Hathor of Dendera was the goddess of love, beauty, music, and birth. She was often depicted as a cow, and in later periods of Egyptian history was synchronized with Isis. She was married to Horus of Edfu, and the two temples celebrated an annual festival, lasting about two weeks, when the statue of Hathor would sail upriver to Edfu to commemorate the divine marriage. This temple was built between the 4th century BC and 1st century AD.
As you enter the temple grounds
through stone portals, there is a dramatic view of the temple facade fronted by a row of Hathor-head columns (their capitals carved with reliefs of the face of the goddess) and a decorated screen wall. The exterior of the temple is carved in relief with scenes of the pharaoh and divinities being suckled by goddesses and of the pharaoh making offerings to various gods.
The portal leads into the outer hypostyle hall, which consists of 24 tall columns (including the facade columns), all with Hathor-head capitals. The ceiling is carved and painted with a depiction of the night sky. The columns themselves are densely decorated with scenes of the pharaoh making offerings to the gods and receiving their blessings in return. This very crowded, horror vacui (fear of blank spaces) decoration is typical of the Greco-Roman period.
The next room is the inner hypostyle hall, with its six columns. Six small rooms open off this hall. These rooms are decorated with different scenes that supposedly illustrate what went on in them, or, more likely, what was stored in them. The first room on the left is the most interesting. Known as the laboratory, it is where ritual perfumes and essences were prepared. The other rooms include a harvest room, the room of libations, and the treasury, which is illustrated with carvings of jewelry and boxes containing precious metals.
The hall leads to the first vestibule, where many of the daily offerings to Hathor would have been placed. Gifts included all kinds of food and drink: breads, fresh vegetables, joints of meat and poultry, beer, and wine.
The second vestibule follows the first as a transitional area between the sanctuary and the rest of the temple. The sanctuary was the most sacred spot in the temple and in antiquity would have had an altar and a plinth supporting a naos (shrine) containing the sacred image of the goddess, probably either gilded or made entirely of gold. A corridor surrounds the sanctuary, and several chapels are off it. The best chapel is the one immediately behind the sanctuary, because it contains a raised shrine that is reached by a ladder.
Dendera also has at least 32 crypts built into the walls and under the floor of the temple—hiding places for temple plates, jewelry, and statues. Some of the wall crypts would have permitted priests to hide behind different images of the gods and act as oracles. One of these, behind and to the right of the sanctuary, is open to the public. It is beautifully carved with scenes showing divinities. Look for the exquisite relief showing the god Horus in his falcon form.
On the right side of the temple's ground floor is another small and beautifully carved chapel, called Wabet (the pure one). The ceiling shows the sky goddess, Nut, swallowing the sun and giving birth to it the next day, with Hathor emerging from the horizon.
The stairways that lead from both sides of the First Vestibule to the roof are carved with priestly processions wending their way up the sides. There are three chapels on the roof. The open chapel with Hathor-head columns was used for solar rituals; the two closed chapels were used for the cult of Osiris. The eastern one of these, on the right as you face the temple, contains the cast of a famous zodiac ceiling—the most complete early zodiac, the original of which is in the Louvre in Paris. A metal staircase leads to the highest part of the roof, which offers a wonderful panorama of the temple precincts and the surrounding landscape. Note the sacred-lake enclosure (now dry) on the west side of the temple.
The temple exterior is decorated with scenes of pharaohs and gods. The rear wall is particularly interesting, because it shows Queen Cleopatra VII—yes, the famous one, who was involved with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and was Egypt's last pharaoh—presenting her son Caesarion to the gods as the next ruler of Egypt.
In the context of ancient Egyptian temples, mammisi (birth house) depict the birth of a god and are often concerned with the divinity of the king. The mammisi on the right side of the Temple of Hathor entrance is of the Roman period (built mainly by Trajan, who ruled from AD 98 to 117). It celebrates the birth of the god Ihi, son of Horus and Isis, as well as the divinity of the pharaoh. Ascend a short flight of stairs into a court; beyond it lies another courtyard with columns at the side. Two rooms then lead to the mammisi's sanctuary, which is illustrated with scenes of the divine birth and the suckling of the divine child by various divinities. The sanctuary is surrounded by an ambulatory, the outer portion of which is partially decorated.
Next to the Roman mammisi at the entrance to the Temple of Hathor lies a Christian basilica that probably dates from the 5th century AD, making it one of the earliest intact Coptic buildings in Egypt. There is no roof, but the trefoil apse and basilical hall and several shell niches are still visible.
Next to the Coptic basilica are the ruins of an earlier mammisi—founded by Nectanebo I (381–362 BC). Its decorative scheme is similar to that of the later, more intact mammisi.
Next in line stand the mud-brick remains of the temple's sanatorium, consisting of several small rooms and bathing areas for pilgrims. The pilgrims came to be healed by what today would be called dream therapy. They would sleep in the temple precincts and have dreams in which the gods came to them and cured them or told them what to do to be cured. The sanatorium contained several bathing areas lined with stones that were carved with spells and incantations. The water would run over the stones, taking the magic of the texts with it, and into the baths where pilgrims sat and received the magical waters' cures.
Behind the main temple is a small Temple of Isis, which has a strange, dual orientation: east–west as well as north–south. It contains scenes of Isis's divine birth and consists of a court, a small hypostyle hall, another columned hall, two chapels, and the sanctuary. Here, as in the main temple, the pious Copts methodically defaced a number of the images of the ancient Egyptian gods.
Mabed Dendera, Egypt