The Magnificent Temple of Hathor, Goddess of Love: Best Preserved Temple in all of Egypt

The Magnificent Temple of Hathor, Goddess of Love: Best Preserved Temple in all of Egypt

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Hathor was a major goddess in the ancient Egyptian pantheon, who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood, and her cult center was at Dendera, one of the best-preserved temple complexes in all of Egypt. The Temple of Hathor is the largest and most impressive buildings in this religious complex, and is visually stunning with its grand entrance, detailed carvings, hieroglyphs, and decorated ceilings.

The city of Dendera is located on the west bank of the Nile, about 60 km ( miles) to the north of Luxor, in the 6th Nome of Upper Egypt. The Dendera Temple Complex is situated around 2.5 km ( miles) to the southeast of this city.

Dendera is said to mark an old holy place, even by the standards of the ancient Egyptians. It has been pointed out that there is evidence for religious structures built at the site during the reign of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Pepi I (towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC). There are also remnants of a temple that was built during the New Kingdom, specifically the 18th Dynasty. The current complex, including the Temple of Hathor, however, dates to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, with (at least) one building dating to the Late Period. This is the mammisi (birth house) of Nectanebo II, the last native ruler of ancient Egypt who ruled during the 4th century BC.    

Temple of Hathor, Dendera

Temple of Hathor, Dendera ( Public Domain )

The magnificent ceiling inside the Temple of Hathor

The magnificent ceiling inside the Temple of Hathor ( CC by SA 3.0 )

The Temple of Hathor

The Dendera Temple Complex covers an area of 40,000 square meters ( sq. ft.), and is surrounded by a large mudbrick wall. Within this enclosure are various structures, including the Temple of the Birth of Isis, a Roman mammisi (attributed either to the reign of Trajan or Nero), a sanatorium, and a sacred lake. It was made famous by a carving that many believe depicts an electrical lightbulb. Nevertheless, the most impressive part of the temple complex is undoubtedly the Temple of Hathor.

The famous ‘Dendera lightbulb’

The famous ‘Dendera lightbulb’ ( public domain )

The Temple of Hathor was largely constructed during the Late Ptolemaic period, specifically during the reign of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VII. Later additions were made during the Roman period. Although built by a dynasty of rulers who were not native Egyptians themselves, the design of this temple has been found to be in accordance to that of other classical Egyptian temples, with the exception of the front of the hypostyle hall, which, according to an inscription above the entrance, was constructed by the Emperor Tiberius.

Piety to the Gods

Like the native Egyptian pharaohs before them, the Ptolemaic and Roman rulers of Egypt also used the temple complex as a means of propaganda, and to showcase their piety towards the gods of Egypt. Thus, for instance in the hypostyle hall of the Temple of Hathor, there is a depiction of the Roman Emperor Nero offering a model of the mammisi to the goddess. This image has been cited as evidence that Nero was involved in the construction of the Roman birth house. On the other hand, the dedication inscriptions and decorations in the birth house itself make reference to Trajan, thus suggesting that it was this emperor who was responsible for its construction.

The goddess Nut depicted inside the Temple of Hathor

The goddess Nut depicted inside the Temple of Hathor ( CC by SA 4.0 )

Apart from these, there are also scenes in the temple complex portraying the Ptolemaic rulers. For example, carved onto the external face of one of the temple walls is a huge relief of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar and co-ruler, Ptolemy XV (better known as Caesarion). The two Ptolemaic rulers are shown dressed in Egyptian garb, and offering sacrifices.

Relief of Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII and Caesarion, Dendera Temple, Egypt.

Relief of Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII and Caesarion, Dendera Temple, Egypt. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Hathor was also regarded as a goddess of healing, and this is evident in the presence of a sanatorium in the temple complex. Here, pilgrims would come to be cured by the goddess. Sacred water (which was made holy by having it poured onto statues inscribed with sacred texts) was used for bathing, unguents were dispensed by the priests of Hathor, and sleeping quarters were provided for those hoping that the goddess would appear in their dreams, and so aid them.

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The open constellation Pleiades appears one of the most prominent clusters on the sky. It contains a great number of stars, with 7 visible by naked eye (though the seventh is rather faint). This compact constellation consists of mutually close stars, and is not an optical coincidence, unlike other starry constellations. Significantly, the group is part of the larger constellation, Taurus (Bull), with the first magnitude star Aldebaran, which in Arabic means he who follows, indicating that Taurus is pursuing Pleiades. The name is derived from plei, ‘to sail’, indicating that they rise at the beginning of the sailing season [11, I, p. 154]. According to Pindar’s variant Peleiades it represents a flock of doves. Orion’s (the hunter) vain pursuit of Pleiades reflects their rising over horizon just before the reappearance of Orion constellation.
Pleiades play prominent role in many mythologies and religions, including prehistorical societies, as evidenced from the extant cave paintings (see, e.g. [12] for a comprehensive account). In particular, in the Egyptian mythology Pleiades appear an important seasonal marker. Egyptians calendar distinguished the principal seasons, one of which was that of inundation, on which the entire life was dependent, as noted by Herodotus. As Amelia Sparavigne [12] stresses, the last month of this season is called Athir, a variant of the goddess Hathor (‘house of Horus’ in the Zodiac), the Heavenly Cow (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Goddess Hathor, with horns of cow and Sun disc.

It was evidently a part of the cattle cult, introduced by the nomadic element from Sahara, we mentioned earlier. Cow has always been one of the most precious domestic animals, for good reason. It provides milk, meat, skim, horns and droppings. The latter are used as fertilizer, but as a fuel too particularly in the ambient deprived of wood. As Sparavigne emphasizes [12] Hathor takes place of the earlier bovine goddess, Bat. Pleiades are worshiped as Seven Hathors, represented as seven cows, which, together with the accompanying bull, provide nourishment, like bread and beer, in the Underworld. Hathor is considered able to foretell the future, in particular Nile inundation and thus the abundance of grain harvest, the principal crop in Egypt.

2.4. Pharaoh’s dream

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