Last updated
Native name:
جزيرة الفنتين
Aswan, Elephantine, west bank, Egypt, Oct 2004.jpg
West bank of Elephantine Island on the Nile
Adjacent bodies of waterNile
Length1,200 m (3,900 ft)
Width400 m (1,300 ft)
Egypt adm location map.svg
Red pog.svg
Elephantine Island in the Nile,
at Aswan, Upper Egypt.
"Elephantine" [1]
in hieroglyphs
View south (upstream) of Elephantine Island and Nile, from a hotel tower. Elephantine by Zureks.jpg
View south (upstream) of Elephantine Island and Nile, from a hotel tower.

Elephantine ( /ˌɛlɪfænˈtn, -ˈt-/ EL-i-fan-TY-nee, -TEE-; [2] Ancient Egyptian : ꜣbw ; Egyptian Arabic : جزيرة الفنتين, romanized: Gazīrat il-Fantīn; Greek : Ἐλεφαντίνη; Coptic : (Ⲉ)ⲓⲏⲃ) is an island on the Nile, forming part of the city of Aswan in Upper Egypt. There are archaeological sites on the island.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Coptic language Latest stage of the Egyptian language

Coptic or Coptic Egyptian, is the latest stage of the Egyptian language, a northern Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Egypt until at least the 17th century as an official language. Egyptian began to be written in the Coptic alphabet, an adaptation of the Greek alphabet with the addition of six or seven signs from Demotic to represent Egyptian sounds the Greek language did not have, in the 1st century AD.



Verdant Euphantine Island, opposite Assuan, Egypt", 1908. Lantern slide. Brooklyn Museum View 071, Verdant Euphantine Island, opposite Assuan, Egypt, 1908.jpg
Verdant Euphantine Island, opposite Assuan, Egypt", 1908. Lantern slide. Brooklyn Museum
Island of Elephantine (Egypt) - Edwin Howland Blashfield. Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn Museum - Island of Elephantine (Egypt) - Edwin Howland Blashfield - overall.jpg
Island of Elephantine (Egypt) - Edwin Howland Blashfield. Brooklyn Museum

Elephantine 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 Upper Egypt with Lower Nubia. This region above is referred to as Upper Egypt because it is further up the Nile.

Cataracts of the Nile rapid

The Cataracts of the Nile are shallow lengths of the Nile River, between Aswan and Khartoum, where the surface of the water is broken by many small boulders and stones jutting out of the river bed, as well as many rocky islets. In some places, these stretches are punctuated by whitewater, while at others the water flow is smoother, but still shallow.

Upper Egypt strip of land on the Nile valley between Nubia and Lower Egypt

Upper Egypt is the strip of land on both sides of the Nile that extends between Nubia and downriver (northwards) to Lower Egypt.

Lower Nubia is the northernmost part of Nubia, downstream on the Nile from Upper Nubia. Sometimes, it overlapped Upper Egypt stretching to the First and Second Cataracts, so roughly until Aswan. A great deal of Upper Egypt and northern Lower Nubia were flooded with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. However the intensive archaeological work conducted prior to the flooding means that the history of the area is much better known than that of Upper Nubia. Its history is also known from its long relations with Egypt.

The island may have received its name after its shape, which in aerial views is similar to that of an elephant tusk, or from the rounded rocks along the banks resembling elephants.

Ancient Egypt

Known to the Ancient Egyptians as ꜣbw "Elephant" (Middle Egyptian: /ˈʀuːbaw/ → Medio-Late Egyptian: /ˈjuːbəʔ/ → Coptic: (Ⲉ)ⲓⲏⲃ /ˈjeβ/), 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.

Ancient Egypt ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa

Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient North Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.

Tropic of Cancer Line of northernmost latitude at which the sun can be directly overhead

The Tropic of Cancer, which is also referred to as the Northern Tropic, is the most northerly circle of latitude on Earth at which the Sun can be directly overhead. This occurs on the June solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun to its maximum extent. It is currently 23°26′12.3″ (or 23.43675°) north of the Equator.

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. [3]

According to ancient Egyptian religion, Elephantine 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 of Egyptian deities. This "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 Aswan. 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.

Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals that formed an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. It centered on the Egyptians' interaction with many deities believed to be present in, and in control of, the world. Rituals such as prayer and offerings were provided to the gods to gain their favor. Formal religious practice centered on the pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt, believed to possess a divine power by virtue of their position. They acted as intermediaries between their people and the gods, and were obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain Ma'at, the order of the cosmos. The state dedicated enormous resources to religious rituals and to the construction of temples.

Khnum god of creation and the waters in Egyptian mythology

Khnum was one of the earliest-known Egyptian deities, originally the god of the source of the Nile. Since the annual flooding of the Nile brought with it silt and clay, and its water brought life to its surroundings, he was thought to be the creator of the bodies of human children, which he made at a potter's wheel, from clay, and placed in their mothers' uteruses. He later was described as having moulded the other deities, and he had the titles "Divine Potter" and "Lord of created things from himself".

A triple deity is three deities that are worshipped as one. Such deities are common throughout world mythology; the number three has a long history of mythical associations. Carl Jung considered the arrangement of deities into triplets an archetype in the history of religion.

Temple of Khnum. KhnoumTempleElephantine.jpg
Temple of Khnum.

Archaeological sites

Ongoing excavations by the German Archaeological Institute at the town have uncovered many findings, on display in the Aswan Museum located on the island, including a mummified ram of Khnum. Artifacts dating back to prehistoric Egypt have been found on Elephantine. A rare calendar, known as the Elephantine Calendar of Things, which dates to the reign of Thutmose III during the Eighteenth Dynasty, was found in fragments on the island.

In ancient times the island was also an important stone quarry, providing granite for monuments and buildings all over Egypt.


Prior to 1822, there were temples to Thutmose III and Amenhotep III on the island. At that time they were destroyed during the campaign of Muhammad Ali, who had taken power in Egypt, to conquer Sudan. Both temples were relatively intact prior to the deliberate demolition.[ citation needed ]

The first temple was the Temple of Satet, it was founded around 3000 BC and enlarged and renovated over the next 3,000 years. There are records of an Egyptian temple to Khnum on the island as early as the Third Dynasty. 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 (305–30 BC) and maintained the ancient religious customs and traditions, while often associating the Egyptian deities with their own.

Most of the present day southern tip of the island is taken up by the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. These, the oldest ruins still standing on the island, are composed of a granite step pyramid from the Third Dynasty and a small temple built for the local Sixth Dynasty nomarch, Heqaib. In the Middle Kingdom, many officials, such as the local governors Sarenput I or Heqaib III, dedicated statues and shrines into the temple.

The Aswan Museum, and a nilometer (lower left). IlhaElefantina.jpg
The Aswan Museum, and a nilometer (lower left).


A nilometer was a structure for measuring the Nile River's clarity and the water level during the annual flood season. There are two nilometers at Elephantine Island. The more famous is a corridor nilometer associated with the Temple of Satis, with a stone staircase that descends 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 Arabic, Roman, and hieroglyphic numerals. Visible at the water's edge are inscriptions carved deeply into the rock during the Seventeenth Dynasty.

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

Many sources claim that the fabled "Well of Eratosthenes", famous in connection with Eratosthenes' calculation of the Earth's circumference, was located on the island. Strabo mentions a well that was used to observe that Aswan lies on the Tropic of Cancer, but the reference is to a well at Aswan, not at Elephantine. Neither nilometer at Elephantine is suitable for the purpose, while the well at Aswan is apparently lost. [4]

Nubian houses on central Elephantine Island Nubian village Elephantine Island.JPG
Nubian houses on central Elephantine Island

Jewish presence

The Elephantine papyri are caches of legal documents and letters written in Aramaic, which document a Jewish community, perhaps made up of mercenaries, dating to sometime in the 5th century BC. [5] [6] They maintained their own temple (also see House of Yahweh), in which sacrifices were offered, evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Khnum. [7]

The temple may have been built in reaction to Manasseh's reinstitution of pagan worship or simply to serve the needs of the Jewish community. [5]

Other features

The Aswan Museum is located 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 Nubians live in three villages in the island's middle section. A large luxury hotel is at the island's northern end.

The Aswan Botanical Garden is adjacent to the west on el Nabatat Island.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Satis, also known by numerous related names, was an Upper Egyptian goddess who, along with Khnum and Anuket, formed part of the Elephantine Triad. A protective deity of Egypt's southern border with Nubia, she came to personify the former annual flooding of the Nile and to serve as a war, hunting, and fertility goddess.

Anuket Egyptian deity

Anuket was the ancient Egyptian goddess of the cataracts of the Nile and Lower Nubia in general, worshipped especially at Elephantine near the First Cataract.

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Sehel Island Island in the Nile

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Temple of Beit el-Wali building in Egypt

The Temple of Beit el-Wali is a rock-cut Ancient Egyptian temple in Nubia which was built by Pharaoh Ramesses II and dedicated to the deities of Amun-Re, Re-Horakhti, Khnum and Anuket. It was the first in a series of temples built by Ramesses II in this region; its name Beit el-Wali means 'House of the Holy Man' and may indicate its previous use by a Christian hermit at some point in time. The temple was relocated during the 1960s as a result of the Aswan High Dam project and moved towards higher ground along with the Temple of Kalabsha. This move was coordinated with a team of Polish archaeologists financed jointly by a Swiss and Chicago Institute respectively. The temple was located 50 kilometres south of Aswan.

Nubia region along the Nile river, which is located in northern Sudan and southern Egypt

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Ta-Seti was the first nome of Upper Egypt, one of 42 nomoi in Ancient Egypt. Ta-Seti also marked the border area towards Nubia.

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Sarenput II ancient Egyptian nomarch

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The Temple of Satet or Satis was an Ancient Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Satet, a personification of the Nile inundation. The temple was located on the Nile Valley island of Elephantine, Egypt. Founded during the late Predynastic Period around 3200 BC, it was enlarged and renovated several times from the Early Dynastic Period onwards over the next 3000 years until the Ptolemaic Period. The temple of Satet is the best example of an Ancient Egyptian temple whose construction is attested over the entire pharaonic period.

The Triakontaschoinos, Latinized as Triacontaschoenus, was a geographical and administrative term used in the Greco-Roman world for the part of Lower Nubia between the First and Second Cataracts of the Nile. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, all or the northern part of this area, stretching from the First Cataract south to Maharraqa and known as the Dodekaschoinos, latinized as Dodecaschoenus, was often annexed to Egypt or controlled from it. The terms Triakontaschoinos and Dodekaschoinos were first found in the Ptolemaic period and denominate buffer zones between Egypt and later Rome on the one hand and Meroe on the other hand.


  1. "3bw" in Faulkner, Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian cf. http://projetrosette.info/popup.php?Id=1012&idObjet=423
  2. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary, Third Edition (Merriam-Webster, 1997; ISBN   0877795460), p. 351.
  3. Ian Shaw, Ed, Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, New York, 2000, page 206
  4. Meyboom, P. G. P. (1995). The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina: Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy. BRILL. p. 52. ISBN   90-04-10137-3.
  5. 1 2 Botta, Alejandro (2009). The Aramaic and Egyptian Legal Traditions at Elephantine: An Egyptological Approach. T&T Clark. pp. 15–116. ISBN   978-0567045331.
  6. Grabbe, Lester L. (2011). A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period (vol. 2). Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p. 103. ISBN   978-0567541192.
  7. A. van Hoonacker, Une Communauté 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

Coordinates: 24°05′N32°53′E / 24.083°N 32.883°E / 24.083; 32.883