The site of Dendera is located 4 km south of the provincial capital at Qena, at the great bend in the Nile, and about 70 km north of Luxor, on the west side of the river. The site is known, above all, for the presence of a temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor located there since the Old Kingdom and a group of subsidiary temples stands within its enclosure wall. From several years the site is the subject of research by the IFAO (Institut Francaise d’Archéologie Orientale), which led to a better knowledge of the funerary and urban areas. Moreover, it aims to the integral architectural analysis of the monumental complex, together with the publication of the texts and depictions on the walls of the main temple and of the other buildings.
The monumental complex roses up in the immediate vicinity of a town that has been the capital of the sixth Upper Egyptian nome.
The first archaeological research at the site have been undertaken in the necropolis by W. M. Fl. Petrie e Ch. Rosher in 1898 (Petrie 1900), and by Cl. Fisher in 1915-1916. They returned essentially funerary material from the IV, V and VI dynasty (2575-2175 BCE) and the Middle Kingdom (2125-1975 BCE). Funerary material from the New Kingdom is practically non-existent, but much of the surface of the necropolis has not been investigated. The settlement has been identified between the necropolis area and the lower alluvial lands. Its development seems to be characterized by an elongated shape over more than 1.5 km and, like the necropolis, extends beyond the current site, below the area of the modern town. Currently, brick structures are scattered on the ground and seem to preserve their original position. The scattered material found in the eastern sector of the site makes it possible to locate the existence of the town since the period between the end of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) and the first Intermediate period (2181-2055 BCE) (Marchand 2004).
The sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hathor is one of the best-preserved temple complexes in Egypt and one of the most important of the later Ptolemaic and Roman period. In Late Antiquity, part of the structures of the surrounding building of the temple have been reused to build a Christian church.
Recent studies allowed to highlight some structures relevant to the temple of the Middle Kingdom. Pertaining to this period is the so-called Chapel of Montouhotep II (c. 2050 BCE), identified ca. 4 m below the current floor of the temple complex. Other elements of the same period consist in some masonry structures identified below the temple of Isis, covered by the enclosure of the Hellenistic sanctuary of Hathor.
It is possible that during the XXV dynasty the sanctuary was restored. This constructive phase has been identified in two parallel walls that run east and west of the temple of Hathor, which seem to close a rectangular space, 130 m wide, with an expansion towards the NE that leads to a total width of 200 m. It has been hypothesized to attribute this restructuring phase to the kingdom of Shabaka (Leclant 1954; Zignani 2010, pp. 70-75).
During the reign of Nectanebo I (XXX dynasty) it was build the Birthouse dedicated to the king and it was started the construction of the temple of Isis, than definitely concluded during the reign of Ptolemy X. The first foundations of the temple have been identified two meters below the current building, while on the west side of this one is possible to recognize some block of the oldest temple reused in the last construction (Cauville 1990, pp. 87-88; Cauville 2007, pp. XVI-XX).
During the reign of Ptolemaic X (107-88 BCE) the construction of temple of Isis, begun under the reign of Nectanebo I, were completed. At same time large part of the sanctuary has been restored and during the reign of his successor Ptolemy XII (88-55 BCE) it was started the great temple dedicated to Hathor. The new building, and in particular the enclosure that surrounds it, partially erased the structures of the mammisi of Nectanebo I, while part of the structure has been preserved outside the wall.
The whole complex of the temple of Hathor was surrounded by a squared mud-brick wall (m 280x280) high more than 12 m. It presented two doorways: the main one is to the north of the enclosure, positioned on the main axis of the temple of Hathor. The other one is located to the south-west of the enclosure, connected with the sacred space in front of the temple of Isis.
The axis of the complex runs from north to south, from the main entrance to the naos of the temple. According to the epigraphic sources, the temple was founded on July 16th of 54 BCE.
During Ptolemaic period the temple did not present the Great Portico or pronaos, built in Roman time. The central doorway led directly into the hypostyle hall and beyond the axis in to two vestibules and the main shrine. The hypostyle hall has six columns, three on each side of the central axis of the temple. They present bases and the lowest drums in granite of Aswan, while the upper part is in sandstone; on the top of them there are foliage capitals that depict the head of Hathor. The column’s shaft is decorated with scenes consecrated to Hathor, while on the walls the sculpture describes the establishment of the temple: on one side of the hall, the King is sitting out from his palace, he breaks the first sod, he shapes the first brick, he lays the first stone, presents the temple to the goddess and then celebrates the first ritual ceremony. On the opposite side, he keeps celebrating the inauguration of the temple, presenting the building to other deities. Three chambers open on each side of the hall, each one with a different function connected to the fulfilment of ritual ceremonies.
The first vestibule is known as “Hall of the altar” and it has been used for the sacrifices, recalled also on the wall’s reliefs that represent the King while he makes offers to Hathor and to the other deities of the pantheon of Dendera (Horus and Harsomtous, Isis, Osiris and Harsiesis). On the west side of the hall there is the so-called “Chamber of purification”, where probably the offerings were ceremonially prepared before presentation.
The second vestibule is the so-called “Hall of divine Ennead”, where it seems possible that some mysterics cult were celebrated. In the so-called “Linen Room”, on the east side of the vestibule, were kept the images and the dresses of the goodness used during festivals. On the opposite side a door leads into the “Silver Room” connected with a hypaethral court.
Finally, the central axis of the temple leads to the inner part of the naos, consisting in a dark rectangular room where the statue of the deity was kept. The shrine is surrounded by a narrow corridor with walls decorated on several registers with representations of the pantheon that resides in the temple. Some of the eleven rooms that open on the corridor were used as chapels dedicated to Isis, Osiris, Harsomtous and Horus of Edfu, while the others were reserved to the cult of Hathor. Inside the chapels the walls show representation on several register with scenes connected to each deity.
From the first vestibule, a staircase decorated with representations of the processions of the goddess conducts to the rooftop of the building, connecting the naos with the upper kiosk, situated to the south-west corner of the terrace. The kiosk is composed by twelve columns with figurative capitals representing the head of Hathor and the sistrum, her favourite musician instrument. The walls are richly decorated with scenes dedicated to the goddess of the temple.
On the opposite side, to the north-east and north-west of the roof, there are also six small chapels dedicated to Osiris, where ceremonies were celebrated in memory of the death and resurrection of the god. On the walls is carved a long text that allows to reconstruct the ceremonies dedicated to him. Originally the ceiling of one of the chapels was decorated with the famous bas-relief depicting the circular zodiac conserved since 1823 at the Louvre in Paris.
On the south side of the sacred complex is the temple of Isis. It is surrounded by and enclosure wall that prove its own independence from the test of the temple of Hathor, evidenced also by the presence of an autonomous access located to southwest of the main temenos. According to the recent reconstruction of S. Cauville, the first archaeological evidences concerning the Ptolemaic period building consists of the structures of a small, squared building built during the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometer (180-145 BCE). During the reign of Ptolemy X (107-88 BCE), the previous building has been enlarged through the construction of a peripteral temple east-west oriented. It has a rectangular pronaos at the entrance, characterized by six columns on the front and two lateral columns, with other four plinth in the central area (Cauville 2007).
Offering table dedicated to the god Harbaktes (145 BCE ca) (Bernard 1984, pp. 11-113);
In Roman times, the temple complex has been partially enriched with new buildings and important decoration has been made on the Ptolemaic buildings.
During the reign of Augustus the temple of Isis, located to the south of the sacred complex, was subjected to a significant restoration. Part of the building built by Nectanebo I was erased and the space between this structure and the new one were kept in communication through a staircase. The roman temple, oriented east-west, is in connection with the gateway sud-east of the enclosure wall of the sanctuary , which bears a dedication inscription in Greek dated 1 CE, September 23rd.
In the same period it was built the so-called Roman mammisi, located northwest of the temple of Hathor. Though it was built by Augustus, the name of Trajan and Hadrian are mentioned throughout the inscriptions found in the nearby area. The building is entered by a sloping way which leads into an outer court; an inner court and two antechambers lie between the outer court and the sanctuary. The enclosing wall ceases before reaching the level of the sanctuary and is replaced by a colonnade which forms an open gallery at the side and back of the sanctuary. The columns of the temple present flower capitals, and the abacus above each column has on it the figure of the god Bes.
An inscribed stele recalls the end of the construction of the enclosure brick wall of the whole complex during the reign of Tiberius (Aimé-Giron 1926). According to the dedication in Greek engraved on the strip of the cornice of the building, the Great Portico or pronaos in front of the hypostyle hall of the temple of Hathor has been built in the same period (14-37 CE). It consists of a rectangular hall (43x26 m), covered by a roof supported by twenty-four great columns, twelve on either side of the main axis of the temple. At the entrance, the four pillars are closed on the bottom by screen-walls decorated in relief with the figures of the local pantheon. The columns present Hathor-headed figurative capitals and the sistrum, the deity’s favourite musical instrument; the column shafts are sculptured in horizontal registers of varying widths representing religious scenes, figures of gods, inscriptions and emblematic signs. The massive over-hanging entablature bears a winged disk as its chief decoration; the inscription along the cornice recalls the dedication of this part of the temple to the Emperor Tiberius. The ceiling decoration is an entirely astronomical subject, with pictures of zodiac, star boats and phases of the moon.
Between first and second century CE, especially under the reign of Domitian, Trajan and Antoninus Pius, decorative interventions on the most ancient buildings were completed.
Trilingual stele (Hieroglyph, Demotic and Greek) to Isis Thermouthis (ca. 12 BCE) (Bernard 1984, n, 24, pp. 113-116); dedication inscription to Isis, engraved on the cornice of the east gateway (1 CE) (Bernard 1984,n. 25, pp. 116-121); Statue base with inscription (1 CE) (Bernard 1984, n. 26, pp. 121-122); Stele from the enclosure of the complex (27-23 CE) (Bernanrd 1984, n. 27, pp. 122-124); dedication inscriptions engraved on the cornice of the pronao (32-37 CE) (Berbard 1984, nn. 28-29, pp. 124-129); Bas-riliev engraved (42 CE) (Bernard 1984, n. 30, pp. 129-132); inscription fragment (41-54 CE) (Bernard 1984, n. 31, p. 133); Inscription on pedestal (Bernard 1984, n. 32, pp. 133-136); Stele with inscription (Bernard 1984, n. 33, p. 137-142); inscription engraved on the cornice of Roman mammisi (98-117 CE)(Bernard 1984, n. 34, pp. 142-143); Fragments of base with inscription (117-138 CE) (Bernard 1984, nn. 35-36, pp. 143-144); Fragments of base with inscription(III century CE) (Bernard 1984, nn. 37-38, pp. 144-146); Inscription fragments with dedication (Bernard 1984, nn. 40-45, pp. 148-150)
After the second century’s decoration work on the buildings of the sanctuary, it is difficult to establish when the pagan temple worship was abandoned. In 325 CE, the village in the immediate vicinity of the temple knows the coexistence of two Christian communities, each with its bishopric. This presence leads to placing the end of pagan worship at the end of the third or at the beginning of the fourth century CE. It is not excluded that the presence of a secondary station (monastery?) has prevented the total spoliation of the temple. However, to the Christian occupation must be attributed the destruction of part of the buildings inside the sanctuary of Hathor, aimed at the reuse of building materials for the construction of new buildings. The Christian settlement does not respect the original development of the sacred area defined by the temenos and significantly compromised the smaller monuments that existed around the main sanctuary, in addition to the partial destruction of the wall that surrounded the naos and the temple pronaos (Zignani 2010, pp. 91-94).
It has been identified the remains of the apse of a first Christian basilica which, being too small, had to be quickly abandoned in favour of another building. The building material was taken from the pre-existing buildings and in particular from the mammisi of Nectanebo and the front part of the Roman mammisi. The second church has been built in the immediate vicinity of the main entrance of the pagan complex, probably during the second half of the fifth century CE.
Two lateral doors, located to the north and south of the church, allow to access to the narthex; the bottom of the basilica is divided into three rooms. The baptistery could be identified in the environment to the south, where the niche is decorated with an eagle. It is difficult to understand the function of the central chapel. A nave of five bays is delimited by red granite columns supported the wooden frame. The side walls are pierced with niches. The bottom of the basilica, oriented to the east, includes three apses
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- Cauville, S. 1990. Cauville, Le Temple de Dendera. Guide archéologique, Le Caire.
- Cauville, S. 2007. Dendara. Le temple d’Isis, Le Caire.
- Leclant, J. 1954. “Enquetes sur les sacerdoces et les sanctuaires égyptiens à l’époque dite ethiopienne (XXV dynastie)”, BdE 17, Le Caire: 31-42.
- Marchand, S. 2004. “Fouilles récentes dans la zone urbaine de Dendera: la céramique de la fin de l’ancien Empire au début de la XIIe dynastie”, CCE, 7: 211-238.