The Temple of Dendur: An Ancient Egyptian Temple Now in New York

The Temple of Dendur

An Ancient Egyptian Temple Now in New York

by Jimmy Dunn

A drawing of the Temple of Dendur by Henry Salt prior to its relocation

Of course, one need not go to Egypt to see Egyptian artifacts. They are spread throughout the world in numerous museums. And one need not even go to Egypt to see an Egyptian monument. More than one obelisk was carried off from its original locale to grace the grounds of a foreign country, such as Italy, Britain and even the US. And one need not even visit Egypt to see an ancient Egyptian temple. Like the obelisks, they too can be found in the US, and several European countries.

An old photograph of the Temple of Dendur prior to its relocation

Originally, the Temple of Dendur stood on the left bank of the Nile River, very near the ancient town of Tutzis, a little less than 20 kilometers south of Kalabsha, some 77 kilometers south of Aswan. It was probably built around the year 15 BC (or perhaps as early as 23 BC). In Nubia, the temple originally stood on a wide, stone built platform facing the Nile We know that it was originally visited and described by the early travelers, Richard Pococke in 1737 and Frederik Norden in 1738. Amelia Edwards, a well known English lady whose 19th century grand tour up the Nile was recorded in her famous book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, once called Dendur "decadent.", though she went on to say that, "The whole thing is like an exquisite toy, so covered with sculptures, so smooth, so new-looking, so admirably built. Seeing them half by sunset, half by dusk, it matters not that these delicately-wrought bas reliefs are of the Decadence school. The rosy half-light of an Egyptian afterglow covers a multitude of sins, and steeps the whole in an atmosphere of romance." In 1906, Professor A.M. Blackman of Liverpool, accompanied by Mr. F. L. Griffiths, more carefully examined the Temple of Dendur in its original location above the First Cataract of the Nile River.

A painting of the pronaos of the Temple of Dendur by David Roberts

It shares the same fame as a number of other such temples in Nubia, such as Abu Simbel, in that it was saved from the waters of the rising Lake Nasser behind the High Dam by being dismantled and moved. However, while other Nubian temples were simply moved to higher ground, the Temple of Dendur took a somewhat longer voyage, all the way to America. It was given by the Egyptian government to the United States in recognition of its part in helping to save the other Nubian monuments that would have been drowned beneath the waters of Lake Nasser.

The Temple of Dendur today, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

At a cost of about 9.5 million dollars, the temple's 642 blocks, weighing more than 800 tons in total with the largest pieces weighing more than 6.5 tons, were moved to the US. They were packed in 661 crates and transported to the United States by the freighter S.S. Concordia Star.

In the United States, several institutions made bids for housing the temple, in a competition which was nicknamed the "Dendur Derby" by the press. Alternative plans proposed re-erecting the temple on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. (by the Smithsonian Institution). or on the Charles River (by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) in Boston. However, these suggestions were dismissed because it was feared that the temple's sandstone would have suffered from the outdoor conditions. Museums in Cairo (Illinois) and Memphis (Tennessee) also vied for the monument, but the fact that their names are derived from Egyptian cities likewise did not weigh heavy on the presidential commission established to pick the derby winner. Finally, on April 27th, 1967, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A side view of the Temple of Dendur

Since September of 1978, the temple has formed the Sackler wing of that museum. Inside the Sackler Wing, designed by the architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and associates, a reflecting pool in front of the temple and a sloping wall behind it, represent the Nile and the cliffs of the original location. The glass on the ceiling and north wall of the Sackler is stippled in order to diffuse the light and mimic the lighting in Nubia.

The Roman Emperor, Augustus, in the garb of a Pharaoh, making offerings on the outer wall of the Temple of Dendur

The temple of Dendur is actually a very early Roman Period temple built during the rule of Augustus who ruled Egypt between 30 BC and 14 AD, but like the Greeks, the Romans built in accordance with local traditions, both religious and esthetic.

The temple was dedicated to the goddess Isis, the gods Harpocrates and Osiris, and in honor of two brothers, Peteese (Pedesi, "he whom Isis has given") and Pihor ("he who belongs to Horus), sons of Quper (Kuper, a local Nubian Chief who is said to have assisted the Romans in territorial wars in this area), who were elevated to divine status in the region of Dendur. The reason for their deification is unclear. Some have speculated (specifically Herodotus) that they may have drowned at this location. The original place of their worship was probably a rock chamber behind the temple in its original location, that may have dated back to the 26th Dynasty.

A close up view of the columns of the Temple of Dendur in New York

Though this sandstone temple is small and simple in plan, it is nevertheless impressive. It consists of a portal, which would have originally been flanked by a brick pylon except that it was never built, that fronts a small court with a columned pronaos, and inner hall for offerings and a sanctuary. The main building measures only about 13.5 by 7 meters, but it is a fine example of its type. The temple measures about 24.99 meters from the gate to the rear of the temple, as it stand in New York, and stands 8 meters tall from its base to its highest point.

The decorative theme of the temple depicts the king (Augustus) before various gods, including the two deified brothers, Isis, Harpocrates and Osiris. Other gods depicted in the temple include the solar god Mandulis, Satis of Elephantine and Arensnuphis, the "companion" of Isis, deities honored in a number of Nubian temples. On the outer walls, the king, identified by his name cartouche, is depicted in sunk relief making offerings to Isis, Osiris and their son Horus (Harpocrates), who hold scepters and ankhs, the sign of life. These scenes are repeated in two horizontal registers. In the first chamber of the temple, reliefs again show the king praying and making offerings to the gods, but here the relief are raised. Past this room, however, in the offering chamber and the sanctuary, the only carvings are around the door frame leading into the sanctuary, and on the back wall of the sanctuary, there is a flat cult image recess where a relief of offerings being made to Isis appears (according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). We know that the original reliefs were painted red, blue, green, yellow and black, from archaic descriptions, but those colors were washed away after the first, smaller Aswan dam was built.

Another modern view of the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Otherwise, lining the temple base are carvings of papyrus and lotus plants that appear to grow from water, symbolized by the Nile god Hapy. 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.

In 577, the temple was converted into a Christian church. The conversion is documented by a Coptic inscription.

While small, and probably never considered a very important temple in Egypt, the Temple of Dendur nevertheless encompasses the entire cosmos of an Egyptian temple. It should be noted that Dendur was not the only Nubian temple restored outside of Egypt. Dabod, is now in Madrid, Spain, located in City Park and el-Lessiya, a rock-cut temple is located at Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. The gateway of Kalabsha is now in the Agyptisches Museum in Berlin Germany, while the Taffa temple is at Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, Netherlands.