Perched on the island of Philae (fee-leh), the Temple of Isis attracted pilgrims for thousands of years and was one of the last pagan temples to operate, after the arrival of Christianity. One of Egypt’s most seductive sights, the temple was saved after it was moved to higher ground following the building of the Aswan High Dam.

The cult of Isis at Philae goes back at least to the 7th century BC, but the earliest surviving remains date from the reign of the last native king of Egypt, Nectanebo I (380–362 BC). The most important ruins were begun by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC) and added to for the next 500 years until the reign of Diocletian (AD 284–305). By Roman times Isis had become the most popular of all the Egyptian gods, worshipped across the Roman Empire even as far as Britain. Indeed, as late as AD 550, well after Rome and its empire embraced Christianity, Isis was still being worshipped at Philae. Early Christians eventually transformed the main temple’s hypostyle hall into a chapel and defaced the pagan reliefs, their inscriptions later vandalised by early Muslims.

After 1902 and the building of the old Aswan Dam, the temple was flooded for six months each year, allowing travellers to row boats among the partially submerged columns to peer down through the translucent green at the wondrous sanctuaries of the mighty gods below.

After the completion of the High Dam, the temple would have entirely disappeared had Unesco not intervened. Between 1972 and 1980, the massive temple complex was disassembled stone by stone. It was then reconstructed 20m higher on nearby Agilika Island, which was landscaped to resemble the original sacred isle of Isis.

Touring the Temple

The boat across to the temple leaves you at the base of the Kiosk of Nectanebo, the oldest part of the Philae complex. Heading north, you walk down the outer temple court, which has colonnades running along both sides; the western one is the most complete, with windows that originally overlooked the island of Bigga. At the end is the entrance of the Temple of Isis, marked by the 18m-high towers of the first pylon with reliefs of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos smiting enemies.

In the central court of the Temple of Isis, the mammisi is dedicated to Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. Successive pharaohs reinstated their legitimacy as the mortal descendants of Horus by taking part in rituals celebrating the Isis legend and the birth of her son Horus in the marshes.

The second pylon leads to a hypostyle hall, with superb column capitals, and beyond lie three vestibules, leading into the Inner Sanctuary of Isis. Two granite shrines stood here, one containing a gold statue of Isis and another containing the barque in which the statue travelled, but those were long ago moved to Florence and Paris, and only the stone pedestal for the barque remains, inscribed with the names of Ptolemy III and his wife, Berenice. Take a side door west out of the hypostyle hall to the Gate of Hadrian where there is an image of the god Hapi, sitting in a cave at the First Cataract, representing the source of the river Nile.

East of the second pylon is the delightful Temple of Hathor, decorated with reliefs of musicians (including an ape playing the lute) and Bes, the god of childbirth. South of this is the elegant, unfinished pavilion by the water’s edge, known as the Kiosk of Trajan (or ‘Pharaoh’s Bed’), perhaps the most famous of Philae’s monuments and one that was frequently painted by Victorian artists, whose boats were moored beneath it.

There is a very pleasant waterside cafe serving overpriced drinks and snacks beneath the big tree, near the Kiosk of Trajan.