Destinations: The Enchanted Island
Egyptian temples, Nubian ruins, ancient Nilometers—Elephantine Island is an archaeologist’s (and a traveler’s) dream.
Early in Agatha Christie’s mystery, Death on the Nile, the novel’s diminutive hero strolls through the serene public gardens of the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt. Immaculately clad in his white linen suit and panama hat, Hercule Poirot stops to admire the hotel’s spectacular view. “It enchants me,” he says, “the black rocks of Elephantine, and the sun, and the little boats on the river.”
Today, more than 60 years after Dame Agatha published her tangled tale of murder and intrigue on the cruise ship Karnak, Elephantine remains an enchanting place. A small, picturesque island positioned just north of the swirling waters of the Nile’s first cataract, Elephantine was once an important trading center between northern and southern Egypt. Originally called Abu, meaning elephant in Egyptian, the island’s name was changed to Elephantine by the Greeks—these names, perhaps, a reflection of the area’s once-prosperous ivory trade or the looming black cliffs along Elephantine’s coastline.
At the southern tip of the island, Elephantine’s ancient settlement provides a microcosm of Egyptian history, from prehistoric times (c. 3500 B.C.E.) to the early Islamic period (seventh century C.E.). In the most recent excavations, which began more than 30 years ago and continue today, Swiss and German Egyptologists have exposed not only temples—the lifeblood of Egyptian archaeology—but also the remnants of residences, government buildings and temple precincts that made up the living structure of an Egyptian town in antiquity.
To travel to Elephantine, hail one of Aswan’s ubiquitous feluccas, which skim the surface of the Nile under the control of lithe Nubian boatmen. Their tall sails made crisp by the wind, the feluccas tack from bank to bank, carrying passengers and goods across the broad river.
Stop first at the island’s red-roofed, veranda-wrapped museum. A 1902 villa originally owned by the British engineer Sir William Willcocks (who designed the first Aswan Dam in 1898), the museum contains artifacts found on Elephantine and has a new annex where finds from recent excavations are displayed along with a model of the site. The museum also sells the recently published guide Elephantine, the Ancient Town, a well-written, English-language text that contains a self-guided walking tour of 28 different sites in ancient Elephantine.
The most famous and arguably most significant finds from Elephantine are the so-called Elephantine Papyri, only glancingly mentioned in the guide. A horde of fifth-century B.C.E. documents written in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, the papyri consist of letters, contracts and other personal papers written by 062the Jews of ancient Elephantine. The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded around 650 B.C.E. when King Manasseh of Judah (698–642 B.C.E.) may have sent a small contingent of soldiers to southern Egypt to help Pharaoh Psammethichus I (664–610 B.C.E.) fight the Assyrians.a One remarkably detailed letter found among the papyri, dating to November 25, 407 B.C.E., reveals that Elephantine was once the site of a great Jewish temple with five gateways, bronze pivots on its doors, a cedar wood roof and basins of gold and silver. A scenic overlook identified by the guidebook as “viewing place #17” provides a panoramic view of the probable site of the destroyed Jewish temple and its surrounding settlement.
For most tourists, however, the high point of Elephantine is its ancient Egyptian temples. The antelope goddess Satet and the ram-headed god of the cataract region, Khnum, both have shrines here. Archaeologists working at Elephantine have achieved something unparalleled in the entire Nile Valley. Through their reconstructions, we can see the transformation of Satet’s temples over three millennia.
Two reconstructions stand one above the other. The upper one is an 18th Dynasty (1570–1320 B.C.E.) temple built by Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1473–1458 B.C.E.). It remained standing for more than 1,300 years, until it was dismantled by the Greek rulers of Egypt, the Ptolemies, to make way for a larger temple.
Queen Hatshepsut’s temple could be reconstructed by modern archaeologists because some of its engraved stones were found reused in the foundation of the later Ptolemaic Satet temple. The blocks bore interlocking reliefs that could be matched to each other like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The Louvre, in Paris, contributed casts of 20 more reliefs that had been removed from the temple at the beginning of the 20th century. Ultimately, not only the decorative scheme but the plan of the temple was discovered.
One beautifully preserved relief depicts the antelope goddess Satet, the ram-headed god Khnum and Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 B.C.E.), stepson of Hatshepsut. Thutmose III appears in the relief because once he became sole ruler of Egypt, he destroyed all reminders of his hated stepmother.b Since Hatshepsut often had herself depicted as a man, her eradication sometimes required no more than the recarving of a name label.
Hatshepsut’s temple to Satet has been reconstructed on a concrete platform, permitting preservation beneath it of the Old Kingdom Sixth Dynasty Satet temple 063(c. 2300 B.C.E.). This very modest temple, little more than a mudbrick hut built against two boulders, is typical of what the gods received in most small Egyptian towns—a far cry from the great stone funerary monuments and tombs being built at places like Giza in the third millennium B.C.E.
While worship of the goddess Satet was confined to Elephantine, ram-headed Khnum was revered throughout ancient Egypt. By the 20th dynasty (1200–1085 B.C.E.) Khnum’s temple at Elephantine overshadowed Satet’s. Today, the most prominent architectural features at ancient Elephantine are two standing granite door jambs from the large portal of Khnum’s temple, built about 350 B.C.E. by Pharaoh Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian-born pharaoh before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E.
Elephantine is also well known for its two nilometers, found on the island’s eastern shore. Built into the banks of the Nile, these installations were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to measure the rise and fall of the river during the annual flood season. Their function and importance in Elephantine society were described by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo (c. 63 B.C.E.–23 C.E.):
The water in the [nilometer] rises and falls with the rise of the stream. On the side of the well are marks, measuring the height sufficient for irrigation and other water levels. These are observed and made known to all … This is of importance to the peasants for the management of water, the embankments, the canals and so on, and also to the officials for the purpose of taxation; for the higher the rise of the water the higher are the taxes.
Because of the construction of the Aswan region’s second great dam—the High Dam—in the 1960s, the Nile no longer floods, but you can still walk down the nilometer steps and see a scale designated with Greek numerals and the names of Roman officials, as well as later Turkish gauges.
Before leaving Elephantine, make a short excursion to the southwestern edge of the island, through a gate in a modern brick wall. There a small temple dedicated to the Nubian god Mandulis has been reconstructed from 250 blocks recovered from the foundation of a later temple. The original site of Mandulis’s shrine (a small village called Kalabsha) was submerged beneath Lake Nasser when the High Dam was built in the 1960s. It is a small reminder of the huge international effort to save ancient monuments. Fourteen temples were removed block by block to safe sites above the Nile’s rising waters. They include the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel and the Temple of Philae, which was moved to an island not far from Aswan.
At the end of the day, grab a felucca to the dock of the Old Cataract Hotel. Little has changed since Hercule Poirot first suspected imminent foul play. Late afternoon tea on the terrace looking across the Nile to ancient Elephantine remains one of the world’s most civilized experiences.
Early in Agatha Christie’s mystery, Death on the Nile, the novel’s diminutive hero strolls through the serene public gardens of the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt. Immaculately clad in his white linen suit and panama hat, Hercule Poirot stops to admire the hotel’s spectacular view. “It enchants me,” he says, “the black rocks of Elephantine, and the sun, and the little boats on the river.” Today, more than 60 years after Dame Agatha published her tangled tale of murder and intrigue on the cruise ship Karnak, Elephantine remains an enchanting place. A small, picturesque island positioned just north of […]