The region of Nubia was home to some of ancient Egypt’s most scenic temples. Philae, a Greco-Roman temple dedicated to Isis, is not just remarkable for its stunning island location, but also for its history. Philae Island, in fact, was the very last holdout of the ancient Egyptian religion. While Philae remains one of Aswan’s most popular destinations, fans of island temples shouldn’t miss nearby New Kalabsha.
New Kalabsha is a small island functioning as an open-air museum for temples that had to be relocated because of the Aswan High Dam. And while most visitors would never suspect it, Philae Temple too was entirely dismantled and moved to a new island called Agilkia.
In the following guide, we’ll be going over the basics of Philae and New Kalabsha and how to visit both places from Aswan. And for those interested, a trip to the controversial Aswan High Dam can easily be thrown in as well.
Philae: The Temple of Isis
The Roman Empire, upon its conversion to Christianity, sought to ban all forms of ‘paganism,’ including the traditional religion of Egypt. Philae was ultimately converted to a church, but not until the year 550 AD during the reign of Justinian.
The fall of Philae, then, marked the end of a religion that had persisted for well over 3,000 years. Additionally, it’s at Philae that we have the last ever written Egyptian hieroglyphs, dating to 394 AD.
Fascinatingly, Philae Temple was being constructed by the Ptolemies when Rome was just beginning to assert its dominance over the Mediterranean. And the temple managed to stay active until after the Western Roman Empire had fallen.
Philae isn’t too far away from central Aswan. But to get there, you’ll need to hire both a taxi for the day and also a boat driver, which requires quite a bit of haggling.
A sign by the ticket booth states that the official price per boat is 175 EGP, but only for an hour. However, I highly recommend spending two hours at Philae. Luckily, my travel companions and I managed to haggle the price down to 300 EGP for two hours, which seemed to be a relatively good deal.
The Great Court
The temple layout of Philae is unique, with its courts and collonades built on separate axes. While we can’t say for sure, this was likely done to conform with the geography of Philae Island.
But Philae Temple isn’t currently on Philae Island. It’s now on an island called Agilkia. Due to the raised water levels caused by the Aswan High Dam, the temple had to be completely dismantled and moved, piece by piece.
Fortunately, the team in charge of the project did a fantastic job, and one would never guess that the current location wasn’t the original! They even landscaped Agilkia Island to make it more closely resemble the now submerged Philae Island.
Approaching the Great Court from the jetty, one of the first structures you’ll encounter is the Kiosk of Nectanebo I. Nectanebo I was the founder of the 30th dynasty, the last native dynasty to rule Egypt.
While the temple as we see it today was mostly built by the Ptolemies, construction was actually started during the Late Dynastic Period.
The wide-open Great Court features two uneven colonnades leading to a well-preserve pylon gate. The columns are all decorated in a floral design, and looking closely you’ll see that no two are alike.
On the opposite side of the eastern colonnade is a temple dedicated to Imhotep, which we’ll cover more below.
The first pylon is among the best-preserved in Egypt. It was completed by Ptolemy XII (80-51 BC), a king who also carried out construction on Edfu and Dendera. The carved reliefs feature the pharaoh in addition to Isis and her son Horus.
Stepping through the gate, you’ll then arrive at the Forecourt.
The Forecourt contains another well-preserved pylon. The reliefs on the left have been effaced, an act commonly blamed on the early Christians. While the Christians did indeed vandalize structures all throughout Egypt, why didn’t they touch the right-hand side?
While we’ll never know for sure, maybe it was carried out by the priests themselves. Perhaps the meticulous effacement was intended to ‘decommission’ certain symbols while keeping others intact.
To the left of the pylon is a birth chapel. These birth houses, or mammisi, became a staple at Egyptian temples from the Late Period onward. They commemorated the divine birth of the king, in this case Ptolemy VI.
The chapel is worth a look, as it contains interesting reliefs of the famous Osiris/Isis/Horus myth. One relief shows Isis suckling a baby Horus, who would go on to avenge his father and take the throne from Set.
The Inner Shrines
Through the second pylon is the Hypostyle Hall, consisting of floral columns similar to those found elsewhere. The columns have been entirely carved in reliefs, in addition to the architraves connecting them.
As at Dendera and Edfu, they seem to convey significant astronomical information. But with half of this hall being open-air, no space was left for anything too elaborate.
Around the room, you’ll discover several crosses carved by the Christians who finally managed to take over the temple in the 6th century. They appear rather crude in comparison with the Egyptian art.
Fortunately, they only carved a few before giving up. Clearly, the early Christians who occupied Philae were unable to carve anything on the level of the gorgeous and symbolically rich artwork they inherited.
The hall leads into a series of inner shrines much like what you’ll find at other Ptolemaic-era temples. As Philae is the Temple of Isis, she accordingly plays a central role in many of the reliefs.
The wife/sister of Osiris and the mother of Horus, Isis represented the nurturing and motherly aspect of the Great Goddess. She’s often depicted with spread wings and with a crescent disc atop her head. At other times, she’s seen carrying a papyrus wand while adorned with a vulture headdress.
As the pharaohs identified themselves with Osiris, the queens of ancient Egpyt identified themselves with Isis. And Isis was also commonly associated with the star Sirius, whose annual ascent marked the Egyptian New Year.
While Isis was one of Egypt’s most ancient deities, she was also a favorite goddess of the Romans. In fact, numerous shrines were built to her throughout the Greco-Roman world.
Visitors to Philae also have the option of going up to the rooftop. Strangely, unlike at Dendera, where rooftop access is free, an extra ticket is required at Philae. (Note that you don’t buy it at the ticket booth, but at the temple itself.)
At 100 EGP, it doesn’t come cheap. But is it worth it?
No sneak peek was possible before purchasing the ticket. And once at the top, I was disappointed to see how small the accessible rooftop area was. At the time, I felt like I’d been ripped off.
But now, looking back at my pictures from the trip, I’m glad that I went. The rooftop offers special vantage points that you can’t get anywhere else. But I still thinking charging an extra 100 EGP is ridiculous!
Aside from the views, the rooftop also provides access to an additional little shrine. The reliefs here feature scenes of the myths involving Isis and Horus, a story that remained popular in Egypt for thousands of years.
There are a lot more structures scattered about the temple complex, more of which we’ll cover down below. But another main highlight of Philae Temple is Trajan’s Kiosk. It consists of 14 pillars, while the roof, originally made of wood, has long since vanished.
During the time of Trajan (r. 98 – 117), this would’ve served as Philae Temple’s official entrance. Trajan, one of Rome’s most powerful emperors, is also depicted at Dendera while his cartouche was inscribed at Esna.
While there’s not much to see inside, it’s an impressive monument that looks much bigger in person than it does in photographs!
More Around the Temple
There are numerous other little features and monuments to explore around the island. Near the northeastern corner of Agilkia is a small open-air museum consisting of Philae Temple’s oldest blocks.
While, as mentioned above, Nectanebo I built at the temple before the Ptolemies, Taharqa of the 25th Dynasty was likely the first to construct at the spot.
Notably, the 25th Dynasty consisted entirely of Nubian rulers. While the Nubians worshipped some deities of their own, they largely followed the Egyptian religion of their northern neighbors.
So while the 25th Dynasty was technically a time of rule by outsiders, the Nubians promoted Egyptian culture rather than try to suppress it. In fact, the Nubians pharaohs legitimized their rule by bringing lots of Old Kingdom art and architecture back into style.
Behind the 25th Dynasty blocks you can see the remnants of a temple of Augustus.
And over by the eastern side of the Great Court is a temple dedicated to Imhotep. Imhotep was the priest, doctor and architect of Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty. Famously, he was responsible for Egypt’s first-ever pyramid. But he became especially popular during the Ptolemaic era, when he was deified as a healing god.
Just to the south of it are the ruins of a temple dedicated to Mandulis, a local Nubian deity (more below). North of Trajan’s Kiosk, meanwhile, is a small temple dedicated to Hathor
Over on the west side of the island are the remnants of a Nilometer, a structure used to measure the fluctuating heights of the river. And nearby is a small portal built by Hadrian in addition to a ruined Horus temple.
Finally, heading back to the jetty, you should find your boat driver waiting for you to take you back to the mainland.
Most people return to central Aswan following their visit to Philae. But if you’re craving a similar island atmosphere, the hidden gem of New Kalabsha is well worth the visit. While the temples here aren’t as impressive as Philae, you’ll likely have the whole island to yourself.
You can take a boat to the island not far from the entrance to the Aswan High Dam. There’s no set price and you’ll have to haggle. Our hotel said the boat to New Kalabsha should cost around 200 EGP. The driver quoted us 300, and we were able to haggle it down to 250.
As with Philae and Abu Simbel, none of the temples on New Kalabsha island are in their original location. They were moved here from an island now called Old Kalabsha, 50 km south of the Aswan High Dam but currently submerged beneath Lake Nasser.
The temples here mostly date back to the Greco-Roman era, though there are also some New Kingdom temples built by Ramesses II.
While access to the site was free for many years, it now costs 60 EGP to enter. Apparently, the island was recently dealing with a major crocodile infestation. The new ticket fee, then, likely goes to keeping the space clear of them!
The main highlight of New Kalabsha is Kalabsha Temple, which is the largest structure by far. Its relocation required the dissection and transport of over 13,000 sandstone blocks.
It was mostly built during the reign of Augustus but in dedication to a local Nubian deity called Mandulis. Mandulis was a solar deity not worshipped outside of Nubia. And as mentioned above, he also has a small temple at Philae.
The temple remains in great shape today and it follows a fairly typical layout. From the spacious Great Court, you’ll enter a Hypostyle Hall followed by some shadowy inner shrines.
The reliefs inside are worth close examination. You can see some unusual deities along with what appears to be a rare carving of Set almost fully intact.
Much like at Edfu, there are narrow corridors in between the inner shrines and enclosure wall. The back of the temple, meanwhile, shows the king making offerings to Horus and Isis.
Interestingly, the temple also features Greek graffiti dating to the 5th century AD, in which a local king describes his victory over nomadic tribes.
Beit el-Wali was constructed by Ramesses II and it was dedicated to Amun, along with Khnum and Ankit. It was originally carved into the rockface, much like Abu Simbel further south.
It’s a small but interesting temple consisting of a Transverse Hall and then a main shrine. Originally, a brick pylon also once stood in front. The reliefs retain much of their color and are worth a look.
Carvings & Petroglyphs
Strangely, nearby is the facade of another temple with nothing inside but large granite rocks. But just next to it is a very unique feature of New Kalabsha – ancient petroglyphs.
While information is lacking on-site, these are likely extremely ancient glyphs which predate Egyptian history. And given how long Egyptian history is, that’s really saying something! Looking closely, you can spot a few elephants and various other animals.
Garf Hussein Temple
Garf Hussein is another Ramesses II construction, this time dedicated to the god Ptah. Notably, in contrast to many of the other temples which were reconstructed in the 1960s, this one was reassembled as recently as 2003.
While details are unclear, perhaps the pieces were rescued and then left dormant for decades.
Chapel of Qartasa
The Chapel of Qartasa is a Roman-style kiosk consisting of both floral columns and ones with Hathor capitals. It’s quite similar to some of the structures around Philae.
A walk around New Kalabsha shouldn’t take you more than an hour. It’s an interesting hidden gem in the Aswan area that sadly, very few have even heard of. It’s easy to visit on the same day as Philae, and the two sites complement each other well.
But even if you have yet to visit Egpyt, you may have already seen a Nubian temple that was moved upon construction of the Aswan High Dam. Temples from the Aswan region are now standing in places like Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.
Those visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, can check out the Temple of Dendur, a Roman-era temple that orginally stood 77 km south of Aswan.
The Aswan High Dam
While not part of my original itinerary, my travel companions happened to engineering students who were keen on visiting the Aswan High Dam.
And visiting the dam made sense. After all, if not for this dam, none of the temples listed above (nor Abu Simbel) would’ve had to be meticulously cut apart and rebuilt.
Unfortunately, there’s been a major price increase recently, and it now costs 100 EGP to enter. And since the dam is controlled by the military, there’s just a very small section which visitors are allowed to visit or photograph.
It was rather underwhelming. But the dam does, at least, offer an interesting view of New Kalabsha in the distance.
To get to Philae and New Kalabsha (or even just Philae), you’ll first need to hire a taxi. A driver for the several-hour excursion should cost you around 200 EGP.
I was staying in the southern part of Aswan which was a bit closer to the islands, so you might end up paying more if you’re staying further north. On the other hand, if you’re going to Philae only, try to negotiate for less.
Fortunately, the first taxi driver I encountered was a friendly and honest guy who didn’t try to haggle at all. But as mentioned above, the boatmen at the boat landing for Philae were a different story.
When accessing the site, you’ll first buy the ticket for the temple at the ticket counter. At the time of writing, tickets for Philae cost 180 EGP (plus an extra 100 for the roof). And then you move forward to interact with the boat owners.
Officially, the price was listed as 175 EGP per boat and per hour (this always seems to be changing due to inflation). However, many of the boatmen will quote you much higher prices, or tell you the price is per person and not per boat.
But if you’re traveling alone, expect to end up paying for the whole boat yourself. Strangely, it seems like 90% of travelers in Egypt are part of some group tour. And they’re unlikely to let you piggyback on their boat to split the costs.
Luckily, I managed to find two other people from my hostel who wanted to join me on the trip that day. Obviously, splitting the cost by three made the journey much cheaper. But while we hoped to find additional independent travelers to join us, we had no luck.
As mentioned above, with a bit of haggling and persistence, we were able to get the price to 300 EGP for 2 hours (highly recommended over just one hour). Still, it’s rather annoying to have to haggle so much at such a famous tourist destination.
After Philae, our driver then took us onward to the landing for New Kalabsha. As mentioned above, we managed to get to New Kalabsha for 250 EGP for the three of us for one hour. While we were told 200 would be appropriate, there was only one boatman and he knew we had no other choice.
Returning to our taxi, we visited the Aswan High Dam, but left after just 20 minutes or so.
Despite visiting two islands and the dam, this day trip was a relatively short one. Departing at around 10:00, we got back to our hotel at 14:30 in the afternoon.
When researching accommodation online, I was surprised to discover that hotels in Aswan are considerably more expensive than in other Egyptian cities.
While I cam across some reasonably priced and centrally located hotels, many of them seemed to have poor reviews. I went ahead and booked a midrange hotel on Elephantine Island, but the hosts never responded to any of my questions, leading me to cancel.
Eventually, I decided on a place called David Hostel located in the south of the city. While I’m not much of a hostel person, this turned out to be a good choice. Not only did I meet some nice people, but David the owner was incredibly helpful in regards to advice on sightseeing and transport. He was upfront and honest about all the different options and helps his guests get the local prices when possible.
While I thought it would be a bit out of the way, I found the location to be completely reasonable. It was close to places like Seheil Island, and most of the locations in central Aswan were still walkable. There were also plenty of decent and affordable restaurants nearby.
For those with more money to spend, there are lots more luxurious options around Aswan. The most famous of them is the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie famously stayed when she wrote Death on the Nile.
Aswan isn’t that big. Aside from staying in the city center around the train station, Elephantine Island would be a good choice as well. It features plenty of hotels and guest houses while it’s just an easy ferry ride to the city center. It’s also home to a luxury resort called Movenpick.
Aswan can be accessed by plane, rail or car.
I got there from Luxor with a private driver. On the way I stopped at four locations (Esna, El Kab, Edfu and Kom Ombo). After Aswan I needed to return to Cairo, so I just hopped on an early morning train.
Strangely, when it comes to train travel in Egypt, it’s often impossible for a foreigner to buy the cheapest tickets in person at the station. However, it’s still perfectly legal for foreigners to ride any train. The trick is to just buy them online from the official Egyptian National Railways site and print them out before departure.
Here is an excellent resource for all train timetables in Egypt. It’s worth going for the nicest AC1 trains, which are still quite cheap. Snacks and coffee are sold onboard. But expect the entire cabin to reek of smoke, as people constantly use the space in between the train carriages as a smoking lounge.
If you’re not able to book online for some reason, here’s another solution: simply show up at the station, hop on the train and sit down. When the ticket inspector comes by, pay him. Strangely, while you can’t buy tickets from the ticket booth, this method is completely acceptable.