mythology

Bes, the Egyptian God Who’s Part Dwarf, Part Lion

As unlikely as it might seem, the ugly demon Bes was a much-loved guardian of the home and childbirth. Heck, he could even cure impotence.

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

We liked him instantly — perhaps because he’s so unlike all of the other gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt we had seen carved onto temple walls and painted in the dark, narrow tombs. And since most of those deities feature animal heads, that’s saying something.

Even so, Bes is perhaps the most unique character in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I’d try to come up with my own colorful description, but once Duke read this to me, I figured why bother? I can’t top Alastair Sooke’s write-up in Frieze, who describes this “grotesque little fellow” so evocatively:

His physique is squat and stocky, with flabby man-boobs, pronounced buttocks and a pot-belly. He crouches as though he is about to defecate, so that his genitals dangle, prominently, between bandy legs. A wild beard frames his gargoyle’s face, along with a lion’s mane. Yet, his ferocious visage also has a playful aspect, since he sticks out his tongue, like a clown pulling a crude face.

I realized part of Bes’ uniqueness among his fellow Egyptian gods is that, aside from cow-eared Hathor, Bes is the only other deity depicted face-on. The rest of the pantheon are always shown in profile. 

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

The Household Guardian

For some reason, the ugly little bugger became a common household apparition. Artisans and craftsmen carved him onto beds and headrests, mirrors and makeup containers. His likeness is even found in the ruins of Amarna, where Pharaoh Akhenaten forbid all worship besides that of the sun disk, Aten. Bes was so popular that people might have been risking their lives to keep this protective imp in their homes.

Bes guarded households, much like gargoyles on a Catholic church or the hideous monsters outside a Thai temple. The name Bes came later, a logical choice given his role — besa means “to protect.”

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

His worship goes back at least as far as the 1700s BCE, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, though some scholars think Bes originated even earlier, in a more lionlike form. 

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes’ popularity was aided by the fact that he was also a god of humor, music and dancing. He knew how to have a good time. There weren’t any temples to Bes, he had no high priests or priestesses — and yet he was a favorite god across all classes, from the royal family down to the poorest laborer. There is evidence that someone would don a Bes costume during religious ceremonies. 

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Ten or so deities and demons that shared characteristics with Bes became conflated with him, an ever-evolving leonine dwarf deity. In one of these earlier forms, Bes was known as Aha, or Fighter, and is shown strangling snakes with his bare hands. This explains why his image appears on knives as a protection charm for the wielder.

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

By the New Kingdom, Aha had merged into Bes, when he was sometimes given an elaborate feathered headdress.

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Protector of Pregnant Women and Childbirth

Bes also shows up on magic wands designed to help infants come into this world, and for the dead to leave it for the afterlife. The dwarf became associated with childbirth, protecting pregnant women. In fact, two magical spells mention a “dwarf of clay” that was placed on the belly of a woman in labor — giving birth was a particularly dangerous process back then, and women and newborns needed all the help they could get. Bes would dance, shout and shake his rattle to scare off evil spirits. 

In these depictions, Bes is shown with a protruding belly and fleshy breasts, probably to connect him to his role as protector of pregnant women. He was sometimes said to be the husband of Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth.

If a baby laughed or smiled for no reason, it was said that Bes must be nearby, making funny faces.

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Incubation Chambers to Cure Infertility and Impotence

As a protector of the pregnant, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine why Bes later became associated with fertility and sexuality. The imp was given a nude female companion named Beset during the Ptolemaic Period (332‒30 BCE), and mud plaster images of them decorated “incubation chambers” at Saqqara. Pilgrims would spend the night here, hoping for erotic dreams to cure them of infertility or impotence.

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Prostitutes were known to get tattoos of Bes on their thighs in the hope that he’d help prevent them from getting STDs. Other women might have gotten a similar tattoo to increase fertility.

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

Simply the Bes

The Bes craze reached its peak during the Roman era. He became part of the Horus myth, protecting the falcon-headed infant from his murderous uncle Set. Worship of the tiny troll spread all around the Mediterranean. 

In another protector role, the dwarf god adorned mammisi, the birth houses that honored infant deities such as Horus. 

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Bes became a mascot for the military, as well. Roman legionnaires put Bes in armor and gave him a sword and round shield. 

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

It wasn’t until after the advent of Christianity that Bes finally got his own priesthood — oracles at Abydos, where he was said to have guarded the corpse of the death god Osiris. The cult of Bes drew an impressive crowd, until Emperor Constantius II shut down the operation around 359 CE. 

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

While you’re exploring the ancient temples of Egypt, be on the lookout for this merry prankster, the dwarf Bes, with his genitals exposed and his curlicue beard adorning his oversized head. He’ll be sticking his tongue out at you, making you giggle even as he protects you from harm. –Wally

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

KV2 is a particularly fine example of these once-hidden burial chambers, where magic spells helped guide the pharaoh through the afterlife.

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

Arid, desolate and dusty, the colorless desert landscape of the Valley of the Kings belies the magic and mysticism hidden beneath in the tombs of the pharaohs. 

Our early morning arrival allowed us to avoid some of the crowds, a welcome reprieve, as we’d travelled halfway around the world and didn’t want to share our trip with throngs of other tourists. And though the entrances to Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs’ burial chambers were intended to remain secret, they now dot the barren tract of land in every direction you look.

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the Valley of the KIngs.
Wally near the tomb’s entrance

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

While visiting the site, your ticket includes admission for three tombs. Our guide, Mamduh, chose the tombs of Ramesses III, IV and IX — each of which is beautiful and unique in its own way.

We refer to many Egyptian pharaohs with Roman numerals like those of the kings of Europe. But, as Barbara Mertz points out in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, “such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed midreign.)”

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

Heqamaatre Ramesses, otherwise known as Ramesses IV, was the fifth and youngest son of Pharaoh Ramesses III. He was appointed crown prince by the 22nd year of his father’s reign, after his brothers had died — it wasn’t uncommon for people to die young in Ancient Egypt. With the assasination of his father in 1156 BCE, Ramesses IV, who was at this time middle-aged, inherited the throne. He died a mere six years into his reign. 

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Passage to the Underworld

Each site in the Valley of the Kings now has a designator that begins with KV, for Kings’ Valley. Ramessess IV’s tomb is known as KV2 and has been open since antiquity. The area in front of the entranceway to the tomb was excavated by Edward Ayrton in 1905, and later by Howard Carter in 1920 (of King Tut fame). The archeological dig yielded a few relics, including shabti figures (which would act as servants in the afterlife) and glass and glazed earthenware pottery known as faience. 

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), Ippolito Rosellini and Theodore David, among others, used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the valley. 

The entryway has a staircase divided by a sloping central ramp that descends into a linear 292-foot-long passageway representing the symbolic journey of the sun god Ra (or Re). The tomb’s design is comprised of three corridors, an antechamber and a burial chamber with small annex chambers beyond.  A large number of Coptic Christian and Roman graffiti can be seen scattered throughout the tomb, including prayers, drawings of crosses and saints. A particularly large inscription in red paint can be seen near the entrance to the tomb.

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Unlike other tombs from this era, KV2’s original design was modified: The chamber intended to be a pillared hall was converted to a burial chamber when the king died sooner than expected. Ramesses IV had doubled the workforce on the project to speed it along, but no one can stop death from coming — even a deified ruler.

A pair of rectangular niches set high into the walls at the front of the second corridor are decorated with manifestations of Ra. These figures continue as a register above the texts of the Litany of Re, which cover both walls of this corridor. The detailed carvings remain vibrant, despite the age of the tomb. 

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

The third corridor contains a vaulted ceiling decorated with scenes from the funerary text the Book of Caverns. Although no well shaft was ever cut, a descending ramp passes through the antechamber and ends at the burial chamber’s entrance. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue background, the king’s names follow the path of the sun — the pharaoh and Ra had become one. 

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

In the burial chamber, scenes from the Book of Gates show towering gateways that separate the divisions of the underworld guarded by fire-spitting serpents. Illustrations from other funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Heavens, were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, depicting Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld. 

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

The burial chamber is almost filled by the massive quartzite sarcophagus. Twin figures of the sky goddess Nut are depicted on the ceiling, her elastic, naked body held aloft by her father Shu, the god of air and sunlight. Nut’s arms and legs extend downward to touch the horizon. Each night she swallows the sun disk, which travels through her body and emerges in the form of a winged scarab from her womb in the morning. 

Ramesses IV’s tomb is an impressive example of New Kingdom burial chambers — though I’m not sure I’d want to have a slumber party in there like all those archaeologists. –Duke

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

Explore KV11, one of the largest tombs in Luxor, and learn why it takes a strange and sudden turn.

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Egypt is a country steeped in myth and history, and one of the most interesting places to see this can be found on the West Bank of the Nile River — the direction of the setting sun and the underworld of ancient Egypt. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it was part of the capital city of Thebes and was where the tombs of the deceased New Kingdom pharaohs were built. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Valley of the Kings, the admission price (160 Egyptian pounds, or about $9) includes three tombs. We had read about the richly decorated tombs filled with spells and scenes from the Book of the Dead and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes. 

Ramesses III’s mummy was so unappealing that it became the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film “The Mummy.”

Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arranged our itinerary, including our guide and driver, and could not have been more accommodating and flexible. One of the tombs included on our visit  was KV11, that of Ramesses III. (These kings are sometimes spelled Ramses or Rameses, though we’ve gone with the most widely used by Egyptologists, Ramesses.)

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

Usermaatre-Meryamun, or Ramesses III, was the second Twentieth Dynasty ruler and considered to be one of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom, before Egypt plunged into chaos. Being king meant that he had five royal names. His Horus name, which he adopted upon taking the throne, was something along the lines of Kanakht Asnesyt, which translates to the Great Bull, Great of Kingship. (Names typically have multiple spelling variants after transliteration which aims to preserve sound, given differences in the languages’ sounds and writing systems.) 

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the  Book of the Dead

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the Book of the Dead

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Although Ramesses III’s reign was fraught with conflicts, his troops secured the empire's borders against foreign invasion attempts by Libya and the mysterious Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean (depicted on the walls of his mortuary temple and royal palace, Medinet Habu), earning him the reputation as a mighty warrior king. 

Using Ramesses II as his model, he took a harem of many wives — though they would ultimately lead to his demise. The god-king’s 31-year reign ended when he fell victim to an elaborate assasination plot known as the Harem Conspiracy. A minor wife, Tiye, hatched a plan to have the monarch killed and seize the throne from Ramesses’ designated heir for her son, Prince Pentaware. 

The assailants succeeded in killing Ramesses III — the throat of his mummified remains reveals that his throat was slit — but failed in its goal of crowning Pentaware. Queen Tiye, Prince Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial.

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

Fragmentary documentation known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the court trial that followed, including the accusations and punishment against its multiple conspirators. How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but Pentawere was found guilty and forced to commit suicide. 

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

The plan of KV11, the designation of the royal tomb of Ramesses III, is comprised of an inclined entrance passage with steps cut into the floor, a descending central corridor, pillared hall and burial chamber. Its first three corridors were started by his father, Setnakhte, the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but abandoned when it collided with KV10, the earlier tomb of the deposed pharaoh Amenmesse while excavating the fourth corridor. The cartouches of Setnakhte were later plastered over and reinscribed with the name of Ramesses III.

Not wanting to waste the resources already put into excavation, Ramesses III resumed work on the abandoned tomb, realigning the axis to the right and extending the corridor. The tomb is one of the longest in the valley, measuring a total of 180 meters, or 262 feet. The relatively straight axis represented the sun god Ra’s western descent into the tomb and his ascension in the east. 

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series  Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Tomb of the Harpers

This tomb contains colorful well-preserved relief scenes, with the first two corridors depicting the 74 manifestations of Ra. Ramesses III added small side alcoves to the second corridor, one of which contains a relief of two blind harpists. Scottish explorer James Bruce drew attention to it with the publication of his illustrated five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which features a beautiful but inaccurate take on the scene. Worried for his safety, Bruce quickly sketched one of the harpists and later drew it from memory, giving it a Victorian flourish and for a time, KV11 was referred to as the Tomb of the Harpers.

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

A narrow yellow ribbon runs through the center of the ceiling and contains additional spells and funerary texts from the Litany of Re

On the doorframe between the second and third corridors are symbols of a different kind: two knots of Isis with djed-pillars (the symbolic backbone of Osiris, meaning stability) and ankhs (symbolizing life) holding animal-headed was-sceptres (power). 

The fourth corridor rises to clear the underlying chamber of KV10, descends to a shallow well shaft and continues on to a pillared hall with another passage leading to a pair of anterooms and the burial chamber. 

On the wall here, Ramesses III offers incense before the seated god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. He holds three vessels, their contents spilling onto the platform on which the god sits. Behind the triple deity stands the goddess Isis. The pharaoh’s titles are listed in front of him: Ramesses the ruler of Heliopolis and his coronation name, which translates to the Justice of Ra, Beloved by Amun. 

The identification of Rameses III with the greatest of gods, Amun, ensured that he would experience endless regeneration, a necessity for his eternal well-being in the afterlife. 

In the fourth corridor is a scene from another funerary text, the Amduat, depicting a goddess with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, standing in front of a guardian serpent with four legs and a human head. The narrative illustrates the nocturnal voyage of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, who travels through the underworld from the time when the sun sets in the west to when it rises again in the east. The underworld, as the Ancient Egyptians saw it, is divided into 12 hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The iconography and symbolism here is wonderful.

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Adding elements of temple architecture, Ramesses commissioned a four-pillared hall decorated with scenes and texts from the Book of Gates that depict him and various deities on their nightly journey through the netherworld — the fifth hour on the left side and the sixth hour on the right side. Also on the right is a side chamber with scenes where Ramesses III is led by the gods Thoth and Horus and offers ma’at (the concept of justice and balance) to Osiris. A double scene on the rear wall immediately before the burial chamber shows the king making offerings to Osiris. 

In the burial chamber, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, the king identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined his cyclical daily journey. 

Sadly, the quartz sarcophagus was removed by Italian explorer and former circus performer Giovanni Batista Belzoni and currently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Its lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, it wasn’t uncommon for unregulated foreign excavators digging in the valley to ship statuary and crates filled with tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. The empty burial chamber ends with an anticlimactic darkened hallway and gate.

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero is credited with finding a cachette of royal mummies, including that of Ramesses III. But it was actually discovered by accident, when a straying goat fell into a concealed tomb shaft in Deir el-Bahari. The unwrapped mummy is now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, and its features were considered so unappealing that they found fame as the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy. –Duke

 

Enchanting Edfu Temple

The Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of the best-preserved Greco-Roman sites in Egypt, can be paired with Kom Ombo.

The well-preserved Temple of Horus at Edfu is in the Ptolemaic style

The well-preserved Temple of Horus at Edfu is in the Ptolemaic style

It’s no secret that Wally and I love temples and visited as many as we possibly could during our time in Egypt. Our favorites ended up being the less-busy ones, and the Temple of Horus at Edfu fell into this category. 

Wally and Duke hired a driver and guide to take them from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way up

Wally and Duke hired a driver and guide to take them from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way up

The city of Edfu and its Ptolemaic-period temple was  about a two-hour drive from the Temple of Kom Ombo and sits on the West Bank of the Nile. 

The evil god Seth is shown in the form of a hippopotamus, his diminutive size rendering him less threatening.

Ancient Egyptians believed that what was carved was given life.

In antiquity, Edfu was known as Behdet, and the region was referred to as Wetjeset-Hrw, “The Place Where Horus Is Extolled.” Local lore hypothesized that this was the site of the fierce and final battle between Horus, a falcon-headed god of the sky, and his wicked uncle, Seth, a jackal-headed god of chaos who killed Horus’ father Osiris. The modern Arabic name, Edfu, comes from the ancient Egyptian name Djeba, or Etbo in Coptic. Djeba means Retribution Town, this being where the enemies of Horus were brought to justice.


READ ABOUT THE CRAZY BATTLE OF THE GODS: Horus vs. Seth: Homosexuality, Hippos and Familial Violence


Construction on the Temple of Horus was started by Ptolemy III in 237 BCE, after the last native Egyptian pharaoh ruled. Its style combines classical Egyptian architectural elements with Greco-Roman influences. Work on the temple was frequently stalled due to insurrection — the Egyptians despised their new Ptolemaic rulers. It ultimately took six successive rules to complete, in 57 BCE.

The mammisi in front of the main temple at Edfu honors Harsomptus, the son of Horus and Hathor. The courtyard in front of smaller structure was the site of an annual festival of singing and dancing

The mammisi in front of the main temple at Edfu honors Harsomptus, the son of Horus and Hathor. The courtyard in front of smaller structure was the site of an annual festival of singing and dancing

Et Tu, Edfu?

The site is one of the best-preserved pharaonic monuments, thanks to being almost completely buried in sand until French archaeologist Auguste Mariette stumbled across them and began excavating the ruins in 1860. At that time, the desert had swallowed the temple up to its lintels, and locals had built mud-brick dwellings on top of the hypostyle hall. 

The Ptolemy rulers adopted Egyptian customs, including depicting themselves with the gods on the walls of temples

The Ptolemy rulers adopted Egyptian customs, including depicting themselves with the gods on the walls of temples

Later generations of Coptic Christians had a bad habit of defiling imagery of the gods, which they viewed as blasphemous

Later generations of Coptic Christians had a bad habit of defiling imagery of the gods, which they viewed as blasphemous

The focal point of the temple exterior is the entrance gate. Monumental in scale, the twin pylons measure an impressive 118 feet tall. The incised reliefs depict Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies before Horus. As this part of the structure was visible to the general public, and literacy levels were literally nonexistent — only an elite few could read and write hieroglyphics — imagery like this was used as propaganda to emphasize the might and legitimacy of the rulers. 

Imagery on the pylon gates would have been visible to the public and served as propaganda to legitimize the Ptolemaic dynasty

Imagery on the pylon gates would have been visible to the public and served as propaganda to legitimize the Ptolemaic dynasty

Beyond the pylon is the court of offerings, a large paved terrace surrounded on three sides by a 32-columned arcade where the populace would bring their offerings to the statue of Horus. 

Only elites could read and write hieroglyphics, so pictures told the story

Only elites could read and write hieroglyphics, so pictures told the story

Adorning the walls are reliefs depicting the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, the annual reunion between Horus and his wife, Hathor. The festival lasted 15 days from the arrival of the sacred cult image of the goddess, which traveled by sacred barge from Dendera to Edfu. The statues of the gods were reunited within the temple sanctuary, where Hathor was symbolically impregnated by Horus and returned to Dendera to bear their son Harsomptus. 

This hieroglyphic represents the people of Egypt — and looks quite a bit like the ba, one of the symbols of the body’s soul — or, as Duke thinks, a bird taking a selfie

This hieroglyphic represents the people of Egypt — and looks quite a bit like the ba, one of the symbols of the body’s soul — or, as Duke thinks, a bird taking a selfie

A glyph that I saw here, and at many of the other temples, looked like a bird holding a phone and taking a selfie. I asked our guide Mamduh (pronounced Mom-doo) what this was, and he told me that it’s actually a rekhyt, a lapwing bird that symbolically represented the common people of Egypt under the king’s rule. Its upraised human arms are not holding a phone but are instead a presenting a gesture of adoration. The symbol also acted as a boundary marker and designated where the populace was allowed to congregate and what parts of the temple were off limits. 

This statue of an eagle honors Horus, who is usually depicted with the bird of prey’s head. Pharaohs aligned themselves with this deity

This statue of an eagle honors Horus, who is usually depicted with the bird of prey’s head. Pharaohs aligned themselves with this deity

Falcon Crest and Fatty

A 10-foot-tall black granite statue of Horus as a falcon wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt stood ahead of us outside the entrance to the outer hypostyle hall. The central doorway was originally fitted with cedar doors that were closed to the public. Stone screen walls, half the height of the front columns, still stand to either side and aided in further obscuring the view of the interior. Eighteen palmiform columns date to the reign of Ptolemy VIII, who was given the not-so-nice nickname Physkon, or Fatty, by his contemporaries. I would imagine the climate of Egypt did not prove agreeable to him. 

This section of the temple was built by Pharaoh Fatty

This section of the temple was built by Pharaoh Fatty

Wally felt the power of the holy temple

Wally felt the power of the holy temple

We followed Mamduh into the second hypostyle hall, which is older and smaller than the first. The room was dim except for shafts of natural light that entered the chamber through small apertures cut into the roof. Mamduh paused to explain the significance of the 12 papyrus columns, which symbolize the concept of amduat, the nightly journey of the sun god Ra through the 12 regions of the netherworld, corresponding to each of the 12 hours of the night.

A chamber off the hypostyle hall depicts the process for making perfume

A chamber off the hypostyle hall depicts the process for making perfume

Heaven Scent 

Off to the side of the hall was a small chamber that Mamduh referred to as the laboratory. Piquing our interest, he went on to elaborate that temple priests used this particular room for making perfume and incense. He gestured to the ritual scenes and accompanying hieroglyphics, explaining that they contain ancient recipes and methods of preparation. Burned daily in the temple, ingredients included frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper and mint. 

One of the Ptolemies honoring Horus

One of the Ptolemies honoring Horus

Seeking Sanctuary

The narrow room beyond the second hypostyle hall is the hall of offerings, where food and drink were consecrated daily for the eternal sustenance of the deity.

From there we entered the windowless holy of holies, which contains a granite shrine, the naos of Nectanebo II, the last of the native rulers of Egypt. This is the oldest and most sacred part of the temple and once held a golden cult statue of Horus. Nowadays, a reproduction of the god’s processional solar barque rests atop a low pedestal. The original is now in the Louvre.

During the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, the statue of Horus was carried out of the sanctuary on a solar boat like this to reunite with his consort, Hathor, who traveled down the Nile from Dendera

During the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, the statue of Horus was carried out of the sanctuary on a solar boat like this to reunite with his consort, Hathor, who traveled down the Nile from Dendera

Chapels, storerooms and ancillary chambers dedicated to various deities, including Min, Sekhmet, Osiris, Khonsu, Hathor and Ra, are arranged around the central sanctuary. 

Mamduh gave us a moment to backtrack and told us how the stairwell design mimics the spiraling circular path of a falcon’s ascent. Another stairwell, used to descend from the roof, is straight, to evoke a falcon’s downward plunge. 

During the Opening of the Year festival, the equivalent of New Year’s Day, the cult statue of Horus was carried up the ascending staircase to the temple rooftop to bask in the first sunrise of the new year. The ritual is depicted in raised relief with figures of priests and bearers. Unfortunately, roof access is closed to visitors. 

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, exploring the dark passageways covered with amazing carvings

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones, exploring the dark passageways covered with amazing carvings

We encountered a father and young daughter, who I believe were French from the few words I heard spoken between them. I’m not sure if it was due to excitement or boredom, but the girl ran away from her father. Later, we saw her wandering around the inner sanctum, lost, calling out to him. “Serves her right for being naughty,” Wally remarked. 

The figure on the left pours out holy water in front of Horus

The figure on the left pours out holy water in front of Horus

Finally, we emerged outside in a narrow outer hall known as the Passage of Victory. Its walls are decorated with a tableau of scenes and texts depicting the Contendings of Horus and Seth. Seth is shown in the form of a hippopotamus, his diminutive size rendering him less threatening (Ancient Egyptians believed that what was carved was given life). Horus, casts his harpoon 10 times into Seth the hippo, ultimately conquering him and ascending the throne. Unfortunately, many of the carvings bear scars from chisels, obliterating the faces, hands and feet of gods — most likely the handiwork of Coptic Christians who found the images blasphemous. 

The god Horus battles his Uncle Seth, who’s shown as a small hippo — Ancient Egyptians believed that if you carved something, it would actually happen. So they didn’t want to give too much power to the evil Seth

The god Horus battles his Uncle Seth, who’s shown as a small hippo — Ancient Egyptians believed that if you carved something, it would actually happen. So they didn’t want to give too much power to the evil Seth

Horus and Seth battle for the crown of Egypt, and Horus is ultimately victorious

Horus and Seth battle for the crown of Egypt, and Horus is ultimately victorious

If you’re traveling to Luxor, consider heading down to Kom Ombo and Edfu. Admission to the Temple of Horus at Edfu costs 140 Egyptian pounds, or a bit over $8 when we visited. We booked through Egypt Sunset Tours, stopping at the two sites on a drive up from Aswan. You won’t get to see the ancient festival, but at least you can explore the entire temple, something only the most elite were allowed to do in antiquity. –Duke

Step back in time to explore the temple at Edfu, more than 2,200 years old!

Step back in time to explore the temple at Edfu, more than 2,200 years old!

The Temple of Horus at Edfu
Adfo
Markaz Edfo
Aswan Governorate
Egypt

 

Kom Ombo: The Dual Temple of Horus and Sobek

Who is the Egyptian crocodile god? Explore a symmetrical ruin and see reptilian mummies at the Crocodile Museum.

Kom Ombo’s distinctive floral flourishes at the top of the columns are what first appealed to Wally

Kom Ombo’s distinctive floral flourishes at the top of the columns are what first appealed to Wally

There was something about Kom Ombo that instantly called to me. Perhaps I could sense its Greco-Roman influence. My whole life, I’ve been downright obsessed with Greek myths, and poor Duke has had to watch way too many shows about Ancient Rome.

But, for some reason, I wasn’t that interested in Egypt. That is, not until we decided to visit. Since then, I’ve been devouring books on its vast history and reading its insane mythology. (Case in point: a young god getting buggered by the uncle who killed his father, and then sneakily feeding him his sperm on lettuce leaves — aww, you just have to read it to believe it.)

Sobek is known as “the raging one” who “takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desires.”
These twin temples have been around for a couple of thousands of years

These twin temples have been around for a couple of thousands of years

Horus, the falcon-headed god, shares the temple with Sobek, the crocodile god

Horus, the falcon-headed god, shares the temple with Sobek, the crocodile god

Duke peeks from behind a column in the forecourt of Kom Ombo

Duke peeks from behind a column in the forecourt of Kom Ombo

Wally loved exploring this off-the-beaten-path temple

Wally loved exploring this off-the-beaten-path temple

We hired a driver and guide from Egypt Sunset Tours to travel by car from Aswan up to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu along the way.

Admission to Kom Ombo costs 100 Egyptian pounds, or about $6, and includes the Crocodile Museum next door.

Crocodile-headed Sobek, seen in the middle, is a complicated god of water and fertility

Crocodile-headed Sobek, seen in the middle, is a complicated god of water and fertility

Meet Sobek, the Crocodile God

Part of the appeal of Kom Ombo is its unique setup: It’s actually two temples, divided right down the middle, each a symmetrical mirror of the other. The north side honors Horus, the falcon-headed youthful god of the sun that so many pharaohs associated themselves with; the south is devoted to another figure we didn’t see much in hieroglyphs: Sobek, the local crocodile-headed deity. (His name, in fact, was simply the Ancient Egyptian word for crocodile.)

This part of the Nile, about an hour north of Aswan, was once home to larger numbers of crocodiles. And if there was one thing Nile boaters hated more than hippos, it was crocodiles. Both of these animals made navigating a craft on the river a dangerous prospect. You’ll see quite a few sites with relief carvings of these dangers, though Kom Ombo was the only one we visited that depicted Sobek himself.

Sobek was often depicted as having a crocodile head, ram’s horns and an elaborate crown, as seen on this statue in the Crocodile Museum next to Kom Ombo

Sobek was often depicted as having a crocodile head, ram’s horns and an elaborate crown, as seen on this statue in the Crocodile Museum next to Kom Ombo

Sobek was a complicated figure, swinging back and forth between good and evil.

Sometimes he was associated with Set, the god of chaos whom Horus battled over the rulership of Egypt. Set’s allies turned themselves into crocodiles to escape. In the Pyramid Texts, Sobek is known as “the raging one” who “takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desires.”

Then again, some sects believed it was Sobek who created the world, rising out of the dark primordial water to shape the universe. Because he was associated with the River Nile — which flowed from his sweat — and all its life-giving power, Sobek was also a god of fertility.

Pharaohs wanted to imbue themselves with the strength and speed of crocodiles; the hieroglyphic for “sovereign” was a crocodile.

A votive offering from the reign of Amenhotep III

A votive offering from the reign of Amenhotep III

Locals at Kom Ombo believed (hoped?) that if they worshipped crocodiles, treating them as sacred, they would be protected from these ferocious beasts. Many an ancient tomb included a mummified crocodile corpse to extend that protection into the afterlife.

From a safety standpoint, I’m happy to report that nowadays the crocs are long gone. The closest you’ll get to one today are the mummified corpses at the adjacent Crocodile Museum.

Be sure to see the mummified crocs after wandering the ruins of Kom Ombo. Mummies like these were put into tombs so the ferocious beasts could protect the dead in the afterlife

Be sure to see the mummified crocs after wandering the ruins of Kom Ombo. Mummies like these were put into tombs so the ferocious beasts could protect the dead in the afterlife

Construction of the temple at Kom Ombo began early during the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor, about 186 BCE. The hypostyle halls of columns are credited to Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, who ruled from 51-47 BCE. And during the Roman period, the Emperor Augustus added the entrance pylon around 30 BCE.

The inner part of the temple is filled with crypts and hidden passageways

The inner part of the temple is filled with crypts and hidden passageways

With the construction of the Aswan Dam, many Nubians and Sudanese were relocated to the Kom Ombo area

With the construction of the Aswan Dam, many Nubians and Sudanese were relocated to the Kom Ombo area

Rocks taken from the temple in 1955 were used to build a local sugar factory!

Rocks taken from the temple in 1955 were used to build a local sugar factory!

A temple guard in one of Kom Ombo’s galleries

A temple guard in one of Kom Ombo’s galleries

On one side of the temple’s exterior, a lion bites a hand

On one side of the temple’s exterior, a lion bites a hand

Kom Ombo: What’s in a Name?

The name of this temple is undeniably fun to say; it sort of bounces right out of the mouth. It’s interesting in that it’s a mishmash of Arabic and Ancient Egyptian: Kom is Arabic for hill, while Ombo is a corruption of the Egyptian word meaning gold. So Kom Ombo was known as the Hill of Gold.

The site was a popular commercial hub, including, one imagines, for the gold mined down in Nubia to the south.

The Ancient Egyptians were the first to create a 365-day calendar

The Ancient Egyptians were the first to create a 365-day calendar

The Ancient Egyptian Calendar: A Date With Destiny

Those Ancient Egyptians were undeniably clever. In addition to all the architectural marvels you can still tour, they also devised the first 365-day calendar (granted, it started with 360 days, but eventually they figured out they needed to add on five days). There were 12 months of 30 days throughout the three seasons (flooding, growing and harvest, all tied to the annual Nile inundation), with the extra days added to the end of harvest to provide a time for feasting. Of course, the 365-day calendar, which we still use, is flawed, and eventually seasons get off schedule. So Ptolemy III added a day every four years — the beginning of our leap year.

Ancient Egyptians only had three seasons, all tied to the Nile’s flooding and the nutrient-rich soil it left in its wake

Ancient Egyptians only had three seasons, all tied to the Nile’s flooding and the nutrient-rich soil it left in its wake

Off to the right, as you walk through the temple, there’s a wall of hieroglyphics that show the Egyptian calendar. Our guide, Mamduh (pronounced “Mom-doo”), made a great teacher. He’d show us what certain symbols meant, had us decipher some and would quiz us when the glyph appeared at another location, proud when we got the answer right.

Various rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty depicted themselves at Kom Ombo

Various rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty depicted themselves at Kom Ombo

Roman Emperors on Parade

The temple is a bit of a who’s who of Roman emperors. The pylon wall out front shows Domitian wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, while the forecourt colonnade depicts Tiberius making an offering to the local gods. Elsewhere, Horus and the ibis-headed Thoth are pouring holy water over Ptolemy XII, while Sobek looks on. On the other side of the temple, the relief swaps the positions of Sobek and Horus.

Behind this family, you can see Ptolemy XII anointed with holy water by the gods Thoth and Horus

Behind this family, you can see Ptolemy XII anointed with holy water by the gods Thoth and Horus

Kom Ombo also houses clinics. A sample treatment was to squeeze onion juice into the eye to treat irritations

Kom Ombo also houses clinics. A sample treatment was to squeeze onion juice into the eye to treat irritations

Priests would hide in a subterranean tunnel behind the sanctuaries and act as oracles to pilgrims

Priests would hide in a subterranean tunnel behind the sanctuaries and act as oracles to pilgrims

Notice the dripping penises: Mamduh told us this was a symbol of STDs, which were treated here

Notice the dripping penises: Mamduh told us this was a symbol of STDs, which were treated here

Out back, walls rise up in a narrow passageway, depicting not only Emperor Trajan making offerings to the gods but an array of surgical instruments as well.

The temple stands on the banks of the Nile, and teams are now working to protect it from erosion

The temple stands on the banks of the Nile, and teams are now working to protect it from erosion

This well is known as a nilometer and was used to predict Nile floods

This well is known as a nilometer and was used to predict Nile floods

Kom Ombo’s Nilometer

Off to the left, if you’re facing the entrance, are the remains of a nilometer, a structure somewhat reminiscent of the stepwells of India, used to predict the flooding of the Nile. I peeked my head over the edge, but even with my feet firmly planted and my body secure on the stone edge, vertigo made my head spin.

Decades of irrigation in what was once the desert have eroded the foundation of Kom Ombo. A U.S.-funded team is working to create a 30-foot-deep trench around the site to divert groundwater back into the Nile.

A large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal is its remoteness. Situated right on the bank of the Nile in a small town miles from Aswan, the site is surrounded by sugarcane fields. In fact, about 50 years ago, before the site was under preservation, a sugarcane magnate pillaged stones from Kom Ombo to build his sugar factory nearby. Can you imagine ancient hieroglyphics mixed in with modern materials to build a factory?! Thank Sobek that Kom Ombo is now under protection, its importance once again realized and respected. –Wally

The symmetry of the temple, half devoted to Sobek, half to Horus, is a large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal

The symmetry of the temple, half devoted to Sobek, half to Horus, is a large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal

 

Temple of Kom Ombo
Nagoa Ash Shatb
Markaz Deraw
Aswan Governorate
Egypt

Dendera Temple of Hathor: One of the Best Temples in Egypt

Walk up to see the Dendera Zodiac and descend into a secret passage to see the Dendera light bulb.

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

Egypt has a storied history, filled with monuments and temples that are all amazing in their own way. But some were much more astonishing than others — and Dendera (also spelled Dandarah) just might be my favorite of the bunch. Its massive columns covered in hieroglyphics utterly dwarf you, and zodialogical creatures romp on the turquoise ceiling. Then there’s the secret passage below the temple.

All of these aspects make Dendera majestic, but there’s something else to it. Duke and I quickly realized that the temples we liked best were those not swarming with tourists. Yes, Abu Simbel is jaw-droppingly awesome, but while visiting there, I felt like a tourist. At Dendera, which we had mostly to ourselves, wandering the quiet, cool colonnade, looking up in awe, I felt like a pilgrim. I truly understood that this was a holy site, a sacred space.

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The Dendera Complex

The oldest structure at Dendera is the mammisi of Nectanebo II, the last of the native pharaohs, from 360-343 BCE. Mammisis are translated as “birth houses” and were small chapels at the entrance of temples to honor the nativity of a deity.

Another mammisi stands on the Dendera grounds. It’s generally thought that Nero (Roman emperor from 54-68 CE) began construction, which was then completed by Trajan (who reigned from 98-117 CE), as both are represented in carvings here.

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The temple, originally known as Iunet, or Tentyris in Greek, was commissioned by Ptolemy XII. The Greek ruler set about building temples all over Egypt — not only to win the favor of the natives, who would appreciate a foreign king honoring their time-honored traditions, but also to reap the financial benefits. Temples were landowners, storehouses and centers of economic activity. Queen Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra) wrapped up construction. She had bas-reliefs carved of her and Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Construction took place around 54-20 BCE.

How cool is it to think that you’re walking around a temple that Cleopatra herself helped build and worshipped in?

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

The Much-Loved, Multifaceted Hathor

Hathor was one of the most popular goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, her roles shifting through the ages. Her hieroglyphics literally translate to “House of Horus,” referring to her protective role as a mother figure and/or wife of the falcon god Horus. As such, she was also a sky goddess, ruling over the realm where Horus flew.

You’ll often see Hathor bearing a cow head or just the ears, as depicted atop Hathor columns like those at Dendera. This refers to her role as a nurturing royal nurse; she’s said to suckle the pharaohs of Egypt — even as adults.

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

She was also called Mistress of the Vagina and was associated with fertility and female sexuality. (No surprise that the Greeks connected her with Aphrodite.)

And, among other attributes, Hathor was the goddess of drunkenness and music. A rattle-like instrument called a sistrum was used in her worship.

Hathor’s dominions are pretty all-encompassing and were tied to the monarchy. Her worship took place all over Egypt — but it was centered at Dendera.

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

The highlight of the year for the worship of Hathor was the festival of her marriage to Horus. During the summer, her sacred statue would travel by boat along the Nile to the Temple of Horus at Edfu. There it would unite with that of Horus, and a raucous celebration would take place over the next two weeks.

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Exploring the Temple of Hathor

The Temple of Hathor remains — in fact, with Philae, it’s one of the best-preserved temples of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. Temples to her consort Horus and their child, Ihy or Harsomptus, once stood nearby but have been destroyed.

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

Imagine the temple as it originally stood — gleaming white in the desert sun, the carvings that cover the façade painted in bright colors. Now, though, thousands of years of sand and wind erosion have reduced the exterior to the same color as the sand it stands upon.

The gateway in front was constructed during the reigns of the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan, and fit within the surrounding mud-brick wall that enclosed the complex.

During the 1st century, Emperor Tiberius added the gorgeous hypostyle hall, featuring 24 soaring columns bearing the cow-eared head of Hathor, each face vandalized in antiquity. The ceiling retains its original paint, and you’ll get a sore neck craning to look up at it — but it’s worth it. After the empire fell, the temple was half-buried in sand, and locals used the structure as shelter, lighting fires for cooking and warmth. There are still swaths of the ceiling that remain covered in soot, but the scenes that have been revealed after meticulous restoration are nothing short of incredible.

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

It features a chart of the heavens, including signs of the zodiac, which the Romans introduced. You’ll also see the goddess Nut in her typical position: straight-armed and straight-legged, forming three sides of a square to represent the sky. Every evening she swallows the sun, which then passes through her body, until she gives birth to it the next day at dawn.

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

The inner hypostyle hall is where the statue of the goddess Hathor and her solar barque would be brought from her sanctuary during festivals.

Inside the sanctuary, there’s a false door, usually built to allow the soul’s passage in and out of the underworld. This one is unusual in that it’s high up. You can climb a ladder into this loft, where the statue of Hathor was usually kept.

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

Around back of the sanctuary, a passage slopes down to a sunken chamber. our guide Mamduh (pronounced Mom-doo) explained that due to a marvel of acoustics, supplicants could whisper prayers to the goddess, and her priestess could respond mysteriously from below.

The Dendera Light Bulb From Ancient Aliens

Secret passageways lead to subterranean crypts, where treasure was hidden away. Duke and I of course opted to take the makeshift ladder down and squeeze into the narrow space to explore them. The walls are covered with the most bizarre hieroglyphics we have seen on this trip. We were down there with another couple from the United States, and as we headed back up, we heard the man excitedly call out, “It’s the lightbulb from Ancient Aliens!”

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

He was referring to a strange carving of long, tapering ovals with squiggles inside. The crackpot TV show Ancient Aliens insists that this represents a light bulb, 4,000 years before Thomas Edison “invented” it. How did the Ancient Egyptians have electricity to light the temple? Why, alien technology, of course.

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

When we met up with our guide Mamduh and told him what we had heard, he smiled and nodded, familiar with that particular conspiracy theory. He told us that those bas-reliefs were actually how Ancient Egyptians depicted the moment of creation; the “light bulb” is actually a representation of the womb of the goddess Nut, and the so-called filament inside the bulb is obviously a snake.


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The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The Chapel of Osiris and Dendera Zodiac

After descending into the secret passageway, we took a corridor up to the top of the temple. It spiraled up gradually as a tribute to the falcon-headed god Horus, mimicking the circling pattern of the birds of prey when rising into the sky. (Another staircase for descent is short and straight, like the plunging dive a falcon takes when attacking prey.)

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

At the top of the structure is a small temple that was used for rituals to greet the rising sun.

There’s also the Chapel of Osiris, a small dark room, depicting the death and resurrection of the god.

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The portico at the entrance features a blackened ceiling relief known as the Dendera Zodiac. It’s said to be the only complete map we have of an ancient sky. Most of the zodiac representations are the same as today, though Aquarius is shown as the Nile god Hapy.

Mamduh explained that the one we were looking at was actually a replica. In 1821, the Egyptian ruler, Mohamed Ali Pasha, allowed the original to be transported to Paris, France, where it remains, on display at the Louvre.

The ruins of a sanatorium are also on the grounds, for Hathor, that goddess of all trades, was also a healer. Pilgrims would come here to bathe in the sacred pool and bring home containers of holy water. There were also sleeping quarters here where supplicants would hope to dream of the goddess and receive her wisdom.

Admission to the temple costs 100 Egyptian pounds. Even without the secret passage that has launched a thousand conspiracy theories, the aqua blue ceiling covered with zodialogical signs and massive columns in the Temple of Hathor make Dendera a must-see. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Luxor and can be paired with Abydos. –Wally

Dendera Temple Complex
Qism Qena
Dandarah
Qena Governorate
Egypt

Ancient Egypt’s Mummification Process Explained

What went into canopic jars, how was the body dried out, what organs were the most important — and what got thrown away?

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

As a kid, I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt. I grew up in the state of New York, and my dad would take me to the Buffalo Museum of Science to visit the room that held a few mummies and artifacts. It was the late 1970s, and treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun had captured the imagination of the American public as they traveled to museums across the United States. I would check out as many books on the subject as I could from our local library, and when my elementary school library received the book Mummies Made in Egypt by Aliki Brandenberg, I begged my mother to ask if they could order an extra copy for me. I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged my creative side, and a kind librarian who agreed to this request.

Recently, memories of this richly illustrated book came flooding back to me as Wally and I wandered the second-floor galleries of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The hall contains wood and glass display cabinets filled with a dizzying collection of elaborately decorated ancient coffins, mummies, amulets to protect the dead, and shabti, magical statuettes of servants that would come alive to perform duties for the deceased in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that death was a temporary transition — a concept deeply embedded in their daily lives. Every night, the sun god Ra made his passage to the underworld, disappearing with the setting sun in the west, and emerging reborn the following morning in the east. The goddess Isis wept for her dead husband Osiris, and new life sprouted from the fertile banks along the River Nile. To Egyptians, as long as this natural order existed, a smooth passage beyond the trials of the underworld could be attained.

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

Mummy Dearest

However, eternal life was only possible if the individual’s corpse remained intact. Great care was taken to preserve the appearance of the physical body, which was essential to ensure that the deceased’s soul would recognize and return to it in the next plane of existence. If the body decayed, the soul would, too. The most costly method to ensure this was a multi-stage process known as mummification, typically reserved for royalty and nobles.

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

First, the body was moved to a temporary funeral pavilion, undressed, ritually cleansed and anointed with myrrh. After this had been completed, mortuary priests wearing jackal masks to evoke Anubis, the god of mummification, removed all internal organs — with the exception of the heart — through a small incision in the left side of the abdomen. The brain was thought to be useless; it was pulverized and extracted through the nose using a long metal hook. But the heart was considered to be the key to the afterlife and revealed evidence of the deceased’s true character.

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Canopic Jars

Organs considered vital in the afterlife by the Ancient Egyptians were reserved, washed, desiccated, wrapped in linen and placed inside four containers known as canopic jars. Each vessel held a different organ and were shaped to represent the four children of Horus, a deity connected to the pharaohs:

  • Falcon-headed Qebehsenuef held the intestines.

  • Human-headed Imsety held the liver.

  • Baboon-headed Hapy held the lungs.

  • Jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach.

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

The Mummification Process

One of the most important materials required for mummification was natron salt, a mixture that occurred naturally in Egypt. It was packed over and inside the body’s internal cavities and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanting bed. This removed any remaining bodily liquid and saponified fatty tissues, meaning they were essentially turned into soap. After this process was complete, the natron was removed, and the shrunken, desiccated body was once again bathed and dried. A coniferous resin was applied to the deceased’s skin, preventing bacterial growth and decay.

The body was then wrapped in linen, and various amulets were placed about the body to protect and sustain it in the life beyond. A scarab amulet inscribed with a spell from the funerary text the Book of the Dead was asked not to testify against the deceased. It was placed between the layers of linen wrappings over the heart. The neck and chest were important areas and played a specific protective and strengthening role. The wrapping process itself lasted approximately 15 days. The linen strips were soaked in balm and resin, which gave the skin a blackened appearance resembling pitch.

The sheathed, mummified body of the pharaoh was placed within a set of coffins, shaped to resemble the human form, and nested like Russian matryoshka dolls. The innermost coffin was considered the most sacred and represented the deceased in their divine form.

During the New Kingdom period, a procession took place where the bereaved, coffin, canopic jars and an assemblage of funerary furnishings were placed on a sled and pulled by oxen to the necropolis. Once these items arrived outside the tomb entrance, a ritual called the opening of the mouth ceremony was performed to allow the deceased to see, hear, breathe, eat and speak in the afterlife.

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The coffin was brought to the burial chamber and enclosed within a large rectangular sarcophagus made of stone, with protective deities and hieroglyphics pertaining to its inhabitant chiseled into its surface.

Finally, the outer door of the tomb was sealed and imprinted with royal insignia. The finality of this action was mitigated by the belief that the king had now entered the realm of the underworld and could begin his (or her) journey beyond death. –Duke

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Visit Deir el-Bahari to explore the funerary temple of the first female pharaoh.

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

The clean minimalism of Hatshepset’s funerary temple feels strangely modern, even though it was built 3,500 years ago!

Cleopatra might be more famous, but Hatshepsut, born a royal princess during the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt, was the first historically documented woman to rule the powerful empire with the complete authority traditionally only given to men.

While staying in Luxor, we hired a driver and guide through Egypt Sunset Tours, and as part of our West Bank tour, we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

“They should make a movie about Hatshepsut,” our guide Mamduh said to us as we drove to the temple complex. “Maybe many movies.” It was obvious he had great respect for her.

To emphasize her authority, representations of Hatshepsut as a queen were replaced with gender-bending imagery depicting her in male pharaonic attire.

Mamduh went on to elaborate that Hatshepsut’s reign was a period of peace and economic prosperity. He told us how her ambitious building projects set a precedent for future generations of pharaohs, but that her greatest architectural achievement was the tiered mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. It was built in the mid-1400s BCE.

Admission to the site costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $6).

More Than a Woman

Hatshepsut (Hat-shep-soot) was the eldest daughter of King Thutmose, and the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, her half-brother. Thutmose Jr. reigned only briefly, and upon his death, Hatshepsut became the queen-regent of her stepson and successor, Thutmose III, who, at the time, was considered too young to rule alone. However, in her seventh year as co-regent, Hatshepsut officially assumed the role of King of Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled for more than two decades.

Once Hatshepsut took the throne, she reinvented herself and even took a new royal name, Maatkare, meaning Truth Is the Soul of the Sun. To emphasize her sovereignty, she opted for a complete gender transformation, depicting herself with a royal nemes headdress, short ritual shendyt-kilt and traditional false beard on her chin. Although standardized, her visage retained a few subtle feminine features, including a fullness of the face, widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and benign smile — though her breasts disappeared.

Fit for a Queen

Hewn from limestone, the linear geometric volumes of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple have an understated elegance, appearing as if they’ve always been part of the rugged desert landscape. Staggered terraces jut out from the imposing rock cliffs and a central ramp ascends from the temple base to its uppermost apex.

Construction lasted over a decade, the site chosen for its location in the Theban Necropolis. This region was long considered sacred to the goddess Hathor, who, among her attributes protected the dead on their journey to the great beyond. The temple’s axis was positioned to align with Hatshepsut’s Temple of Amun, the eighth pylon at Karnak across the Nile on the East Bank. In addition, on the east side of the Valley of the Kings, directly behind the complex is KV20, the tomb Hatshepsut commissioned for herself and her father.

Mamduh walked with us up the processional path leading to the temple and explained that originally 100 or so sphinxes bearing images of Hatshepsut’s head lined both sides of the avenue. Wally and I had previously seen one at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

We paused in the forecourt, which once held exotic myrrh trees and other specimens brought from the ancient land of Punt. You can see the withered and desiccated stumps encircled by a low iron fence and sign.

Hatshepsut’s name meant Foremost of Noble Women, and as a young princess, she was appointed the religious title of God’s Wife of Amun, a high priestess who served as a mediator between the chief god and the pharaoh. She would later use this title as the underlying principle behind her sovereignty, claiming that she was acting as a divine instrument under the will of Amun and that the god himself was her father.

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Only stubs of columns remain in the courtyard of the top terrace

Upper Court

Wally and I took the central ramp to uppermost terrace. Only a few of its columns still stand within the large open courtyard, and most of the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut (showing her depicted as the lord of the underworld) enclosed within its niches have been destroyed. The most sacred sanctuary, the holy of holies, is entered through a large granite gate in the center of the rear wall and was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

Wally stands in the granite portico leading to the sanctuary of the great god Amun

This terrace played an important role during the annual Beautiful Feast of the Valley festival, or Hab Nefer en Pa’Inet. A cult image of Amun-Ra was placed on a miniature ram-headed barque, or solar boat, and transported from the Temple at Karnak on the East Bank of the Nile to the temple of Medinet Habu, eventually coming to rest in the shrine here at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank. Inside the sanctuary, the curved vaulted ceiling is decorated with celestial stars against a deep blue background. Niches, now empty, would have contained statues of Pharaoh Maatkare and most likely other members of the royal family.

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

We were amazed at the colors that have withstood the centuries, and particularly liked the star pattern on the ceiling

The majority of the excavation, reconstruction and restoration work has been carried out by the Polish-Egyptian Archaeological and Conservation Mission, located at the site behind a wooden door that, I believe, once led to the chapels of Hatshepsut and her late father.

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

What a woman! Hatshepsut styled herself with a lot of the symbolism only male pharaohs had used in the past — including a false beard

Middle Court

Among the impressive features of Hatshepsut’s temple are the colossal Osiride statues here. What makes these figures unique is that they are depicted grasping four symbols of royal authority and divine power, two in each hand: the ankh and flail in the right and the scepter and crook in the left.

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

Duke and Wally mimic the Osiride statues of Hatshepsut

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

A temple employee in front of some of the statues — note the reddish color on their faces

At either end of the middle court are two chapels. To the south of the colonnade is the Chapel of Hathor and to the north the Chapel of Anubis.

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

The chapel to the goddess of fertility sports Hathor columns, topped with her head

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

A procession of soldiers carrying shields and spears

In addition to her role as protector and travel companion to the dead, Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of sexual love, fertility, music, dancing and the sky. Inside, the now-roofless chapel includes a 12-columned hypostyle hall with four Hathor-headed capitals, resembling a super-sized sistrum, an Ancient Egyptian percussion instrument associated with the goddess, that rattles when shaken.

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

Colorful friezes in the Chapel of Anubis

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

The god of mummification is one of Wally’s faves. Jackals were often seen around cemeteries, leading Ancient Egyptians to believe that Anubis watched over the dead

After visiting the Hathor chapel, Wally and I wandered over to the Chapel of Anubis. What struck me most was the abundant amount of natural light illuminating its interior. Inside walls depict scenes of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and Osiris. There were also a couple images of Hatshepsut, which sadly have been chiseled away.

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one

Most temples in Ancient Egypt feature one or more colonnades like this one


Lower Court

The lower court contains two important sets of reliefs. To the south was the Birth Colonnade, which Wally and I must have somehow missed. I read that a relief and inscription within depicts the myth of Hatshepsut’s immaculate conception — the god Amun, in the guise of her father Thutmose I, impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, with his divine breath. Given Jesus’ similar birth centuries later, this method of storytelling shouldn’t seem so strange to us. At the time, it certainly wasn’t unusual for pharaohs to claim dvine birth.

The Punt Colonnade contains bas-relief scenes documenting the royally sponsored trade expedition to Punt, which was undertaken to export exotic goods, including cinnamon, ebony, ivory, gold, incense and myrrh, for the cult of Amun-Ra (and the pharaoh herself, of course).

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

A beautiful carving of a lion, one of the exotic animals from the expedition to the mysterious land of Punt — no one is quite sure where exactly it was

Thutmose III, although not technically the king during Hatshepsut’s reign, was not sitting idle; he had been honing his military skills by leading the armies of Egypt on successful campaigns of conquest. However, it’s been speculated that after his step-mother (and aunt’s) death, he attempted to erase her legacy, ordering many of her images to be systematically chiseled off temples and monuments.

Additional damage to the temple occurred during the Amarna period, when images of Amun were removed by the so-called heretic King Akhenaten. Then, the ancient Copts reused the temple’s upper terrace and built a mud-brick monastery there, which gives us the name of Deir el-Bahari, Arabic for Monastery of the North.

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Looking into the sanctuary of the Chapel of Hathor

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Visiting these temples was a lifelong dream for Duke, who has been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since he was a kid

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Wally preferred other temples to Hatshepsut’s, but it’s still worth a visit

Thanks to our knowledgeable guide Mamduh, Wally and I came away with a solid understanding of the amazing Hatshepsut and her mortuary temple before exploring it.

If you’d like to take a moment to recharge after — the Luxor sun can be brutal — there’s a café pavilion on the premises offering a spectacular view of the complex, along with ice cream treats. –Duke

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

The innovative terraced and columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in what was once the city of Thebes

 

Medinet Habu: A Reflection of Ramesses III’s Military Might

This Luxor temple depicts the victory over the Sea Peoples and includes carvings of severed penises. It’s also the site of the murderous Harem Conspiracy.

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

When in Luxor, be sure to visit Medinet Habu, an often-overlooked temple

The temple wasn’t even on our itinerary, but it ended up being one of our favorites. We had some extra time after a morning wandering the cool tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Rasha, who runs the highly recommended guide service Egypt Sunset Tours, suggested we add on the Tombs of the Nobles and Medinet Habu.

Admission to the temple costs a mere 80 Egyptian pounds (about $4.75), making this the cheapest of all the sites we visited.

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

The exterior wall is yet another sign that Medinet Habu was built to resemble a fortress

On one hand, all the temples of Ancient Egypt begin to blur together, their elements similar: a heavy pylon entranceway, staggeringly tall colonnades, small, secret sanctuaries at the back.

But, in truth, each temple has its own distinct personality. Karnak sprawls, much of it in ruins, its piles of rubble evoking Ancient Rome. Dendera has a magical feel, with its turquoise blue ceiling painted with astrological iconography. Luxor’s colonnade is open to the sky, reveling in the light and warmth of the sun.

And Medinet Habu, too, has a unique design; it evokes a feeling of military might not found in other temples. This martial flair is fitting, for Ramesses III built the structure to celebrate the victory of a battle that threatened to end the Egyptian Empire for good.

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

Duke and Wally loved visiting the temple complex, which was quite deserted

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators.

CT scans of his mummy found a deep slash across his throat.
The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

The bas-reliefs on the pylon gateways depict Ramesses III’s victory over the fierce Sea Peoples

Pirates of the Mediterranean: The Sea Peoples’ Slaughter

They came from the sea, though historians aren’t quite sure of their homelands. They were fierce, ruthless and mighty warriors. All around Ancient Egypt, neighboring empires fell under the Sea Peoples’ barrage. They even conquered the Hittites, Egypt’s sometimes-friends, sometimes-foes.

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Some of the bas-reliefs were still works in progress

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

Chariots helped Egypt gain advantages in battle

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

If you defeat warriors who were undefeated, you brag about it, like Ramesses III did

So when they finally came for Egypt in 1179 BCE, Ramesses III must have been worried. He staged the war on two fronts. One, a land battle at the delta of the Nile, was successful, but its lack of detail belies the probability that losses were severe (and therefore glossed over in the official record).

We know more of the second battle, which went more strongly in Egypt’s favor. This naval skirmish wiped out the Sea Peoples, beginning with a hail of arrows and ending with the capsizing of the Mediterranean ships.

Ramesses III turned his mortuary temple into a war memorial, calling it the Mansion of Millions of Years of King Ramesses, United With Eternity in the Estate of Amun. That’s quite a mouthful, so I’m glad the site now goes by its Arabic name.

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

The temple is infamous for being the site of the Harem Conspiracy

Inside Medinet Habu

The imposing entrance pylon façade strikes the visitor immediately as severe, a brutal sand-colored monolith. This is the fortified gatehouse Ramesses III built and was modeled on Syrian migdol gates he had encountered on his military campaigns. Adding to the fortress feel was a high mud-brick wall that once enclosed the complex.

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Upon entry, there are decaying statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess of war

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

Aside from towering depictions of pharaohs, you don’t see many statues in temples

What deity did Ramesses choose to feature immediately inside the gate? Why, none other than Sekhmet, the fierce lioness-headed goddess of war.

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

It was in these rooms at the top of the structure where Ramesses III hung out with his many wives — and where he met his demise

Treason in the Harem

The top floor of the gatehouse was where Ramesses hung out with his harem. The carvings here show Ramesses III in intimate poses with various wives or relaxing in a chair playing board games.

But all wasn’t as idyllic as pictured. “There was something about the claustrophobic atmosphere that fed the bitter jealousies and personal rivalries of the king’s many wives,” writes Toby Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. “With little to occupy their minds besides weaving and idle pleasures, the more ambitious concubines nurtured resentments, angry at the lowly status of their offspring and wondering how they might improve their own and their children’s fortunes.”

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The Second Courtyard later became a Christian church in the 9th century

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

The statues were preserved because they were covered in mud by the Coptics

In 1155 BCE, one of the pharaoh’s secondary wives, Tiy, plotted to assassinate Ramesses III as well as his heir apparent, Prince Ramesses, and install her son, Pentawere, on the throne. The plot, known as the Harem Conspiracy, grew to include a mutiny in the army and a revolution in the countryside. But as the plan became intricate, more and more people became involved, and eventually someone blabbed.

The conspirators were arrested and tried at a tribunal. Found guilty, they were forced to commit suicide. Those who were involved to a lesser degree were horribly disfigured, their noses and ears hacked off to permanently mark them as convicts.

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

Not only was this a mortuary temple, it was also Ramesses III’s palace. It was very unusual to combine both of these buildings into one complex

New evidence revealed that Ramesses III did meet a gruesome end at the hands of his conspirators, though. Researchers reexamined his mummy with CT scans and found a bone-deep slash across his throat that would have been fatal.

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

Medinet Habu is a beautiful structure — and the site of a pharaoh’s assassination

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

The underside of this gateway shows the winged sun amongst other paintings

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

Like many other Ancient Egyptian temples, you proceed through a series of courtyards

From Temple to Amun to Mortuary Temple to Christian Church

The temple within dates to 1490 BCE and was dedicated to Amun, the god of creation and fertility, by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. It was deemed a magical site, and even today, local farmers are said to believe in the protective powers of Medinet Habu.

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Is Duke feeling the magic that Egyptians to this day believe is imbued in this holy site?

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Medinet Habu includes a larger version of the Ramesseum. Seems like Ramesses III had to one-up his father

Ramesses III chose this spot for his mortuary temple. It’s essentially a larger-scale version of the Ramesseum, Ramesses II’s mortuary temple — which makes me feel less bad that we skipped visiting that particular temple in favor of this. The pharaoh enclosed the temple within his own, larger complex.

The site functioned as the administrative center of western Thebes, and it was here that the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings went on strike when their payment was late.

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

The shaded parts of the colonnade still have blue paint visible

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

These symbols were ankhs (representing life) with arms holding was scepters (power, dominion)

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

Shh! Don’t tell anyone, but Wally liked Medinet Habu better than Hatshepsut’s temple

After the Ramesside period, Libyans took control of Egypt, and Medinet Habu gained a dubious claim to fame. The Libyan rulers plundered the tombs of the pharaohs, taking all the riches to the state treasury, and unwrapped the royal mummies in the hunt for hidden jewels. Under the orders of Butehamun, the scribe of the necropolis, in 1066 BCE, the mummies were taken to Medinet Habu for processing and rewrapping before being unceremoniously dumped into the tomb of Amenhotep II.

Hundreds of years after Medinet Habu was built, in the 9th century, Rome’s dominion stretched into Egypt, and the Coptic Christians established the first church in the country. Its ruins remain, off to the right side of the complex. The monk cells behind the church were used for medical experiments, our guide Mamduh told us. Yes, there once was a time when religion and science were seen as compatible.

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Look closely: In addition to hands, soldiers are presenting war trophies of chopped-off penises to claim their bounty

Chopped-Off Hands and Penises

In the first courtyard, there’s a window of appearances, where the pharaoh would greet his subjects and reward military commanders. This portico connects the temple to the palace. One of the bas-reliefs on the wall here shows soldiers collecting their bounty by presenting the severed hands of their enemies to the pharaoh. But, Mamduh told us, some of the soldiers tried to double up on their rewards by cutting off both of their victims’ hands. So the king decided to come up with another prize to collect. Gee, what’s portable, and something men only have one of? If you look at the carving, you’ll see that in addition to tossing out hands, the soldiers are also presenting severed penises.

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

A popular design element in Ancient Egypt was the lotus column, constructed to mimic the plant that symbolized Upper Egypt

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Out back is the Great Hypostyle Hall, modeled after Karnak’s — again Ramesses III gained inspiration from his father, Ramesses II

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

Only the bases remain of most of the columns

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

There are four rose granite statues at the very back of the complex. They depict Ramesses III with Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, and Thoth, the god of wisdom

This delightfully grisly scene is just one reason this temple, so rich in history, is well worth visiting. So don’t dick around — add this to your Luxor itinerary. –Wally

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

The design of Medinet Habu borrows from the military gatehouses Ramesses III encountered in Syria

 

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It houses four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

Inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head (and upper body) — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But if you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally