Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 March 2008
Issue No. 887
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Snap shot

By Mohamed El-Hebeishy

THE ANCIENT Egyptians named it Philak, the Greeks Philae while the Arabs called it Anas Al-Wugud. Whatever its name, this remote Nile island doesn't exist anymore, submerged beneath the river water with the construction of the High Dam. Mohamed El-Hebeishy visited its temple complex after it was relocated to the island of Agilika.

The first to reach the small island of Philak, or boundary as the name means, were the ancient Egyptians. They built a garrison to protect the borders and a temple as well, a temple honouring the goddess Hathor, she with two faces, as it is referred to. Later came the Greeks followed by the Romans who built a whole complex of temples with the temple of Isis being the gem of the bouquet. Isis, mother of Horus, was associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and hence the temple reserved a rank of high order in the Ptolemaic era. Indeed, for centuries it was considered Mecca for Isis worshippers. Still, it lost its sacred deity by the sixth century AD when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its closure. The Temple of Isis on Philak Island is believed to be the last pagan temple standing in the entire Mediterranean region. By time and as Egypt changed its faith from paganism to Christianity, the Temple of Isis actually served as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was closed again, a century later, after the Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt.

Though the island and its holy edifices lost its attraction from the religious point of view, another interest grew, this time for historians as well as archaeologists. The British Egyptologist and museum curator, Joseph Bonomi the Younger, visited the island back in 1820. Following suit was the renowned British novelist Amelia Edwards who paid the island a visit from 1873-1874. The island gained fame in Victorian-era Britain and since then tourism became common.

Onward to the 20th century, the Aswan Low Dam was built in 1902. As a result of the dam and the fact that it was actually twice heightened (from 1907-1912 and from 1929-1934) many ancient archaeological monuments and landmarks were at risk, with partial submergence being seasonal. Though the temples' foundations and its supporting structures were strengthened, the colours adorning its walls were washed off. By time, the building and its bricks were impacted by the silt the debris the Nile flood brought. In 1960, rescue was finally on its way with the UNESCO-led project of relocating the historical monuments at risk. The temple complex of Philae was relocated, piece by piece, to the neighbouring island of Agilika, just 550 metres away.

photo: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 887 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Special | Features | Heritage | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map