Philae Temple and the Agilkia Island Monuments
Philae Temple (Greco-Roman), a monument to the goddess Isis, was one of
a large number of “Nubian” temples that was moved to
protect it from the flooding
associated with building the High Dam at Aswan. Its present
location is between the "High" and "Low" dams across the Nile.
When the British built the “Low” Dam
across the Nile
in 1912, Philae
Island and its temples were flooded by the Nile for six months a year and the site was toured by boat during these periods. Between 1972 and 1979 the entire temple complex was moved a short distance away to Agilkia Island to preserve it from complete flooding
that would result from the new High Dam. A coffer dam (which can be seen from Agilkia Island) was built around the original
temple and the water pumped out so that the buildings could be taken apart, numbered,
inventoried and prepared for transport.
Although Agilkia was leveled and widened to accommodate
the buildings from the original Philae, it was not quite large enough to
fit all of the monuments in their original ordered layout. As a consequence, the orientation of the temple and
"crowding" of some of the monuments reflect the lack of space in the new
You will need to take a short boat ride to visit Philae Temple. Have your
camera ready as you approach Philae as there is an opportunity for some nice
photos of the Temple’s massive pylon from the boat.
Both at the dock and
during the boat ride you will have opportunities for shopping, especially
for jewelry. Young boys (sharp negotiators nonetheless) will accompany the boat and display oodles of inexpensive jewelry (1-3 $
USD). The hematite jewelry can be quite stunning and great bargain (we found
similar pieces at a store at home for twenty times the price that were not
as lovely). You might also want to take a look at the necklaces made of dyed
camel bone, which are quite fetching, unusual and inexpensive.
The first shrine at Philae was built for Nectanebo I (30th dynasty, 380 BC) one of the last true Egyptian pharaohs,
but most of the buildings here are of Roman origin and parts post-date the birth of Christ. The “pagan” temple was closed by Justinian, the Christian ruler of the Byzantine
Empire, in the 6th century AD. Over time many of the reliefs were defaced by Christian
iconoclasts (promoted by the way by several Byzantine emperors), and,
then by Muslims, as each group was affronted by what they considered the idolatry shown at Philae.
Click the photo above for a gallery featuring the Temple at Philae,
As noted above, Philae reflects the infatuation of "Roman"
pharaohs with Isis, one of the "Great Ennead" comprised of the nine original gods of Egypt. Isis
was associated with motherhood and was also revered for her magical powers, especially in respect to healing the sick. One of the most famous of the goddesses, she was the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus. In addition to the main temple to Isis, there are temples dedicated to
Hathor, Mandulis, Augustus and others, as well as Trajan’s Kiosk,
and the Gate of Hadrian.
The main temple with its two pylons has many reliefs that recreate the myth of Isis, her husband Osiris, Seth and Horus. Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth who chopped
the body of Osiris into pieces and scattered it along the Nile. Isis searched for these pieces and was able to reassemble most of the body. Due to her remarkable magic and healing skills of Isis she was able to briefly rejuvenate the body of Osiris and was impregnated with their son Horus during the restoration. Horus,
when grown, was involved in a series of
epic battles with Seth designed to "right" the murder of Osiris. The original
fable holds that one of
the pieces of the body of Osiris was hidden at Philae, which made the original island a prime setting for a temple dedicated to Isis.
The Nectanebo Kiosk is to the left of the dock for boats, next to long colonnades that edges the outer courtyard and lead to the First Pylon of the Isis Temple. The courtyard
includes two minor temples (one dedicated to Imhotep designer of the step pyramid of Djoser
(see this section
of our Egypt Guide for details on Saqqara).
Beyond the First Pylon is a birth house (Mamissi) and the Second Pylon which
leads to a Hypostyle Hall followed by the sanctuary and a number of
inner chambers. To the west of the Hypostyle Hall (through a small
doorway cut in the wall) is the Gate of Hadrian (a noted Roman Emperor) and the remains of a Nilometer,
a mechanism used by the ancients to measure the depth of the Nile. This device was
helped predict the depth of the annual Nile flood and its potential
influence on agriculture. As you might suspect, this really meant
that it was used to determine tax rates for the farmers.
To the north of the Temple of Isis there once were modest temples dedicated to the god Horus
and another to Augustus Caesar, but these did not survive to present day. At the northeastern edge of the island is a Roman
quay, a gateway for access to the Nile.
On the southeastern edge of the island are two monuments to Hathor and
Trajan that offer nice views of the water and shade for those needing respite from the sun. Hathor’s Temple on Philae, which along with
Dendera were her most
important shrines, is filled with interesting, although damaged, reliefs,
including some featuring Bes, the god of frivolity, babies and motherhood. Further
along is Trajan’s Kiosk, named for the famous Roman emperor. It is in quite good
shape with majestic columns ringing a core rectangular monument that was never completed.
Click the image above to see a photo gallery showing the other temples at
There is a "Sound and Light show at
Philae for those interested. Two shows a night is the normal
schedule, but the language of presentations varies, so check the official website for details.
The complex of temples on Kalabsha island just south of the
High Dam can be combined with a day trip to the Dam, although it is sometimes visited on the return to Aswan as a part of a Lake Nasser Cruise.
A trip to Kalabsha includes a chance to explore the temples of Beit el Wali, Kalabsha, Gerf Hussein and the Kiosk of
Click the photo above for a gallery of photos from Kalabsha.
It was originally thought that the site of Kalabsha would be safely on the
shores of Lake Nasser. Apparently there was a miscalculation and today it is reachable only by boat. The fact that the water rose higher than expected and created an island, delayed construction, as the original supply routes were
Kalabsha Temple (Greco-Roman) was originally located in ancient Talmis, Nubia and was thought to be constructed by Amenhotep II in 1450 BC, but later rebuilt on the same site by the Romans.
The reconstruction occurred around 30 BC, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, whose image can be found throughout the temple. The
monument, which was never completed, was dedicated, in part, to Mandulis, a god
of the Nubians, who was loosely related to one of the Egyptian gods.
The temple was, also, dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis, Horus and Osiris.
Kalabsha, known for its walls covered with both fine reliefs and texts, was the largest free-standing temple in Nubia.
The Temple of Kalabsha is ringed with a protective enclosure wall starting at the First Pylon, which is offset at a slight angle to the orientation of the rest of the structure. The entrance to the temple passes into a modest colonnaded courtyard followed by a hypostyle hall where the reliefs show the Roman
pharaoh paying homage to the Egyptian gods. Further back is a classic three-room sanctuary
that was used to celebrate the gods in residence at the temple.
Be sure to take the time to walk outside around the sides and back of the
Temple as there are interesting reliefs along the walls of the
building. In addition, you will find a Nilometer, used to measure the height of the Nile and to collect water for
purification and ceremonies to fete the gods.
In front of the Kalabsha Temple is the Kiosk of Kertasi, a
tiny, free-standing temple dedicated to Hathor. This compact monument is all that exists of what was once a much larger temple.
The preserved Roman construction consists of six columns that were once capped with a rock roof. The capitals of the entrance columns are decorated with representations of Hathor’s
face, while capitals of the side columns are in the palm-style. The view of the
temple with Lake Nasser in the background is quite stunning.
Click the camera symbol above to open a gallery showing the Kiosk of
Kertasi and the Gerf Hussein Temple at Kalabsha.
Down the walkway from the Kiosk is the Gerf Hussein Temple, another construction of Ramesses II. Originally known as the “House of Ptah”,
it commemorated this “chief” god who was especially celebrated in Memphis. The
major section of the original temple was hewn into rock and not rescued due to its poor condition. There are several Colossi of Ramesses
II here that are worth seeing, although another from the same site, but now in the
Nubian Museum in Aswan, is in much better condition.
The temple known as Beit el Wali is up the hill, behind the Kalabsha Temple. It, along with Gerf Hussein, are the oldest temples on the island. Beit el Wali another of
Ramesses II’s Nubian temples dedicated to Amun and is carved into the rock with walls protecting each side of the three entranceways. The reliefs here are interesting but of relatively poor quality. If you are short on time, you might consider skipping this temple.
Between the temples of Kalabsha and Gerf Hussein is an extremely interesting walkway filled with prehistoric art cut into stone slabs. Here you will see
images of elephants, and representations of other animals. The path leads the Chapel of Dedwen that was built by an unknown pharaoh to honor the Dedwen a Nubian god now thought to be associated with Nubia’s natural resources, especially incense, as well as the gods Horus and Isis.
Click the photo above to see some of the stunning exhibits at the Nubian
Museum in Aswan
The Nubian Museum in Aswan is an important stop for those interested in the
history and antiquities from this area. In this well-designed, modern museum you will see numerous artifacts from the Nubian Temples, dioramas of Nubian villages, and an amazing photo collection showing many of the Nubian temples before they were
relocated to their present locations.
Take time to wander all the halls here and you will discover interesting statues, petroglyphs, a few pieces of fine Islamic art, and several
elegant mummy cases. The large statue of Ramesses II in the museum was moved from the original site of Gerf Hussein where it was carved from
local sandstone. The statue was deemed too fragile to move to the Kalabsha site and has a place of significance at the museum.
Other Local sights in Aswan that you might want to see
The High Dam
The Aswan Dam is approximately 364 feet high (111m) and over two miles in Length. Although famous for controlling the Nile and creating the massive Lake Nasser, the Aswan Dam itself it quite hard to see from the top, which is very narrow compared to its base. Better views can be had from the water.
At the top of the dam there are several display kiosks that show the dam’s location and setting,
statistics on materials used, cross-sections through its construction and models of the dam.
Click the photo above to open a gallery of images of the High Dam in
The power plant is no longer open to the public and the leading attraction here is the monument to Egyptian-Soviet Friendship
, which is a
dramatic, lotus-shaped tower. The Friendship tower has an elevation to the observation deck where the views of the dam and the lake are quite stunning. From time to time access to the dam is regulated due to security concerns.
(named because its shape is similar to
that of an elephant tusk) was the initial settlement for Aswan, as its
position in the middle of the Nile was a historically important transfer point for goods moving east
and west across the river. It was, also, a very defensible settlement due
to its location. The island is the home for many Nubians, some of which do
not have roofs since there is little rain, and includes several interesting ruins.
Statuary. Aswan is famous for the quality of its local rock and the area was the source of much of the
materials used in many of the antiquities throughout Egypt, including many of the Egyptian Obelisks now scattered around the world. Even today sculpture competitions are held throughout the city and as you tour you are likely to see free-standing statues that have been featured in this contest.
is home to a famous botanic garden
to the east of Elephantine Island. The island was given the British Lord
Kitchener for his military prowess demonstrated in the Sudan. In his retirement
he populated the island with plants and trees from around the world and created
a very pleasant garden, which is now run by the Egyptian government.
Overlooking the Nile from the west on the top of a hill is a scenic tomb of a local holy man, with more tombs of local nobles located
down slope. The area is best viewed from the Nile and is usually on the tour when you take a ride in a felucca, one of the native sailboats that ply the Nile.
Many tourists are interested in the Tomb of the Aga Khan
(Aga Khan III, died 1957)) that is a simple but elegant monument dedicated to the deceased Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.
Click the image above to see a photo gallery of a felucca ride on the
Aswan is a popular place to take a Felucca ride, although in this case the feluccas are larger version of the sailing vessel that are designed to carry twenty people. The “captain “ and his mate will usually regale you with live local music, including a sing-along and still find some time to show you their collection of jewelry that is available for purchase. This is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two in Aswan and the views of the city and its attractions from the Nile are quite nice.
Finally, the Kornish al Nile, is a road hugging the banks of the Nile where glimpses of the city’s legendary hotels
are possible (such as the Old Cataract
, where the beloved English mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote her novel “Death on the Nile”), and where most river cruises dock. Along its extent you will find numerous places to shop and eat.
Shopping in Aswan is a pleasure, especially if you are looking for
something higher quality than the usual touristy stuff. Jewelry is a
staple of shopping in Aswan and you should be on the lookout for mementoes
with an Egyptian flare. For something extra special check out the
papyrus art at the Osiris Papyrus Museum on El Sadat Street (south of the
city center), where you can buy stunning Egyptian art (most showing scenes
from the pharaonic age) created using papyrus. There are several other
interesting shops (including jewelry and perfumes) on El Sadat for your
If your tour of Egypt ends in Aswan, you will likely fly back to Cairo
for your departure. If you are going on Lake Nasser cruise, there are
two options. Some travelers prefer to fly to Abu Simbel and sail
north, while other prefer to sail south from Aswan and fly back to Cairo
from Abu Simbel.
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