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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.