The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The Temple of Dendur

NYC - Metropolitan - Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur is an Ancient Egyptian temple, built in 10 BC by the Roman governor of Egypt. The Temple is dedicated to Isis, Osiris, as well as two deified sons of a local Nubian chieftain.

Below is a drawing of the Temple in its original location by Henry Salt (1780–1827). The drawing was made during an expedition in 1819.

Temple of dendur drawing by henry salt

The Temple was gifted to the United States by Egypt in 1965, it was awarded to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967 and installed in The Sackler Wing in 1978. The gift was in recognition of the United States government’s help in saving many Nubian monuments from being submerged in the flooding of Lake Nasser through the Aswan Dam project. Many monuments that were preserved were dismantled and moved to higher ground. The Temple of Dendur was disassembled and transported in over 660 crates to the U.S.

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Several institutions across the US bid for the temple in a competition. In 1967, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Sackler Wing was specially built to house the Temple and the reflecting pool in front of the temple represent the Nile River and the sloping wall behind it reflect the cliffs of the original location as can be seen in the above drawing.

The temple was initially commissioned by Emperor Augustus of Rome, and there are depictions of Emperor Caesar Augustus on the Temple Walls. There are scenes carved into the walls which depict Augustus as a “pharaoh”, wearing the traditional regalia of the pharaoh. At the time, Egypt was so crucial to Rome for grain supplies, that as the ruler of Egypt, Augustus had some temples built in Egyptian style, honouring Egyptian deities.

Looking closely one can see numerous graffiti marks that have been made on the temple walls over nearly 2,000 thousand years. The earliest graffiti is in colloquial Egyptian script and dates to 10 BCE, just 5 years after the temple’s construction. Plus more recent graffiti dated 1820, as can be seen below.

Graffiti on Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur is a cult temple that honours the various gods and the mythology of the Egyptian religion. The temple was briefly converted into a Christian church, and in 400 CE, Greek Coptic Christian inscriptions (graffiti) can be found.

While this Temple was not considered a significant temple in Egypt, the Temple of Dendur nevertheless encompasses, in a smaller footprint, the cosmos of an Egyptian temple. Its decorative themes and depictions of pharaoh praying and making offerings before the various Gods is representative of much more significant and more critical temples in Egypt.

The pharaoh, Emperor Caesar Augustus, is identified by his name cartouche and depicted making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Horus. Relief carvings show the pharaoh praying and presenting offerings to the gods. The original reliefs were painted red, blue, green, yellow and black, from archaic descriptions, but those colours were washed away.

Lining the temple base are carvings of papyrus and lotus plants growing from the waters of the Nile god. Both the gate and temple entrance include images of the sun disk flanked by the wings of Horus. The sky is also represented by the vultures, wings outspread, on the ceiling of the entrance porch.

Reliefs from Dendur Temple2005

Other Egyptian Temples outside Egypt include:

  • The gateway of Kalabsha is now in the Agyptisches Museum in Berlin Germany.
  • The Taffa temple is at Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.
  • Dabod in Madrid, Spain, in City Park and el-Lessiya.
  • A rock-cut temple, at Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.

The Temple of Dendur is one of the very few Egyptian temples outside Egypt. It is a must visit masterpiece at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is interesting to reflect on how Egyptian Temple design may have influenced Greek Temples such as the Parthenon?

Essential Facts:

  • Date:                            10 B.C.
  • Period:                         Roman Period
  • Reign:                          Reign of Augustus Caesar
  • Medium:                     Aeolian sandstone
  • Original Location:   Egypt, Nubia, Dendur, West bank of the Nile River, 50 miles South of Aswan
  • Dimensions:              Temple: 6.40 × 6.40 × 12.50 m (21 × 21 × 41 ft.)
  •                                        Gate: 8.08 × 36.6 × 3.35 m (26 ft. 6 in. × 12 ft. × 11 ft.)
  • Museum:                    Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET, New York, USA
  • Installed in MET:     1978

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“The body is the house of god. That is why it is said – Man know yourself.” Ancient Egyptian Proverb

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Photo Credits: 1) By Jean-Christophe BENOIST (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) Henry Salt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Burn the asylum (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons 4) William Henry Goodyear [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 5) By http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdsworld/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdsworld/14029318/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons