If you read my posts on Beni Hassan, Sohag, and Abydos you already know that there is a lot to do and see along the Nile between Cairo and Luxor that goes largely unnoticed by tourists. Further down the river, and closest to Luxor, is perhaps Egypt’s most impressive and well preserved temple, the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.
Temple of Hathor at Dendera
The Temple of Hathor is a part of the larger religious complex known as Dendera which dates back as far as 2320 BCE. However, the temple of Hathor is rather ‘new’ when it comes to ancient Egyptian temples as it was begun during the 30th dynasty and completed during the Roman period. The Romans were clever rulers and were sure to encourage foreign lands it occupied to carry on with their traditions and Egypt was no exception. The foreign invaders continued to build cult worship centers for the Egyptian Gods but rather than Egyptian Pharaoh’s adorning the temple walls like those of the past, it was the Roman emperors who took their place in full garb of the pharaoh. This made it easier for local Egyptians to adapt to their new rulers and made it easier for the Romans to control their territory. A win win for everyone.
While Dendera comprises of many buildings, the reason people visit here is to see the Temple of Hathor. The state of preservation, with its intact roof, pillars, and the bright colors that cover much of the ceiling, makes this temple look like it was painted and built not too long ago. Unlike the temples of Luxor and Karnak, you don’t have to use your imagination too much in order to see how grand this structure must have been back in its prime. You could easily get lost in this temple for hours on end, pondering its many reliefs and rooms.
What to See
Outside of the Temple of Hathor
After you pass through the visitor center you will see the Temple of Hathor standing prominently in front of you, while to your right will be the poorly preserved remains of a Roman Mammisi and the remains of a an Coptic Basilica. The Mammisi nearest the entrance was begun by Pharaoh Nectanebo in 380 BCE and was built to celebrate the divine birth of the Gods and the Pharaoh himself. The interior of the Mammisi was closed for renovation during our visit.
Next to the Mammisi is the remains of a 5th century CE Coptic church where only the foundation largely remains. You can make out the size of the church and also spot some christian carvings in some of the stonework that remains.
Following the west outer wall of the the Temple of Hathor leads visitors to very well preserved reliefs of rulers offering gifts to various Gods. The most famous of these is the relief depicting Cleopatra with her son that she had with Julius Caeser, offering their respect to the Goddess Hathor which is on the west corner of the rear wall of the temple.
Along the western outer wall, you can also make out the remains of the Sacred Lake that was constructed to provide the complex with water.
Inside the Temple of Hathor
The first and most impressive room of the entire temple is the outer hypostyle hall with its detailed and brightly colored ceiling along with the towering columns adorned with the face of Hathor on all four sides.
Sadly, many of the faces and reliefs along the walls and columns were defaced by early Christians who chiseled away at them due to the artworks ‘pagan nature’. Despite this, the columns and relief work are still stunning as you work your way among the columns and appreciate the details from different angles. Many of the reliefs depict Roman emperors presenting offerings to the Egyptian Gods.
If the site isn’t busy like when we were there, the best way to view the ceiling is on your back. There is just too much to look at for your neck to handle so kick back, relax, and enjoy the view. The blue background on the mostly black and white subject matter pops out fantastically due to the careful and extensive restoration project that was carried out a few years ago. To get an idea of what the ceiling looked like before restoration, check out northwest corner of the hall to see the one soot covered section they left uncleaned.
The next room you enter will be the inner hypostyle hall whose columns are also adorned with the head of Hathor, but the room itself is less impressive than the outer hall. At the time of our visit, this room was also undergoing restoration and limited our ability to view the room.
There are dozens of side chapels to explore on both sides of the temple, many of them with very well preserved reliefs in addition to some odd looking carvings. The most peculiar relief is on the east side where an Egyptian appears to be holding a giant light bulb. As sci-fi as it looks, most Egyptologists agree it is a representation of a a lotus flower with a snake being born within it. The robot looking depiction below the ‘light bulb’ is in fact a djed pillar which represented stability and the creator Gods.
Heading towards the back of the temple leads visitors to the most holy section of the temple, the sanctuary. This is where the statue of Hathor would be placed and was considered the living space of the Goddess. Be sure to check out a beautiful representation of the Goddess of the sky, Goddess Nut on the ceiling.
Also on the ground floor is a room with an elevated niche that visitors can climb up into. The niche contains depictions of Hathor and is believed to be where Egyptians would offer up prayers to the Goddess.
To the east and west of the sanctuary lie two staircases. The West staircase winds its way all the way up to the roof and was used to carry the statues of Hathor and other Gods during the temple’s New Year celebrations. The reliefs on the wall depict the celebration and the procession of the statues up the staircase.
Up on the roof are two rooms, the most beautiful containing a ceiling panel containing a large zodiac relief. Unfortunately, this is just a cast of the original which the French stole during colonial times. The real Zodiac panel now rests in the Louvre museum in Paris.
After exploring the roof, you can then make your way down the eastern staircase which contains similar reliefs as that of the western staircase.
On your way out of the temple, be sure to spend some extra time appreciating the outer hypostyle hall as it is probably the most impressive room you will be in while in Egypt.
How to Get There
The Temple of Hathor and Dendera are just outside of the city of Qena. The city is only 66km (41 miles) north of Luxor, making this a very doable day trip from the city. By train it only takes 45 minutes each way and there are several trains a day that pass through the cities, making it easy to arrange transport on your own. You can check the latest schedule on Egypt’s National Railways site here. Tickets range between 18-50 EGP ($0.84 – $2.80) each way. It makes more sense to set up base in Luxor rather than stay overnight in Qena.
Once you arrive at the Qena train station, you will have to take a taxi to the temple and they will have to wait for you as the temple is in the middle of nowhere. As of 2018, we were able to hire a taxi from the train station and back with three hours wait time for 100 EGP ($5.60). An entrance ticket into the complex costs 80 EGP ($4.48).
Most Impressive Temple of Egypt
Taking a day out of your busy schedule in Luxor is worth the effort in order to visit this stunningly well preserved temple. While just over 2,000 years old, this temple will most certainly not be the oldest temple you explore in Egypt, but it is the one that you imagined in your dreams before stepping foot in the country.