Philae

The original island of Philae was the site of an Egyptian temple complex in the Nile that now lies submerged beneath the waters of Lake Nasser to the south of Aswan in southern Egypt. It was originally located near the First Cataract of the Nile in Upper Egypt but was dismantled and moved to nearby Agilkia Island when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. This beautiful temple complex was the cult centre of Isis who was venerated from the Pharaonic era through the Greek, Roman and until at least AD 550. Philae, together with Abu Simbel, and other nearby ruins, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Coordinates: 24°01’30.9″N 32°53’02.2″E

The island of Philae was an important sacred site dedicated to Isis and by extension to her husband-brother Osiris. The adjacent island of Bigeh was said to be one of the burying-places of Osiris, and both islands formed a temple complex in which the ritual focus was on the tomb of Osiris on the island of Bigeh. Every tenth day and on festival days, the statue of Isis travelled accompanied by priests by boat or bark across from Philae to visit the tomb of Osiris.

Statuette of Isis nursing the young Horus, Nubian Museum.

The myth of Isis and Osiris dates back to the very beginning of pharaonic civilization. It tells the story of Isis, the great goddess and wife of Osiris, and her journey throughout the country in search of the pieces of her husband’s body after he had been assassinated and dismembered by his brother Seth. She put Osiris’ body back together, mummified him and magically brought him back to life. She then copulated with him, conceiving their son, Horus. Rulers in Egypt and Nubia built temples dedicated primarily to Isis, and her temple at Philae was a religious centre for Egyptians and Nubians alike where she was described as the protectress of the entire nation. Isis’ popularity increased over time, and her worship was greatest during the Graeco-Roman period and spread to other parts of the Roman empire.

Construction on the island of Philae began around 690 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Taharqa of the 25th Dynasty. The first religious building was likely a shrine which was probably dedicated to Amun. The earliest known evidence of Isis-worship was a small kiosk built by Psamtik II of the 26th Dynasty (595 BC – 589 BC) which was found dismantled and reused in the Ptolemaic structures. However, the oldest structure still standing dates from the time of Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty (circa 370 BC) who constructed the enclosure walls and a monumental gate. He also built a kiosk and began the construction of the Mammissi (the birth house).

David Roberts’ watercolour view of the Island of Philae as it appeared in 1838, with Bigeh in the foreground.

The complex of structures of the Temple of Isis was completed under the reigns of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, and Ptolemy VI Philometor (282-145 BC) and continued through the Roman period. Several Roman emperors made artistic and architectural contributions to Philae. While most of the architectural additions date to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the island continued to receive contributions to its temples up to the time of Diocletian. Augustus built a temple at the northern end of Philae in 9 BC, Tiberius and Nero added reliefs and inscriptions, and Hadrian added a gate west of the complex leading to the island of Bigeh.

The main building complex of Philae is the Great Temple of Isis located in the centre of the island. It was erected during the third and second centuries BC and decorated from the time of Ptolemy II onward. There are also several smaller temples and shrines dedicated to other deities and Pharaohs and at least two Nilomemters.

Philae is the site of the last known inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs, written in AD 394, and the last known Demotic inscription, written in 452. So strong was the popularity of Isis on Philae that her cult continued there for centuries until at least AD 550 when the Byzantine emperor Justinian had the priests arrested and the statues taken to Constantinople. However, Philae was not destroyed but turned into a church, and two other Coptic churches were built.

As part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project, the whole temple complex was dismantled and moved from its original location on Philae Island to its new location on Agilkia Island after the flooding of Lake Nasser. The reconstruction at the current site painstakingly preserved the original appearance and layout of the complex and even landscaped the island to match its former location.

PORTFOLIO

The Kiosk of Nectanebo I was built in the 30th dynasty, to honour Isis. This pillared, roofless hall originally had fourteen Hathor-headed columns, of which only six remain. It is the oldest still-standing temple structures at Philae.
The walls of the Kiosk of Nectanebo I are decorated with reliefs of the king sacrificing to the gods.
The Kiosk of Nectanebo I and the western colonnade of the forecourt of the Temple of Isis.
The Temple of Arensnuphis was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator in about 2250 BC and extended by Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Arensnuphis was an anthropomorphic Nubian deity from the Kingdom of Kush.
Reliefs on the walls of the Temple of Arensnuphis depicting Ptolemy IV Philopator and Ptolemy V Epiphanes offering gifts before with Isis, Horus and other gods.
The large, paved, trapezoidal forecourt of the Temple of Isis with the eastern colonnade and first pylon of Isis. Construction of the first pylon was begun by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and finished by Ptolemy III Euergetes I, but decorations were also added by their successors.
The forecourt of the Temple of Isis with its western colonnade established in Augustan time.
The 77 m long western colonnade with 32 columns and 12 openings in the rear wall was decorated under Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Most of the columns show carvings of Tiberius offering gifts to the gods.
A column in the western colonnade of the forecourt with a bas-relief depicting Tiberius making offerings to the fertility god Min.
A floral column capital with bundled papyrus stalks and volutes from the western colonnade of the forecourt of the Temple of Isis.
View of the First Pylon of the Temple of Isis and the Gate of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The first pylon consists of two 18 m high towers with a gate between them.
The middle gate of the first pylon of the Temple of Isis with representations of Nektanebos I in front of Isis, Osiris-Onnophris, Nephthys and Hathor. On either side of the gate are large representations of the goddess Hathor.
The right facade of the first pylon with reliefs showing king Ptolemy XII before Isis, Osiris, Horus and Hathor (upper register) and Horus between Hathor and Isis (lower register).
The upper register of the western tower of the first pylon showing Ptolemy XII offering a mirror to the gods Osiris and Isis (left) and a menat to Isis and Horus (right).
The lower register of the western tower of the first pylon showing Ptolemy XII beating a group of enemies of Egypt.
The second pylon of the Temple of Isis.
The colonnaded Mammisi (birth house) and left facade of the second pylon showing Ptolemy XII hidden by the back of the Mammisi in front of Osiris-Onnophris and Isis.
The Hathor-headed columns of the Mammisi. The birth house occupies the western area of ​​the second courtyard.
The Mammisi at Philae was associated with the birth of Harpocrates (Horus the Child). The birth house was begun under the Ptolemies and improved upon by the Romans.
The right facade of the second pylon with reliefs showing Ptolemy XII in front of Horus and Hathor. The vertical groove between Hathor and Horus was designed to hold a flag pole.
The Dodekaschoinos stele of Ptolemy IV which records the grant of tax revenues of the Dodekaschoinos region (“Land of the Twelve Schoinoi”) in 157 BC to the Temple.
Behind the second pylon was the hypostyle hall of the Temple of Isis with several annexed chambers.
Bas-relief with scenes of sacrifice inside the Temple of Isis.
On the west side of Philae lies the Gate of Hadrian, a corridor-like passage with decorated side walls which served as a departure point for the ritual barge procession of Isis to the tomb of Osiris on the island of Bigeh.
The Gate of Hadrian features several scenes of the famous Osirian myth as well as reliefs commissioned by Roman emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
On the lintel of the doorway, Hadrian is depicted making offerings to Osiris, Isis, and Horus (right) and to Osiris, Nephthys, and Harendotes (left).
Hadrian making offerings to Osiris, Isis, and Harsiesis (right) and to Osiris, Nephthys, and Harendotes (left).
Hadrian as a pharaoh making offerings to the gods.
Hadrian making offerings to Osiris, Isis, and Harsiesis (Horus the child).
The Gate of Hadrian.
The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, the last known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was inscribed on Hadrian’s Gate in AD 394.
Translation: “Before Mandulis son of Horus, by the hand of Esmet-Akhom, son of Esmet, the Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity. Words spoken by Mandulis, Lord of the Abaton, great god.”
North wall of the Gate of Hadrian with a representation of the Nile god Hapi crouched in his cave. This scene relates to the source of the Nile.
The northwestern Nilometer next to the Gate of Hadrian. It reached via an underground staircase.
The Temple of Harendotes (the name of the god Horus in his role as avenger of his father, Osiris, who was slain by Seth). The temple, which was built under the emperors Claudius and Nero had four front columns and stood on a platform with a central staircase.
The Gate of Diocletian, freestanding triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Diocletian.
The Temple of Augustus and the Gate of Diocletian.
The Temple of Hathor which was decorated under Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy VIII, and Augustus. The cult of the temple focused on Hathor as embodiment of the Sun’s Eye that was brought back from Nubia.
The Kiosk of Trajan. This structure is a rectangular chamber surrounded by 14 columns with floral capitals that supported a wooden roof. It is usually attributed to Trajan, but the actual building may date to the reign of Augustus.
The Kiosk of Trajan was never finished as only the southern wall was decorated with two offering scenes depicting the emperor Trajan.
Relief depicting Trajan offering wine to Isis and Horus.
The First Pylon (left) and the Kiosk of Trajan (right).
The Temple of Imhotep was located behind the northern end of the rear wall of the first eastern colonnade. It was dedicated by Ptolemy V, possibly in gratitude for the birth of his son Ptolemy VI.
The outer courtyard of the Temple of Philae.
Philae.
View of Philae from Lake Nasser.
View of Philae from Lake Nasser.

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