Journal: Sunday 17 October 1999
The ‘Lotus Boat’ was an ideal way to enjoy a short cruise on the Nile while visiting Dendera Temple at the same time, without the hassle of the convoy. We had an early start at 6.45am while the sun was still struggling to rise above the river mist. Everything was bathed in the pale dawn light and looked clean and fresh as though someone had spent the night sprinkling the riverbanks with dew. It was so relaxing to watch as we cruised past tiny villages with their primitive mud-brick houses, roofs thatched with reeds as they have been for thousands of years. Sometimes there would be a group of women by the water’s edge, washing clothes or scouring pots and pans, or perhaps an older man or group of boys taking the family buffalo for a drink and a bath. The river birds were amazing, swooping and diving for fish in the water and I especially loved the stately egrets with their pristine white feathers, often just sitting drifting on a passing clump of water hyacinth. Herons sat in the taller trees on the banks and occasionally I sighted a kingfisher flying above the water’s surface with a small fish in its mouth.
By late morning we had arrived in Qena and were escorted by a police launch to the dock where we disembarked to travel the short distance to Dendera temple by coach. The Temple of Hathor at Dendera was known as Tentyris during classical times, largely a Ptolemaic structure but the site spans many periods from Early Dynastic through to Christian. The building follows the fairly typical plan of other temples from the Graeco-Roman Period but it is among the most extensive and best preserved of these remaining temples. It is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and her mythology relating to her consort Horus of Edfu. We had an hour and a half in the temple, which is never long enough for me, but Jenny and I had a good overview of each part of the site.
We went first into the main temple with its imposing façade of massive Hathor-headed columns, repeated like a forest in the Hypostyle Hall. Although it is quite blackened in parts, the ceiling of the Hypostyle is interesting, divided into bands of well-preserved astronomical figures featuring the goddess Nut, vultures and winged sun-discs and the Roman signs of the zodiac. The walls are decorated with scenes of Roman emperors as pharaohs making offerings to Hathor. To the rear is a smaller Hypostyle which would have been the older part of the temple known as the ‘hall of appearances’ and where the statue of the goddess would first appear on her annual journey from the temple to meet with her consort Horus at Edfu for the annual festival. On the walls there are kings involved in ritual foundation ceremonies. This hall is surrounded by smaller storage chambers and on either side there are staircases leading up to the roof.
The passageway around the sanctuary contains 11 side-chapels dedicated to various divinities and religious symbols. I especially wanted to look at a chamber directly behind the sanctuary which would have held a shrine with images and symbols of Hathor. High up in the wall of this chamber is a niche containing reliefs of Hathor and this point corresponds with a shrine of the ‘hearing ear’ on the outside of the temple, where prayers to the goddess would have been offered and perhaps where an oracle spoke. Jenny wanted to have a look in the underground crypt, the only one of fourteen which is still accessible and I agreed to go with her, although I remembered from my last visit the many bats who live there. The reliefs in the crypt are very interesting and represent many symbolic acts of religious rites. After looking in the small Hathor kiosk known as the ‘pure place’ with its beautiful Nut ceiling showing the birth cycle of the sun whose rays are shining down on Hathor, we climbed the dark western staircase up to the roof. There are some very special chambers on the roof where mysterious rites of Osiris took place, but we just didn’t have the time to linger, so after climbing up to the top level for a lovely view over the temple precinct, we went down the eastern staircase and back out into the sunshine.
Time was running out, so we walked along to the two birth-houses to look at the beautiful reliefs there. The oldest mamissi was built by Nectanebo I and celebrated the birth of the young god Ihy, the son of Hathor and Horus of Edfu. I wanted to look at a worn and shallow scene on the north wall which shows the creator god Khnum fashioning the child with Hekat the goddess of childbirth seen in her image of a frog. To the north, the more elaborate Roman mamissi was built by Augustus with later decoration by Trajan and Hadrian. The reliefs on the exterior walls are superbly preserved, and portray the divine birth and childhood of the infant Horus, celebrated in rites to legitimise the divine descent of the king. The little dwarf god Bes, one of my favourites, whose grotesque appearance was thought to ward off evil spirits at the moment of birth, is portrayed on the columns of a colonnade.
All too soon it was time to leave in our coach to go back to Qena and the Lotus Boat. We had a wonderful buffet lunch on the boat with everything we could possibly want to eat and more, while we began our journey back upriver towards Luxor. The afternoon cruise was just as relaxing as it was this morning and we watched the river, this time with the sun eventually setting over the West Bank. Jenny and I discussed the temple visit and wrote up our notes between taking pictures of the river banks and having afternoon tea (which seemed to arrive very shortly after lunch!). We arrived back in Luxor at 7.00pm after a really lovely day.