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Temples of Philae

Temples of Philae Temples of Philae Temples of Philae

Just south of Aswan, in the River Nile reservoir that is sandwiched between the old Aswan dam and the Aswan High Dam, lays a collection of islands that include what the Greeks called the island of Philae, though it was known as Qaṣr Anas al-Wujūd (after a hero in “The Thousand and One Nights”) by the locals. This island, 1,500 feet by 490 feet (460 metres by 150 metres), had been sacred to the goddess Isis since ancient times (legend tells that this was where Isis found the heart of Osiris after Seth had dismembered his body and scattered the 14 pieces throughout Egypt), but its temples have only been constructed since the time of the Saites (c. 664-525 BCE) and the Cushites (25th Dynasty, c. 690-664 BCE).  The Saite temple had been dismantled and then used within the constructions of the Ptolemy’s, who erected the vast majority of the temples on the island, though the colonnade was added by the 30th Dynasty pharaoh Nectanebo II (30th Dynasty, 360-343 BCE). The Roman Emperor’s Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) and Tiberius (14 CE-37 CE) later added decorations, that were never completed. The Emperor Hadrian (117 CE-138 CE) added a gate to the west of the complex. There are also some small temples and shrines that were dedicated to other Egyptian gods, including a temple to Imhotep, a temple to Hathor, and chapels dedicated to Osiris, Horus, and Nephthys. The Vestibule of Nectanebo I (30th Dynasty, 380-362 BCE), is actually used as the entrance to the island!

Though the complex of temples was dismantled and moved to Agilkia Island (1,800 feet, 550 metres, from Philae Island) between 1972 and 1979, during the UNESCO rescue project that was created to save archaeological sites due to the construction of Aswan High Dam, the problems for the site were actually caused by the construction of the older Aswan Dam, which caused a small reservoir to be formed that submerged Philae Island for approximately six months a year. People would still visit the island, but they would have to peer at the buildings through the water! Damage to the temples was also being caused by the waters with many of the reliefs being eroded away. The bottom picture, above, shows the totally submerged Philae Island.

The relief work meant that Agilkia Island had to be landscaped to match Philae with a coffer dam constructed around the temples, allowing for the waters to be drained away. The temples were then carefully deconstructed, with each and every stone being systematically numbered. These stones were then transferred to Agilkia Island and the temples were reconstructed at their new site, in an exact image of their previous location. Obviously this was an enormous task, as well as being extremely complicated, and that is why it took over 7 years for the plan to come to fruition. The submerged Philae Island can still be seen under the waters, whether by passing by on a motorboat or by simply looking from the landing dock on Agilkia Island.

One fact about the temples which is often overlooked, or simply not known, is that the last known inscription, written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, can be found here (picture below). On the Gate of Hadrian, dating from 24 August 394 CE, is “the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom” (or Philae 436), the date being known because it was written on the birthday of Osiris, year 110 of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. By then Chrisianity had spread throughout Egypt and Coptic was now the written language, with the ancient form of hieroglyphs being outlawed, in order to eradicate any link with Egypt's pagan past. Translated, this message reads:

"Before Merul son of Horus, by the hand (?) of (?) Esmet-Akhom(?) son of Esmet, second prophet of Isis, for ever and ever. Words spoken by Merul, lord of Abaton, great god."

Underneath this there is a Demotic inscription that includes the all-important date, and this translates as :
"I Esmet-akhom, the scribe of the house of record(?) of Isis, son of Esmet-Panekhate the second prophet of Isis and his mother Eswe-re; I performed work on this figure of Mandulis for everlasting, because he is kindly of face(?) unto me. To-day, the day of the Birth of Osiris, his (?) dedication-festival, year 110."
Ironically the last dated example of Demotic script can also be found here and has been dated to December 11 452 CE. It consists of a graffito on the walls of the temple of Isis.

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