Philae is an island in Lake Nasser, Egypt. It was formerly an island in the First Cataract of the Nile River and the previous site of an Ancient Egyptian temple complex in southern Egypt. The complex was dismantled and relocated to nearby Agilkia Island during a UNESCO project started because of the construction of the Aswan Dam, after the site was partly flooded by the earlier Aswan Low Dam for half a century .
Philae is mentioned by numerous ancient writers, including Strabo, Diodorus, Ptolemy, Seneca, Pliny the Elder. It was, as the plural name indicates, the appellation of two small islands situated in latitude 24° north, just above the First Cataract near Aswan (Ancient Egyptian: Swenet, “Trade;” Ancient Greek: Syene). Groskurd computes the distance between these islands and Aswan at about 61.5 miles (99 km).
Philae proper, although the smaller island, is, from the numerous and picturesque ruins formerly there, the more interesting of the two. Prior to the inundation, it was not more than 1,250 feet (380 m) long and about 400 feet (120 m) broad. It is composed of Syenite stone: its sides are steep and on their summits a lofty wall was built encompassing the island.
Philae, being accounted one of the burying-places of Osiris, was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians (often referred to as Ethiopians in Greek) to the south. It was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell there and was accordingly sequestered and denominated “the Unapproachable” (Ancient Greek: ̓́αβατος). It was reported too that neither birds flew over it nor fish approached its shores. These indeed were the traditions of a remote period; since in the time of the Ptolemies of Egypt, Philae was so much resorted to, partly by pilgrims to the tomb of Osiris, partly by persons on secular errands, that the priests petitioned Ptolemy Physcon (170-117 BC) to prohibit public functionaries at least from coming thither and living at their expense. In the 19th century AD, William John Bankes brought the Philae obelisk on which this petition was engraved to England. When its Egyptian hieroglyphs were compared with those of the Rosetta stone, it threw great light upon the Egyptian consonantal alphabet.
The islands of Philae were not, however, merely sacerdotal abodes; they were the centres of commerce also between Meroë and Memphis. For the rapids of the cataracts were at most seasons impracticable, and the commodities exchanged between Egypt and Nubia were reciprocally landed and re-embarked at Syene and Philae.
The neighbouring granite quarries attracted hither also a numerous population of miners and stonemasons; and, for the convenience of this traffic, a gallery or road was formed in the rocks along the east bank of the Nile, portions of which are still extant.
Philae also was remarkable for the singular effects of light and shade resulting from its position near the Tropic of Cancer. As the sun approached its northern limit the shadows from the projecting cornices and moldings of the temples sink lower and lower down the plain surfaces of the walls, until, the sun having reached its highest altitude, the vertical walls are overspread with dark shadows, forming a striking contrast with the fierce light which illuminates all surrounding objects
The most conspicuous feature of both islands was their architectural wealth. Monuments of various eras, extending from the Pharaohs to the Caesars, occupy nearly their whole area. The principal structures, however, lay at the south end of the smaller island.
The most ancient were the remains of a temple for Isis built in the reign of Nectanebo I during 380-362 BC, was approached from the river through a double colonnade. Nekhtnebef is his nomen and he became the founding pharaoh of the thirtieth and last dynasty of native rulers when he deposed and killed Nefaarud II. Isis was the goddess to whom the initial buildings were dedicated. See Gerhart Haeny’s ‘A Short History of Philae’ (BIFAO 1983) and numerous other articles which incontrovertibly identify Isis (not Hathor) as the primary goddess of the sacred isle.
For the most part, the other ruins date from the Ptolemaic times, more especially with the reigns of Ptolemy Philadelphus, Ptolemy Epiphanes, and Ptolemy Philometor (282-145 BC), with many traces of Roman work in Philae dedicated to Ammon-Osiris.
In front of the propyla were two colossal lions in granite, behind which stood a pair of obelisks, each 44 feet (13 m) high. The propyla were pyramidal in form and colossal in dimensions. One stood between the dromos and pronaos, another between the pronaos and the portico, while a smaller one led into the sekos or adytum. At each corner of the adytum stood a monolithic shrine, the cage of a sacred hawk. Of these shrines one is now in the Louvre , the other in the Museum at Florence.
Beyond the entrance into the principal court are small temples, one of which, dedicated to Isis, Hathor, and a wide range of deities related to midwifery, is covered with sculptures representing the birth of Ptolemy Philometor, under the figure of the god Horus. The story of Osiris is everywhere represented on the walls of this temple, and two of its inner chambers are particularly rich in symbolic imagery. Upon the two great propyla are Greek inscriptions intersected and partially destroyed by Egyptian figures cut across them.
The inscriptions do not at all belong to the Macedonian era, and are of earlier date than the sculptures, which were probably inserted during that interval of renaissance for the native religion which followed the extinction of the Greek dynasty in Egypt in 30 BC by the Romans
The monuments in both islands indeed attested, beyond any others in the Nile valley, the survival of pure Egyptian art centuries after the last of the Pharaohs had ceased to reign. Great pains have been taken to mutilate the sculptures of this temple. The work of demolition is attributable, in the first instance, to the zeal of the early Christians, and afterward, to the policy of the Iconoclasts, who curried favour for themselves with the Byzantine court by the destruction of heathen images as well as Christian ones It’s notable that images/icons of Horus are often less mutilated than the other carvings. In some wall scenes, every figure and hieroglyphic text except that of Horus and his winged solar-disk representation have been meticulously scratched out by early Christians. This is presumably because the early Christians had some degree of respect for Horus or the legend of Horus – it may be because they saw parallels between the stories of Jesus and Horus (see Jesus Christ in comparative mythology).
The soil of Philae had been prepared carefully for the reception of its buildings–being leveled where it was uneven, and supported by masonry where it was crumbling or insecure. For example, the western wall of the Great Temple, and the corresponding wall of the dromos, were supported by very strong foundations, built below the pre-inundation level of the water, and rested on the granite which in this region forms the bed of the Nile. Here and there steps were hewn out from the wall to facilitate the communication between the temple and the river.
At the southern extremity of the dromos of the Great Temple was a smaller temple, apparently dedicated to Hathor; at least the few columns that remained of it are surmounted with the head of that goddess. Its portico consisted of twelve columns, four in front and three deep. Their capitals represented various forms and combinations of the palm branch, the doum-palm branch, and the lotus flower. These, as well as the sculptures on the columns, the ceilings, and the walls were painted with the most vivid colors, which, owing to the dryness of the climate, have lost little of their original brilliance
The ancient Egyptian name of the smaller island is Philak, or boundary. As their southern frontier, the Pharaohs of Egypt kept there a strong garrison, and, for the same reason, it was a barrack also for Macedonian and Roman soldiers in their turn. The first temple structure, which was built by native pharaohs of the thirtieth dynasty, was the one for Hathor