The Pharaonic period of Ancient Egypt lasted for more than three thousand years and 31 different dynasties. Throughout that time, those different leaders built many monuments, temples, and other structures, including the pyramids. Some were designed to last for all time, and yet many did not withstand the changes wrought by new leadership, new cultures and more. The Dendara complex north of Luxor is good example of this. Though sacred because of its three sanctuaries, today only a single one of them remains. The Temple of Hathor is unique not only because it is the last surviving sanctuary in the city, but also because it is also one of the latest of the many Egyptian temples.
It is important to learn a bit about the Temple of Hathor, and Dendara in general, when paying a visit as the site reflects life in Ancient Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of rule. The Temple of Hathor is dedicated to the wife of Horus, and all of the decorative elements incorporate Roman emperors alongside Egyptian gods, making it an entirely unique sight among the remaining temples throughout Egypt. Hathor is the goddess of the sky, but also a healing figure, seen as the goddess of both healing and fertility and this is why you see the image of the sistrum (rattle) throughout.
Built around 30 BCE to 15 CE, it stands on top of the ruins of a far older temple whose dates are still a bit of a mystery. The main builders are thought to be Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VII, the famous final pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.
PAYING A VISIT TO THE TEMPLE OF HATHOR
As we so often suggest to those visiting Egypt, when planning time at the Temple of Hathor or the Dendara complex, it is best if you do so with the help of a professional guide or expert tour. In fact, as of this writing, a professional guide is required, and visitors gain a permit to enter only through a licensed professional.
The property is quite large and contains around 40,000 square meters. There is an enormous surrounding wall of mud brick, and though there are other chapels and shrines dating to earlier periods, the Temple of Hathor is the main temple and focal point of the site.
Described as one of the most well-preserved temples throughout Egypt, it has familiar features that anyone interested in Ancient Egyptian architecture and culture will recognized. There are both large and small Hypostyle Halls, a laboratory (used for making incense and ritual compounds), formal entries, several halls, and many shrines. There are also well preserved murals and carvings throughout.
WHAT YOU MUST SEE DURING YOUR VISIT TO THE TEMPLE OF HATHOR
The Temple of Hathor is large and rather boxy, and features a portico supported by hefty columns. The exterior is lavishly decorated with reliefs of gods, pharaohs and Roman rules. You enter through the Great Vestibule with its 24 columns. You will want to look up as you explore this space since its ceiling is considered one of the most impressively designed in existence and it depicts Nut, the sky goddess.
Passing through this area you find the different antechambers, shrines, chapels and the sanctuary. One each side of the second antechamber are corridors once giving access to the roof. Because of security issues, the roof can no longer be visited by tourists, though you can see the stairs used to ascend and descend. It is interesting to note that the designs of the corridors are actually to honor Horus, emulating the upward ascent of a bird on one side and the straight, diving descent that a bird would use to come down from the heights above.
At the far end and top of the Temple of Hathor is a temple used to greet the rising sun. There is yet another antechamber here, known as the Chapel of Osiris. Here you find a sundial and a zodiac (a replica of the original which was removed in the 1800s and now on display at the Louvre). It depicts two constellations with one over the north pole and another over the true north pole. It shows an axis that passes through Pisces and which leads many to feel this honors the time and season at which the structure was made.
Of course, one of the most interesting parts of a trip to Temple of Hathor is into one of the storerooms at the southern end of the structure. There you find the famed carving called the Dendara light as well as the Dendara lightbulb. Unusual and highly detailed, it has yet to be explained, but depicts an unusual scene. Bulb like forms with snake like lines captured inside are the central elements, while beneath them are baboons and a djed pillar (a familiar columnar element in many images). The meaning of the scene is unclear and the use of large blocks of limestone for the carvings (while the rest of the structure features mostly sandstone) suggest some importance.
Many debates and discussions occur around the images of the Dendara light, and you will want to examine them yourself during a visit!
BEYOND THE TEMPLE
As indicated, there is much to see while paying a visit to Hathor’s temple at Dendara. You can visit a fifth century Christian basilica, pay a visit to the site of the sacred lake pilgrims were once allowed to bath, the birthing temple with its amazing reliefs and depictions of the births of pharaohs and Egyptian gods, and what remains of the Temple of Isis as well as the remains of both the Sanctuary of Horus, and the Sanctuary of Ihy.
Because it is such an amazing site, you will want to plan a day trip to the Dendara complex and allow for at least a few hours at the Hathor temple itself. Many make a day of Abydos and Dendara, and you may want to speak with your tour guide or tour provider about options for a day spent exploring one or both locations but must dedicate a large portion to the Temple of Hathor and its stunning beauty.