Guardians of the Southern Gate
Guardians of the southern gateThe ancient settlement at the southern tip of Elephantine Island at Aswan has seen uninterrupted habitation from before the unification of the Two Lands, through the Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods and on to modern times. Jill Kamil describes its remarkable history, some of its most spectacular surviving monuments, and its new site museum
Elephantine Island lies opposite the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan and offers a backdrop for all those photographs of white-sailed fellucas under an ultramarine sky. A fortification was built at its southern tip by early settlers whose emblem was an elephant (abu in Egyptian), symbol of the ivory trade. They chose this island location, two kilometres long and 500 metres at its widest, because of its strategic importance, isolated from the mainland and facing the alien territory of Nubia.
It takes a far stretch of the imagination, now that the High Dam has forever changed the topography of the land, to imagine this area in ancient times. Separating Egypt and Nubia was the First (or Aswan) Cataract, a stretch of river with sharp granite boulders strewn upon its bed. During the annual inundation the velocity of the water, confined by the hills, forced it to drop in turbulent falls and created swirling eddies. The ancients regarded this as the edge of the world, the place where the life-giving flood waters of the Nile flowed into Egypt's limestone belt and deposited its fertile alluvial soil on both banks of the Nile. The ram-headed god Khnum, sovereign lord of the island, was believed to control the flood, and the chief goddesses were Satis and Anukis, his consort and daughter.
The archaeological wealth and importance of Elephantine was not fully appreciated until relatively recent times. The earliest project envisioned for the study of Egyptian monuments throughout Egypt, by the French scholar Jacques de Morgan between 1887 and 1889, resulted in three volumes of collected material. However the third volume, which covered the area between Kom Ombo and Aswan, did not include Elephantine. Apparently the team never crossed the river to the ancient settlement on the island; all they did was identify two small temples.
After the turn of the 20th century German archaeologists took an interest in the island when they chanced upon some Aramaic papyri in the possession of some farmers from Aswan Gharb (West Aswan), which aroused interest among scholars who were looking at the time for evidence that might shed light on a community of Jews who had settled on the island during and after the Persian period, from the sixth century BC. The farmers claimed the papyri came from the southern tip of Elephantine, and soon excavations were in progress. French scholars followed the German mission, and between 1906 and 1910 the two teams found what they were looking for: hundreds of fragments of papyri, along with scores of ostraca written in Aramaic which provided evidence that Jewish settlers had indeed been brought to Elephantine, probably to guard the southern gate, and had built a temple to their god Yahweh (Jehovah) immediately behind the temple of Khnum.
After the teams left no further excavations were carried out on Elephantine until 1935 when the Borchardt Institute (the forerunner of the Swiss Institute) showed an interest in carrying out a survey and studying the surviving architecture of the island. Their work was interrupted first by the Second World War, and then by the Nubia Salvage Operations in the 1960s. Only in 1969 did the German Archaeological Institute, in cooperation with the Swiss Institute, obtain a concession to restore and document all he monuments, a task which has, after season upon season of tireless work, transformed Elephantine into one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Egypt.
The site at the southern tip of Elephantine has been excavated, its monuments restored and the site developed into a singular open air museum. This includes 28 vantage points designed so that visitors can comprehend the complex totality of the ancient Egyptian town from the late predynastic to early Islamic times: its temple precincts, administrative buildings, residential and industrial quarters and two nilometers cover the entire period of its historical development.
Remarkable evidence of cultural continuity has been unearthed which clearly shows the ancient people's pride in their past and their extreme conservatism. How else can one explain the fact that beneath the graceful temple of Satis (built in Graeco-Roman times) is a secluded niche in the original shrine dating back to the dawn of history? It would appear that the earliest settlers on the island chose this protected spot between the granite boulders to create a tiny shrine. To what deity it was dedicated we do not know, but from hundreds of votive objects in faience, pottery, ivory, and limestone that have come to light (some bearing the names of such Old Kingdom Pharaohs as Pepi I and II) we know that it became a place of pilgrimage in the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC). Even after the end of the great Pyramid Age the little shrine continued to be visited by devotees -- so large a number, in fact, that the powerful 12th-Dynasty Pharaohs enlarged the original shrine. A courtyard was built in front of the granite rocks to create a more impressive entrance. This, in turn, was further transformed in the 18th Dynasty (1567-1320 BC) when the original niche and court were filed with stones up to ground level, after which a large stone temple was erected over it by Thutmosis III (c. 1450 BC). Later still, Nektanebo II (360-342 BC) and Alexander IV (317- 311 BC) made further additions to the temple.
Each of these Pharaohs was careful to preserve the original shrine -- that is to say, they did not fill it with debris to form a foundation for before building over of it (as was the practice in most archaeological sites) but made it accessible by means of a stone-lined shaft that descended through the foundations of the later structures to the sacred place beneath.
Imagine the delight of the German and Swiss archaeologists clearing the temple prior to reconstruction in 1971 when they came upon the tiny original niche built by the earliest settlers. Here was evidence of what is possibly the earliest extant holy shrine in the whole of Egypt.
Another monument on Elephantine that demonstrates continuity is the sanctuary of Heqaib. This is a compact structure made of mud brick, originally faced with stone and now roofed over for protection. It is dedicated to a local hero of Aswan whose full name was Pepinakht-Heqaib and who lived about 2280 BC in the reign of Pepi II, one of the last of the great Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. Unusually, Heqaib was honoured in his own lifetime, and after an impressive career he died at a ripe old age and was buried on Qubbet El-Hawa. There, in a special hall built by his son, Heqaib was honoured for generation after generation. Eventually, 300 years after his death, a governor of Elephantine named Sirenput who claimed to be Heqaib's direct descendant obtained permission from Pharaoh Sesostris I (1974- 1929 BC) to build a sanctuary in his honour. It was a most unusual request, but permission was granted. Sirenput did build the sanctuary and his successors continued to add shrines to it, each building a chapel next to the original and adding life-size statues, offering tables and other objects to show their devotion to their ancestor.
Excavation of Heqaib's sanctuary in 1932 and again in 1946 uncovered a wealth of Middle Kingdom statuary which can now be seen in the Nubian Museum. Casts were made of the most important, and these have been set up in their respective shrines in the reconstructed sanctuary. Heqaib was neither a Pharaoh nor a god, but he was a local resident and hero remembered long after his death, and his name means "stout (or strong) of heart".
Since the First Cataract was regarded as the edge of the world, it is not surprising that there should be nilometers on Elephantine Island. One is the well- known nilometer facing Aswan, approached by a fight of steps constructed of regular-shaped stones and built during the Late Period in the sixth century BC. It was repaired in Roman times, rediscovered in 1822 after centuries of neglect, and brought back into use in 1870 by an eminent astronomer, Mahmoud Bey, when a new scale was established. Khedive Ismail recorded the repairs in French and Arabic on the eastern wall of the stairway.
The other nilometer is much more ancient, though the date of its construction has not been determined. It is a great square pit and unlike the later structure, which records the height of the flood above a low-water level, it has a calibration based on the level of the flood water above the agricultural land. This nilometer may be the very one mentioned by Strabo, the Roman geographer who came to Egypt in the first century AD. If so, then it was one of the three main nilometers of Egypt in ancient times, the other two being at Memphis and in the Delta.
The task of excavating and sorting out the ruins on Elephantine one from the other and reconstructing the ancient settlement has been made especially difficult because, in the past, many of the temples were dismantled to obtain building material for later structures. Sometimes little more than the foundations of the large temples survived in situ, while the smaller ones disappeared almost entirely .
An idea of the complexity of Elephantine can be gauged from the plans on display in the new site museum, which show the development of the settlement during the various phases of its history. One shows the early dynastic period through to the first Intermediate Period ((ca. 3000-2050 BC), a second the Middle Kingdom to the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 2050-1550 BC), a third covers the New Kingdom and the Late Period (ca. 1550- 332 BC), and a fourth shows Ptolemaic and Roman additions to the temple (332 BC to the 3rd century AD). Under the Romans there was great expansion to the sacred area along the Nile between the temples of Satis and Khnum. At this tome too a Nile sanctuary and a monumental staircase with some 70 stairs was built at the harbour. It is unusually well-preserved beneath layers of silt deposited by the Nile, and it would appear that it was used only on special occasions to provide access from the harbour to the temple area during festivals.
The museum building was erected in 1991/92 to document archaeological work undertaken on Elephantine and to serve as a storeroom. It is a well-lit and airy structure, situated immediately to the north of the villa-like Elephantine Museum -- originally the residence and office for the engineer in charge of administration for the first Aswan Dam at the turn of the 20th century -- which continues to house finds from the older excavations of the ancient town and some from northern Nubia before the construction of the Aswan Dam. Well-produced maps enable an understanding of the site, while the exhibits range from royal statues to spindle whorls and awls used in weaving. There is a showcase devoted to hunting, fish, and farming which reveals a staple diet of the people on Elephantine; various stelae; a coin horde discovered in 1988 underneath a stairway in a house dating from the Ptolemaic period; foundation deposits -- i.e. votive objects, the bones of sacrificed oxen and Nile geese; and four mud bricks with small plaques inscribed with the name of the Pharaoh. There is domestic furniture from the second and first millennium BC, a rich assortment of cosmetic utensils and items of jewellery found in Old Kingdom tombs, and a few wooden statues depicting gods.
This museum, like the site of Elephantine itself, is out of the ordinary. Where else can one find a well-preserved papyrus marriage contract in demotic, along with its translation? This was among the seven scrolls of a family archive found in the disused oven of a 30th-Dynasty house (c. 350 BC).
The terms of the contract are fascinating. They reveal that a man named Petesis took to wife a woman called Tareshut, from whom he received some personal items including a copper mirror, a pot and one deben of silver. The contract makes clear that should he disown her, or should she leave him of her own accord, he would immediately return these items to her. Should he fail to fulfil this stipulation he would be obliged to pay her monthly maintenance in grain, oil, and silver until he had reimbursed her in full. In the contract is a clause, otherwise unknown in an ancient marriage contract, which outlines that the wife, for her part, agrees to return to her husband on a day specified by him the clothes she might be wearing at the time of divorce or separation, freshly washed. Petesis declares, moreover, that he cannot claim to have returned the silver, mirror and garments so long as the contract remains in Tareshut's possession. The contract was drawn up and signed by the scribe Harsiesis, and the names of a dozen or more persons witnesses are written on the back.
Larger objects, mostly statues and stelae, have been placed outside the museum. Among the statues is one of Seti I, who restored the damage done during the Amarna Period to Elephantine's temples, and a finely-carved (probably 25th-Dynasty) seated Pharaoh in black stone.
Elephantine: The Ancient Town, the Official Guidebook of the German Institute of Archaeology.
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