THE TEMPLE OF PHILAE
After our tour around the Aswan Dam we boarded our Nile cruise ship which would be our home for the next three days. These river cruise ships are small but just as luxurious as big liners. I had a posh two-room suite with a small balcony where I could sit and watch the river. The ship’s name was the Sonesta Star Goddess and I’ll write more about the actual cruise later.
After lunch and a rest, we set off to visit the beautiful Temple of Philae on Philae Island. We would reach the island aboard a small craft piloted by a handsome young Nubian helmsman. Our guide, Hannan, explained that these boatmen, usually dressed in traditional costume, including most of the hawkers who sell souvenirs, are Nubians. They are an ethnic group originally from northern Sudan and southern Egypt and are one of the oldest cultures in Africa. Because most of their agricultural communities were flooded with the building of the dams, now these largely marginalized people live in small settlements along the river.
We boarded the boat along with our two ‘bodyguards’ and set sail for a rocky island in the middle of the river once known by the Greeks as “Elephantine Island”, probably because it was an important center of trade, especially ivory.
Linda and me having fun on the boat.
The island of Philae was once the centre of commerce between Egypt and Nubia. The granite quarries nearby attracted a population of miners and stonemasons. When the first Aswan Low Dam was completed by the British in 1902, many ancient landmarks including the temple complex of Philae were in danger of being submerged. It was decided to relocate the temples piece by piece to nearby islands but instead the foundations were strengthened instead though the colors of the temples’ reliefs were washed away. In 1960 UNESCO started a project to try and save the temples from the destructive effects of the Nile waters. By then the island was submerged up to a third of the buildings all year round. Various methods were used to try and pump the water away but eventually every building was dismantled and transported to a nearby island situated on higher ground.
The temple was built during the Ptolemaic dynasty, its principal deity being Isis but there are other temples and shrines dedicated to other deities such as Hathor. The most ancient temple was one built for Isis (380-362 BC). It was approached from the river through a double colonnade. Isis was the goddess to whom the first buildings were dedicated
Enjoying myself in this beautiful place
Because it was supposed to be the burial place of Isis’s husband, Osiris, Philae was held in great reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians in the south. Only priests could dwell there. On the walls are inscriptions telling the story of Osiris and how he was murdered. There are also inscriptions from the Macedonian era and sculptures representing the birth of Ptolemy Philometor (383-145 BC) under a figure of the god Horus. There are monuments of various eras, from the Pharaohs to the Caesars. The temple was closed in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. After that Philae became a seat of the Christian religion. Ruins of a Christian church were discovered on the site. Many of the sculptures and hieroglyphics on the walls of the temple were destroyed or mutilated by these early Christian inhabitants
Christian cross carved into ancient heirglyphs
I was intrigued by the beautiful columns of the temples. Their capitals represent variations of the palm branch and the lotus flower. The walls were painted with bright colours and because of the dry climate they have lost very little of their original brilliance.
Our Egyptologist guide, Hanan, made the stories of the past come to life as she explained the stories depicted on the hieroglyphics that told of how Isis took revenge on her husband, Osiris’s, murderer, and explained the significance of their son Horus, the falcon-headed god. Most of Horus’s statues were left unmarred and in many of the wall scenes, every figure except that of Horus and his winged solar-disk were scratched out by the Byzantine Christians, perhaps because they saw some parallel between Horus, the god’s son, and the stories of Jesus.
As we pulled away from the island our two escorts decided to tempt each other by standing on the prow of the little boat. Until then they had stayed pretty well out of sight, dressed in their suits and ties, looking quite business-like. As they were fooling around, threatening to capsize the boat or knock each other into the river, the wind blew their jackets up and to my surprise I spotted two very lethal looking weapons tucked into the backs of their pants. They really were bodyguards! But at that moment we wondered if we'd have to rescue them!
After this fascinating tour of Philae it was time to return to the Sonesta Star Goddess for dinner in the first-class dining room and a welcome long night’s sleep in my lovely luxury suite.
NEXT: Cruising down the Nile to Edfu and Kom Ombo