Philae Temples Part V: Other Sturtures on the Island

Philae Temples Part V:

Other Structures on the Island

By Jimmy Dunn

Columns and capitals of the Kiosk of Trajan

There are a number of other monuments besides the temple of Isis that were moved from Philae to Agilika Island, some of which are extraordinary monuments. To the north of Hadrian's gate on the western side of the island and of the Temple of Isis is the ruined temple built by the Emperor Claudius and dedicated to Harendotes, "Horus the protector (or avenger) of his Father", one of the many forms of Horus.

North of the Temple of Isis is the ruined temple of Augustus, which was built in the eighteenth year of his reign. Notably, a stone bearing a trilingual inscription of Cornelius Gallus was found here. Gallus was the first Roman Prefect appointed after the death of Cleopatra VII. Now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, it records his victory when he successfully suppressed a revolt by the Egyptians in 29 BC. North of this is the Roman town gate that leads to a quay, also built by the Romans along the northeast side of the island. This spectacular gate was probably a triumphal arch built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Down south from here on the eastern side of the island adjacent to the main temple complex of Isis is the temple of Hathor, built by Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. It consists of a colonnaded hall and a forecourt. The colonnade was decorated by Augustus and is filled with carvings of festivities in recognition of Isis and Hathor, the Aphrodite of Greece and goddess of all the joys of the senses. Here we find scenes of music and drinking. Augustus offers a festal crown to Isis and flowers to Nephthys. Bes is also here, beating a tambourine and playing a harp, while an ape plays a lute. In fact, flute players, harpers and dancing apes flow round the pillars while priests carry in an antelope for the feast.

The Kiosk of Trajan

Further south is the last important monument on the island itself, which always seems to catch the eye of the visitor. This is the so-called Kiosk, sometimes referred to as "Pharaoh's Bed". The rectangular building has fourteen columns with beautifully carved floral capitals that once supported a wooden roof. Only two of the screen walls between the columns are completed. They show the Emperor Trajan burning incense before Isis and Osiris and offering wine to Isis and Horus. The Kiosk is often ascribed to Trajan, but is might well have been built earlier than this, possibly during the reign of Augustus. This unfinished building is one of the most popular monuments of Philae and was in ancient times the formal entrance to the island.

In addition to these ruins, there are also two ancient Coptic churches, as well as the remains of a Coptic monastery. Reportedly, there were as many as two additional Christian churches on the original island, and there is a Bishop of Philae mentioned in the year 362 AD. The original island of Philae contained mud-brick settlement remains on the northern part of the island, and to the east and southeast, which would have originally housed the staff that served the temple, but these structures were left to be flooded by the lake.

An older photo of Bigeh Island

Before leaving Philae, we must also mention the island of Bigeh (Biggeh, Biga), located just to the south of new Philae and a little to the west of the original island. By the start of the Graeco-Roman Period, this site had come to be viewed as both the tomb of Osiris and the source of the Nile, which was believed to issue from a cavern deep beneath the island. A special sanctuary was built there in ancient times, but the area was prohibited to people and thus became known in Greek as the Abaton, or "forbidden place". According to legend, the left leg of Osiris was buried here after his body had been cut up by his brother Seth. The burial place on Bigeh was said to be surrounded by 365 altars on which the priests laid daily offerings of milk. Although originally of greater religious importance than nearby Philae, Bigeh thus remained outside the normal development cycle of temple building and growth, so it was Philae that was developed instead. The remains of the small temple at Bigeh are on the eastern side of the island, opposite the location of the original Philae.

A view of Philae from Bigeh Island, painting by David Roberts

Once every ten days and on annual festivals, the statue of Isis was carried out of her temple at Philae to visit the tomb of her husband on Bigeh.

It is difficult to overrate the importance of the religious complex at Philae. It provides us with a major late cult center which is exceptionally well preserved. Beginning in the Saite period and continuing into the 30th Dynasty it underwent a spectacular flowering in the Graeco-Roman Period and, because of the circumstances of its dismantling and removal, there is possibly a unique insight into its architectural evolution until and including its conversion to a Christian center. As the last bastion of the ancient Egyptian religious culture, it is no coincidence that the latest datable hieroglyphic inscription (August 24, 394 AD) comes from Philae. The latest demotic inscription is also found here, dating to 452 AD.

Map of the area including the High Dam, Aswan Dam, Agilika, Old Philae and Bigeh Islands

It seems only fitting to depart Philae with words of Amelia Edwards, as she too leaves the island:

"It has been a hot day, and there is dead calm on the river. My last sketch finished, I wander slowly round from spot to spot, saying farewell to Pharaoh's Bed - to the Painted Columns - to every terrace, palm, and shrine, and familiar point of view. I peep once again into the mystic chamber of Osiris. I see the sun set for the last time from the roof the the Temple of Isis. Then, when all that wondrous flush of rose and gold has died away, comes the warm afterglow. No words can paint the melancholy beauty of Philae at this hour. The surrounding mountains stand out jagged and purple against a pale amber sky. The Nile is glassy. Not a breath, not a bubble, troubles the inverted landscape. Every palm is twofold; every stone is doubled. The big boulders in med-stream are reflected so perfectly that it is impossible to tell where the rock ends and the water begins. The Temples, meanwhile, have turned to a subdued golden bronze; and the pylons are peopled with shapes that glow with fantastic life, and look ready to step down from their places.

The solitude is perfect, and there is a magical stillness in the air. I hear a mother crooning to her baby on the neighbouring island - a sparrow twittering in its little nest in the capital of a column below by feet - a vulture screaming plaintively among the rocks in the far distance.

I look; I listen; I promise myself that I will remember it all in years to come - all these solemn hills, these silent colonnades, these deep, quiet places of shadow, these sleeping palms. Lingering till it is all but dark, I at last bed them farewell, fearing lest I may behold them no more."

Back Home

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