Philae Temples Part IV:
Temple of Isis Inner Chambers
and Structures to the West
By Marie Parsons
At the Temple of Isis formerly on Philae Island, the gate of the Second Pylon gives way to a small open court, which is part of a hypostyle hall. Amelia Edwards said of it:
"Here is a place in which time seems to have stood as still as in that immortal palace where everything went to sleep for a hundred years. The bas-reliefs on the walls, the intricate paintings on the ceilings, the colours upon the capitals are incredibly fresh and perfect. These exquisite capitals have long been the wonder and delight of travellers in Egypt. They are all studied from natural forms - from the lotus in bud and blossom, the papyrus, and the palm. Conventionalised with consummate skill, they are at the same time so justly proportioned to the height and girth of the columns as to give an air of wonderful lightness to the whole structure."
The court at one time had a colonnade on its east and west sides, but today contains only ten columns. The little court was separated from the vestibule beyond it by screen walls uniting four columns, behind which four other columns helped support the roof of the hall. On the east site, the reliefs have been replaced by Coptic Christian crosses before which a Christian altar was erected in about 500 AD. At that time there were dedicated several churches here, 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. On the side doorway leading to a room on the right is another inscription to Bishop Theodorus, made during the reign of Justinian 527-565 AD), claiming credit for this "good work". A similar inscription commemorates the archaeological expedition of 1841 sent by Pope Gregory XVI.
Three small antechambers, flanked by dark rooms, leads to the sanctuary which is lit by two small windows. It still contains the pedestal placed here by Ptolemy III Euergetes I and his wife Berenice for the image of Isis in her sacred bark. The granite shrines (naos) were removed to European museums during the 19th century. From her sanctuary, the statue of Isis would have been carried out in processions from the temple on her ceremonial barque to make the short crossing to the island of Bigeh to visit the tomb of her spouse, Osiris.
Surrounding the sanctuary are the Osiris chambers reached by a short staircase on the west side of the temple which leads to the roof. Having Osirian rooms on the roof of the temple was standard during the Graeco-Roman Period, though here they are sunk well below the level of the roof at each of its four corners. The Osiris room has its own vestibule with scenes of gods bewailing the dead Osiris, and the inner room contains scenes relating to the collection of the god's sacred limbs.
To reach these, after ascending the stairs, one then descends to the first room where the Nile-god offers libations of milk to the soul or Ba of Osiris, sitting before him in the form of a bird. In the second room is the falcon-headed mummy of Osiris. In the third room the god Shu and the Emperor Antoninus, who built the room, stand before Osiris and his two sisters Isis and Nephthys. Still another room on the roof shows Isis and Nephthys by the nude body of Osiris, lying on a bier. The frog-headed Heket and the falcon-headed Harsiesis stand by the bier beneath which are depicted four canopic jars for the entrails of the god. The other walls show the corpse of Osiris among marsh plants with a priest pouring consecrated water. The jackal headed Anubis stands by the bier of Osiris beside which kneel Isis and Nephthys.
Once these scenes were bright with brilliant colors, the columns and capitals scintillating in the clear sunshine against vivid blue skies. As Robert Curzon rote, "Excepting the Pyramids, nothing struck me so much as when on a bright moonlight night I first entered the court of the great temple of Philae".
The outside walls of the temple are covered with reliefs largely dating from the reign of Tiberius. On the west side of the temple itself are several other structures that must be considered a part of the overall structure. Just to the west o the second Pylon stands a gateway and a ruined vestibule built by Emperor Hadrian. On the lintel of the gate Hadrian stands before Osiris, Isis and Harsiesis. Within the gateway, Marcus Aurelius stands before Osiris and below this scene, he offers grapes and flowers to Isis.
The uncompleted vestibule shows Nephthys presenting the crown of Lower Egypt and Isis the Crown of Upper Egypt to Horus. On one wall is a relief of Isis watching Osiris being carried on the back of a crocodile across the Nile. Another relief on the north wall shows Isis, Nephthys, Horus, Amun and Hathor worshipping the Hawk-god rising over the river beneath the island of Bigeh. This island has a vulture perched on it and beneath this is a cave surrounded by a serpent holding the figure of Hapi, the Nile God, representing the source of the Nile.
Also, at the northern end of the western colonnade that fronts the temple is one of the few ancient nilometers remaining in Egypt, which was used to measure the Nile flood in ancient times.
The Temple of Isis, which was moved from old Philae Island due to the building of the High Dam south of Aswan to its present location on Agilkia Island, beautiful as it is, has one further distinction. it was the last surviving outpost of the old Egyptian pagan religion. Some say that Christianity and the pagan religion, for a time, were practiced here side by side until the pagan priesthood was officially disbanded by Justinian in about 550 AD.
- The Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt ed. By Katherine Bard
- Island of Isis, Philae, Temple of the Nile by William MacQuitty
- A Guide to the Antiquities of Ancient Egypt by Arthur Weigall
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
- Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson