Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Temple of Isis on Philae Island - Aswan, Egypt

Philae and Agilkia Islands

The Old Aswan Dam, also known as the Aswan Low Dam, was built on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt between 1899 and 1902. It was later enlarged twice, first between 1908 and 1911 and then between 1929 and 1934. It is located just north (down river) of the the First Cataract of the Nile (the furthest north of the Six Cataracts), a stretch of whitewater where the Nile dropped 16 feet over three miles. The New Aswan Dam, also known as the Aswan High Dam, is four miles south (up river) of the Low Dam and 600 miles south of Cairo. It was built between 1959 and 1970. The reservoir behind the High Dam is known as Lake Nasser and extends south 310 miles, 125 miles into Sudan.    
We took a boat out to Agilkia Island, leaving just south of (behind) the Lower Dam which you can see in the background. 
Situated between the Low Dam and High Dam was Philae Island which had a temple complex that was going to be completely submerged. In order to preserve it, the temple complex was moved northeast, stone by stone, about a half mile to the higher Agilkia Island, which is also between the Low and High Dams.                       
An aerial view of Agilkia Island and the Philae Temple which now resides on it. The Low Dam can be seen to the upper left. Photo from egyptqualitytours.com.
This map is of the approach to the Temple of Isis on Agilkia Island. Note the landing where we arrived by boat at the bottom center. The map is from touregypt.net. 
Ptolemaic Dynasty

The basic structure of the Temple at Philae was built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the son of the original Ptolemy (Ptolemy I Soter), a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great. Ptolemy I was appointed satrap of Egypt after Alexander's death in 323 BCE and in 305 BCE declared himself King Ptolemy I, then later "Soter" (saviour). The Egyptians accepted the Ptolemies as pharaohs (pharaoh was the Egyptian name for the king and the son of the god Ra) and they ruled Egypt for 275 years, until 30 BCE when Egypt was conquered by the Romans. Ptolemy II was born about 309 BCE and ruled Egypt from 283 to 246 BCE. His first wife, Arsinoe I, was the daughter of Lysimachus, another of Alexander's generals. Ptolemy II later repudiated that marriage and married his full sister, Arsinoe II, who was the widow of Lysimachus. Egypt attained its greatest height during his reign. The Ptolemies ruled from Alexandria, a Hellenistic city founded by Alexander in 331 BCE. Ptolemy II completed the big projects started by his father in Alexandria, including the great library (the largest in the ancient world), the university (inviting learned men from all fields to come and lecture, write, and research) and the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). He also completed a canal with a lock along the Nile which was named after him and a fact I like, was the first to import camels into Egypt. He was also likely the patron of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. A man after my own heart, he brought exotic animals into Alexandria. In a procession to honor Dionysus, he had chariots led by elephants, followed by lions, leopards, panthers, camels, antelopes, wild asses, ostriches (as many as eight pairs), a bear, a giraffe and a rhinoceros.

Following the example of Alexander in his conquests, the Ptolemies fused the religion of Egypt with that of the Greeks through the process of syncretism. Ptolemy I actually employed an Egyptian priest and a member of an Athenian priestly family and gave them the charge to work together and combine the religions. Alexander had claimed the divine right to rule Egypt from Amun, whom he identified with the Greek god Zeus. Ptolemy I linked the Greek god Hades to the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis, combining them into the god Serapis, and established his divine right to rule through Serapis. Serapis was worshiped in the form of a bull wearing a sunk disk and uraeus (cobra). The Egyptian god Horus got identified with Apollo, Hathor with Aphrodite and Thoth with Hermes. The Ptolemies also adopted the existing system of government in Egypt. The Egyptians conveniently believed that pharaohs were living gods and came to believe that the Ptolemies were living gods as the Ptolemies adopted the pharaoh title. However, this was not part of Greek culture and the Greeks living in Egypt did not honor the Ptolemies as gods immediately. Greek culture did, however, allow posthumous deification and eventually the Greeks extended the deification of dead persons to living persons and acknowledged the Ptolemies as gods. This process started when Ptolemy II deified his deceased father, Ptolemy I in 280 BCE. Eventually Ptolemy II declared himself a living god.

As pharaohs, the Ptolemies needed to pay tribute to the gods through building and restoring temples and monuments. They did such a good job of it that they eventually rivaled the great building periods of the Old and New Kingdoms in terms of the number of temples built. Philae is one example of that.


Isis was married to Osiris. Osiris was killed by his brother Set who wanted his throne. Isis joined together the pieces of Osiris but could not find his phallus. So she fashioned a golden phallus and briefly brought Osiris back to life by a spell she learned from her father, Geb, god of the earth (her mother was Nut, goddess of the sky). She got pregnant by Osiris before he died again and gave birth to Horus as a result of that union. With the arrival of the Ptolemies, Isis got a new husband, Serapis (who was a combination of Osiris and Apis). Earlier traditions had Isis as the wife of Horus and some regions had Horus as the same god as Ra, who was paired with Hathor. Since Isis was paired with Horus and Horus was identified with Ra, Isis started to be merged with Hathor as Isis-Hathor.

It was believed that the annual flooding of the Nile was caused by Isis weeping for her husband. Isis is worshiped as the ideal wife and mother. A patroness of nature and magic, a protector of the dead and goddess of children. Her name means throne and she was the personification of the throne. In fact, sometimes her headdress was shone as a throne. The pharaoh was depicted as her child who sat on the throne that she provided for him. She was popular throughout Egypt, but Philae was one of the two most important of her temples. With the syncretization of Egyptian and Greek religion, Isis became a popular god throughout the Greco-Roman world. In fact, one motif of Isis suckling her son Horus was copied in Christian iconography with Mary suckling the baby Jesus.

The temple was viewed as a house for the god to reside in on earth. The god's presence allowed humans to interact with the god through ritual. The rituals sustained the god and allowed the god to continue to play his or her purpose. Inside, offerings were made to the god. At sunrise one priest would enter the sanctuary, open the doors of the shrine and prostrate himself before the god's image. He removed the god from the shrine, replaced the clothes on it from the previous day and anointed it with oil and paint. Another priest brought the god a meal of meats, fruits, vegetables and bread. The god ate the spiritual essence of the meal which then allowed the priests to eat the actual meal. Other rituals took place at noon and sunset.

Festivals were held to reenact their interactions with humans. Two annual festivals were dedicated to Isis. One was celebrated on the Vernal Equinox (around March 20) to celebrate the return of life to the world (I assume that Easter is probably a continuation of that ceremony, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus). The other celebration started on October 31 and lasted through November 3. A passion play was enacted of the death of Osiris and Isis bringing him back to life. On the first day of the festival, actors would impersonate Isis and other gods as they searched the world for the body parts of Osiris. The second and third day were the reassembly and rebirth of Osiris and the fourth day was a rejoicing of the success of Isis and a newly immortal Osiris.

The pharaoh delegated the ritual duties to priests. However, all classes of Egyptians could come to the temple to pray, give offerings and seek guidance from the god within.

In 380 CE, Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire and banned all pagan religions. However, it was not enforced in parts of Egypt because of a treaty that had been entered into by Diocletian. The Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565, eventually enforced the edict and Philae was the very last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed.

Kiosk of Nectanebo

The first structure we encountered as we left the boat was the Kiosk of Nectanebo, the oldest standing structure on the island. This was a vestibule, or entrance hall, to the Temple of Isis, and one of the first structures in its construction. It was a hall with 14 columns, but only 6 remain. They are known as Hathoric columns because the capital of each column has the head of Hathor (the goddess of joy, feminine love and motherhood) on four sides. In between the columns are six foot high screens, topped by cobras in an upright position, a symbol of kingship. The screens have carved reliefs showing Nectanebo sacrificing to the gods. 
The Kiosk of Nectanabo (center). 
A closer view of two screens topped by cobras with the Hathor capitals in the background. 
A close-up of a Hathor capital. 
Nectanebo was the hellenized name of Kheperkare Nakhtnebef, the first pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, the last group of native Egyptian rulers. He came to power by overthrowing Nepherites II, the last pharaoh of the 29th Dynasty. Nectanebo was pharaoh for 18 years, from 379 or 378 BCE to 361 or 360 BC. Nectanebo also built the first pylon at Karnak, a different structure we visited later in our trip. 

Western Colonnade

Going north from the Kiosk of Nectanebo you enter a courtyard with colonnades on each side and the first pylon at the back. The western colonnade is about 100 yards long and contains 31 columns. The capitals on the columns are floral designs and each one is different. Most of the columns have carvings of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14 CE to 37 CE) offering gifts to the gods. What remains of the ceiling has stars and flying vultures and the rear wall has rows of reliefs showing Tiberius and the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE) offering gifts to the gods. These reliefs were added later as decoration, well after the time the colonnade was built.
The western colonnade to the left and the first pylon at the back. 
One of the floral capitals. These capitals were some of my favorite decorations. 
Decoration on a column, perhaps Tiberius (?), with decorations behind it on the back wall. 
One of the reliefs on a column. The volume and details of carvings in these temples was staggering. 
Eastern Colonnade

The eastern colonnade was never completed. It has 17 columns, but only 6 have completed capitals. On the other side of the colonnade are some chapels that we did not visit.
The eastern colonnade with the first pylon to the back. Note that the capitals to the far right are not complete. 
First Pylon

In front of the first pylon are two lions carved from pink granite. Two large obelisks also used to be here, but they were taken away and now reside in Dorset, England.

The first pylon is the main entrance to the temple dedicated to Isis. It has two towers and a gate between them. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283 to 246 BC) began the building of the first pylon and it was finished by his son, Ptolemy III Euergetes (246 to 222 BC). However, decorations on it continued afterwards. For example, on the western tower, there is a depiction of Ptolemy XII Auletes (80 to 58 BCE and 55 to 51 BCE) who reigned about 150 years after the pylons were built.
Ptolemy XII Auletes at bottom left on the western tower smashing his enemies with a royal mace. These reliefs were badly damaged by the early Christians. Above him, to the left, Ptolemy XII is depicted in the presence of Unnefer, the name given to Osiris after his resurrection, and to the right, in the presence of Isis and Hariesis.
On the eastern tower, to the bottom left is Isis wearing the headdress of Hathor (Isis-Hathor), which is a sun disk surrounded by a cobra set between cow horns. Resting on her head is a vulture. To the right of her is Horus, the falcon-headed god wearing the pschent, the double crown of ancient Egypt representing the pharaoh's power over all of unified Egypt. The bottom or lower crown, that looks like a chair, is the Red Deshret Crown of Lower Egypt and the crown resting on it is the White Hedjet Crown of Upper Egypt. They are facing Ptolemy XII who is out of the picture. 
This Coptic Christian cross is carved into the stone to the side of the gateway.  
The gateway of the first pylon was built by Nectanebo, the one who built the vestibule above. Through the gateway is the forecourt of the temple.
The gateway built by Nectanebo. Isis stands to either side and two lions are in front. Through the gateway the second pylon can be seen at the rear.
On the backside of the first pylon are more depictions. These types of depictions are what made me fall in love with the Egyptian temples. They are so old, so detailed, so varied and covering virtually all wall space. I was awed by them. In many respects they make Christian cathedrals pale in comparison.

Detail of the Temple of Isis from touregypt.net. The first pylon is at the bottom. 
Forecourt and Second Pylon

Inside the first pylon, on the left side of the forecourt, is the mammisi or birth-house. This was a feature in all Ptolemaic temples. The mammisi contained a sanctuary of several rooms surrounded by a colonnade and was dedicated to the goddess and her child, in this case, Isis and Horus. The pharaoh was viewed as the incarnation of Horus, the child of Isis. So it was important that the Ptolemies share this story as it was the foundation for their power. This particular colonnade has Hathor head capitals. The other side of the forecourt has columns with floral and palm leaf capitals. The northern wall of the forecourt is the second pylon which is at a different angle than the first pylon (see the detail above). Steps lead up to the gateway between the two towers. On the right, or eastern tower, Ptolemy XII offers incense and dedicates animal sacrifices to Horus and Isis. 
The forecourt with the second pylon in the background. The birth-house is to the left. 
Hathor capitals on the birth-house columns. 
A depiction of Isis, Horus and Ptolemy XII on the second pylon, very similar to the depiction on the first pylon, but in better condition. 
A close-up of the falcon head of Horus. 
The following pictures give detail from columns in the east colonnade. 
I like the lines and decorations on the skirt. 
This side view shows the two pylons, the mammisi in the middle, and the housing for the chambers at the left end. Photo from Wikipedia.
Inner Chamber

Next we went into the inner chamber of the Temple of Isis. It seemed to be chamber, after chamber, after chamber. The walls were covered with wonderful bas reliefs in very good condition. The inner most room is the sanctuary lit by two small windows which is where the image of Isis was held. A pedestal is in the sanctuary placed by Ptolemy III Euergetes, the third Ptolemy. Unfortunately, it was very crowded and I did not get a picture of it. I give bunches of photos of various reliefs, many of which I have no clue what they represent. 
The various chambers are visible ahead.
The symbol in the center is known as the ankh. The word in Latin means "cross with a handle." It represents the concept of eternal life. The Egyptian gods are often portrayed carrying it, often by the handle. The combination of male (the cross) and female (the circle) symbols also suggest fertility and creative power. The Coptic Christians adopted the symbol to represent the resurrection of Christ. Nebet, the symbol of the basket, which supports the ankh, means "lord" or "master" or "all." Deities were often placed on the nebet or basket to emphasize their divine nature. 
Here is the same basic symbol as above, the ankh and the nebet, but with two arms, each holding a "was scepter," a stylized animal head at the top of a straight staff with a forked end. Was scepters are symbols of power and dominion. The was scepter was often parallel with the ankh, as above. On closer inspection, the picture above this one also contains the was scepter, but not held by arms. The arms represent "ka," shoulders and arms with the arms bent upwards at the elbow. Ka is the life power in man given by the gods, the source of these powers and the spiritual double that resides in each person. Ka needed a body and was the reason the Egyptians mummified their dead. If the body decomposed, the ka would die and the deceased would not have eternal life. So this grouping of symbols is representing life power, eternal life, divinity and power and dominion, a pretty strong combination of symbols. 
Neret, or the vulture, was a symbol of Isis, Hathor and Mut. It also symbolized the feminine. A vulture in a nebet, or basket, also symbolized Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt was the area between the cataracts of the Nile, above modern Aswan, downriver to a little below Cairo. So this temple is in Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt was far northern Egypt, between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea, including the fertile Nile Delta. 
I can't find the meaning of this symbol, some type of bird. It almost looks like a cormorant.
Seba, the star to the left, is patterned after a starfish, with five equidistant spokes. Stars inhabited this world and the afterworld and often represented souls in the underworld.  The rekhyt bird, a lapwing, is identified by a pointed bill, long squared tail, and long crest on the head. It represents the lowest class of society or the common people. Here the rekhyt raises its arms in adoration. It is speculated that the rekhyt may represent an area of the temple where the common people could gather and worship. 
This is part of a column with the head of Hathor. 
This appears to be a priest bringing an offering to Isis. This was on a wall of one of the inner chambers, if not the sanctuary itself. 
Another offering for Isis
And another, as Isis sits on her throne.
Sekhmet, the lion goddess, was the warrior goddess and goddess of healing for Upper Egypt. She was the protector of the pharaohs and led them in warfare. Her breath formed the desert. She is also a solar deity, the solar disk on her head, sometimes called the daughter of the sun god Ra and associated with Hathor. A cobra is wrapped around the disk, which is uraeus, a symbol of royalty and deity. 
A closer view of Sekhmet's lioness head. 
Nekhbet was the patron god of Upper Egypt and one of two patron deities when Egypt was unified. In art, she was depicted as a vulture. Here she rests on the head of Isis and spreads her wings, protecting the pharaoh from his enemies. On top of Nekhbet is Wadjet, her counterpart in Lower Egypt. She is depicted as a rearing cobra. Above is the headdress of Hathor, the sun disk with uraeus (the cobra) set between cow horns. This is basically the same depiction of Isis-Hathor as on the first and second pylons, but in better condition. 
A closer view of the vulture hat that I really liked. 

Trajan's Kiosk

Trajan's kiosk was built by the Roman Emperor Trajan in about 100 CE. An example of how the Romans continued the syncretism started by Alexander and continued by the Ptolemies. It has 14 columns with floral capitals and inside reliefs showing Trajan as a pharaoh making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Horus. It was probably built to shelter the bark (ship) of Isis. When built it was covered by a wood roof.
This map of Philae Island from touregypt.net shows the location of Trajan's Kiosk to the right side, below the middle of the island.
A side view of the kiosk. 
Close-up of a floral capitdal.
More of an end view.
A closer view. 
View of the Low Dam from the kiosk platform.
Although our guide said we would see much better temples in other parts of Egypt, Philae probably remains my favorite. Part of it was that it was the first Egyptian temple we saw and I was bowled over by it. It was so much more than I expected. Part of it was the location on an island in a lake. Part of it was the clean lines and extraordinary clarity of many of the reliefs. And part of it was my somewhat familiarity with the Ptolemies and their Greek rule as Egyptian gods. The adaptations they made to adopt Egyptian government, religion and customs were really quite extraordinary.  


  1. Although we saw even more spectacular temples than this one, Philae will always stand out as my first experience with gasp-inducing Egyptian temples. Great post with more details than I will ever remember. I must say that I really love all those animal-themed headresses.

  2. It's been fascinating to come home and read more about the sites we visited. I love your pictures-you have some National Geographic-worthy shots.

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