Temple of Dendur: Stories Carved in Stone

Every building has a story especially the Temple of Dendur, an ancient Egyptian structure. The temple started as a place of ritual and a colorful home to deities. It went from almost drowning to being disassembled and moved across an ocean. Now, it is admired as a piece of art with the occasional movie feature! 

A Monumental Gift

Temple of Dendur Reconstruction at the Met

The Temple of Dendur’s eventual arrival at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art began with the Aswan High Dam construction. This Egyptian dam’s construction started in 1960 in order to help contain the region’s annual flooding and improve crop production. Unfortunately, due to the dam, by 1970 Lake Nasser was formed covering over 2000 miles including the original location of the temple!  

Before the lake completely took over the land, UNESCO orchestrated an international campaign to save the many surrounding monuments before they could be submerged. As a result, 50 countries were rallied together and successfully moved 22 temples.  

Due to the United States’ considerable contribution, Egypt gifted the Temple of Dendur to the US. But wait, where would the temple go? Every museum had an opinion about that! In fact, a competition took root between museums as they all tried to convince the government to let them display the temple. Apparently, the Met had the most convincing argument and on April 28, 1967, President Johnson awarded this 1st century temple to the Met.  

Temple Viewing: The Old & New Experience

Temple of Dendur at the Met

It was a monumental task to move the temple across the ocean! For easy and safe travel, the temple was broken down and shipped to the museum where it was reassembled. Located in the Met’s Sackler Wing, museum workers replicated the temple’s layout for an immersive viewing experience. 

Temple of Dendur Layout, Computer rendering by Sara Chen

In Egypt, the temple laid facing the Nile River which is mirrored with the museum’s reflecting pool. Likewise, the museum included a sloping wall to mimic the rocky cliff that the temple’s rear walls were set into. The structure’s layout begins with a gateway that opens into a courtyard. Then, the temple begins with an entrance hall (pronaos) with columns which opens up into the offering hall and, lastly, the sanctuary. All of this originally stood atop a sandstone platform which is now indicated by a sturdier granite platform.  

Thanks to the ever-amazing wonders of technology, the Met has a 360-degree digital viewing experience of the Temple of Dendur. It’s great for those of you at home!  

Color the Temple: Projected Light is used to recreate how the temple could’ve originally looked! © The Met

The Met also began a digital project termed Color the Temple. This project involved using projected light to directly recreate the original color onto the temple. That’s right, temples weren’t drab slabs of stone. Above all, they popped with color! Just imagine how cool the temple must have looked when it was first built! 

Temple Offerings

Temple of Dendur

Like most Egyptian temples, the Temple of Dendur was a deity’s house where they received endless free gifts. Clothing? Check. Food and drink? Of course! Everything that you would need to live comfortably, the gods received free of charge. Why? Well, the Egyptians didn’t want the gods to rain down their wrath. Offerings ensured the prosperity of society by nurturing deities. And, yes, it is weird that the gods would need things like food even though they are immortal beings. Egyptians embraced paradoxes!  

The daily rituals that took place were often performed by priests (but ideally by the pharaoh if he was in the area)! Alongside offerings, incense was burned for purification. Inner temple rooms were even restricted to ritual performers! In addition, cult statues were paraded outside the temple to help worshipers feel closer to their deities. 

As a deity’s home, the temple was designed to accommodate the deity and not a large worship group. Therefore, think about viewing the space, not as a visitor, but as a god emerging from the innermost sanctuary to greet their followers.  

Roman Pharaohs & Egyptian Cults

Carvings of Offering Scenes to Deities

The Temple of Dendur was completed around 10 BC at the behest of Roman ruler Caesar Augustus. Egypt, at the time, was under Rome’s rule. Augustus probably had the temple built to show his commitment to honor the local culture while also solidifying his leadership. In fact, Augustus appears in some temple carvings dressed in Egyptian pharaoh regalia. Nothing more permanent than depicting yourself and your rule in stone!  

The temple primarily honors the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The cult of Pedesi and Pihor also had a presence in the temple. Pedesi and Pihor were the deceased sons of a local ruler. These brothers were believed to have drowned and, following this drowning, risen to a deified state. Moreover, they might’ve been buried behind the temple’s original place in Egypt!  

Note: there are depictions and references to other Egyptian deities throughout the temple! 

Temple Carvings

The Temple of Dendur is covered in elaborate interior and exterior carvings. These carvings represent the Natural and Cosmic order through depictions of nature and deities. 

Sunk vs. Raised Relief

The carvings throughout the temple alternate between sunk and raised relief. The temple’s exterior is in sunk relief. Here, pictures are carved into the stone where the background is left flat. As a result, the shining sun would cast shadows along the carving’s outlines bringing the pictures into clear view!  

On the other hand, the temple’s interior carvings are in raised relief. In other words, the background is carved away allowing for images to pop out. This method, therefore, made it easier to see carvings in dim lighting!  

The builders wanted to make sure the carvings were accessible everywhere. Thoughtful, no?  

Natural World

Look at the temple’s exterior. What elements remind you of nature? 

Lotus-like Capitals with Horus’ wings and sun disk above. © The Met

The temple’s base shows lotus and papyrus plants representing the earth. They grow along the Nile which is symbolized by depictions of Hapy, the Egyptian god of the Nile. Similarly, the two columns in the temple look like tall plants reaching towards the sky. On that note, the sky is represented by the wings of Horus, the son of Isis and god of the sky. You’ll see his wings and a sun disk above the gateway and temple entrances. The sky is also represented through flying vultures on the entrance porch’s ceiling. In short, viewers are compelled to think of the sky above and the earth below.  

Cosmic World

The cosmic world is manifested throughout the temple in depictions of the pharaoh and other characters making offerings or praying to deities. The pharaoh (remember, it’s Augustus!) is indicated by cartouches or oval shapes that mostly translate to ‘pharaoh’. The deities are identified by either inscriptions or their crowns! As the pharaoh makes offerings, the gods give ‘life’ in return which is symbolized by the ankh (☥) they hold. How many ankhs can you spot?  

In the sanctuary, the only carvings appear on the rear wall and door frame. Unlike the other carvings showing the pharaoh making offerings, these carvings depict Pedesi and Pihor worshipping Osiris (Isis’s husband) and Isis respectively.  

With so many examples of proper offerings, I bet there were few mistakes and many happy deities! 


graffiti saying 'leonardo 1820' carved onto the temple of dendur
Graffiti on the Temple of Dendur, © The Met

Look around the temple. Do you notice any weird carvings? Who is Leonardo!? It turns out, before it’s retirement at the Met, visitors decided that they wanted to add their own mark on the temple! In fact, there’s quite a few pieces of graffiti dating back to the 19th century. Of course, we don’t mess with the temple anymore (no new carvings!) but you can remember your stay by taking a picture.  

A Pop Culture Hotspot

Watch this clip from Ocean’s 8 of a diamond robbery right under the Temple of Dendur’s nose!

Need a cool location for a movie? Why not try the Temple of Dendur? Other directors have! In fact, the temple makes an appearance in the I am Legend (2007) film when Dr. Robert Neville fishes in the reflective pool. Likewise, Ocean’s 8 (2018) features the temple during a sneaky robbery! For fashion fans, Chanel once featured a fashion show at the temple.  

Where else have you spotted the Temple of Dendur? Be sure to keep a look out for it next time you go to the movies!  

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