When Isis Was Queen
Archaeology|November/December 2021
At the ancient Egyptian temples of Philae, Nubians gave new life to a vanishing religious tradition
By Isma'il Kushkush

WHEN THE ROMANS conquered Egypt in 30 b.c., the country’s system of temples, which had sustained religious traditions dating back more than 3,000 years, began to slowly wither away. Starved of the funds that pharaohs traditionally supplied to religious institutions, priests lost their vocation and temples fell into disuse throughout the country. The introduction of Christianity in the first century a.d. only hastened this process. But there was one Philae Temples exception to this trend: In the temples on the island of Philae in the Nile River, rites dedicated to the goddess Isis and the god Osiris continued to be celebrated in high style for some 500 years after the Roman conquest. This final flowering of ancient Egyptian religion was only possible because of the piety and support of Egypt’s neighbors to the south, the Nubians.

Philae lies just south of the Nile’s first cataract—one of six rapids along the river—which marked the historical border between ancient Egypt and Nubia, also known as Kush. In this region of Kush, called Lower Nubia, the temple complex at Philae was just one of many that were built on islands in the Nile and along its banks. Throughout the long history of Egypt and Nubia, Lower Nubia was a kind of buffer zone between these two Meroelands and a place where the two cultures heavily influenced one another. “Often official Egyptian texts were demeaning to Nubians,” says Egyptologist Solange Ashby of the University of California, Los Angeles. “But this cultural arrogance doesn’t reflect the lived reality of Egyptians and Nubians being neighbors, intermarrying, sharing cultural and religious practices. These were people who interacted for millennia.”

From 300 b.c. to a.d. 300, Nubia was ruled from the capital city of Meroe. The Meroitic kings took a special interest in Philae, where the most important Egyptian temple dedicated to Isis was located. In part this may have been because the island had been significant to the Nubians for centuries. Even its ancient Egyptian name, Pilak, which means “Island of Time” or “Island of Extremity,” may have been of Nubian origin. And while many of the other temples on Philae were built by Egypt’s Ptolemaic kings, Greek rulers who held sway from 304 to 30 b.c., the continued survival of the religious practices there owed much to the Meroitic kings. They, and later other Nubian rulers, funded annual celebrations at Philae and devoted resources to maintaining its temples in the centuries before Christianity finally eclipsed Egypt’s ancient traditions.

Recent research has highlighted the deep and enduring nature of this connection. Ashby has studied a corpus of ancient inscriptions recorded at Philae in the early twentieth century by British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith and, more recently, by the late Egyptologist Eugene Cruz-Uribe of Indiana University East. Among these, she identified at least 98 inscriptions that were written on the walls of the temples at Philae on behalf of Nubians. These are mainly in the form of prayers offered to the gods. These inscriptions were written mostly in Greek and Demotic, a script used for writing ancient Egyptian, though some were also written in the Nubians’ own Meroitic script, which remains largely undeciphered. Ashby expected the inscriptions to have been commissioned by Nubian pilgrims to Philae, but she found that many were left by Nubians who had a much deeper connection to the island. “High-ranking priests, temple financial administrators, and officials were sent to Philae as representatives of the king in Meroe,” says Ashby. “Those Nubians eventually held power in the temple administration.”

By exploring the millennium-long presence of Nubians at Philae, Ashby and other researchers are asking questions not only about how Nubians celebrated their own beliefs and combined them with traditional Egyptian religious practices, but also about how they kept Egyptian rituals dedicated to Isis and Osiris alive long after they had died out elsewhere in the land of the pharaohs.

TODAY, THE ISLAND OF Philae lies submerged as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. All the complex’s structures were moved to higher ground on the nearby island of Agilkia in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the island’s main temple, dedicated to Isis, and its entryway of two monumental sets of pylons, as well as a number of smaller temples dedicated to other gods. Archaeological excavations on the island prior to the flooding showed that, for much of Egyptian history, Philae was not a major Egyptian religious site along the lines of Thebes or Memphis, but that it did seem to have long-standing significance to Nubians. This may have had to do with its proximity to the island of Biga, where Nubians worshipped Hathor, a goddess who took the form of a cow. Hathor was especially revered in Nubia, where many people were pastoralists.

The earliest clear evidence of the Nubian connection to Philae dates to the reign of the Kushite kings who invaded Egypt in the eighth century b.c. and ruled it for nearly a century as the 25th Dynasty. One of the dynasty’s mightiest pharaohs, Taharqo (r. 690–664 b.c.), oversaw the construction of new temples and a revival of ancient Egyptian culture in the Nile Valley. This included commissioning a complex at Philae dedicated to Amun, a chief ancient Egyptian and Kushite deity closely associated with kingship. Blocks from this temple inscribed with Taharqo’s name were unearthed in the twentieth century before the island was submerged.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM ARCHAEOLOGYView All

When Isis Was Queen

At the ancient Egyptian temples of Philae, Nubians gave new life to a vanishing religious tradition

10+ mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

ITALIAN MASTER BUILDERS

A 3,500-year-old ritual pool reflects a little-known culture’s agrarian prowess

7 mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

Piecing Together Maya Creation Stories

Thousands of mural fragments from the city of San Bartolo illustrate how the Maya envisioned their place in the universe

10+ mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

GHOST TRACKS OF WHITE SANDS

Scientists are uncovering fossilized footprints in the New Mexico desert that show how humans and Ice Age animals shared the landscape

10+ mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

GAUL'S UNIVERSITY TOWN

New excavations have revealed the wealth and prestige of an ancient center of learning

9 mins read
Archaeology
November/December 2021

Who Were The Samaritans?

Investigating a once-powerful sect that has preserved its sacred traditions for millennia

10 mins read
Archaeology
September/October 2021

Digs & Discoveries

Roman marble cutters, anglo-saxon giant, neanderthal hearing… and much more

10+ mins read
Archaeology
September/October 2021

SECRET RITES OF SAMOTHRACE

Reimagining the experience of initiation into an ancient Greek mystery cult

10+ mins read
Archaeology
September/October 2021

LAND OF THE PICTS

New excavations reveal the truth behind the legend of these fearsome northern warriors

10+ mins read
Archaeology
September/October 2021

The Pursuit of Wellness

How the ancients attended to mind, body, and soul

10+ mins read
Archaeology
September/October 2021