The primary temple complex is positioned in the traditional way, facing the Nile which flows from east to west. As a result, the temple itself points towards the north. However, to the ancient Egyptians, this direction was symbolically considered the east, as it faces the Nile.
In front of the main temple area, there are a number of small buildings from the Roman Period. Following these is a grand entrance called the Domitian and Trajan gateway, which is situated within a large mud-brick wall that encloses the entire complex. This gateway leads into an open space. Although the site does not have a colonnade or the two large gateways that are typically found before the inner temple, there is a partially constructed stone wall that encloses a courtyard with side entrances. These entrances lead to a spacious hall known as the hypostyle hall, which was added by Emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD.
Before the main temple, there is the birth house of Dendera that was built during the Roman Period. It is believed that this structure was either built by Nero or more likely by Trajan. While the dedication inscriptions mention Trajan, it is Nero who is depicted in the main hall of the Hathor temple, offering a model of a birth house. This temple is the most recent one of its kind that has been preserved.
The newly constructed sanctuary was meticulously planned and adhered to Ptolemaic architectural principles. To align with the grandeur of the Hathor temple, the new structure was elevated on a tall platform. A temporary staircase was built on the side of the platform to provide access. Unlike the typical arrangement, the roofing slabs were not positioned beneath the cavetto molding around the top of the building, but instead may have been concealed by a protective wall. The central building consists of three rooms in a consecutive layout. Noteworthy are the two narrow corridors that enclose the spacious sanctuary. These passages were likely added for symbolic and visual impact rather than practical use. The back wall of the sanctuary features an imposing false door framed by two layers of delicate cavetto molding supported by slender columns, and topped with an ornamental uraeus frieze. Higher up on the wall is a special niche dedicated to the worship of the gods, corresponding to the location of the statue niche in the main temple’s sanctuary.
The scenes in this depiction show Trajan, who succeeded Augustus, offering gifts to Hathor. These scenes are considered to be some of the best in Egypt. This location was where Hathor gave birth to either Ihy or Harsomtus, two youthful deities who represent the youthful stage of creator gods. The column capitals also have carvings of the god Bes, who is associated with childbirth. The reliefs on the outside walls are extremely well-preserved and depict the divine birth and childhood of infant Horus. These rites validate the king’s divine lineage.
The birth house had an enclosed pathway around it called an ambulatory. The columns had decorative capitals with tall pillars featuring Bes figures. The front of the ambulatory extended into a kiosk-like structure, with L-shaped pillars forming the corners. The kiosk had a roof made of timber that connected somehow to the stone structure of the birth house. This combination of the ambulatory and kiosk was something new and different. In older birth houses, a separate courtyard was attached as a separate building.
The Roman Birth House, also known as mammisi, was constructed after the original building, started by Nectanebo I and embellished during the Ptolemaic Period, was interrupted by the foundation of the first court of the main temple of Hathor. The only reminder of the original sanctuary is a false door located on the eastern exterior wall of the main temple of Hathor. The original birth house had dimensions of approximately 17 by 20 meters and consisted of three shrines that opened into a hall. The construction primarily used bricks, but the interior was covered with stone. Within the older structure, the walls of the spacious hall feature depictions of the Ptolemaic kings making offerings to Hathor. On the north wall, there is a scene depicting the god Khnum creating the child Ihy, with the goddess of childbirth, Hekat, portrayed as a frog.
Both birth houses can now be visited and explored. They have distinct layouts and embellishments that vary significantly.
The area between the modern and ancient birth houses contains the ruins of a Christian basilica, which was built around the 5th century AD. This basilica is a great representation of the early architecture of Coptic churches.
The temple at Dendera has a prominent statue of Bes in the front area.
A mud-brick “sanatorium” is located south of the birth house. This particular sanatorium is unique because it is the only one ever discovered to be associated with an ancient Egyptian temple. The purpose of this sanatorium was to provide a place for visitors to bathe in the sacred waters or spend the night, with the hope of having a healing dream of the goddess. Surrounding the sanatorium were benches where the sick would rest while awaiting cures administered by the priests. An inscription on a statue base found at this site implies that water was poured over magical texts on the statues, giving it a holy quality and the ability to cure various diseases and illnesses. Basins that were used to collect the holy water can still be seen at the western end.
A chapel belonging to Nebhepetre’ Mentuhotep from the 11th Dynasty was found to the west of the sanatorium and has been reconstructed in the Cairo Museum. This building, which also features inscriptions by Merneptah, served both as a place of worship for the king and the goddess. It likely served as a supplement to the main temple, which has been lost over time.
The primary temple at Dendera is the most impressive and intricately adorned during its time. It is also a significant temple location in Egypt, showcasing a diverse range of later temple characteristics. Moreover, it is exceptionally well-preserved compared to other temples from this era, even though the nearby temples dedicated to Hathor’s partner Horus and their child Ihy or Harsomtus were destroyed.
It is likely that the large foundations of the current structure at Dendera contain blocks from the previous building that was replaced. Historical accounts mention a temple at Dendera that was reconstructed during the Old Kingdom, and several rulers from the New Kingdom, such as Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III, are known to have made additions to the temple. However, although fragments from earlier time periods have been discovered at the site, no previous buildings have been uncovered. The inscriptions in the new temple specifically honor Pepi I and Tuthmosis III.
It is believed that the temple of Hathor was built over a span of thirty-four years, from 54 to 20 BC. Even after four years of construction, when Ptolemy XII passed away in 51 BC, the temple was still in its initial phases, but it did have some underground crypts. It appears that the rest of the temple was constructed during the twenty-one year rule of Queen Cleopatra VII, who succeeded Ptolemy XII. By the time Queen Cleopatra VII died in 30 BC, the decoration work had only just begun on the outer rear wall.
The temple design follows the classical Egyptian style, with a wall enclosing it that is 35 meters by 59 meters and stands 12.5 meters high. However, unlike earlier temples, the front of the main temple has a hypostyle hall with a lower screen-like facade. This allows the ceiling of the hall and the Hathor-style sistrum capitals of its 24 columns to be visible. According to an inscription, this part of the temple was built by Tiberius between 34 and 35 AD. The structure itself is 26.03 meters by 43 meters and stands 17.2 meters high. There is an 8 meter long architrave that spans the middle space between columns. Above that, a towering cavetto made from a single layer of material, along with the large corner tori, creates strong shadows and defines the edges of the facade. The first hypostyle hall showcases Hathor capitals.
The sistrum is a musical instrument from ancient Egypt that is closely connected to Hathor. There are columns on the instrument that have a capital with four sides, taking up about a third of the column’s height. These capitals are carved with the face of the goddess Hathor, who is often depicted with the ears of a cow. However, all of these faces were vandalized in the ancient times, likely during the early Christian period. The shafts of the sistrum are decorated with numerous scenes, and they are supported by flat plinths. In the 19th century, the paint on the sistrum was still intact, with the dominant color being the blue of Hathor’s wig.
However, the ceiling in this room still maintains most of its original hue. It is adorned with a complex and meticulously arranged symbolic representation of the sky, which includes the zodiac signs introduced by the Romans and depictions of the sky goddess Nut. Each evening, Nut would swallow the sun disc and give birth to it again at sunrise. The exterior hypostyle hall was embellished by various emperors, from Augustus to Nero. Notably, on the central part of the southern outer wall, there was a gilded relief of a sistrum. This gilding was meant to highlight its significance and evoke Hathor, who was known as the “gold of the gods.”
Because it is customary for the processional approach to gradually go downward from the interior to the exterior, the constructors had to decrease the level of the central nave floor in the hypostyle hall to achieve the necessary sequence of floor heights.
A doorway in the center of the temple leads from the large hypostyle hall to an inner hall called the hall of appearances. This hall, with six columns adorned with Hathor heads, was where the statue of the goddess would “appear” for religious ceremonies and processions. The front wall of the hall originally served as the temple’s facade. Illumination in the hall is provided by small square openings. The chamber has two rows of three columns, also featuring Hathor heads. The bases and lower parts of the columns are made of granite, while the upper parts are made of sandstone. The walls of the hall depict the king participating in the temple’s construction ceremonies. Doors on either side of the hall lead to three chambers that were used for the preparation of various parts of the daily ritual. One of these rooms was likely used as a laboratory for making ointments. An opening in the outer eastern wall allowed offerings to be brought into the area, and a parallel passage in one of the western chambers led to a well.
The rear section of the temple was constructed before the front part, most likely around the early 1st century BC. While the name Ptolemy XII Auletes is mentioned as the earliest king, the cartouches are mostly empty, possibly due to conflicts within the ruling family in the middle of the 1st century. This central area of the temple consisted of a hall for offerings and a chamber called the “hall of the ennead” (also referred to as the “hall of the cycle of the gods”), where statues of various deities gathered alongside Hathor before a procession commenced.
After the aforementioned objects, there is a shrine in the size of 5.7 by 11.22 meters. Initially, this shrine housed the four barques of Hathor, Horus of Edfu, Harsomtus, and Isis. Interestingly, it seems that these barques were not originally placed inside wooden shrines.
Following the small chamber is the sanctuary of the goddess herself. The sanctuary is adorned with a magnificent facade, resembling a temple, and features a cavetto with an uraeus frieze on top. Inside the sanctuary, there is an intricately decorated wooden naos that houses a gilded cult image of Hathor, measuring two meters in height and seated. The naos is positioned in a niche on the rear wall, which is three meters above the floor. It is unclear how one would access this niche. On either side of the inner sanctuary, the king can be seen offering a copper mirror, one of Hathor’s sacred symbols, to the goddess.
Eleven chapels dedicated to other deities, who were connected to Hathor’s main characteristics of the sacred sistrum and menat necklace, are positioned around the central sanctuary on its sides and back.
The temple contains fourteen crypts, with eleven of them being decorated, which are notable for their uniqueness compared to other temples. The tradition of incorporating hidden crypts in temples can be traced back to the 18th Dynasty, and by the Late Period, crypts had become a common feature in the architectural design of most temples.
These are groups of rooms situated on three (and sometimes even four) levels, built into the outer wall and beneath the floors of the chambers in the back part of the temple. The long, narrow rooms and passages are stacked one on top of the other, with the lowest ones buried deep within the temple’s foundations. Entry was obtained through trapdoors in the floor and hidden sliding wall blocks. Unlike other underground chambers, the crypts at Dendera are adorned with relief decorations. The decorations in these rooms follow the layout of the temple. The most significant reliefs, including sistra, were located on the central axis. It seems that these rooms were decorated before the roof blocks were put in place.
Depiction within the crypts
According to François Daumas, the furthest to the east among the five vaults situated at the southern edge was described.
In the final room, one can observe a carefully carved falcon with intricate feathers on the Southern wall. This falcon is preceded by a snake emerging from a lotus flower inside a boat. While the entire temple is made of sandstone, a block of limestone suitable for detailed work was placed in the wall at the level of the figures to ensure a high-quality relief. The artist took full advantage of this opportunity and created perfect and intricate carvings. These carvings represent cosmological concepts. The snake coming out of the lotus flower symbolizes the deity Harsamtawy (Ihy) emerging from the primordial sea. At the bottom of the crypt, there are two snakes wrapped in lotus flowers, resembling protective coverings. Sometimes, the Mesktet-barque collaborated with Horus, while other times, the Mandjet-barque and its crew helped reveal the god. Djed, a worship attendant, raises his body in a supreme manner, demonstrating the god’s prestigious ka. The small statues were likely used during the New Year celebration and the festival of Harsamtawy. It is probable that on these solemn occasions, these objects were transferred to the vault room above the crypt.
The main purpose behind using these crypts was to safeguard cult tools, records, and magical symbols for the temple. However, the most significant item found in the crypts was a statue representing the spiritual essence of Hathor.
The staircases are located within the thickness of the wall and they go up to the roof and then come back down. The roof was built in terraces because the rooms below had different ceiling heights. The large roofing slabs were likely once covered with thinner paving stones. The surface of the slabs was slightly tilted and had channels that directed rainwater from the roof.
In the southwest corner of the roof stands a small building where the goddess’s union with the sun disk took place. It has four columns on each side, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The design of the building suggests that it had a barrel-shaped timber roof with a double hull and segmented pediment; however, it must have had roof windows to allow sunlight in for its purpose. Additionally, there is a light well in the chapel’s floor that illuminates the Horus chapel located below on the main floor.
The Hathor temple would have removed the ba from its secret location and placed it on the temple roof for the important New Year’s festival. It would have stayed there overnight before witnessing the sunrise as a symbolic representation of its connection with the sun.
Franois Daumas tells us that:
The most important statue was the one representing the spirit of Hathor. Based on the writings on the walls, we can gather that the structure housing the statue had a gold foundation, a gold roof held up by four gold pillars, and linen curtains on all sides that were hung from copper rods. Inside the structure was a small gold statue depicting a bird with a human head and a horned disc on top. This statue represented Hathor, the goddess of Dendara, who resided in this structure. It is likely that this statue was transported in the structure during the New Year’s evening.
Chapel of the New Year
In the west of the offering hall, there is a staircase that the priests used to go up to the roof. This staircase is decorated with carvings of the king and different priests, along with the shrine of the goddess on the right wall. These carvings depict different parts of the New Year’s festival. On the east side, there is another staircase with carvings of people going down, and this staircase was used for the return of the procession.
Additionally, there are two parallel shrines dedicated to Osiris situated on the eastern and western sides of the roof. These shrines are hidden on a raised platform, resembling a mezzanine floor. Both of these sacred spaces feature spacious courtyards enclosed by a curved molding. Three doors from the back wall of the courtyard grant access to two subsequent chambers.
In the first room, there is a portrayal of Isis and Nephthys grieving over the passing of Osiris. He is laid on a funeral bed, anticipating his resurrection through mystical ceremonies. The depiction also includes Isis, who is shown to be miraculously carrying the child of her son Horus, as the legend progresses.
The lunar festival of Khoiakh, which involved filling an ‘Osiris bed’ with earth and grain seed as part of a fertility ritual, is depicted in a corresponding room on the roof’s eastern side. The first room’s walls display scenes of Osiris’ burial goods, such as his canopic jars, while the ceiling shows the astronomical figure of Nut along with other celestial figures. The other half of the ceiling features a plaster replica of the renowned ‘Dendera Zodiac’, symbolizing the cosmic significance of the Osiris mysteries. The original can now be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The inner room showcases scenes from the Osiris myth, similar to those in the western suite, as well as reliefs with cosmic importance.
In the English language, the following paragraph can be paraphrased as: Dendera was known as one of the tombs dedicated to Osiris, and the shrines, which were not associated with Hathor, were utilized to commemorate his passing and revival. It is possible that his death was symbolically acted out at the sacred lake situated to the west of the temple.
In ancient times, devout pilgrims would gather on the roof of the hypostyle hall after climbing a staircase adorned with carved gods. This elevated area of the temple was believed to be where signs and miracles from the goddess would occur. Evidence of their presence can still be seen today in the form of gaming boards carved into the stone blocks, which were used by these faithful individuals to occupy themselves during their wait.
On the outer back wall of the temple, behind the sanctuary, there are two lion-headed waterspouts that drained rainwater from the roof. There are also three more waterspouts on each side wall. These waterspouts are adorned with scenes depicting Cleopatra VII and her son, Caesarion, who served as a co-regent. In the center of the wall, there is a large False Door featuring a symbol of Hathor. Over time, pilgrims have scraped away at the emblem in an attempt to obtain some of the sacred stone. This wall is also where the “hearing ear” shrine is located, allowing the goddess to listen to the prayers of common people who are not permitted inside the main temple.
The temple of Isis, known as the Iseum, is located just south of the Hathor temple. It was constructed using blocks from a previous Ptolemaic building that was destroyed, and it was adorned during the reign of Augustus. There is a Roman gateway on the eastern side that leads to this unique temple. Unlike others, it has a dual orientation, with the outer rooms and hypostyle hall facing east, while the inner rooms face north towards the temple of Hathor. Unfortunately, the central high relief in the sanctuary, depicting Isis giving birth, has been damaged. Additionally, there used to be a statue of Osiris within the rear wall of the sanctuary, but it was destroyed. This statue was supported by the arms of Isis and Nephthys.
Plan of the Isis Birth House at Dendera
To the southern part of the temple, specifically at the southwest corner, you will find the holy lake of the compound. This lake was used by the priests for their cleansing rituals and had flights of stairs that led to it from each corner. It is the most well-preserved ceremonial basin of its kind in any Egyptian temple, but it currently does not have any water and there are tall trees growing within its boundaries. Adjacent to the lake, there is a well with steps carved into the rocks, providing access to water for everyday use in the temple.
To the east of the temple, there was a section of the town that the temple texts mention as having a temple of Horus of Edfu in its center. It is possible that this is the same as some remains from the Roman Period located about 500 meters away from the main enclosed area. The groups of gods worshipped at Edfu and Dendera were similar, consisting of Horus, Hathor (or Isis), and Ihy or Harsomtus. Hathor from Dendera and Horus from Edfu would come together in a sacred “marriage” ceremony when she would make a journey to the south