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Dendera: Temple of Hathor (French Expedition, 1799)

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View of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera (Vivant Denon, in Descript. de l'Egypte 1802).


Dendera, located on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt about 60 km north of Thebes, contains a well-preserved Ptolemaic temple begun in the late 2nd century BC, devoted to the goddess Hathor, mother of Osiris. The outer gates or pylons to the temple complex were built by the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan in the late 1st century AD.

The site had been occupied since Early Dynastic times (ca. 3000-2500 BC), with temples oriented, as usual, toward the Nile. A group of large mastaba tombs for nobles date from the Old Kingdom. Some of these tombs also contain the graves of cows, the animal sacred to Hathor. The western part of the site also contained a number of animal burials in brick-vaulted catacombs, including dogs and birds.

When French artists and army surveyors arrived at Dendera in 1799, the site was already known from descriptions by ancient historians. According to the account in the Description de l'Egypte (1809), all persons in the French party, whether military, artistic, or scientific, were deeply impressed with the presence and style of the Temple of Hathor.

This drawing by Vivant Denon shows the column capitals along the temple portico in the form of heads of the goddess Hathor, which are carved on all four sides of the capitals. The front heads are surmounted by reliefs of the inverted U-shaped Egyptian symbol for a temple.

During their survey of the site, French investigators found that the temple ceiling contained paintings of stellar constellations. Also discovered within the temple was a celebrated astrological bas-relief sculpture (now in the Louvre). showing the Greek constellations of the zodiac. Among other reliefs found was a rare scene, on the back exterior wall, of Cleopatra VII (the most famous of the Cleopatras, who died in 30 BC), with her son Caesarion, fathered by Julius Caesar.

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