The heart of Aswan: the myth of Isis and Osiris

We could not get enough of Aswan. A highlight is to spend an afternoon on Philae Island. And to enjoy the comings and goings on the Nile at the end of the day. The temple on Philae Island is dedicated to Isis – the goddess of love! The amazing thing is that the cult of Isis continued long after the demise of the great pharaos. Celebrations took place centuries after 0 AD. Although Philae island is one of the top touristic spots of Aswan, we never felt too crowded. A few groups and couples wandered around, but it was always easy to find a quiet spot. You can easily spend a few hours here drinking in the setting and all the details.

We were exhausted from the day and the unexpected heat. Luckily the Nile was nearby. Before we left for other places the sun went down one more time behind the feluccas and dunes of Aswan. Over the water the voice of the boatsmen drifted towards us – Tomorrow! tomorrow… felucca ride? Cheap! One hour! Two hour! We thought back to our day at the heart of Aswan.

The harbour to the south of Aswan’s old dam is the jumping off point to get to Philae Island. Easily a few hundred boats were moored for large crowds of tourists, although most had no customers. Here, at the outskirts of town, a small neighbourhood enjoys views over the Nile and Philae island. Imagine living here!

Slowly coming around the island by boat the temple rises up, mirrored in the water of the Nile. In the afternoon the temple’s gates light up with the ancient reliefs standing out, metres high. Plenty to see in and around the temple although many reliefs were damaged in earlier centuries. This was done by early Christians. They held church here and lived inside the temple. Christian reliefs and texts can be found inside the temple, as well as altars with crosses carved in the stone.

The walls inside this temple of Isis are filled with depictions of ancient religious rituals. It takes yerars of study to know what is happening everywhere. In classic scenes the pharao offers food and flowers to the goddess. But which pharao and which goddess… For the art historians: look at the details of the bodies. There are clear greco-roman influences here with realistic rather than stylised roundings of belly and breasts!


Do you know the legend of Isis and Osiris? Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, the usurper. Seth cut his body in pieces and hid them around Egypt. Isis searched all over and found her husband Osiris’ heart on Philae Island. Having gathered all of his body, Isis restored Osiris back to life with the ‘key of life’ or ‘ankh’. Afterwards they gave life to the god Horus.

This legend is one of the most influential myths of Egypt’s ancient history. It was amazing to visit the heart of it. Many places like this are celebrated because they were ‘the first….’, this is probably the place where the ancient beliefs of pharaonic Egyptians (and hieroglyphs!) have survived the longest.

One of the most mysterious spots on Philae island we found was Trajan’s kiosk. This place on the edge of the water housed the barque of the goddess Isis. The columns are beautifully decorated. Trajan was a roman emperor presenting himself as Pharaoh in the apparently chaotic period of the last pharaos around 100AD. During festivals the pharao would be seated here with people celebrating (partying?) around him!

From inside Trajan’s kiosk, this feels as quite an intimate space. There may have been a wooden roof once, but as not all walls have decorations, it is likely that it was never finished. Nowadays, doves inhabit the place.

Before we left the Isis temple of Philae island we had a rest at the collonade of the outer courtyard. Imagine people coming here 2000 years ago to collectively celebrate religious festivals. Well, it was not exactly here, because this was one of many temples that were moved from their previous location.

The remarkable thing is that this temple is not on Lake Nasser but behind the older Old Dam of Aswan. So in fact, this is Agilkia Island. The former location of Philae is nearby and we imagined how people would float over the temple back then – as it was submerged for large parts until the 1960s.

 At the end of the day traditional feluccas flock around Aswan’s islands. Taking a sunset tour – or watching these sailing boats from the promenade (called the ‘corniche’) – is an instant relief from any daytime stress. We had a great view of the Nile from our hotel. Feluccas came by, the number depending on the number of Nile cruises moored in Aswan at that moment. Over the water Nubian music drifted our way. The unexpected heat of a mid-winter heatwave made us lazy. Watching the world float by was enough.


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