The Philae Temple was constructed over a three-century period, by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty and the Roman Principate. The principal deity of the temple complex was Isis, but other temples and shrines were dedicated to her son Horus and the goddess Hathor. In Ptolemaic times Hathor was associated with Isis, who was in turn associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. For centuries the Philae temple complex was the holiest site for Isis worshippers. The temple was officially closed down in the 6th century A.D. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It was the last pagan temple to exist in the Mediterranean world. Philae was a seat of the Christian religion as well as of the ancient Egyptian faith. Ruins of a Christian church were still discovered, and more than one adytum bore traces of having been made to serve at different eras the purposes of a chapel of Osiris and of Christ. The Philae temple was converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, until that was closed by Muslim invaders in the 7th century.
Its portico consisted of twelve columns, four in front and three deep. Their capitals represented various forms and combinations of the palm-branch, the dhoum-leaf, and the lotus-flower. These, as well as the sculptures on the columns, the ceilings, and the walls, were painted with the most vivid colors, which, owing to the dryness of the climate, have lost little of their original brilliance.
In 1902, the Aswan Low Dam was completed on the Nile River by the British. This threatened many ancient landmarks, including the temple complex of Philae, with being submerged. The dam was heightened twice, from 190712 and from 192934, and the island of Philae was nearly always flooded. In fact, the complex was not underwater only when the dam’s sluices were open, from July to October.
It was postulated that the temples be relocated, piece by piece, to nearby islands, such as Bigeh or Elephantine. However, the temples’ foundations and other architectural supporting structures were strengthened instead. Although the buildings were physically secure, the island’s attractive vegetation and the colors of the temples’ reliefs were washed away. Also, the bricks of the Philae temples soon became encrusted with silt and other debris carried by the Nile.
By 1960, UNESCO had decided to move many of the endangered sites along to Nile to safer ground. Philae’s temple complex was moved, piece by piece, to Agilkai, 550 meters away, where it was reassembled and remains today.
For Egypt travelers, the approach to the Philae Temple by water is quite the most beautiful. Seen from the level of a small boat, the island, with its palms, its colonnades, its pylons, seems to rise out of the river like a mirage. Piled rocks frame it on either side, and the purple mountains close up the distance. As the boat glides nearer between glistening boulders, those sculptured towers rise higher and even higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or age. All looks solid, stately, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air, if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God, were to come sweeping round between the palms and pylons, we should not think it strange.