A Visit to Egypt’s Isis Temple of Philae: A Journey back in time.

We travel by boat to Agilkia Island on Lake Nasser, to the Historic Isis Temple of Philae.

Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
The Isis Temple of Philae appears from the water
The Isis Temple of Philae appears from the water

The Isis Temple of Philae is our destination today. Our group went by bus to a dock, where we boarded a launch which would take us out to a small island where we would find the Temple of Philae, a place that has a fascinating history.

The Temple of Philae appears from the water
The Isis Temple of Philae as seen from our boat

Approaching the temple by water, we first saw four massive pylons appearing to rise up out of Lake Nasser. I remember this amazing first site from my last visit here too. As we came closer, we seemed to have gone back in time. The twentieth century does not appear to have touched this beautiful island. Leaving the boat, we found ourselves on a small, rocky island, with the remains of the stone buildings that made up the complex known as the Temple of Philae. Even though we only saw the remnants of what it once was, it was still beautiful. Off in the corner, looking out over the water, is the Sanctuary of Isis. This sanctuary is no longer dark and mysterious, for the missing roof allows the warm Egyptian sun to shine down upon it.

The Sanctuary of Isis, Philae
The Sanctuary of Isis

A long, colonnaded approach led us to the temple entrance, between the first two pylons. Pylons are impressive structures, thick, high walls that were honeycombed with hidden stairways, leading nearer to the ramparts of heaven. Carved into the face of these large surfaces, we saw scenes of gods and Pharaohs. The pictures and hieroglyphics tell the stories of their lives and myths. The first pylon was built by Nectanebo at the end of the Late Period. This pylon has a scene depicting the sacrifice of prisoners of war to the gods. We saw the large images of the god Horus, with the body of a man and the head of a falcon, and the goddess Hathor, with her horns holding the solar disc. On another pylon, the story is portrayed, of the goddess Isis, assisted by her sister, bringing her dead husband, Osiris, back to life after he was murdered.

The colonnaded approach to the Temple of Philae

Dedicated to the goddess Isis, this graceful temple, surrounded by water, seemed the most peaceful spot on earth. Here, one gets a sense of truly walking in the footsteps of the ancients. Cleopatra worshipped here. The Roman Emperor Hadrian visited these hallowed halls. The French army carved their names, high up on the eastern pylon, after their victory at the Pyramids. The name of Napoleon was scratched out, probably by some zealous Englishman, only to be etched again by some later-day Francophile.

The twin pylons at the front of the Temple of Isis Philae
The twin pylons at the front of the Temple of Isis

Time seemed to have stood still here. The priests of Isis, maintained their ancient rites long after they disappeared elsewhere. The soldiers of Justinian routed them in 551 BC. Subsequently, the Copts appropriated the temple for Christianity.

Tradition had it that every Egyptian should visit this sacred temple at least once in his lifetime. It was believed that the yearly flooding of the Nile originated here. We looked at a scene depicting the ancient’s romantic notion of the birth of the Nile. The Nile god was pouring water from two pitchers, while being watched over by a falcon and a vulture.

Temple of Isis Philae wall scriptures
The walls tell the stories of their times.
Temple of Isis Philae wall scriptures
Isis Temple of Philae wall scriptures
Temple of Isis Philae wall scriptures

After the Old Dam was constructed in 1904, the small chapel, or Mammisi, stood partially submerged in the rising waters, fed by the Nile. Subsequently, with the building of the second dam, in the sixties, this jewel of the Ptolemaic was going to be lost forever, if not rescued and moved. The island was surrounded by a cofferdam and the water pumped out. The various pieces of the temple were dismantled and moved to the island of Agilkia, 150 metres north of the original island. Here it was rebuilt, nestling into the island as if it had been here over all the centuries. The island of Philae was reborn. The fact that it is still here for us to see is a miracle of both ancient and modern men.

Columns at Isle of Philae Temple Isis
Columns at Temple of Philae honouring the goddess Isis

As we wandered about the island, an old Nubian temple keeper, in his flowing caftan, came up and offered me a small bouquet of wild flowers, which I unthinkingly accepted. As soon as the flowers are in my hands, he wanted money. We have had difficulty getting small Egyptian bills, so I was at a loss for money to give him. Fortunately for me, my friend Bert bailed me out. The fellow then produced a couple of agates which he pressed on me. Shortly after, I thought that I would have my picture taken with him, seeing that we had already paid him. Wrong, I end up having to pay another 50 piastras for the privilege and it was a privilege.

Small Mammisi, Isis Temple Isis Philae
Small Mammisi, Isis Temple Isis Philae
The Small Mammisi

The sun was hot, in a cloudless sky, as we returned by boat to our bus. Before boarding our bus, I ran across to a market and bargained for two colourful cotton outfits, that I saw hanging outside on poles. They looked like clothes that I could use at home. Concluding our deal, the merchant offered me another outfit at a comparable deal, however, I came back with a much lower offer. As I stepped onto the bus, I purchased the third outfit at the lower price. That was the fun of bargaining in Egypt. Both the vendor and I came away happy.

Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George

Last Updated January 7, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster

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