Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2008
Issue No. 890
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

New dawn for Luxor temples

Nevine El-Aref reports on the reopening of Dendara Temple and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's visit to Luxor

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Following three years of restoration Dendara Temple has been reinaugurated

The heat wave that hit Egypt last Sunday did not deter Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif from going ahead with his planned two-day tour of Luxor to view the progress achieved so far with the project to develop the whole area, including the town itself, into an open air museum. The plans include more facilities and easier access for tourists.

Luxor has been under major development since 2005 under President Hosni Mubarak's programme to improve services for the residents of Upper Egypt and to develop and promote tourist projects, which will in turn fuel the local economy and provide job opportunities. Buildings that encroached on ancient monuments were cleared, making way for excavations that revealed the full route of the Avenue of Sphinxes, once the royal path between Luxor and Karnak temples.

After three years of makeover, Luxor is looking more alluring than ever. New houses and shops have been built to replace those that were forcibly demolished. All the buildings along the Corniche have been repainted in earth colours, and the city's streets and squares have been given a facelift, including the planting of large numbers of trees and flowers.

Nazif's visit started with an inspection of the road leading to and from Luxor international airport which has been revamped and lined with trees and flowers. The prime minister then stopped at Karnak Temple to check on work being undertaken on the temple foreground and its surroundings. This project, which was launched in May 2006, aims at protecting the monument from construction infringements as well as restoring the temple's aesthetic aspect. All encroachment has been removed from the forefront of the temple in an attempt to allow excavation to uncover the ancient harbour and a canal that was once connected to the Nile. According to ancient maps, the ancient Egyptians used a canal to access the Nile and cross to the West Bank in a position corresponding to Hatshepsut's Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which was built on the same axis.

Over the last 20 months, excavations in front of the temple have uncovered a Ptolemaic ceremonial bath, a private ramp built for Pharaoh Taharqa of the 25th Dynasty (690-664 BC), a large number of bronze coins, an ancient dock and the remains of a wall that once protected the temples of Karnak from the rising Nile flood.

Later on the first day of his visit, the prime minister viewed the progress at Luxor Temple where shanty houses, bazaars and rubbish dumps have been cleared and a small public garden opened. The unregulated building around the temple had been described by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni as "a time bomb waiting to explode". Now, Hosni said, the clearances had opened up to view a small Coptic church and the Al-Haggag Mosque, providing a new aspect to the temple. "Train passengers will now be able to admire the colossi of Luxor Temple as soon as they step out of the station," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. The station itself, a major transport hub in a city that receives more than two million tourists a year, has been given a LE20 million refurbishment.

On his second day Nazif visited the West Bank, where stands a 3.62-metre tall statue of Queen Tiy, wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty (2388-1360 BC). It was discovered on the site of the massive Colossi of Memnon, the twin statues that command the road to the Valley of the Kings. Two sphinxes representing Tiy and Amenhotep III, as well as 10 statues in black granite of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, who protected the Pharaohs, were also unearthed at the site.

Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ancient Egyptian Department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described the discovery of these statues as "astounding". He told the Weekly that the newly-discovered statues would be re-erected and placed on public view next year. They will be joined by two 15-metre-high statues excavated in recent years that will be placed 100 metres behind the Colossi of Memnon as part of an open air display.

"Once these new colossi and the other new discoveries are put in place, this site will become one of the most important open air museums of the ancient Egyptian period," Abdel-Aziz said.

The prime minister was then driven north along the West Bank of the Nile, in the direction of Qena, to visit Dendara Temple, a massive pile of awe-inspiring ancient Egyptian and Graeco- Roman architecture. Nazif and a score of ministers and top governmental official gathered for the ceremonial reinauguration of the temple following three years of restoration.

Over the ages, Dendara Temple, one of the best preserved in Egypt, was isolated in the parched desert. The only tourists who paid a visit were making a stop on the journey between Cairo and Luxor. More recently, it has been a destination from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada or a stop on a Nile cruise itinerary.

A few years ago the temple was closed to visitors, and its cafeteria and gift shops were almost derelict. Now the SCA's site management policy to rescue Egypt's archaeological sites and make them more tourist- friendly has brought new life to Dendara. The temple has been resurrected not only as an ancient temple but a comprehensive tourist complex providing visitors with various cultural and entertainment facilities.

Hosni told the Weekly that one of the main goals of the development project was to reduce the number of visitors roaming around the temple chambers and corridors, as well as the time they spent inside the temple, by constructing a visitors' centre in the empty space in front of the monument, which should be an obligatory stop on any enthusiastic visitor's itinerary. It has a lecture hall and a cinema where a 15-minute documentary film gives an overview of the history of the temple and its important scenes and reliefs. As at all visitor centres there is a small bookshop and a counter selling souvenirs. In order to control the movement of tourists and to protect the temple reliefs, plans have been set in motion for tour guides to lecture their groups outside the temple in front of a three-dimensional plan of the corridors, the chambers and the sanctuary, and to show photographs of the most noteworthy scenes on the temple walls. The old wooden kiosks which sold souvenirs have all been demolished and replaced with a dozen smart new bazaars within the centre complex.

SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass says the new visitor's path created at the complex is an attempt to guide tourists round the site in an orderly direction. The path starts at the temple's original entrance gate and goes right through to the other side, which overlooks the Nile.

In collaboration with the governor of Qena, Hawass added, the garden neighbouring the temple was added to the site management plan, and a restoration laboratory has been built along with extra facilities and services. An open-air museum displaying objects and blocks discovered on the site has also been set up within the area, and new lighting and security systems have been installed.

The history of Dendara Temple is the stuff of legend. It was known in ancient times as the Castle of the Sistrum or Per Hathor -- literally "House of Hathor", the goddess of love, joy and beauty. According to early inscriptions, a structure was erected to the cult of Hathor at Dendara during the reign of the Old-Kingdom king Khufu (2547-2524 BC. Inscriptions in a later temple at Dendara also mention that King Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty (2343-2297 BC) constructed a temple on the site. Later additions and modifications to the temple of Hathor were undertaken by several rulers of the New Kingdom (ca. 1549-1069 BC), including Tuthmosis III, Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III as well as Ramses II and III.

The temple we see today was built on the ruins of the old temple during the late Ptolemaic period. Ptolemy XII Auletes (father of Cleopatra VII), whose name is found in the crypts, is associated with the foundation of the temple. During the Late Period and Graeco-Roman period several hypostyle halls, columns, kiosks and birth houses were added to the temple area by Nectanebo I, Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy X, and Ptolemy XI as well as by the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Nero.

Among the most important and beautiful scenes on the temple walls are those on the ceiling of the hypostyle hall, which still retains much of its original colour. It is decorated with a chart of the heavens, including zodiac signs and a depiction of Nut, the goddess who swallowed the sun disk in the evening and gave birth to it again at dawn. The inner hypostyle hall, known as the "hall of appearances", is decorated with scenes that show the Pharaoh in foundation ceremonies related to the temple's construction.

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