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PHILAE (Φιλαί, Strab. i. p.40, xvii. pp. 803, 818, 820.; Diod. 1.22; Ptol. 4.5.74; Senec. Quaest. Nat. 4.1; Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 10), was, as the number of the word both in the Greek and Latin denotes, the appellation of two small islands situated in lat. 24° N., just above the cataract of Syene. Groskurd (Strab. vol. iii. p. 399) computes the distance between these islands and, Syene at about 61 1/2 miles. Philae proper, although the smaller, is, from its numerous and picturesque ruins, the more interesting of the two. It is not more than 1250 English feet, or rather less than a quarter of a mile, long, and about 400 feet broad. It is composed of Syenite stone : its sides are steep and perhaps escarped by the hand of man, and on their summits was built a lofty wall encompassing the island. For Philae, being accounted one of the burying-places of Osiris, was held in high reverence both by the Aegyptians to the N. and the Aethiopians to the S.: and it was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell therein, and was accordingly sequestered and denominated “the unapproachable” (῎αβατος [p. 2.598]Plut. Is. et Osir. p, 359; Diod. 1.22). It was reported too that neither birds flew over it nor fish approached its shores. (Senec. Quaest. Nat. 4.2.) These indeed were the traditions of a remote period; since in the time of the Macedonian kings of Aegypt Philae was so much resorted to, partly by pilgrims to the tomb of Osiris, partly by persons on secular errands, that the priests petitioned Ptolemy Physcon (B.C. 170-117) to prohibit public functionaries at least from coming thither and living at their expense The obelisk on which this petition was engraved was brought into England by Mr. Bankes, and its hieroglyphics, compared with those of the Rosetta stone, threw great light upon the Aegyptian phonetic alphabet. The islands of Philae were not, however, merely sacerdotal abodes; they were the centres of commerce also between Meroë and Memphis. For the rapids of the cataracts were at most seasons impracticable, and the commodities exchanged between Aegypt and Aethiopia were reciprocally landed and re-embarked at Syene and Philae. The neighbouring granite-quarries attracted hither also a numerous population of miners and stonemasons; and, for the convenience of this traffic, a gallery or road was formed in the rocks along the E. bank of the Nile, portions of which are still extant. Philae is also remarkable for the singular effects of light and shade resulting from its position near the tropic of Cancer. As the sun approaches its northern limit the shadows from the projecting cornices and mouldings of the temples sink lower and lower down the plain surfaces of the walls, until, the sun having reached its highest altitude, the vertical walls are overspread with dark shadows, forming a striking contrast with the fierce light which embathes all surrounding objects. (Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. i. p. 680, seq.)

The hieroglyphic name of the smaller island is Philak, or boundary. As their southern frontier, the Pharaohs of Aegypt kept there a strong garrison, and, for the same reason, it was a barrack also Macedonian and Roman soldiers.

The most conspicuous feature of both islands is their architectural wealth. Monuments of very various eras, extending from the Pharaohs to the Caesars, occupy nearly their whole area. The principal structures, however, lie at the S. end of the smaller island. The most ancient, at present discovered, are the remains of a temple of Athor (Aphrodite), built in the reign of Nectanebus. The other ruins are for the most part coeval with the Ptolemaic times, more especially with the reigns of Philadelphus, Epiphanes, and Philometor (B.C. 282--145), with many traces of Roman work as recent in Philae, dedicated to Ammon-Osiris, was appreached from the river through a double colonnade. In front of the propyla were two colossal lions in granite, behind which stood a pair of obelisks, each 44 feet high. The propyla were pyramidal in form and colossal in dimensions. One stood between the dromos and pronaos, another between the pronaos and the portico, while a smaller one led into the sekos or adytum. At each corner of the adyturn stood a monolithal shrine, the cage of a sacred hawk. Of these shrines one is now in the Louvre, the other in the Museum at Florence. Right left of the entrance into the principal court are small temples or rather chapels, one of which, dedicated to Athor, is covered with sculptures representing the birth of Ptolemy Philometor, under the figure of the god Horus. The story of Osiris is everywhere represented on the walls of this temple, and two of its inner chambers are particularly rich in symbolic imagery. Upon the two great propyla are Greek inscriptions intersected and partially destroyed by Aegyptian figures cut across them. The inscriptions belong to the Macedonian era, and are of earlier date than the sculptures, which were probably inserted during that interval of renascence for the native religion which followed the extinction of the Greek dynasty in Aegypt. (B.C. 30.) The monuments in both islands indeed attest, beyond any others in the Nile-valley, the survival of pure Aegyptian art centuries after the last of the Pharaohs had ceased to reign. Great pains have been taken to mutilate the sculptures of this temple. The work of demolition is attributable, in the first instance, to the zeal of the early Christians, and afterwards to the policy of the Iconoclasts, who curried favour for themselves with the Byzantine court by the destruction of heathen as well as Christian images. The soil of Philae was carefully prepared for the reception of its buildings,--being levelled where it was uneven, and supported by masonry where it was crumbling or insecure. For example, the western wall of the Great Temple, and the corresponding wall of the dromos, are supported by very strong foundations, built below the level of the water, and resting on the granite which in this region forms the bed of the Nile. Here and there steps are hewn out from the wall to facilitate the communication between the temple and the river.

At the S. extremity of the dromos of the Great Temple is a smaller temple, apparently dedicated to Isis; at least the few columns which remain of it are surmounted with the head of that goddess. Its portico consists of twelve columns, four in front and three deep. Their capitals represent various forms and combinations of the palm-branch, the dhoum-leaf, and the lotus-flower. These, as well as the sculp tures on the columns, the ceilings, and the walls, were painted with the most vivid colours, which, owing to the dryness of the climate, have lost little of their original brilliance.

Philae was a seat of the Christian religion as well as of the ancient Aegyptian faith. Ruins of a Christian church are still visible, and more than one adytum bears traces of having been made to serve at different eras the purposes of a chapel of Osiris and of Christ. For a more particular account of the architectural remains of Philae we must refer the reader to the works of Dénon, Gau, Rosellini, Russegger, and Hamilton (Aegyptiaca). The latter has minutely described this island--the Loretto of ancient Aegypt. The Greek inscriptions found there are transcribed and elucidated by Letronne.

A little W. of Philae lies a larger island, anciently called Snem or Senmut, but now by the Arabs Beghé. It is very precipitous, and from its most elevated peak affords a fine view of the Nile, from its smooth surface S. of the islands to its plunge over the shelves of rock that form the First Cataract. Philae, Beghé, and another lesser island. divide the river into four principal streams, and N. of them it takes a rapid turn to the W. and then to the N., where the cataract begins. Beghé, like Philae, was a holy island; its and rocks are inscribed with the names and titles of two Amunoph III., Rameses the Great, Psammitichus, Apries, and Amasis, together with memorials of the Macedonian and Roman rulers of Aegypt. Its principal ruins consist of the propylon and two [p. 2.599]columns of a temple, which was apparently of small dimensions, but of elegant proportions. Near them are the fragments of two colossal granite statues, and also an excellent piece of masonry of much later date, having the aspect of an arch belonging to some Greek church or Saracen mosque.


hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.9
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.22
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.5
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