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Dendera Temple Complex, Egypt


If you have never been on a Nile cruise, you should give serious consideration to adding it to your 'list'. Even if you are not particularly interested in history and ancient sites, travelling along this serene river through ever-changing landscapes, past fields and orchards, towns and villages, is an enjoyable experience that will stay with you for a long time.

This week Gumbo followed my advice. His photos from the Dendera Temple, some 65km downstream from Luxor, were recognised by George G and Port Moresby. Congratulations! Bob Cranwell, the Amateur Emigrant was nearby, guessing Luxor.

There are many very impressive sights along the Nile, but the Dendera complex is one of my personal favourites — partly because the main temple here is in exceptional condition. It is dedicated to the sky goddess Hathor and depicted in the photo at the top.

The photo below shows our boat at the quay in Qena. Dendera (various alternative spellings exist) is just a couple of kilometres away across the bridge on the opposite, i.e. the Western, bank of the river. I should perhaps add that quite a few cruises only cover the area between Luxor and Aswan, and thus do not visit Dendera.


Apparently there is evidence of a temple standing at this site at around 1500BC, but the existing temple and associated structures largely date from the late Ptolemaic and early Roman period - which still means that they have been here for around two millennia. The northern entrance gate to the complex is named after the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan, who were responsible for its construction. Both instigated extensive building programmes in various parts of Egypt.


When you enter the temple itself you find yourself in a huge hall surrounded by 18 massive columns, all with intricate carvings from top to bottom.


Christian zealots have left their mark on some of the images, but they have not caused as much destruction here as at other Egyptian temple sites. Many of the carvings are in reasonably good condition. The real treasures of this hall, however, are revealed when you cast your eyes upwards.


The ceiling is covered in masses of colourful images. Below are some details from these extraordinary reliefs, starting with a depiction of the Eye of Horus (a symbol of protection and good health):


As at many other Egyptian sites, these images had been covered until recently by a centuries-old thick layer of oily soot. It goes without saying that the process of removing this is laborious and requires the utmost care. The restorers have done a truly magnificent job here.

Ahead of you, as you leave the large entrance hall, is a smaller one featuring a central aisle with six pillars and a number of rooms leading off it on both sides. You then enter the actual heart of the temple. Below are two photos from there.


From the entrance to the inner sanctum a richly decorated staircase leads to the temple roof.


On the roof itself is another small shrine (decorated with images of Hathor) ...


... and what you might call a chapel, containing a ceiling relief which is commonly referred to as the 'Zodiac of Dendera'. Parts of it are shown below:


It is thought to have been created around the year 50BC and to represent an actual map of the stars rather than some obscure astrological tool. What you find at Dendera now, however, is merely a replica. The original was removed by French 'archaeologists' in the early 19th century - allegedly with the permission of the then ruler of Egypt - and is now on display in the Louvre. You will find a more detailed description here:

The temple also has a crypt, which is accessible by crawling through a narrow hole in the floor. When you have managed to squeeze through, you find yourself in a long passageway decorated with numerous reliefs. Below are two examples - images of Horus and Hathor, respectively:


The passageway leads to several small chambers. Again, these are covered in reliefs. The one in the next photo has acquired the moniker 'Dendera Light'.


The enlarged shot below illustrates where this sobriquet has come from - the snake looks a bit like the filament in a lightbulb.


A few people have taken this similarity as evidence that the ancient Egyptians had electric lighting. It is a decent enough joke, but I leave you to judge its merits as a scientific theory.

In the next shot we are back on the ground floor where a team of restorers are busy cleaning up the images in a room just off the Sanctuary.


In an adjacent room the work has been completed.


The outside walls of the temple are covered in images of divinities and rulers.


Below is an enlargement of the central portion of the first photo. The two figures on the left are thought to represent Cleopatra VII - 'the' Cleopatra - and her son Caesarion making offerings to the gods.


The next three shots show additional sections of the outside walls.


Right behind the main temple are the ruins of another, much smaller one, which was dedicated to Isis.

Located just a few yards further on is what most guidebooks refer to as the 'Sacred Lake'. It is actually a man-made rectangular water storage tank, with sets of steps on all four sides. There is no water in it any more, but the palm trees which have taken up residence here add a very attractive aspect to the area.


Apart from the Hathor temple itself, the best preserved building within the complex is its Roman 'Mammisi', which is depicted below from two different angles.


The term translates as 'birth house' or 'birth temple'. Essentially it is a chapel which celebrates the nativity of a god - in this case it is dedicated to Hathor and her child Ihy. It was customary at the time to add such an edifice to a temple. In fact, Dendera has two, but there is not a lot left standing of the other one (which dates from the 4th century BC).


There are various other ruins here, including those of a Coptic church, and it is quite good fun to simply wander around these areas looking for interesting objects. Below are a few glimpses of what you come across.


The fellow in the last shot (and actually also in the one before that) is Bes, a deity regarded as a champion of the good and an enemy of all things evil. You might recognise him from last week's clues.

Apparently there are moves afoot to gather some of the many interesting artefacts strewn around the complex in a single exhibition area in front of the main temple. By the time international travel gets back to some semblance of normality, these efforts might have come to fruition.

Due to political upheavals and terrorism threats the Egyptian tourism industry has been in the doldrums for the last ten years. Even before the present crisis the fleet of Nile boats had been reduced to a fraction of what it once had been. How many cruise companies will survive is anybody's guess, but no doubt some will. And as I said at the beginning: a Nile cruise is something special!


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