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The Temple of Dendur
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 10 - 2018

, or Dendoor in 19th-century sources, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an ancient Egyptian temple built by the Roman governor of Egypt Petronius. It was constructed around 15 BC and dedicated to the gods Isis and Osiris, as well as to two deified sons of a local Nubian chieftain, Pediese (“he whom Isis has given”) and Pihor (“he who belongs to Horus”).
The temple was commissioned by the Roman emperor Augustus and has been in the Metropolitan Museum since 1978.
It is constructed from sandstone and measures 25 metres (82 feet) from the front stone gate to the rear as well as eight metres (26 feet) from its lowest to its highest point. The 6.55 by 13 metres (21.5 by 42.7 feet) temple proper is modest but well-executed in design, with two front columns, an offering hall and a sanctuary with a statue niche. A 30-metre (98 feet) cult terrace overlooked the Nile. From the gate, two flanking walls originally ran around the temple and isolated the structure from the cult terrace and the River Nile.
The temple is partly decorated with reliefs. Its base is adorned with carvings of papyrus and lotus plants growing out of the water of the Nile, symbolised by depictions of the god Hapy. Over the temple gate as well as over the entrance to the temple proper images of the winged sun disc of the sky god Horus represent the sky. This motif is repeated by vultures depicted on the ceiling of the entrance porch.
On the outer walls of the temple, the emperor Augustus is depicted as a Pharaoh making offerings to the deities Isis, Osiris, and their son Horus. The subject is repeated in the first room of the temple, where Augustus is shown praying and making offerings. Augustus is identified as “Caesar”, actually “Qysrs”, which is based on “Kaisaros”, the Greek version of Caesar. He is also called “Autotrator”, an alteration of autokrator, or autocrat, the Greek equivalent of imperator, one of the emperor's titles. This misspelling seems to be deliberate in order to achieve more symmetry in the hieroglyphs. In some other parts of the temple, however, the emperor is simply called “Pharaoh”.
The middle room, which was used for offerings, and the sanctuary of Isis at the rear of the temple are undecorated except for reliefs on the door frame and back wall of the sanctuary. The latter shows Pihor and Pedesi as young gods worshipping Isis and Osiris, respectively. A crypt was also built into the rear wall, while a rock chamber in the nearby cliffs may have represented the tombs of Pediese and Pihor, who were said to have drowned in the Nile.
In the 19th century, graffiti were left on the temple walls by visitors from Europe. One of the most prominent of these — “A. L. Corry RN 1817”, at eye level to the left as one enters the temple — was left by British naval officer and later rear-admiral Armar Lowry Corry. Another inscription was left by the Italian Egyptologist Girolamo Segato.
In 1963, the Temple of Dendur was dismantled and removed from its original location at Dendur, the modern name for ancient Tuzis, about 80km south of the town of Aswan. This was accomplished as part of a wider UNESCO project to save significant sites from being submerged by Lake Nasser following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. In recognition of US assistance in saving other monuments threatened by the dam's construction, Egypt presented the temple and its gate as a gift to the United States, represented by Jacqueline Kennedy among others, in 1965.
The stone blocks of the temple weighed more than 800 tons, with the largest pieces weighing more than 6.5 tons. They were packed into 661 crates and transported to the US by the freighter Concordia Star. Several institutions then made bids to house the temple in a competition nicknamed the “Dendur Derby” by the press. Alternative plans proposed re-erecting the Temple on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington or on the Charles River in Boston. However, these suggestions were dismissed because it was feared that the temple's sandstone would suffer from the outdoor conditions.
On 27 April 1967, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was installed in the Sackler Wing in 1978. Inside the Wing, designed by architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and associates, a reflecting pool in front of the temple and a sloping wall behind it represent the Nile and the cliffs of the original location.
The glass ceiling and north wall of the Sackler Wing is also stippled in order to diffuse the light and mimic the light in the temple's original home of Nubia.


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