The Temple of Horus is situated in the ancient city of Edfu on the west bank of the River Nile, roughly halfway between the two major ports of Luxor and Aswan. As one of Egypt’s best-preserved historical sights, it is a favorite stop for cruising tourists and independent visitors traveling overland through the Nile Valley. There are two reasons for its incredible condition. Firstly, it was built much more recently than Egypt’s oldest pharaonic monuments; and secondly, it was filled with protective desert sand for centuries before its excavation in the mid-19th century. Today it is one of the country’s most atmospheric ancient temples.
History of the Temple
The existing Temple of Horus was constructed on the site of an earlier temple, also dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed sky god. Because he was considered the protector of the pharaohs, Horus was a popular choice for temple dedications in Ancient Egypt. The current temple is Ptolemaic rather than Egyptian, however, having been commissioned by Ptolemy III Euergetes in 237 BC and completed in 57 BC during the reign of Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. The Ptolemy dynasty was founded in 305 BC by a Macedonian compatriot of Alexander the Great and was the last and longest-ruling dynasty in Egyptian history.
The temple was the largest one dedicated to Horus's cult in all of Egypt and would have hosted many festivals and celebrations held in his honor. Its size gives an idea of the prosperity of the Ptolemaic era, and the richness of its inscriptions has contributed greatly to our knowledge of Egypt as a Hellenistic state. The temple continued as an important place of worship until 391 AD when Roman emperor Theodosius I issued an edict banning paganism throughout the Roman Empire. Christians converts attempted to destroy many of the temple’s reliefs while black scorch marks on the ceiling of the hypostyle hall suggest that they tried to burn it to the ground.
Fortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful. In time, the temple was buried by desert sand and silt from the River Nile until only the upper sections of its pylon, or monumental gateway, remained visible. The pylon was identified as belonging to the Temple of Horus by French explorers in 1798. Still, it wasn’t until 1860 that legendary French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette began the arduous task of excavating the site and returning it to its former glory. As the founder of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, Mariette was responsible for the recovery and restoration of many of Egypt’s most famous ancient monuments.
Layout and Points of Interest
The Temple of Horus is constructed out of sandstone blocks and, despite being commissioned by the Ptolemies, was designed to replicate the building traditions of the earlier pharaonic eras. As a result, it provides an invaluable insight into architectural details that have since been lost at earlier temples like Luxor and Karnak. Visitors enter through the imposing, monumental gateway, which stands over 118 feet tall and is flanked on either side by granite statues of Horus in his falcon form. On the gate itself, towering reliefs depict Ptolemy XII Auletes as smiting his enemies while Horus looks on.
Step through the pylon and into the great courtyard, where 32 columns line three sides of an open space that would once have been used for religious ceremonies. More reliefs decorate the walls of the courtyard, with one of particular interest showing the annual meeting of Horus and his wife, Hathor, who came to visit from her temple at Dendera. On the other side of the courtyard, a second entrance leads into the outer and inner hypostyle halls. Unlike most of Egypt’s older temples, these halls' ceilings are still intact, adding an incredible sense of atmosphere to the experience of stepping inside.
Twelve columns support both hypostyle halls. The outer hall includes two chambers to the left and right, one of which served as a library for religious manuscripts and the other of which was the Hall of Consecrations. One of the chambers leading off the inner hypostyle hall would have served as a laboratory for preparing incenses and ritual perfumes. Beyond the hypostyle halls lie the first and second antechambers, where temple priests would have left Horus's offerings. The holiest place in the temple, the sanctuary, is accessed through these antechambers and still houses the polished granite shrine upon which the gold cult statue of Horus would once have stood. The wooden barque (used to carry the statue during festivals) is a replica of the original, now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Also of interest in the temple grounds is the Nilometer, used to measure the river’s water level, predict the success of the coming harvest, and the ruined pylon belonging to the earlier New Kingdom temple that the current structure replaced.
How to Visit
If you’re planning a Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan (or vice versa), your itinerary will almost definitely include a stop at Edfu. Many companies also offer day tours to Edfu from Luxor, usually stopping at the Temple of Kom Ombo. Check Viator for an overview of the different options. Traveling as part of a tour has its benefits; primarily, an Egyptologist guide who can explain the significance of the temple’s reliefs and statuary. However, if you would like to visit independently, you can hire a private car or taxi from Luxor, or take the local train. The train takes 1.5 hours from Luxor and just under 2 hours from Aswan. There is a visitor center at the temple with a ticket office, cafeteria, toilets, and a theater where a 15-minute film on the temple’s history is screened.
Things to See Nearby
As a town, Edfu itself predates the temple by several thousand years and once served as the capital of the Second Upper Egypt nome. The remains of the ancient settlement are located to the west of the temple and known as Tell Edfu. Although many of the buildings have been destroyed or eroded over the centuries, what is left gives an insight into Edfu’s growth from the end of the Old Kingdom to the Byzantine era. Approximately three miles south of the city lie the remains of a small step pyramid. Although unimpressive compared to the largely intact pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, it is thought to date back to the reign of the Third Dynasty pharaoh Huni, making it over 4,600 years old.
Edfu has a hot desert climate, and temperatures in summer can be sweltering with average highs of around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. December and January are peak season and can be crowded, so for many travelers, the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons of February to April and September to November. Even during these months, temperatures remain high, so remember to bring plenty of water and sun protection. If you have a choice, visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon is usually more pleasant in terms of heat and crowds. It’s also the best time to photograph the temple. The entry costs 100 Egyptian pounds per adult.