For over 50 years the Island of Philae and its monuments lay half-submerged in water built up by the Aswan Dam and barrages during annual inundations, until the UNESCO rescue operations for the Nubian monuments in the 1960s. The temples have now been completely dismantled and rebuilt to the original orientation on the nearby island of Agilika which rises higher from the water and has been reshaped and landscaped to resemble the original Philae. Metal pylons on the old island of Philae can still be seen rising from the water to the south of Agilika.
A short trip on a motor boat will bring the visitor suddenly upon a magnificent vista of the island before landing at the what would have been the ancient quay on the south side.
The earliest of the surviving monuments of Philae is the Kiosk of Nectanebo I, of Dynasty XXX, although there is evidence of building dating back to Dynasty XXV. Most of the other structures are Ptolemaic and Roman and were re-used by the early Christians when the temple was finally closed by the Emperor Justinian in 550AD. The main temple is dedicated to Isis and was the centre of the cult of Isis and Hathor during the Roman Period. It was the last pagan temple in use in Egypt.
There are many legends connected to Philae, but the most well known one tells the story of how Isis found the heart of Osiris here after his murder by his brother Seth. Each evening there is a Sound and Light Show which recounts the legends against the magnificent backdrop of the floodlit monuments – a truly magical experience.
Beginning at the south of the island, Nectanebo’s structure is a hall with screen walls linked by graceful columns. There are two colonnades on the east and west sides of the courtyard, leading to the first temple pylon. Each column has a different floral capital. The first pylon was built by Ptolemy XII and decorated in traditional Egyptian style with reliefs of the king subduing his enemies and worshipping the goddess Isis. There are two portals, the main one is an earlier doorway built by Nectanebo and if you look up on the east wall there are inscriptions by the French army who visited here in 1799. The other portal in the western tower leads to a birth-house where Isis is depicted suckling her son Horus in the marshes. On the eastern side of the inner court is another colonnade with a number of chambers behind. At the southern end of the colonnade is a granite altar of Taharqo – the oldest object on the island. In front of the second pylon the natural outcrop of rock on which it was built was smoothed to create a donation stela recording lands donated to the temple by Ptolemy VI.
The second pylon leads to the hypostyle hall and a staircase in the western tower leads to the roof. Here can be found a suite of Osiris chambers where the death and mourning of the god is depicted in reliefs similar to those in Osiris rooms in other Ptolemaic temples. Unfortunately visitors are no longer admitted to the roof.