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View of the Temple of Isis from Philae.
View of the Temple of Isis from Philae.

Today, Philae is an Egyptian island completely submerged by Lake Nasser. The lake resulted from the construction of High (Aswan) Dam in 1970. In a dramatic “rescue mission” UNESCO relocated the island’s temples from Philae to a safer nearby island once called Agilika but since renamed Philae. To ward off erosion from the lake’s waters, high walls anchored on granite foundations were constructed around the island and its treasure-trove of temples.

Philae may only measure around 457 metres (1,500 feet) by 152 metres (500 feet) but back in ancient Egyptian times; the original Philae was the centre of Egypt’s influential Isis cult and attracted pilgrims from throughout the ancient world.

Philae’s Historical Timeline

The earliest building on Philae was a small temple dedicated to Isis. Built by Nectanebo I (Napktnebef Kheperkare) around 370 BC this early temple was later enlarged into a great Temple of Isis by a series of Egyptian rulers, including Ptolemy II Philadelphius (285-246 BC) and the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD).

After Rome annexed Egypt, Philae remained one of the last bastions for Egyptian religion. Its great temple survived for two centuries following the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity. During this time, Philae attracted large numbers of Greek and Roman pilgrims, who journeyed to the island seeking healing through prayer from Isis, the mystical Egyptian goddess. Even following their defeat in 451 AD by Emperor Marcian, Nubian priests were allowed to continue making offerings to Isis at her temple on Philae.

In 535 AD the Roman Emperor Justinian ordered Philae’s temples closed. Some of Philae’s sacred chambers were converted for Christian worship and a Coptic community occupied the island until Islam swept through Egypt.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Philae’s beauty achieved widespread renown and the island emerged as a popular destination for wealthy European tourists. However, the construction of the Aswan Dam submerged the island for most of the year and Philae’s ethereal charm ebbed away. Today, the grey discolouration of the lower layer of temple stonework is evidence of the effect of their annual immersion.

When the Aswan High Dam project threatened to inundate Philae entirely, the complex of temples was saved by a massive international cultural heritage rescue sponsored by UNESCO. The operation effort lasted from 1972 to 1980. Little Philae was surrounded by a massive coffer dam and the inundating water was drained, while a new site was prepared on the neighbouring island of Agilka. The temples were dismantled and each block carefully numbered, before being re-assembled in a similar orientation on Agilka since renamed Philae.

The ruins of a Temple of Augustus, a Coptic monastery, two Coptic churches and a large Roman city gate were left behind on the submerged island.

Philae’s Temple Of Isis

Easily the most imposing and famous temple on Philae is the Temple of Isis built by Ptolemy II, Nectanebo I sometime around 370 BC. The ancient Egyptians venerated Isis together with Osiris and Isis’ son Horus. The most striking features of the Temple of Isis are its:

Gate of Ptolemy II: Dual lions carved from pink granite guard the initial pylon. Once a duo of obelisks carved from exquisite pink granite connected the lions. Hieroglyphs discovered incised into the obelisks’ base were used in conjunction with the Rosetta stone, and proved instrumental in the effort to decipher the Egyptian

First Pylon: On the first pylon’s east tower Dionysus is shown raising his club whilst holding Egypt’s enemies by their hair. Other figures depicted include Isis, Horus and Hathor. Two smaller images depict the pharaoh presenting Horus and Nephths with his crown and presenting incense to Isis and her child Horus.

Birth House: A characteristic structure in Ptolemaic temples, the Temple of Isis’ Birth House shows Horus standing amongst papyrus in his hawk form wearing Egypt’s double crown. A relief of Isis being protected by AmunRa, Thoth, Wadjet, and Nekhbet as she carries her newborn son Horus in her arms is also inscribed within. The king staged rituals in the Birth House to demonstrate his royal connection to Horus.

Second Pylon: A scene of Ptolemy XII presenting sacrifices of incense and animals to Horus, Hathor and other gods is incised on the Western Tower. The king is also shown offering blooms to Nephthys and her son Horus, while in another image the king presents incense and pours water on an altar in the company of Isis, Osiris and Horus. A carved granite stele featuring an image of Ptolemy VI Philometor with Isis, Horus and Cleopatra II forms part of the Eastern Tower. The inscription contains the grant of the Dodekaschoinoi, claiming the land as the temple site.

Inner Courtyard: A majestic Hypostyle hall is accessed via a gate from the second pylon. Ten tall standing columns dominate the hall, each painted to resemble plants and flowers. The courtyard floor symbolized the primeval mound of ancient Egyptian folklore and the ceiling the sky, together with scenes featuring the Madjet or Day Boat and Semektet or Night Boat.

Sanctuary: Access to Isis’ Sanctuary is via an inner courtyard. The sanctuary itself is a relatively compact room with two windows. A sole pedestal bearing the image of Isis in her sacred boat erected by Ptolemy III Euergetes I, still remains in place today.

Trajan’s Kiosk

Many consider Trajan’s Kiosk to be Philae’s most elegant structure. Today, Trajan’s Kiosk is roofless although originally, it was thought to have been roofed and to shelter Isis’ boat. While Trajan was a Roman Emperor, the kiosk dates back to an earlier time period. It features extensive reliefs of Trajan offering wine to Isis and Horus and burning incense in honour of Isis and Osiris.

Philae’s Temple of Hathor

Constructed by Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, Philae’s Temple of Hathor comprises a forecourt and a colonnaded hall. Augustus adorned the hall with images of sacred festivals to honour Hathor and Isis. Augustus is shown offering gifts to Nephthys and Isis. Here, the ancient Egyptians feasted and danced to ethereal tunes performed by Bes Egypt’s dwarf god of music, humour and dance on his divine tambourine and harp.

Nectanebo’s Kiosk

This structure is a pillared, roofless hall that originally featured 14 columns. Only six still remain. The vestibule walls are covered with decorative reliefs showing the king sacrificing to the gods. Hathor columns topped with uraei or serpentine carvings connect the Kiosk’s screen walls.

Reflecting On The Past

Once the island of Philae defined Egypt’s southern-most border. Once an important centre of the ivory trade, today Philae is a monument to the preservation of cultural heritage in the face of the forces of modernization.

Header image courtesy: Ivan Marcialis from Quartucciu, Italy [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Philae," Give Me History, March 14, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/philae.

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