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 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.