Philae, The Forsaken

Egyptian Section

By: G. B. G.

Originally Published in 1911

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The modern books of travel in Egypt never fail to praise the beauty of Phil. The nineteenth century traveller on the Nile found in this green islet, set like an antique gem in the midst of the rude waters of the first cataract, a charm on which his memory seemed especially to linger, and which called forth many a tribute of admiration even from those whose interest in the pyramids was expressed in meters and from those who stood without emotion in the hall of Karnak.

Fig. 1.—Philae. Temple of Isis and Kiosk from the south.

The peculiar appeal of Philae seems to have depended partly on its situation, rising as it did from the flood like an enchanted isle ; partly on its leafy sweetness with which it, greeted the traveller on the Nile, weary of long stretches of sand; partly on the exquisite architecture that crowned it like a diadem and partly, no doubt, on the sentiment that attached to its unbroken story of three thousand years or more.

Fig. 2.—Temple of Isis from the south-east.

If we may believe the statements of the Priests of Philae in an inscription found at Sehel, the island was identified from very early times with the religious life of the ancient Egyptians. The most venerable structure at present standing, however, is the temple of Nectanebus II, a king of the thirtieth dynasty. Under the Ptolemies and the Roman Emperors, 1hi1ae was newly dedicated to sacred uses and adorned by a group of temples worthy alike of their imperial builders and of the Egyptian gods in whose honor they were raised.

Fig. 3.—The Kiosk from the north-east.

The last stronghold for the worship of the Egyptian trinity, Isis, Osiris and Horus, tradition holds the island to have been especially sacred to Isis, who has thus become the guardian of the last hieroglyphic writings of the Egyptians, carved in many a line on the latest monuments of their religion at Philae.*

Fig. 4.—Temple of Isis. Part of the west colonnade of the outer court.

Two miles below Philae stands the great barrage, to-day one of the wonders of Egypt. It has been erected by the British engineers to store the waters of the Nile for supplying the thirsty land. The great natural advantages which the region at the first cataract offered for an undertaking of this kind, weighed so heavily with the engineers and with those who have to deal with the regeneration of Egypt, that considerations of sentiment counted for little when the preservation of an ancient monument, however beautiful, was opposed to the practical ends in view.

Fig. 5.—Temple of Isis. The west colonnade of the outer court. Detail of palm capital.
Image Number: 218535

The reservoir, computed to be more than twice the size of Loch Lomond, contains a promise of plenty for the land of Egypt. By bringing great areas under cultivation it gives new life to her increasing population, but before this blessing could be invoked upon the land a sacrifice had to be made, and no other victim than Philae would suffice. There are those who that the noble offering was worthy of so great a cause, and there are those who call it a disgrace, but in either case the leafy freshness of Philae will never again greet the traveller on the Nile.

Fig. 6.—Temple of Isis. The west colonnade of the outer court. Detail of composite lily capital.

From December of each year to April, the island is submerged and one sails over it in a boat, passing through the flooded courts of the temple of Isis and between the walls of the kiosk. in May, at the rising of the Nile, the great sluices in the dam are opened and the river thus unbound goes on its unobstructed way to fertilize the lands of lower Egypt as it has done since the days before the first Pharaohs: and from then till December the sacred island of the Egyptians is largely out of water, but the palms are gone, the pleasant freshness of the place is gone, the colors are gone and the dampness and the mold seem to be eating the heart out of the stone.

Fig. 7.—Temple of Nectanebus II.

Just now the Egyptian Government is engaged in raising the dam to such a height that when the work is complete in 1912 the general level will be so much higher than at present that with a full reservoir the temples will almost entirely disappear beneath the water.

For the present, during the winter months, the noiseless visit to Philae by boat is by no means without its charm. Temple and pylon and colonnade and column, rising in most graceful lines from the water, have the unearthly look attributed to supernatural things; for the spectator approaching the charmed portals of Isis, feels, with something like the apprehensive prescience known in dreams, that when the spell that raised them has been broken, the whole beautiful fabric will fade away and leave him waking on this magic lake.

The photographs reproduced on these pages, showing the scenery of Philae as it now presents itself to the tourist during the winter months, acquire a special interest from the fact that after the season of 1912 the temples will never again be seen under these conditions, for after that, during the winter season, owing to the raising of the darn, the buildings will be nearly all submerged. These photographs have been made by Mr. Eckley B. Coxe, President of the Museum, and are published in the JOURNAL by his kind permission. They were taken during the winter of 1909 while the President was on his way. to Haifa to visit the excavations of the expeditions sent out by the Museum. These expeditions, inaugurated and carried forward by Mr. Coxe, and now brought to a close, worked far to the south of the first cataract. Philae itself was visited in the winter of 1910-11 by Prof. W. Max Müller, of the University of Pennsylvania, who spent several months copying the inscriptions on behalf of the Carnegie Institution.


G. B. G.

  • *I am indebted to Miss Caroline L. Ransom, of the Metropolitan Museum, for her kindly criticism of the historical references in this article, as well as for an exact identification of each of the photographs.

Cite This Article

G., G. B.. "Philae, The Forsaken." The Museum Journal II, no. 1 (March, 1911): 5-10. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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