When Auguste Mariette, who had been sent eight years earlier by the Louvre Museum to Egypt in search of ancient manuscripts, was appointed Conservator of Monuments by the Egyptian government in 1858, he initiated a frenetic excavation activity.

In 1860 alone, he directed more than 35 new excavations while also maintaining the ones already started. One of these excavations took place in Edfu, on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, about 85 kilometers south of Luxor. There, 62 years earlier in 1798, a French expedition had found thick pylons protruding a few meters from the sand near a village by the river.

Mariette began excavating to uncover the pylons, and the excavation extended under the houses (up to a hundred had to be demolished) until the entire structure was exposed at a depth of 12 meters. It was the Temple of Horus, the second largest temple in Egypt after Karnak, and the best preserved, as it is almost intact thanks to having remained buried under the sand and layers of Nile sediment for centuries.

Statue of Horus in the courtyard of the temple of Edfu
Statue of Horus in the courtyard of the temple of Edfu. Credit: Olaf Tausch / Wikimedia Commons

The site was called Apolinópolis Magna in the Greco-Roman period, equating the local god Horus with the Greek god Apollo.

The Temple of Edfu was built during the Ptolemaic period, with its construction starting on August 23, 237 BC, under the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (the year after the promulgation of the Decree of Canopus) and finishing on December 5, 57 BC, during the rule of Ptolemy XII Auletes, after a total of 180 years of construction.

It was built on the ruins of an older temple also dedicated to Horus. An inscription attributes the inspiration of the project to Imhotep, the first known engineer and architect in history, but he lived about 2400 years earlier, so the priests of Edfu were simply following the custom of citing the great vizier of Pharaoh Djoser, probably to legitimize the construction and continue the religious importance of the site.

Plan of the temple of Edfu
Plan of the temple of Edfu. Credit: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons

Both the design and orientation of the current structure differ from the original one, following a north-south axis instead of being transverse to the river’s course.

Edfu is one of several temples built in the same period, including the Temple of Dendera complex, the Temple of Esna, the Temple of Kom Ombo, and the Temple of Philae, and its size reflects the relative prosperity of that period in Egypt’s history.

It is 137 meters long by 47 meters wide (79 at the pylons) and has a maximum height of 36 meters. Initially, it consisted of a hypostyle hall, two transverse halls, and a sanctuary of the sacred barque surrounded by chapels. Inside, an earlier sanctuary, the naos of Nectanebo II, is preserved.

The entrance pylons reach a height of 33.5 meters, and although they appear solid, each contains an interior staircase connecting eight floors and eight mezzanines that served as storage. Between them is a relief of the temple’s main god, Hor-Behdeti (Horus of Edfu), and on either side of the portal, a smaller relief of the goddess Hut-Hor-lunet (Hathor of Dendera). The gods face outward towards two large reliefs on each side of the façade depicting Pharaoh Ptolemy XII offering prisoners as sacrifices.

Inner courtyard of the temple of Edfu
Inner courtyard of the temple of Edfu. Credit: Goetz48 / Wikimedia Commons

In front of the pylons, to the right and left of the temple entrance, are two black granite statues of falcons representing Horus. These statues do not wear the crown seen on a similar statue in the temple’s inner courtyard.

The courtyard is surrounded by 32 columns forming colonnades on the east, south, and west sides, with capitals of different shapes. The entire enclosure is surrounded by a partially preserved wall, and beneath it runs a large underground gallery used as storage, which is one of the most impressive aspects of the temple’s architecture.

Despite the damage suffered over the centuries, including acts of religious vandalism during the persecution of pagans in the Roman Empire, the temple has retained much of its original structure.

The chamber of the sacred boat, inside the Edfu temple
The chamber of the sacred boat, inside the Edfu temple. Credit: Olaf Tausch / Wikimedia Commons

It is famous for its inscriptions, which provide details about its construction and narrate the creation myth associated with the temple. They tell the story of the beginning of the world when everything was covered by water. During the struggle between the land and the primordial waters, a falcon (Horus) helped the land emerge, marking the place where the temple would be built. These inscriptions also include important scenes from the sacred drama narrating the battle between Horus and Seth, which according to tradition took place in Edfu.

One of these inscriptions is the foundation of Ptolemy III:

This beautiful day in the 10th (year of reign), (day) 7 of the month of Epip during the majesty (of the son) of Ra (Ptolemy III Euergetes I) was the day of the Senut festival when the dimensions (of the building) were established on the ground, (it was) the first of all the Senut festivals on the occasion of the extension of the rope in the foundation of the Great-Seat-of-Ra-Horakhty (Edfu), the foundation of the throne-of-the-protector-of-his-father (Edfu). The king himself and the great goddess Seshat drew the plan of the First-Sanctuary (Edfu); the correct location of its halls was determined by the gods of the creative word together with the lord of the Heden plant (Thoth), the gods Khnum began to form, Ptah modeled, and the first ur-deity burst into joy everywhere. (…) The walls inside were perfectly decorated with reliefs, with figures of the gods and images of the goddesses, as well as with all the magnificence of the creator of glory (Edfu).

It was the center of several sacred festivals, the most notable being the festival celebrating the annual journey of the goddess Hathor from her temple in Dendera to visit Horus in Edfu. This event, marking their sacred marriage, was a time of great pilgrimage and festivity.

Detail of the pronaos of the Edfu temple
Detail of the pronaos of the Edfu temple. Credit: Detail of the pronaos of the Edfu temple

It is known that falcons were also raised inside the temple in a house of birds or temple of the falcons, where each year one of the animals was crowned in the courtyard and became a living symbol of Horus. This house of birds has not been found or identified.

The temple began to decline after the Edict of Theodosius I in 391 AD, which banned non-Christian worship in the Roman Empire. However, it remained active until the gods abandoned Egypt when Emperor Justinian ordered the temples to be closed in 537, imprisoning the priests and transferring the sacred statues to Constantinople.

Today, the Temple of Edfu is one of the most visited in Egypt, thanks to its exceptional state of preservation, being a common stop for Nile cruises.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 19, 2024: El templo mejor conservado de Egipto se salvó porque quedó enterrado 12 metros bajo las arenas

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