The Ptolemaic Kingdom was the last period of Pharaonic Egypt. Known as a Hellenistic period it ran from 323 BCE (at the death of Alexander the Great) to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE. It was a fascinating period in Ancient Egyptian history, and the Temple of Edfu dates to this period.
Known as the second largest temple in Egypt after the temple at Karnak, it is also one of the most well-preserved and beautiful of them all. Also called the Temple of Hours, it is tucked between the cities of Luxor (ancient Thebes) and modern Aswan. It is set along the western banks of the Nile and its beautifully preserved inscriptions have served to inform many generations of scholars and historians about the religious lives, mythologies and even languages of the people of Egypt during that Hellenistic era.
Uncovered in the 1860s, its location is believed to be where Ancient Egyptians felt an epic battle between Seth and Hours occurred. Running north to south, it actually resides on the ruins of an older temple that once ran east to west. It blends classic Egyptian icons and elements with Greek influences and is believed to have taken more than 175 years to complete.
WHAT YOU CAN SEE AT THE TEMPLE OF EDFU
When planning a visit to the Temple of Edfu, you can (as one expert said) come “to grips with the sheer scale and ambition of ancient Egypt’s rulers.” This is due to the site’s size, beauty and design. It is a place where many travelers say that they really experience an authentic feel of the power that temples must have had during their heyday.
You enter the Temple of Edfu through the Great Pylon with its stunning stone reliefs that include a particularly famous one of Neos Dionysus “smoting” an enemy in front of Horus. Next, you encounter the enormous courtyard with 32 massive columns and a floor plan that once included a forecourt where an altar would have been found. The columns are particularly famous for their rich and lavish ornamentation.
They have palm capitals and lots of floral motifs. The interior walls feature many more relief carvings of Hathor and Horus, and on one side is a vestibule where there remains a single statue of Horus, carved from dramatic black granite. Originally part of a pair, it is the one remaining and depicts the god wearing a double crown of upper and lower Egypt.
Of particular interest to those fascinated by Ancient Egyptian carvings and art are the rear walls of the colonnade in the Temple of Edfu. These feature large reliefs that show the Ptolemaic pharaoh conversing with Hours and other gods.
Beyond the massive court is the vestibule with its twelve elaborately carved and visually stunning columns. This area contains two additional rooms with the westernmost being the Hall of Consecration and the easternmost the library containing carved lists of the catalog that was once housed within the walls. Look for the image of Seshat, the goddess of writing. The Hall of Consecration is also noted for its relief of the gods Thoth and Horus bathing the pharaoh with sacred waters.
Also here are reliefs of King Euergets doing ritual acts and making offerings to the gods, and above him are bands of carvings showing the astronomical figures, as well. Here too you see carvings depicting this king and his wife, Cleopatra (remember, this is the Ptolemaic period and there were many Cleopatras in this family, though it is the very last of them that ruled as a pharaoh).
Pass through the architrave of the exit door where a gorgeous carving of a solar boat being guided by Horus figures is seen and enter the Hypostyle Hall. Within are 12 columns supporting the roof and two small chambers at each end. One is a laboratory where incense was made! Pass through to the two antechambers containing an alter and stairs leading to the roof (which are unsafe for visitors to use). The first antechamber is full of murals and this space leads to the second antechamber which was the last room before the sanctuary. Look up at the ceiling murals depicting Nut, the sky goddess and different figures within sun boats.
Lastly, you enter the Sanctuary of the Temple of Edfu, which is considered an impressive space. It has apertures in the ceiling that flood the room with golden light. The space is dominated by a granite shrine once topped by a golden figure of Horus. There are several chambers off of the sanctuary and one features a wooden boat or barque (a replica of the original now located in the Louvre). There are also amazing reliefs and murals in the sanctuary, with one of the most beautiful being those on the right wall and depicting the king entering the chapel and bowing before the god.
Also off the Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Edfu is an inner passage covered with impressive inscriptions and reliefs, some depicting different battles between Seth and Horus. Seth is commonly shown as a hippo and is hunted by Horus. NOTE: If you wish to see an ancient nilometer, you can find it off the eastern side of the passage where the shaft marked with different depths is easily found.
OTHER SPOTS AT THE TEMPLE OF EDFU
There is more to the Temple of Edfu site than the impressive structure alone. There is the Mammisis or birth house at the western entrance and which is beautifully decorated with images of the birth of Horus. There are also ruins of the city that once stood around the temple, and which feature structures of many eras.
TIPS FOR A GOOD EXPERIENCE AT THE TEMPLE OF EDFU
Just as is the case with so many popular destinations in Egypt, the site can be quite crowded at certain times of the day. Arriving very early or later in the day is usually a good method of avoiding the worst of the crowds. Sunrise and sunset can be quite impressive here and could be good hours to plan a visit. And as we also commonly suggest, booking a guide or joining a professional tour is a good idea. This way you can learn about the site and its many wonders while also getting lots of questions answered by an expert.
Remember to bring water, wear a hat, and comfortable shoes as you’ll do lots of walking. This temple is a visually stunning and impressive spot that you must make time to see when visiting Egypt.