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.
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.
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).
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.
Petra is an ancient metropolis carved into a canyon and established by the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from western Arabia skilled in trade and engineering. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, strategically located along major ancient trade routes. Sacred sculptures, monuments and around 800 tombs cover the 264 square kilometres ruins, the most famous of which is the Treasury, believed to have been the mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas III in the 1st century AD. Petra lay for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1812 and has now become Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions. Referred to as the “Rose City” because of the colour of the stones used in its buildings, Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and in 2007 it was named one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Some of the earliest settled communities in the world lived in the area of Petra. Between 8,500 BC and 5,000 BC, farmers settled intermittently and lived in small villages of stone houses in the surrounding wadis and hill-sides of Petra. Remains of the most famous of these villages, Baydha, were excavated in the 1950s just north of Petra. During the Bronze Age (3,000 BC to 1,200 BC) there is not much evidence of human activity in the Petra region. The Iron Age (1,200 BC to 539 BC) then brings significant historical history as the Edomites were thought to have established their kingdom there (Edom). Edom collapsed in the 6th century BC and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 552 BC.
The Nabataeans arrived in the region of modern-day Jordan from the Negev Desert sometime before the 4th century BC. Their empire covered southern Jordan and stretched as far east as the Sinai Peninsula. They gained their wealth through trade on the Incense Routes travelling between the Kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia and the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Using advanced skills in engineering, they eventually created their capital city of Petra, half-built, half-carved into the rock. This Nabataean caravan-city, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, became a major caravan centre for the incense of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, a crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia.
Petra is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges with an abundance of freshwater. The inventive Nabataeans used water to build their city and became masters in water engineering, creating a highly sophisticated system of reservoirs and irrigation channels. Rain and spring water was collected in individual deposits, from which it was then distributed across the city. The water was sufficient to support a nymphaeum, pools, and elaborate gardens. These irrigation systems are found to this day throughout the area.
Many of Petra’s incredible monuments were constructed during the reign of King Aretas IV, between 8 BC and AD 40 and may have grown to house 20,000-30,000 people during its heyday. The city was at its height in AD 106 when emperor Trajan annexed the kingdom of the Nabataean and turned it into a province, Arabia Petraea. Around this time the Via Traiana Nova, an ancient Roman road, was built to link Bostra in the north to the sea-port of Aila (Aqaba) in the south. Petra obtained the title of metropolis (chief city) of Arabia from Trajan and was called Hadriana Petra after Hadrian’s visit in AD 129/30. At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus honoured the city with the status of Roman Colony.
Roman city planning was adopted, and new structures were built, including the colonnaded street, the Roman Soldier Tomb and the Sextius Florentinus Tomb. Petra continued to flourish for more than 250 years until the middle of the 4th century AD when an earthquake destroyed many of its buildings. The Byzantines eventually took control of the region and governed Petra for some 300 years. Some of Petra’s population converted to Christianity, while others maintained their Pagan beliefs. The city became the seat of a bishopric, indicating its importance during the Byzantine period. Another major earthquake in AD 551 brought further devastation. Then trade routes shifted, and by the middle of the 7th century what remained of Petra was largely deserted.
Petra went unentered by outsiders for nearly 600 years. Only local Bedouin tribes knew of its existence until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt became the first modern European to lay eyes on the ancient Nabataean city on 22 August 1812. The Scottish painter David Roberts visited Petra in 1839 and returned to England with sketches and stories of the encounter with local tribes. On 6 December 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site. In 1989, the city’s carved rose-red sandstone facades were featured in the blockbuster film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. In a popular poll in 2007, it was also named one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. The Petra Archaeological Park became an autonomous legal entity over the management of this site in August 2007.
Visitors today can see varying blends of Nabataean and Graeco-Roman architectural styles in the city’s tombs, many of which were looted by thieves and their treasures thus lost. Many people think that Petra begins and ends with Al Khaznah – The Treasury – but there is so much more to explore within this ancient city.