The Dendera Temple Complex is one of the finest sights in Egypt, which is saying something in this storied land full of historical wonders. It contains the Temple of Horus, which is a stunning building with brilliant artistic flourishes. It’s also the best preserved Ancient Egyptian temple, with the roof still fully intact and the original colours in the paintings showing. The complex lies just outside Qena, which is a city on the Nile north of Luxor that gets very few visitors. Exploring this complex is an awe-inspiring experience, made all the better by the fact you will have the place almost to yourself.
Just travelling to the sight independently is an adventure too, as the police often insist on escorting lone travellers here.
History of Dendera Temple Complex
Although the current complex dates from the very end of Ancient Egyptian times, the site has been occupied for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of building here is from Pepi 1 reign in 2250 BC. There is also proof of a temple being built in 1500 BC. The earliest surviving building is the Mammism built around 350BC.
The sublime Temple of Hathor was started during the reign of Ptolemy XII, and mostly finished by his daughter Cleopatra VII before her reign was cut short in 20 BC (I’m sure you all know how her reign ended). Some more work was carried out at the sight while it was part of the Roman empire.
Exploring the site
The Temple of Hathor
Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music and dancing; she is the wife of Horus, and one of the most important ancient Egyptian Gods. This gigantic temple built in her honour is impressive to behold. It’s so well preserved it doesn’t look 2000 years old. The outside walls contain detailed friezes, included the famous large depiction of Cleopatra and her son. The temple is 43 metres long and nearly 18 metres high. Walking into the temple is an unforgettable experience, as the large hypostyle hall contains 24 colossal painted columns. The paint is so well preserved it’s astonishing to look at. The ceiling is just as beautiful, with many intricate paintings and hieroglyphics covering the stone (you might end up with neck ache after walking around here).
The temple contains another smaller hypostyle hall, along with a number of antechambers, rooms and corridors to explore. The light in these chambers is quite subdued, which makes exploring them very atmospheric. At the back of the temple is the steep entrance to the crypts, which are so low you have to almost crawl down into the narrow tunnel beneath. The walls of the crypts contain beautiful hieroglyphics and carvings including the famous Dendera lightbulb, which is the subject of much conjecture. Going down into the crypts is a fun experience, so make sure you don’t miss it – just watch out for the mummies and scarabs. Exploring here really is like something from The Mummy or Indiana Jones.
Roof of the Temple of Hathor
The temple of Hathor is the only temple in Egypt where you’re still allowed to climb onto the roof. The roof is accessed by two steep, winding staircases who’s walls are as lined with intricate inscriptions as the rest of the temple. Technically visitors are only allowed onto one part of the roof, but a little baksheesh will allow you to explore the whole area. The view from the very top is sublime, with the whole Dendera temple complex spread out before you. From here you can appreciate the scale of the place.
There is an antechamber on the roof called the chapel of Osiris, which contains the important relief known as the Dendera Zodiac. This depicts the only complete map of the ancient Egyptian sky ever discovered.
Dendera Temple Complex
The whole complex covers an enormous area of 40,000 sqaure metres and is surrounded by the remains of a massive mud-brick wall. There are numerous parts to explore apart from the temple of Hathor, but the two most interesting are the birthing temple and the temple of Isis. The birthing temple is near the entrance and contains some interesting reliefs showing the birth of Gods and Pharaohs. The temple of Isis is behind the temple of Hathor. This temple is small and less impressive, but it has some beautiful images and is a relaxing place to visit.
I’d heard good things about the Dendera Temple Complex before going, and it didn’t disappoint. Just getting here was an adventure. As soon as I tried to walk out of Quena train station a policeman approached me and asked me where I was from and where I was going. When I told him he said the police would take me there, and he phoned his collogues to tell them. In the end I ended up going with two police and one soldier with an AK– my own armed escort. They drove fast and put the siren on for part of the trip, it was a surreal and exciting experience.
Exploring the site was more fun than any other temple I went to in Egypt, there are no vendors inside the temple grounds and very few tomb guardians. The guardians here were also more relaxed than in other places, so I was able to explore the sight alone for hours. Exploring the dark chambers and crypts felt like a real ancient Egyptian adventure, the kind you fantasise about when you imagine travelling around Egypt.
Make sure you visit the Dendera Temple Complex if you go to Upper Egypt, it’s better than any site in Luxor.
Admission times and price: 7am-5pm and 120EGP entry.
Getting there and away: If you are travelling independently from Luxor then the train to Quena is the only cheap option. Dendera is about 6 miles from the station. As I discovered, the police in this city are really paranoid about foreigners travelling here by themselves. On the plus side they are very friendly, and it means you probably won’t need to take a taxi there and back.
Staying in Qena: Staying here would be an interesting experience, and a nice change from Luxor. If you do decide to stay here you will have to find a room in person, and the authorities might not be eager for you to go out alone at night.