temples

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

14 ways this powerful Ancient Egyptian woman used genderbending to become a female pharaoh, as revealed in Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

Everyone knows all about Cleopatra, the clever seductress of two powerful Roman men who ruled over Ancient Egypt.

But without her forebear Hatshepsut, there might never have been a Cleopatra. Surely Cleopatra looked upon the woman who rose to the upper echelon of power as a true inspiration.

What made Hatshepsut’s success all the more remarkable was how unprecedented it was. Sadly, for the most part, feminism hasn’t progressed beyond the traditional patriarchy over the past few millennia. Case in point, the United States has yet to elect a woman as president.

In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically unheard of. Patriarchal systems ruled the day, and royal wives, sisters, and daughters served as members of the king’s harem or as important priestesses in his temples, not as political leaders. Throughout the Mediterranean and northwest Asia, female leadership was perceived with suspicion, if not outright aversion.

–Kara Cooney, “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt”


LEARN 9 FASCINATING FACTS about Hatshepsut’s early life here.


In terms of the ancient world, Hatshepset truly was a remarkable woman. As our guide Mamduh mused, “They should make a movie about her — maybe many movies.”

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

“History records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power — without assassinations or coups — during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut,” writes Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King.

During her prosperous reign, gold, cedar, ebony and other goods flowed through Egypt, and the temples, shrines and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaohs endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the Valley of the Kings.

Incidentally, we have French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to thank for rediscovering the first hints of Hatshepset’s existence in 1928 — apparently, deciphering the Rosetta Stone wasn’t enough of a claim to fame. 

Even Hatshepsut must have felt that her cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time.

So how exactly did Hatshepsut move beyond being a queen regent to divine ruler? I do wonder how she viewed herself — could she be the first trans leader in history?


The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

1. There was actually a female king of Egypt before Hatshepsut.

Just like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut had a role model from the past. Sobeknefru, daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty, ruled Egypt around 1800 BCE — about three centuries before Hatshepsut was born.

2. There wasn’t even a proper word for queen — so Sobeknefru blended masculine and feminine iconography.

The queens of Ancient Egypt were known as hemt neswt, or wife of the king — “a title with no implications of rule or power in its own right, only a description of a woman’s connection to the king as husband,” Cooney writes. To truly be seen as the ultimate ruler of the country, Sobeknefru had to take on the masculine title of “king.”

“Clothing was more problematic,” Cooney continues, “and Sobeknefru depicted herself wearing not only the masculine headdress of kingship but also the male royal kilt over the dress garments of a royal wife.”


sobek.jpg

THE FIRST FEMALE KING OF EGYPT, Sobeknefru, was named for the crocodile god, Sobek.

Learn more about his worship from our post on the temple of Kom Ombo.


3. A title shift on Hatshepsut’s monuments at Karnak might be the first clue of her massive ambitions.

A few years before she even became king, Hatshepsut dropped the title of God’s Wife, opting instead for the title of King’s Eldest Daughter. While the role of high priestess was one of the most powerful in Ancient Egypt, the adoption of this new title set the stage for a legitimate claim to the throne. 

“Some Egyptologists see this rejiggering of her personal relationships as the crux of her power grab, a shift that moved her from a queen’s role to an heir’s, as the rightful offspring of Thutmose I and one who could make a heritable claim to the throne despite her female gender,” Cooney writes.

4. Like Sobeknefru before her, Hatshepsut reinvented her image as a nonbinary gender. 

Another section at Karnak, the most massive temple complex of the day, in the royal city of Thebes, present-day Luxor, depicts Hatshepsut in men’s garments along with women’s.

The block “shows Hatshepsut wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head,” Cooney writes. “The atef crown — a fabulous and extravagant amalgamation of ram’s horns and tall double plumes — was depicted atop her short masculine wig, probably to the shock of the craftsmen in charge of cutting the decoration. It was a confusing image for the Egyptian viewer to digest: a female king performing royal duties, offering jars of wine directly to the god, and all before any official coronation.”

5. She also took on a throne name, a privilege reserved for kings — again, before she was even crowned.

In the text on the same monument at Karnak, Hatshepsut called herself the One of the Sedge and of the Bee, which is translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What’s more, she introduced a throne name, Maatkare, The Soul of Re Is Truth. This act was “inconceivable,” according to Cooney. “Hatshepsut was transforming her role into a strange hybrid of rule ordained before it had officially happened,” she writes.

Part of her throne name is the goddess of truth and justice, “implying that at the heart of the sun god’s power was a feminine entity, Ma’at, the source that was believed to keep the cosmos straight and true,” Cooney writes, continuing, “Hatshepsut’s throne name communicated to her people that her kingship was undoubtedly feminine, and that feminine justice was necessary to maintain life with proper order, judgment, and continuance.”

6. About nine years into Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh — meaning there were two kings simultaneously on the throne.

When Hatshepsut was about 24 years old, in 1478 BCE, “the impossible happened,” as Cooney states. Thutmose III might have been a child, but he was still officially the king. Yet Hatshepsut, that wonderful feminist icon, decided to stop being the queen regent and that she would share the throne with her young nephew.

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

7. Hatshepsut’s coronation was an elaborate affair that was, apparently, attended by the gods themselves.

The coronation took place in the temple complex of Karnak over the course of several days. If we’re to believe Hatshepsut, her dead-but-deified father, Thutmose I, was the first to place the crown upon her head. The cow-headed goddess Hathor was also present, shouting a greeting and giving her a big hug. And the chief god, Amen-Re (also spelled Amun-Ra), “personally placed the double crown upon Hatshepsut’s head and invested her with the crook and flail of kingship, saying that he created her specifically to rule over his holy lands, to rebuild his temples and to perform ritual activity for him,” Cooney writes.

What better way for Hatshepsut to be seen as a legitimate monarch than by having received the blessings of the gods? She really wanted to hammer home the supposed events of her coronation day — she had images of the gods crowning her chiseled into the major house of worship of the time, Karnak, as well as her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari.


deirelbahari.JPG

SEE THE WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — and learn more about this surprisingly modern-looking structure.


8. Upon being crowned, Hatshepsut changed her birth name — yet another instance of gender ambiguity.

Hatshepsut added Khenemetenamen to the front of her name, “which, although unpronounceable for most of us,” Cooney writes, “essentially meant ‘Hatshepsut, United with Amen,’ communicating that her spirit had mingled with the very mind of the god Amen through a divine communion.” 

Interestingly, she kept a feminine ending as part of the construction of that mouthful of a name. “There was no subterfuge about her femininity in her new royal names, but her womanly core was now linked with a masculine god through her kingship,” Cooney adds.

9. Hatshepsut’s royal names didn’t hide the fact that she was a woman. She was out to change the very perception of a king.

Egyptian kings liked to prove how macho they were, choosing names like Ka-ankht, Strong Bull. Hatshepsut’s Horus name was Useret-kau, Powerful of Ka Spirits, tying herself not to physical (and sexual) prowess, but to the mysterious might of the spirits of the dead. 

Like her new birth name, Hatshepsut used the feminine -t ending. “She and her priests knew her limitations as a woman and seemed interested in flexibility rather than deceit,” Cooney explains. “She became king in name and title, but she knew that she could not transform into a king’s masculine body. She couldn’t impregnate a harem of women with any divine seed. There was no need for her royal names to point out those deficiencies or to lie about her true nature. Instead, she and her priests focused on how her femininity could coalesce with and complement masculine powers.”

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

10. Hatshepsut immediately upgraded her existing iconography once she became pharaoh.

All of the images of her as queen under Thutmose III were altered to show her as the senior king of a co-regency. “No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III,” Cooney writes. “Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.”

11. The color of Hatshepsut’s skin in her statuary demonstrated her progression from female to male. 

Females in Ancient Egyptian art were shown with yellow skin, while males were red ochre. It’s thought that women were inside more often (weaving in the harem, one supposes) and didn’t get as tanned as the manly men out on military expeditions and the like. While Hatshepsut’s early statues stuck with the traditional yellow skin tone, later depictions, such as the ones showing her as Osiris, the god of rebirth at her funerary temple, are of an orange hue — a strangely androgynous colorization that must have baffled people at the time. By the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had adopted the red skin associated with males.

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

12. In addition to skin color, Hatshepsut’s statues started taking on more and more male characteristics.

Early on, Hatshepsut’s genderbending positioned her as truly androgynous. On a lifesize statue from her funerary temple, she has a woman’s facial features, graceful shoulders and small, pert breasts — but she’s shirtless and wearing a king’s kilt. Even Hatshepsut must have felt that this cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time. It was placed in the innermost chambers of her temple, away from the public, where only the most elite would ever see it. This drastic hybrid sexuality was never replicated.

Eventually, Hatshepsut’s statues had broader shoulders, and her breasts became the firm pecs of an idealized young man.

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

13. Hieroglyphic text went back and forth between referring to Hatshepsut as a female and as a male.

Sometimes she was “she;” sometimes she was “he.” On occasion, she was the Son of Ra, the sun god; more often she was referred to as the Daughter of Ra. Once in a while, she was called the “good god,” but most of the time — even accompanying a masculinized image of her — she was the “good goddess.”

14. Like many a pharaoh, Hatshepsut told a story of her divine birth.

The combo god Amun-Ra is said to have visited her mother in her bedchamber. “She awoke because of the fragrance of the god,” the text reads. I’m sure a bit more happened than this, but Hatshepsut chose to depict the moment as her mom and Amun-Ra sitting across from each other, hands touching, gazing sweetly into each other’s eyes.

This avant-garde woman rose to the highest political rank in a society over 3,000 years ago. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that after her death, her successor tried his very best to wipe all references to his aunt being king from the face of the planet. –Wally

Interview With an Archaeologist

A firsthand account of what it was like to excavate the Hatshepsut temple at Deir el-Bahari in the 1970s.

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Kenneth shares his experience as an archaeologist in Luxor, Egypt in the early 1970s

Archaeology is one of those careers that sounds so thrilling — I always picture Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones on his search for the Ark of the Covenant (minus the snakes). But it turns out that, more often than not, this profession means long hours, low pay, and months or years of tedious fieldwork.

That being said, when Kenneth reached out to us with a kind note about our blog, mentioning that he had been briefly involved with the excavation of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahari, we simply had to learn more. 

He obliged with an interview of what it was like to be an archaeologist in Egypt half a century ago, back when he was a starving field worker put up at the now-glamorous Winter Palace hotel, “in a shabby, Nile-view room with the bathroom far down the hall.” –Wally

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

The Colossi of Memnon stood as they do today, in a clearing surrounded by fields. But there were no barriers of any kind — you could climb the statues if agile enough

What was it like being an archaeologist?

I was not a classical archaeologist for very long. (Not nearly as long as it took me to get my degree!) Turns out I liked to eat. And pay rent. Field work, which was really the reason I went into archaeology, pays next to nothing. There’s always a candidate working towards their doctorate who will offer to do the work for free. 

In 1969 I worked in Winchester, England (the Roman capital of Britain) under the well-respected British archaeologist Martin Biddle and Birthe, his Danish-born archaeologist wife. It was Martin who got me a temporary position the next season with the joint British-Polish expedition working at Deir el-Bahari. 

I was only at Luxor a few months before the Vietnam War intruded and I went off to the Navy. When I was discharged in 1973, the Arab-Israeli War was looming and available funds for archaeological work in Egypt had completely dried up. I took what I thought would be a temporary job as a flight attendant, fell in love with the job and stayed 30 years. During that time, I met my husband, Michael (we celebrated our 35th anniversary last week), and the impracticality of going off on a months-long dig and leaving Michael at home put an end to any thoughts of returning to archaeology. 

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

The top colonnade on Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — which did not exist in 1970 — is complete in this 1989 photo

What was the project you were working on? 

In 1970 restoration work was focusing on the third tier of Hatshepsut’s temple. The structure has been extensively rebuilt. Some Egyptologists would say overly rebuilt. 

There was an ongoing search for stone blocks that had been appropriated by later pharaohs to use for their own building projects. In Upper Egypt there are vast areas filled with thousands of broken stone blocks from fallen or dismantled  structures. Often, missing stones from a particular ancient monument can be discovered and moved (at great effort and expense) to their original site.

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Kenneth’s husband, Michael, studying the statue of Horus at the temple at Edfu

Imagine you are working on a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces are missing. In the next room someone has dumped into a huge pile thousands and thousands of pieces from hundreds of different jigsaw puzzles. In that pile you might find the missing pieces from your puzzle. The image on one of the pieces you are missing will be of a human arm. The left arm. And so as you sift through the huge pile of dumped puzzle pieces you are looking for one bearing the image of a left arm. 

Of course, in Ancient Egypt when a stone was reused, it often had carving on one side. The stone would be turned so the carving was no longer visible, and a new carving would be done on a blank side of the stone block. Five hundred years later, the block might be reused again, and so there would be a third side that would be carved…

So, going back to that pile of jigsaw pieces, as you are looking for that image of a left arm, you’re having to turn each puzzle piece because there are different images on each side of each piece.

Fifty years ago, it was a laborious task to try to find a particular stone in one of many locations up and down the Nile. (Now, computers do the work in seconds.) There were huge books full of illustrations of thousands of “available” stones. One needed to just keep looking. And if — by chance — a stone with the left arm was found, arrangements had to be made to legally acquire and move a multi-ton block of granite or sandstone. Reams of paperwork were required. It was what we’d call grunt work. And that's mostly what I did. No glamour. No glint of gold in the sand. It was pouring over books and filling out paperwork. But it was Egypt, and I loved it. (At Winchester I was actually on my hands and knees, excavating a burial ground filled with Roman soldiers. I found coins minted under the reign of Hadrian and carved-bone dice for gambling, and because of the high peat content of the soil, well-preserved leather sandals as well. Skeleton after skeleton too — some of the bodies pathetically shattered in battle.) 

What’s your take on Hatshepsut? 

Well, of course she’s a fascinating person. The oldest known woman on the planet. She jumps out at us, her carved thoughts in many instances perfectly preserved because Thutmose III covered them with a layer of stone: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

I think that Hatshepsut, like Cleopatra Vll, 13 centuries later (and Joan of Arc, 1,400 years after that), must have dazzled through the sheer force of her personality, to have accomplished what she did. Usurping her stepson’s throne might have made sense if the lad was unwell or unfit for the job. But he went on to be one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs! Was that despite Hatshepsut, or because of her?

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

Kenneth posing with Cleopatra and Caesarion on the rear wall of the temple complex at Dendera

When I worked in Egypt, there was only a slim hope that Hatshepsut’s body would ever be found. The fact that her architect (and supposed lover) Senemut’s red granite sarcophagus had been discovered broken into many pieces and spread across the desert seemed to indicate a royal temper tantrum that could very well have been Thutmose lll’s. Easy to imagine him hating the commoner whom Hatshepsut had showered with titles. I always thought that if Thutmose hated Senemut that much, he must have hated his ruling stepmother as well. The thought of ever finding her remains struck me as highly unlikely. I figured he eventually “grew a pair” and had her murdered and her body fed to the jackals.

But no! Now we know she was lying right under our noses in KV20 in the Valley of the Kings! And the proof that it was her right there in the Cairo Museum: one of Hatshepsut's molars, packed in a small wooden box bearing her cartouche, and matching the gap in her mummified jaw. And we now know she grew old, and fat — with pendulous breasts. A life lived long!

So how and why was the throne eventually turned over to Thutmose? That is a mystery we may never unravel. I like to think Thutmose may have been a late bloomer. That his smart, capable stepmother watched over him and groomed him to become the great pharaoh he was.  

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

The timeless Old Cataract, which Kenneth and Michael say is “one of our favorite hotels anywhere in the world.” Wally and Duke agree!

What was your favorite memory of that time in Egypt? 

There were no tourists! War with Israel was looming. Luxor was virtually empty. Once, on a day off, I had Luxor Temple entirely to myself. Walking down a colonnade, between towering pillars, a falcon flew just over my head, sailing along ahead of me about 20 feet in the air. At the end of the colonnade, he rose up and landed on top of the head of an enormous statue — a statue of Horus. I just stood perfectly still, savoring the moment, and feeling I’d been visited by a god.

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

The floating restaurant Bodour, moored just upriver from the Winter Palace in Luxor, was one of their favorite places to dine, with its sumptuous Belle Epoque furnishings

What was your least favorite memory of Egypt? 

The food. I grew up in health-conscious San Francisco. I was desperate for salads, which were not safe anywhere in Egypt because produce was routinely fertilized with human excrement. I gave in to temptation on a quick trip to Cairo and ordered a chef’s salad at the Nile Hilton, the hotel in the city. (It's now the Ritz-Carlton.) I thought, “Surely it will be safe to eat a salad here."” Nope. I ended up at Cairo's American Hospital for two days!

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

The rising sun turns the Theban mountains pink. As you can see, the West Bank was entirely agricultural. Luxor had yet to jump the river

How has Egypt changed since the 1970s?

As far as the monuments are concerned, 50 years is a mere blink of the eye. The ancient stones are unchanged. What has changed is contemporary Egypt. In 1970 the view across the Nile from the Winter Place was one of cultivated fields and the distant Theban mountains. That was it. (I could just make out the ramps at Deir el-Bahari from my room’s balcony.) There were hardly any visible West Bank buildings at all. The few villages, such as sand-colored Qurna, blended in with the cliffs. These days, the city of Luxor has jumped the river and spread along the West Bank.

The Singing Colossi of Memnon

The crumbling giants in Luxor are all that’s left of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. 

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

There’s not much left to see, but that doesn’t stop most visitors to Luxor from making a quick pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon. 

Ravaged by earthquakes, looters and time itself, the crumbling statues you see today are nothing compared to their past glory. When they were first built, they were painted with bright white, red, brown, blue and even some golden gilding to set off key areas. 

At dawn, people would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its prophetic whispering.
Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation  by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

Amenhotep III (who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, from 1386-1353 BCE) sits on his throne, while smaller statues of his chief wife, Tiye, and his mother stand between his legs. Carved from single pieces of sandstone, the statues rise 60 feet into the air and weigh 720 tons. Situated on the West Bank of the Nile, they guarded the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. 

The giants weren’t alone, though. Just beyond was another pair of colossi, and then another pair through the next pylon. Each pair got smaller than its predecessors, as you moved into the depths of the temple. 

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

This colossi were not only there to instill awe in viewers — they were also representations of fertility and the life-giving abundance of the River Nile. During the annual flood, the water would rush past the giants, flowing along the avenue of sphinxes and into the temple itself. Only the innermost sanctuary was protected, having been built on a slight elevation. 

After months of being partially submerged, the colossi would re-emerge as symbols of rebirth. 

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

While Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is in much better shape today, Amenhotep’s was originally much larger and more impressive. It was even said to rival the massive Karnak complex. 

Archaeological evidence shows that there were once hundreds of stone statues within the temple. These depicted not only the pharaoh but various gods that would protect him in the afterlife: Osiris, the lord of the underworld, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess with healing powers, and sphinxes bearing the jackal head of Anubis, who oversaw the mummification process. (Learn how — and why — Ancient Egyptians created mummies.)

The temple would have been filled with priests worshipping the statues and offering food, drink and some of the finer luxury items the king was used to in this life and would want to enjoy in death as well.

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

For a while, the northern giant had been damaged in such a way that when the wind blew through, it made a whistling noise that some mistook for singing. People believed that it happened every morning at dawn and they would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its supposedly prophetic whispering. (Popular thought now is that it was dew drying in the cracks of the porous stone.) 

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus visited the site but didn’t hear the singing. In a misguided attempt to curry favor with the oracle, he repaired the colossus in 196 or 199 CE. It’s a total bummer, but after the renovation, the colossus never again sang its quiet soothsaying song.

The Vocal Memnon  by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

If these colossi depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III, why are they now called Memnon? During the Trojan War, Ethiopia’s King Memnon joined the side of Troy to battle the Greeks. He was killed by the famous demigod hero Achilles but was admired for his courage and fighting prowess. When Greek tourists visited this site, they mistook Amenhotep for Memnon — in part because they thought the singing might be that of Memnon’s mother, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, lamenting the loss of her son. The name stuck. 

An illustration from  Description de l'Égypte , 1809-1828

An illustration from Description de l'Égypte, 1809-1828

Sadly, all that remains of this once-stunning temple are the crumbling, now-silent colossi that stood guard out front. –Wally

 

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

The Serene Spirituality of Abydos Temple

This overlooked Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II is a heavenly day trip from Luxor.

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Heavenly rays of light shine through the dark temple, making it feel even more spiritual

Our guide, Mamduh, told us he has been all over Egypt and has explored all the major temples — and yet the only one that felt truly spiritual to him was Abydos.

Duke and I can understand this. Maybe it’s the cool, dark colonnades, with beams of sunlight shining through like a celestial cliché. Or perhaps it’s the fact that there’s not one but seven sanctuaries, each devoted to a different god. It all works together to create something eternal and sacred. The site is also off the main tourist track, and aside from one small tour group, we had the place to ourselves.

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE.

Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here.
The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

The clean lines of this holy site feel modern, even though the temple is 3,200 years old!

Burial Site of Osiris and the First Pharaohs

The location, in the Sohag Governorate of Upper Egypt, was known in ancient times as Abdju and has been held as sacred from the beginnings of the Egyptian state. It’s said to be the birthplace of the god Osiris, and it’s where his decapitated head was buried by his murderous brother Set.

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Wally and Mamduh from Egypt Sunset Tours make the pilgrimage to Abydos

Abydos is the holiest of necropolises; during pharaonic times, Ancient Egyptians wanted to be buried here, and at one point, everyone tried to make it here on pilgrimage at least once in their lives. (If that didn’t pan out, they often depicted the journey in their tombs. Better late than never.)

The earliest pharaohs were buried here, as far back as 3000 BCE. Later, Abydos became a center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld. People believed his tomb was here, though evidence points to it actually being the final resting place of a First Dynasty pharaoh, Djer.

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Ramessess II added a front section to his father’s temple

Temple of Seti I and Ramesses II

Abydos, like so many Egyptian temples, was really an ongoing construction project, with various kings adding structures here, repurposing materials there.

King Seti I built a large complex at Abydos some 3,200 years ago to show he honored the Egyptian pantheon (and to show that he, too, was divine). A belief in the old gods was especially important to prove after the radical pharaoh Akhenaten departed from centuries of tradition and enforced monotheism, celebrating a single deity known as Aten, the sun disk. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go over well.)

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

You can tell the parts of the temple that were added by Ramesses II because the depictions are carved into the stone rather than being proper bas-reliefs

As we approached the temple, we paused on the open terrace to admire the precise horizontal and vertical symmetry of its exterior, which, like Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, feels modern in its minimalism.

In the first courtyard, on the second pylon wall, are scenes of Ramesses II’s military victories, including the Battle of Kadesh, which is also shown at Abu Simbel. I use the term “military victories” loosely. This is an example of the pharaoh’s fondness for revisionist history: The Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate.

Farther in, the columns and walls of the Temple of Seti I boast of his deeds as well as those of his son and heir, Ramesses II.

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Wally and Duke highly recommend adding Abydos to your itinerary

Mamduh, who works with Egypt Sunset Tours, stopped in front of a wall covered with cartouches, oval carvings containing hieroglyphics that represent the names of pharaohs. “This is why we know all of the dynasties and the order of the pharaohs,” he told us. The names were a long list of Egyptian kings in chronological order, going all the way back to Menes, the legendary founder of the empire, credited with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and continuing all the way to Seti I.

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

The Kings List depicts the cartouches of all the pharaohs, with some notable omissions, including Hatshepsut and Akhenaten

Known as the Abydos King List, the relief conspicuously skips over some problematic rulers: the century-long reign of the foreign invaders, the Hyksos; the female pharaoh Hatshepsut; and the heretical Akhenaten and his three short-lived successors. Again, we see that Ancient Egyptians made revisionist history a literal art form.

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

Abydos isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations — which makes it all the more special to visit

As we continued to wander through, Mamduh pointed out a set of unusual looking hieroglyphics carved into a lintel overhead. A mysterious set of symbols appear to depict a helicopter, a submarine and a dirigible-like airship. Did they predict the future?!

I’m not one to crush anyone’s conspiracy theory dreams, but these images are actually the result of surfaces that have been reused. Over time, bits of the lime plaster eroded, leaving a partially visible set of overlapping glyphs. The initial set of carvings were made during the reign of Seti I and were later altered with plaster and re-carved during the temple’s expansion by his son.

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Seti I built this as his funerary temple. He chose a throne name that didn’t reference Set, the murderous god of chaos

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

Most temples have a single sanctuary, or holy of holies — but Abydos has seven!

The Seven Sanctuaries

At the back of the second hypostyle hall are seven barrel-vaulted sanctuaries dedicated to different deities: Horus, Isis and Osiris, with the principle god Amun in the middle, then Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and the deified Pharaoh Seti I.

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

The lion-headed goddess of war, Sekhmet, is the wife of Ptah, god of architects and craftspeople

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Anubis, the god of the dead, with Seti I

Most temples have a single sanctuary, known as the holy of holies. So perhaps the fact that Abydos has seven is a large part of what lends a spiritual air to this sacred space. Six have false doors to allow the ka, or soul, to pass through. The exception is the sanctum of Osiris, whose chamber has a doorway leading to a suite of rooms — as Mamduh pointed out, the god of the underworld can travel between both worlds.

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Ancient Egyptians believed that a scarab, or dung beetle, pushed the sun through the sky

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Isn’t he getting a bit old for that? Horus suckles on his mother Isis’ breast

Wooden ships known as barques, or solar boats, originally stood in each of the sanctuaries. They were believed to transport the deities across the heavens and were used to transport the image of the god in ritual processions.

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

When you see a boy with a braided side ponytail like this inside the temple, that’s Prince Ramesses II

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

The Osiris Sanctuary, just one of seven at Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Osiris is depicted with green skin

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Head out the back door to walk past the Osirion

Out back, behind the temple proper, are the ruins of a primitive-looking structure built in the form of a royal tomb. Known as the Osirion, the cenotaph (a fancy word for a monument to someone whose body is buried elsewhere) is thought to be for Osiris. It was closed when we were there — though it doesn’t look like we missed much, aside from sunken granite blocks surrounded by pools of toxic-looking green water.

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

The sunken ruins of the Osirion, a tomb to honor the god of the underworld

We visited Abydos as a day trip from Luxor, pairing it with the amazing Dendera. These less-visited sites are often the most unexpected, special and spiritual.

Duke and I were fortunate to have Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arrange excursions that suited us so well. If you want to experience the magic of Egypt like we did, book your tours through them. –Wally

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The strikingly modern visitors center works as a visual reference to the temple’s façade

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

The temple at Abydos is seen in the distance

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