For thousands of years, a beautiful ancient Egyptian temple stood on the island of Philae on the Nile river near Aswan. One of the best-preserved Ptolemaic temples, its graceful columns stood as proudly at the turn of this century as they had when Egyptians first constructed the temple around 380 B.C. But the original Aswan Dam, built in 1898, created an artificial lake that partially submerged the island and its sacred temple; boats drifted among hieroglyph-inscribed pillars and walls. Then, as construction of the High Dam began in the 1960s, authorities realized the temple faced an even greater threat: soon the rising waters would completely drown the ancient site.

Between 1972 and 1980, a heroic feat of engineering orchestrated by the Egyptian government and UNESCO succeeded in rescuing the temple. In 1977, workers built a cofferdam around the temple and pumped out all water inside. Next, they took apart Philae's various temples block by block, numbering each piece and recording its precise location. Then, stone by stone, workers rebuilt the temples on the nearby, still dry island Agilkai, which officials chose because it bore a remarkable resemblance to Philae. In 1980, the temple of Philae reopened to the public.

Principal source: Art and History of Egypt, by Alberto Carlo Carpiceci (Florence: Bonechi Press, 1998)

Photo: Corbis/Otto Lang

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