Egypt Travel - Aswan: Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island is the largest of the Aswan area islands, and is one of the most ancient sites in Egypt, with artifacts dating to predynastic periods. This is probably due to its location at the first Cataract of the Nile, which provided a natural boundary between Egypt and Nubia. As an island, it was also easily defensible. In fact, the ancient town located in the southern part of the island was also a fortress through much of it's history. At one time, there was a bridge from the mainland to the island.

Elephantine is Greek for elephant. In ancient times, the Island, as well as the southern town, was called Abu, or Yabu, which also meant elephant. The town has also been referenced as Kom, after it's principle god of the island, Khnum (Khnemu). It is believed that the island received it's name because it was a major ivory trading center, though in fact, it was a major trading post of many commodities. There are large boulders in the river near the island which resembled bathing elephants, particularly from afar, and this too has been suggested as a reason for the island's name.

The island is very beautiful, and while many of the artifacts there are in ruin

The island is very beautiful, and while many of the artifacts there are in ruin, there is still considerable to see. One of it's main attractions is it's Nilometer, which is one of only three on the Nile, which was used to measure the water level of the Nile as late as the nineteenth century. There has been an ongoing excavation at the town for many years by the German Archaeological Institute, and some of the finds along with many other island artifacts, including a mummified ram of Khnum, are located in the Elephantine Museum. Another major attraction is the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. Elephantine Island was considered to be home of this important Egyptian god, and while this structure dates back to the Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty, there are references to a Temple of Khnum on the island as early as the 3rd Dynasty. There are also ruins of a Temple of Satet, who was Khnum's female counterpart (the three local deities were foremost Khnum, but also Satet and a local Nubian goddess Anqet. These gods were worshipped here since the earliest dynasties), also build by Queen Hatshepsut, a shrine to Hekayib from the 6th Dynasty, a local governor who was deified after his death. His cult flourished during the middle kingdom, and some fine statues from the shrine are now in the museum. You will also find a 3rd Dynasty granite step pyramid which is now just visible, and to the north, the mud-brick vaults of the late period which housed the bodies of the royal rams. On the south end of the island is a small one room Ptolemaic temple which was constructed from materials removed from the Kalabsha Temple. Here, there are decorations attributed to the Nubian Pharaoh Arkamani from the 3rd century BC The building seems to have been finished by the Romans with reference to Caesar Augustus.

 Charles Louis Balzac, Island of Elephantine, view of the south temple

Other artifacts and archaeological sites have been removed or destroyed. Prior to 1822, there were temples of Thutmose III and Amenhotep III, both of which were relatively intact, but they were destroyed in that year by the Turkish government. A rare calendar, known as the Elephantine Calendar, dating to the reign of Tuthmosis III, was found in fragments, and a Papyrus dating to the 13th dynasty and known as the Elephantine Papyrus was also discovered. It is unclear where these artifacts are currently located. A stela with inscriptions commemorating the repairs made on a 12th Dynasty fortress which honored Senwosret III was also found, and is now in the British Museum.

Elephantine Island is a beautiful place to visit, with wonderful gardens and some truly significant artifacts. It is also a good place to spend some leisure time, wondering among the Nubian villages where the people are friendly and the houses are often very colorful. The houses often have paintings or carved with a crocodile at the bottom, a fish in the middle and a man on top, with a woman's hand made of brass as a door knocker between the fish and man. Others will have a sacred black cube of Mecca, with a painting depicting the means of the owner's pilgrimage to Mecca.

See additional material on Elephantine

Last Updated: June 14th, 2011