The Splendid Temple of Hathor (Dendera)


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.

Hathor with cow ears and Hathor with cow horns and the solar disc

The Temple of Hathor was 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 largely 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 other remarkable features.

Capital H

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 (see above). Her face is on all four sides, gazing out at the cardinal points of the universe. I wondered who defaced all 96 of her faces.

Zodiacs

The temple has two distinctive zodiacs, one of 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. 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 burning wood 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.

Zodiac

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 removal 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).

Dendera Zodiac in the Louvre (image from http://bosabosareview.blogspot.com/p/egyptian-art.html)

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, much 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 rebirth. 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.

Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in the main hall
Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in an underground crypt (distortion due to panorama camera mode)

Precision

I recently read a book by Christopher Dunn. Highly experienced in engineering and precision machining, he makes some intriguing revelations about Hathor’s temple. After analyzing carefully calibrated photographs, he concluded that the builders manufactured the Hathor column capitals which 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 three-dimensional transitions from one kind of surface to another.

Column capital includes Hathor’s faces, sistrum and two cornices

Dunn also discovered that the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall (including projections of some critical points on the capitals) are lined up 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. Reference lines were rendered using computer-aided design (CAD) software on a computer. These lines were drawn along cornice edges and through certain intersections of Hathor’s head and cornice. Each capital indicates that there is precise alignment with respect to the others.

This is a quality a visitor will never see. One would think that something less than perfect would hardly be noticeable; the overall effect of the temple would still be incredible. So I wondered, why the exacting standards? Do 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 is 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.

The Valley Temple and Osireion: Echoes of a Bygone World Culture?


Seeing is believing.

I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their colossal sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gargantuan stones in ways that defy explanation.

Here’s where the prevailing thinking seems unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there instead a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we tend to think of historical engineering achievements relative to a progressive timeline, from the use of simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?

And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.

The Valley Temple and Osireion are such enigmas. They don’t look anything like other Egyptian temples that are colonnaded and embellished with beautiful art and hieroglyphs. Rather they have the starkness and aura of great age.

Valley Temple of Khafre

The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s connection is the famous statue of him, now at the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was beautifully carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock with a Mohs scale of around 7, is wondrous in itself.)

Statue of Khafre, Cairo Egyptian Museum

This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty (roughly 2,000 years after Khafre), claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. If true, the temple’s construction could conceivably be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.

Inner courtyard, Valley Temple of Khafre

Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, the physical facts are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were attached to the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the underlying limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. The technique is quite similar to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s irregular limestone core blocks.

Note the limestone layer at the top and granite walls below.

In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels.

The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.

Aswan red granite casing stones

Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are trapezoidal, others have notches, yet others curve around corners at right angles.

Note notching on second large granite block from the bottom and corner block above it. An upper stone is a parallelogram.
A closer look

What could possibly be the reason for fashioning stones with odd dimensions? Some suggest it was for earthquake-proofing. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.

The Osireion

When the Temple of Seti I in Abydos was being planned in New Kingdom times, the builders discovered a sunken monument buried in sand, now called the Osireion. How long it had been there was anybody’s guess. In 1902, it was discovered 50ft below ground by Egyptologists Margaret Murray and William Flinders Petrie. From the looks of it, the monument wasn’t built during the time of Seti, whose temple is in a classically Egyptian style. The temple’s design also has a unique, unorthodox L-shape that suggests Seti considered the Osireion sacred enough to avoid building his temple over it. Another fact: the Osireion is constructed of granite, the temple of limestone and sandstone.

It’s striking that the Osireion has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile water table (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise saw water. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. Incredibly it used to be roofed over by two rows of thick stone slabs, before they collapsed or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe.

For some reason, visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. This could hopefully change in the future. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.

As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style.

Peru Connection?

Both monuments reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to reverberate across the ocean.

Pisac, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco (Peru)

And, for good measure:

Megalithic blocks, Japan (screen capture from YouTube)

What the Nub is Going On?

The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.

Pyramid of Menkaure (image from Pinterest)

One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.

The stones on the rear wall have nub protrusions (image from hiveminer.com)

What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Ollantaytambo (Peru)
Stonework, including the famous 12-sided stone, Cusco (Peru)

No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Could they be the by-product of an undiscovered process?

What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stone in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia. Likewise, ancient megalithic construction, analogous to the Valley Temple and Osireion, shows up across the globe, the most humongous being in Lebanon.

Stone nubs, Bulgaria (screen capture from YouTube)

Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that has been lost to us long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it seems.

Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. But from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of sophisticated knowledge and technologies for which we give them little credit and which we cannot satisfactorily explain.

Temple of Karnak (Luxor)


The grounds of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor are so big that it can easily surround the great cathedrals of Europe: Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan and more. Started in the Middle Kingdom and added to over a period of 2,000 years into Ptolemaic times by thirty pharaohs, it is a complex conglomeration of smaller temples, hypostyles, courts, chapel, pylons, storerooms and living quarters. It even contains a lake.

With this kind of cornucopia, it isn’t surprising that it’s the most visited site in Egypt second only to the Giza pyramids. In its day, it would’ve looked splendid, judging by its colossal scale and whispers of color that still remain. Now, the patina of old age hints at an ancient civilization long gone.

At 50,000 sq ft/4,650 sq m, the Hypostyle Hall is the largest religious building in the world. The largest of its 134 columns is 79ft/24m high with diameters of 10ft/3m, dwarfing mere humans who walk among them. It isn’t an experience easily forgotten.

Hypostyle Hall