisle, a row of flying vultures and winged discs separates the left-hand bays representing the southern heavens from those to the right, dedicated to the northern sky. Here, the first row begins with the Eye of Re in its barque, above which appear the fourteen days of the waning moon. Beyond the full moon in the centre come the fourteen stages of the waxing moon (each with its own deity), culminating in the full disc worshipped by Thoth, and lastly the moon as Osiris, protected by Isis and Nephthys. Souls in the form of jackals and birds adorn Re’s barque as it journeys across the sun’s register.

Following these are two bands showing the planets, the stars of the twelve hours of the night, and the signs of the zodiac (adopted from Babylonia). The end rows are dominated by Nut, who gives birth to the sun at dawn and swallows it at dusk. On one side, the rising sun Khepri (the scarab beetle) is born; on the other, the sun shines down on Hathor.

The Hall of Appearances
The Ptolemaic section of the temple begins with the six-columned Hall of Appearances, where Hathor consorted with fellow deities before her voyage to Edfu. With a torch, you can examine reliefs on the entrance wall depicting offerings, and the foundation of the temple and its presentation to the gods. Notice the “blank” cartouches, which attest to the high turnover of rulers in late Ptolemaic times, when stonemasons were loath to inscribe the names of Ptolemies who might not last for long. Nonetheless, rituals continued at Dendara, where the priests kept holy objects of precious metal in the Treasury and drew water for purification ceremonies from a well reached by the so-called Nile Room.

Corresponding chambers across the hall include the laboratory, where perfumes and unguents were mixed and stored (notice the reliefs showing recipes, and bearers bringing exotic materials from afar); and another room for storing valuables. A liturgical calendar listing festivals celebrated at the temple appears on the sides of its doorway.

The Hall of Offerings and the Hall of Ennead
Beyond lies the Hall of Offerings, the entrance to the temple proper, with twin stairways to the roof up which sacrificial animals were led. A list of offerings appears on the rear wall, across the way from a relief showing the king offering Hathor her favourite tipple.

Next comes the Hall of the Ennead, where statues of the gods and kings involved in ceremonies dedicated to Hathor once stood. Her wardrobe was stored in a room to the left, where reliefs show the priests carrying the chests that held the sacred garments. The Sanctuary housed Hathor’s statue and ceremonial barque, which priests carried to the riverside and placed upon a boat that worshippers towed upriver to Edfu for a conjugal reunion with Horus. Reliefs depict the daily rituals, and the king presenting Maat to Hathor, Horus and Harsomtus (rear wall).

Side chapels
Two corridors with side chapels run alongside (and meet behind) the sanctuary. Above the doorway into the Corridor of Mysteries, Hathor appears as a cow within a wooden kiosk mounted on a barque. Past the chapels of Isis, Sokar and the Sacred Serpent, you’ll find the “Castle of the Sistrum” (Hathor’s musical instrument), where niches depict her standing on the sky, and the coronation of Ihy as god of music. This is entered via the darkened Per-Nu chapel, whence Hathor embarked on her conjugal voyage to Edfu during the New Year festival (which fell on July 19 in ancient times).

The New Year procession began from the Per-Ur chapel, where a shaky ladder ascends to a small cache chamber containing reliefs of Hathor, Maat and Isis. In the Per-Neser chapel, one of the custodians will lift a hatch and guide you down into a low-ceilinged crypt carved with cobras and lotuses. The chapel itself shows Hathor in her terrible aspect as a lioness, for by Ptolemaic times she had assimilated the leonine goddess Sekhmet and the feline goddess Bastet. The temple’s most valuable treasures were stored underneath the Chapel of Re.

The New Year Chapel
If you haven’t already stumbled upon it, return to the Hall of the Ennead, bear left through an antechamber and then right, to find the “Pure Place” or New Year Chapel, whose ceiling is covered by a relief of Nut giving birth to the sun, which shines on Hathor’s head. It was here that rituals were performed prior to Hathor’s communion with the sun on the temple’s roof. Check out the rooftop shrines before leaving the temple and walking round to the rear wall, where two defaced sunk-reliefs of Cleopatra and her son Caesarion feature in a procession of deities. The chubby face is so unlike the beautiful queen of legend that most people prefer to regard this as a stylized image rather than a lifelike portrait of Cleopatra. The lion-headed waterspouts below the cornice were a Roman innovation.

One last bit of iconography worth noting is the array of royal crowns – 22 different kinds appear on the seated kings carved on the third, fourth and fifth registers of the east wall.

Rooftop sanctuaries
From either side of the Hall of Offerings, a stairway ascends to the roof of the temple; the scenes on the walls depict the New Year procession, when Hathor’s statue was carried up to an open kiosk on the rooftop to await the dawn; touched by the rays of the sun, Hathor’s ba (soul) was revitalized for the coming year. Besides the sun kiosk there are two suites of rooms dedicated to the death and resurrection of Osiris, behind the facade of the Hypostyle Hall. Although such rooftop sanctuaries were a feature of most temples, those at Dendara are uniquely intact.

The one on the left (as you face towards the pylon) is notable for the reliefs in its inner chamber, which show Osiris being mourned by Isis and Nephthys, passing through the gates of the netherworld, and finally bringing himself to erection to impregnate Isis, who appears as a hovering kite.

The other suite contains a plaster cast of the famous Dendara Zodiac ceiling filched by Lelorrain in 1820 and now in the Louvre. Upheld by four goddesses, the circular carving features a zodiac which only differs from our own by the substitution of a scarab for the scorpion and the inclusion of the hippo goddess Tweri. The zodiac was introduced to Egypt (and other lands) by the Romans, who copied it from Babylonia. Mind your head on the low doorway.

Best of all is the magnificent view of the temple and the countryside from the rooftop. Also notice the graffiti left by French troops in 1799, including the names of their commander Desaix and the artist Denon, who sketched frenziedly at Dendara as the Mamlukes drew nearer, melting down bullets for lead when he ran out of pencils.

Outlying buildings
Surrounding the temple are various other structures, now largely ruined. Ptolemaic temples were distinguished by the addition of mamissi or Birth Houses, which associated the pharaoh with Horus, the deified king. When the Romans surrounded the temple with an enclosure wall, it split in two the Birth House of Nectanebo (XXX Dynasty), compelling them to build a replacement. The Roman Birth House has some fine carvings of Hathor suckling Horus on its south wall, and tiny figures of Bes and Tweri on the column capitals and architraves. Between the two mamissi lies a ruined, fifth-century Coptic Basilica, built with masonry from the adjacent structures; notice the incised Coptic crosses.

As a compassionate goddess, Hathor had a reputation for healing and her temple attracted pilgrimages from the sick. In the Sanatorium here patients were prescribed cures during dreams, induced by narcotics. Water for ritual ablutions was drawn from a Sacred Lake now drained of liquid and full of palm trees and birds.

Nearby stands a ruined Iseum used for the worship of Isis and Osiris, built by Cleopatra’s mortal enemy, Octavian, after he became Emperor Augustus.

On your way out of the temple, don’t miss the scowling Bes – god of dancing girls and licentiousness – carved on a chunk of masonry displayed near the Pro-Pylon.

  • The Gnostic Gospels
  • The cult of Hathor