When I was in Egypt last summer I visited the Temple of Isis from Philae and I, like many others before me, was fascinated by the hieroglyphs on the walls. Early hieroglyphics date back as far as 3,300 BCE, and continued to be used up until the end of the fourth century CE, when non-Christian temples were closed and their monumental use was no longer necessary. Hieroglyphs are a complicated business and my intention is to interpret just a few hieroglyphs to give an idea of how it is accomplished. Many ancient Egyptian symbols were used as amulets of protection, or they were used to bring good fortune. Many of the same ancient Egyptian symbols were also used in religious and magical rituals for the living and also for the dead. Hieroglyphs were based on everyday objects along the Nile river which may not be as familiar to us today. As the famous Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone, commented; “It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word”.
When I visited the sanctuary of the Temple of Isis from Philae, I was struck by the maze of cramped corridors with walls covered with hieroglyphics. While I have photographs, they would be difficult if not impossible to understand. In this post I thought I would explore some of the sacred ancient Egyptian symbols that appear in this sanctuary. To do this, I am going to interpret the symbols surrounding Ptolemy II (the Egyptian Pharoah from 283-246 BC) depicted above. I have decided to take this approach as an introduction to the symbols of ancient Egypt instead of making a list with descriptions because the symbols themselves were rarely used in isolation in actual practice. I hope this approach will be more informative and less confusing but you will have to let me know.
During my visit to the Temple of Isis I was struck by the architectural sophistication and I thought I would delve deeper. Egyptian temple designs emphasized order, symmetry, monumentality, and combined geometric shapes with stylized organic motifs. Elements of temple design also alluded to the form of the earliest Egyptian buildings. It wasn’t until the New Kingdom that temples were built entirely of stone. Our knowledge of what preceded them or how the design came about is necessarily slim as their predecessors did not survive, since they were mostly constructed of mudbrick. It is probable that the layout was similar to earlier temples; there must have always been a special sacred area where the statue of the god resided. This was at a higher level than the rest of the area and the later design of slightly ascending floor level copies this. Since the early structures were mostly mudbrick, it is unlikely that the finer details which we will discuss here were present, hard to carve mudbrick. The influence of materials on architecture is worth notice. Where granite, which is worked with difficulty, is the material obtainable, architecture has invariably been severe and simple; where soft stone is obtainable, an abundance of ornamention makes its appearance. Where marble is abundant and good, refinement is to be met with, for no other building material exists in which very delicate mouldings or very slight or slender projections may be employed with the certainty that they will be effective.
Philae, in Egyptian mythology the neighboring island of the burying-places of Osiris (island of Bigeh), was held in high reverence both by the Egyptians to the north and the Nubians to the south. Philae was dedicated preeminently to Isis, sister-wife to Osiris, and patroness of the Ptolemaic rule. Although Isis was the major deity honored on Philae, the location of the island on the frontier between Egypt and Nubia meant that cults of Nubia were also featured on the island, represented by significant cult buildings. It was deemed profane for any but priests to dwell there. Temples to Isis began in the 30th dynasty and continued through the Ptolmaic Dynasties into Roman times. Isis is a very important figure in the ancient world. She is associated with funeral rites but as the enchantress who resurrected Osiris and gave birth to Horus she is also the giver of life, a healer and protector of kings. She was known as “Mother of God” (meaning mother of the pharaoh and was represented with a throne on her head). During the Roman period her cult spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. There was even a temple dedicated to her in London. Partially to completely flooded by the old dam's construction in 1902, the Philae complex was dismantled and relocated to Agilkia island, as part of a wider UNESCO project related to the 1960s construction of the Aswan High Dam. The relocation of these structures was done in a manner to mimic the original island of Philae.