Laying of the First Stone of Horus' temple at Edfu, 2,250 Years ago


23 August 237 BCE, on the traditional site of the battle between Horus and his uncle Set in Apollinopolis, present day Edfu, between Assuan and Luxor on the western bank of the Nile, King Ptolemy III Euergetes ordered the begin of the construction of the Temple of Edfu.




"I set off at a gallop pass the first soldiers and arrive before the last rays of the sun left off illuminating the town.  This time I barely had time to go around and through this edifice on horseback: its grandeur, magnificence and state of preservation surpassed everything I had seen until then in Egypt and other places.  The impression it made on me was as great as its size" (Dominique-Vivant Denon “Voyage Dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte“, 1803)




The British orientalist painter David Roberts' (1796 – 1864) view “From under the Portico of the Temple of Edfu, Upper Egypt“, watercolour from 1846, showing the site’s condition before the French archaeologists started their work 15 years later.


Hellenism blended quite nicely with the thousands of years old local culture of the Nile valley. Their Persian predecessors as overlords of Egypt with their comparatively monolithic Zoroastrianism remained isolated. The cosmopolitan culture of the Greeks did not. Already during the lifetime of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy I Soter (saviour), the eponymous founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Macedonian soldiers and their camp followers who settled in Egypt since 321 BCE as the new ruling class, began to go native and blended their culture and customs with that of the locals. Most aspects were immediately affected, from daily life to a literal explosion in scientific achievements, the arts as well as religion. The old Egyptian gods finally bore the names Herodotus had given them already 300 years before and a few new ones were added. Now, Hellenes and Egyptians revered deities like Zeus Ammon, Osiris became Serapis and Toth Hermes. A few retained their old names like Isis. The old struggle between Horus and Set appeared in a new guise of Apollo fighting Typhon but with the old imagery, going through their ages-old struggle dressed up as Greeks.





David Robert's view of Appolinopolis or Edfu after the excavation of the site


Thus, the third Ptolemy ordered a new temple for and old sacred site, a project that would drag on for the next 180 years into the reign of Ptolemy XII, father of Cleopatra, the last ruler of the line. The considerable number of inscriptions on the temple walls give us a good idea about the building history, while the monumental carvings of the gods and the scenes tell the story of the legendary background of the place. And they are hardly distinguishable from the artworks of Egypt’s period of the New Kingdom from roughly 1,000 years before. The scale of the structure itself is huge, covering roughly 3,000 m2 with a height of almost 40 metres and again, the architecture is hardly different from older buildings. Only the interior, where ambulatories and columns had been added to the remnants of an older temple tells of the influence of Greek architecture.


Main entrance of Horus' Temple at Edfu* 


In its time, the Temple of Edfu was an important site for celebrations of the Horus cult. The New Year’s festivities were held here as well as the annual commemoration of the hawk-headed deities’ triumph over Set-Typhon and the mythical wedding of Apollo-Horus with the goddess Aphrodite-Hathor and sacred falcons were raised on the spot and one was crowned every year as the living symbol of the god, until the site was finally abandoned in 391 CE, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all non-Christian cults in the empire. The structure luckily survived the next 1.500 years almost intact, until its rediscovery, at least for Westerners, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1798 and in 1860 a French expedition began to free the site from huge loads of sand that had amassed over the time. Today, the Temple of Edfu is one of the best preserved archaeological sites in all Egypt.