Roughly midway between Luxor and Aswan, the provincial town of EDFU boasts the best-preserved cult temple in Egypt, dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Though built in the Ptolemaic era, this mammoth edifice respects all the canons of pharaonic architecture, conveying how most temples once looked. In terms of sheer monumental grandeur, it ranks alongside Karnak and Deir el-Bahri as one of the finest sites in the Nile Valley.

The approach to the temple is designed to distance it from the surrounding town: a sunken high-walled road overlooked by gun-towers, reflecting the paranoia of Mubarak’s regime in its final years, which culminates in a car park, tourist bazaar and Visitors’ centre (no more than an adjunct to the site’s toilets). If tourism picks up, there may be a Sound and Light Show at the temple in the future (t 097 470 5472 for information). Otherwise you may enjoy Edfu’s bazaar on Sharia el-Gumhorriya, one block east of the temple, where fruit, vegetable and lingerie stalls mingle in joyous profusion.

Temple of Horus

The Temple of Horus lay buried to its lintels until the 1860s, when Auguste Mariette cleared the main building. A splendid drawing by David Roberts shows the courtyard full of sand and peasant houses built atop the Hypostyle Hall. The mammoth task of excavation was nothing compared to the temple’s construction, which outlasted six Ptolemies, the final touches being added by the twelfth ruler of that dynasty.

The reliefs and inscriptions on the walls include the myth of the struggle between Horus and Seth and an account of the temple’s foundation-rituals, known to Egyptologists as the Edfu texts. You can read them in situ using Dieter Kurth’s annotated text, Edfu Temple: A Guide by an Ancient Egyptian Priest.

Birth House and Pylon
Visitors approach the temple as the ancients did, passing through high mud-brick enclosure walls and a Pro-Pylon (now ruined). Pilgrims seeking a few grains of blessed dust from the temple have left gouge-marks in the stones at head-level.

Off to the left, the colonnaded Birth House was a focus for the annual Coronation Festival re-enacting the divine birth of Horus and the reigning pharaoh. Don’t miss the reliefs of Horus being suckled by Isis, both as a baby (low down on the rear wall) and as a young man (on the facing columns).

The temple pylon was erected by Ptolemy IX before he was ousted from power by his brother Alexander, who was later usurped by another ruler, Neos Dionysos, depicted smiting foes before Horus the Elder. Its gateway is fronted by two giant black-granite falcons.

Court of Offerings
Entering the Court of Offerings, you can study the festival reliefs on the inner walls of the pylon, which continue around the court along the bottom of the wall. In the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, Horus’s barque tows Hathor’s to the temple (bottom row), where the deities retire to the sanctuary after suitable rituals. Later they emerge from the temple, embark and drift downstream to the edge of the Edfu nome, where Horus takes his leave. Beneath the western colonnade, Ptolemy IX makes offerings to Horus, Hathor and Ihy; his successor appears before the Edfu Triad across the way.

However, most visitors are content to photograph the pair of granite Horus statues outside the Hypostyle Hall. One falcon stands higher than a man; the other is missing its lower half.

Hypostyle Hall
The Hypostyle Hall of papyrus columns dates from the reign of Ptolemy VII (145–116 BC), known to his contemporaries as “Fatty”. With a torch, you can examine two small rooms in the entrance wall: the Chamber of Consecrations, where the king or his priestly stand-in dressed for rituals; and a library of sacred texts adorned with a relief of Sheshat, the goddess of writing. The reliefs showing the foundation of the temple and the deification of Horus have been mutilated by iconoclasts. From here on you encounter the oldest section of the temple, begun by Ptolemy III in 237 BC and completed 25 years later by his son, who styled himself Philopator (Father Lover).

Festival Hall
Temple texts rhapsodize about the annual festivals once held here, during which the Festival Hall was decorated with faïence, strewn with flowers and herbs and perfumed by myrrh. Incense and unguents were blended according to recipes inscribed on the walls of the Laboratory. Nonperishable offerings were stored in the room next door, while libations, fruit and sacrificial animals were brought in through a passageway connected to the outside world.

Hall of Offerings
The sacred barques of Horus and Hathor appear in glorious detail on either side of the doorway into the Hall of Offerings. During the New Year Festival, Horus was carried up the ascending stairway to the rooftop; after being revitalized by the sun-disc, his statue was returned to the sanctuary via the descending stairway. The ritual is depicted on the walls of both stairways, but you’ll need a torch, and locked gates may prevent you from going far.

Sanctuary and side chambers
Beyond the Hall of Offerings, the Sanctuary of Horus contains a shrine of polished black granite and a replica of his bronze barque shrine, where his effigy was kept.

There are several chambers worth noting off the corridor surrounding the sanctuary. The Linen Room is flanked by chapels to Min and the Throne of the Gods, while a suite nominally dedicated to Osiris contains colourful scenes of Horus receiving offerings and reliefs of his avatars. Don’t miss the New Year Chapel, with a dark-blue-coloured relief of the sky-goddess Nut stretched across its ceiling. South of here is another stairway to the rooftop, used for solar rituals.

Other sights
Returning to the Festival Hall, you can gain access to an external corridor running between the inner and outer walls, where the priesthood tallied tithes assessed on the basis of readings from the temple’s own Nilometer (accessible by a passage in the temple’s pylon). On the far side of the temple are tableaux from the Triumph of Horus over Seth, depicting Mystery Plays in which Seth was cast as a hippopotamus, lurking beneath his brother’s boat in the middle register. At the end of the play, the priests cut up and ate a hippo-shaped cake, to destroy Seth completely.