The temple of Philae from early times was sacredly intended to honor the cult goddess of magic and spells, Isis; it can also be called the temple of Isis.
It was initially built during the reign of King Taharqa (690–664 B.C.) and later built predominantly by Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus during his reign in 285–246 B.C.E.
This temple was located in an island in the South of the Nile River in Aswan City, Egypt. Let’s find out how this temple was conserved by the people from the flood and how it stands now during this modern time.
Temple Island of Philae
The temple island of Philae was where the temple of Isis was originally located near the expansive first cataract of the Nile River in Upper Egypt. However, since the initial construction of the Aswan Low Dam in 1902, the Philae temple was threatened to vanish when most of the structures became submerged. Poets and writers, such as Seneca, Strabo, Ptolemy, Diodorus Siculus, and Piny the Elder, made an appeal through various writings to save this historical temple from flood.
In 1906, the water in the Aswan High Dam was heightened, and the voice of Nubians and Egyptians was heard by the Egyptian government. So, the government, accompanied by UNESCO in its Nubia Campaign, established a project to pump out the water, as well as dismantle and relocate the entire temple to a nearby island, stone by stone, to Agilkia Island, Egypt.
The reconstruction took a long time because of the nearly 50,000 stones to be rebuilt in a new home. Nonetheless, after 30 months of rebuilding the temple, it was restored in a splendid condition compared with what it was before.
This historical place not only consisted of one temple of Isis but also comprised small Egyptian temples and shrines that had been saved from flood. It included the kiosk of Trajan, the temple of Imhotep—the god of medicine—and the temple of Hathor—the goddess of sky, women, fertility, and love. There were chapels for the son and husband of Isis, Horus and Osiris, respectively. Moreover, some gateways and remnants from the Ptolemaic period up until the Christian occupation were included.
The Agilkia Island
Right before the Philae temple was relocated to Agilkia Island, the Egyptian government and UNESCO had to reshape or redesign the island to imitate the island of Philae as closely as possible for the temple to fit into the same land size. Even when the temple was already relocated to Agilkia Island, many locals and tourists still call it Philae temple, as you will see on local travel websites, informative websites, and Google Maps.
Philae Temple Architecture and Stories
As the boat approaches the island from the east, you will see the first pylon of the Philae temple. In front of the first pylon lies the gate of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in between the temple of Imhotep decorated by images of the pharaoh being led forward by Isis. Right before the main gateway stand two carved lions of pink granite. In addition, the adjacent entryway on the western side of the first pylon is a gateway that directly leads to the birth house or mammisi.
– First Pylon
The first pylon is the entry way that leads to the forecourt or main area of the temple. The east tower portrays Ptolemy XII Neo Dionysos grasping a band of enemies and dispatching them while the falcon-headed god, Horus, and Hathor, the god of the sky, women, fertility, and love, were looking at them. Above it, we see the two reliefs of Neo Dionysos, presenting Upper and Lower Egypt to Horus and Nephthys and offering incense to Isis and Harpocrates.
– Second Pylon
The second pylon is after the mammisi or birth house, which is visibly not set to be parallel to the first pylon. The second pylon wall depicts scenes of the pharaoh handing offerings to gods.
It is Neo Dionysos offering slaughtered animals to Horus and Hathor, and above are two small reliefs depicting a garland for Horus and Nephthys offering incense to Horus, Isis, and Osiris, while pouring water on the altar. The central gateway of the second pylon has a small series of steps that leads to the inner sanctuary vestibule of the temple of Isis.
– The Inner Architecture of the Philae Temple
The central court of the temple, the mammisi, was initially erected during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadephus and Ptolemy III Euergetes. It was dedicated to the son of Isis, Horus. It is surrounded by four colonnades.
The walls, columns, and walls between the columns are covered with reliefs and inscriptions depicting scenes from the childhood of Horus. Most of the work was completed in the times of pharaohs Ptolemy VIII and Ptolemy XII in Roman times; however, it was never finished.
The open forecourt that is next to the mammisi leads to the second pylon of the temple. There are six doorways that lead to rear walls and annex rooms, which were used for storing various religious equipment and incense, for conserving sacred books, and perhaps as rooms for priests.
The east side of the forecourt is embellished with a graceful gallery of columns with floral and palm leaf capitals. The inscriptions of the gallery depict Ptolemy VII Euergetes II, in addition, there are also carvings of Ptolemy XII before the gods on the walls.
– The Inner Temple
A vestibule, which is inside the sanctum of the temple, has eight columns. Its wall reliefs show how the gods presented the crowns of Lower and Upper Egypt and how god Osiris was borne by a crocodile. It also showed the god of the Nile River, with a snake entwined around his body, pouring water from a jar.
The right side is the soul of Osiris in the form of a bird worshipped by Hathor, Isis, Nepththys, Horus, and Amun. Unfortunately, some of the reliefs were unfinished and ruined from the Christian occupation, as it is visibly seen from the Coptic crosses inscribed on some walls.
Beyond three other vestibules, you will come across the inner sanctuary, the house of Isis. Originally, two granite stones stood there: one was the gold statue of Isis, and the other one was a barque bearing the image of Isis.
The barque was moved long ago to Florence and Paris. The stone pedestal was inscribed with the name of Ptolemy III and his wife, Berenice. As of now, two small windows light the sanctuary, and you can also see the king’s reliefs in the presence of Isis in the antechambers.
Other Temples and Monuments
The west side of the inner sanctuary leads out of the temple to the Gateway of Hadrian. It was built in the reign of Emperor Hadrian, and the reliefs were decorated by Hadrian himself, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus. On the lintel, Hadrian was depicted as making an offering to the goddess Isis and other gods. Within the gateway, there were some reliefs depicting Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
The kiosk of Trajan is one of the most visible building structures when you visit Philae Island, and it is right beside the temple of Isis. This historical monument was structured with 14 beautiful massive columns bearing carved floral capitals in a square shape. Inside of the kiosk were the reliefs of the late King Trajan burning incense for Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Though roofless as of this day, the sockets within the structures, which were made of timber, were indeed constructed from ancient times but left unfinished.
Located on the eastern side of the temple of Isis is the temple of Hathor built by Ptolemaic rulers, Ptolemy VI Philometer and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, and later modified by Emperor Augustus. The temple consists of a cult terrace facing the Nile River, a main chamber with two plant columns linked to the walls by a screen, and 14 Hathor-headed pillars. The temple’s magnificent reliefs depict musicians gracefully performing before the ancient Egyptian deities.
Historical Periods and Rulers
The first religious building in the island of Philae in the pharaonic era was most likely built by Pharoah Taharqa in dedication to Amun during the 25th dynasty. Evidence of this cannot be seen to this day because the blocks or stones used for the building were reused for another building structure somewhere.
The oldest temple that is still standing as of this day was the first small shrine built by Psamtik II in the 26th dynasty. It was followed by those contributed by Amasis II and Nectanebo I. However, the early building that predominantly survived was the vestibule built by Nectanebo I in the temple of Isis, as well as the gateway into the first pylon of the temple.
During the Ptolemaic period, the island was one of the most prominent pilgrimage areas among the Egyptians and Nubians, who marked their presence through some inscriptions, as the main structure was built in this era by Ptolemy II. Along with the contributions of Ptolemaic rulers, some archaeologists say that there was a collaboration between the Nubian and Ptolemaic governments to preserve the sacred place.
In the Roman era, the number of pilgrimages to the temple declined, but it remained sacred, especially for the Nubians. The temple of Philae has the last known inscription of Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the Byzantine era, when Christianity came, the northern end of the Philae complex held remnants of the occupation, including two Coptic churches, fragments of the monastery, and ruins of the temple of Augustus.
The Arrival of Christianity
The temple of Isis was one of the last ancient Egyptian temples that remained active up until the Byzantine period. Emperor Justinian (526–565 A.D.) ordered the closure of all pagan temples and converted the temple of Isis into a Christian church, the act was carried out by Bishop Theodorus.
Many inscriptions were intentionally destroyed, statues were defaced, and the wall reliefs were covered with stucco and painted. Additionally, there were also Christian crosses chiseled on walls and some of the columns.
The main thesis of Dijktra provided the second text of the book Persian Wars, which stated that the temple of Isis was officially closed in 535–537 C.E. in fulfillment of the order of the Byzantine ruler Justinian I.
The temple of Philae was among the last ancient Egyptian temples that served as a representation of the active Egyptian religion from different periods of history. When tourists come to Egypt, the historical temple will be one of their destinations.
Locals and tourists come to the island by boat, by which it will take 10 minutes to arrive to the Philae temple dock. The best time recommended to go to the island is in the morning, soon after the site opens, as the period from about midday until two in the afternoon is the busiest.
You don’t have to worry about how to get there because after you buy your ticket and ride a boat, there will be an excellent tour guide to help you understand the majestic place and history behind it. You will see firsthand the inscriptions on each monument and shrine. You will not be lost as well because there are a lot of signs and also locals to guide you.
The construction of the temple of Philae was started by King Taharqa and Ptolemy II Philadelphus, but the structure was eventually modified by the rulers of the Roman, Greek, and Byzantine periods. Conserving this historical place was made possible, and it became one of the most venerated sites, as well as a tourist destination.
The following are among the significant points of the historical temple:
- The temple was mainly built as an offering to the goddess Isis and eventually her son and husband, Horus and Osiris, respectively.
- The birth house or mammisi was built for Horus.
- The temple was conserved in 1906 by the Egyptian government and UNESCO. They needed 30 months to transfer it from Philae Island to Agilkia Island.
- The island was added with shrines, monuments, and temples by rulers from different eras, ranging from the Ptolemaic to the Byzantine period. However, Emperor Justinian I closed all pagan sites and converted them into Christian churches.
This magnificent temple of Philae that has lasted for many years shows how dedicated and loyal the Egyptian people were to their gods. Learning such history makes you appreciate the place all the more once you get to visit it in Aswan, Egypt.