Dendera (Greek Tentyra) is situated on the western bank of the Nile south of Abydos, where the river makes a great curve to the east. Hathor, the sacred cow, was the popular deity.
The Ptolemies claimed that they were constructing the temple on the site of an ancient monument built by the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. In fact, in one of the crypts, the name of the 6th Dynasty Pharaoh Pepi I (r. 2300 BC) appears. At that time the noblemen of Elephantine were ‘Keepers of the Southern Gate’, and they recorded collaboration with the local citizens of Dendera, praising them highly.
In dedicating a temple to Hathor, the Ptolemies were honouring one of Egypt’s best loved deities. Hathor was sometimes depicted as a cow, sometimes as a female figure with the head of a cow, and later with a woman’s head and the ears of a cow. She was a widely popular goddess, and although Dendera was her cult centre, she was well known far afield. In Luxor she was known as ‘Lady of the West’ and in mortuary scenes is depicted emerging from a mountain range flanking the western desert to welcome the deceased to the underworld. In Memphis her name was ‘The Lady of the South Sycamore’; in Punt she was ‘Mistress of Punt’; in Sinai ‘Mistress of Mefket’; and in Phoenicia she was known as the ‘Lady of Bybios’. She was associated with pleasure, motherhood and beauty, often being shown giving suck to a ruling pharaoh or licking his hands.
The traditions of Hathor of Dendera were closely linked with those of Horus of Edfu (page 171). They were two deities of equal standing; husband and wife. At each site the triad consisted of Hathor, Horus and their son (who bore a different name at cach site). At Dendera, however, Hathor was the chief deity, while at Edfu it was Horus. Their son, who was often depicted as a naked child playing with the sistrum, became known as the ‘sistrum player’.
Twice a year, on the occasion of the birthday of each deity, the festival of the ‘Good Union’ was celebrated. This was when the barge bearing the sacred statue of Hathor would be taken out of its shrine at Dendera, placed on a Nile vessel and carried upstream; meanwhile that of Horus would set off downstream, each in a splendid river procession. Where the boats came together, they would be encircled by a rope cast by other vessels, in a gesture of unity. Then, together, the river crafts would make their way to the appropriate temple to celebrate the reunion of husband and wife amidst joy, song and prayer.
The second great festival at Dendera was on ‘New Year’s Day’, when the image of Hathor, which had gradually lost strength in the darkened sanctuary throughout the year, would be taken to the top of the temple to view all her possessions and be reimbued with power from the rising sun.
In the Ptolemaic period Hathor was identified with Aphrodite and began to enjoy immense popularity as ‘Mistress of music, dance and joy’. Some of the dignity of Hathor as mother-goddess, sacred to the Egyptians, was lost when her temple became the ‘home of intoxication and place of enjoyment’. Among the Roman emperors depicted in the temple are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
The Temple of Hathor comprises a Great Hypostyle Hall (i), a second Hypostyle Hall (2), two ante-chambers (3) and (4), leading to a Sanctuary (5), which is enclosed on three sides and surrounded by chambers, some of which may have served as living quarters for priests, others as storerooms for the ritual implements for services.
The entrance to the temple has an impressive fafade, on each side of which are three Hathor-columns joined by screen walls. These also form one side of the Great Hypostyle Hall. At the centre of the huge concave cornice is the proclamation that the temple was built by the Emperor Tiberius under his prefect Aulus Avillius Flaccus.
The Great Hypostyle Hall (1) has eighteen Hathor columns once painted in brilliant colours; they supported a roof that is divided into seven sections, each of which is decorated with astronomical scenes. These are similar to those which adorn most Graeco-Roman temples, but nowhere are they so well preserved as on the ceiling of the Hypostyle Hall at Dendera.
In the first section (to the extreme right) is the elongated figure of Nut, the sky-goddess; her body arches over the heavens, and her legs and arms represent the four pillars of the universe. The long line of figures includes six signs of the Egyptian zodiac: the lion, the serpent, the balances, the scorpion, the archer and the goat. There are eighteen ships in the second line in which are the controllers of eighteen sections of ten days; these are the divisions of the half-year. The second section has a winged figure representing the wind at each end; here the astronomical figures relate to the twelve hours of night. The controllers are grouped into threes to represent the space of a lunar month. The third section concerns the moon, represented as the sacred eye; the fourteen days of the waning moon, followed by fourteen days of the waxing moon, ascending the steps to heaven to approach Osiris, who is seated in a boat with Isis and Nephthys.
On the screen walls on the inside of the entrance are reliefs that relate to the ceremonial of ‘going forth’. The pharaoh is shown leaving his palace at (a) to visit the temple. He is led by the small figure of a priest who burns incense. In the procession are five tribal Standards representing ancient cities: the jackal wolf-god of Thinis (Abydos); the ibis head of Thoth the moon-god of Hermopolis; the hawk of Edfu, the emblem of an ancient goddess of Thebes, and the symbol of the sistrum of Dendera. Horus and Thoth sprinkle the pharaoh with the symbol of Life, and the goddesses of Nekheb and Buto (ancient capitals of Upper and Lower Egypt) bestow their blessings on him.
At (b) the pharaoh is depicted being presented to Hathor by Montu of Thebes and Atum of Heliopolis. He marks out the limits of the temple and drives boundary posts into the ground. The scenes on the right-hand wall (c) show him worshipping the triad at Dendera: Hathor, Horus and their son, here known as Ihy.
The second Hypostyle Hall (2) has six columns with richly ornamented, if rather clumsy, capitals. The bases are of granite, the rest ofthe columns in sandstone. Light is admitted into the hall from eight square apertures in the roof. Some of the reliefs on the walls that relate to the founding of the temple and sacrifices to the gods of Dendera have empty cartouches; the artists did not fill the oblong symbol with the king’s name as though uncertain for whom they were carrying out the work, or under whom it would be completed.
The reliefs at (d) should be noted. They show the pharaoh in two representations: one leaving his palace, preceded by the standards representing the ancient cities, and the second showing him breaking ground with a hoe to lay the foundation stone of the temple in the presence of Hathor. On the corresponding wall (e) he is similarly represented but shaping a brick before Hathor. This scene represents a long-standing tradition since shrines built of brick had long given way to temples of stone.
The three small chambers on each side were stores, treasuries or repositories for offerings.
The ante-chamber (3) is decorated with four rows of reliefs of offerings to the deities of Dendera. On both sides there are passages leading to staircases that ascend to the roof of the temple. These were used by the priests during the Festival of the New Year, when, as already mentioned, the statue of Hathor was taken up to the roof in order to gaze upon her possessions and be reimbued with strength from tjie rising sun.
The tastefully executed reliefs on the walls of the staircases show the procession ascending to and descending from the roof. The pharaoh is led by a priest and followed by others. Some of them wear masks of lesser deities; others spread incense, chant or clap their hands. One priest reads from a papyrus. Behind him a priestess bears two caskets, guarded over by the high priest; he is followed by the second, third and fourth priests in succession.
Then comes the sacred shrine bearing the statue of Hathor. Several priests have the honour of bearing it to the roof of the temple. After the necessary ritual, the procession will descend, and the statue will be returned to the sanctuary.
On the roof an open courtyard leads to two rooms, one of which is the Chamber of Osiris, where there is a graphic portrayal of the death of Osiris, the conception ofHorus and the rebirth of the slain leader (see Osiris myth, page 13). The roof of the second chamber has a plaster cast of the famous Zodiac of Dendera set in it. The original was removed by the French and is in the Louvre, Paris.
Retracing our steps to the ante-chamber (3), we pass into antechamber (4). The doorway to the left leads to a chamber (g) that contained the garments, perfumes, wreaths and linens used to adorn the statues of the gods, and for use during rituals. To the left, another storeroom (h) leads to a closed sanctuary known as the kiosk. This is a charming structure, supported by two Hathor- columns and approached by seven steps. The walls show the king and various deities in the presence of the gods of Dendera. On the ceiling is a delightful representation of Nut, the Sky-goddess, with the sun rising from her lap and shining on Hathor’s head.
Retracing our steps to the ante-chamber (4), we enter the Sanctuary (5) where the sacred boat of Hathor stood. Only the pharaoh himself or the high priest was permitted to enter this holy place, and the scenes to the left and right show how this was done: the king ascends the steps to the shrine, removes the band across the door, breaks the seals, opens the door and, finally, casts his eyes in awe at the sacred statue of the goddess. He prays, offers incense and withdraws.
On the rear wall of the Sanctuary (j), to the left, the son of Hathor plays with his sistrum and with a rattle, and the king offers the image of Maat, goddess of Truth, to Hathor and Horus.
The sanctuary is surrounded by a corridor (k). Note the apertures in the side walls and in the ceiling that light it. Eleven storerooms lead off the corridor. The rear central chamber, behind the sanctuary (6), contained a shrine with the image of Hathor; it is decorated with reliefs similar to those of the sanctuary.
The Crypts are the subterranean chambers where the treasures of the temple were stored or hidden. There are some dozen in number, and they were constructed with hidden entrances, or approached by narrow flights of stairs. The reliefs are nearly perfect and well worth a visit, although they are difficult of access. (Visitors would do well to be guided into these places). They depict the treasures that were stored there: precious statues, symbols of the gods, sacred vessels and jewellery.
Some of the most interesting crypts to the rear of the temple are approached from the Court of the Kiosk (i), from chamber (1) and from chamber (m). The latter leads to the one directly behind the Hathor room (6), and on the right-hand wall is a representation of Pepi, the 6th Dynasty pharaoh, kneeling and offering the golden statuette of the son of Hathor, to four images of Hathor. Such a relief, executed by the Ptolemies, was designed to show that the traditions and rituals being conducted within the temple were of long standing.
The priceless reliefs of some of the crypts, which mostly date to the reign of Ptolemy XIII, were subjected to vicious robbery some twenty years ago. Some reliefs were literally hacked out of the wall, destroying large decorated surrounding areas, and smuggled out of Egypt.
On the outer (south) wall of the temple (n) is the famous relief of Cleopatra (depicted as Hathor) and her son Caesarion (Ptolemy XVI), who was the son of Julius Caesar. There has been much discussion as to whether these figures are accurate portraits or simply conventional representations.
The Birth House or Mammisi lies to the right, north-east of the main temple. It was constructed by Augustus, with reliefs added by Trajan. The earliest Birth Houses date towards the end of the pharaonic periods and during Graeco-Roman times temples invariably had one.
The reliefs of such buildings relate to the birth of the child Horus, who grew to manhood, overthrew the enemies of his father Osiris and took over the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt. The purpose of stressing this ancient tradition was to show that Horus (who was identified with Egypt’s first pharaoh) was the offspring of the gods; consequently, any sovereign who recognised this tradition showed that he, too, should be regarded as a descendant of Horus, and that he ruled by divine sanction. The donning of the necessary crowns and the handing over of sacred insignia by the local priests would indicate their acknowledgement of this right to rule.
The original Birth House at Dendera was built by Nektanebos to the right of the main temple. At the time of the building of the great hypostyle hall, however, it was decided to surround the temple with an enclosure wall; though this was never completed, it nevertheless cut through the tiny Birth House and separated it from the main temple. Another, far more impressive Birth House was forthwith designed to the north. The reliefs of Nektanebos’ Birth House, especially those relating to the ram-headed god Khnum modelling the infant king on the potter’s wheel, were repeated in the Roman structure.
The Roman Birth House has colonnades with lotus blossoms to the north and south. Between them are finely carved screens showing the emperor offering boats, jewels, et cetera, to Isis, often in the company of Horus the Younger. Bess, patron deity of childbirth, is depicted on the rear wall, flanked by figures of Hathor; this laughing dwarf-like deity was identified with Typhon in Ptolemaic times. He is also depicted standing on the column capitals.
The interior of the Birth House has a vestibule, which leads to an ante-chamber and the rectangular sanctuary where the most interesting scenes are to be found. On the right-hand wall, in the third register, Amon enters, followed by different deities, including Khnum, who leads Hathor by the hand. Thoth summons Hathor, and Amon orders Khnum to fashion the child. As already mentioned (page 37) Khnum, the god of the inundation, became a god of creation in a later tradition, and, on the opposite wall, also in the third register, we can see him modelling the child Ihy (undoubtedly representing the Emperor Augustus). The goddess Sheshat (to the left) writes down the years and (to the right) the child is presented to Hathor.
The Birth House of Augustus was converted into a church in the Christian era; and between it, and the original Birth House of Nektanebos, a Christian Basilica was built. (For ruins of the Christian Basilica at Dendera (see page 209).