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Temple of Isis at Philae

The island of Philae was the center for worship of the goddess Isis and attracted pilgrims from all over the ancient world.

The original island is now completely submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser. But in a spectacular rescue operation, the great temples and monuments of Philae were pulled out of the water and re-erected on a nearby island, now renamed Philae.

The original island is now completely submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser. But in a spectacular rescue operation, the great temples and monuments of Philae were pulled out of the water and re-erected on a nearby island, now renamed Philae.

History of Philae

The earliest building on the island of Philae was a small temple to Isis built in about 370 BC by Napktnebef Kheperkare (Nectanebo I). This was later expanded into a great Temple of Isis by a number of rulers, most notably Ptolemy II Philadelphius (285-246 BC) and Diocletian (284-305 AD).

Philae was one of the last outposts of Egyptian religion, surviving two centuries after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The sacred island attracted many Greek and Roman pilgrims, who came to pray for healing from the mysterious Egyptian goddess Isis. Even after their defeat by Emperor Marcian in 451 AD, Nubian priests were permitted to make offerings to Isis on Philae.

The temples of Philae were finally closed in 535 AD by order of Emperor Justinian. Some of the chambers were converted for Christian worship and a Coptic community lived on the island until the coming of Islam.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Philae was renowned for its beauty and became a popular tourist destination for well-to-do Europeans. But with the building of the Aswan Dam, the island was submerged for most of the year and Philae began to lose its charm. The gray coloring of the lower part of the temples still shows the effect of their annual immersion during this period. When the High Dam project threatened to engulf Philae completely, the temples were saved by a great international rescue operation sponsored by UNESCO, which took place between 1972 and 1980. The island of Philae was surrounded by a coffer dam and drained, while a new site was prepared on the neighboring island of Agilka. The temples were Disassemble into blocks and carefully numbered, then re-erected in the same relative positions on Agilka.

Two Coptic churches, a Coptic monastery, the ruins of a Temple of Augustus, and a large Roman city gate were left where they stood on the submerged island of Philae and not transferred to Agilka. It is hoped to recover them at a later date.

What to See at Philae

The largest and most important temple on Philae is the great Temple of Isis, which is oriented south to north. It was entered on the south through the Hall of Nectanebo. The Hall of Nectanebo leads into the large Outer Court, which dates from the end of the Ptolemaic period or the reign of Augustus. It is enclosed by a wall known as the first pylon on the north and colonnades on the east and west sides. Here can also be seen a section of the solid embankment wall that apparently enclosed the main part of the island and was interrupted at several points by steps leading down to the water.

The first pylon is 150ft (45.5m) wide and 60ft (18m) high. It consists of two towers and a central doorway, which was decorated with reliefs by Nectanebo. On the front of the east tower is a huge figure of Ptolemy XII grasping a band of enemies by the hair and raising his club to smite them, with Isis, the falcon headed Horus of Edfu and Hathor on the left. Above are two reliefs of Ptolemy XII presenting the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt to Horus and Nephthys (right) and offering incense to Isis and Harpocrates (left). There are similar reliefs on the west tower; at the foot are demotic and Greek inscriptions.

A doorway in this tower, with reliefs by Philometor, leads directly to the entrance to the Birth House. In front of the pylon were originally two granite obelisks erected by Euergetes II and two granite lions.

The east colonnade is unfinished, with only 6 of 16 columns completed. The others are roughly hewn with unfinished capitals. In the rear wall of the east colonnade are five doors which led into various chapels. The west colonnade is 305ft (93m) long and has 31 (originally 32) plant columns 17ft (5.10m) high, with capitals in a variety of forms. Most columns bear reliefs of the Emperor Tiberius making offerings to the gods. The roof of the colonnade is decorated with stars and flying vultures. On the rear wall are two rows of reliefs depicting the emperor, usually Augustus or Tiberius, dedicating gifts to the gods. From the colonnade a subterranean staircase leads down to a small Nilometer.

West of the forecourt, just behind the first pylon, is the Birth House(Mammisi). This was dedicated to Hathor-Isis in honor of the birth of her son Horus and was where the king conducted rituals securing his legitimate decendancy from Horus. It is surrounded on all four sides by colonnades, the columns in which have foliage capitals surmounted by sistrum capitals. The walls, columns and screens between the columns are covered with reliefs and inscriptions, mostly by Euergetes II, Ptolemy XII, Augustus and Tiberius. Most notable are the reliefs in the last chamber, which depict Horus as a falcon in the swamps of the Delta, Isis suckling Horus in the swamps, and other scenes from Horus' childhood.

The second pylon is 105ft (32m) wide and 40ft (12m) high and covered in reliefs. Those on the central doorway are by Euergetes II. On the lower part of the east tower is a large figure of Ptolemy XII dedicating sacrificial animals to Horus and Hathor. Above are two small reliefs depicting the King presenting a garland to Horus and Nephthys (right) and offering incense to Osiris, Isis and Horus and pouring water on the altar (left). The natural granite at the foot of the tower has been smoothed to form a stela, with a six line inscription and reliefs relating to a grant of land made by Philometor in 157 BC. The west tower has similar reliefs, which have been deliberately defaced.

In front of the second pylon are the foundations of a small chapel. The second pylon can be climbed by a staircase on the north side of the west tower, from the top of which it is possible to cross the central doorway to the east tower. Within the central doorway are some very faded early Christian paintings.

Behind the second pylon is the Temple of Isis itself, which consists of a court, a vestibule, several antechambers and the inner sanctum where the sacred image of Isis was kept. The walls are covered with reliefs and inscriptions depicting various Ptolemies (Philadelphus, Euergetes II, etc.) and Roman Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Antoninus Pius) making offerings or performing other ritual acts. They are very similar to the reliefs in other temples of the period, particularly those of Dendera and Edfu.

The vestibule of the Temple of Isis has eight columns and was originally separated from the court by screens between the columns on the front. The vestibule and court were later transformed into a Christian church: Coptic crosses are incised in the walls and a Greek inscription states that "this good work" was done in the time of Bishop Theodore (during the reign of Justinian). Above the door is an inscription commemorating the archeological expedition sent to Philae in 1841 by Pope Gregory XVI.

The striking Hypostyle Hall conisists of ten huge pillars. Once beautifully painted, the pillars symbolize the first plants, trees and flowers of the earth which began to grow on the Primeval Mound (symbolized by the temple floor). On the ceiling (representing the sky), are images of the Day Boat and the Night Boat, and of the vultures of Upper and Lower Egypt.

About 55 yards (50m) east of the Temple of Isis is the little Temple of Hathor, built by Philometor and Euergetes II in honor of Hathor-Aphrodite. The vestibule and the sanctuary (now destroyed) were later added by Augustus.

The columns of the vestibule are decorated with reliefs of flute-players and harpists, Bes with a tambourine, Bes dancing and playing a harp, monkeys playing the lyre, priests bearing an antelope, and other charming scenes. On the screens between the columns, Augustus is shown making offerings to personifications of Hathor. The best-preserved part of the structure is the main temple chamber, on the front of which are two plant columns linked to the walls by screens.

Southeast of the Temple of Hathor on the riverbank is perhaps the most attractive building on the island, the Kiosk of Trajan. It dates from the Roman Imperial period, but was left unfinished: the capitals of the plant columns were intended to be surmounted by sistrum capitals.


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