The late Roman state was far more loosely organised than any modern state. The abolition of official paganism at the end of the fourth century did not mean that all the temples were shut down. Many continued to exist, so long as the local population wanted them to. Near Alexandria at the start of the 6th century, a temple of Isis was in full operation at Menouthis, as we learn from the Life of Severus of Antioch by Zacharias Rhetor, and was destroyed by Peter Mongus after a scandal involving a temple prostitute.
The temple complex at Philae, on the southern border of Egypt, or beyond it, remained open later still, until it was closed in 535-7 by Justinian. The sources are included and translated in volume 3 of the rather remarkable Fontes Historiae Nubiorum (=FHN). Procopius tells us in his De bello Persico 1.19.37:
Both these peoples, the Blemmyes and the Nobatai, revere all the other gods in which pagans [Hellenes] believe, as well as Isis and Osiris, and not least Priapus. But the Blemmyes even have the custom of sacrificing human beings to the Sun. These barbarians retained the sanctuaries on Philae right down to my day, but the Emperor Justinian decided to pull them down. Accordingly Narses, a Persarmenian by birth, whom I mentioned before as having deserted to the Romans, and who was in command of the troops there, pulled down the sanctuaries on the on the Emperor’s orders, held the priests under guard, and sent the images to Byzantium.
The temples at Philae still stand, however, even today, so this is not entirely accurate.
When David Roberts visited in the 1830s, the preservation of the interior of the temple was really quite extraordinary. Sadly these brilliant colours were destroyed by the waters of the first Aswan dam in 1911.
Justinian’s expedition does mark an ending point. Around the same time, or possibly even before then, a church is built within the precincts of the temple.
There had been strong political reasons for the temple to remain open. Isis was worshipped well beyond the Roman frontier. No doubt it suited the prefect of Egypt in far away Alexandria to keep this connection with the tribesmen to the south. In 452 or 453 we find the historian Priscus, an eyewitness, writing (fragment 21) about the Roman treaty with the Blemmyes and Noubades, after defeating them:
In this it was agreed …that, in accordance with the ancient custom, their crossing to the temple of Isis be unhindered, Egyptians having charge of the river boat in which the statue of the goddess (Isis) is placed and ferried across the river. For at a stated time the barbarians bring the wooden statue to their own country and, after having consulted it, return it safely to the island. Therefore Maximinus decided that it was appropriate that the text of the compact be ratified in the temple of Philae.
Philae is also the location of the latest-dated hieroglyphic inscription known to us; and likewise the latest-dated demotic inscription. These also are listed in the FHN 3, section 306 (p.1121).
The last known hieroglyphic inscription is apparently known as the “Graffito of Esmet-Akhom”, and was inscribed in both hieroglyphic and demotic on 24 August 394. The wikipedia article includes a redrawing. The figure is of the Nubian god, Mandulis. To the right are the hieroglyphs, and the demotic (=GPH 436, or IDemPhilae 436) is in a panel under the hand of the god:
There does not seem to be a database of demotic inscriptions, so we are reliant on older book-form publications. I find that F.L.Griffith published a collection of demotic graffiti in 1937, under the title of Catalogue of the Demotic Graffiti of the Dodecaschoenus, so the graffiti at Philae are GPh 436, or IDemPhilae 436, etc.
The hieroglyphs in this last inscription read (translation via Wikipedia):
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.
The demotic adds a date:
I, Nesmeterakhem, the Scribe of the House of Writings(?) of Isis, son of Nesmeterpanakhet the Second Priest of Isis, and his mother Eseweret, I performed work on this figure of Mandulis for all time, because he is fair of face towards me. Today, the Birthday of Osiris, his dedication feast, year 110.
The impressive Nile Scribes blog here details the exact location. The FHN comments that the author may have dedicated this inscription to a Nubian god, rather than to Isis, on 24 August 394, just after the abolition of the temples, in order to safeguard his position in the cold new world. That’s the end of hieroglyphics. Soon after, no doubt, the script became unintelligible.
Philae also contains the last known demotic inscription. Outside of Philae, the script had ceased to be used before 300 AD. Carved on the 12 December 452, on the second pylon, is GPH 365, of which Griffith gave the following drawing:
Our graffito is the one on the left, which reads:
Esmeyt senior, son of Pakhom, the first prophet of Isis, his mother’s name Tshenesmet, the daughter of a chief priest of Isis Esmet junior the second prophet of Isis, son of Haretyotf; today, day 12, Choiak, year 169.
The day was given by Griffith as “day 6”, i.e. 2 December, but Eugene Cruz-Uribe states that it should be read as “sw 16″, i.e. the 12 December..
And that’s it. That’s the end of demotic too. The future belonged to Coptic.
- FHN 3, section 328, p.1190-1↩
- Translated in Fontes Historiae Nubiorum, 4 vols, Bergen (1994-2000); vol. 3, section 318, p.1153. Via Dijkstra.↩
- F.L. Griffith, Catalogue of the Demotic Graffiti of the Dodecaschenenus, vol. 1: text (1937), p.102-3; vol. 2 plates here. See also this preview at Brill here for a correction on the date.↩
- Eugene Cruz-Uribe, “The Last Demotic Inscription”, in Hieratic, Demotic and Greek studies and text editions: Festschrift in honour of Sven P. Vleeming, Brill (2018)↩