Philae

Philae was a small island located in Aswan, Egypt. It was located at the beginning of the first cataract of the Nile River next to the island of Biggeh. In the 1960’s to 1970’s the High Aswan Dam was built causing the water level to rise and form what is known as Lake Nasser. The structures of Philae would have been submerged along with the island, but during the construction of the dam, the temples and surrounding structures were moved to another island, Agilika, 550 meters away. The relocation of these structures was done in a manner to mimic the original island of Philae.

1) Who You’ll Meet

Trajan's Kiosk

Trajan’s Kiosk at Philae

It is believed that the first signs of activity on Philae is dated to 689 – 664 B.C.E during the rule of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa. If you were to visit during this time period you would run into Nubians, who would be worshiping one of their deities, Amun. After this period the Saites lay the foundations of a small shrine to Isis, eventually turning it into a small temple. During the thirtiest dynasty, Nektanebo I, built a kiosk onto the temple of Isis, this would lead into many years of the Ptolemies working on and expanding the temple.

During the Imperial period of Rome, there is evidence of certain individuals going to Philae. The ancient geographer Strabo visited the island of Philae during the early 1st c. C.E and briefly speaks about the people on the island.The emperor Trajan (98-117) had a kiosk built on the island that is a beautiful piece of architecture to look at. The emperor Hadrian(117-138) traveled all over the empire during his reign and if his Villa at Tivoli is any indication, he loved Egypt. On the northwest side of the island there was an elaborate gate dedicated to Hadrian. Another emperor who left his foot print on Philae was the emperor Diocletian(284-305). On the northeast side of the island there is a Roman gate believed to be a triumphal arch to Diocletian. If you were to visit during the time of the Roman Empire there was a possibility you could have seen the emperor. But you must remember, even though the emperors had architectural structures on Philae, in no way does this guarantee that the emperor was ever therer

Fun Fact: The Kiosk of Trajan was never completed.

2) How You’ll Get There

If you are going to travel to Philae from Rome, you would need to pack up and set out for the port at Brundisium. It would take you about 15 days to get to the port if traveling by a cart in good weather conditions. From there you would load up onto a ship and sail towards the port of Alexandria, Egypt. However this would not be a straight shot because ancient people sailed along coasts in order to stop where they could to rest and resupply. On this particular trip you would probably stop in places such as Corinth, Delos, and Rhodes. Once reaching the port of Alexandria you would proceed to sail down the Nile River until you came to the island of Philae. This part of the trip would take approximately 41 days, but possibly longer if you wanted to sight see along the way. Overall the trip would take about 2 months. The ancient geographer Strabo notes that when crossing over from main land Egypt to Philae he had to ride in a pacton, or a small boat made from rods, and that is was a rough ride since the boat was rickety. So if traveling from Rome to Philae in antiquity you should expect a long and not so pleasant trip.

In the modern day you can take an international flight from wherever you are to the Aswan International Airport. From there you can take a train to Aswan, where they have different tours available that will take you to the island of Agilika, where the buildings of Philae are currently located. There are quite a few travel agencies that have great vacation packages if you want to take a trip to Egypt.

3) Why You Would Go There

Islands and hills were seen as good sites for religious power by the Egyptians. Philae became, early on, a major religious pilgrimage site. Beginning with the early evidence of activity by the Nubians in the 7th century, who erected a small temple to Amun on the island during the 25th dynasty. With the supposed tomb to Osiris being on the island of Biggeh, to the west of Philae, Philae was soon made into the religious center for Isis, the counterpart of Osiris. The first evidence of this starts with the Saites when they built a small shrine and temple to Isis. Nektanebo I later during the 30th dynasty expands on this temple by adding a hall and kiosk. After this the Ptolemies took over the island with various additions and new temples. With the inclusion of Nubian, Egyptian, and Greco/ Roman influences the island was a big religious site for several different deities other than Isis too. Ptolemy IV is attributed with constructing a temple to the Nubian god Arensnuphis. Ptolemy V added a shrine of the Egyptian god Imhotep within the temple of Isis. Other additions to the main temple of Isis include a gate, enlargement of the mammisi[1], colonnades, 2 pylons, and a quay[2]. The 2nd pylon leads to a sanctuary to Isis and her son Harpocrates. The Julio/Claudians are attributed with many of the decorations that were added onto the temples. The emperor Augustus added colonnades on the Eastern and Western sides of the temple of Isis. An inscription on the temple says that there are windows on the West in order for pilgrims to be able to see the Abaton[3] on Biggeh. Much later during the 6th century C.E. shrines and temples were Christianized and there were 2 temples dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Stephen on the island. So at any period of time in antiquity if you were going to be travelling to the island of Philae, you would either be going there on a religious pilgrimage or you would be going there to live as a priest or servant to serve and maintain the temples on the island.

Fun Fact: Philae is the location of the last known hieroglyphic inscription dating to 394 C.E. This, however, did not mark the end of the Egyptian language (Kemp, 2006).

Temple of Isis at Philae

Temple of Isis at Philae

4) What Philae Was Like

Since Philae was a site mainly dedicated to the worship of the Egyptian mother god Isis, there would have been a lot of worship taking place on the island. The cult of Isis is considered a mystery cult when most people talk about it. It was not however a mystery cult up until the 4th century B.C.E when Ptolemy I made changes to the cult making it a mystery cult with initiations rites and rituals that must be performed. So under the Nubians the worship on the island was most likely public and included everyone who came to the island to worship. Later according to Pausanias you would not be allowed to enter the temple unless you had been invited into the cult by Isis herself in your dreams. The myth of Isis and Osiris was one of the most popular myths in ancient Egypt. Later however the god Serapis is considered the partner of Isis, but since there is no evidence of worship of Serapis on Philae it would appear that the worship of Isis and Osiris as partners continued on Philae and Serapis was not acknowleded.

Pausanias gives a brief insight into the festivals that would have taken place and what they were doing. He explains that there are two festivals held each year. One in the Spring and one in the Fall. The temple would be cleansed by those that were allowed into the temple before the festival. On Philae there was evidence of mud-brick buildings on the original island that would have housed the priests that lived on the island. During these festivals these priests would have been the ones to cleanse the temple. On the day after the cleansing they would have half a day where shop owners could set up stalls and sell things that were to be sacrificed to the goddess. The second half of the day would be reserved to sacrifice these things to the goddess by burning them on an altar. Human sacrifice is also mentioned by Pausanias, but has not been confirmed by archaeological evidence therefore it cannot be certain that they would actually do this.

Throughout the year there would be other feasts and festivals held for the other deities that had shrines on the island. The overall lifestyle on the island would have been that of constant religious duties and worship along with ongoing construction commissioned by the different rulers who had influence over the island for over a thousand years.

5) Sources

Bard, K. A., & Shubert, S. (1999). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. London: Routledge (pg. 746-749)

Bunson, M. R. (2012). Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Infobase Publishing.

Hamilton H.C. (1889).The Geography of Strabo. G. Bell & Sons.

Kemp, B. J. (2006). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge.

Lloyd, A.(2001). Philae. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. : Oxford University Press.

Nash, R. (2009, April 7). The Cult of Isis and Osiris. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from CRI: http://www.equip.org/articles/the-cult-of-isis-and-osiris/

Pausanias. (2000-2011). Pausanias 10. 32-38. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from Theoi: http://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias10C.html


[1] A birth-house, or small shrine attached to a temple

[2] A structure for ships to dock

[3] Supposed tomb of Osiris

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