Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island is an island in the Nile River in northern Nubia. It is a part of the modern city of Aswan, in southern Egypt. There are archaeological sites on the island .

Elephantine Island is 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) from north to south, and is 400 metres (1,300 ft) across at its widest point. The layout of this and other nearby islands in Aswan can be seen from west bank hillsides along the Nile. The island is located just downstream of the First Cataract at the southern border of Lower Egypt with Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia. This region above is referred to as Upper Egypt due land and river elevations being higher than downstream, and than the Nile Delta region to the Mediterranean Sea.

The island may have received its name after its shape, which in aerial views is similar to that of an elephant tusk. This is the meaning of the Greek word elephas (ελέφας). Other theories consider that the island is named because it was a trading center in the ivory trade

Elephantine Island Is Known to the Ancient Egyptians as Abu or Yebu, the island of Elephantine stood at the border between Egypt and Nubia. It was an excellent defensive site for a city and its location made it a natural cargo transfer point for river trade. This border is near the Tropic of Cancer, the most northerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at noon and from which it appears to reverse direction or “turn back” at the solstices.

Elephantine was a fort that stood just before the first cataract of the Nile. During the Second Intermediate Period (1650 – 1550 BC), the fort marked the southern border of Egypt

According to Egyptian mythology, here was the dwelling place of Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, who guarded and controlled the waters of the Nile from caves beneath the island. He was worshipped here as part of a late triad among the Egyptian pantheon of deities. The Elephantine Triad included Satis and Anuket. Satis was worshipped from very early times as a war goddess and protector of this strategic region of Egypt. When seen as a fertility goddess, she personified the bountiful annual flooding of the Nile, which was identified as her daughter, Anuket. The cult of Satis originated in the ancient city of Swenet. Later, when the triad was formed, Khnum became identified as her consort and, thereby, was thought of as the father of Anuket. His role in myths changed later and another deity was assigned his duties with the river. At that time his role as a potter enabled him to be assigned a duty in the creation of human bodies.

Prior to 1822, there were temples to Thutmose III and Amenhotep III on the island. At that time they were destroyed by the Ottoman government. Both temples were relatively intact prior to the deliberate demolition.

There are records of an Egyptian temple to Khnum on the island as early as the third Dynasty of Egypt. This temple was completely rebuilt in the Late Period, during the thirtieth dynasty of Egypt, just before the foreign rule that followed in the Graeco-Roman Period. The Greeks formed the Ptolemaic dynasty during their three-hundred-year rule over Egypt (305 to 30 BC) and maintained the ancient religious customs and traditions, while often associating the Egyptian deities with their own. Then Egypt was ruled by the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and its religious traditions existed alongside those from diverse cultures, until Islamic rule began circa 600 AD.

Most of the present day southern tip of the island is taken up by the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. These oldest ruins still standing on the island are a granite step pyramid from the third dynasty, and a small shrine built for the local sixth-dynasty nomarch, Hekayib. There were forty-two such nomarch provinces created as regional governments that dated from the Old Kingdom through the Roman Period

There are two nilometers on the Elephantine Island. The more famous one is a corridor nilometer associated with the Temple of Satis, with a stone staircase that descends down the corridor. It is one of the oldest nilometers in Egypt, last reconstructed in Roman times and still in use as late as the nineteenth century AD. Ninety steps that lead down to the river are marked with Hindu-Arabic, Roman, and hieroglyphic numerals. Inscriptions carved deeply into the rock during the seventeenth dynasty can be seen at the water’s edge.

The other nilometer is a rectangular basin located at the southern tip of the island, near the Temple of Khnum and opposite of the Old Cataract Hotel. It is probably older of the two. One of the nilometers is mentioned by Strabo, a Greek historian, though it is not certain which one.

Many sources claim that the fabled Well of Erastothenes, famous for the calculation of the circumference of Earth by Eratosthenes, was located on the island. Strabo does mention that there was a particular well that was used for observing that Syene lies on the Tropic of Cancer, but the reference is to a well in Syene (Aswan), not on Elephantine. Neither of the nilometers on Elephantine is suitable for the purpose, but the well in Syene is apparently lost

The Elephantine papyri are caches of legal documents and letters written in Aramaic, which document a community of Jewish soldiers, with perhaps an admixture of Samaritans, stationed here during the Persian occupation of Egypt. They maintained their own temple (also see House of Yahweh), evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Khnum The association of the God of Israel with Khnum, a Ram-headed deity, is reminiscent of the blowing the Ram horn at Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation circa 650 BC during Manasseh’s reign, to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign .

The island has the Aswan Museum at the southern end of the island. Ongoing excavations by the German Archaeological Institute at the island’s ancient town site have uncovered many findings that are now on display in the museum, including a mummified ram of Khnum. A sizable population of Nubian people live in three villages in the island’s middle section. A large luxury hotel is at the island’s northern end.