If you want to get to grips with the sheer size and ambition of ancient Egypt’s rulers, a trip to Edfu, 110 kilometers south of Luxor and 112 kilometers north of Aswan, is a must. One of the most awe-inspiring feats of Ptolemy’s temple, the Temple of Horus has been watching the Nile closely since the 2nd century BC. Compared to the temples and monuments elsewhere in Egypt, this attraction may be quite young in age, but its colossal sandstone walls covered in giant hieroglyphs and dazzling friezes by the gargantuan structures of earlier pharaohs, and its lesser age means it is one of the best is preserved temples in the country.
Pylon: the Grand Temple access road
Stone guardians of the falcon yellow god Horus watch over the Great Pylon , while stone reliefs on either side of the gate sing the praises of Ptolemy king Neos Dionysos.
Dont Miss: the relief of Neos Dionysos holding his enemies by the hair to strike them before Horus – a suitably bloody spectacle of regal strength intended to awe the king’s subjects as they entered.
Read also: Exploring Abu Simbel
Forecourt: the colossal courtyard
Surrounded on three sides by 32 towering columns, the massive Forecourt would originally have had a large altar in the center where the temple priests offered offerings to the gods of Edfu, surrounded by the townsfolk. The columns are richly decorated with flowers and palm capitals, and the gold-colored stone walls are covered with reliefs of the gods Horus and Hathor. Just to the left of the entrance to the Vestibule , the surviving black granite statue of Horus , originally part of a pair, bears the double crown of Egypt and guards the door to the further reaches of the temple.
Dont Miss: The back walls of the colonnade are covered with three rows of large reliefs depicting the pharaoh (Ptolemy IX Soter II or Ptolemy X Alexander I) conversing with the gods or with the victorious god Horus. Similar images are repeated throughout the temple. On the sides of the pillar the king is shown, with the Lower Egyptian crown on the western side and the Upper Egyptian crown on the eastern side, advancing to the temple and sprinkled with the water of consecration by Horus and Thoth.
Vestibule: Entering the inner temple
Passed through the grandiose Forecourt , you come upon a much more human-scale Vestibule adorned with 12 columns topped by decorated floral capitals. Just as you enter are two small rooms. The western chamber is the Hall of Consecration with a beautiful relief on the back wall depicting the gods Horus and Thoth pouring holy water over the king. The eastern room belonged to the Temple’s Library with a list of books it once contained still inscribed on the wall, along with an image of Seshat, the Goddess of Writing.
Don’t Miss: The walls feature four rows of incised reliefs in which King Euergetes offers sacrifices to the gods or performs rituals (e.g. laying the foundation stone of the temple, in the bottom row on the left wall). Above are a band of astronomical images and an ornamental frieze consisting of the king’s names guarded by two falcons. Below, just above the floor, are Euergetes, his wife Cleopatra, and a long archive of local deities offering sacrifices to the three main deities of Edfu. On the architrave of the door leading to the Hypostyle Hallis an interesting relief of the Sunbath, led by two falcon-headed Horus figures, with the Sun worshiped by Thoth and Neith. To the sides, in the pose of prayer, are Ptolemy IV Philopator (left) and the four senses: to the right, sight and hearing, to the left, taste (symbolized by the tongue) and reason.
Hypostyle Hall: Preparation for the ritual
A doorway leads to the Hypostyle Hall with its roof supported by 12 columns and slid by two small chambers, which access the inner passage around the temple. The left chamber functioned as the temple’s laboratory , where incense and perfumes were mixed by the priests in preparation for rituals.
First and Second Antechambers: Inner altars of the Priests
Beyond the Hypostyle Hall , the First Chamber was an altar area where offerings were left to the gods by the temple priests. A staircase here leads to the roof, which is unfortunately not accessible to visitors.
Don’t miss: the mural reliefs on the walls here depict the procession of priests, led by the king, ascending (east side) and descending (west side).
The First Antechamber leads to the Second Chamber with a small dish of offerings. This room would be the priests’ last port of call to make offerings to the gods before entering the Holy of Holies itself, the Sanctuary .
Don’t Miss: On the ceiling, a mural depicts the sky goddess Nut, with the various figures of the sun in boats below her.
Sanctuary: The Room of the Gods
Lit by three small square openings in the roof, the sanctuary was where the golden image of Horus once stood on a granite shrine (still in situ today), which is a remnant of the pre-Ptolemaic temple. A corridor runs around the sanctuary and leads to several dark rooms decorated with well-preserved and colorful reliefs. In the northern room is a replica of the wooden barque (the original is on display in the Louvre in Paris), which would have held the golden statue of Hathor at festivals and during processions.
Don’t Miss: The most interesting reliefs in the sanctuary are those in the bottom row on the right wall . The King (Philopator) is depicted removing the lock in the Temple of Horus, the Chapel of Edfu Horus; open the door of the chapel; standing before the god in a reverent position with his arms at his sides; offering frankincense to his deified parents, Euergetes I and Berenice; and offering frankincense to the sacred barque of Hathor.
Inner Passageway: Passage of Victory
The Inner Passage wraps around the back half of the temple, emerges from the Hypostyle Hall , and is decorated with reliefs and inscriptions.
Do not miss it:the interesting reliefs on the western wall depict the battle between Horus and the god of the underworld, Seth. In the frieze of scenes, Seth is depicted as a hippopotamus that the king and Horus hunt. In the first scene (below, right), the king tries to impale a hippopotamus, which turns sideways; Horus does the same, with a chain in his left hand and a spear in his right, with his mother Isis beside him and a little Horus at the helm of the boat, aft. In the second scene, the king is left on land, with two ships before him, in which are Horus and a servant; Horus holds the hippopotamus with a chain and thrusts his spear into its head. In the fifth scene, the hippopotamus lies on its back with its hind legs chained. In the seventh scene Horus, in a sailboat, aims his spear at a hippopotamus, whose hind leg is tied in a cord held by Horus and its head in a cord held by Isis, kneeling in the bow of the boat. The king stands on the bank with two servants and aims his spear at the animal’s head.
Nilometers were used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the river and predict the harvest of the future season. The Temple Nilometer is found by taking an underground staircase leading from the eastern side of the Inner Passage . Although no longer connected to the Nile today, you can still see the shaft with the depths inscribed in demotic characters.
Temple of Horus History: A Temple Raised by Successions of Ptolemaic Kings
Edfu was the ancient Egyptian Tbot, or in Coptic Atbo, from which the modern name is derived. When the Greeks came to the site, they named it Apollinopolis Magna and it became the capital of the second nome (area) of Upper Egypt. According to myth, the Horus, a god with a false head, fought one of his great battles with the god of the underworld Seth here, which is probably why Horus was particularly revered in this area. In the Ptolemaic era, the ancient god of Horus was twinned with the Greek god Apollo to become Horus-Apollo.
Built on the site of an earlier temple, Edfu’s temple was dedicated to Horus, Hathor of Dendera and their son, the youthful Harsomtus, “Uniter of the Two Lands.” The history of the construction and a description of the whole structure are set out in long inscriptions on the outside of the enclosure wall, particularly on the north side of the east and west sides.
The rear part of the complex, the temple proper, was begun in 237 BC, during the reign of Ptolemy II Euergetes I, and was completed in 212 BC under his successor, Philopator. The decoration of the walls with reliefs and inscriptions, interrupted during the troubled reign of Epiphanes, was resumed in 176 BC by Philometor and ended in 147 BC during the reign of Euergetes II, exactly 90 years after the foundation stone was laid.
Euergetes II also added the great vestibule (completed in 122 BC) and decorated it with reliefs. During the reigns of Ptolemy IX Soter II and Ptolemy X Alexander I, the forecourt with its colonnades, perimeter wall and pylon were built, but the pylon was decorated with reliefs only during the reign of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, who finally completed construction work in 57 BC.
Around the Temple of Horus
The Mammisi: The Birth House
West of the entrance to the Temple of Horus is the Mammisi, built by Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II and decorated with reliefs by Ptolemy IX Soter II. In the main chamber, on the right wall, are several reliefs of Hathor of Dendera, including Hathor sucking Horus, Hathor giving birth, and several Hathors playing musical instruments.
Remnants of the Old City
Further west of the temple, tall mounds of rubble mark the site of the ancient city. A number of archaeological excavations here have restored the Greco-Roman buildings that sat beneath the houses of the Byzantine and Arab Empire periods.
The modern township of Edfu is an important market town for the area and has a sugar industry and an old established pottery industry.
Tips and tactics: Make the most of your visit to the Temple of Horus of Edfu
- Timing: Try to get here very early or close to closing time. From 9am a battalion of Nile cruise boat visitors dock to Edfu to visit the temple and it can get very busy. Early morning and sunset are also the best time for photography here.
- Tourist Bazaar: You reach the temple through a row of trinket shops known as the Tourist Bazaar. There’s no escaping it. Be kind but firm if you don’t want to buy anything and acknowledge that the salespeople are just doing their job to entice you into their shops. If you see something you want to buy, be aware that the prices here are higher than elsewhere.
- Audio Visual Presentation: A short film documenting the history of the Temple of Horus can be viewed at the Visitor Center.
- What to bring: Take plenty of water, a sun hat and sunscreen. Comfortable shoes are a must.
- By Nile Cruise: Almost all cruise ships sailing on the river between Luxor and Aswan have itineraries that stop in Edfu.
- By Felucca: A stop at Edfu can be included on a 3 day felucca sailing trip from Aswan. Arriving in Edfu by traditional lateen sailing boat is one of the most atmospheric ways to visit the temple.
- By Train: The best way to visit the Temple of Horus is to take the local train to Luxor (one hour) or Aswan (one and a half hours). There are frequent trains during the day.
- By Car: Taxis can be easily arranged from Luxor . It makes sense to combine Edfu with visits to Khnum Temple at Esna and Kom Ombo Temple if you hire a driver for the day.