Photographs: Keith Grenville
An inscription in Dendera temple shows that the oldest cult building on this site was constructed during the lifetime of Khufu in the Old Kingdom. This temple, in its present form, was built during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, with relief work on the rear external wall depicting Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion.
The inclusion of secretly accessed crypts in temples can be traced back to the 18th Dynasty. By the Late Period crypts were included in the architectural design of most temples. The finest examples of crypts are to be seen at the Dendera Temple dedicated to Hathor, where there is a total of three crypts, one each in the east, the south and the west outer edges of the main temple building. The photographs displayed above are from the southern crypt, the only one currently open to the general public. Access to the crypt is through a wooden trap-door in the floor behind the sanctuary, down a few steps to a very low gap in the stone-work below ground level through which one must crawl on hands and knees. After this, a narrow passage leads into the equally narrow crypt.
It has been deduced that the crypts were used as storage space for cult statues, which were probably made of gold, as well as other items used at certain festivals during the year, except at the New Year Festival when all cult statues were removed and placed in the appropriate room in the main temple. Apart from storage facilities the crypts also served a symbolic purpose and it appears the crypts were used as a refuge at times of external threat.
The crypts were identified with the "underworld". When the cult-statues were, in practical terms, being stored in the crypts during the non-festival periods, the statues were considered to be "life-less" and the "body" of the deity now rested as a "corpse" in the underworld. In this context it is interesting to consider the caches of statuary discovered buried in Luxor and Karnak Temples.
The "corpse", once brought out of the crypt had to be brought back to life through rituals. Certain statues were "processed" to live again through the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony which was practiced in the Gold House situated close to the crypt.
The wall reliefs of the well-worn staircases leading from the main temple to the roof, where chapels, rooms, ramps and staircases can be observed, depict the "re-animation" rituals which were held at different times of the year for the statues of different deities. Similar depictions can be observed at the Temple of Horus at Edfu. It has been learned from inscriptions that when statues were removed from the crypts they were first taken into cult rooms for preparation and afterwards taken to the roof where the rays of the sun would bathe the statue in its light and warmth, thus bringing the statue back to life.
The reliefs in the southern crypt (shown above) depict Harsomtu, son of Hathor and Horus, with priests assisting the birth and extracting the waters of inundation which were said to issue from his mouth. He is shown as a falcon, a child (he is a child god), and as a serpent. The snakes coming from the lotus symbolize fertility. The snake was the first animal to rise from the primeval waters in the same way as Harsomtu, like the sun-god Re, burst from the lotus. Harsomtu originated from, and was venerated as, a serpent at a town called Khadi on the east bank of the Nile, where the deity was connected to an agricultural fertility cult. His principal function appears to have been in restoring the inundation. This particular crypt is situated in the south-eastern angle of the temple which may give a connection between the rising of the sun and its brilliance when in the south. I have noticed that the unusual balloon-like shapes surrounding the snakes, is a hieroglyph (alerti or jtr.t.y in Ptolemaic hieroglyphs) representing the "north and south" or the double shrines of Lower and Upper Egypt. The hieroglyph is used in The Decree of Canopus (Wallis Budge).
Harsomtu or Horsematawi is the Greek form of the Egyptian Hr-smA-tA.wj, "he who unites the two lands".
Sources: Cauville, Sylvie. 1990. Le Temple
de Dendera: Guide Archéologique. Bibliothèque générale 12. Cairo, , Institut
français d'archeologie Orientale du Caire. P. 58
W. Waitkus, Die Texte in den unteren Krypten des Hathortempels von Dendera, MÄS 47, Mainz, 1997.