Philae. The Pearl of Egypt. Not exactly my favourite temple complex, but still quite something. It is actually so striking that it almost doesn’t matter that the ancient (Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and Christian) buildings are not standing on the actual island of Philae, which is buried under the clear waters of Lake Nasser, but on the island of Agilkia, some 300m downstream.
The rescue of the temples of Philae in the 1970s is fairly well documented; less well known is the fact that it all began in the 1890s and that Philae, almost doomed, had to be saved over and over again!
Herodotus once described Egypt as ‘a gift from the Nile’; it used to be. Every year, floods would guarantee good crops or ruin them. If it was too high, it would drown everything; if it was too low, nothing would grow. In 1894, the British Administration in Egypt, wishing to improve agriculture and irrigation, decided to build a dam on the first cataract of the Nile, not far from Aswan, in the south of the country. This, they hoped, would enable them to control the floods and ensure that water would always be available.
When the scheme was announced, several learned societies, notably the Society for the Preservation of Monuments of Ancient Egypt (SPMAE) and the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society), expressed concerns. They knew that the island of Philae would be partially or even totally submerged when the reservoir was formed. They warned that water would destroy the extremely colourful decorative paintings and that ‘in a few years, the whole group of buildings would be virtually destroyed’. In February 1894 the SPMAE and the Society of Antiquaries passed resolutions ‘to prevent [Britain] being in any way responsible for what would certainly be considered an act of vandalism’ (FO 371/5384). Continue reading »