Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae *
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Philae temple as seen from the Nile
Country Egypt
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii, vi
Reference 88
Region ** Arab States
Inscription history
Inscription 1979 (3rd Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List
** Region as classified by UNESCO

Philae (Greek: Φιλαί, Philai; Ancient Egyptian: Pilak, P'aaleq; Arabic: أنس الوجود‎, Anas el Wagud) is an island in the Nile River and the previous site of an Ancient Egyptian temple complex in southern Egypt. The complex was dismantled and relocated to a nearby 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.[1]



Philae is mentioned by numerous ancient writers, including Strabo,[2] Diodorus,[3] Ptolemy,[4] Seneca,[5] Pliny the Elder.[6] 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[7] 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).[8] It was reported too that neither birds flew over it nor fish approached its shores.[9] 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.[10]


Nubian Monuments Philae
An image of the Temple of Philae in the foreground and the Nile river
Trajan's Kiosk inside the temple of Philae
Panoramic view at the Philae Temple

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,[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.

Relief of a Ptolemaic king at the Temple of Philae


Pharaonic era

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.

Greco-Roman era

The island temple was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The principal deity of the temple complex was Isis, but other temples and shrines were dedicated to other deities such as Hathor and Harendotes. The temple was closed down officially in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian ( 527-565 AD ). Philae was a seat of the Christian religion as well as of the ancient Egyptian faith. Ruins of a Christian church were discovered, and more than one adytum bore traces of having been made to serve at different eras the purposes of a chapel of Osiris and of Christ.


The temple of Philae, from Description de L'Egypte, 1800

The island of Philae attracted much attention in the 19th century. In the 1820s, Joseph Bonomi the Younger, a British Egyptologist and museum curator visited the island. So did Amelia Edwards, a British novelist in 1873–1874.

The approach by water is quite the most beautiful. Seen from the level of a small boat, the island, with its palms, its colonnades, its pylons, seems to rise out of the river like a mirage. Piled rocks frame it on either side, and the purple mountains close up the distance. As the boat glides nearer between glistening boulders, those sculptured towers rise higher and even higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or age. All looks solid, stately, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air–if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God, were to come sweeping round between the palms and pylons–we should not think it strange.

These visits are only a small sample of the great interest that Victorian-era Britain had for Egypt. Soon, tourism to Philae became common.


Aswan Low Dam

Aswan Low Dam

In 1902, the Aswan Low Dam was completed on the Nile River by the British. This threatened many ancient landmarks, including the temple complex of Philae, with being submerged. The dam was heightened twice, from 1907–12 and from 1929–34, and the island of Philae was nearly always flooded. In fact, the complex was not underwater only when the dam's sluices were open, from July to October.

It was postulated that the temples be relocated, piece by piece, to nearby islands, such as Bigeh or Elephantine. However, the temples' foundations and other architectural supporting structures were strengthened instead. Although the buildings were physically secure, the island's attractive vegetation and the colors of the temples' reliefs were washed away. Also, the bricks of the Philae temples soon became encrusted with silt and other debris carried by the Nile.

Rescue project

In 1960 UNESCO started a project in order to try and save the buildings on the island from the destructive effect of the ever increasing waters of the Nile.

The temples had been practically intact since the ancient days, but with each inundation the situation worsened and in the sixties the island was submerged up to a third of the buildings all year round. First of all a large coffer dam was built, constructed of two rows of steel plates between which a million cubic meters of sand was tipped. Any water that seeped through was pumped away.

Next the monuments were cleaned and measured, by using photogrammetry, a method that enables the exact reconstruction of the original size of the building blocks that were used by the ancients. Then every building was dismantled into about 40,000 units, and then transported to the nearby island of Agilkia, situated on higher ground some 500 meters away.

Nearby Locations of Interest

Prior to the inundation, a little west of Philae lay a larger island, anciently called Snem or Senmut, but now Beghé. It is very precipitous, and from its most elevated peak affords a fine view of the Nile, from its smooth surface south of the islands to its plunge over the shelves of rock that form the First Cataract. Philae, Beghé, and another lesser island divided the river into four principal streams, and north of them it took a rapid turn to the west and then to the north, where the cataract begins.

Beghé, like Philae, was a holy island; its and rocks are inscribed with the names and titles of Amenhotep III, Rameses the Great, Psammetichus, Apries, and Amasis, together with memorials of the later Macedonian and Roman rulers of Egypt. Its principal ruins consisted of the propylon and two columns of a temple, which was apparently of small dimensions, but of elegant proportions. Near them were the fragments of two colossal granite statues and also an excellent piece of masonry of much later date, having the aspect of an arch belonging to some Greek church or Saracen mosque.


  1. ^ "Milestones in Archaeology: a Chronological Encyclopedia", Tim Murray, P464, ABC-CLIO, 2007ISBN 1-57607-186-3
  2. ^ i. p. 40, xvii. pp. 803, 818, 820
  3. ^ i. 22
  4. ^ iv. 5. § 74
  5. ^ Quaest. Nat. iv. 1
  6. ^ v. 9. s. 10
  7. ^ Strab. vol. iii. p. 399
  8. ^ Plut. Is. et Osir. p, 359; Diod. i. 22
  9. ^ Senec. Quaest. Nat. iv. 2.
  10. ^ Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. i. p. 680, seq.

See also

External links

Coordinates: 24°01′31″N 32°53′03″E / 24.02528°N 32.88417°E / 24.02528; 32.88417

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