Calling out to Isis by Solange Ashby

“AN ABOMINABLE COMMAND AGAINST THE ABATON”: DATING THE END OF THE ISIS CULT AT PHILAE

Philae was the last pagan temple in the Roman empire.

For centuries it has been an important temple. Rising from the waters of the first cataract. As imposing as the nearby border fortress of Elephantine. It owed its importance to several factors not least its strategic position in an important frontier region. The site was not just the southern-most border of the Roman empire, it was also a point on the Eastern trade route for African goods into the empire. It was the location of diplomatic meetings between Rome and Nubian powers, most notably Meroe.

Its survival as a pagan temple is ascribed partly due to its distance from the centre of power (by then at Constantinople, modern day Istanbul) and partly because of the faith of local inhabitants. Several accounts report that people we can loosely call Nubians, continued to practice traditional rites at the temple and lead processions of the cult statue in the region. These accounts reveal the importance of Nubians at the site.

It is notable then that in earlier histories, the roles and functions of Nubians have largely been glossed over or made peripheral to other actors. A major new work by Dr Solange Ashby investigates the presence of Nubians at the temple of Philae during the Roman period. This is the first major work of history putting them back at the centre of study.

Analysing grafitti from Philae has revealed three phases for Nubian interaction at the site which point to the “ebb and flow” of Nubian access. The first three centuries of Roman control of Egypt, saw a mostly peaceful co-existence between Roman and Meroe. Roman was more interested in mineral extraction from the region, but it was known to intervene militarily.

PhaseDateLocation on inscriptions
I10 BCE – 57 CEGate of Nectanebo, north west wall of Pronaos, south wall of Pronaos
II175 – 223 CEGate of Hadrian, South western wall of Pronaos, Birth House roof, Temple of Imhotep, Meriotic chamber
III408 – 456 CERoof of main temple, roof of Birth Housem south eastern colonade
Inscriptions at Philae

Phase I and II

In Phase I, Nubians at Philae were either leaders of cult organisations or temple administrators, but not priests. As the region paid a tithe to the temple, this was presumably not a bad role to perform.

In Phase II, the Nubian Wayekiye family rose to prominence in the region, combining both military and religious powers, becoming priests at the highest levels. It is interesting to note that two systems of inheritance operated in the family; the Egyptian, patrilineal system (ideally and normally father to son) and the Nubian system of inheritance from a man to his sister’s son. This shows that the region at this point in time was complex with multi-cultural families and wider groupings headed by Nubian rulers.

During this period the Merotic royal cult had a particular interest in the site at Philae and its rituals. They venerated Osiris as a divine father and Isis as a divine mother. Several images show the gods Anubis and Nephthys pouring out milk libations before Osiris. This type of image is unique to the region and has been found both at Philae and in Merotic graveyards.

Phase III

Phase III saw a reduction in the number (surviving) inscriptions but this is supplemented by additional evidence in the form of letters and manuscripts. Two groups of inscriptions come from this period, those to the Esmet family and those to the prophets of Ptiris, an obscure deity who may be depicted in a graffiti showing a hawk headed crocodilian.

The last texts written in hieroglyphs were written by members of the Esmet family. Ashby closely reads these inscriptions and convincingly argues that the family were likely Nubians, some of whom would have travelled to Philae as part of annual festivals, but did not live there. This radically changes how we read this final period of the Isis temple and more widely of ‘paganism’ in the Roman Empire and its hinterlands.

She also points out that no prayer inscription, dating from this period, refers to political rulers. Nor do the priests hold administrative titles as they had done in phase II.

Silko, the first Nubian king to adopt Christianity. He led the Noubadae forces who defeated the Blemmyes.

The end of the Isis cult

Phase III saw the paganism’s final scene.

The interaction between ancient religions is often presented as a clash or a struggle. This owes much to the narratives found in Hagiography or Religious histories, which present the struggle in terms of Good v Evil. This was then developed by Edward Gibbon in his influential work Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which followed the narrative structure, but switched sides: The Christians being bad and Classicism good. The reality on the ground would have been more complex. Certainly, a church was located on the island from the third century with a bishop. Isis priests and Christian priests would have known of each other and followers of the two religions would have been close, neighbours, relatives and friends. It is is possibly in this period that texts like Thunder, Perfect Mind were written combining traditional Egyptian and Christian ideas and imagery.

One of the final inscriptions form this period, written in Demotic, talks about “an abominable command against the Abaton”, the tomb of Osiris on Bigeh island (next to Philae). This is often presumed to be the order of the emperor to close temples across the Empire.

For most temples, the final days are not always clear. In contract we have several reports about Philae. Most famously the historian Procopius writes that the temple was still operating as last as 537 or 542 CE:

These sanctuaries in Philae were kept by these barbarians even up to my time, but the Emperor Justinian decided to tear them down. Accordingly Narses […] tore down the sanctuaries at the emperor’s order, and put the priests under guard and sent the statues to Byzantium

Procopius, Wars, XIX (tr. H. B. Dewing,)

Many scholars argue that Procopius, writing from Constantinople, had misunderstood the situation at Philae not least because the temples were clearly not torn down. You can still visit them today.

Ashby argues instead that the complex regional politics over a century led to the decrease in the cult at Philae, beginning first with the military victory of a Christian faction over a pagan faction of Nubians (the southern Noubadae defeating the Northern Blemmyes) followed by Byzantine military interventions.

With the military defeat of the Blemmyes and Noubadae by the Roman Egyptian officials Florus and Maximinus, prayers to Isis were no longer engraved upon her temple walls. Although the Blemmyes negotiated the right to maintain access to the temple of Philae in their treaty of 452 CE or early 453 CE, the last polytheistic inscriptions were recorded shortly thereafter […]

Emperor Justinian ordered that the temples of Philae be closed. The Roman military carried out his order sometime between 535 – 537 CE, seizing the divine statues and arresting the last priests.

(Calling out to Isis, page 268)

That is a large time period between two acts of closure. Nevertheless the role of Nubians in keeping the temple going during Phase III points to one way in which the temple cult could continue across this wide period.

This is a vital new argument, using evidence which is rarely examined. Any new history on Roman religion must take account of Ashby’s work.

Summary

The Temple of Isis at Philae is in many ways an object lesson in the ways in which various institutions operated. Through it we learn much about the dynamics of Roman frontiers, Egyptian religion, international diplomacy. Calling out to Isis reexamines in detail how this temple operating and by so doing throws light on the political and social mechanisms underpinning the period. It is revelatory.

This book has a relevance beyond the study of the ancient world. Ashby is the only African American woman to hold a PhD in Egyptology. At the start of the book she says that this is the beginning of a sea change. I hope so. We must all challenge the institutionalised racism and inequalities that operates in British and American universities.

Calling out to Isis: the enduring presence of Nubian Worshippers at Philae by Solange Ashby Gorgia Press 2020 – 9781463239688

Photo References

View of the Temple of Isis from Philae at Agilkia Island – seen from Lake Nasser by Ivan Marcialis CC BY-SA 2.0