The island of PHILAE and its Temple of Isis have bewitched visitors since Ptolemaic times, when most of the complex was constructed. The devout and curious were drawn here by a cult that flourished throughout the Roman Empire well into the Christian era. Although the first Europeans to “rediscover” Philae in the eighteenth century could only marvel at it from a distance after their attempts to land were “met with howls, threats and eventually the spears of the natives living in the ruins”, subsequent visitors revelled in this mirage from antiquity.
After the building of the first Aswan Dam, rising waters lapped and surged about the temple, submerging it for half the year, when tourists would admire its shadowy presence beneath the translucent water. However, once it became apparent that the new High Dam would submerge Philae forever, UNESCO and the Egyptian authorities organized a massive operation (1972–80) to relocate its temples on nearby Aglika Island, which was landscaped to match the original site. The new Philae is magnificently set amid volcanic outcrops, like a jewel in the royal blue lake, but no longer faces Biga Island, sacred to Osiris. The Osirian myth and the cult of Isis are the subject of Philae’s Sound and Light Show.
The Temple of Isis
Philae’s cult status dates back to the New Kingdom, when Biga Island was identified as one of the burial places of Osiris – and the first piece of land to emerge from the primordial waters of Chaos. Since Biga was forbidden to all but the priesthood, however, public festivities centred upon neighbouring Philae, which was known originally as the “Island from the Time of Re”.
Excluding a few remains from the Late Period, the existing Temple of Isis was constructed over some eight hundred years by Ptolemaic and Roman rulers who sought to identify themselves with the Osirian myth and the cult of Isis. An exquisite fusion of Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture, the temple complex harmonizes perfectly with its setting, sculpted pillars and pylons gleaming white or mellow gold against Mediterranean-blue water and black Nilotic rock.
Vestibule of Nectanebo
Motorboats land near the southern end of the island. In ancient times, on the original Philae, visitors ascended a double stairway to the Vestibule of Nectanebo at the entrance to the temple precincts. Erected by a XXX Dynasty pharaoh in honour of his “Mother Isis”, this was the prototype for the graceful kiosks of the Ptolemaic and Roman era. Notice the double capitals on the remaining columns, traditional flower shapes topped with sistrum-Hathor squares that supported the architrave. The screens that once formed the walls are crowned with cavetto cornices and rows of uraeus serpents, a motif dating back to Zoser’s complex at Saqqara, nearly three thousand years earlier.
Beyond the vestibule stretches an elongated trapezoidal courtyard flanked by colonnades. The West Colonnade is the better preserved, with finely carved capitals, each slightly different. The windows in the wall behind once faced Biga, the island of Osiris; the one opposite the first two columns is topped by a relief of Nero offering two eyes to Horus and Isis.
The plainer, unfinished East Colonnade abuts a succession of ruined structures. Past the foundations of the Temple of Arensnupis (worshipped as the “Good Companion of Isis” in the Late Period) lies a ruined Chapel of Mandulis, the Nubian god of Kalabsha. Near the First Pylon, an unfinished Temple of Imhotep honours the philosopher-physician who designed Zoser’s Step Pyramid and was later deified as a god of healing. Its forecourt walls show Khnum, Satis, Anukis, Isis and Osiris, and Ptolemy IV before Imhotep.
The First Pylon
The lofty First Pylon was built by Neos Dionysos (Ptolemy XII), who smites enemies in the approved fashion at either corner, watched by Isis, Horus and Hathor. Set at right angles to the pylon, the Gate of Ptolemy II is probably a remnant of an earlier temple. The pylon’s main portal is still older (dating from the reign of Nectanebo II) and was formerly flanked by two granite obelisks; now only two stone lions remain. Inside the portal are inscriptions by Napoleon’s troops, commemorating their victory over the Mamlukes in 1799. The smaller door in the western section of the pylon leads through to the Birth House and was used for rituals; the entrance depicts the personified deities of Nubia and the usual Egyptian pantheon. On the back of the pylon are scenes of priests carrying Isis’ barque.
Emerging into the Forecourt, most visitors make a beeline for the Birth House or the Second Pylon, overlooking the colonnade to the east. Here, reliefs behind the stylish plant columns show the king performing rituals such as dragging the barque of Sokar. A series of doors lead into six rooms which probably had a service function; one of them, dubbed the Library, features Thoth in his ibis and baboon forms, Maat, lion-headed Tefnut and Sheshat, the goddess of writing. At the northern end stands a ruined chapel, which the Romans erected in front of a granite outcrop that was smoothed into a stele under Ptolemy IV and related his gift of lands to the temple.
The Second Pylon
Set at an angle to its forerunner, the Second Pylon changes the axis of the temple. A large relief on the right tower shows Neos Dionysos placing sacrifices before Horus and Hathor; in a smaller scene above he presents a wreath to Horus and Nephthys, offers incense and anoints an altar before Osiris, Isis and Horus. Similar scenes on the other tower have been defaced by early Christians, who executed the paintings in the upper right-hand corner of the pylon passageway, leading into the temple proper.
The Birth House
The western side of the forecourt is dominated by the colonnaded Birth House of Ptolemy IV, which linked his ancestry to Horus and Osiris. Most of the exterior reliefs were added in Roman times, which is why Emperor Augustus shadows Buto, goddess of the north, as she plays a harp before the young, naked Horus and his mother at one end of the central register, behind the Hathor-headed colonnade. Further south and higher up, the Roman reliefs overlie inscriptions in hieroglyphs and demotic characters that partly duplicate those on the Rosetta Stone. Inside, a columned forecourt and two vestibules precede the sanctuary, which contains the finest scenes. Although iconoclasts have defaced the goddess suckling the child-pharaoh on the left-hand wall, you can see Isis giving birth to Horus in the marshes at the bottom of the rear wall. Around the back of the sanctuary behind the northern colonnade is a corresponding scene of Isis nursing Horus in the swamp.
The Hypostyle Hall
Immediately behind the Second Pylon lies a small open court that was originally separated from the Hypostyle Hall by a screen wall, now destroyed. A lovely drawing by David Roberts shows this “Grand Portico” in its rich original colours: the flowering capitals are in shades of green with yellow flowers and blue buds; crimson and golden winged sun-discs are seen flying down the central aisle of the ceiling, which elsewhere bears astronomical reliefs. The unpainted walls and column shafts show the hall’s builder, Ptolemy VII Euergetes II, sacrificing to various deities. After the emperor Justinian forbade the celebration of Isis rituals at Philae in 550 AD, Copts used the hall for services and chiselled crosses into the walls. On the left-hand jamb of the portal into the vestibule beyond, a piece of Roman graffiti asserts B Mure stultus est (“B Mure is stupid”).
As at other temples, the vestibules get lower and darker as you approach the sanctuary. By a doorway to the right of the first vestibule, a Greek inscription records the “cleansing” of this pagan structure under Bishop Theodorus, during the reign of Justinian. On the other side of the vestibule is a room giving access to the stairs to the roof. The next vestibule has an interesting scene flanking the portal at the back, where the king offers a sistrum and wine to Isis and Harpocrates (Child Horus). On the left-hand door jamb, he leaves offerings to Min, a basket to Sekhmet and wine to Osiris, with the sacred bull and seven cows in the background. In the partially ruined transverse vestibule, the king offers necklaces, wine and eye paint to Osiris, Isis, Hathor and Nephthys, outside the sanctuary.
Dimly lit by two apertures in the roof, the sanctuary contains a stone pedestal dedicated by Ptolemy III and his wife Berenice, which once supported the goddess’s barque. On the left wall, the pharaoh faces Isis, whose wings protectively enfold Osiris. Across the room, an enthroned Isis suckles the infant Horus and stands to suckle a young pharaoh (below, now defaced). The other rooms, used for rites or storage, contain reliefs of goddesses with Nubian features.
Leaving the temple through the western door of the first vestibule you’ll emerge near Hadrian’s Gate, set into the girdle wall that once encircled Philae Island. Flanking your approach are two walls from a bygone vestibule, decorated with notable reliefs. The right-hand wall depicts the origin of the Nile, whose twin streams are poured forth by Hapy the Nile-god from his cave beneath Biga Island, atop which perches a falcon. To the right of this, Isis, Nephthys and others adore the young falcon as he rises from a marsh.
Above the door in the opposite wall, Isis and Nephthys present the dual crowns to Horus, whose name is inscribed on a palm stalk by Sheshat and Thoth. Below, Isis watches a crocodile drag the corpse of Osiris to a rocky promontory (presumably Biga). Around the gate itself, Hadrian appears before the gods (above the lintel) and the door jambs bear the fetishes of Abydos and Osiris. At the top of the wall, Marcus Aurelius stands before Isis and Osiris; below he offers Isis grapes and flowers.
North of the gateway lie the foundations of the Temple of Harendotes (an aspect of Horus), built by the emperor Claudius.
Elsewhere on the island
To complete the cast of deities involved in the Osirian myth, a small Temple of Hathor was erected to the east of the main complex – really only notable for a relief of musicians, among whom the god Bes plays a harp. More eye-catching and virtually the symbol of Philae is the graceful open-topped Kiosk of Trajan, nicknamed the “Pharaoh’s Bedstead”. Removed from its watery grave by a team of British navy divers, the reconstructed kiosk juxtaposes variegated floral columns with a severely classical superstructure; only two of the screen wall panels bear reliefs.
The cult of Isis
The cult of Isis
Of all the cults of Ancient Egypt, none endured longer or spread further than the worship of the goddess Isis. As the consort of Osiris, she civilized the world by instituting marriage and teaching women the domestic arts. As an enchantress, she collected the dismembered fragments of Osiris’s body and briefly revived him to conceive a son, Horus, using her magic to help him defeat the evil Seth and restore the divine order. As pharaohs identified themselves with Horus, the living king, so Isis was their divine mother – a role which inevitably associated her with Hathor, the two goddesses being conflated in the Late Period. By this time Isis was the Great Mother of All Gods and Nature, Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, of women, purity and sexuality.
By a process of identification with other goddesses around the Mediterranean, Isis-worship eventually spread throughout the Roman empire (the westernmost Iseum or cult temple extant is in Hungary). The nurturing, forgiving, loving Isis was Christianity’s chief rival between the third and fifth centuries. Many scholars believe that the cult of the Virgin Mary was Christianity’s attempt to wean converts away from Isis; early Coptic art identifies one with the other, Horus with Jesus, and the Christian cross with the pharaonic ankh.