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Honouring the Gods: Egypt’s Ancient Temples

Janice and George Mucalov

Sacred sites of worship, learning, healing and love in the Land of the Pharaohs

Did Cleopatra look out from this spot in Dendera Temple of Hathor at the sacred lake below? Perhaps. Our Egyptian guide tells us she loved bathing in the rectangular stone pool, now empty but for palm trees growing within its walls. Carved on an outside temple wall, there’s a large bas-relief of Egypt’s last Pharaoh and her son, Caesarian, fathered by Julius Caesar — one of the few surviving depictions of Cleopatra.Sacred sites of worship, learning, healing and love in the Land of the Pharaohs


Built between 125 B.C. and 60 A.D., the temple was dedicated to Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of love, happiness, motherhood and healing. The ceiling is intricately painted with fantastic azure-and-gold images of the sky goddess Nut (Hathor’s mother) swallowing the sun, a winged disc, each evening and giving birth to it again each dawn. A crypt, which we enter by crawling through a narrow corridor on our hands and knees, stored amphoras of perfumed oil for religious ceremonies. We also visit the mud brick ruins of a sanatorium within the temple grounds — furnished with benches for the sick waiting for cures by the priests. Supplicants would stay overnight hoping to have a healing dream of the goddess.

Temple of Karnak, featuring gigantic floor-to-ceiling columns with intricate carvings. It is the largest temple complex in the world, dating back to 3,500 years ago. (Photo by Janice and George Mucalov)

For centuries, travellers and scholars have flocked to Egypt to see mysterious ancient hieroglyphs like these first hand and to try to imagine what life was like during the reign of the pharaohs.

Egypt’s best-known attraction may well be the Great Pyramid of Giza — the lone surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But cruise the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and you see many ancient temples rising up in the baking desert, just as astonishing for their mystery and beauty.

Karnak Temple in the city of Luxor is truly awe-inspiring. One of the world’s largest sacred sites, covering more than 60 acres, it’s filled with sphinxes, obelisks, shrines and gigantic statues of pharaohs. Dedicated to the sun god Amun-Ra, it was first built more than 3,500 years ago and added onto by 30 successive pharaohs. We’re struck by the dizzying jungle of 134 colossal papyrus-shaped columns in the Hypostyle Hall. Queen Hatshepsut’s 29-metre tall obelisk, sculpted from a single piece of pink granite and weighing over 320 tons, traveled hundreds of miles from the distant quarries at Aswan. Our guide suggests it may have been floated down the Nile during an annual flood.

Then there’s Komombo Temple, the temple of healing, where our guide points out a wall relief showing surgical scissors, a scalpel, dental pliers and two women sitting on birthing chairs. And Edfu Temple, the temple of learning, with etchings of the scribes and students who studied architecture and engineering here.

Still, our favourite is the temple where roosting birds now sing and the promise of each new day is chronicled – Cleopatra’s temple of love.

How to Visit

Except for the pyramids near Cairo, most of Egypt’s top archaeological sites are found along the banks of the Nile River between Aswan and Luxor (Upper Egypt). The best way to see these temples and tombs is on a cruise. We sailed on the Oberoi Zahra, built to be the Nile’s most luxurious river boat. Its 27 suites feature timber floors scattered with horsehair rugs and marble bathrooms with picture windows. Upon docking, an air-conditioned Mercedes van whisked us and our Egyptologist guide to touring sites. The Zahra offers leisurely 7-day river sojourns (unlike 3- and 4-night cruises by most other boats). It’s also one of the few boats that cruise to Dendera to see the Temple of Hathor (on a private twilight visit).


It’s hot and sunny all year in Upper Egypt, with little shade. November to February is the mildest months. Avoid June through August, when the heat is intense.


While Cairo has seen unrest, Upper Egypt has been trouble-free for years. But check Canadian government travel advisories before you go.