“Simon and Linnet Doyle set off on their expedition to Philae about eleven o’clock the following morning. Jacqueline de Bellefort, sitting on the hotel balcony, watched them set off in the picturesque sailing boat.”Agatha Christie
Death On The Nile
Dedicated to the goddess Isis, the temple on Philae island was one of the very last to ever be built in the classical Egyptian style. The oldest ruins remaining were built by Nectanebo I, the last native king of Egypt around 380 BC. However the majority of the site we see today was built by Ptolemy II and added onto for the next 500 years until the reign of Diocletian in 305 AD, making it a mere infant in comparison to many of Egypt’s other truly ancient sites.
The goddess quickly became the most popular of all the Egyptian gods and was being worshiped across the entirety of the Roman Empire, with Philae being at its epicenter.
And while Isis was highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians and worshipped in her own right, during the Roman empire, the the cult of Isis experienced an intense revival. The goddess quickly became the most popular of all the Egyptian gods and was being worshiped across the entirety of the Roman Empire, with Philae being at its epicenter. The cult following was so strong here in fact that there were still worshippers at Philae until as late as 550 AD, well after most of Rome and its empire had converted to Christianity.
Unfortunately, like most of the temples in Egypt, it was eventually taken over by the Christians who used it as a church, defacing many of the temple reliefs in an attempt to remove the pagan imagery.
One of my favorite details in this temple is this row of Hathor headed columns located in the central court. If you look closely you can see the face slowly breaks into a smile as you progress from the furthest column to the closest.
The Kiosk Of Trajan
Constructed by the Roman Emperor Trajan (probably? There is some debate here), and sometimes referred to as “Pharaoh’s Bed” this small out building in the temple complex has become one of Philae’s most iconic structures due to the way it captured the eye of early painters and artists who rendered grand romantic images of it (like this one) to bring home to Britain and Europe to show an increasingly Egypt crazed public.
What You Need To Know
For about 60 years in the early 1900s you would have needed a Row Boat to explore the site
In 1902 the British finished construction on a new dam at Aswan, designed to provide storage of annual floodwaters and augment dry season flows to support greater irrigation development. However the dam also had the adverse side effect of causing semi-annual flooding that left many of Egypt’s ancient sites suddenly partially submerged underwater for much of the year. In fact, if you were to have visited Philae between 1902 and 1960, it’s more than probable you would have been exploring the site via row boat, floating among the ruins and having to peer down into the water to gaze at the temple below you. And while some minor underpinning helped keep the site from completely eroding from the constant rise and fall of the Nile, nothing could be done to save what we’re told were some of the most vivid and well preserved temple paintings in all of Egypt from being completely washed away by the flood waters.
The Temple Isn’t Actually On Philae Island anymore…
…reclaimed the site from the mud, disassembled it stone by stone and relocated it to the nearby Agilika Island.
While exploring a half submerged temple via row boat was inconvenient, the temple and island would have disappeared entirely had Unesco not intervened and from 1972-1980 they literally held back the flood waters created by the newly constructed Aswan High Dam, reclaimed the site from the mud, disassembled it stone by stone and relocated it to the nearby Agilika Island. (Check out this video HERE to see video of people rowing through the ruins and the incredible process they had to undergo to relocate and save this site)
You can only access the site via the water
The temple of Isis is located on Agilika Island (though most people will still just refer to it as Philae). You will either need to charter a felucca in Aswan to sail you down here, hire a water taxi at the boat landing in Shellal or visit the site via an organized trip. We personally visited the site as part of an excursion organized by our nile cruise on The Steam Ship Sudan. Note: if you do go it on your own, be aware that you may need to do a good bit of haggling to secure a reasonable return fee for the water taxi, it’s a good rule of thumb in Egypt to assume getting you anywhere is cheap but taking you back again may cost you quite a bit more.
There is a cafe on site, but it may not be open when you visit
While there is a small cafe on site near the Kiosk of Trajan that supposedly serves drinks and snacks, this was no open during our visit.