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According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, “The Egyptians do not all worship the same gods, excepting Isis and Osiris.” (Opening photo — The Pharaohs’ Bed Temple.)
Osiris was the god of the underworld, the god of the dead, the god of the afterlife, the god of the Nile; Isis was his wife and sister; Horus was his son. Osiris was the hope of new life in nature, including the annual flooding of the Nile. Modern Egyptologists believe the worship of Osiris began in the Nile delta in the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 B.C.) but eventually moved upriver to Abydos near the first capital city of Egypt, at Memphis. As the Egyptian culture was encroached upon the Osiris cult felt it needed new secretive temples far from foreign eyes.
The Isis Temple is the first temple in the complex.
The priests found their new home on the rocks of Philæ island a few miles above the cataract at Aswan. (The Egyptians knew Aswan as Swenet, or swan.) In ancient Egyptian Philæ was called Pilak, meaning “The Frontier”.
The beautiful island temples of Philæ (pronounced Phil-ah) were constructed about 360 B.C., but the archaeological site I visited was relocated during the decade-long construction of the Aswan High Dam which threatened to bury Osiris’ underworld under tons of water. Just as other temples were moved out of harm’s way, Philæ was plucked from the swirling fate and placed on a new island between the High Dam completed in 1970 and the older British built dam of 1902.
Tourist boats line up at the Philæ ramp.
I ferried out to “The Pearl of the Nile” on a motorized tourist canvas bimini panga to the new Philæ with my Egyptologist, Abdul, a representative of the award winning tour operator, Great Safaris www.greatsafaris.com. A very old Nile channel once branched its way past the dockyards and swung behind Aswan; over the millennia the sandy riverbed was an easy caravan route past the cataract that still runs about five miles, but is now tamed.
The Osiris priests must have thought that the frothy cataract would keep conflicting influences out of their religion. Philæ became an immortal temple, the Holy Island where special permission was needed to enter. Philæ was the burial ground of Osiris where the god could sleep forever in peace; it became known by the priests as “By Him who sleeps in Philæ”.
As Abydos decayed Philæ soared in holiness, and even today the temples show little sign of ruination. Once docked in a harbor fissure of plump rock the scent of spring flowers filled the air, much as the “Lamentations of Isis” that suffused the glorified temples with prayer.
Pillared porticoes flank a courtyard before the Great Temple.
Of course most of the 4,000 statues are long plundered, but the huge pylons, colonnaded stone timbers, gigantic spanning lintels, carved hieroglyphic door jambs, and smooth and polished courtyard stones, brings excitement to all visitors who stand around fixated on a bas relief or carving — all in total immersed amazement! The Pharaohs’ Bed Temple is roofless, but it is solid and purposeful, its cornices carved into lotus flowers, its palisade roots sunk deeply into the living rock. The palatial villa must have been truly splendid when the Pharaoh was in residence.
The courtyard stones are set in irregular angles and I nearly stumbled while gawking at the colonnaded cloister of beautiful hieroglyphs that stretched to the capitals of the columns shading the West Portico across from the propylons of the Great Temple. The Western Portico is mirrored by the Eastern Portico across the way.
One of the Great Temple pylons with oversized carvings.
The Great Temple’s 60 foot twin towers were carved with astonishing colossal figures by the dictates of the Ptolemy Pharaohs; shadow outlines make them appear like ancient paint-by-numbers murals, but color between the lines; in fact the figures were once richly endowed with mineralized pigments. A blank-black doorway is like a mystery gateway into the underworld itself but leads to interior chambers and courts and a square pillared portico. The sharp contrast of burning outside light with the enveloping shades of the interior is as if a slider bar wiped away colors to a gray-scale. With bits of ricocheting slivers of light the bas reliefs are apparent: kings and mystical deities; crowned Pharaohs with Hathor heads; a columnar chapel built by Ptolemy Euergetes II (182 B.C. — 116 B.C.). Isis is seen giving birth to Horus, with a story of childhood, growth, education, later nursed by Hathor. This was a place of worship — of the underworld!
Two large collared greyhounds were hammered into the outer wall of another chapel near the Great Temple; they await the command to bound away free, but the nod never comes. On the same wall is engraved a copy of the famous Rosetta Stone, line for line, but in only two of the three languages — the Greek is missing. Napoleon’s army unearthed the Rosetta Stone in 1798, and with its hieroglyphic, Greek, and demotic texts, was used by scholars to crack the symbol writing of the ancient Egyptians.
The remains of the Hathor Temple.
Scene from inside
the Great Temple.
During the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian occupation the Ptolemies ruled as independent kings and I wondered if the Osiris religion went underworld to dismay the usurpers. During their reign the Ptolemies created a Sacred College at Philæ, which brought visitors, which meant graffiti. Ancient hieroglyphic texts were carved over by the names of the common folk — Kilroy was here — scratched into stone alongside the sacred texts. What is bemusing, if graffiti can be called such, is that many of the names are carved over again my later Kilroys.
Philæ was secure as a distant and solitary frontier isle. The Sacred College endured until 379 A.D. when Christian edicts opposed the strange and pagan religion. So now Osiris can only rest at Philæ in the carved fan-shaped persea tree between two supporters — a lion and a, hippopotamus, each clasping a pair of shears, as if to cut off all knowledge of the ancient cult. Out in the Nubian Desert wastelands do the occult priests still hide and celebrate the mysteries of Osiris and Isis?
Philæ makes its presence again in the 10th century A.D., but a fleeting shadow of its once glorious past; the hieroglyphic inscriptions becomes in Arabic Belak, which is closer to the original than the Philæ of the Greeks. The Egyptians’ Nubian Philæ underworld is overshadowed by Islam. There were once raised obelisks at Philæ, the empty sockets are still set in stone, waiting for their return from possibly the underworld.
Osiris was the god of the Nile and the Underworld.
Aswan for me was the most beautiful city in Egypt. The Nile is a blue pool hairline demarking the Libyan/Nubian Desert to the west and south and the Arabian Desert to the east.
Almost all of Aswan is located on the eastern bank because huge sand dunes sweep in by the winds and flow down to the riverbanks as if pushed by giant bulldozers. The Temple of the Nobles and a Sheik’s tomb seemed to be pushed into the sand bank without foundations. The Aga Khan, who often wintered in Aswan, is buried in a mausoleum on the same bank on a ridge.
Sailing to Lord Kitchner Island; Temple of the Nobles.
My Great Safaris
Abdul and our tour party hopped a felucca for the pleasant sail on capricious winds to Lord Kitchner Island for a stroll through the Aswan Botanical Gardens. (The ice cream stands are conveniently located at the end.)
We swept past the larger Elephantine Island, known by the Nubians as Ivory Island, once a trading post for goods from deepest Africa, such as gold and ivory, for goods from Egypt and the Mediterranean, such as wine and linen. And of course, the Ptolemies garrisoned a tax collector on the island — I guess Osiris was all about death and taxes! A few small Nubian villages survive as enclaves in Aswan.
Lord Kitchner used the island in1888 as a munitions depot that was to relieve Chinese Gordon in Khartoum, but Osiris of the Nile allowed no relief parties to traverse the cataracts during the annual floods, so consequently General Gordon and his British troops perished by the dark hand of the underworld and the Ottoman Turks.
Only five miles once separated Aswan from Philæ, but what a world away it once was.
Fig tree in
Aswan Botanical Gardens.
Great Safaris at www.greatsafaris.com has representatives throughout Egypt. Each tour or cruise provides a private Egyptologist to explain the treasures of this beautiful land. I had no problems whatsoever anywhere in Egypt. The Great Egyptian Discovery tour and cruise on their luxury boat the Mirage was seamless throughout.
Be sure to visit the new Nubian Museum in Aswan before or after your Prince Abbas cruise on Lake Nasser or the Mirage cruise to or from Luxor or reserve. The Nubian Museum displays were stellar in explaining the history of the ancient lands beyond the cataract at Aswan.
I also encourage travelers to spend a few extra nights in Aswan with a stay at the 4-star Basma Hotel high on the cliffs above the Nile. Great Safaris’ representatives own the hotel that overlooks the ancient necropolis, the enormous Coptic Church, and within walking distance to the Nubian Museum.
My one last gesture is to my superb and expert and cheerful Egyptologist guide, Abdul, who grew up in Aswan, and who brought his narratives of the history of Egypt’s underworld back to life.
Great Safaris has a tour office in the Basma Hotel in Aswan;
note the Coptic Church in the background.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.