Exploring Philae Temple

One of my favorite archeological sites in Egypt both for its beauty and its relative peace was Philae Temple. It also made for an amazing introductory temple before visiting the others down river as it introduced us to the key gods we’d be coming to know through their worship sites. Before I get into that though let’s go over the basics.

How to visit Philae Temple

This temple is located on an island… That’s right completely surrounded by water and only accessible by boat. (magic right?) Although it’s one of the key sites to see in Aswan, on a hot summer day we shared it with only one other group. Following our tour of the unfinished Obelisk and the Aswan high dam, we hopped in a boat from the visitor center and had magnificent views of the temple on the approach. The boat man waits for you while you visit the temple and you return with the same boat. (Don’t forget to tip your boatman!)

About Philae Temple:

Religious importance

First stop on your tour will be in the forecourt of the temple with 2 sets of columns on either side and the second pylon (or entryway) appearing magnificently in front of you. Here is where we stopped to discuss the story of Isis, to whom this temple was originally built and dedicated too. Isis was considered the “divine mother” of the pharaoh and major player in helping guide souls to the afterlife as she helped guide her husband Osiris. Our guide told a long story of how Osiris (the husband of Isis) was brothers with the evil god, Set, who was jealous and slayed Osiris 2 times. Each time Isis recovered the body of Osiris and resurrected him and the 2 of them eventually begat their son god- Horus (who is one of the more recognizable gods as he is usually represented with a hawk head).

Isis was around for a long time as she transformed just from the wife of Osiris and absorbed traits of other goddesses to become one of the major goddesses worshipped not just by Egyptians but by Nubians and Greeks. Under Greek influence she encompassed all feminine divine powers in the world. In total she was a worshipped goddess from at least 2686 BCE when she is first mentioned in the old kingdom, up until the rise of Christianity in Egypt in the fourth-sixth centuries AD.

Buildings and structures

There’s 2 impressive, main gates or pylons when entering the temple. The second is the more photo-worthy of the 2 as it leads from the main courtyard into the vestibule of the inner temple. On it are depictions of the king presenting garland to the gods Horus and Nephthys on the right and incense to Osiris, Isis, and Horus on the left.

The left side of the pylon. Notice the bodies are all etched out- this damage was done during the Coptic (Christian) ruling of Egypt during the Byzantine Empire.

Once in inside the inner temple, you enter the vestibule which is supported by 8, impressively tall columns. This rooms was actually unfinished in its reliefs but there are still some interesting depictions of the god of the Nile and the soul of Osiris.

Continuing straight into the temple, there’s a number of antechambers flanked by dark side chambers that you pass through before reaching the Holy of Holies: the sanctuary of Isis.

Outside of the inner temple there’s a few structures completed during the Roman timeline of ruling Greece that include a gateway for Hadrian (Emperor Hadrian seemed to enjoy having his own special gateways if you’ve been to other Roman sites), a small temple to the goddess Hathor (or Aphrodite is the Greek goddess equivalent), and another small temple (referred to as Trajan’s kiosk) that would’ve served as the main entrance to the Philae Temple complex when it was an active religious site.

About the location of Philae Temple

One of my absolute favorite things about this temple was that it sits on an island completely surrounded by the beautiful clear water of the Nile river. Interestingly, the entire temple complex used to reside on a different island. The original island was covered and half submerged the temple most of the year once the first low dam of Aswan was built turn of the 1900s. When the high dam was built, the entire structure was threatened to be submerged completely. Since the temple became a UNESCO heritage site, each stone was painstakingly moved block by block and rebuilt as it was on a neighboring island.

About our experience

We were there around 3 PM on a Thursday and enjoyed the site mostly to ourselves and consequently had the most peaceful experience we’d have on our whole trip.

After walking through all of the buildings with our guide, he set us loose for about 30 minutes to wander and take it in ourselves. We loved experiencing the empty dark antechambers around the inner sanctum and wandering amidst the towering columns in the vestibule. Since it was so hot, even the inside of the temple in the shade was toasty. After wandering the temple, it felt amazing sitting in the shade of the palm trees with the cool breeze coming off the Nile while we absorbed the ancient spirit of this place.

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