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Philae - Coptic Wiki



The island of Philae, often called the Pearl of Egypt because of its lovely setting, was one of the innumerable outcrops that form the First Cataract of the Nile, just south of ASWAN. In late pharaonic times the place became the center of a local cult of Isis, and as her cult grew in popularity in Ptolemaic and Roman times, so did the importance of Philae. Eventually, half a dozen large and small temples were built on the tiny island. The adjoining northern part of NUBIA, called in Ptolemaic and Roman times the Dodekaschoenus, was treated as an estate of the Isis cult, and its revenues were dedicated to the upkeep of the Philae temples.

In the time of DIOCLETIAN the Roman legions were withdrawn from Nubia, and the imperial frontier was established at Philae. The Nubian inhabitants of the Dodekaschoenus nevertheless continued to worship at Philae, and Nubian rulers made gifts to the temples. As a concession to them, the Philae temples were exempted from the Edict of Theodosius, which resulted in the closing of most other temples in Egypt in 390. It was not until the reign of JUSTINIAN, when the Nubians were converted to Christianity, that the cult of Isis was finally suppressed at Philae.

The importance of Philae as a cult center did not end with the coming of Christianity, for the place became an episcopal seat. At least five of the temples on the island were converted into churches, and two churches were built ex novo. The newly built Church of Saint Mary was exceptionally large, and in all probability served as the cathedral.

Comparatively little is known about the history of Philae in the later Middle Ages. The last known reference to a bishop is in 989. ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN mentions two churches at Philae at the end of the twelfth century, but he does not single them out for special notice among the various Christian establishments in and around Aswan. Evidently, by this time Aswan had supplanted Philae as the main commercial and military center on the Nubian frontier, and the island had become something of a backwater. Shortly afterward the most northerly part of Nubia fell under the control of the predatory BANU AL-KANZ, and it was probably their depredations that put an end to Christian worship at Philae.

After the building of the original Aswan Dam in 1902, the island of Philae and its temples were periodically submerged. Extensive stabilization and reinforcement work protected the stone buildings from destruction during the periods of inundation, but the Christian constructions of mud brick were not preserved. After the completion of the Aswan High Dam, the discharge of water from its turbines was seen to pose a threat even to the stone temples at Philae. Consequently, a nearby and more elevated island, formerly called Agilkia, was sculptured exactly to the contours of the original Philae, and the Philae temples were transferred stone by stone to the new setting. This operation, carried out over a period of several years in the 1970s, was planned and financed by an organized by UNESCO.


  • Adams, W. Y. Nubia, Corridor to Africa, pp. 336-38. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
  • Grossmann, P. “Überlegungen zum Grundriss der Ostkirche von Philae.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 13 (1970):20-41.
  • Monneret de Villard, U. La Nubia medioevale, Vol. 1, pp. 2-10. Cairo, 1935.
  • Vantini, G. Christianity in the Sudan, pp. 139-40. Bologna, 1981. Weigall, A. E. A Report on the of Lower Nubia, pp. 37-55. Oxford, 1907.



A manuscript dating from 992 (British Library Or. 7029; published by Budge, 1915, pp. 432-502) relates the life of the first monk-bishops of Philae (fourth century). The account, in the form of a historia monachorum, is attributed to a certain Paphnutius. This story is without doubt somewhat legendary, but it preserves an element of historical truth. It speaks of the hermitage of Apa Aaron at Philae. This may have been the domicile of a monk-bishop who after his ordination as bishop continued to lead the hermit life he had formerly espoused. Examples of this state of affairs are numerous in Egypt, and there are proofs for it down to the seventh century. It thus remains possible that there was in Philae a bishop retaining his hermitage quite late, but we cannot date this fact more precisely.

An epitaph, now preserved in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria (no. 11.800), mentions a Pousei who was “bishop of Philae and first father of this monastery” (Bouriant, 1884, p. 69; Mallon, col. 288). Mallon dates the stela to the eighth or ninth century. This does not prove that the said monastery was situated on the island of Philae, but it is plausible.

These evidences for monasticism at Philae are certainly meager, but they are sufficient to attest that it was not absent from the Pearl of Egypt.


  • Bouriant, U. “Notice des monuments coptes du musée de Boulaq.” Recueil de travaux relatifs à la philologie et a l’archéologie égyptienne et assyrienne 5 (1884):60-70.
  • Budge, E. A. T. W. Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. London, 1915.
  • Mallon, A. “Copte (Epigraphie).” Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Vol. 3, cols. 2819-2886. Paris, 1914.