Journal: Tuesday 23 April 2002
We were finally allowed off the boat when a coach arrived for us after breakfast this morning to take us to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera and we drove across the long bridge over the Nile and continued a few kilometres to the north, through fields of crops – a very rural Egypt here. When we were almost there we had a spectacular view across the fields to a temple that looked very dramatic rising from the flat plain. Dendera is one of the latest temples and probably the best preserved after Philae, although it was built over the site of several much earlier structures. Outside the huge mudbrick enclosure wall there are cemeteries from the Old and Middle Kingdom Periods.
Dendera Temple is dedicated to Hathor, as well as her consort Horus and their son Ihy, but this is Hathor’s home, while Horus lived at Edfu – the temple further south that I had visited last week. At Edfu one of the most important annual festivals was the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’, in which the cult statue of Hathor travels from Dendera to Edfu to consummate the goddess’s ‘marriage’ to Horus. Here at Dendera the marriage hardly gets a mention and it is the birth of their son Ihy, the divine heir, which seems to be more important, especially during the Late Period. In earlier times it was the king or queen’s divine birth that was portrayed on temple walls but by the Late Period this theology had been transposed to the birth of the gods. In the later temples, Dendera, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae, the birth-houses or mammisi told the story of how the divine sons were conceived and born, depending on the place and the triad involved, but in each, the legend of the king’s birth is also prominent in the mix. The divine son’s father is both the king of the gods as well as the earthly king and it is usually the reigning king who welcomes the new-born child because he is spiritual heir to both the king and the god. It gets very confusing to work out what is going on. I spent most of my time today in the Ptolemaic and later Graeco-Roman birth-houses looking at the reliefs. The decorations in both the earlier and later mammisi depict the story of Hathor, Horus and their child – from courtship to the birth. One particular scene I love here is the formation of Ihy’s ka by Khnum on his potter’s wheel with Tauret the hippo-goddess and the frog-goddess Hekat waiting to take Hathor to her confinement.
Next to the Ptolemaic mammisi is the sanatorium which also fascinates me and this has recently been undergoing restoration work so that several more low walls have appeared since my last visit here. The best overview of this structure is from the upper temple roof and I quickly sprinted up there to have a look – time was running short. These sanatoria, which appeared in many of the larger temples, were not medical hospitals as the name suggests, but places of healing the mind and the only surviving sanatorium is at Dendera, which had a reputation for healing. With he help of priests the wisdom and compassion of Hathor was called upon in the small chambers around the sides of the building, where the sick and diseased would await the heavenly dreams that suggested a cure. This always makes me wonder what hallucinogenic drugs were used. As well as prophetic dreams, water cures were offered in the central part of the sanatorium. Here, water was poured over divine statues on pedestals covered in magical texts, collected into basins and drunk by the sick, or sometimes used for immersion.
By lunchtime we were back on the Commodore and already heading back downriver to Luxor, a reverse of yesterday afternoon’s journey. Mary and I lounged on deck and I wrote up some notes while keeping an eye out for interesting scenes with one hand on my camera. I think this has been the hottest day so far. By dinner time we were back in Luxor and the evening’s entertainment had arrived. First was a belly dancer, who I thought was terrible but the male passengers seemed to enjoy. I usually love to watch Egyptian dance but I’ve seen much better than this lady and I was disappointed. This act was followed by the dervish dancer who I’ve seen before and is brilliant to watch, spinning and twirling with his rainbow-coloured skirts swinging about him. It was very late when we got to bed and we haven’t even packed yet for tomorrow’s transfer to our hotel.