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Dendera Temple

The Great Temple at Dendera (Denderah, previously Tentyra or Tintyra) dates to the Ptolemaic period, about 100 BC. It is well preserved except for damage to the faces of the Hathor columns by early Christians. The current temple stands at the site of earlier construction dating back at least to the middle kingdom. Hathor was mistress of the cycles of time, the art of the temple reflects that, and the annual new year celebration there.

The Hathor Temple at Dendera (Tentyra)
It is the month of March, but as warm and splendid as in our June. Around us are fields of corn, of lucerne, and the flowering bean. And the air is full of restless birds, singing deliriously for very joy in their nests and coveys. Our way lies over a fertile soil, saturated with vital substances–some paradise for beasts no doubt, for they swarm on every side. Flocks of goats with a thousand bleating kids; she-asses with their frisking young; cows and buffaloes feeding their calves. All are turned loose among the crops, to browse at their leisure, as if there were here an excess of the riches of the soil. There is an abundance of light in the sky and, in the distance, an extraordinary clearness.

These fertile plains are bounded far away, on left and right, by two parallel stone walls, two chains of rose-colored mountains, whose aspect is powerfully desertlike.

The sun at this moment is hidden from us by a band of clouds that stretches, right above our head, from one end of the sky to the other. It is alone in the blue void, and seems to make more peaceful, and even a little mysterious, the wonderful light of the fields we traverse. By contrast, the distant landscape, unshaded by cloud, is resplendent with a more incisive clearness, and the desert beyond seems deluged with rays.

The gateway to Dendera is still huge despite being two thirds covered in sand.
The gateway (portico) to Dendera Temple,
by David Roberts.

The pathway that we have been following, ill defined as it is in the grassy fields, leads us at length under a large ruinous portico which still rises here, quite isolated, altogether strange and unexpected, in the midst of the green expanse of pasture and tillage. We had seen it from a great distance, so pure and clear is the air. In relief on its lintel is designed a globe with two long wings outspread symmetrically.

Gateway to DenderaIt behoves us now to pause, for this winged disc is a symbol which gives at length an indication of the place. And there before us must once have stood a temple reverenced of the people, or some great vanished town. Fragments of columns and sculptured capitals are strewn about in the fields of lucerne. How inexplicable it seems that this land of ancient splendors, which never ceased indeed to be nutritive and prodigiously fertile, should have returned to the humble pastoral life of the peasants.

Through the green crops and the assembled herds our pathway seems to lead to a kind of hill rising alone in the midst of the plains–a hill which is neither of the same color nor the same nature as the mountains of the surrounding deserts. Behind us the portico recedes little by little in the distance. Its’ tall imposing silhouette, mournful and solitary, throws an infinite sadness on this sea of meadows, which spread their peace where once was a center of magnificence.

The wind now rises in sharp, lashing gusts–the wind of Egypt that never seems to fall, and is bitter and wintry for all the burning of the sun. The herded beasts move close to one another and turn their backs to the squall.

As we draw nearer to this singular hill it is revealed as a mass of ruins. The ruins are all of a brownish-red color. They are the remains of the colonial town of the Romans, which subsisted here for some two or three hundred years, an almost negligible moment of time in the long history of Egypt. The town then fell to pieces, to become in time mere shapeless mounds on the fertile margins of the Nile and in the submerging sands.

DenderahA heap of little reddish bricks that once were fashioned into houses; a heap of broken jars or amphorae–myriads of them–that served to carry the water from the old nourishing river; and the remains of walls, repaired at diverse epochs, where stones inscribed with hieroglyphs lie upside down against fragments of Grecian obelisks or Coptic sculptures or Roman capitals. In our countries, where the past is of yesterday, we have nothing resembling such a chaos of dead things.

Nowadays the sanctuary is reached through a large cutting in this hill of ruins. Incredible heaps of bricks and broken pottery enclose it on all sides like a jealous rampart. Until recently indeed they covered it almost to its roof. From the very first its’ appearance is disconcerting: it is so grand, so austere and gloomy. A strange dwelling, to be sure, for the Goddess of Love and Joy. A severe doorway, built of gigantic stones and surmounted by a winged disc, opens on to an asylum of religious mystery, on to depths where massive columns disappear in the darkness of deep night.

Dendera Temple
Dendera, by David Roberts, 1838.

Immediately on entering there is a coolness and a resonance as of a sepulchre. First, the pronaos, where we still see clearly, between pillars carved with hieroglyphs. Were it not for the large human faces which serve for the capitals of the columns, and are the image of the lovely Hathor, the goddess of the place, this temple of the decadent epoch would scarcely differ from those built in Egypt two thousand years earlier. It has the same square massiveness.

And in the dark blue ceilings there are the same frescoes, filled with stars, with the signs of the Zodiac, and lines of winged discs. In bas-relief on the walls there are the same crowds of people who gesticulate and make signs to one another with their hands. — Eternally the same mysterious signs, repeated to infinity, everywhere–in the palaces, the hypogea, and on the papyrus and sarcophagi of the mummies.

Beautiful columns with Hathor faces - you barely notice the tiny forms of people below.

The Memphite and Theban temples, which preceded this by so many centuries, and far surpassed it in grandeur, have all lost, in consequence of the falling of the enormous stones of their roofs, their cherished gloom, and, what is the same thing, their religious mystery. But in the temple of the lovely Hathor, except for some figures mutilated by the hammers of Christians or Moslems, everything has remained intact, and the lofty ceilings still throw their fearsome shadows.

The gloom deepens in the hypostyle which follows the pronaos. Then come, one after another, two halls of increasing holiness, where the daylight enters regretfully through narrow loopholes, barely lighting the rows of innumerable figures that gesticulate on the walls. And then, after other majestic corridors, we reach the heart of this heap of terrible stones, the holy of holies, enveloped in deep gloom. The hieroglyphic inscriptions name this place the “Hall of Mystery” and formerly the high priest alone, and he only once in each year, had the right to enter it for the performance of some now unknown rites.

The “Hall of Mystery” is empty to-day, despoiled long since of the emblems of gold and precious stones that once filled it. The meagre little flames of the candles we have lit scarcely pierce the darkness which thickens over our heads towards the ceilings. At the most they only allow us to distinguish on the walls of the vast rectangular cavern the serried ranks of figures who exchange among themselves their disconcerting mute conversations.




Towards the end of the ancient and at the beginning of the Christian era, Egypt, as we know, still exercised such a fascination over the world. Its ancestral prestige and the sovereign permanence of its ruins imposed its gods upon its conquerors, its handwriting, its architecture, nay, even its religious rites and its mummies.

The Ptolemies built temples here which reproduce those of Thebes and Abydos. Even the Romans, although they had already discovered the vault, followed here the Egyptian model, and continued those flat ceilings, made of monstrous slabs, placed like our wooden beams. And so this temple of Hathor, built though it was in the time of Cleopatra and Augustus, on a site venerable in the oldest antiquity, recalls at first sight some conception of the Ramsses.

Winged solar disc
from La Description de lEgypte 1809
If, however, you examine it more closely, there appears, particularly in the thousands of figures in bas-relief, a considerable divergence. The poses are the same indeed, and so too are the traditional gestures. But the exquisite grace of line is gone, as well as the hieratic calm of the expressions and the smiles.

In the Egyptian art of the best periods the slender figures are as pure as the flowers they hold in their hands; their muscles may be indicated in a precise and skilful manner, but they remain, for all that, immaterial.

from La Description de lEgypte 1809

For here, on the contrary, the figures might be those of living people, palpitating and voluptuous, who had posed themselves for sport in these consecrated attitudes. The throat of the beautiful goddess, her hips, her unveiled nakedness, are portrayed with a searching and lingering realism; the flesh seems almost to quiver. She and her spouse, the beautiful Horus, contemplate each other, naked, one before the other, and their laughing eyes are intoxicated with love.

Around the holy of holies is a number of halls, in deep shadow and massive as so many fortresses. They were used formerly for mysterious and complicated rites, and in them, as everywhere else, there is no corner of the wall but is overloaded with figures and hieroglyphs. Bats are asleep in the blue ceilings, where the winged discs, painted in fresco, look like flights of birds; and the hornets of the neighbouring fields have built their nests there in hundreds, so that they hang like stalactites.

Re-creation of the interior of the Temple at Dendera,
from La Description de l’Egypte 1809.

Several staircases lead to the vast terraces formed by the great roofs of the temple–staircases narrow, stifling and dimly lighted by loopholes that reveal the heart-breaking thickness of the walls. And here again are the inevitable rows of figures, carved on all the walls, in the same familiar attitudes. They mount with us as we ascend, making all the time the self-same signs one to another.

As we emerge on to the roofs, bathed now in Egyptian sunlight and swept by an Egyptian wind, we are greeted by a noise as of an aviary. It is the kingdom of the sparrows, who have built their nests in thousands in this temple of the complaisant goddess.

The Dendera Temple is so large - buildings such as this pretty chapel have been built upon its roof
A small chapel built on the roof of Dendera Temple
By David Roberts, 1839.

It is an esplanade, this roof–a solitude paved with gigantic flagstones. From it we see, beyond the heaps of ruins, those happy plains, which are spread out with such a perfect serenity on the very ground where once stood the town of Denderah, beloved of Hathor and one of the most famous of Upper Egypt.

The temple has also some underground crypts into which you descend by staircases as of dungeons; sometimes you have to crawl through holes to reach them. Long superposed galleries which might serve as hiding-places for treasure; long corridors recalling those which, in bad dreams, threaten to close in and bury you. And the innumerable figures, of course, are here too, gesticulating on the walls. There are endless representations of the lovely goddess.

The Gateway of Dendera
artist unknown.

In one of the vestibules that we traverse on our way out of the sanctuary are numerous bas-reliefs representing various sovereigns paying homage to the beautiful Hathor. One is of a young man, crowned with a royal tiara. He is shown seated in the traditional Pharaonic pose and is none other than the Emperor Nero!

The hieroglyphs of the cartouche are there to affirm his identity, albeit the sculptor, not knowing his actual physiognomy, has given him the traditional features, regular as those of the god Horus. During the centuries of the Roman domination the Western emperors used to send from home instructions that their likeness should be placed on the walls of the temples, and that offerings should be made in their name to the Egyptian divinities. This despite that Egypt must have seemed so far away, a colony almost at the end of the earth.

The Emperor Nero! As a matter of fact at the very time these bas- reliefs–almost the last–and these expiring hieroglyphics were being inscribed, the days of the Goddess of Joy were numbered.


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