The Temple of Philae: A Treasure on the Nile

By W. Ruth Kozak

My Egyptian adventure begins at Aswan where I have arrived with a small group of travel journalists from Canada. We are met by Hanan Eldeeb, an Egyptologist who will be our guide to all the ancient sites along the Nile River. First stop: to view the High Dam.

At the Aswan Dam

The High Aswan Dam is one of the most important achievements in the 21st century in Egypt. Before it was built the Nile River flooded every year in the late summer. The dam provides protection from floods and droughts and helps increase agricultural and electricity production. It also provides employment.

I am amazed at the size of the dam which separates the upper and lower Nile. The Dam was constructed between 1960 and 1970. It is 3,830 metres long , 980 metres at the base, 40 metres wide at the crest and 111 metres tall. About 11,000 cubic metres of water passes through the dam per second. The Nile valley and delta benefit greatly from the dam due to an absence of rainfall. Egypt’s agriculture depends on irrigation and the high dam at Aswan releases great quantities of water into the irrigation canals, providing a significant, positive impact on the economy.

Ruth at the Aswan monument -Yves Ouellet

Unfortunately, a large area was flooded which, in turn, submerged several important archaeological sites. In addition, over 100,000 people had to be relocated and some of the archaeological treasures had to be moved as well.

One of these important archaeological sites is the Temple of Philae, our next destination. In 1960 UNESCO started a project to try and save the temples from the destructive effects of the Nile waters. By then the rising water had submerged up to a third of the island’s buildings. Various methods were used to try and pump the water away but eventually every building was dismantled and transported to a nearby island situated on higher ground.

Sailing to Philae

With a handsome young Nubian boatman at the helm, we board a small boat at Aswan to sail down the Nile to Philae. The scene is pastoral and serene as we cruise along the shore. Herds of goats and cattle graze and farmers plod along palm-shaded paths leading donkeys laden with baskets of produce or heaps of cut sugar-cane. An egret flies out of the reeds. It is easy to see how this river has been the life-stream of Egypt from antiquity. The Nile is a vast river, much wider than I’d expected, and fast flowing. The ancient Egyptians believed it represented the god Osiris’ capacity to renew the earth and restore life.

Philae Island

The boat rounds a bend in the river past a mound of giant stones that stand like a sentinel. Not far ahead I see the sand-stone buildings of the Temple of Philae fringed by a stand of palm trees. The temple is on Agelkia Island, once known by the Greeks as “Elephantine Island”, probably because it was an important center of trade, especially ivory. Philae was the centre of commerce between Egypt and Nubia. The granite quarries nearby attracted a population of miners and stonemasons. Because it was supposed to be the burial place of Isis’s husband, Osiris, Philae was held in great reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians in the south. And only priests could dwell there.

The Temple of Philae

The temple complex was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty (380-362 BC). Its principal deity was Isis but there are shrines dedicated to other gods as well. The most ancient temple was one built for Isis, the goddess to whom the first buildings were dedicated. It was approached from the river through a double colonnade.

We disembark from the boat and make our way up the palm-shaded path toward the temple, past flowering bushes of azaleas. There are monuments from various eras on the island, dating from the Pharaohs to the Caesars. The most ancient, is the remains of a temple of Isis built during the reign of Nectanebo I (380-362 BC). Another distinctive structure is “Trajan’s Kiosk” from the Roman era.

Philae Temple

The Egyptologist, Hanan, leads us into the temple. On the walls are inscriptions telling the story of Osiris and how he was murdered. There are also inscriptions from the Macedonian era and sculptures representing the birth of Ptolemy Philometor (383-145 BC) under a figure of the god Horus. There are monuments of various eras, from the Pharaohs to the Caesars.

The Egyptologist shows us heiroglyphs

I am intrigued by the beautiful columns of the temple. Their capitals represent variations of the palm branch and the lotus flower. Inside, the walls are painted with bright colours and because of the dry climate they have lost very little of their original brilliance. The inscriptions tell the story of Osiris and how he was murdered by his brother Seth. Our Egyptologist guide, Hanan, makes the stories of the past come to life as she explains the stories depicted on the hieroglyphics that tell how Isis took revenge on her husband, Osiris’s, murderer. Isis brought her husband Osiris to life. The resurrection of Osiris played an important part in the cult that became symbolic of the pharaohs of Egypt. She explains the significance of Isis and Osiris’ son, Horus, the falcon-headed god. “Dead pharaohs were equated with Horus.”

Hieroglyphics enhance the building

The Philae temple was closed in the 6thcentury AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. After that it became a seat of the Christian religion, as evidenced by ruins of a Christian church that were discovered on the site. Many of the sculptures and hieroglyphics on the walls of the temple were destroyed or mutilated by these early Christian inhabitants. Most of Horus’s statues were left unmarred but in many of the wall scenes, every figure is scratched out except that of Horus and his winged solar-disk, perhaps because the Byzantine Christians saw some parallel between Horus, the god’s son, and the stories of Jesus.

After our tour we return to our boat where the boatman is waiting to take us back up the Nile to Aswan. The Nile River has always evoked images of pyramids, temples and wondrous treasures. It represents life to the people of Egypt, ancient and modern. For thousands of years, it has shaped their culture. It has been a memorable day and I have learned so much of the history of the proud ancient people who once ruled Egypt.

Editors Note: We understand that Egypt is not part of Europe, but wanted to give you a glimpse of a country that is an easy trip from several points in Europe.

Written by W. Ruth Kozak for

Source: Europeupclose