Temples of Philae near Aswan in Egypt Part II: The Approach to the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Philae in Egypt Part II:

The Approach to the Temple of Isis
By Jimmy Dunn

A David Roberts Painting of the approch to the Temple of Isis on old Philae Island

Though the monuments of Philae Island are now located on the nearby reworked Island of Agilika, and Philae is now buried beneath the waters of the lake formed between the Old Aswan Dam and the High Dam, Philae and the neighboring island of Biggeh to the west, in ancient times, formed an integrated religious complex devoted to the cult of Osiris. The ritual focus was Biggeh, the site of the abaton, one of the alleged tombs of Osiris. At Philae, regular visits were paid every tenth day by Isis to the island of Bigeh and the tomb of Osiris.

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. Each evening there is a Sound and Light Show which recounts the legends against the magnificent backdrop of the floodlit monuments - a truly magical experience.

Tourist Boats on their way to visit the Temples of Philae in Egypt

Tourist boats on their way to visit the Temples of Philae in Egypt

Philae was dedicated preeminently to Isis, sister-wife to Osiris, and patroness of the Ptolemaic rule. Although Isis was the major deity honored therein, the location of the island on the frontier between Egypt and Nubia meant that cults of Nubia were also featured on the island, represented by significant cult buildings.

A view of the Temple of Isis on its current Island of Agilika

There was some evidence at the actual island of Philae of cult activity in honor of Amun, in the time of King Taharqa, who ruled Egypt between 689 and 664 BC in the 25th dynasty, and who probably built an altar of granite to Amun. Perhaps the Kushites, when invading Egypt, established a stronghold on Philae. Traces of mudbrick houses in trenches between the stone foundations of the later temples and the early nilometer west of the mammisi may date to this period.

Ground Plan of the Approach to the Temple of Isis

The monuments on the island are dominated by the great temple of Isis and its associated structures, which are concentrated in the west and center of the island, on, or adjacent to, a granite outcrop which must have been originally chosen as an embodiment of the primeval hill on which the first temple was said to have rested. This hill was reproduced on the new location of the monuments at Agilika.

The Taharqa altar to Amun is the earliest evidence of structures on the island. The known history of Philae does not go back farther than that, and it was not until the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods that Philae rose to importance. The priests believed their island had a far longer history, and as stated above, an inscription at the frontier on the island of Sehel states that as early as the 3rd Dynasty, Djoser gave them the country from the First Cataract to the island of Derar. (Dodekaschoinoi) During Ptolemaic times they held the gold mines of Wadi Alaki within their administrative sphere.

But the earliest known cult building in honor of Isis, known to the Egyptians as Aset, was a small shrine erected in the Saite period by Psamtik II. This was followed by a further small temple on the granite outcrop, erected by Amasis. So it now seems that the Saite kings introduced the cult of Isis into this area and laid the foundations for her subsequent glorification on the island.

The Kiosk or Vestibule of Nectanebo on Philae Island

The next evidence of building, and the earliest surviving monument of Philae, dates to the 30th Dynasty. Beginning at the ancient quay where boats now land at the southwestern corner of the great temple, the first structure is the kiosk of Nectanebo I, though one may first notice the obvious seating for the sound and light show. The kiosk or vestibule of Nectanebo is a hall with screen walls linked by graceful columns. Of its original fourteen Hathor pillars, only six remain. The screens between the columns are some six feet high, crowned with concave cornices and rows of uraeus-serpents. The screens are carved with reliefs showing Nectanebo sacrificing to the gods.

The Western Colonnade preceeding the first Pylon at Philae

From Nectanebo's monument north, there are two colonnades, one on the east side and another on the west of an outer courtyard that leads to the first temple pylon. The western half of the colonnade is the more complete, and is pierced with windows originally looking toward the island of Biggeh. A nilometer descends the cliff from here. The colonnade is about one hundred yards long and contains thirty-one of the original thirty-two columns. The column capitals tops are floral, and remarkable in their variety with no two being alike. Most of the columns show carvings of Tiberius offering gifts to the gods. The ceiling, which is mostly destroyed, is decorated with stars and and flying vultures, while the rear wall has two rows of bas-reliefs of Tiberius and Agustus offering to the gods.

The eastern colonnade was never completed. On the south it abuts the temple of Arsenuphis, or Iry-hemes-nufer just to the north of the vestibule of Nectanebo. Arensnuphis was an obscure Nubian lion-god venerated as the companion of Isis. The temple was built by Ptolemy IV Philopator and extended by Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Here, the reliefs depict Ptolemy V before Isis and other gods, and also Ptolemy IV before Isis, Horus and Unnefer. The shrine was enclosed by walls that are ruined in some places but which have representations of Tiberius worshipping Osiris, Isis, Harsieses (Horus the Elder), Nephthys, Khnum, Satis, Anukis, Arsenuphis and Tefnut.

The eastern colonnade is partly roofed and has seventeen columns, only six of which have their capitals completed. Behind (to the north) of the Temple of Arsenuphis and to the east of the eastern colonnade is the ruined chapel of Mandulis, another Nubian deity. At the northern end of the colonnade is the Temple of Imhotep.

In it, Ptolemy V Epiphanes is shown before the deified Imhotep.

the Gate of Ptolemy II Philadelphus at Philae

Just beyond the temple of Imhotep and the first Great Pylon of the Temple of Isis is the Gate of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, with depictions of the Ptolemaic Pharaoh being led forward by Isis.

Just before the main gateway to the first pylon are two Roman style lions carved from pink granite that have been re-erected on this island from their fallen position on the old Island of Philae. Two obelisks once also stood here, erected by Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II and his second wife, Cleopatra III (who by the way is not the more famous Cleopatra VII). On the base of the eastern obelisk was the inscription complaining to the royal that the priests of Isis at Philae were being forced to refund the expenses of civil and military authorities incurred during their stay on the island.

The Eastern Obelisk now standing at Kingston Lacy in Dorset

These obelisks made of pink granite are not lost to us, but may now be found at Kingston Lacy in Dorset in the UK. The eastern obelisk, which measures 6.7 meters tall and weighs six tons, was found on its side half-buried and its western counterpart was badly damaged and only about a third of it remained. They were taken by Mr. Ralph Bankes for his garden. Interestingly, they were partly instrumental in the decipherment of hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone bears many inscriptionof Ptolemy in hieroglyphics, demotic script and Greek.From these inscriptions, it was possiblefortheFrench Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion to identifythe hieroglyphic form of thename,by usingthesamemethod,Bankes pointedoutthehieroglyphic form of the name, Cleopatra, which was unknown before. But these obelisks, or at least the eastern one, has a more interesting history than this.

Two of the most avid collectors of antiquities in Egypt around this time (1819) were the British Consul, Henry Salt, and the Consul-General of France, Bernardino Drovetti. They both gave money to local chiefs throughout Egypt who then saw to it that other collectors were either warned off or not supplied with labor. It was Salt, of course, who actually obtained the obelisks for Ralph Bankes, and Salt was lucky enough to have as his agent the giant Italian adventurer, Giovanni Belzoni, nicknamed the strongman of Egyptology.

On hearing of this matter concerning the obelisks at Philae, Drovetti claimed that they belonged to him, but grandly ceded the ownership to Bankes. Belzoni, who Salt tasked with their transport, thought that Drovetti had found it impossible to find ways of transporting the firstobelisk (the complete, eastern one) through the cataract and had relinquished his claim for this reason. Given the size of the obelisk, he may have been right.

Giovanni Belzoni in Arab dress

The obelisk was levered and pushed on rollers to a stout wooden pier for shipment, "But, alas," writes Bezoni, "when the obelisk came gradually from the sloping bank and all its weight rested on it, the pier, with the obelisk and some of the men, took a slow movement, and majestically descended into the river."

Nevertheless, Belzoni and his men hauled it out of the mud and got it loaded onto a boat for its journey to Cairo. Yet the story does not end there, for Drovetti had, it seems, not given up. Drovetti's men intercepted Belzoni on his way to Aswan and it was only after a long altercation which ended in gun-fire and the arrival of Drovetti himself that the monument was allowed to proceed on its way. It was shipped to England on the Despatch in May, 1821 and not erected in Bankes garden until 1827. In the interval, Bankes returned to Egypt in 1822 to collect the broken western obelisk.

This leads us up to the first pylon, beyond which is the temple of Isis proper.

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See Also


  • The Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt ed. By Katherine Bard
  • Island of Isis, Philae, Temple of the Nile by William MacQuitty
  • A Guide to the Antiquities of Ancient Egypt by Arthur Weigall
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
  • Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson