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Back on the tourist map
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 12 - 2006

Dendara Temple is once more a thriving tourist attraction. Nevine El-Aref looks at the site after two years of rehabilitation
Opposite the Upper Egyptian city of Qena on the west bank of the Nile stands Dendara Temple, a massive pile of awe-inspiring ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman architecture. Over the past two years the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has carried out a reconstruction and development programme of the entire temple area, and now the tourist-friendly site is open to visitors.
Over the ages Dendara Temple, one of the best preserved in Egypt, was isolated in the parched desert. The only tourists who paid a visit were making a stop on a journey between Cairo and Luxor. More recently, it has been a destination from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada or a stop on a Nile cruise itinerary.
However, interest in it was low, and a few years ago the temple was closed to visitors and its cafeteria and gift shops were almost derelict. Now the SCA's site management policy to rescue Egypt's archaeological sites and make them more tourist-friendly has brought new life to Dendara. The temple has been resurrected not only as an ancient temple but a comprehensive tourist complex providing visitors with various cultural and entertainment facilities.
Abdel-Hamid Qutub, head of the Engineering Department at the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly that one of the main goals of the development project was to reduce the number of visitors rooming around the temple's different galleries and corridors as well as the time spent inside the temple by constructing a visitors' centre in the empty space before the lofty monument, which will become an obligatory stop on any visitor's itinerary. It has a lecture hall and a cinema where a 15- minute documentary film gives an overview of the history of the temple and its important scenes and reliefs. As at all visitors' centres there is a small bookshop and a counter selling souvenirs. In order to control the movement of tourists and to protect the temple reliefs, plans have been set in motion for tour guides to lecture their groups outside the temple in front of a three-dimensional plan of the corridors, the halls and the sanctuary, and to show photographs of the most noteworthy scenes on the temple walls. All the old wooden kiosks erected for selling souvenirs have been demolished and replaced by a dozen smart new bazaars within the centre complex.
SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass says the new visitor's path created at the complex is an attempt to guide tourists round the site in an ordered direction. The path starts at the temple's original entrance gate and goes right through to the other side, which overlooks the Nile.
In collaboration with the governor of Qena, the garden neighbouring the temple was added to the site management plan and a restoration laboratory has been built along with extra facilities and services. An open-air museum displaying objects and blocks discovered at the site has also been organised within the area, and new lighting and security systems have also been installed.
The history of Dendara Temple is legendary. It was known in ancient times as the "Castle of the Sistrum" or "Per Hathor" -- House of Hathor, the goddess of love, joy and beauty.
According to early inscriptions, a structure was erected to the cult of the goddess Hathor at Dendara during the Old Kingdom. During the reign of the owner of the Great Pyramid at Giza, King Khufu (ca 2609--2584 BC) of the Fourth Dynasty, this structure was rebuilt and dedicated to Hathor and her son Ihy, who formed the main triad at Dendara along with Horus, Hathor's husband and Ihy's father. Inscriptions in a later temple at Dendara also mention that King Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty constructed a temple at the site. Later additions and modifications to the temple of Hathor were undertaken by several rulers of the New Kingdom (ca 1569--1081 BC), including Tuthmosis III, Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III as well as Ramses II and III.
The temple of Hathor at Dendara today was built on the ruins of the old temple during the late Ptolemaic period. Ptolemy XII Auletes (80--58, 55--51 BC), whose name is found in the crypts, is associated with the foundation of the temple. During the Late Period and Graeco-Roman period several hypostyle halls, columns, kiosks, and birth houses were added to the temple area by Nectanebo I, Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy X, and Ptolemy XI as well as by the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Nero.
The main temple area is fronted by several Roman kiosks. Behind these is the impressive gateway of Domitian and Trajan, which is set into a massive mud-brick enclosure wall that surrounded the complex. An unfinished inner enclosure wall of stone built during the reign of Tiberius in the first century AD surrounds a courtyard with side entrances. This unfinished courtyard precedes the large hypostyle hall that was also added by Tiberius. The façade of the hypostyle hall fronting the main temple has a low screen created by the inter- columnar walls that leave the hall's ceiling and 24 columns with sistrum capitals in the Hathoric style in full view.
The temple consists of two hypostyle halls, an outer one and an inner hall. The outer hypostyle hall was decorated by emperors ranging from Augustus to Nero. Among the most important and beautiful scenes on the temple's walls are those on the ceiling of the hypostyle hall, which still retains much of its original colour. It is decorated with a chart of the heavens, including zodiac signs and a depiction of Nut, the goddess who swallowed the sun disk in the evening and gave birth to it again at dawn. The inner hypostyle hall, known as the "hall of appearances", is decorated with scenes that show the king in foundation ceremonies related to the temple's construction.
On the rear exterior wall of the temple directly behind the sanctuary and beneath the two lion- headed waterspouts that drained rainwater from the roof (there are also three on each of its side walls) are scenes showing a large-scale figure of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, who became her co-regent as Ptolemy XV.
North and west of the main temple are two birth houses. The Roman birth house is considered the latest still-preserved temple of its type. It was perhaps built by Augustus and probably decorated by Trajan. The birth house was the ritual place where Hathor gave birth to Ihy, who represents the young phase of the creator gods. It is decorated with various scenes, one of the finest depicting Trajan making offerings to Hathor. The god Bes, patron of childbirth, is carved on the abaci above the column capitals, and the reliefs on the exterior walls portray the divine birth and childhood of the infant Horus whose rites legitimise the divine descent of the king.
The second and earlier birth house, which was built by Nectanebo I of the Thirtieth Dynasty and decorated during the Ptolemaic period, was cut through by the foundations of the unfinished courtyard of the main temple. The only reference to the original sanctuary is a false door on the eastern exterior wall of the main temple of Hathor.
On the southern end of the earlier birth house are the remains of a mud-brick "sanatorium". This sanatorium is the only one of its kind known in association with a temple, although other examples may have existed. Here, visitors to the temple could rest overnight in chambers while awaiting a "healing dream" related to Hathor. Visitors could also bathe in the sacred water. An inscription on a statue base found at this location suggests that water was poured over magical texts on the statues, causing it to imbue the spell and thus cure all sorts of diseases and illnesses. Basins used to collect holy water can still be seen at the western end.
Between the old and new birth houses are the remains of a Christian basilica that dates from the fifth century.


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