The temple of Hathor was constructed over a period, we believe, of thirty-four years, between 54 and 20 BC. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BC, the temple was, after four years of building activity, still in its early stages, although it did contain some underground crypts. It seems that the remainder of the temple was build during the twenty-one year reign of his successor, Queen Cleopatra VII. At the time of her death in 30 BC, the decoration work had just begun (on the outer rear wall).
Ihy was a young god personifying the jubilation emanating from the sacred rattle.
The main temple area is fronted by several Roman Period kiosks. After those, the monumental gateway of Domitian and Trajan is set in a massive mud-brick enclosure wall that surrounded the complex, and leads to an open area. Although the site lacks a colonnade and the two pylons which ought to precede the inner temple, an unfinished inner enclosure wall of stone surrounds a courtyard with side entrances which open before the large hypostyle hall added in the 1st century AD by the emperor Tiberius.
The new sanctuary was well designed and followed Ptolemaic models. In order to match the level of the Hathor temple, the new building was erected on a high platform. A temporary access staircase led up at the side of the platform. The roofing slabs were not positioned, as usual, beneath the level of the cavetto molding around the buildings top, but would have probably been hidden by a parapet wall.
The core building contains a sequence of three rooms. Two corridors that isolate the large sanctuary are notable. These passages are too narrow to be used and must have been added for symbolic and optical effect. The rear wall of the sanctuary is dominated by an enormous false door that is framed by a double cavetto molding on slender columns and topped by an uraeus frieze. A cult niche high up in the wall corresponds to the location of the statue niche in the sanctuary of the main temple.
The birth house was surrounded by an ambulatory. The composite capitals of the columns carry high pillars with Bes figures. The frontal ambulatory extended by the addition of three columns into a kind of kiosk, with the front corners formed by L-shaped pillars. The kiosk had a timbered roof that somehow must have connected to the stone structure of the birth house. This merging of the ambulatory with a kiosk is a novelty. At older birth houses, a court was attached as a separate structure.
The main temple at Dendera is the grandest and most elaborately decorated of its period. It is also one of the most important temple sites of Egypt, providing examples of a rich variety of later temple features. It is also one of the best preserved temples of this period, surviving despite the destruction of the temples of Hathor's consort Horus and their child Ihy or Harsomtus which originally stood close by.
The massive foundations probably contain many blocks from the earlier structure it replaced. Early texts refer to a temple at Dendera which was rebuilt during the Old Kingdom, and several New Kingdom monarchs, including Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II and III are known to have embellished the structure. However, while fragments of earlier periods have been found on the site, there have been no earlier buildings unearthed. Pepi I and Tuthmosis III in particular were recalled in the new temple's inscriptions.
The Roman Birth House (mammisi) was built when the earlier structure, begun by Nectanebo I and decorated in the Ptolemaic Period, was cut through by the foundation of the unfinished first court of the main temple of Hathor. Only a false door at the eastern exterior wall of the main temple of Hathor reminds one of the original sanctuary. Originally, this birth house measured about 17 by 20 meters and consisted of a triple shrine opening to a transverse hall. It was built mainly of brick but received an interior stone casing. Within this older structure, the walls of the wide hall depict the Ptolemaic kings offering to Hathor. A scene on the north wall shows the creator god Khnum fashioning the child, Ihy, with Hekat the goddess of childbirth seen in her image as a frog.
Both birth houses are now accessible. They differ considerably in plan and decoration.
Between the new and old birth houses are the remains of a Christian basilica that can be dated to the 5th century AD. It is an excellent example representative of early Coptic church architecture.