My favorite temple in Egypt by far is the Philae Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Abu Simbel. For me, it had everything – a picture-perfect peaceful setting on a small island, the sun was hitting it at just the right angle, and (luckily) there were no other tourists but our group. The fact you have to take a pleasant boat ride to it made it even more appealing. I wish I had more time to enjoy the scenery, but my hour and a half spent there was perfect.
Philae Temple is not your typical Egyptian temple. It was built mostly in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, primarily during the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was used mostly as a temple for Isis and Hathor, while Christians later used it as a church. What’s fascinating is that the temple was completely dismantled and relocated during the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s to it’s current location on Agilkia Island, just outside of Aswan. It was originally located on Philae Island (Φιλαί).
To get to the island, we wandered past a few vendors selling Egyptian crafts and onto a boat. The Nubian captain took the boat through the river and around some rocks until we spotted the Philae Temple.
As we approached Agilkia island, the sun hit the temple just perfectly, creating a vivid reflection of the temple in the water.
Once off the boat, Sem Sem took us to the Temple of Nectanebo to give us a short lecture about the temple and its history. He told our group that the Greek rulers of Egypt (the Ptolemaic dynasty), wanted their rule to be as peaceful as possible. Instead of showing their power by destroying the gods of the occupied people as other conquering civilizations had done, the Ptolemys began worshipping the Egyptian gods as their own, earning the respect of the ancient Egyptians. They built temples incorporating ancient Greek elements into the Egyptian styles. Interestingly, no Ptolemaic pharaoh bothered to learn the ancient Egyptian language until Cleopatra, the last pharaoh. Every Ptolemaic pharaoh before her spoke Greek.
After the lecture, the other tour groups had dispersed and we had the temple pretty much to ourselves. We continued through the colonnaded courtyard to the Temple of Isis.
On the high wall in front were several large carvings of Egyptian gods, many stamped out by early Christians.
Once inside the temple, the walls are filled with hieroglyphics and reliefs. A closer examination of the walls reveals graffiti left by 19th century tourists, including Balzac.
Evidence of early Christians using the temple as a church survives in the form of an altar and several crosses carved into the walls.
On the outside of the temple are a few smaller temples, including the impressive Temple of Trajan. It’s also possible to find a memorial to British soldiers killed in Sudan in 1884-85.