The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its many secrets, houses a wonderful collection of works that date back to ancient times and through to the Renaissance. Most notable of the ancient artifacts is an entire, bona fide, Egyptian temple! The Temple of Dendur, as it’s called, is completely open to the public, which means visitors can walk through its doors and hallways, experiencing the temple as it was originally used thousands of years ago. Read on for 10 of our favorite fun facts about the Temple of Dendur:
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1. It Took 10 Years to Move the Temple of Dendur to New York City
Instead of standing in the Met Museum, the Temple of Dendur could have been submerged in Lake Nasser. In order to control flooding from the Nile River, the Aswan High Dam was built in 1960, leading to the creation of Lake Nasser in 1970. If not for the efforts of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, the Temple of Dendur could have been swallowed up by the lake along with the 2,000 square miles of land it covers. The Campaign worked with experts from around the world to relocate twenty-two temples in the region.
In 1965, the Egyptian government gifted the Temple of Dendur to the United States government. Instead of simply being moved to higher ground, the temple was disassembled and shipped across the ocean in 661 crates aboard the S.S. Concordia Star. It took nearly ten years for the temple to be dismantled, packed up, shipped across the Atlantic, transferred to the Met, rebuilt inside the formerly named Sackler Wing of the Museum, and finally opened to the public. The pieces arrived on Fifth Avenue in August 1968 and the exhibit opened in September 1978.
2. Museums Competed to House the Temple in the “Dendur Derby”
After the temple was gifted, next came the problem of figuring out where to put it. Several institutions across the country made bids for the temple in a competition that came to be known as the “Dendur Derby.” Two museums that put their names in were located in Cairo, Illinois, and Memphis, Tennessee. But their Egyptian city names did not weigh heavily on the deciding committee and they ultimately lost.
There were also alternative plans to re-erect the temple on the banks of the Potomac outside of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. or by the Charles River near the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Those plans were scrapped for fear that the temple’s sandstone would deteriorate from weather conditions. On April 27th, 1967, the temple was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
3. The Temple of Dendur Was Not Originally Beige
In December 2015, The Met Museum Media Lab painted the Temple with light. To give an idea of what the Temple of Dendur would have looked like during the Roman Period, bright colors were projected onto a scene on the south wall. Knowing that temples in Egypt and the Ancient World were often painted vividly, the Media Lab began research for this project by looking at remnants of the temple itself using visible-induced luminescence (VIL) imaging. Due to 2000+ years of erosion, however, no clues as to its colorful history were found.
Instead, the lab used a survey of the Temple from 1906 and surveys of other temples from the 19th and 20th centuries to find the right colors. The team also conducted an analysis of other painted objects in the Met Museum collection to understand what the color palette would have been.
4. There is Historical Graffiti Scratched onto the Temple of Dendur’s Walls
There are three different graffiti marks that were made on the temple walls over a period of a few thousand years, reports a New York Times article. The first, a few words scrawled in colloquial Egyptian script, dates to 10 BCE, just 5 years after the temple’s completion. Then in 400 CE, a few Greek Coptic Christian inscriptions were made while the temple was briefly converted into a Christian church.
The final graffiti marks that made it onto the temple’s walls came from 19th-century travelers who felt like chiseling their names into the sandstone. So somewhere on Dendur’s ancient walls, you can find a permanently etched “Leonardo 1820” (among other inscriptions).
5. There are Depictions of Emperor Caesar Augustus of Rome on the Temple of Dendur’s Walls
The temple was built around 15 BCE in the Roman Period during the reign of Augustus Caesar. There are two scenes on one of the walls which depict a “pharaoh” or king who is actually Augustus wearing the traditional regalia of the pharaoh.
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At the time, as the ruler of Egypt, Augustus had many temples built in Egyptian style, honoring Egyptian deities. This particular temple honors the goddess Isis and Pedesi and Pihor, two deified sons of a local Nubian chieftain.
6. The Temple of Dendur’s Position in the Museum Simulates its Location in Egypt
The wing in which the Temple of Dendur is housed, formerly known as the Sackler Wing, was designed by architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and associates. Built specifically for the temple, it is designed to mimic the temple’s location in Egypt. The reflecting pool in front of the temple and the sloping wall behind it represent the Nile river and the cliffs of its original home on the west bank of the river, about fifty miles south of Aswan.
Additionally, the glass on the ceiling and the north wall of the wing is stippled to diffuse the light and resemble the lighting in Egypt. The glass enclosure allows the temple to be surrounded by natural light, while still protected from the elements.
7. The Temple of Dendur is Not a Tomb
The Temple of Dendur is not a tomb, nor is it a tribute to a dead pharaoh in any way. It is a cult temple that honors various gods and mythological aspects of the Egyptian religion. Earlier it is mentioned that this particular temple honors the goddess Isis, but she is not the only god depicted. Horus, Osiris, Thoth, Hapy, and Sekhment are a few others.
Important to the ancient Egyptians was their image of the natural world. This is expressed through multiple carvings on the temple. For example, along the base, carvings of lotus plants and papyrus grow from the water, along with the two columns on the porch which represent stalks of papyrus bound by lotus blossoms.
8. The Temple of Dendur Was Not Fully Opened Until 1994
Until 1994, though the exhibit was officially open, museumgoers could only look at Dendur from afar. Nobody was allowed to walk through its hallways until the Met opened it up fully in 1994. Originally, the architectural plan for the exhibit was to treat it sculpturally, as an object to view and admire on a pedestal like a statue, explained Dr. Dorothea Arnold, curator chief of the museum’s department of Egyptian art.
Even when soirees were held, private partygoers couldn’t come closer than 30 feet from the temple entrance. The reason was due to concerns about conserving the delicate sandstone. Eventually, a compromise was made allowing visitors to enter in smaller groups under the watchful eyes of museum guards. When the exhibit turned fifty in 2017, conservators worked to remove grease and grime from the blocks that had accumulated from decades of visitors touching the walls.
9. Get a Secret Elevated View of the Temple of Dendur
You can enjoy a little-known, elevated view of the Temple of Dendur and the Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo-designed grand space from the Japanese Art Reading Room (Gallery 232) on the second floor of the wing. From this vantage point, to can appreciate all of the elements that went into the exhibit’s design, from the reflective pool to the expansive windows.
Looking at the space from above, you can see how the steep riverbank the Temple stood on, and the rocky slope that the rear walls were set into, are mimicked by the wing’s granite slabs. Granite, rather than sandstone, was used for durability.
10. You Can Rent the Temple of Dendur for Events
If you’re looking to through a lavish party, the Temple of Dendur could serve as the venue. Like many other areas of the Met, the Temple is available to rent. A party for you and up to 800 of your closest friends will start at $40,000. The space is available for dinners or receptions after hours when the museum is closed to the public.
Another way into a party at the Temple of Dendur is to snag an invitation to the annual Met Gala. Performances by celebrities like Cher and Justin Beiber have taken place in the shadow of the ancient structure. The Temple has also been the site of a Chanel fashion show and many other social events.
Join Patrick Bringley, former museum guard and author of All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me for a tour of the Secrets of the Met Museum!
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Interested in learning more about the Met? Check out Untapped Cities’ The Top 10 Secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more!
This article was originally written by Vera Penavic and updated by Nicole Saraniero