The four Pharaonic temples of Dendera, Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, apart from their geographical location, all belong to the Ptolemaic period (dynasty of the Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander the Great, which reigned between 304 and 30 BC) and to the Roman period (between 30 BC and 395 AD) even though they all replaced much older temples on the same sites.
Edfu: the temple of Horus
The construction of the temple of Horus goes back to the Ptolemaic period. The first stone was laid on 23 August 237 BC and it is only a century later, on 10 September 142 BC, that the temple was officially consecrated in the presence of the King himself, Ptolemy VIII and his wife. The building work continued in 140 BC with the pronaos, then the pylon and the surrounding wall. The second consecration of the temple was in 70 BC, but the monumental door from the cedars of Lebanon was only put in place in 56 BC.
Dendera: the temple of Hathor
The construction of the temple of Hathor started in 54 BC in the reign of Ptolemy Auletes. In Edfu the lapidaries put the last touches to the decoration of the pylon. The work continued with Cleopatra and her two brothers.
From Octavius (30 BC) to Marcus Aurelius (161-80) the cartouches of almost all the Roman emperors of this two-centuries-long period are to be found on the temple's wall. This is in fact one of the last monumental achievements of the Pharaonic civilisation which was preceded, true to say, and as attested by the engraved texts on its walls, by a series of sanctuaries dedicated to the goddess Hathor. In the goddess's chapel, at the back of the sanctuary, is the cartouche of Pepi I who reigned over 2200 years before the first stone of the new Ptolemaico-Roman temple was laid.
Kom Ombo: the temple of Horus and Sobek
This temple too was built in the reign of the Ptolemies and the Romans even though the site itself is much older. The oldest inscription which mentions it goes back to the 1st intermediate period (2195-2064) and various architectural fragments found on the site bear the cartouches of Amenophis I (1517-1497) and Tuthmosis III (1479-1424). The first of the Hellenistic Kings whose name can be read in the temple is Ptolemy VI Philometor and the last one is Ptolemy XIII Neos Dionysos. But the additions and incorporations continued until the Roman period.
Esna: the temple of Khnum
What is seen today is only the hypostyle hall of Khnum's temple. A stele engraved with the name of Amenophis II bears witness to the old age of the place of worship which was completely destroyed and whose blocks of stone were re-used in the new religious building which, from the Ptolemaic period, and with the exception of the inner door leading further into the temple, dates entirely from the Roman period. From Nero (54-68 AD) up to Decius (249-251 AD) most of the Roman emperors left their cartouches and most of the inscriptions are from the II and III century AD.
Religious activity under the Ptolemies and the Romans
The Ptolemies introduced Greek culture into Egypt whilst preserving Egyptian culture. They resided in Alexandria, a Hellenistic city par excellence, and maintained the priesthood in the temples of the other Egyptian cities where they undertook vast restoration and reconstruction works as illustrated by the four temples, the object of this presentation. The newly built temples generally followed the traditional plans.
The walls were decorated with bas-reliefs on which the Greek sovereign appeared as a Pharaoh. His name was transcribed into hieroglyphs, accompanied by Egyptian first names and titles and enclosed within a cartouche. Like the Tuthmosis, the Amenophis and other glorious pharaohs, the Ptolemies accomplished their duty towards the gods and accepted the public cult reserved for the Kings of Egypt.
The Roman administration was relatively respectful of the priests, restoring some temples and building others. The temple of Hathor in Dendera was thus completed by the emperor Tiberius 185 years after the work was started under the Ptolemies; the same applies to the temples of Esna, Kom Ombo and Philae. These sanctuaries were chosen not only for their religious importance but also because of their strategic position. Esna had always been a local commercial centre and Kom Ombo controlled the trade routes towards Nubia in the south. The Romans, however, annexed the priestly domains and limited the priest's properties. An imperial official bearing the title of "high priest of Alexandria and of Upper Egypt" was invested with supreme authority over all the religious establishments. From the 1st century on, the Egyptian cults, particularly that of Isis, were greatly in vogue in Rome as well as the Serapeums.
1- The Temple of Horus in Edfu
The main temple dedicated to Horus is in Edfu where the god was venerated in the form of the sun disc and the falcon; a warrior god, he defended the sun from its enemies.
The specialists believe that this is the best preserved monument of the Nile valley and perhaps even in the whole world. "Nowhere else", can be read in a recent book, "do you get the feeling of following in the footsteps of the ancient Egyptians".
The temple of Horus is indeed a unique opportunity to discover an Egyptian temple in all its dimension, with all its details and secrets, with the pylon to be admired by the people and the holy of holies where only the high priest could enter. Found buried in the sand right up to the architraves during Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition, it was cleared from the sand in 1859. It would, on its own, deserve to be on the list of world heritage.
The temple is only the emerged part of Edfu, a flourishing city dating from the first Egyptian dynasties, capital of the 2nd nome of Upper Egypt, known as Apollonopolis Magna under the Romans. (Horus was assimilated to Apollo as a sun divinity). For the Ptolemies, sovereigns of foreign origin, the choice of Edfu to build a temple of this size, (6430 m² surface area) was no mere chance and simply followed the Pharaonic tradition. Horus of Edfu, in fact, the protector of Ra, and also as the son of Osiris, was the prototype of the sovereign to which all the kings of Egypt were to be assimilated for three thousand years. Furthermore, being located not far from Thebes, he counterbalanced the influence of the powerful priests of Amon who were quite rebellious during the Ptolemaic period.
In contrast to most of the Egyptian temples in the Nile Valley, that of Edfu is not oriented perpendicularly to the river, a particularity which explains why the processional route which linked it with the Nile, did not prolong the axis of the temple as was mostly the case.
The entrance was contrived in the pylon of Ptolemy XIII leaning against one of the sides of the rectangular space of the Temple whose outer walls are decorated with great reliefs.
Beyond the pylon and the courtyard is the majestic hypostyle hall made up of two rows. Then there is the second smaller hypostyle hall, with twelve columns in three rows, two vestibules -the first being the hall of offerings- and finally the sanctuary with the 4 m high grey granite monolithic naos, (Nectanebo II, XXXth dynasty) belonging to the temple predating the Ptolemaic building. A corridor around the sanctuary gives access to ten ritual halls. Outside, before reaching the pylon, is a greatly damaged mammisi.
The temple of Edfu has been dated with unequalled accuracy. We know not only the dates when the first stone was laid and the additions, but also the accurate dates of the official inaugurations and consecrations.
Inscriptions give the day, the month and the year of the various phases of the construction of the temple and on one of the outer walls is a long text about the temple's founding as well as its layout.
Naos: 23 August 237 BC, the first stone was laid. 17 August 212 BC, beginning of the decoration of the hypostyle, completed in 206 BC. Consecration on 10 September 142 BC. (Length 53 m, width 33 m)
Pronaos: 2 July 140 BC, the first stone was laid. 5 September 124 BC completion of ceiling. Decoration from 122 to 116 BC. (Lenghth: 19 m, width 40 m)
Completion of temple: 7 February 70 BC, consecration on 5 December 57 BC; great doors put in place.
(Total length of temple: 137 m, total width: 47 m).
The texts engraved on the temple yielded a wealth of information for the specialists about the daily liturgies and the religious calendar.
Some important feast days in Edfu
- The celebration of the New Year during which the divine statues were imbibed with solar energy (scene on the walls of the New Year's courtyard and on the walls of the corridors leading to the terraces).
- Horus's victory over Seth (scene depicted on the wall of the east corridor).
- The crowning of Horus (scene in the north part of the outer corridor).
-Happy Reunion feast, celebrating the marriage of Horus with Hathor of Dendera (illustrated in the temple's courtyard, on the reverse of the pylon). Each year, when the Nile was in spate, Hathor left her home in Dendera to rejoin her husband, Horus of Edfu.
The naos, a superb 4 m high, black granite monolithic block, is still standing. Engraved with the cartouche of Nectanebo II, it is therefore older than the temple itself.
2- The temple of Hathor in Dendera
This is one of the last monumental achievements of the Pharaonic civilisation and a beautiful example of the late architectural style and which, furthermore, is in an excellent state of preservation. This is also the last of a long line of Egyptian temples built in Dendera and consecrated to the goddess Hathor, the divinity with a cow's ears. Firstly goddess of the sky and then goddess of love and rejoicing, the equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, a foremost divinity in the area known to the Egyptians as Iunet Tantere, and to the Greeks and Romans as Tenyri which was the capital of the 6th nome of Upper Egypt during the Ptolemies' era.
This temple, whose construction started in 54 BC, whilst the one in Edfu was being completed (decoration of the pylon), despite the fact that it comes later, still has many analogies with its predecessor of Edfu as well as some differences. The similarities are due to the fact that the two temples followed the classical plan for temples with a cella during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods which obviously explains the similarities seen in the general organisation of space.
Apart from the temple itself, much bigger than the one in Edfu, with its crypts, its staircases built in the stonework and its chapels built on the roof, there is the surrounding brick wall built by Domitian with its monumental door from the Roman period, the sacred lake and one Roman and one Ptolemaic mammisi. First you go into the hypostyle hall decorated in 34 AD by Tiberius with 24 cow-headed or Hathoric columns and a ceiling with the goddess Nut who swallows the sun in the evening and gives birth in the morning. The dark halls beyond the hypostyle hall and the crypts are decorated with scenes connected with the goddess's cult and feast days. Pictures are often found of the sistrum, a symbol of Hathor, meant to keep away evil spirits. The New Year was the most important feastday during which a rite known as the "union with the disc" took place in a pavilion built on the roof. The procession which accompanied the goddess's statue is represented on the walls of the staircases. On an outer wall, at the back of the temple, a bas-relief represents Cleopatra together with Caesarion, the son she had with Julius Caesar.
On the terrace is a pair of mausoleums dedicated to Osiris, one of which gave the famous "Dendera zodiac" which today is in the Louvre (replaced by a copy).
The three deities adored in Edfu and in Dendera are similar: Horus, Hathor and Ilhy. Hathor of Dendera and Horus of Edfu were united in a sacred marriage ceremony at the Happy Reunion feast. Hathor thus visited her husband Horus of Edfu for a mystical marriage. Her return to Dendera announced the long awaited flooding of the river.
Despite these structural and spiritual similarities there are still some notable differences so that the two temples complement each other to represent a most significant moment in the evolution of the Egyptian religious art and architecture of the Low Period.
The columns are different from one temple to another and relief sculptures mostly predominate in Dendera where they reached a degree of barely equalled perfection. But the hieroglyphic writing and the Egyptian language show a clear change taking place. As for the cartouches which were to bear the names of the emperors, they remained mostly empty whilst the figurative scenes had been mutilated, namely the sistrums, the symbol of Hathor. A paleo-Christian basilica with a triclinium, in Dendera, is close to Augustus' mammisi just in front of the great entry door of the sacred area, leaning on the north wall of the temple's great courtyard.
3- The temple of Horus and Sobek in Kom Ombo
As seen today in the ancient centre of Nebi or Ombo, its plan is reminiscent of the temple of Edfu but with the clear difference that it is consecrated to two divinities, to Horus the falcon god and to Sobek the crocodile god; two divinities but no double temple. The halls preceding the two sanctuaries (hall of Apparition, middle hall, hall of offerings, the Ennead hall) are common to both divinities as well as some adjoining rooms (the ouabet, the Treasure room). Horus or Hareoris and Sobek are sometimes even represented together, as in the hall of offerings where, side by side, they receive the homage of the King. In each holy of holies, the occupant welcomes his counterpart who is prominently depicted in the mural decoration.
Another no less important difference is that the temple of Kom Ombo has been partly mutilated in contrast to that of Edfu; the pylon, built in the 1st century AD and its adjoining courtyard, have disappeared apart from some subfoundations and shafts of columns erected under the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD) which were part of the peristyle and which have retained their beautiful reliefs in their original colours. In front of the pylon (towards the Nile), the mammisi from the IInd century BC has been reduced to the base of its walls.
The decoration of some halls at the back of the sanctuaries, built under the reign of Ptolemy VIII (145-116) and left uncompleted as many other Egyptian buildings, make it possible to follow the different stages of the scultors' work.
Despite these differences and maybe even because of them, the temple of Kom Ombo fits in perfectly into the group of Ptolemaic and Roman temples whereby it bears witness to the authenticity and specificity of the wealth and diversity of decorations of religious buildings pertaining to this long period of about five centuries.
4-The temple of Khnum in Esna
Of the Ptolemaic and Roman temple, only the immense hypostyle hall remains in the middle of the town of Esna, ancient Iynit of the Egyptians and Latopolis of the Greeks (because of the Lates fish caught there). This imposing hall, supported by twenty four columns and decorated with reliefs from the 1st to the IIIrd century AD, does not really have any Ptolemaic features except for the back wall. All the rest is from the Roman period and carefully dated by the cartouches left by the Roman emperors from Nero (56-68 AD) up to Decius (249-251 AD); so that this is truly a Roman building but constructed in the pure style of Egyptian tradition as was the case with most buildings in Egypt.
Invigorated with its past, the Pharaonic civilisation gives the impression of having been indifferent to the vicissitudes of time and that its priests, during the Greek and Roman periods, continued with the cult to their gods whose origins often go back into the mists of time. In view of such a vigorous tradition and an architectural and decorative programme rooted in the country's most ancient traditions, who would dare to talk of a decline? The main architectural interest of the hypostyle hall is the diversity of the capitals of the 24 columns (4 rows of 6) of a purely Egyptian style, which have retained part of their original polychromy and where there are 16 different types, the apparently similar capitals differ from each other only through some details.
The columns, completely covered with texts, constitute a sort of exceptionally long corpus, a real book engraved in stone where you can read all the litanies recited during the feast of Horus. The ceremony took place all day, the procession of priests went from one column to another, according to a precise itinerary and chanted the texts in front of each column.