The Temple of Dendur: Art & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of decorations can you find on an Egyptian temple? In this lesson, we'll learn about the art and architecture of an Egyptian structure called the Temple of Dendur.

What is the Temple of Dendur?

Did you know you can see an ancient Egyptian temple in the United States? If you've ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you might have seen the Temple of Dendur.

The Temple of Dendur is a small sandstone temple which was built between 15 and 10 BCE in a region of Egypt called Nubia. It once stood along the Nile River on a sandstone platform, backed up against a rocky outcropping. During this period, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire and ruled by Caesar Augustus. So the temple represents a combination of Roman and Egyptian culture. The temple was dedicated to several Egyptian gods and goddesses, and it was decorated with images that reflected Egyptian religion and beliefs. In Egyptian culture, temples were places where gods and goddesses were believed to live. People came and brought offerings to keep the gods happy and satisfied, which in turn promised prosperity for the community.

Drawing of the Temple of Dendur, showing it in its original location.
Drawing of Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur was dismantled in the mid-twentieth century, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to cover it with rising water. Egypt gave the temple to the United States in 1965. Today you can see it reassembled and on exhibit in a dramatic gallery in the Metropolitan Museum.

Now let's explore the architecture and art of the Temple of Dendur.

Architecture of the Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur is a modestly-sized temple which represents a type of Egyptian architecture developed over thousands of years. The temple is composed of two structures, a pylon or monumental gateway entrance, and a multi-roomed hall. The hall was entered through a pronaos or covered portico with columns, which then led to the structure's inner two rooms.

The Temple of Dendur includes several typical Egyptian architectural elements. The two columns supporting the porch resemble large, thick stalks of papyrus wrapped with lotus blossoms with decorative foliate capitals. Papyrus and lotus are water-loving plants common to the land around the Nile River, and both are important symbols in Egyptian religion and mythology.

Main structure of the temple, showing the columns and pronaos.
Temple of Dendur

The tops of the pylon and the temple where the walls meet the roof were bordered by a cavutto cornice, a decorative edge ddesigned in a repeating pattern of concave or inward bending shapes that flare out at the top, in a design resembling palm fronds.

Art of the Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur is rich in decorated surfaces. The pylon and temple walls are covered with raised and sunken relief carvings. Raised reliefs are sculptures that stand out from their background. Sunken reliefs are carved so that they are incised into the stone and sit below the surface. Images include scenes of the pharaoh (in this case, Augustus Caesar) offering gifts to gods like Horus and Osiris who hold scepters and ankhs in their hands. The ankh is a form of Egyptian cross that stands for eternal life. All of the reliefs were originally painted in bright colors.

Detail of the temple, showing examples of relief carvings.
Detail of carvings on Temple of Dendur

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