“May the good name remain here.”
This is one of the numerous graffiti scratched into the walls of Isis’ great temple at Philae by one of the many, many pilgrims (and tourists) who have journeyed to Her sacred island over the millennia.
And so, while our last post ended with graffiti, this one begins with it.
Did you know that Philae is the Egyptian temple with the most graffiti of any existing temple? There are more than one thousand graffiti on the buildings on Philae (now on Agilika island; the temple was relocated in the 1960s to save it from submersion with the building of the Aswan Dam). Graffiti is, quite simply, everywhere; in Demotic, Greek, Meroitic, Latin, and later, French and English. Philae is also the site of the last-known hieroglyphic inscription, as well as the last-known Demotic inscription. The hieroglyphic inscription was made on the Gate of Hadrian near an image of Mandulis, a Nubian God also honored at Philae. It reads
Before Mandulis son of Horus, by the hand of Nesmeterakhem, son of Nesmeter, the Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity. Words spoken by Mandulis, Lord of the Abaton, Great God.Gate of Hadrian, Philae island
And so our scribe was the son of a priest of Isis, writing in the ancient way. A bit further down, this time in Demotic, he notes that the inscription was made “on the birthday of Osiris” and gives a date, which converts to our 394 CE.
The latest Demotic inscriptions are religious dedications, too, and may have happened only a day apart. One reads, “the feet of Panakhetet the lesser.” The other was dedicated by Nesmety the elder. So perhaps a father and son placing their names on the temple? Those inscriptions are dated to 452 CE.
But most recently, yet another Demotic inscription has been found. It says simply, “Petiese son of Petosiris.” It was found near the main sanctuary of Isis in an area that had been closed off when part of the temple was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century CE. An Egyptologist studying the inscriptions wonders whether Petiese (whose name means “Given by Isis,” by the way, so you can guess the meaning of his dad’s name) had accessed this area after the temple had been officially closed in 538 CE—making this the latest Demotic inscription yet found.
An argument in favor of this interpretation is that graffiti are usually only found on areas of the sacred buildings that were not in active use at the time of the graffito. Thus, it would make sense that the sanctuary of the Goddess was not in use when the inscription was made as much of it had already been converted into a church.
For the most part, the people who made these inscriptions or drew images of their feet standing in this sacred place were not defacing the temple. They were pilgrims and were making their mark on the House of Isis because they wanted to be part of it. They expected the blessings of Isis upon their writing and upon themselves for their acts of pilgrimage. The practice of making devotional graffiti was common in Egypt and Nubia, but also throughout the Mediterranean region, and later in Medieval Christian churches in Europe. It is one of those things that humans have always done; we make our mark. The Egyptians referred to it as “leaving a name before a God,” like the graffito with which I began this post. (The tourists, like the members of a 1799 French expedition to Egypt who carved a huge inscription on Philae’s walls, cannot be so excused, and yet, even they have contributed to our knowledge of the history of the temple.)
A good deal of the devotional graffiti at Philae comes from Nubian pilgrims, either on a personal journey or to attend a festival of the Goddess. Located in far southern Egypt, Isis’ Philae temple has a long and important history with the people of Meroe (the capital city of the Nubian kingdom of Kush) and all of Nubia. Unlike most Egyptian temples, Philae is oriented towards the south, towards Nubia. Nubian kings contributed large sums of money to support the temple in a later period and it is likely that the last priests of Isis at Philae were Meroitic Nubians.
What’s more, the Nubians preferred to use Demotic script far into the 4th and 5th centuries CE, likely considering it a sacred script, just as hieroglyphs had been before. The longest graffito from Philae was made in Demotic by Sasan, an envoy of the King of Meroe who was on his way to Rome, and who stopped at Philae to give “homage to Isis in order to help faraway people.” He writes
My lady… Isis, you are the Mistress of the Road…. Our hearts are entrusted to you upon the way, to bring us to the way of life, while we call to you on every occasion, saying, “Listen to us.” I am your good servant, Isis… My heart is left to you [in] Egypt, in Meroe, and in the mountains. Isis, this is the only brother I have. I am going to leave him, and I say to you: “Keep him safe until you bring me back to Egypt.”Sasan of Meroe appealing to Isis of Philae for safety
Those who have studied the Meroitic/Nubian inscriptions note that they are particularly heartfelt and often refer to the Osirian festivals around Khoiak. (Read more about Nubian Isis here.)
People came to Philae and to Isis not only from Egypt and Nubia, but also from North Africa, Crete, Greece, and Asia Minor. This was especially true during the Ptolemaic period when Egypt and its rulers were so influential throughout the Mediterranean. Isis was then, and is now, a very multicultural Goddess.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to go on pilgrimage to Philae today, however, will need a different way to leave our names before the Goddess. Unlike Her ancient devotees, we won’t leave permanent marks on Her temple. But She has Her magic and we have our magic. And so, by the magic of the Lady or Words of Power, and with our own magic being in our mouths, we speak our names aloud before Her, leaving our names forever ringing through the stones of Her sacred temple and forever echoing in Her heart.
*The art in the preview picture is modern Egyptian street art.*