Feature Articles – In Horus’ image
The Temple of Edfu is one of the most visited, but also most enigmatic temples of ancient Egypt, providing us with insights into the Temple of Solomon as well as the mythical “Followers of Horus” – refugees from Atlantis?
by Philip Coppens
The Temple of Edfu is the second largest temple of ancient Egypt, after Karnak; it is also the best preserved, though this is in part because it is also one of the most recent. Indeed, calling it “Egyptian” is already something of a misnomer, for its construction began in 237 BC and was only completed in 57 BC – during Ptolemaic times, after Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt and the rule of the pharaohs was no more. Though therefore relatively modern, legend has it that the site itself is as ancient as time, if not older, as it was said to be the site where Horus defeated his evil uncle, Seth, to avenge his father’s murder. The story of Horus’s mythological triumph over Seth was celebrated each year as a mystery play.
The temple complex is also known for inscriptions that argue that its lay-out was actually designed by a mythical, pre-dynastic group of people, known as the Shemsu Hor, the “Followers of Horus” – which some authors have identified as refugees from Atlantis.
Less known, however, is that Edfu can also shed light on the infamous Temple of Solomon… Fact is that the first temple that was built at Edfu was constructed by Imhotep and his father Kanefer. Imhotep, of course, is best-known as the engineer who built the first Step Pyramid at Saqqara for King Zoser. This first temple was also dedicated to Horus, the divine offspring of Osiris and Isis. Horus was magically conceived after Osiris had been brutally slain and hacked into fourteen pieces by the evil Seth – the Egyptian equivalent of Satan. Isis searched the length of Egypt and beyond for Osiris’ pieces and – using both magic and love – reassembled him. Alas, she was unable to recover his phallus, so she fashioned one out of wood. Despite this, she was able to conceive Horus. The current temple at Edfu is not only dedicated to Horus, but also to Hathor of Denderah, as well as her son Harsomtus. In the case of Edfu, each year, Hathor travelled south from her temple at Denderah to visit Horus at Edfu on a barge, and this event, marking their sacred marriage, was the occasion of a great festival and pilgrimage. On the south side of the paved courtyard are carvings depicting this “Feast of the Beautiful Meeting”.
But Horus was the principal deity and – like every other temple – the temple of Edfu was said to be the site where the god lived on earth. The god itself was “present” inside his statue that was at the very heart of the temple complex. As mentioned, construction of the complex began on August 23, 237 BC by Ptolemy XII, who constructed the present complex on top of an earlier, smaller temple. Interestingly, whereas the previous temple was aligned east-west, the Ptolemaic complex was aligned north-south. This is an unusual orientation, and it is believed that it was done to underline a connection with the Temple of Denderah, which faces north, and which was constructed shortly before Edfu.
Apart from its unusual orientation, Edfu largely does conform to the standard Egyptian temple. The twin entrance pylons climb to a stunning height of 36 metres and are covered with the standard imagery of the king smiting his enemies before Horus. But apart from standard iconography, Emil Shaker has shown hieroglyphics on the wall close to sanctuary, pointing out how they specified how a temple ritual had to be performed. The ritual involved chanting a hymn to the sun and presenting the gods with offerings and was said to activate the temple. Though few historians dare to go there, we should take this activation very literally. Indeed, the statues of the gods that lived inside the Egyptian temples were no mere “dead objects”, but were believed to actively contain the spirit of the deity, with which the high priests could interact. It was also said that the statues of the gods could physically walk – and in more recent times, some museum staff have reported that, indeed, some Egyptian statuettes mysteriously move about in their glass cabinets. But further such discussions are best left for another occasion.
Of note at Edfu is the Holy of Holies, the most sacred area of the complex. In the Holy of Holies, only two men were ever allowed in: the high priest and the pharaoh. It is here that we see the parallels with the design of the Temple of Solomon. Edfu has a rectangular hall with twelve gigantic stone columns, set in four groups of three. The first of three main spaces within the shrine indicate to us as to how the Temple of Solomon might have been. It too divided into three parts and generally along the lines of the standard Egyptian temple design – to which Edfu adhered. Equally, the floor plan of the interior of the Edfu complex is a double square and the hall is as high as it is wide, a double cube – on par with the Temple of Solomon. Again, as in the previous hall, there are twelve columns, set in a configuration of four by three.
Inside the Holy of Holies, where in the Temple of Solomon stood the Ark of the Covenant, at Edfu was a grey granite naos shrine, four metres high, which would have contained the cult statue of Horus, with cartouches of Nectanebo II of the 30th Dynasty. The shrine therefore must have come from an earlier building. Texts on the wall describe the rituals that took place here, including the morning service when the high priest exposed, washed, fed and dressed the image of Horus, burning incense and reciting prayers to him.
In a chapel behind the sanctuary there is a low pedestal, also from an earlier structure, on which stands a reproduction of the barque of Horus – the Ark of Horus. Or could that be an Ark of the Covenant, as this was the ceremonial barge used to carry Horus’ statue during the processions? Indeed, one of the bynames of the temple complex of Edfu was the “chest of the son of Isis”. For researchers of lost civilisations, however, it is not the Temple of Solomon that intrigues them, but the so-called “Edfu Building Texts”. The Edfu Building Texts speak of the “First Time”, or Tep Zepi, which was the period from the first stirring of the High God in the Primeval Waters to the settling of Horus upon the throne and the redemption of Osiris by Horus.
They also relate that the region of Edfu was once inhabited by the so-called “Shemsu Hor”, or “Followers of Horus”. In Manetho’s List of Kings, these beings ruled after the gods themselves, but before the pharaohs. It are these predynastic people that are said have created the design for the Edfu and Denderah temple complexes, as they were said to have been built “according to a plan written in ancient writing upon a goatskin scroll from the time of the Companions of Horus”. Specifically, Edfu was built in according with a plan “dropped down from heaven to earth near the city of Memphis”.
With such ingredients, no wonder that aficionados of lost civilisations have been immersed in them for decades. The texts, with titles such as “Specification of the Mounds of the Early Primeval Age”, “Sacred Book of the Early Primeval Age of the Gods” and “Offering the Lotus” speak of ancient and largely unknown rituals, as well as an important “Island of the Egg”, also known as the Wetjeset-Neter, which was seen as the homeland of the Shemsu Hor. Some feel it should be identified with the lost continent of Atlantis. From the Texts, it is clear that this homeland was destroyed, with only one sole object surviving: a djed-pillar, which is a pillar symbolising the backbone of Osiris.
A lot of speculation exists about the identity of these Shemsu Hor, but most historians unsurprisingly argue away from an Atlantis connection, instead opting that they were the kings of Hieraconpolis and of Buto respectively, the principal capitals of pre-dynastic Egypt. The all important question is whether we live in an “or universe” or an “and universe”, as the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Edfu is therefore a mystery. Built in post-Dynastic times, it harkens back to pre-dynastic times, if not the time of the gods themselves, and the greatest “golden child” of all: Horus. There was an ancient prophecy, written down in Ptolemaic times, which argued that one day, the gods of ancient Egypt would be dead and the land not understand. That time is now. The time is also there to begin to peel back the layers, and see what is at the core of this and so many other temples. For this was, and remains, a place of magic. It is undoubtedly why even in Ptolemaic times, the Greeks could be moved to construct a new and complex temple. The Time Returns…