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Cleopatra's Temple of Denderah
HE tombs of Beni-Hassan are interesting to the
student of Italian antiquities as well as to the Egyptologist, for in them he sees the forerunners of the tombs of the Sikanian and Sikelian primitives of Sicily, and the stately sepulchres of the Etruscans. Assyut gives him further opportunities for the study of comparative sepulchrology, and shows an important example of a modern Egyptian country town. At Memphis and Sakkara he sees superb subterranean monuments, and certainly makes the acquaintance of very beautiful ancient Egyptian sculptures and paintings. But he is not brought face to face with the magnificence of ancient Egypt till a turn of the road reveals the great Temple of Denderah. Except the Pyramids, Denderah is the farthest north of the huge built monuments of Pharaonic Egypt. There is a world of difference between the built-up monuments and the dug-down monuments in psychological effect.
Denderah, as it stands, is neither the most ancient nor the most perfect of the Egyptian temples which have come down to us in some state of completeness. With the exception of a late Roman pylon on an inadequate scale, it lacks the proportions of a temple which lead up to the great hall of columns, called the Hypostyle Hall, which is their most imposing feature. Nothing in the main building above ground is anterior to the age of the Ptolemies. Greek influences obtrude everywhere, even when the work is not Roman.
The Egyptologist, consequently, becomes arrogant, and talks about the debased and crowded style of the decorations. They are certainly crowded; they are not pure Egyptian ;
but they have a beauty which is lacking in the purely Pharaonic monuments—the beauty of Greek sensuosity and Greek handling.
Denderah was the first great Egyptian temple I ever saw, and I must confess that it filled me with exultation and admiration. I had seen most of the monuments of Italy and Sicily and Greece. I had seen temples in actual use, as well kept up as cathedrals, in Japan ; but compared to a temple like Denderah the temples of Japan are modest affairs, whatever their comparative areas may be. They are only made of lacquered wood; they have no lofty and enormous columns, or other soaring effects, and their age is but as a span compared to those of Egypt.
There are few perfect Roman temples of any importance ; and the temples of Greece which have retained a roof or even all their columns are few and seldom large. But the special point in which the Egyptian temples excel the temples of Hellas, so perfect in their taste and grace, lies in the many traces of use. It is not easy to picture what the Greeks did in their temples, beyond leading animals to them to be sacrificed, and carrying jars of water and precious offerings. No one has yet discovered what a Greek temple was used for except as a storeroom for the offerings, and occasionally for the public treasury, of the city. There are no traces of any religious use.
In Egyptian temples, on the other hand, the uses of a chamber are frequently painted on its walls, for example at Abydos, where the sacrificial chamber is decorated with abattoir subjects; and on the walls of one temple or another we have the whole religious life of ancient Egypt depicted. The most ordinary Cook's tourist who has eyes to see and ears to hear sees more of the arcana of the religion of the
wan the most intelligent of the laity of its own way. For the Egyptian priests were extraordinarily jealous of allowing any one but themselves and the Pharaoh to see the interior of a temple. And only the more important laity were allowed inside the high wall of crude bricks which surrounded its whole grounds. The utmost that the common
people could see would be the processions on the temple tops. It may be for this reason that the flat roofs of Egyptian temples were so obviously built for use. The dual purpose of the Egyptian priest would be served by this. He did not wish the common people to have any real acquaintance with his rites, while he wished to impress them with a sense of his magical and mysterious importance and power. There have been only two modern instances of a priesthood so successfully rapacious of power as the Egyptians. They actually seized the throne of Egypt on the death of Rameses XII.
It was at Denderah that I first grasped the power and magnificence of the hierarchy of ancient Egypt. We landed in the early morning, and rode along the high bank of the Nile for half an hour. We could see almost immediately, away on our left, a building rising above the fields, which in the distance looked like a cricket pavilion. Nor did we see any native life in the fields to tell us where we were, until a sharp turn to the left took us down to the modest pylon which seems to have so little connection with the temple. There, in front of us, was our pavilion, which had changed into a heavy, low-browed façade in the ancient Egyptian style, with its columns half taken up by gigantic capitals formed out of the heads of Hathor, the goddess of Denderah. It is easiest to describe Hathor as the Egyptian Venus, but the definition is not exact. She was in a way the Goddess of Love and Beauty, but she was much more; she shared many features of Isis ; she had one attribute of Juno. But she did personify the feminine principle, and the practical Egyptian identified her with, and generally represented her in the shape of, the cow. Greek influences were strong at Denderah; so Hathor here is allowed to wear her woman's form divine ; it was at Der-el-Bahari that she was emphasised as a cow.
I did not think particularly of Egyptian mythology as I made my awe-struck entrance into the great temple of Denderah ; it was more religion in the abstract; more the spirit of antiquity which obsessed me. The moment I had
passed through that mighty portico I found myself in a hall of immense size, whose massive and lofty columns were covered with sculptures and paintings of the gods, and religious rites. It was as dark as the dusk, for Denderah still has its roof on, with the same rich sculpture and painting as the columns and walls, though darkened in places by the fires of the Arab when it was filled with sand almost to the top. The pictures, however debased, had a human interest here which is denied to most temple-pictures, for their subjects were scenes from the life of Nero, when he was masquerading as a Pharaoh and a High Priest of the religion of Egypt. But there were also, high up on the walls, some mythological groups of great beauty like that of the Trinity of Bubastis-Isis, Osiris, and Horus. I confess that I did not look at the pictures minutely. I was enjoying the impression of size, architectural splendour, and colour and mysteriousness. The last was heightened by the huge bats which flew about squealing and stinking: it is impossible to think of an Egyptian temple, which retains its roof, without these bats. Even the winged sun, the emblem of Horus, has wings shaped like a bat, though feathered like a bird's for no reason which I could tell. This Hall of Columns at Denderah, one of the great hypostyle halls of Egypt, though inferior in size to Karnak's and in art to that of Abydos, has a special interest, for it was finished while our Lord was at Jerusalem, though the Nero pictures were added afterwards. And we therefore see the world in one of its most important centres of religion and civilisation as it was, when He came to convert it.
Our dragoman prated of the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the cartouches of kings, and the duel between Horus and the power of darkness, who had slain his father, Osiris ; and especially about the Greek intrusions in the Egyptian signs of the Zodiac on the ceiling (if the Zodiac was Egyptian at all). But I was more interested when he began to explain the plan of the temple from the vestibule to the sanctuary of the goddess.
When we left that gigantic and solemn vestibule, we found
ourselves in the Hall of the Appearance, where, between six great columns, the processions were formed and passed inwards through the Hall of the Altar and the Hall of the Cycle of the Gods to the Sanctuary of the Golden Hathor, where they kept the four sacred boats which formed the principal feature of these processions. Each boat contained a temple with the image of a god on it. In the centre of the sanctuary was a veil like the veil of the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem. Its fittings still remain.
All round the Hall of the Appearance were the chambers used for the service and storing of the temple—the asit, where they made the perfumed oils and essences used in anointing ; the sahit, where the offerings of the fruits of the earth were collected and consecrated; the passages through which the offerings of Upper and Lower Egypt were brought in ; the silver house, where the plate of the temple was kept, still adorned with pictures of the Pharaoh offering gold and silver vessels to the goddess; the wardrobe, where they kept the sacred vestments of king and priest; the six small chambers and the special temple on the terrace, used in connection with the great procession of the New Year at Denderah, which was as elaborate as the Panathenæa at Athens; the corridors, emblazoned with pictures of the King in his relations to the gods, which divided the sanctuary from the dozen little chapels dedicated to the Resurrection of Osiris, and to Isis being brought to bed of Horus, and to Osiris overcoming the crocodiles, and to Hathor giving fresh life to the sun, and so on; the most sacred of all being the Dwelling of Hathor, right behind the sanctuary, which contained the inner chamber, only to be entered by the King himself, where the golden sistrum of Hathor was kept.
The interest of Denderah does not end here. There are chambers above and below, and in the thickness of the walls, all decorated in the same lavish way with paintings and sculptures, and secret chambers in the walls, whose proper entrances have never been discovered, used as refuges and treasuries. These are not decorated.
On the north side is a winding staircase and on the south