For over 50 years the Island of Philae and its monuments lay half-submerged in water built up by the Aswan Dam and barrages during annual inundations, until the UNESCO rescue operations for the Nubian monuments in the 1960s. The temples have now been completely dismantled and rebuilt to the original orientation on the nearby island of Agilika which rises higher from the water and has been reshaped and landscaped to resemble the original Philae. Metal pylons on the old island of Philae can still be seen rising from the water to the south of Agilika.
A short trip on a motor boat will bring the visitor suddenly upon a magnificent vista of the island before landing at the what would have been the ancient quay on the south side.
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 known 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 is 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 is depicted in reliefs similar to those in Osiris rooms in other Ptolemaic temples. Unfortunately visitors are no longer admitted to the roof.
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.
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, depict the 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 round 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.
There are many islands near Agilika, but those most closely associated with Philae are the neighbouring islands of Biga and Konosso. A privately hired boat will take you to Biga Island where there were cult buildings dedicated to Osiris. Graeco-Roman legends state that part of the dismembered Osiris was buried there and a cavern beneath the island was the source of the Nile. Greek sources refer to Biga as the ‘Abaton’ or forbidden place. There is little to see today on Biga, which is very overgrown, but parts of a Ptolemaic gateway to the temple still remain. There are also graffito on Biga and Konosso recording visits by high officials during the New Kingdom.
On the Island of el-Heisa there are rock texts and a red granite naos of Ptolemy VII, as well as rock-cut tombs of the priests of Philae.
How to get there
The quay (locally known as Philae Port) for motor boats to the islands between the dams, is south of the old Aswan Dam at Shallal, which can be reached by taxi from Aswan. The easiest way to visit Philae Temple is as part of an organised trip, which often will not cost much more than going it alone. The ticket office for Philae is at the end of a tourist bazaar at the gate to the boat landing. Tickets for the temple cost LE50.