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Volume 31, Number 3May/June 1980

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A Temple at the Met

Written by William H. Rockett
Photographed by Nicholas Kourides

Every Sunday, some 8,000 people wander through the Sackler Wing of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their sole purpose: to see a little bit of the ancient Middle East reborn in the inscribed stone walls of the Temple of Dendur, a structure that has journeyed there through 2,000 years - and three times as many miles - from its beginnings on the western bank of the Nile.

One of the treasures threatened by the construction of the great Aswan High Dam (See Aramco World, July-August 1976), Dendur and a number of other small temples were dismantled stone by stone and carried off to new homes in those countries which had contributed most heavily to the rescue of the Nubian heritage of Egypt and the Sudan. The United States, which had given over $16 million to the cause, was offered Dendur in 1965. (See Aramco World, May-June 1969).

This gesture set off what delighted journalists called "the Dendur Derby" as museums in Cairo (Illinois) and Memphis (Tennessee) vied with great institutions like Washington's Smithsonian Institution and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for possession of the temple. But the mere fact that Cairo and Memphis were named after Egyptian cities didn't weigh heavily with the presidential commission established to pick the derby winner. And the Smithsonian's plan to erect the temple on the Potomac - like Boston's intention of raising it beside the Charles River - presented serious preservation problems. Dendur is constructed of sandstone, called a "friable" material by archeologists. This means that wind and water can quickly cause the stone to deteriorate and crumble. Thomas Hoving, then director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, argued that a riverside setting wasn't worth the risk and proposed instead that the relatively small temple (60 feet long and 23 feet high), be housed inside a museum. Having promised to build "an outdoor glass display case" so the temple would be visible to strollers near the Mefs Central Park quarters, Hoving won the Dendur Derby.

The cost of moving, housing and re-erecting the Temple of Dendur was $9.5 million. Did the Met get its money's worth? Was Dendur worth the trouble? Perhaps more important, did the Met keep its promises to provide a suitable home for Dendur's fragile stones? Happily, the answers are affirmative on all counts. Dendur itself is a superb work enriched by history and tradition, and architect Kevin Roche has created a "display case" as successful in what it sets out to do as the tiny temple itself.

Amelia Edwards - the English lady whose 19th-century grand tour up the Nile is best remembered because she cleaned the great statues of Rameses II at Abu Simbel with pots of coffee - once called Dendur "decadent." Still, even Miss Edwards felt the pull experienced by museum visitors today. "The whole thing is like an exquisite toy, so covered with sculptures, so smooth, so new-looking, so admirably built. Seeing them half by sunset, half by dusk, it matters not that these delicately-wrought basreliefs are of the Decadence school. The rosy halflight of an Egyptian afterglow covers a multitude of sins, and steeps the whole in an atmosphere of romance."

Dendur is, in fact, a late temple, built by the Romans in 22B.C. But like the Greek Ptolemies who ruled Egypt before them, the Romans built in accordance with local tradition, both religious and esthetic. Dendur is not a house of worship but a home for gods, and the gods who dwelt together there were strange housemates indeed: Caesar Augustus, Roman conqueror of the world, and two young Nubian brothers who had the good fortune to have been drowned in the Nile.

In 31 B.C., Octavian defeated the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at Actium, unseated the woman who was the last of the Ptolemies, and claimed for himself the title pharaoh. Returning to Rome to become the emperor Caesar Augustus, he left his Egyptian domains in the care of the prefect Cornelius Gallus.

At this time, northern Nubia, between the first and second cataracts of the Nile, was a kind of no man's land. Diminished rainfall had brought about a depopulation of the area, and the region served only as a trade and military route. The only people who remained there were tribes like the Blemmye - today's Beja - warriors whose ancestors had often served in the mercenary armies of the Egyptians to the north, and of the ancient Nubians in the Kingdom of Kush to the south.

The Kushites ruled all of southern Nubia from their capital of Meroe, just north of Kartoum and the sixth cataract of the Nile. An African people who had consciously adopted Egyptian religious beliefs, written language and customs (See Aramco World, July-August 1979), they were enjoying a kind of golden age under the leadership of ruling queens, or "kandakes". Cornelius Gallus saw fit to sign a treaty with them in 29B.C. Under its terms, northern Nubia became a Roman protectorate but remained a part of the Kushite kingdom. Gallus appointed one Kuper, a Blemmye chief, to serve as Rome's legate in the area. Kuper's payment came in part with the admission of the Blemmye god Mandulis into the Roman pantheon, and the erection of several temples in Mandulis' honor.

Five years later, while Cornelius' successor Aelius Gallus was marching on Arabia at Augustus' orders (See Aramco World, March-April 1980), the Kushite kandake Amanirenas seized the opportunity to march north and invade Egypt: after all, this was a land her ancestors had once ruled as the pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty.

Amanirenas took Syene - today's Aswan - in 24 B. C, defeating three Roman cohorts in the process and carrying away the head of a monumental statue erected to Augustus. But a new Roman prefect, Gaius Petronius, soon drove the kandake back to her own capital, and after two more years of desultory skirmishing, Amanirenas sued for peace. The boundary of Roman Egypt was moved south to Kasr Ibrim, placing fully half of northern Nubia firmly in Augustus' empire.

Kuper and the Blemmye had remained loyal to Rome throughout the struggle. We know the old chief was taken prisoner, and we suspect he was put to death. His sons Pedesi ("He whom Isis has given") and Pihor ("He who belongs to Horus") were drowned in the Nile, either in battle or in flight. One of the bodies washed ashore at Dendur, where it was buried in a tomb cut in the side of the western bank. A small chapel was built before it, for the manner of the boys' deaths had guaranteed their apotheosis. According to the Roman historian Herodotus...

when anyone, be he Egyptian or stranger, is known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, such a one must by all means be embalmed and tended as fairly as may be and buried in a sacred coffin by the townsmen of the place where he is cast up; nor may any of his kinsfolk or his friends touch him, but his body is deemed something more than human, and is handled and buried by the priests of the Nile themselves.

Petronius rewarded the Blemmye for their loyalty to Rome. The Temple of Dendur, with its beautiful reliefs depicting Augustus as pharaoh and Pihor and Pidesi as young gods making offerings to the great redeemer Osiris, was one such reward. In building the little temple, Petronius' architects relied upon ancient esthetic principles to serve the religious precepts Dendur was to mark. The structure follows a pattern first established in the 18th Dynasty (1580B.C), a pattern which remained virtually unchanged for 1,600 years.

One approaches the temple from the river through a great pylon, or bekken. Alexander Badawy says the ancients called this gate "the Luminous Mountain Horizon," and represented it in hieroglyphs as two mountain peaks between which the sun is seen rising. One then passes through a wba, or open court, before reaching the temple proper. The building itself consists of a wadjit, or columned hall, and the sanctuary where the gods dwelt.

To dismiss Dendur as a decadent copy is to miss the fact that it is a distillation of the knowledge and technique acquired by Egypt's master builders over the centuries. As such, it is in some respects finer than earlier and larger works. Talbot Hamlin of Columbia University has written of the late temples, "There is greater symmetry, a more careful study of the relative heights and proportions; and in such a temple ... there is a sense of simple directness of design, of perfect interrelation of parts, which is sometimes missing in the larger, more complex work of the earlier time."

"Obviously, this little temple is just a gesture," says architect Kevin Roche. "But its been done with a lot of skill, and you see reflected in it the high level of achievement in Egyptian architecture. I don't suppose it was ever considered a very important building by its makers; a temple was needed and so they ran off another temple. But it’s a good one. You would be hard put to find a building in our culture which matches up to it in the kinds of problems it solves, and the statement it makes." It became Roche's job to create such a building himself - namely the "display case" Sackler Wing that would house Dendur in New York. The Met could not have picked a more appropriate artist for the job.

Roche has been described by one critic as "the unpremeditated dauphin who ascended the throne at the premature death of Eero Saarinen" in 1961. His New Haven, Connecticut firm was already charged with the refurbishing of the Met and the design of additional wings, including the pyramidal structure that houses the Robert Lehman Collection.

Pyramids turn up frequently in Roche's work; one company headquarters he built in Indianapolis uses three such structures. In fact, Roche is an avowed admirer of Egyptian design. "I've been very influenced by Egyptian architecture," Roche says. "It actually means a lot more to me than the Greek or Roman forms: I can understand it much better. To my mind, the Egyptians invented everything the Greeks used later."

Neither Roche nor Arthur Rosenblatt, the Metropolitan Museum vice president in charge of architecture, was particularly disturbed by those critics who maintain that moving an architectural monument from one place to another destroys it. Such critics agree with the views of Osbert Lancaster, who said that moving Rameses' temple at Abu Simbel would turn it into "a slice of cheese on a dish. Without its context Abu Simbel is worth nothing. It would look ridiculous." Abu Simbel would at least still be out of doors and in Egypt, carped some; how much more ridiculous would Dendur look, inside a building in New York.

"As far as I'm concerned," Rosenblatt counters, "when you remove a painting from an artisfs studio you are changing its original context. The light in a museum is different than that in which the painting was done, the ambience is different. Its all the same thing."

Roche loves the Nile Valley, and is especially sensitive to "the extraordinary clarity of light there, which is something you have to consider in viewing a building. You can never bridge the difference between the quality of light in Egypt and that in New York, but one does one's best." Roche's best is very good indeed: the great expanse of glass in the Sackler Wing's ceiling and north wall is stippled, diffusing the light gently over the delicately incised walls of the temple.

Rosenblatt and Roche agreed that the interior of the new wing "shouldn't be Disneyland," as Rosenblatt puts it. "We didn't want a diorama approach, with a papier mache cliffside and a fake river, like the setting for stuffed animals in a natural history museum. That would look like a cartoon. At the same time, we wanted to do the temple justice, always remembering that our responsibility is to preserve a work of art and let as many people as possible see it."

Roche pondered the problem for some time. At first, he considered "simply putting the temple on a pedestal and displaying it as an object," but in the end he chose another course. "We decided it was better to give some sense of the original setting and the approach to the temple," explains Roche. "After all, its origins are so tied to the Nile. So we built a wharf and landing, based on early sketches. Then we placed a reflecting pool before it, and a sloping wall of different stone behind it, suggesting the Nile and the cliffs of the original setting." It was a felicitous decision. The simplicity of its setting, like a minimal frame on a painting, gives the temple a context which does not overwhelm it. When one enters the hall, one sees the temple, and not the building in which it is housed. At the same time, the schematic sketching of the setting suitably reflects what P. P. Kahane has called "the special character of Egyptian painting... a purely linear style... purely an art of surfaces."

Surfaces of water, surfaces of stone and the sky seen through glass all frame the stronger surfaces of the temple itself. And the external surfaces of the Sackler Wing, seen from outside, create yet another kind of perfection.

Seen by night, by strollers who brave Central Park's paths, the great wall of glass of the Sackler Wing ceases to exist. The artificially illuminated temple seems to glow with a burnished warmth. "That's the view the photographers love," says Rosenblatt. "Time, Newsweek and others have featured photographs of the temple glowing in the dark." But by daylight, something extraordinary occurs. Roche says one of his favorite groups of Egyptian buildings is that found at Saq-qara, site of the stepped pyramid built for the pharaoh Zoser by the great architect Imhotep. The pyramid is actually composed of a series of rectilinear structures known as mastabas, piled one on top of the other in decreasing size. The mastaba (its name is derived from its resemblance to the bench still found outside village huts today) is the oldest form of monumental tomb erected in the Nile Valley, dating back to Egypt's First Dynasty, about 3100B.C. And with its flat roof and sloping glass side made firm by sunlight, the Sackler Wing, seen from without, resembles nothing so much as a great mastaba.

The architectural historian Wilhelm Worringer has said of ancient Egyptian building, "Space is always only a form of the relationship of the ego to the surrounding world." Kevin Roche has created Egypt itself in the Sackler Wing's inner space, and in its outer form he has linked Egypt's most ancient past in the mastaba with the more recent temple it contains. Like the Temple of Dendur itself, which distills a long architectural tradition in its form, the Sackler Wing is a great cycle of Egyptian history and ideas and art, made concrete. Dendur's New York resurrection has fulfilled the promise E. Baldwin Smith saw in Egyptian architecture back in 1938: to the great joy of museum-goers, it has "gone west to be reborn, like Osiris, in the new civilizations of the Western world."

William H. Rockett, formerly a correspondent, writer and producer for the CBC, is now art critic at the Passaic Herald News and assistant professor of communications at Seton Hall University.

This article appeared on pages 30-38 of the May/June 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1980 images.