Philae Temple of Isis on Agilkia Island in Lake Nasser, Egypt. Credit: Shutterstock


Mapping Philae: SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies faculty members awarded SSHRC grant to digitally map Temple of Isis in Egypt

August 19, 2021

The SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies is pleased to share the news that faculty members Sabrina Higgins, assistant professor in the Departments of Humanities and Archaeology and the holder of the Hellenic Studies Professorship in Aegean and Mediterranean Societies and Cultures, and Nicholas Hedley, associate professor in the Department of Geography and founder of SFU’s Special Interface Research Lab, have recently been awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant for a new project, Picturing Religion: The Philae Temple Graffiti Project.

Together with the project’s principal investigator, Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa, the scholars will utilize their $84,415 grant to digitally map all of the graffiti on the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae in Egypt. Higgins will serve as the project’s co-investigator and will be responsible for the creation of wall plans that enable the graffiti to be studied in their architectural context. She will be aided by collaborator, Hedley, who will utilize his expertise in 3D visualization to contribute advanced recording techniques to the project, such as photogrammetry.

This will be the first systematic study of a corpus of ca. 400 figures from the famous Isis Temple at Philae, known for being recorded as the last fully functioning temple in Egypt. The temple was built under Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) and continued to be in use until the mid-5th century. It wasn’t until the 6th century that it was converted into a church. This means the temple’s graffiti spans over 1,000 years of lived religious history, including two major phases of use (in the Graeco-Roman period) and reuse (in Late Antiquity).

The primary objective of the study is to better understand the spatial use of the temple, including its roofs, by way of distinct groups of people. Higgins, Hedley and Dijkstra will investigate the types of spaces that were accessible to both the public and the priests to reveal insights into personal religious piety and cultic practice at Philae in the Graeco-Roman and Late Antique periods. It is their hope that in the future this research can be used for comparison at other temple sites elsewhere in Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean.

Work on the project is expected to begin in Egypt this September, subject to travel restrictions.

Sabrina Higgins is an assistant professor cross appointed between the Departments of Humanities and Archaeology and is also the holder of the Hellenic Studies Professorship in Aegean and Mediterranean Societies and Cultures. Both a field archaeologist and art historian, her work is inherently multidisciplinary, intersecting the fields of Late Antique Studies, Archaeology, Religious Studies, Art History, Papyrology and Gender Studies. At present, her research is largely situated in the field of Marian studies, specifically the ways in which we can use material culture to understand the development and spread of the early cult of the Virgin Mary. 

Nicholas Hedley is an associate professor and multi-disciplinary spatial visualization and spatial interface designer/developer/applied scientist in the Department of Geography, as well as the director and founder of the Spatial Interface Research Lab (SIRL), at Simon Fraser University. At the core of his research is the process of designing, developing and testing new geovisualization interfaces that respond to applied problems and challenges to characterize and understand the geometry and dynamics of complex spatial phenomena. His program of research is driven by how new enabling technologies facilitate powerful ways to characterize, visualize, experience and interact with geographic data.

Jitse H.F. Dijkstra is a professor with the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Dijkstra's research centers round the question how religion became transformed in Late Antiquity. In order to answer this question, he focuses on the particular regional and local context of religious transformation rather than on the ideological and general story. Trained as a papyrologist but multidisciplinary in approach, his main interest is Late Antique Egypt. He is the author of a monograph on the religious transformation in the First Cataract region, southern Egypt, in particular at the island of Philae, and a study of the graffiti in the temple of Isis at Aswan, where he has conducted field work from 2001 onwards.

For more information about the SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies and its programs, please visit our Media page.

Keep an eye on our newsroom for the latest and be sure to follow us on social media or subscribe to our email list to never miss an update!