Temple of Isis, philae Temple, Egypt

Nearly Lost, Philae Temple Reconstructed

A few years ago, I flew from Cairo to Luxor to continue my Egyptian adventure, which had begun in Giza. I was on my way to fulfilling a lifelong dream: to tour Egyptian temples and the Valley of the Kings. 

First, my small travel group set off to learn about the construction of the High Aswan Dam, one of the world’s largest embankment dams. It was built across the Nile in Aswan, Egypt, between 1960 and 1970. The goal was to better control flooding, provide increased water storage for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. 

The dam became a political hotbed: the US and Britain pulled funding and the Soviet Union financed much of the project. We visited a monument honoring the Soviet involvement. 

High Aswan Dam Memorial
A tall memorial to the Soviets recognizing their help with the construction of the High Aswan Dam.

Afterward, about to burst with excitement, we finally approached our first archeological site- the Philae Temple. However, getting to the temple required boarding a boat for a short ride to the island of Agilkia. The temple and the island are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, and they are recognized for their fascinating structures and beauty.

Boat marina for rides to Philae Temple.
Boats in the marina wait to take visitors to Philae Temple.

As we cruised, I saw various temple structures and many columns reflecting the water’s glow. When I stepped off, I entered an expansive and welcoming space – the Grand Courtyard. I was surrounded by colonnades adorned with hieroglyphs of gods and pharaohs. This led me to the main temple area—the Isis temple. I wasn’t sure where to go first, as I wanted to photograph it all. 

View of Philae Temple from the boat ride to the island.
Seeing Philae Temple from the boat.

This sanctuary is dedicated to the revered goddess Isis, her beloved husband Osiris, and their son Horus.

Philae Temple Gateway
Stepping ashore and seeing artistically carved columns.

The history of the Philae Temple began over two millennia ago, during Egypt’s Ptolemaic period, around the 4th century BCE. This occurred during the Greco-Roman period when the Greeks were essentially ruling Egypt but still billed themselves as pharaohs and worshipped the Egyptian deities. Philae was a sacred island and an important cult center dedicated to Isis.

The Colonnade

 The Temple of Isis at Philae honors Isis, Osiris, and Horus. The temple walls contain scenes from Egyptian mythology of Isis bringing Osiris back to life, giving birth to Horus, and mummifying Osiris after his death. The temples are one of the last places of worship built in the classical Egyptian style. Fortunately, these gods and goddesses would become more familiar to me as my trip progressed. 

The main temple is dedicated to Isis.
The Temple of Isis

The centerpiece of Philae Temple is the Sanctuary of Isis, a sacred chamber within where I stood before beautifully preserved reliefs and inscriptions depicting the divine rituals and mythological stories associated with Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Some of the reliefs are scratched, this occurred later when the early Christians who transformed the temple to a church.

Defacing the temple.
Defaced relief from the early Christian Era.

The temple’s history took a dramatic turn in the 20th century with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which began to submerge the island beneath the waters of Lake Nasser.

Water floods the Philae Temple.
Flooding around the Philae Temple (Wikimedia Commons)

The temple’s former brightly painted colors were lost forever. But luckily, a joint project between UNESCO and the Egyptian government rescued Philae from the Nile’s waters. The fascinating project occurred over a period of ten years, between 1970 and 1980. 

Compliments of Creative Commons
Julius Jääskeläinen, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

First, engineers constructed a large dam around the island of Philae. They then used powerful pumps to remove the water. After a painstaking process, the Philae temple was separated and labeled into 40,000 individual blocks and pieces. The entire temple was moved, piece by piece, to higher ground on another island and put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The island, where Philae was originally situated is now underwater in the murky depths of Lake Nasser. 

Once you understand the extent of the project, you appreciate the temple all the more. The serene beauty of the architecture, the detailed relief drawings, the shimmering waters of the Nile and the lush greenery create a tranquil atmosphere. I left with a wonderful memory to treasure.

The Temple Complex at Philae

All Photos except historical images are copyright Debi Lander, bylandersea 2020.