One of the best-preserved Egyptian temples – Dendera, the sanctuary of goddess Hathor, Mistress of Life

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Petra Bjelica
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Dendera Temple

The Dendera Temple complex is devoted to the goddess Hathor and located 60 miles south of Luxor, Egypt. Not only it is one of the best-preserved temples of its period, it is also the most elaborately decorated and the grandest.

Until lately it has been one of the most accessible temples to visit and fully experience the ancient places of worship. It is a site of 10 acres with different kind of buildings, shrines, halls and a sacred lake, enclosed with a brick wall.

The present shrine of Hathor, which was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty in the first century BC, is rested upon remnants of earlier building foundations dated from approximately 5000 BC and 2613 – 2494 BC.

View of the Dendera temple complex, Author: Bernard Gagnon, CC-BY-SA-3.0

There is textual evidence of a pre-dynastic temple in Dendera rebuilt both in the periods of Old and New Kingdoms, and it is suggested that Khufu built the foundations of the main temple.

The entrance of the Hathor Temple, Author: DAVID HOLTCC BY-SA 2.

The most recent parts of the temple were built during the reign of the most famous Cleopatra VII and the son she had with Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XII, known as Cesarion. The figures of Cleopatra and her son can be seen carved in relief in the outer walls. The Romans built the Hypostyle Hall in the first century AD. And you can see the carved evidence of the involvement of Roman emperors, such as Nero, Tiberius, and Trajan. Many of the reliefs and carvings are among the most well made in Egypt.

Reliefs of Cleopatra and Cesarion offering sacrifices, Author: Elizabeth Ellis, CC BY-SA 2.0

The interior decoration renders astronomical images, winged disks, vultures, depictions of Hathor and Horus, symbolical representations of north and south halves of the sky, and constellations of moon and sun. The colors are beautiful, quite well preserved as well, but blackened by the smoke from fires lit by the Arab villagers living there during the 18th and 19th century. However, you can still notice the outstanding shade of blue – the color of Hathor’s wig. The dominant figure on the ceiling is Nut – a goddess who represents the cycling of the day and night. Her dress represents the sky, and the sun is born between her legs. When night comes she swallows it.

Goddess Nut on the ceiling, Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

The temple also features a necropolis and a number of crypts, the like of which are not to be found anywhere else. These mysterious chambers, placed both inside the upper temple and underground, are suggested to be the residence of the statue of Hathor and the place where the ritual procession of celebrating the new dawn of creation (the New Year) began.

The ceilings of Dendera, Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

It is believed that the temple had several interdependent functions. Firstly, it was a sacred place for pilgrims in search of miraculous cures from the goddess, waiting for her to come in their dreams. But it was an organized sanctuary and a kind of nursing home for practicing psychological, physiological and magical therapies. Above else, it was a site for celebrations and festivities following the astrological cycles.

The interior of Dendera, Author: Fig wright, CC-BY-SA-3.0

As one of the most important goddesses worshiped both by commoners and royalty, Hathor is the goddess of joy, motherhood and feminine love, the patron of healing and source of feminine nourishment. She is also the personification of the milky way. One myth tells the story of how Horus has both of his eyes plucked out and buried in a mountain by Set as punishment for cutting off the head of his mother, Isis. Hathor heals Horus with gazelle milk.

Hathor, Author: Roberto Venturini, CC-by-2-0

Usually depicted as a cow or with cow horns with a sun disk between them, her symbol is the musical instrument the sistrum. She, who never suffered depression or doubt, goes by many names; the Mistress of the West, Mistress of life, Mistress of Foreign lands or the Turquoise goddess near the Nile.

The mysterious light bulb, Author: Olaf Tausch, CC-BY-3.0

The Dendera Temple has a couple more quite interesting features. The carved relief that still creates confusion and controversy is called the Dendera light. The official interpretation of the strange image is of a pillar and lotus, but there are theories about it being an ancient light bulb. The most impressive bas-relief is the famous Dendera Zodiac, pretty unique in ancient art. It represents the cosmic scene of the Osiris mysteries, celebrating his death and rebirth.

Dendera Zodiac, Author: zeevveez, CC-by-2-0

The original celestial arch is today displayed at Louvre, but you can see the replica at the temple as well. It is a disk held by 4 women and 8 falcon-headed spirits inside which are the zodiac signs. Some of them are depicted in Greco-Roman iconographic forms; the Ram, Taurus, Scorpio, Libra, and Capricorn, and some in a more Egyptian shape, such as Aquarius who is represented in the form of the flood god Hapy. Since the axis passes through Pisces, it’s creation is dated to the age of Pisces – which means about 2000 years ago. Archaeological evidence dates it 50BC.