The Temple of Dendur: History & Original Location

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Temple of Dendur is one of the most-visited ancient Egyptian structures in the world, but its location may surprise you. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of this temple and see how it ended up where it is today.

The Temple of Dendur

Egyptian history is understandably fascinating to a number of people. However, it's hard to get to the really good sites. In fact, for most Americans, to see an authentic Egyptian temple they would have to travel all the way to…Manhattan.

Located inside New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is an Egyptian temple. Yes, the whole thing (or at least what remained of it). Known as the Temple of Dendur it is both an incredible example of ancient artistry and one of the museum's most famous exhibits. But how did a 2,000-year-old temple end up in Manhattan? Maybe everyone really is moving to New York these days.

The Temple of Dendur, in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Original Temple

The Temple of Dendur in an authentic Egyptian temple originally built in (you guessed it) Egypt. It originally stood along the west bank of the Nile River in the Nubian region of southern Egypt, just south of the modern city of Aswan. Who put it there? The temple was ordered by an emperor, but not the one you may expect. It was commissioned around 15 BCE by Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

So, what was Augustus, conqueror of Egypt, doing building temples here? It was, in a way, a propaganda tool. The temple seems to have been dedicated to the two sons of a local Nubian lord who ruled under Roman authority. It was also dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, popular in the region. By commissioning the temple, Augustus tried to show the locals that Roman rule would be a positive thing and that the Romans would not completely destroy their culture. It was meant to make him, and the Roman Empire, look good.

The Temple of Dendur in its original location
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Saving Dendur

For centuries, the Temple of Dendur stood watch over the Nile. However, Egyptian life changed and the processes once sacred to the Egyptians such as the annual flooding of the Nile became seen as hindrances. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government started looking at ways to control the flooding of the Nile in order to open up more land for farming. To do so, they started building the Aswan High Dam in 1960, which would contain the Nile and form Lake Nasser.

There was just one problem. The 2,000-square mile lake would drown several ancient sites, including the Temple of Dendur. UNESCO started organizing a movement called the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia which raised the awareness and resources needed to stall the lake's construction. In the end, 22 temples were relocated and saved. As thanks for the tremendous financial and academic support which made these relocations possible, the government of Egypt decided to give the United States of America a gift. That gift was the Temple of Dendur.

Moving the Temple

Threatened by the annual flooding of the Nile, the Temple of Dendur had been undergoing restoration efforts since the early 20th century, and there was already a basic plan for moving it. Around 1960, the full temple and entryway were disassembled into individual blocks that were numbered, cleaned, and prepared for shipping across the Atlantic. As the Egyptian government prepared this build-your-own-Egyptian-temple kit, there was still one question to address: who would actually take it?

In 1967, the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities established a commission to find a suitable place to restore and house the temple. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (which New Yorkers affectionately call 'The Met') thought it was the best institution for the job, and submitted an application. Met Director Thomas Hoving and Curator of Egyptian Art Henry G. Fischer made a strong case for the museum, promising to safely restore the temple and still make it available to the public. Finally, it was decided that The Met would get its very own Egyptian temple.

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