Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt
The walls of the temples at Philae are covered in ancient hieroglyphs. Amongst the large carvings of the gods of Ancient Egypt are the inscriptions in the ornate pictorial alphabet, telling the stories of this civilisation.
Travelling around Egypt, you see a lot of hieroglyphs – but there is something special about the ones at Philae. They were the last to be written by the Ancient Egyptians.
There’s one inscription in particular that mentions a date and so it has been officially declared as the last written Egyptian hieroglyphs. It even has an official name – the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom – and is dated August 24, 394 AD (although, of course, the date is in the Ancient Egyptian calendar and actually refers to the day of the birth of the god Osiris).
The temple complex of Philae is built on an island in the Nile River near Aswan (and I’ll tell you shortly why that is significant).
When you visit Philae today and hear about its history, it’s clear that the writing was on the wall for the Ancient Egyptians.
The oldest of the temples on the island was built by the last of the pharaohs who was actually Egyptian (Nectanebo II, who died in 343 BC). His successor was Macedonian, part of the Ptolemaic dynasty that began with the death of Alexander the Great and ended with the death of Cleopatra.
Although they were Macedonian (or Greek, depending on how you look at it), this new dynasty was clever enough to realise that it would only be able to rule Egypt if the leaders seemed to be Egyptian. And so they dressed like Egyptians, worshipped the Egyptian gods, and built their monuments in the Egyptian style.
Which brings us to Philae Temple.
As I start to walk through the complex, looking at the architecture and the artwork on the walls, it looks Egyptian enough to me. But for experts, there are clear signs that much of it was built by the Greeks, trying to impersonate the Egyptians.
In the broader region here, in the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, the world was changing. Political upheaval was on the horizon and the sun setting on the Ancient Egyptian civilisation was only part of it. Soon, Rome would rule this land, along with much of the world.
It was during Roman rule that the last hieroglyphic inscriptions were done here at Philae – but the Roman Emperors had shown respect previously. Augustus and Tiberius both added decorations and the famous emperor Hadrian added a gate to the complex.
But, ultimately, what you find at the Philae temples is the last refuge of a culture that was disappearing around it, kept alive because of benefactors who saw a political benefit in its association.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s fitting that Philae is on an island.
From a visitor’s perspective, it means arriving at Philae is part of the experience. You need to catch a boat from a small dock on the mainstream that takes about 15 minutes to putter over to the island.
I love the view as you approach, the columns and intact walls rising up from this large rock in the middle of the water.
Philae has always been in the middle of the Nile, even from when it was first built more than 2000 years ago. But after the Aswan Low Dam was finished in 1902, it was quite often literally in the Nile, with constant flooding.
So, when the larger project began in the 1960s to move historical sites like Abu Simbel to protect them from the waters of the newer (and much larger) Aswan Dam, Philae Temple was also included.
A nearby island was modified to be approximately the same shape as the original and the temples were moved and restored, now in a better than they had been in centuries.
You see it as you walk across the island of Philae, starting with the enormous facade with the carved images of the god Horus, through courtyards lined with collonades, and into the darkened core of the temple complex.
Throughout it all, every inch seems to be covered with hieroglyphs. It’s almost as if they knew it would be the last time they would be used and they wanted to make the most of it.
I find the design of Philae really beautiful. Even though it was built in stages, everything fits together harmoniously with the other parts of the temple complex. Even more importantly, it also fits with its surroundings – the water, the other small islands, and the shorelines.
Visiting Philae is actually an optional activity with the Egypt Upgraded tour with G Adventures that I’m doing. I decided to come even though I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I’m so glad I did. I would recommend it to anyone!
I think it’s also quite meaningful to see both Philae and Abu Simbel when you come to Aswan. Don’t dismiss them just as “two Egyptian temples”. they are both magnificent in their own ways and they represent such different eras of history and different designs.
In fact, you could argue that Philae Temple represents a few eras. Not just Ancient Egypt, on which the design is based, or the Ptolemaic Kingdom, during which much of it was built.
It also clearly represents the later Roman Empire and beyond, as Christianity spread across these lands. You can see this in the way that so many of the bas-reliefs on the walls have had the faces and bodies of the gods chiselled away by Christians.
If you look closely, you can also find some places around Philae where crosses have been carved into the stone, marking a spot where Christians worshipped (possibly while they took refuge).
When I first saw the way the images of the gods had been defaced, I felt angry that people would do this. But, of course, it’s more complicated than simple vandalism, it’s twisted up with religious faith.
But there’s also another way to look at it, the way I decided to view these faceless Egyptian gods. They represent a shift in the civilisations of this land. They show that empires rise and fall and nothing that is great stays that way forever.
It is just like the last hieroglyphs. I can’t be angry that there were no more of them, just like I can’t be angry that people took chisels to the images around them. They both say the same thing.