Calling a woman a cow nowadays is asking for trouble, but the Egyptians of yore depicted Hathor as a cow, a woman with cow’s horns or woman with cow’s ears. She was one of Egypt’s most important deities, a primordial goddess, daughter of Ra and Nut, goddess of joy, female love, sex, destruction and rebirth, just some of her many aspects. She was so venerated that a cult developed around her in Dendera where a temple complex was dedicated to her. Construction of the temple began in the Ptolemaic period (Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra) and ended with additions made by Roman emperor Tiberius.
The Temple of Hathor was easily the most beautiful I visited in Egypt. It’s considered one of the best preserved. The still vivid paints can thank the desert sands that covered the temple for millennia and the result of meticulous restoration. The temple also impressed me with gorgeous wall carvings and the Great Hypostyle Hall.
Aside from its beauty, the temple has some remarkable features.
The temple’s dedication to Hathor is obvious just by looking up. Her image as a female goddess with cow’s ears appears throughout the temple, most conspicuously as capitals on its 24 columns, the most striking I saw in Egypt. Her face is on all four sides, gazing out at the cardinal points of the universe. I wondered if it was religious zealousness that defaced all 96 of her faces.
The temple has two distinctive zodiacs, one which may be the oldest in the world. It’s known as the Dendera Zodiac. Visitors casually walking through the temple will never find it on their own. Our tour group was led up a stairwell to the temple roof. No one else was up there except guards. On the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris is the zodiac, the only one shaped like a circle in Egyptian art. I couldn’t make out details at first because it was covered in black soot from centuries of wood-burning underneath. With some effort, the figures of the constellations gradually became more visible. The planisphere corresponds to the modern zodiac although some constellations have Egyptian forms.
The Dendera Zodiac isn’t without controversy. In 1820, the original was removed and taken away to France where it is now displayed in the Louvre. The one in Dendera is a plaster replica. While the zodiac’s transplantation may have been legal and sanctioned by Egyptian authorities at the time, there is a bigger moral issue of its return, just as the bust of Nefertiti that rests in the Neues Museum (Berlin). Still, I was grateful to the tour for including a special visit to this facsimile.
The other zodiac, in the common rectangular form, appears on the ceiling of the main hall. I had to squint to see the figures because the architrave on which they’re carved is over 50ft (15m) above the floor.
Show Me Your True Colors
The colors in the main hall are gorgeous, as if they defied the ravages of time. There’s a reason. Like the Dendera Zodiac now, the ceiling and walls used to be covered in soot from centuries of burning fires inside. But after meticulous cleaning efforts, some of the original vibrancy of the colors has been beautifully restored.
So why hasn’t the Dendera Zodiac been restored? My guess is because it’s a replica, waiting for its replacement with the real one that France needs to return.
Shedding Light on a Mystery
Depending on one’s inclinations, the biggest attraction might be the so-called Dendera light bulbs. These are controversial panels in which figures appear to be holding giant ‘light bulbs,’ complete with ‘filaments’ (snake forms) and ‘cords.’ So, these guys had electricity? Hold on. Archaeologists counter that the ‘bulbs’ represent the creation of the universe emerging from lotus flowers, which are symbols of death and rebirth, the ‘cords’ are their stems and the snake, another symbol of resurrection and creation. The choice, it seems, is between symbolism and realism. These depictions are found in two places, in the main temple area and in an underground crypt. They don’t appear anywhere else in Egyptian art.
Rite of Passage
I don’t mean to titillate but many women touch it in the hopes of becoming pregnant. Near the Dendera light bulbs is a relief of a snake that symbolizes fertility, procreation, creation, resurrection. And like the ‘light bulb’ image, it too emerges from a lotus plant. The figure is well worn from countless touches over the years, not necessarily only by ladies who want children.
The Protection of Nut, the Sky Goddess
To me, the most symbolically striking image in Egyptian art is the celestial goddess Nut who is frequently depicted as the sky goddess, covered in stars and arched in exaggerated form on her hands and feet, like the vault of heaven, to protect the dead and through whose body the sun traveled in its daily cycle. In the depiction here, the sun shines its rays on Hathor’s temple.
Precision of Faith
I recently read a book by Christopher Dunn. Highly experienced in engineering, tool making and precision machining, he makes some intriguing revelations about Hathor’s temple. After analyzing photographs, he concluded that the builders manufactured the Hathor column capitals that today can only be made with advanced machining tools. The capitals include not only Hathor’s head but two cornices and sistrum, a rattling musical instrument associated with her. What amazed him are the complex transitions from one kind of three-dimensional surface to another.
Dunn also discovered that the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall (including orthogonal projections of some critical points on the capitals) are parallel or perpendicular to each other. He took a digital image of four columns with camera on tripod aimed straight up, making sure that the center of the image coincided with the geometric center of the columns in order to avoid angular distortion. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, reference lines were drawn along cornice edges and through certain intersections of Hathor’s head and cornice. The result indicates that the capitals are exactly aligned.
This is an incredible quality a visitor could never imagine. One would think that something a little less than perfect would hardly be noticeable; the overall effect of the temple would still be amazing. So I wondered, why the exacting standards? Is the achievement of perfection a manifestation of religious devotion, of sacredness? I wonder if other Egyptian temples show this kind of care and building prowess. I wouldn’t at all be surprised.
To walk through the Temple of Hathor was an exquisite experience. Its beautiful architecture and carvings, celestial allusions—and colors—affected me like no other temple. That the builder applied an esoteric craft in its design and construction makes the temple all the more wondrous.