Elephantine: Wikis


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Elephantine Island (as seen from the tower of Moevenpick Hotel)
Elephantine Island, showing the nilometer (lower left) and the Aswan Museum
A night view from Aswan towards Moevenpick Hotel on Elephantine Island

Elephantine (Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين‎) is an island in the River Nile, located just downstream of the First Cataract at the southern border of Ancient Egypt. This region is referred to as Upper Egypt because the land is higher than that near the Mediterranean coast. It may have received its name because it was a trading place for Ivory. Other theories claim that the island is named after its shape. It is easily verifiable that the island's shape is similar to that of an elephant's tusk. This is the meaning of the Greek word elephas (ελέφας). This hypothesis does not explain how the ancients knew the shape of the island.

The island measures some 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) from north to south and is about 400 metres (1,300 ft) across at its widest point. It is a part of the modern Egyptian city of Aswan.


Ancient Egypt

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 BCE), the fort marked the southern border of Egypt.[1]

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.


There are records of a temple to Khnum on the island as early as the third dynasty. Most of the southern tip of the island is taken up by the ruins of a later temple to him. 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 (from 305 BC to 30 BC) and maintained the ancient religious customs and traditions, albeit, often associating the Egyptian deities with their own. Egypt then became part of the Roman Empire and its religious traditions existed alongside those from many diverse cultures until 600 AD.

In ancient times, the island was also an important stone quarry providing granite materials that would be transported widely within Egypt for monuments and buildings.

Ongoing excavations by the German Archaeological Institute at the town have uncovered many findings that are now on display in the museum located on the island, including a mummified ram of Khnum. Artifacts dating back to predynastic times have been found on Elephantine.

The 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 provinces created as regional governments that dated from the Old Kingdom through the Roman Period.

Elephantine calendar

A rare calendar, known as the Elephantine Calendar of Things, dating to the reign of Thutmose III, was found in fragments. Also on the island is one of the oldest nilometers in Egypt, last reconstructed in Roman times and still in use as late as the nineteenth century CE. 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.

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.

Jewish presence

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[2]. They maintained their own temple (also see House of Yahweh), evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Khnum,[3] . The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation circa 650 BCE during Manasseh's reign, to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign (See Investigating the Origin of the Ancient Jewish Community at Elephantine: A Review[1]. ) The documents cover the period 495 to 399 BCE.


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. There are many markings and symbols on the two walls of the nilometer for measuring the water level of the Nile. 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. [4]

In addition to the archaeological site, the island today houses the Aswan Museum at the southern extreme of the island, a sizable population of Nubians in three villages in the middle, and a large, luxury hotel at the downstream, northern end.

See also


  1. ^ Ian Shaw, Ed, Oxford History of Ancient, New York, 2000, page 206
  2. ^ Ibrahim Omer, AncientSudan.org "Briefly Investigating the Origin of the Ancient Jewish Community at Elephantine: A Review".
  3. ^ A. van Hoonacker, Une Communité Judéo-Araméenne à Éléphantine, en Egypte, aux vi et v siècles avant J.-C, London 1915 cited, Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, vol.5, (1939) 1964 p125 n.1
  4. ^ P. G. P. Meyboom (1994). The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina: Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy. BRILL. pp. 52. ISBN 9004101373. http://books.google.fi/books?id=jyTFEJ56iTUC&dq=mosaic+of+palestrina&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=FasLcm-TKd&sig=rcltK2TIl9dyW2fxJBt4PYUTzqk&hl=fi&ei=p4-lSa3SMtKX_ganv4WbBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA51,M1.  

Coordinates: 24°05′N 32°53′E / 24.083°N 32.883°E / 24.083; 32.883



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also elephantine



Proper noun

Wikipedia has an article on:





  1. An island in the river Nile.


  • Hebrew: יב (yev)


Elephantine (not comparable)


not comparable

none (absolute)

  1. Of, from, or pertaining to Elephantine or the Elephantine people.

See also


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