Egyptian temples were not simply houses for a cult image but also represented, in their design and decoration, a variety of religious and mythological concepts. One important symbolic aspect was based on the understanding of the temple as an image of the natural world as the Egyptians knew it. Lining the temple base are carvings of papyrus and lotus plants that seem to grow from water, symbolized by figures of the Nile god Hapy. The two columns on the porch rise toward the sky like tall bundles of papyrus stalks with lotus blossoms bound with them. Above the gate and temple entrance are images of the sun disk flanked by the outspread wings of Horus, the sky god. The sky is also represented by the vultures, wings outspread, that appear on the ceiling of the entrance porch.
On the outer walls between earth and sky are carved scenes of the king making offerings to deities who hold scepters and the ankh, the symbol of life. The figures are carved in sunk relief. In the brilliant Egyptian sunlight, shadows cast along the figures' edges would have emphasized their outlines. Isis, Osiris, their son Horus, and the other deities are identified by their crowns and the inscriptions beside their figures. These scenes are repeated in two horizontal registers. The king is identified by his regalia and by his names, which appear close to his head in elongated oval shapes called cartouches; many of the cartouches simply read "pharaoh." This king was actually Caesar Augustus of Rome, who, as ruler of Egypt, had himself depicted in the traditional regalia of the pharaoh. Augustus had many temples erected in Egyptian style, honoring Egyptian deities. This small temple, built about 15 B.C., honored the goddess Isis and, beside her, Pedesi and Pihor, deified sons of a local Nubian chieftain.
In the first room of the temple, reliefs again show the "pharaoh" praying and offering to the gods, but the relief here is raised from the background so that the figures can be seen easily in the more indirect light. From this room one can look into the temple past the middle room used for offering ceremonies and into the sanctuary of the goddess Isis. The only carvings in these two rooms are around the door frame leading into the sanctuary and on the back wall of the sanctuary, where a relief depicts Pihor worshiping Isis, and below – partly destroyed – Pedesi worshiping Osiris.
After the conquest of Egypt in 31 B.C., Augustus confiscated the property of Egyptian temples and centralized their administration. As a kind of compensation, he commissioned at least 17 building projects for local gods, including the small Isis-temple of Dendur (ancient Tutzis) in Lower Nubia. No date for the temple’s construction is recorded except that the cartouches include the name of the "Autokrator Kaisaros," that is Augustus. But one assumes reasonably that it was built during the peaceful years following the Roman-Kushite wars of 25-22 B.C., which had ended with the treaty of Samos of the year 21 B.C.
The dates 20 or 15 B.C. are usually given. Since Augustus only died in 14 A.D., a later date can not be ruled out. There is also no evidence for the Roman prefect who may have commissioned the building. The three possible candidates are:
Gaius Petronius or Publius Petronius: 24 B.C. – 21 B.C. (who destroyed Napata) Publius Rubrius Barbarus: to 12 B.C. Gaius Turranius: 7 B.C. – 4 B.C.
A detailed Coptic inscription states that in 577 (or 559?) A.D. the temple was converted into a Christian church. Since 1820, the temple has been a favorite travel destination for explorers and artists, who produced numerous depictions and early photographs of the temple. Graffiti on the pronaos walls recall their visits.
The first Aswan dam brought the water 3 m below the doorsill of the temple. In 1908, conservation work was carried out in preparation for a seasonal flooding of the building. The building was completely drowned annually by the two raisings of the first Aswan dam, in 1907-12 and 1929-33. Remains of the wall paint were washed away but the walls remained structurally unharmed. Lake Nasser, created in 1970 by the building of the Aswan High Dam, would have submerged the temple forever. In 1962, the gate and temple were therefore documented and taken down as part of the Nubian salvage campaign. In recognition of the American contribution to the campaign, the gate and temple were presented to the United States in 1965.
Thanks to the initiative of Henry Fischer and Thomas Hoving, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum and in 1974/75 rebuilt in the newly created Sackler wing designed by Kevin Roche (born 1922) and John Dinkeloo (1918-81). The architects were faced with the problem that the temple was not free standing but built into a sloping rock surface, a landscape that was not desired by the Museum. The temple therefore had to be squeezed into the shape of a freestanding building, presented on a granite stage. The material chosen (red granite and "mason granite") reflects with its shiny, polished surfaces the architect’s imagination of imperial-style pharaonic architecture. The stepped planes in front and around the temple house are modern creations that do not follow the original arrangement. These alterations, implemented for practical reasons, are quite appealing for the visitor but not hold up against modern conservation standards. The opening was celebrated on September 27, 1978.
a) Cult Terrace
The temple towered impressively over the water of the Nile, visually supported by a 3.5 m high, 15 m broad and 16 m deep terrace (much higher than the reconstruction in the Museum). The front of the terrace had no opening but a front curving inward, probably better to withstand the torrent of the Nile. Similar terraces are known at Elephantine, Philae, Qasr Ibrim, Kalabsha, Ajuala and Dabod (see Jaritz 1980, pls. 48-49). The waterfront and the sides were closed with low parapet walls, which were underpinned by a heavy, protruding ledge. The re-creation in the Museum is made of granite because the original sandstone would not have withstood the museum’s traffic. The granite parapet wall designed by Roche-Dinkeloo consisted originally of two courses of blocks. The upper course was removed in 1995 in order to improve the vista on the temple terrace.
b) Temple Enclosure and Gate
The temple enclosure (temenos) rose on top of a 90 cm high step above the rear (west) side of the terrace. A monumental gate in the center formed the east front of the temenos.
The gate was for unknown reasons not exactly aligned with the temple-house behind. The visible parts of the gate are decorated with relief. The gate is 6.50 m high (including the cavetto), the doorway is 1.60 m wide and 4.35 m (from the court level). A staircase of 5 steps leads from the gate down onto the cult terrace.
The rough outer sidewalls of the gate suggest that it was incorporated in a massive wall or pylon built of brick or stone, closing off the Nile front of the temenos. Apparently no traces of a pylon were noticed at the site and it could well be that it was never built. However, the existence of a pylon is implied in the Museum’s reconstruction by a layer of irregular stones.
One would expect that high walls running east-west from the pylon to the mountain slope behind would have enclosed the sides of the temenos. Blackman’s plan shows the remains of these walls, but they no longer appear on Ashiri’s plan of 1972. In the Museum reconstruction, the parapet walls flanking the front platform suggest a continuation backwards in the direction of the cliffs.
The interior floor of the temenos was never completely level and the rock surface began to slope up beginning at the pronaos. The irregular lower edge of the exterior reliefs of the temple walls indicate the inclination of the slope. The center of the east court was treated differently. There, the gate and temple were connected by a 7 m broad walkway, made of masonry and rising 50 cm above the rough court level. This walkway is clearly visible on an old photo of the site. However, the photo was taken after modern consolidation of the temple and how much of it was modern is not recorded.
A door in the lateral south wall is shown on Blackman’s plan. Perhaps another one opened in the north side. However, there was no processional approach from the riverside because the cult terrace blocked an axial approach.
c) Temple House
The temple was primarily dedicated to Isis, mistress of Philae, who was the patron saint of Lower Nubia, an area known as the Dodekaschoinos. Attached was the cult of two brothers, Pedesi and Pihor, the sons of a local Nubian chieftain Quper. They carry the title hesy, which is normally bestowed on people drowned in the Nile. One assumes that Quper and his sons had earned merit in the Meroitic wars of the Romans.
The actual temple house represents a distyle in antis, with two quatrefoil column capitals in the front opening. This temple type was common in Ptolemaic times (as seen for example in tomb chapels at Tuna el-Gebel and Dakka) with several larger variations that include a wider pronaos with more front columns. The temple house is ca. 13 m long, 6.5 m wide and 5 m high (to the roof) and includes 3 consecutive rooms: entrance hall or pronaos; offering hall; and sanctuary. Depictions from the 19th century suggest that the cavetto cornice of the temple house was still largely in place around 1839. Today, only one block is left.
The entrance hall or pronaos has an open front with two 3.95 m high columns (including the abacus) columns carrying the architraves. The columns have quatrefoil papyrus capitals with a four-story lily decoration. The lateral interspaces were closed with screen walls.
The pronaos has a small side door in the southwest corner. This door was part of the temple structure and is incorporated into the decoration of the walls. Another, smaller side door in the northeast corner was cut through the existing building, damaging the wall reliefs. Both doors suggest that the access from the front of the pronaos was not always possible.
A large room follows behind, assumed to have been the offering hall. Except for the door in the rear wall, the room is undecorated, and was apparently unfinished.
The walls of the sanctuary are also undecorated except for a stela-like panel in the center of the rear wall. Its decoration depicts Pihor worshiping Isis, and below – partly destroyed – Pedesi worshiping Osiris. The floor and lowermost part of the rear and sidewalls are carved from the rock.
All the rest of the interior and exterior is covered with relief, showing the "pharaoh" ("kaisaros autokrator") praying and offering to the gods.
d) Rock Chamber
In the cliff behind the temple was a small rock chamber with a basin in the floor. In front was a court with a kind of tiny pylon. One assumes that this was the tomb of the two brothers and perhaps the predecessor of the temple. The entrance was behind the stela of Pedesi and Pihor.
The 1.65 m thick rear wall of the temple-house includes a built-in secret chamber accessed from the south end through a door closed with a thin, removable block. This crypt has been explained as the tomb of one of the brothers or as a hiding place for a priest giving oracles through a hole in the wall. The crypt could also have been a hiding place for liturgical equipment.
The Dendur temple is comparatively small but impressive and a major example of Roman architecture based on the Ptolemaic building tradition in Egypt. The temple demonstrates an important aspect of Egyptian architecture. The modern viewer is impressed by the monumental gate or pylon forming the front of the temple. However, the gate of temples like that of Dendur cannot be reached by a frontal, axial approach. The access is blocked by a cult terrace (for example the first pylon of Karnak or the pylon of Medinet Habu). These pylons/gates were not intended as entrances but as exits, monumental stages where the god (in the form of a cult figure) emerges from the interior and performs his/her appearance at the "gates of appearances." From the gate of the Dendur temple, the divinity descended onto the cult terrace, were it reposed and viewed the Nile and the realm. Jaritz (1980, pp. 61-654) has shown that the cult terrace of the Khnum temple on Elephantine also was the gathering place for cult communities who celebrated repasts with the divinity.
Dieter Arnold 2016
Given to the United States by the Egyptian Government, 1965. Awarded to the Museum by the U.S. Government, 1967.
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