Temples & Dams: Coexisting Peacefully. Sort of.

Both the Philae Temple and the Temple at Abu Simbel were due to be submerged under the waters of Lake Nassar in the late 60’s. A huge international rescue effort saw that it and several other historical points were meticulously moved to small islands on the Nile River before the High Dam. Not only because of the issues with historical ruins but because more than 100,000 people were displaced, the High Dam still today is a sore spot for many Egyptians, World Citizens and the local Nubian people.

The ambitious Dam has never really delivered on its promise. To be sure, The Aswan High Dam spurred and continues to drive the economic development of Egypt by supplying fifteen percent more irrigation water and approximately 2,000 megawatts in hydroelectricity. It also protects the lower reaches of the Nile from flood disasters. On the other hand, however, its environmental impacts were serious. And, while many believe the flood control and the electricity provided by the Aswan High Dam spurred and continues to drive economic growth, it has done so at a dramatic cost to the environment, cultures and more.

As I mentioned that in building this massive dam, nearly the entire Nubian lands were flooded. The Egyptian government relocated the Nubian people but their lifestyle was lost under water. Prior to the creation of Lake Nassar and the dam, the Nubian people farmed and grazed livestock along the shores of the Nile.

Another side effect caused by the building of the damn is the rich silt that normally fertilized the dry desert land during annual floods now sits at the bottom of Lake Nassar. About 95 percent of Egypt’s population lives within 12 miles of the Nile River. Since the fertility of Egypt’s farmland has gradually decreased farmers are forced to use hundreds of tons of artificial fertilizer as a substitute for natural nutrients that once fertilized the arid floodplain.

Parked on top of the High Dam and looking down river at the Nile.

The Nubian people I met communicated this sentiment while I roamed along one of the islands they were moved to on the Nile. Interestingly, I learned that in building this massive dam, enough rock was used to build 17 Great Pyramids at Giza!

The Philae Temple was constructed over a three-century period, by the Greeks and Romans. The principal deity of the temple was Isis. But around the complex there are other temples and shrines dedicated to her son Horus and the goddess Hathor. For centuries the Philae temple complex was the holiest site for Isis worshippers until it was shut down in the 6th century A.D. by the Byzantines making it the last pagan temple to exist in the Mediterranean world. Later and in classic religious history the Philae temple was converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, until it was closed again by Muslim invaders in the 7th century.

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The Temple Philae — built in honor Isis and her husband Osiris.

I should note that the High Dam was the second Dam built in Aswan. The first, in 1902 created a lake extending south some 140 miles back to the Sudanese border, but the height of the dam was at first restricted because of protests to preserve Philae and the other temples and monuments which would have been submerged.

Though Winston Churchill himself will undoubtedly be remembered and preserved in history books, he had no interest in the preservation of ancient Egyptian temples:

“This offering of 1,500 millions of cubic feet of water to Hathor by the Wise Men of the West is the most cruel, the most wicked and the most senseless sacrifice ever offered on the altar of a false religion. The State must struggle and the people starve, in order that the professors may exult and the tourists find some place to scratch their names.”

So the water level was raised, and the temples and structures on Philae were flooded each year from December to about March, and had to be visited during this time only by boat.

With the building of the High Dam in the 1970s, the Philae monuments were moved to Agilkia another island just northwest of Philae Island. Since waters already submerged many of the monuments at Philae, a temporary dam had to be built around the island and all the water was pumped out. Approximately 40,000 blocks each weighing about 20,000 tons were moved to the new location. The eight year project to move Philae was completed in 1980 as a cooperative effort between UNESCO and the Egyptian Antiquity Organization. Agilkia Island has been carefully landscaped to make it resemble Philae as much as possible.

I visited the Temple of Philae – Isis – twice while roaming around southern Egypt. Once at night to watch the sound and light show and during the day to have a closer look at the ancient ruins. It was during the light show that I learned the myth of Isis and Osiris – her husband and once ruler of these lands:

Osiris who was married to Isis was a popular ruler. This made his brother Set very jealous. So Set plotted against Osiris.

Set’s secretly obtained his brothers bodily measurements and had a magnificent casket made to fit perfectly. Brother Set then organized a magnificent feast where Osiris and others were invited. The high point of the festivities was when Set produced the beautiful crafted casket. Remember this is egypt, caskets and sarcophagus’s are big deals. Set announced that it would be an honorable gift to whoever fit in the casket. While all the guests tried the casket for size, but none fit until Osiris stepped into it.

Conniving brother Set then immediately slammed the lid closed and with molten lead sealed the casket shut and then threw it into the River Nile. Naturally, Isis was mortified by the loss of her husband and spent every day along the Nile, throughout Egypt and to other lands in search of the missing casket and body of her husband. Finally she found the casket nestled in the roots of a huge tree.

Isis returned to Egypt with the casket and organized a proper burial for her husband. While planning she concealed the coffin in the marshes beside the Nile, but unfortunately evil brother Set found it and was so enraged he chopped the body of Osiris into pieces, and then scattered them throughout the lands of Egypt.

Once again, Isis went into action and searched high and low for those body parts of her husband. Soon enough she found all the parts, except the family jewels, and put them together in the shape of her husband. Legend has it that Isis breathed life back into Osiris’ body, resurrected him and conceived a son named Horus. Amazing considering Osiris was put back together sans genitalia – the missing part.

And as the myths of gods and goddesses go Horus went to avenge his father’s death and to battle against Uncle Set. In the end Osiris remained king of the underworld, Horus the king of the living and Set was relegated to be ruler of the deserts as the god of chaos and evil.

And so I begin my journey and exploration of the fascinating lands of Ancient Egypt. And of course this includes their ancient and very bureaucratic procedures for immigration and temporary vehicle importation through customs.

  1. I still gotta get my bike.


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