Philae was the cult centre of Isis during the Ptolemaic Period. The name Philae derives from the Greek pronunciation of the Ancient Egyptian “Pilak” (which is itself thought to have been Nubian in origin). It is proposed that the intended meaning was “the island of the time (of Ra)”, as it was claimed that the island was the first bit of land to emerge from Nun at the creation of the world.

Philae Temple Complex
Philae Temple Complex

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that the island was in fact the first settlement of the Predynastic peoples of Egypt. Similarly, the priests of Philae claimed that the source of the Nile lay close to their island, beneath the rocks of Bigeh (a island nearby). However, the priests of Elephantine (cult centre of Khnum, Anuket, and Satet) argued that the source of the Nile was located close to their cult centre.

Philae lay about four miles south of Elephantine (Abu) and was only around 457 metres (500 yards) by 146 metres (160 yards). The island was almost entirely covered with temples and monuments. During the Pharaonic Period, the temples were protected from the flood waters by high walls and sturdy granite foundations. However, when the Aswan Dam was constructed the temples had to be underpinned so that they could survive a yearly submersion from December to March.

Captain Henry Lyon oversaw the underpinning and also excavated the remains of a number of Christian shrines on the island. This, thankfully, did little damage to the stonework, but most of the beautiful painting on the walls and pillars was washed away. When the island was threatened with permanent submersion in the 1970s as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Temple of Isis and the surrounding buildings were moved to the island of Agilika to preserve them.

Philae Island
Philae Island, Zakaria Rabea, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Philae was primarily dedicated to Isis (and by extension to her husband-brother Osiris). The islands of Philae and Bigeh combined to form a temple complex in which the ritual focus was on the “Tomb of Osiris” on the island of Bigeh while Isis was worshipped on the larger island of Philae. Every tenth day Isis and her retinue of priests would travel to Bigeh to visit the tomb of Osiris. However, a number of Upper Egyptian or Nilotic deities and Nubian gods and goddesses are also represented.


Philae plan

Minor temples and buildings

Temple of Isis


Philae does not seem to have been particularly important until the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Of course, local priests claimed a far more illustrious history. Inscriptions on the nearby island of Sehel allege that the area was given to the god during the reign of Djoser of the Old Kingdom. Despite this, the oldest known object on the island is the altar dedicated to Amun and constructed by Taharqa of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

The Kushite King Arkamani apparently built a temple on Philae and remnants of mudbrick structures between the stone foundations of the later temples and the early nilometer west of the birth house may have been Kushite. However, the current temples are all Ptolemaic and it seems that Ptolemy V erased the name of Arkamani from Philae.

The earliest known cult building dedicated to Isis, was a small shrine built by Psamtik II (during the Saite period). Amasis (also of the Saite Period) built a small temple on the island. As a result, it is generally agreed that the Saite kings brought the worship of Isis to Philae.

The island of Philae became the last outpost of the ancient pagan religion as it remained open until the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its closure in 550AD. It is sometimes suggested that Christianity and Ancient Egyptian Polytheism may have been practiced simultaneously until the closure of the temple.

The Pharaohs who built Philae

Amasis (Ahmose II Khenemibre)

Amasis of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty may have been the first to build a temple on Philae. Around three hundred decorated blocks from his temple were recovered from the foundations of the Second Pylon and the Hypostyle Hall. The temple was thought to have consisted of three rooms including a small sanctuary. It seems to have been dismantled to make room for a larger structure

Nectanebo I

This Thirtieth Dynasty pharaoh constructed the enclosure walls and a monumental gate. He built a kiosk and began the construction of the Mammissi (the birth house).

Ptolemy II Philadelphius

This Ptolemaic pharaoh continued work on the main temple and the Mammissi.

Ptolemy III Euergetes I

This Ptolemaic pharaoh extended the Mammissi.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes

This Ptolemaic pharaoh built the First Pylon.

Ptolemy VI Philopator

This Ptolemaic pharaoh built the Second Pylon, added the inner court, the hypostyle hall, and the Temple of Hathor (to the east of the main temple).

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes III

This Ptolemaic pharaoh extended the birth house, installed two huge obelisks beside the First Pylon, and extended the Temple of Hathor.

Ptolemy XII

This Ptolemaic pharaoh decorated the Second Pylon.

  • Arnold, Dieter(1999) Temples of the Last Pharaohs
  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. (2000) The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt
  • “The Ptolemaic Period”, Allan B. Lloyd and “The Roman Period”, David Peacock in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000) Ed I. Shaw

Copyright J Hill 2009