The tiny island of Philae, a mere 450 metres long and less than 150 metres wide, captured the imagination of countless travellers to Egypt from early times.

February 23, 2024

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

The tiny island of Philae temple, a mere 450 metres long and less than 150 meters wide, captured the imagination of countless travelers to Egypt from early times. It was famed for its beauty and was known as the “Pearl of Egypt‘.

Despite being the smaller island, Philae Temple proper was, from the numerous and picturesque ruins formerly there, the more interesting of the two. Before the inundation, it was not more than 380 meters long and about 120 meters broad. its sides are steep and, on their summits, a lofty wall was built encompassing the island.

Philae island history

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

The islands of Philae were not, however, merely sacerdotal abodes; they were the centres of commerce also between Meroë and Memphis. For the rapids of the cataracts were at most seasons impracticable, and the commodities exchanged between Egypt and Nubia were reciprocally landed and re-embarked at Syene and Philae.

The first religious building on Philae was likely a shrine built by Pharaoh Taharka  of the 25th  dynasty, which was probably dedicated to Amun However this structure is only known from a few blocks reused in later buildings, which Gerhard Haeny suspects may have been brought over for reuse from structures elsewher

The oldest temple to have undoubtedly stood on the island, as well as the first evidence of Isis-worship there, was a small kiosk built by Psamtik II of the 26th Dynasty  This was followed by contributions from Amasis II (26th Dynasty) and Nectanebo I 30th Dynasty Of these early buildings, only two elements built by Nectanebo I survive– a kiosk that was originally the vestibule of the old Isis temple, and a gateway which was later incorporated into the first pylon of the current temple

The myth of Osiris and Isis

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

The myth had, by this time been enlarged and embellished countless times. In one version the coffin containing the body of Osiris was swept out to sea, and came to rest on the Phoenician coast where a tamarisk tree enclosed the entire coffin in its trunk. The king of Byblos, who needed a strong prop for the roof of his palace, ordered the tree to be cut down. Were it not for the fact that the tree gave off a sweet-smelling odour, which spread across the Mediterranean, and reached Isis, she would never have been able to trace the body of her husband.

She set off for Byblos without delay and, disguised as a nurse, she took charge of the newborn son of the king. When she finally revealed who she was, and the reason for her being there, the king gave her the miraculous tree containing the coffin, and she took the body of Osiris back to Egypt. This was when Set found it, and cut it to pieces.

Roman contribution

Building operations on Philae temple continued throughout the Roman period. There seems to have been an effort to indicate both continuity of rule, and also to retain the support of the powerful priests on the island near the southern frontier. It was at this time that Plutarch, the Greek writer, came to Egypt, and combined the many variations of the Osiris myth, from the earliest version) to the later, into a coherent tale.

By this time Osiris had become the just and wise ruler, not of Egypt alone, but of the whole world. He left Egypt under the wise council of Isis, and, accompanied by Thoth, Anubis and Wepwawat, he set off to conquer Asia. He returned to Egypt only after he had spread civilization, peacefully, with song and music, far afield. It has been suggested that this aspect of the myth so closely resembles the stories of Dionysus and Orpheus that Plutarch may have been influenced by them.

The island entry

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

The access to the island was enlarged on its northern side by Diocletian, in whose reign the Christians were persecuted. It is ironical that this uniquely picturesque sanctuary was the only peaceful spot in an area that had known nothing but strite from the Persian period (525 BC) onwards. The Meroitic Kingdom had spread northwards and challenged Egypt. Desert tribes, known as the Blemmys and the Nobadai, who habitually warred with one another, made their appearance around Aswan and threat Upper Egypt. There was no security along the frontier.

From a Greek inscription in the seclusion of the Osiris shrine above the sanctuary of Isis temple, we learn that in AD 453 the goddess Isis was still worshipped by the Blemmys and their priests. This was long after the edict of Theodosius declared that pagan temples should be closed.

Saving the monuments of Philae (Philae Temple, temple of Hathor, Temple of Isis)

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

Temple of Isis had been practically intact since the ancient days, but with each inundation the situation worsened and in the 1960s the island was submerged up to a third of the buildings all year round.

In 1960 Unesco started a project to try to save the buildings on the island from the destructive effect of the ever-increasing waters of the Nile. First, building three dams and creating a separate lake with lower water levels was considered.

First of all, a large coffer Dam was built, constructed of two rows of steel plates between which a 1 million cubic meters (35 million cubic feet) of sand was tipped. Any water that seeped through was pumped away.

Next the monuments were cleaned and measured, by using photogrammetry, a method that enables the exact reconstruction of the original size of the building blocks that were used by the ancients. Then every building was dismantled into about 40,000 units from 2 to 25 tons, and then transported to the nearby Island Agilika, situated on higher ground some 500 meters (1,600 ft) away. The transfer itself took place between 1977 and 1980.


Philae temple cover four major epochs: the last part of the Pharaonic era, the Ptolemaic period, the Roman epoch and the Christian period. The chief monuments are the Temple of Isis (1) and her son Horus (Harendotus) (2), the beautiful Arch of Hadrian (3), the Temple of Hathor (4) and the Kiosk (5), which is also known as Pharaoh’s Bed.

The Entrance to the island (a) was originally constructed by Nektanebos, the first ruler of the last Dynasty; it was designed with fourteen columns and two sandstone obelisks on the river front.

We now stand on the threshold of Philae. Before us a great Outer Court (b) opens up. This leads to Isis temple about one hundred metres ahead. The court is flanked by colonnades. On the right only half a dozen of the planned sixteen columns were completed; also to the right are the temples of Arhesnofer (d), Mandolis (e) and Imhotep (f).

To the left, the thirty-two columns of the colonnade follow the shore line. No two capitals are alike. The shafts show Tiberius making offerings to the Egyptian gods. The ceiling is decorated with stars and flying vultures. The representations are all finely executed and mostly well preserved. For example, between the first two columns (c), above the window, Nero is depicted offering two eyes to Horus, Isis and “The Lord of the Two Lands‘.


The huge Entrance Pylon

The mighty figures of Neos Dionysos, Ptolemy XII, depicted as pharaoh and wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. He clasps enemies by the hair and raises his club above their heads to smite them in the presence of Egypt’s best loved deities: Isis and Nephthys, Horus and Hathor.

Two granite lions guard the entrance; they are of late Roman times and reflect Byzantine influence

On the lintel of the gateway between the two towers of the pylon is a representation of the pharaoh Nektanebos I in a dancing attitude in front of Osiris, Isis, Khnum and Hathor

Passing through the gateway, we come to the Great Court (g). To the right is a colonnade and priests’ quarters. To the left is the Birth House (which may also be approached from a doorway at the centre of the left-hand tower of the entrance pylon.

The Birth House is an elegant little building. The entrance portico has a roof supported by four columns and is followed by three chambers, one behind the other. Around three sides of the building runs a colonnade with floral capitals surmounted with sistrum capitals and Hathor heads. The reliefs throughout the building relate to the birth of Horus, son of Isis, and his growth to manhood to avenge his father’s death. All are in a fine state of preservation.

The Temple of Isis

Comprises a tiny open court, a hypostyle hall, an antechamber (1) and a sanctuary. The walls have fine reliefs of the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors repeating traditional, and by now familiar – if not somewhat wearisome ritual scenes relating to offerings to the Egyptian gods, staking out the temple and consecrating the sacred area.

The Hypostyle Hall

Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)- Golden Luxor Tours

The Hall is separated from the court by screen walls between the first row of columns, is adorned with colored relief from the lower to the upper reaches of the wall, across the ceiling, and from shaft to capital. The columns and capitals provide a good example of the style, decoration and coloring of the Graeco-Roman period, when less regard was paid to natural colors. For example, the blue ribs of the palms stand out somewhat garishly from the light-green palm twigs on the capitals of the columns.

This hall was converted into a church in the Christian Period, when the wall reliefs were covered with stucco and painted. Christian crosses were chiseled in the walls and on some of the columns. In Act, 1Greek inscription on the right-hand side of the doorway leading to the antechamber (1) records the ‘good work of destruction of pagan reliefs!) carried out by the bishop Theodorus in the reign of Justinian, in the fifth century AD.

The sanctuary

The sanctuary has two tiny windows and a pedestal on which the sacred barge bearing the statue of Isis stood. This pedestal was installed by Ptolemy III (Euergetes 1) and his wife Berenice. Surrounding the sanctuary are the usual priestly chambers and storerooms.
Above the sanctuary are the Osiris Chambers, which are approached from a stairway to the left of the temple (n) but currently closed to visitors. In these chambers interesting reliefs relate to the death of Osiris and his rebirth. Among the scenes are: Osiris among the reeds where his body came to rest; the body lying on a bier being prayed over by the jackal-headed Anubis along with Isis and her sister Nephthys; Isis and Nephthys spreading their wings beside the bier as Osiris regains his powers. It is to such graphic portrayals of ancient Egyptian traditions by the Ptolemies that we owe much of our interpretation of ancient Egyptian mythology.

To the right of the temple of Isis, is a large, circular castor-oil presser. The oil was used for medicinal purposes.


The Kiosk of Trajan is rectangular in shape and surrounded by fourteen columns with floral capitals.

We offer a day Tour to Philae Temple and Aswan High Dam