5 Must-See Graeco-Roman Temples in Egypt

Many visitors to Egypt make their way down to Luxor to take a look at the largest temple in Egypt: Karnak. In this travel blog, the Nile Scribes travel up the Nile to visit five temples in Upper Egypt built during Ptolemaic and Roman times that should not be missed.

Map of Upper Egypt - Google Maps. Adapted by the Nile Scribes
Map of Upper Egypt – Google Maps. Adapted by the Nile Scribes

1. Dendera

Dendara is located about an hour’s drive (70 km.) away from Luxor, making it an easy day-trip destination. Dendara inherited its modern name from the ancient Egyptian name Tantera, but was known as Tentyris during the Graeco-Roman periods. The Dendara complex contains many features inside the enclosure wall including a sacred lake, a temple dedicated to Isis, Ptolemaic and Roman birth houses (called mammisi), and a Coptic Church. The main building that visitors come to see, however, is the large Hathor Temple begun by Ptolemy XII. The facade, now bleached of most of its original colours, incorporates six Hathor-headed columns that represent sistra, musical instruments that were rattled to produce pleasing sounds for the gods.

The Dendara complex contains many buildings but the main temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The Dendara complex contains many buildings but the main temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Inside the Hathor Temple, eighteen Hathor-headed sistra are still brightly coloured, giving the visitor a glimpse of what the temple would have looked like when it was newly built and continuously active. The ceiling of the temple is decorated with dozens of brightly painted astronomical scenes. Visitors can climb the stairs on either side of the vestibule to enjoy the temple’s roof area, where the famous “zodiac” relief was originally located before being removed by members of Bonaparte’s expedition – it is now on display in the Louvre.

The recently cleaned ceiling of the Hathor Temple is a highlight along with the Hathor sistrum columns (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The recently cleaned ceiling of the Hathor Temple is a highlight along with the Hathor sistrum columns (Photo: Nile Scribes)

2. Deir el-Shelwit

Those who visit the major temples dedicated to the royal funerary cult on the Theban West Bank can easily miss the small, Roman period temple dedicated to Isis nearby. Located a little over 2.5 km south of Amenhotep III’s palace complex at Malqata, Deir el-Shelwit is among the latest temples in this area. The temple saw building activity under several Roman emperors, including Vespasian and Hadrian, and dates primarily from the first and second centuries AD.

Deir el-Shelwit is not visited nearly as often as it should be (photo: Nile Scribes)
Deir el-Shelwit is not visited nearly as often as it should be (photo: Nile Scribes)

Over several years, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) worked to restore the temple’s reliefs (including relocating a colony of bats!) and in the process trained over 75 Egyptians as part of a local job creation project. ARCE’s work facilitated easier access to the site and the beautifully restored coloured figures of various gods inside are worth a visit. Make sure to stop by the info panel near the entrance which details the work of ARCE in their engagement with the local community.

The remaining colours highlight the brilliance that must have been radiant within Egyptian temples (photo: Nile Scribes)
The remaining colours highlight the brilliance that must have been radiant within Egyptian temples (photo: Nile Scribes)

3. Edfu

The temple at Edfu, dedicated to Horus of Behdet, is perhaps the best preserved temple from all of Egypt, although its construction came near the end of Egyptian dynastic history at the site. Edfu’s massive pylon is over 30 m. tall and would have been decorated with enormous flagpoles bearing banners as symbols of the divine. The cornerstones for the innermost rooms were laid on August 23, 237 BC, during the reign of Ptolemy III, but the temple was not completed until over a hundred and fifty years later. The ancient town of Edfu predates the Ptolemaic temple by thousands of years, and ongoing work by the University of Chicago has uncovered more information about the Old Kingdom and New Kingdom activities at the site, including the presence of a Ramesside temple.

Edfu's first pylon viewed from behind inside the Open Court (Photo: Nile Scribes)
Edfu’s first pylon viewed from behind inside the Open Court (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Much more is known about the daily activities and rituals that took place inside Edfu temple than any other temple site in Egypt; Egyptologists often rely on the reliefs and inscriptions left at Edfu to extrapolate the functions and meanings of earlier temple systems. After entering the Hypostyle Hall, visitors can observe rooms on either side of the entrance way – one used for storing the costumes used by priests in the temple, and the other used as a library for storing papyrus scrolls. Continuing to the innermost sanctuary, the most sacred place in the temple, visitors can view a granite naos commissioned by Nectanebo I that predates the construction of the temple. The naos once held an image of the god Horus, and shared the sanctuary space with his divine barque on which his image would be carried out of the temple (today, a replica barque is on display there).

The naos of Nectanebo I in the sanctuary at Edfu (back) and a replica of the divine barque of Horus (fore) (Photo: Nile Scribes)
The naos of Nectanebo I in the sanctuary at Edfu (back) and a replica of the divine barque of Horus (fore) (Photo: Nile Scribes)

4. Kom Ombo

Many visitors who make their way from Luxor to Aswan as part of a Nile cruise often stop at Kom Ombo, which is about 50 km. north of Aswan. On the east bank of the Nile sits a Ptolemaic temple dedicated to the local crocodile deity, Sobek. The large temple complex is still remarkably preserved. Some blocks and a gateway built in the New Kingdom (now destroyed) are among the earliest remains from the site, though the complex saw most of its attention during the Ptolemaic Period. A major element of the complex is the twin sanctuary dedicated to the gods Sobek and Horus the Elder.

The compounded columns dominate the entrance towards the outer hypostyle (photo: Nile Scribes)
The compounded columns dominate the entrance towards the outer hypostyle (photo: Nile Scribes)

The entrance to the forecourt features columns of several different types which also incorporate different floral designs. The one on the left in the photo above shows a capital of an opened papyrus, while the three in the centre integrate designs of combined papyrus and lotus plants. To the eastern part of the main complex is a small shrine to the goddess Hathor. Intriguing finds have been made within the shrine: small clay coffins containing the mummified remains of crocodiles. Perhaps these crocodiles, sacred to the god Sobek who was worshiped at the site, would have been raised near the well that is to the west of the complex.

Several doorways stand between the entrance the main sanctuary (photo: Nile Scribes)
Several doorways stand between the entrance the main sanctuary (photo: Nile Scribes)

5. Philae

Our final stop takes us to Agilkia Island, now the home of Philae Temple – the temple was originally located on Philae Island further south. The monumental construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s caused the areas south of it to be flooded and, in turn, Philae temple was disassembled and moved to higher ground. Today, visitors access the island with a short boat ride from the shore to see one of the major temple complexes dedicated to the goddess Isis. Philae was among the last of Egypt’s temples to be closed in AD 550; some of the last hieroglyphic inscriptions before the hieroglyphic script went out of use are preserved here.

The central area of the temple with the main pylon is visible in the centre (photo: Nile Scribes)
The central area of the temple with the main pylon is visible in the centre (photo: Nile Scribes)

While an altar from the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty ruler Taharqa is probably the oldest object found at the site, there is evidence of a cult building from the Saïte ruler Psamtek II that established the cult of Isis at the site. The kiosk of Nectanebo I from the Thirtieth Dynasty is found at the south of the island, from where the visitor can walk through the court toward the main pylon. Just beyond the pylon the so-called ‘birth house’ (or mammisi) awaits: visitors can marvel at scenes of Isis hiding in the marshes from the well-known Osiris myth, and those showing the birth of Horus the Child. During Roman times, a major kiosk from the reign of Trajan was added on the eastern side of the island. While the roof is missing today, the 14 columns still dominate the landscape and the kiosk would have welcomed visitors to the complex as the entrance.

Trajan's Kiosk dominates the island on the eastern side and features beautifully carved columns (photo: Nile Scribes)
Trajan’s Kiosk dominates the island on the eastern side and features beautifully carved columns (photo: Nile Scribes)

Further Reading

  • Weeks, K.R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. – Having worked in the Theban area for several decades, Weeks’ illustrated guide is an excellent introduction to the various monuments found in Upper Egypt.
  • Wilkinson, R.H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. – This has become a standard work in Egyptology for anyone interested in Egyptian temples.

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