an island at the First Cataract of the Nile (24°02′N, 32°59′E), on the southern frontier of Ancient Egypt. It is the site of the most beautiful of all ancient Egyptian temples. In the 1970s, the architectural structures of the original island were moved to their present position on the island of Agilkia, to the northwest, when Philae was about to become permanently flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The new location was carefully landscaped to make it resemble Philae as much as possible.


Philae. Plan of the island of Philae in Roman times. (From Dieter Arnold, Temples of the Last Pharaohs. Oxford University Press, 1999.)

In Egyptian religious thought, islands and hills were regarded as sources of creative power, a concept which goes far to explain the cultic importance of a number of islands in the First Cataract area. Philae and the neighboring island of Biga to the west formed an integrated religious complex devoted to the cult of Osiris. The ritual focus was Biga, the site of the abaton, one of the alleged tombs of Osiris; Philae was dedicated preeminently to Isis, his sister-wife, who became the epitome of the divine wife and mother and thus the most popular of all Egyptian goddesses in the Late and Greco-Roman periods. Although Isis was the major deity of the Philae, the site's location on the frontier between Egypt and Nubia meant that the cults of Nubia also featured on the island, where they were represented by significant cult buildings.

The monuments are dominated by the great temple of Isis and its associated structures, which are concentrated in the west and center of the island on, or adjacent to, a granite outcrop which must have been chosen originally as an embodiment of the primeval hill on which the holy-of-holies of all Egyptian temples was claimed to rest. There is some evidence at Philae of cult activity in honor of Amun in the time of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa who ruled Egypt between 689 and 664 BCE. These meager traces might well mean that the rise of this frontier religious center owed something to the kings of the Nubian twenty-fifth dynasty, to which Taharqa belonged; however, the earliest known cult building in honor of Isis was a small shrine erected in the Saite period by Psamtik II. This was followed by a further small temple on the granite outcrop, erected by Amasis. Therefore, it now seems that the Saite kings introduced the cult of Isis into this area and laid the foundations for her subsequent glorification on the island.

The next evidence of building dates to the thirtieth dynasty and takes the form of a kiosk of Nektanebo I, which is now situated at the southwestern end of the main temple, and a gate of the same king embedded in the first pylon of the main temple. The gateway clearly formed part of a thirtieth dynasty enclosure wall, but all these features should be regarded as embellishments to the preexisting Saite temple enclosure, because there seems to be no trace of a substantial temple of thirtieth dynasty date.

The building work in the main Isis temple area is overwhelmingly Ptolemaic and forms part of the well-documented Ptolemaic policy of promoting the Isis cult throughout the kingdom and beyond, although a substantial amount of the decoration was added in the Roman period. The core of the Isis temple—everything north of the vestibule—was built by Ptolemy II just behind the ancient shrine of Amasis, which was then demolished. Its decoration, as is normal at this and similar sites, was added sporadically for a long time. This temple was surrounded by a brick girdle wall which almost certainly followed the line of that of the thirtieth dynasty and showed the undulating pattern in laying the brick courses, which was typical of such late structures. This feature may have been used for entirely practical reasons, but it has also been claimed that it imitates the waves of the primeval ocean surrounding the primeval hill on which all temples were claimed to rest.

The temple shows an intriguing ground plan in that the main building has two axes: the main cult area accessed by the second pylon is skewed northeastward in relation to the court to the south. This feature probably arose from the interaction of several factors: the preexistence of the temple of Amasis; a determination to maintain the granite outcrop as the center of cult activity; and the configuration of the island itself—that is, any expansion of the central shrine to the south would have to be skewed to fit the available space. The temple in its final form is a much expanded structure that is entered by the first pylon (Ptolemy V–VI), which gives access to a court flanked on the left by a mammisi, probably begun by Ptolemy III but expanded and completed by Ptolemy VIII. This structure, typical of late temples, was, for ritual purposes, the site of the birth of Harpocrates, the son of Isis and Osiris. On the eastern side there stands a colonnade probably built by Ptolemy VIII. The much smaller second pylon, probably completed by Ptolemy VI, leads via a court and vestibule to the sanctuary dedicated to Isis and her son Harpocrates. Throughout the main temple area there are many examples of work added during the Roman period: for example, the birth-house contains reliefs dating to the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, who feature alongside Antoninus in the inner part of the temple; the temple is accessed from the west via a gate associated with the emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus; and the enclosure also contained, to the north, a Claudian temple dedicated to Harendotes, the son of Osiris as champion and protector of his father. In the mid-sixth century CE the island of Isis was Christianized, and a number of churches were dedicated there, including one to the Virgin Mary and one to Saint Stephen, the former being the standard Christian substitute for Isis and the second a highly appropriate replacement for Harendotes. This cultic change brought with it the usual rash of mutilations to the pagan monuments.

The buildings of the Isis enclosure are supplemented by numerous subsidiary structures. To the south lies the long Outer Court, which now forms the main point of access to the temple enclosure. At its southern entrance stands the kiosk of Nektanebo I, removed there no later than the reign of Ptolemy XII and flanked by colonnades of Roman date on the western and eastern sides. In addition, the eastern colonnade embodies the remains of a temple of the Nubian god Arensnuphis (Ptolemaic with some Roman decoration), a well-preserved shrine of Imhotep (Ptolemy V), and a further cult-place often ascribed on quite inadequate evidence to the Nubian deity Mandulis.

There are numerous other buildings to the north, east, and south which are more loosely connected with the enclosure. At the water's edge on the northeastern section of the island stands a spectacular Roman-period gate, which was probably a triumphal arch of Emperor Diocletian. There are also a temple dedicated to the cult of Rome and Augustus and two Coptic churches, as well as the remains of a Coptic monastery. To the east of the great enclosure wall lies a temple of Hathor (Ptolemy VI/VIII and early Roman), a deity with close affinities with Isis who was associated, in particular, with the neighboring island of Biga. Finally, to the south of Hathor's temple and over-looking the Nile stands a beautiful but unfinished kiosk often ascribed to Trajan; it certainly received such decoration as it has in his reign, but the building itself may well be earlier.


Philae. Antique depiction of the temple area at Philae.

In addition to these major structures, the original island of Philae also contained mud-brick settlement remains on the northern part of the island and to the east and southeast. These areas would originally have housed the staff that served the temple, but the remains that were extant until the floodwaters destroyed them are described in the literature as Roman and Christian.

It is difficult to overrate the importance of the religious complex at Philae. It provides us with a major late cult center which is exceptionally well-preserved. Beginning in the Saite period and continuing into the thirtieth dynasty, it underwent a spectacular flowering in the Greco-Roman period, and, becuase of the circumstances of its dismantling and removal, there is possible a unique insight into its architectural evolution until and including its conversion to a Christian center. In addition, the voluminous texts and iconography yield much information on the last centuries of pharaonic religious thought and practice. In fact, Philae was the last bastion of ancient Egyptian culture, and it is no coincidence that the latest datable hieroglyphic inscription (24 August 394 CE) comes from Philae.


  • Bernand, A. Les inscriptions grecques de Philae. Vol. 1, Epoques ptolémaiques. Vol. 2, Haut et Bas Empire. Paris, 1969. This collection includes inscriptions from the Ptolemaic period to the late Roman Empire.
  • Giammarusti, Antonio, and Alessandro Roccati. File, storia e vita di un santuario egizio. Rome, 1980. Good, well-illustrated survey of the history and salvage of the site.
  • Haeny, Gerhard. “A Short Architectural History of Philae.” Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 18 (1985), 197–233. An invaluable short account of the archaeological data gleaned from moving the temple to its new site.
  • Iversen, E. Obelisks in Exile: The Obelisks of Istanbul and England. Copenhagen, 1972. Contains a discussion of the Philae obelisk now in Kingston Lacy, Dorset.
  • Lyons, H. G. A Report on the Island Temples of Philae. Cairo, 1896. Like the following citation, an important early survey of the monuments on the site that is still of great value.
  • Lyons, H. G. A Report on the Island Temples of Philae. Cairo, 1908.
  • Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind L. B. Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. Vol. 6, Upper Egypt: Chief Temples. Oxford, 1939–1970, pp. 202–256. Minutely detailed but not quite up-to-date guide to the site.
  • Vassilika, Eleni. Ptolemaic Philae. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 34. Leuven, 1989. A pioneering study of the architecture, iconography, and work methods employed in the Ptolemaic buildings.
  • Žabkar, L. V. Hymns to Isis in Her Temple at Philae. Hanover, N.H., and London, 1987. Analysis of eight early Ptolemaic hymns, with much useful discussion of Isis theology.

Alan B. Lloyd