The Temple of Philae (pronounced “fy-lee”) is part of a complex that is around eight miles south of Aswan and situated in a reservoir created by the building of the Aswan Low Dam. Many travelers do not realize that there are two enormous dams on the Nile. Most think only of the project that created Lake Nasser in the 1970s, the Aswan High Dam. Before that, however, was the Aswan Low Dam that was created in the early 1900s and was, at that time, the largest dam in the world. It is the site of what is now called the “First Cataract” on the Nile.
The flooding this caused jeopardized the Temple of Philae and the surrounding complex. To avoid the loss of this historical and venerated site, it was dismantled and rebuilt on the island known as Agilikia at the same time that other sites were relocated to spare them from loss with the completion of the Aswan High Dam. Known as the Nubia Campaign Project, it enabled the Temple of Philae and surrounding complex to be entirely preserved and obtain UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
A BIT OF HISTORY ABOUT THE TEMPLE OF PHILAE
The Temple of Philae had been famous for centuries, running throughout the entire Pharaonic period and even into the Greek, then Roman and lastly Byzantine eras. Many of the rulers of these times added to the Temple of Philae or the surrounding buildings. The interest in it is derived from the legends of it being the burial place of Osiris, as well as being the first piece of dry land to emerge from Chaos. This led to it becoming a place of pilgrimage, and when the Roman era began, the complex was covered in a mixture of temples.
Experts believe that the major buildings were created from the 4th century BCE and into the Roman era. The 6th century saw some buildings turned into churches while the 7th century saw them turned into mosques. Eventually, the site was abandoned and become little more than an odd tourist spot. It was when flooding jeopardized them entirely (after the Aswan Low Dam was completed), that attention was given to their preservation. Yet, it was not until total loss was a reality that they were painstakingly relocated to their new island home.
Unfortunately, not all was able to be moved and the Temple of Augustus, two churches and a decorative Gateway of Docletian were left on the island now beneath the waters of the Nile. However, there is still much to see during a visit.
PAYING A VISIT TO THE TEMPLE OF PHILAE
First things first, the only way to reach the island is by crossing the water and you can opt to take a cruise, book a small felucca or a motor cruiser to reach Agilikia Island. In fact, many travelers due a bit of waterfront sightseeing while making their way to the island.
The best time of day to visit is early morning, almost as soon as the site opens. This is to ensure your visit does not overlap with the day trippers who usually appear from the noon hour until 2PM daily. After this peak hour, you can also enjoy a lot less crowding in the later afternoon and sunset hours.
Approaching the island, the first sight that most glimpse of the Temple of Philae is actually the Temple of Isis. Its massive pylons stand proudly and mark the entrance to the temple itself. The First Pylon brings you into the main temple area and features a massive and grand entry covered in reliefs. A door in the western pylon brings visitors to the Birth House, and the front of the eastern pylon features impressive reliefs of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos smiting his enemies.
Passing through the doorway you reach the Forecourt (Note the inscriptions left behind by the campaigners who were part of Napoleon’s expedition into France in the late 1700s), and this is flanked on two sides by colonnades. These are actually in front of smaller structures, with the one to the east serving as a laboratory for preparing incense and other materials and on the western side is the mammisi or Birth House. This is surrounded by gorgeous columns topped with foliage capitals and the walls are covered with reliefs.
The Birth House is a must see and features many reliefs depicting the life of Horus. After this area, you reach a Second Pylon that brings you into the inner temple. The Vestibule to this temple is another astonishing sight with its beautiful columns and its amazing mixture of Coptic crosses and Greek inscriptions along with an inscription from Pope Gregory XVI. There are many ancient reliefs in the Vestibule, but these were left incomplete. They are still quite appealing and depict many charming scenes of the gods of Ancient Egypt.
Lastly, you reach the Sanctuary with two small windows allowing light to penetrate inside. It features many side and antechambers, and also an exit into the Gateway of Hadrian. Enclosed within the walls of the temple, it was a creation of the famous Emperor Hadrian and has reliefs from him along with Marcus Aurelius. Look at the lintel above the door and you’ll see Hadrian making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Harsiesis, as well as images of Marcus Aurelius on the lower edges of the gateway, offering food and flowers to Isis.
Although the most significant structure at the Temple of Philae is the temple dedicated to Isis, there is also the stunning Temple of Hathor (with its Vestibule decorated by amazing reliefs of musicians and dancers), and the beautiful Kiosk of Trajan along the banks of the river, dating to the Roman era.
Clearly, the Temple of Philae is a treasure trove of the many ages of Egypt and is a wonderful place to experience a wide array of design styles and unique scenery. The island is also home to a Sound and Light Show, making it a good idea to book your visit in the late afternoon and remain for a wonderful nighttime experience on this historic and appealing island in the Nile.