Journal: Monday 11 December 1995
The coach arrived at a quay, to the south of the Old Aswan Dam at Shallal, locally known as Philae Port. After stopping at the ticket office at the end of another tourist bazaar we were taken by our guide Salah to a waiting motor launch for the short journey to the temple. The water sparkled like diamonds as we bounced our way between the many rocky islands, perched on benches beneath the colourful awning of the boat while a couple of little boys were trying to sell us necklaces of perfumed wooden beads. Salah was giving us a history of the temple but I found it hard to concentrate with the marvellous scenery all around me.
For over 50 years the Island of Philae and its monuments lay half-submerged in water built up behind the Old Dam during annual inundations. In the 1960s, teams financed by UNESCO began work to rescue the Nubian monuments, after the construction of the New Dam increased the problem of rising water levels.
As our boat made a sudden turn into the sun, the magnificent vista of the island appeared before us and we landed at the ancient quay on the south side. The temples (the site consists of several monuments) have now been completely dismantled and rebuilt to the original orientation on the nearby island of Agilika which rises higher above the water. Agilika was reshaped and landscaped to resemble the original Philae and metal pylons on the old island can still be seen rising from the water to the south of Agilika. Most of the structures were built during Ptolemaic and Roman times and were re-used by the early Christians when the temple was finally closed by the Emperor Justinian in 550AD. The main temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis, was the centre of the cult of Isis and Hathor during the Roman Period and 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. We began our tour in the earliest of the surviving monuments, the Kiosk of Nectanebo I, of Dynasty XXX, a small hall with screen walls linked by graceful columns. Two long rows of columns, each with a different intricately carved capital, on the east and west sides of a large courtyard lead to the massive first pylon of the Temple of Isis. The first pylon was built by Ptolemy XII and decorated with reliefs of the king subduing his enemies and worshipping the goddess Isis. I was beginning to recognise this important traditional scene from the other temples we had visited. There are two portals, the main one was an earlier doorway built by Nectanebo and looking up on the east wall there are inscriptions by Napoleon’s French army who visited here in 1799.
The hypostyle hall seemed small and unassuming compared to some of the other temples I had seen. A series of three small rooms or vestibules, lead to the central sanctuary and its chambers on either side have entrances to underground 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, we visited the small Temple of Hathor, with its elegant Ptolemaic papyrus columns and depictions of the little god Bes and an ape playing a musical instrument. On the western side of the island, near the Ptolemaic birth-house, a damp, moss-covered stone stairway leads down to a dank muddy pool and a nilometer near the river’s edge. These structures were used to measure the height of the annual inundation in ancient times in order to assess taxes for the coming harvest.
Philae is a lovely temple, made even more picturesque by its setting on the island. I wandered through its halls, taking in a little of its history, becoming more familiar with the stories of the deities, Isis, Osiris and Horus and the complicated names of kings that were now becoming easier to remember. After the tour my friend and I found a Nubian guard who unlocked a door in the second pylon for us and showed us up a flight of dark stone steps to a suite of rooms on the roof. These special shrines had once been even more holy than the sanctuary, with carvings depicting parts of the body of Osiris and the supreme moment when Isis pours forth her invocations and Osiris is resuscitated by the songs of the divine sisters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris is shown as a corpse lying on his bier, while Isis the Great Mother flies over him as a Kite or vulture, her massive wings ready to fan life back into her husband while at the same time devouring his flesh. By this sacred ritual she conceives their son, the falcon god Horus, who comes to represent the living king. We sat there for a while, contemplating the legend, marvelling at the beautiful mysteries unfolded all around the walls. No mention of these shrines was made in any of the guide books I had read and I felt privileged to have been shown this special place rarely seen by tourists.
All too soon it was time to leave. The journey back around the eastern side of the island by boat gave us a spectacular view of the Kiosk of Trajan, probably the most distinctive of Philae’s monuments, with its 14 graceful columns and screen walls, depicting the Emperor Trajan making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Horus. The roof has gone and the kiosk which was at one time the main entrance to the temple from the river, is airy and open.