The Philae Temple in Aswan
The Isis Temple – Introduction
The Island of Philae was the centre of the worship of the goddess Isis and her husband Osiris; one of the most famous ancient Egyptians myths. The island and the temple of Philae were an important pilgrimage site for centuries even when Christianity has spread in Egypt as a new religion during the 2nd and the 3rd centuries BC.
Although the construction of the High Dam had many benefits for the Egyptians, it also presented a number of disadvantages like the displacement of many Nubian families away from their houses and the threat the water of the Nasser Lake, which was formed due to the water stored by the High Dam, on the ancient Egyptian temples including the Philae Temple.
After the construction of the High Dam, many of the Pharaonic monuments including the Temples of Abu Simble, the Temple of Amada, the Temple of Kalabsha, and the Temple of Philae were relocated away from their original place.
Relocating The Temple
The Temple of Philae was relocated from the Island of Philae to the Island of Agilika as one of the parts of the important UNESCO project which took place in the period from 1971 till 1980 with the fund of many countries all over the world.
It was a very long and complicated process. The archaeologists and engineers divided the whole pieces of the temple into smaller parts and numbered them quite accurately. Each piece was transferred to the Agilika Island, situated to the North, and then they have all put together again in one of the most impressive projects in this period of time.
The Temple of Isis is the main building of the Temple of Philae and it was constructed during the late Ptolemaic period and the early Roman era. The Temple has a magnificent blend of the ancient Egyptian style and the Roman outlines of ancient architecture.
A short trip on a motorboat will bring you suddenly upon a magnificent vista of the island before landing at the what would have been the ancient quay on the south side.
The Kiosk of Nectanebo I
The earliest of the surviving monuments of Philae is the Kiosk of Nectanebo I, of Dynasty XXX, although there is evidence of building dating back to Dynasty XXV. Most of the other structures are Ptolemaic and Roman and were re-used by the early Christians when the temple was finally closed by the Emperor Justinian in 550AD. The main temple is dedicated to Isis and was the centre of the cult of Isis and Hathor during the Roman Period. It was the last pagan temple in use in Egypt.
There are many legends connected to Philae, but the most well know one tells the story of how Isis found the heart of Osiris here after his murder by his brother Seth. Each evening there is a Sound and Light Show which recounts the legends against the magnificent backdrop of the floodlit monuments – a truly magical experience.
Beginning at the south of the island, Nectanebo’s structure is a hall with screen walls linked by graceful columns. There are two colonnades on the east and west sides of the courtyard, leading to the first temple pylon. Each column has a different floral capital. The first pylon was built by Ptolemy XII and decorated in traditional Egyptian style with reliefs of the king subduing his enemies and worshipping the goddess Isis. There are two portals, the main one is an earlier doorway built by Nectanebo and if you look up on the east wall there are inscriptions by the French army who visited here in 1799. The other portal in the western tower leads to a birth-house where Isis has depicted suckling her son Horus in the marshes.
On the eastern side of the inner court is another colonnade with a number of chambers behind. At the southern end of the colonnade is a granite altar of Taharqo – the oldest object on the island. In front of the second pylon, the natural outcrop of rock on which it was built was smoothed to create a donation stela recording lands donated to the temple by Ptolemy VI.
The second pylon leads to the hypostyle hall and a staircase in the western tower leads to the roof. Here can be found a suite of Osiris chambers where the death and mourning of the god are depicted in reliefs similar to those in Osiris rooms in other Ptolemaic temples. Unfortunately, visitors are no longer admitted to the roof.
Hypostyle Hall and Sanctuary
The hypostyle hall is small and unassuming compared to some of the other temples from this period. A series of three vestibules lead to the central sanctuary and its chambers on either side have entrances to the crypts. The Isis sanctuary still contains a pedestal where the sacred barque used in the processions and festivals of the goddess would have rested.
Leaving the main temple by a doorway in the eastern side, you can visit the small Temple of Hathor built by Ptolemy VI and VIII, with its Ptolemaic papyrus columns and depictions of the god Bes and an ape playing a musical instrument. This is currently undergoing restoration.
The Kiosk of Trajan
Nearby is the Kiosk of Trajan, probably the most distinctive of Philae’s monuments and the focus of the second half of the Sound and Light show. Reliefs inside the rectangular structure of 14 columns with screen walls, depicting Emperor Trajan making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Horus. The roof is now gone and the kiosk which was at one time the main entrance to the temple from the river is airy and open. You can get a magnificent view of the kiosk from the river on the return journey from the island.
Moving around the outside of the Isis Temple the exterior walls depict scenes carved by the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Mudbrick buildings on the east and northern sides (now destroyed) would have housed the Roman priests and temple staff. Also at the northern end of the island, you can see a Roman quay and gateway built by Diocletian. On the western side of the island, near the Ptolemaic birth-house, a nilometer leads down to the river. These structures were used to measure the height of the annual inundation in ancient times in order to assess taxes for the coming harvest.