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The Philae Temple is one of the most beautiful temples in Ancient Egypt and it gives to visitors a great understanding of how Egyptian and Greek culture merged. The temple is an important part of Egyptian history as it was directly affected by the Roman domination, Byzantine empire, religious persecutions, Napoleonic invasion, and Muslim occupation.
It is one of the temple dedicated to the goddess Isis (there were many), and for that reason it is also known as Temple of Isis. The temple was built in an island and since early times it was considered sacred by both Egyptians and Nubians because they believed that the god Osiris had been buried there, explaining why only priests could get closer and not even fishes or birds were seen around the island.
Even though Philae is dedicated to Isis, when walking a few meters distance from it you will find a small temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who was equivalent to Aphrodite for the Greeks.
When was the Philae Temple built?
It is a new temple if compared to others. Yet it also has something of uniqueness, something that makes of it so special, and it is because the hieroglyphs there were the last to be written by the Ancient Egyptians (there is only one inscription that mentions a date). The pharaoh Nectanebo II (dead in 343 BC) was the last independent Egyptian king and he added the present colonnade. After him, a Macedonian king succeeded, part of the Ptolemaic dynasty (that started after the death of Alexander the Great and finished with the dead of Cleopatra).
The earliest structure dates to 690 BC and the complex of structures was finished until 256 BC. The decorations date from late Ptolemaic periods and the Roman emperors Tiberius and Augustus but they were never completed.
The cult of the goddess Isis continued in the temple until around 550 B.C. After the reign of Justinian I it was converted into church. It is possible to see in the interior gallery inscriptions of crosses and orthodox symbols that confirm that the temple was used as a church. Unfortunately some of the original inscriptions were forever damaged.
What is the legend of the Philae Temple?
The legend of Philae tells the story of the goddess Isis, who was married to Osiris, her brother, and they were deeply in love. However their other brother, Seth, was jealous and murdered Osiris out of envy. Seth threw Osiris' body in the Nile, but Isis did not accept this to be the end of her beloved husband and rescued the body.
Seth would not allow this victory and did not give up. When he found out about what Isis did he cut his dead brother's body into 14 pieces and threw them in the Nile. Isis persisted once more and searched all the parts. She finally gathered them all, except the penis, that was eaten by a fish. She shaped a penis out of a plant and mummified Osiris' body, hiding it on the island of Philae. This story is told in reliefs on the temple's walls.
In late XIX century, the construction of the Aswan Low Dam brought in constant flooding to the temple, damaging forever some of the shrines. So when the plans of a new and bigger dam came out in the 60s, the Egyptian government decided it was necessary to protect some temples from the total inundation, and the Philae Temple was added to the list. The authorities choose the Agilkia island to be Philae Temple's new home and reshaped it to look as close as possible to the original island. The hard work in partnership with UNESCO paid off and the temple nowadays is in better shape.
Is the Philae Temple an important tourist attraction?
Yes. It is considered one of UNESCO's World Heritage Site and it is one of the most important temples in Egypt. The island's difficult access location provided the temple more protection and it was one of the last to suffer religious persecution. Unfortunately, some destruction attempts cannot be erased and it is possible to see that some inscriptions have been damaged forever.
What definitely makes Philae so important is the fact it was the last temple built by true Ancient Egyptians at a time when the world was about to change - even though the Greeks carried out the rest of the works.
In the upcoming future, Egypt would be occupied by the Romans, temples would be persecuted and destroyed or damaged. Philae's Temple is one of the last links we have with Egypt before invaders.
How to visit the Philae Temple?
To reach Philae Temple you will need to take a boat ride. It is very easy as there are many along the docks and the journey takes about 15 minutes. Usually the tour is included on most Nile cruises, but it is possible to rent a boat and go by yourself. The temple attracts visitors during the day, but at night it invites those interested in the Light & Sound Show, which is also very beautiful and an alternative for those who prefer a different tour.