Once renowned as the "pearl of Egypt" by virtue of its rich vegetation and its magnificent assemblage of temples, the island of Philae now lies beneath the waters of Lake Nasser; but fortunately, thanks to a spectacular rescue operation carried through with financial and technical assistance from Italy and West Germany, it was possible to save at least the most important monuments and re-erect them on the higher neighboring island of Agilka.
HistoryThe ancient Egyptian name of Ph ilae was Pi-lak, from which the Greek and Latin Philae, the Coptic Pilakh ("corner") and the Arabic Bilak were derived. It was known to the local people as El-Oasr, the "Castle", or as Geziret Anas el-Wogud, after the hero of one of the tales in the "Arabian Nights" who traced his beloved to the island, where she had been locked up by her father, only to find that she had escaped: whereupon further adventures and further trials followed before the lovers were reunited.Herodotus, who visited Elephantine about 450 B.C., makes no mention of Philae. The oldest surviving temple buildings date from the time of Nectanebo I (c. 370 B.C.), but there were undoubtedly earlier temples on the site. The principal deity was Isis, but Osiris, Nephthys, Hathor and the cataract gods Khnum and Satet were also venerated here. The imposing buildings now to be seen were erected by the Ptolemies in the last two centuries B.C. and by the Roman Emperors in the first three centuries A.D. Many inscriptions show that pilgrims flocked to Philae in Greek and Roman times to pay homage to the mysterious and benign Isis, goddess of healing. She was also revered by the predatory Nubians and Blemmyes, whose priests were still permitted, even after their defeat at the hands of the Emperor Marcian in A.D. 451, to make offerings to Isis together with the Egyptian priests and on special occasions to retain the image of the goddess in their keeping. Long after the introduction of Christianity the Nubians remained faithful to the cult of Isis, and it was only in the time of Justinian (527-565) that the temples were closed and some of their chambers converted for use in Christian worship. From then until the coming of Islam a Coptic town flourished on the island.Until the construction of the first Aswan Dam the island ranked as one of the most beautiful places in Egypt and attracted large numbers of visitors every year. Thereafter it lost much of its charm, since it was under water for the greater part of the year and the temples were accessible only between August and December. Then, more recently, the High Dam project threatened to engulf them for good. They were saved from this fate by the great international rescue operation sponsored by Unesco and carried out between 1972 and 1980. The island of Philae was surrounded by a coffer dam and the area within this was drained; then a new site was prepared on the neighboring island of Agilka, the temples were broken up into sections, which were carefully numbered, and they were then re-erected in the same relative positions on Agilka. The gray coloring of the lower part of the walls and columns still shows the effect of their annual immersion over the period between the construction of the two dams, and the vegetation on Agilka is very sparse; but the imposing and magnificently preserved temples of Philae still retain their power to impress.
The Temple of Isis Complex
The Temple of Isis maintains six of the original 14 columns, between which are screens. Above is a a frieze of royal cobras and reliefs of Nectanebo presenting offerings.
Temple of Hathor
Some 55yd/50m east of the Temple of Isis we find the little Temple of Hathor, built by Philometor and Euergetes II in honor of Hathor-Aphrodite; the vestibule and the sanctuary (destroyed) were added by Augustus. The columns of the vestibule are decorated with charming reliefs: flute-players and harpists, Bes with a tambourine, Bes dancing and playing a harp, monkeys playing the lyre, priests bearing an antelope, etc. On the screens between the columns Augustus is depicted making offerings to various personifications of Hathor. The best preserved part of the structure is the main temple chamber, on the front of which are two plant columns linked to the walls by screens.
Kiosk of Trajan
Southeast of the Temple of Hathor, on the bank of the river, is the most attractive little building on the island, the Kiosk of Trajan. As its name implies, it dates from the Roman Imperial period, but was left unfinished: the capitals of the plant columns were intended to be surmounted by sistrum capitals.
Various structures at the north end of Philae in particular two Coptic churches and the remains of a Coptic monastery, the ruins of a Temple of Augustus dating from the 18th year of the Emperor's reign and the large Roman town gate to the northeast were left where they stood and not transferred to Agilka. It is hoped to recover them at a later date.
From the rocky neighboring island of Bigga (ancient Egyptian Senmet) there is a good view of Agilka and the temples of Philae. The principal deities of Bigga were the fire goddess Ups and Hathor. There are the remains of a colonnaded court belonging to a temple built by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, with plant columns linked by screens. On the east side is a doorway with an apse built into it. On this island there once stood the famous Abaton, the sacred shrine containing the Tomb of Osiris.