Before boarding a cruise boat at Aswan, take a short ferry ride to the Temple of Philae, which is located on an island in the middle of the Nile River.
As we traveled to the island, our Egyptian guide explained to us the significance of the landmark, which she called one of the two or three most important historical sites in Egypt (and given the fact that such a list includes the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, that’s saying something). Beginning 5,000 years ago, Philae became the center of Isis worship in the Middle East. It was believed that the island was the place where Isis had brought the remains of her murdered husband, Osiris, and where her tears of sorrow created the Nile. For millennia pilgrims traveled from throughout the Mediterranean region and African lands to pay homage to her on this island, which included multiple temples built over many centuries. After the worship of Isis was forbidden when Christianity came to Egypt, pilgrims to Philae simply re-christened her as the Virgin Mary and continued to worship there.
The site played such a significant role in Egyptian history that when the Aswan Dam was built in 1970 and threatened to destroy it, the Egyptian government and UNESCO found another island of similar size a few miles away, re-shaped its topography, and (at enormous cost) moved every building from the original island.
I remember Philae as one of the most exquisite sites I’ve ever visited. Part of its appeal is its location, particularly in a country where many sites—while strikingly beautiful—are hot and crowded with visitors. Philae is different. Located in the middle of the Nile and surrounded by rural countryside, the island is cooled by breezes and alive with the sound of singing birds. While there were other visitors there on the day I visited, it was still possible to wander among the ruins in solitude.
There is something about places that have been visited by millions of pilgrims, I think, that speaks deeply to us. All those prayers over all those years sink into the stones, changing somehow the very air one breathes. After thousands of years, Philae is still a holy place and a sanctuary for the spirit.