Nestled on a tiny island in the Nile, Philae Temple is one of Egypt’s most romantic sites – and a beautiful tribute to the Egyptian goddess Isis.
Surrounded by clusters of bougainvillea and sweeping Nile views, Philae is one of Egypt’s most picturesque temples.
Take a motor boat to this island and explore the pylons, sanctuaries and hieroglyphics that mark the spot once believed to be the source of the Nile.
The ornate temple complex is perched on Agilkia island and it’s only accessible by motor boat.
Built by the Macedonian King Ptolemy II, it was one of the last temples where the old pagan gods were worshiped before the advent of Christianity.
Philae Temple is an absolute must-see on your Aswan itinerary – and a beautiful experience of travelling down the Nile to discover this charming island.
But where do you begin to explore this splendid temple and all its treasures?
I’m a longtime expat living in Cairo and I’ve visited Philae Temple numerous times. And this is my ultimate local’s guide to help you get the most from your visit – from maps and top sites to tips on what to wear.
What is the myth of Philae Temple?
Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis, goddess of magic, love and fertility – and the holder of ancient secrets that brought her husband Osiris back to life. Her spells saved her son Horus, the falcon god, from a poisonous snake, and she was widely regarded as a protective mother goddess.
Priests clad in white once guarded this temple and pilgrims came to gaze at the image of Isis during spring and autumn festivals, when the resurrection of Osiris was reenacted.
According to legends, the evil Seth hacked Osiris’ body into 14 parts and scattered the pieces across the Nile Valley. Isis lovingly gathered each part and revived Osiris to conceive their child, Horus, who grew up strong to defeat Seth and restore divine order.
Isis buried the heart of Osiris at a nearby island and then watched over her beloved’s sacred burial place from her seat at Philae.
The dramatic rescue of Philae Temple
Philae Temple was thrown into grave danger after the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1898-1902. Its magnificent columns and sanctuaries became partly submerged by the Nile.
Turn-of-the-century tourists took row boats to gaze at the peaks of the temple’s enormous gateways, popping out just over the water. They’d gaze down through the translucent waters to marvel at the columns below.
But when the High Dam was built in 1960-71, UNESCO launched an epic scale project to save the ancient temple by relocating it – piece by piece – to the nearby island of Agilkia (just 500 meters away) where it would be save from the rising waters.
The entire temple was dismantled into some 40,000 pieces each weighing from 2 to 25 tons. Each piece was then transported to the new location where the entire temple was painstakingly reassembled.
The UNESCO project took nearly a decade to complete and included extensive landscaping at Agilkia to make it resemble Philae. You can still see the tip of the original island where the temple was once located.
Philae Temple was one of numerous archaeological sites that were saved from the rising waters. Abu Simbel, just south of Aswan, is another magnificent temple that was relocated to higher ground.
Philae Temple plan
Inside Philae Temple
This Graeco-Roman temple is lined with ornate columns topped with lotus and papyrus, and regal grey cats (fed by the temple guards) that wander amid the ruins.
Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis, her husband Osiris and their son Horus. The temple walls depict stories of Isis giving birth to Horus, bringing Osiris back to life and mummifying Osiris’ remains after his death.
Isis was a powerful goddess who offered protection from harm and brought good fortune. Countless pilgrims appealed to Isis to grant their wishes and heal their ailments.
Philae Temple was one of the last remaining sanctuaries where the old pagan religion of Ancient Egyptian was practiced before the arrival of Christianity.
It wasn’t officially closed until 550 CE and it remained a pagan stronghold for centuries until early Christians took over and converted its temples into churches.
Unfortunately, these early Christians also destroyed numerous Egyptian statues and hieroglyphs. Today the temple’s ancient walls are marked with crosses and early graffiti from ancient pilgrims and 19th century explorers in a riotous mix of religious history and politics.
Some interesting facts about Philae Temple:
- The earliest structure at Philae dates back to the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE). But the bulk of the temple was built during the Ptolemaic period, especially by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE).
- Philae Temple is mentioned by several classical writers, including Ptolemy and Seneca. It’s also mentioned in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
- The temple has the last known hieroglyphic inscription in the history of Ancient Egypt (at the Gate of Hadrian). It was carved by an Egyptian priest in 394 – right before this writing method was forgotten by humanity for 1,400 years.
- Notorious tomb robber (and one-time circus performer) Giovanni Belzoni pillaged an enormous 9-meter-high obelisk from Philae Temple and took it at gunpoint from his thieving rival. The obelisk was installed in a garden in Dorset, England, where it still stands today.
- The obelisk from Philae (along with the Rosetta Stone) later provided researchers with crucial material to decipher and translate hieroglyphs.
Philae in medieval lore
A medieval legend tells the story of Zahr, a beautiful daughter of a grand vizier, who fell in love with a youth named Anas. As can be expected, the vizier refused to accept Anas for his daughter and then shut Zahr away at Philae Temple.
Anas didn’t give up easily. He combed the whole of Egypt in search of his love until he found her tucked away at Philae island. He couldn’t cross the crocodile-infested waters, however, and it was only because of his gentle heart that one of the creatures allowed Anas to climb his back and carried him across the river.
The beautiful Zahr meanwhile planned her own escape off the island and slipped away in a boat. Fortunately the crocodile bearing Anas and the boat bearing Zahr met in midstream and the lovers were reunited.
The father at last agreed to the union and the lovers were married on the roof of the sanctuary of the Temple of Isis.
How to get to Philae Temple
To explore this magnificent temple, take a taxi to the Marina Philae Temple, get your ticket from the booth past the souvenir vendors and then hop on one of the motor boats that wait to transport visitors to Agilkia Island.
The marina is always bustling with souvenir vendors. And it’s one of my favorite spots in Aswan for colorful alabaster, beaded jewelry and handmade wooden trinkets and bowls.
Take a minute to browse the offerings spread out on the ground in front of the boats, as this little souq features unique items you won’t find anywhere else.
Insider’s tip: the dock can get slippery so wear sturdy shoes and avoid flip flops! You’ll also be climbing on and off the boat during your visit so opt for comfortable pants (not skirts) or shorts in summer.
- The boat captains drive a hard bargain to take you to the island. If you’re with a tour group, tickets are included and there’s no need to haggle. But if you’re alone, find other solo travelers or a small group to split the costs and take a boat together.
- If you’re alone, your boatman will wait for you at the dock – so agree in advance on how long you’ll need to visit the temple. I’d recommend 2-3 hours.
Philae Temple tour
I visited the temple with a guide from Egypt Rest Tours and I highly recommend them! My visit was part of a Nile cruise that also included stops in Luxor, Edfu and Kom Ombo. And it was a magical way to see all the major temples along the Nile.
I highly recommend visiting Philae with a tour guide who’ll make the temple come alive with history. Going with a tour guide also means all the logistics of the trip are taken care of, so there’s no worries about haggling or transport.
10 Amazing Things To See At Philae Temple
Get your camera ready after you climb into the motorboat because this 15-minute trip down the Nile towards Philae Temple is truly magical.
You’ll spot enormous rock formations dotted with rugged greenery with birds swooping overhead. As you approach the temple, you’ll get beautiful views of the pylons rising majestically above the water.
“The approach 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 … They show no sign of ruin or age. All looks solid, stately, perfect.”
– Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile
After you disembark, enter the temple and its front court to begin your tour.
Here are 10 amazing things at the Philae Temple that you shouldn’t miss!
1. The outercourt and colonnades
A sweeping outercourt marks the grand entrance to the temple and features some of the island’s most beautiful columns.
The court is flanked by two colonnades (rows of columns). On the right side, a half dozen columns stand incomplete. Inside are small temples to obscure Nubian gods and to Imhotep, the deified builder of the step pyramid at Saqqara.
On the left side, thirty-two magnificent columns form a line with windows overlooking the Nile.
The columns follow the shore in a dazzling row of capitals that are all unique and depict papyrus, lotus and flora. Each capital (the top of the column) is finely executed and a testament to ancient artistry. No two are alike.
The ceiling is decorated with stars and vultures with outstretched wings. The shafts below depict Tiberius making offerings to the gods in well-preserved detail.
2. The first pylon
The enormous first pylon is decorated with images of Ptolemy XII smiting his enemies, paying tribute to the gods and wearing the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The pylon stands 18 metres high with two towers carved with scenes that testify to the might of the king and his link to the gods.
The western tower depicts Ptolemy XII grasping a cluster of his enemies by their hair while raising a staff that’s ready to strike any adversaries. The deities Isis, Horus and Hathor look on.
On the eastern tower, Ptolemy XII is depicted making offerings to the noble deities Isis and Horus.
These images portray the Ptolemaic kings, rulers in a foreign land, as they prove their worth by suppressing Egypt’s enemies while honoring local deities and traditions.
Don’t miss the rows of inscriptions above the doorway with graffiti from visitors across history.
There are inscriptions commemorating Napoleon’s historic arrival in Egypt in 1799 and his victory over the Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids.
Two Roman-era granite lions guard the entrance and add a touch of Byzantine influence.
3. Birth house (mammisi)
The Birth House is a small, elegant building that celebrates the birth of Horus, the son of Isis, with charming scenes of the falcon god as an infant.
It contains three chambers and beautiful columns topped with the serene face of the goddess Hathor.
Reliefs throughout the birth house are well preserved in exquisite detail. They depict the birth of Horus and his growth into a powerful god that avenged his father’s death.
The scenes show intimate portraits of motherhood and the tenderness between mother and son, contrasting to the more majestic and warlike reliefs on the first pylon.
Don’t miss the reliefs in the second chamber that depict protective deities among the papyrus where Horus was born. The third chamber has reliefs that show Isis giving birth in the marshes of the Nile Delta surrounded by deities like Amon-Ra and Thoth.
The birth house (or mammisi in Coptic) was where pharaohs reinstated their legitimacy as the mortal descendants of Horus and participated in rituals that celebrated his birth.
The temple’s Nilometer was used to measure the height of the Nile waters – and predict flood or famine.
The Nilometer has a descending staircase leading down to the Nile and an indicator that marks the ideal water level needed for a good harvest.
It was a crucial tool in Ancient Egypt used to asses the fluctuations of the Nile. When water was too low, there was a famine ahead. If the level was too high, it meant destructive floods. This information was crucial to plan ahead and dig any necessary irrigation canals.
5. The second pylon
The second pylon is the majestic entry into the temple’s inner sanctum – and stands 12 meters high with depictions of the pharaoh’s devotion to the gods.
A large granite block on the right inscribed by Kushite pharaoh Taharqa (730 BCE) is the oldest piece in the temple.
Don’t miss the reliefs on the lower part of the pylon that depict the king offering sacrificial slaughtered animals to Horus and Hathor.
Smaller reliefs above show the king offering a garland to Horus and Nephthys (right), and incense to Isis, Osiris and Horus (left).
6. The Hypostyle hall (or vestibule)
The Hypostyle Hall is adorned with boldly colored reliefs and majestic columns that were once turned into a Christian church.
The ceiling is decorated with vultures with outstretched wings that symbolize protection of the sacred space below.
Don’t miss the famous relief on the right-hand wall that depicts the source of the Nile river. The god of the Nile is portrayed with a snake twisted around his body as he pours water from two jars.
The hypostyle hall is a testament to history’s shifting tides. You’ll find Coptic crosses chiseled into the walls and columns from when this pagan temple served as a Christian church.
The entire hypostyle hall was converted into a church after Christianity arrived in Egypt and the ancient wall reliefs were covered with stucco and painted over.
A Greek inscription on the doorway to the ante-chamber records the “good work of the destruction of pagan reliefs” conducted during the 5th-century reign of Justinian.
7. Coptic altar
A Coptic altar at the side of the hypostyle hall is the most striking remnant of the temple’s transformation from pagan temple into a Christian church.
Dating back to 500 AD, the altar marks the centerpiece of a worship space used by Coptic Christians.
This holy space, entered through a series of antechambers, is dimly lit by two small windows – and it’s the heart of the entire Philae Temple.
The sanctuary contains a pedestal which held the sacred barge that bore the statue of Isis. It’s dedicated by Ptolemy III and his wife Berenice.
The sanctuary is the inner sanctum of the temple where the revered goddess Isis was worshiped before she was carried by the priests in festivals and processions.
The eastern and western walls are decorated with depictions of the king making offerings to Isis and other gods. On the lower register, there’s a beautiful depiction of spirits representing the Nile, each holding a vase with depictions of lotus flowers and papyrus.
The sacred statues of Isis were removed from the temple and are now at the Louvre and British Museum.
9. Temple of Hathor
This whimsical temple has lively reliefs of musicians and dancers in what’s a fitting tribute to Hathor, the goddess of love.
Don’t miss the flute players along the columns and the cheery dwarf-god Bes playing a harp and tambourine. Other reliefs depict Bes dancing and apes playing lyres.
Just beyond the temple, a series of large stone blocks feature reliefs of a laughing Bes, a multifaceted deity who offered children protection and was associated with humor, music and dance.
10. Kiosk of Trajan
The Kiosk of Trajan is a graceful and elegant tribute to a legendary Roman emperor – and the most famous landmark in all of Philae Temple.
The kiosk, nicknamed by locals as “the pharaoh’s bed,” is a splendid structure supported by fourteen columns with intricate floral capitals.
Inside, the Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) is shown making offerings of incense and wine to Isis, Osiris and Horus in scenes that link Roman authority to ancient Egyptian divinities.
Trajan was a legendary emperor who expanded the Roman Empire to its widest extent and brought prosperity to its people.
The kiosk is one of the island’s most picturesque spots. It’s surrounded by clusters of pink flowers and offers beautiful views of the Nile.
Philae Temple tickets
Tickets are EGP 450 per adult for entry into the temple, and an additional 200 EGP for the motor boat to the island.
Philae Temple Sound & Light Show
Visit the temple at night for a dazzling sound and light show (20 USD) that brings ancient gods and histories to life. Held in 10 different languages, with times starting at 7 or 8pm, you can book your tickets online to experience the island under a starry sky.
Egypt’s most romantic temple is a must-see on your Aswan itinerary.
Take a boat to Philae Temple and explore the pylons, sanctuaries and hieroglyphics that were sacred to centuries of Isis worshipers.
This beautiful Graeco-Roman temple was one of the last spots where the old Ancient Egyptian gods were worshiped before the arrival of Christianity.
And the island is best seen on a tour of Egypt’s grandest temples. I recommend a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor for the best hassle-free experience!
I would love to hear from you. Is Philae Temple on your Egypt itinerary?