Within easy reach from central Aswan are two Nile River islands that Egyptian history lovers shouldn’t miss. Elephantine Island was always of special importance to Egyptian civilization, as it’s from where the god Khnum was said to control the flow of the whole Nile. Today, the Elephantine Island archaeological site contains ruins spanning from the Old Kingdom up to the Roman and even Coptic eras.
And further south is Seheil Island, a former stone quarry known for the countless inscriptions carved into its rocks. Some of these were copies of ancient historical documents that date back to the time of King Djoser.
While both islands should fascinate Egyptian archaeology lovers, neither is going to dazzle the casual tourist. Despite the extensive amount of ruins at Elephantine, they’re largely in bad shape and much imagination is required.
Fortunately, both islands are home to some cozy Nubian-style cafes, while Elephantine has a locally-run Nubian culture museum. So if your travel companions don’t share your enthusiasm for old stones, there’s plenty to keep them busy as you go out exploring.
Elephantine Island: The Abode of Khnum
Elephantine Island, an easy 5 EGP ferry ride from central Aswan, is currently home to a luxury resort and a colorful Nubian village. But thousands of years ago, the island was revered as the home of Khnum, the creator god who formed all living creatures on his potter’s wheel.
In addition to creating humanity, Khnum also played another important role. From his abode at Elephantine, he controlled the flow and annual flooding of the Nile River. According to legend, Khnum also had help from the goddesses Satet and Anuket, and the three of them together formed the Elephantine Triad.
The annual flood of the Nile was extremely important for Egyptian agriculture, and therefore Egyptian civilization as a whole. Accordingly, pharaohs from the early dynastic times onward built temples for the Elephantine Triad to ensure adequate food for their kingdom.
Elephantine was in constant use as a religious center for thousands of years, and the Elephantine Island archaeological site reflects that.
The Elephantine Island Archaeological Site
The entrance to the archaeological site can be tricky to find. The official entrance is at the southeast part of the island, near a jetty that apparently only private boats can use.
The public ferries, in contrast, drop people off further north. Without any signage, it’s not exactly clear where the ticket booth or official entrance is. I ended up arriving at the site via a large opening in the northern gate. But eventually a guard directed me to the proper entrance.
The Elephantine Island archaeological site isn’t huge, but it’s somewhat tricky to navigate. There are maps posted throughout the site, and they feature around a dozen landmarks numbered in the order you should visit them.
However, there are actually many more landmarks than what’s listed on the map. And whatever you route you choose, some backtracking is required to see everything. The guide below roughly follows the order recommended by the official maps, but you don’t need to follow it very strictly.
As we’ll be jumping back and forth between different time periods, a basic understanding of Egyptian history is recommended prior to your visit.
Entry to the site, which includes both a small museum and open-air ruins, costs 100 EGP.
The Aswan Museum
Past the ticket gate, the first attraction is a small museum simply known as the ‘Aswan Museum.’ The new building has replaced a much older (and seemingly larger) one. It now consists of just a single room, but may be expanding in the future.
The Aswan Museum contains various artifacts, statues and documents discovered throughout the Elephantine Island archaeological site. It’s a good place to get acquainted with the island and its history. It’s no replacement, however, for the much larger Nubian Museum in the center of Aswan.
New Kingdom Satet Temple
Satet, a consort of Khnum, was considered to be a form of Isis. And she was also associated with the star Sirius, revered as the ‘Great Provider’ by the ancient Egyptians. Interestingly, there are just as many temples built to her at Elephantine as there are to Khnum.
Sadly, almost all of the temples around Elephantine had to be completely rebuilt. All we see today are little fragments of the original temples that were placed over concrete reconstructions. Nevertheless, one can still get a feel for the original temples’ size and layout.
Elephantine Island has long been under excavation by the German Archaeological Institute. Presumably, we have them to thank for putting these lost temples together.
Walking around, you can find numerous depictions of Khnum together with priests and pharaohs. Over to the other side, meanwhile, is a former graveyard for rams!
Also nearby the New Kingdom temple is a set of sarcophagi discovered at the site. Additionally, you can spot a stele erected by Seti I. Here we see the 19th Dynasty king, responsible for some of Egypt’s greatest masterpieces, in the presence of Khnum and Amun-Re.
And over by the river are the mudbrick ruins of an ancient settlement from the Old Kingdom. Elephantine Island was not just a religious site, but it functioned as its own city since very early times.
Middle Kingdom Satet Temple & Residences
Accordingly, there are even fewer original fragments left here compared with the other temples. But further north, you can see another set of residential buildings also established during the Middle Kingdom.
Even the early Coptic Christians built at Elephantine. The northern area contains a set of granite pillars inscribed with crosses.
They’re noticeably shorter and slimmer than the columns the ancient Egyptians would build. Also nearby are the ruins of an old monastery.
The Old Kingdom Pyramid
The northernmost section of the Elephantine Island archaeological site is one of its most mysterious. The square-shaped pile of rocks may not look like much at first. But look closely and you’ll see that it’s the base of an ancient step pyramid!
Scholars believe that it was built by Huni, the final king of the 3rd Dynasty. In addition to this one, he built several similar pyramids at places such as Edfu and Abydos.
This pyramid’s base is 18.46 meters long. And in its current ruined state it’s only about 5 meters high. The other small step pyramids built throughout the country share similar dimensions. Interestingly, they were built in a similar style to that of Meidum.
The true purpose of these small pyramids remains a mystery. Perhaps they were built at holy places related to Egyptian mythology. Or perhaps they were political, meant to demarcate Egypt’s provinces, or nomes. In any case, they contain no chamber system and were definitely not tombs.
Notably, this is the southernmost pyramid built in Egypt, not counting the Nubian pyramids situated in present-day Sudan.
Khnum Temple Blocks
Elsewhere around the site are various blocks that once belonged to Khnum temples. It’s almost like a miniature version of the open-air portions of Karnak. Among the carvings is an interesting depiction of Khnum as a ram-headed sphinx!
At the western end of the island you can walk down a set of stairs to see an ancient Nilometer. These were structures carved to measure the height of the Nile at various times. By keeping extensive records, the Egyptians were able to learn much about the river and its patterns.
While Nilometers were constructed all throughout Egypt, what better place to build one than at Elephantine? The island was, after all, the ‘control center’ of the entire river, according to ancient belief.
Back up the steps, you can also find an additional Nilometer by a Roman-era shrine. And this part of the island provides a clear view of the Old Cataract Hotel, famous for playing a starring role in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
Late Period Temple & Settlements
The central portion of the Elephantine Island archaeological site features an extensive Khnum Temple built during the Late Period. While mostly in ruins today, it appears to have been one of the largest temples on the island.
But the temple, established by Nectanebo II (r. 360-342 BC), was likely built over a temple belonging to another faith. Elephantine Island was even once home to a Jewish temple dedicated to Yahweh.
And alongside Yahweh, the local Jewish community worshipped two Semitic goddesses, forming something akin to the Elephantine Triad!
While the temple is no more, we know of its existence thanks to Aramaic documents found on Elephantine dating to the 5th century BC. The findings are noteworthy for a number of reasons.
Mysteriously, they contain no mention of the famous Biblical prophets. Furthermore, many of the practices detailed within contradict traditional Jewish law.
The controversial findings have led some scholars to believe that the Jews at Elephantine were an isolated sect with their own rituals and beliefs. On the other hand, perhaps the Old Testament was a much later creation than originally thought.
Lying among the ruins behind the temple is one of Elephantine Island’s most impressive pieces. It’s an impeccably carved shrine that was created from a single block of granite.
It appears perfectly smooth and symmetrical, carved to the same level of precision as the mysterious granite sarcophagi found throughout Egypt.
It’s strange to see such an impressive piece lying on its side among a pile of rubble. It quite possibly once contained the statues of Khnum or Satet in the former temple’s central sanctuary.
Sanctuary of Heqaib
Over to the right, you’ll see a structure known as the Sanctuary of Heqaib down below. Sadly, it was closed during my visit and I could only catch a glimpse of it from above.
Heqaib was the governor of Elephantine and the overseer of priests during the 6th Dynasty. Interestingly, he was rare among non-royals to be deified following his death.
And his sanctuary became especially popular during the Middle Kingdom. Accordingly, many granite statues dating from the 12th Dynasty were found there.
It’s the only place at Elephantine to contain a statue, while additional statues found here are now on display at the Nubian Museum. They’re of Heqaib’s later successors, some of whom were named after him.
Moving onward, you can walk up to a lookout point providing clear views of the entire archaeological zone.
The Lower Area
The southwesternmost section of the archaeological site features a few additional structures. During my visit, I found the gate leading to it to be locked. However, I was able to figure out a way there by walking all the way around the site’s northern enclosure.
Overall, there’s not a whole lot to see here. But interestingly, one of the structures was once situated on the now submerged island of Old Kalabsha. While most structures from there were reconstructed on New Kalabsha, one small temple was rebuilt on Elephantine instead.
Also somewhere around here is a carving left by Khufu-Ankh of the 4th Dynasty, but I wasn’t able to find it.
Around Elephantine Island
The rest of Elephantine Island is well worth a walk around. It’s still home to a local Nubian community, descendants of those who’ve been living in the area since very ancient times.
After my walk around the ruins, I stopped for lunch at a cafe called Nubian House. While the restaurant charges tourist prices (120 EGP for a set meal and coffee), the friendly staff and nice view of the Nile made up for it.
One of the owners took the time to show me his collection of stuffed crocodiles and all sorts of antiques he’d collected from the US and Europe.
In the center of the island is a local museum dedicated to Nubian culture called Animalia. As the name suggests, there were plenty of taxidermied animals on display. But the real highlight was the explanation by the owner on traditional Nubian houses, customs and lifestyle.
An additional room also contained info on the influence that the Nubians had on ancient Egyptian culture throughout the centuries. It costs just 40 EGP for entry, while explanations are available in both English and French.
Seheil Island is much less visited than Elephantine, and a trip there is only really essential for the true archaeology enthusiast. But seeing everything shouldn’t take more than an hour or so and it should easily fit into your itinerary.
As mentioned above, there’s a cafe by the port if your travel companions aren’t as enthusiastic about checking out old rocks.
Seheil Island is located in the southern part of Aswan. The nearest landmark is Aswan Stadium, from where you can walk down to the jetty. While not too incredibly difficult to find, you’ll have to walk through some residential backroads for ten minutes or so to get there.
Once on the island, ignore any ‘guides’ who offer to show you around. The archaeological site (which closes at 16:00) is just a 5-minute walk away. The area with the rock carvings costs 40 EGP to enter.
But what’s the significance of Seheil Island and why does it contain so many carvings?
The island was long used as a granite quarry. Throughout history, any Egyptian ruler who wanted to use granite in their constructions needed to send workers down to Aswan to fetch it.
And at some point, visitors to the island started leaving inscriptions on the sides of the granite boulders – among them copies of important historical documents.
Hiking around the area, you’ll notice a lot more inscriptions than initially meet the eye. Many of them were also left by travelers headed deeper into Nubia. Without a knowledge of hieroglyphs, one can only guess at what the inscriptions mean.
But up above the hill is Seheil Island’s most famous inscription by far: the Famine Stela. While written down during Greco-Roman times, it’s a copy of a much older document dating back to the reign of King Djoser (27th century BC).
Djoser was the 3rd Dynasty pharaoh who, along with his architect Imhotep, created Egypt’s very first pyramid at Saqqara. At the top of the carving, Djoser presents offerings to the Elephantine Triad.
The text below, meanwhile, describes a famine caused by the lack of the Nile’s annual flood. Distraught, Djoser consulted with Imhotep, who suggested a visit to Elephantine Island to appease the god Khnum.
Imhotep ended up visiting Elephantine himself, and after making offerings at the Khnum temple, he witnessed the ram-headed god in a dream. Following the visit, the Nile started flooding again, ending the drought.
Grateful to Khnum, Djoser revived his temples at Elephantine and started to make regular offerings to the deity throughout his reign.
The local guard at Seheil was helpful, and he took me over to another notable inscription down on the other side of the hill.
This one dates back to the Middle Kingdom, and it commemorates the construction of a canal by Senusret II of the 12th Dynasty.
Much more recently, due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the Nile River no longer undergoes its annual flooding. We can only hope that Khnum is now enjoying a much-needed rest.
When researching accommodation online, I was surprised to discover that hotels in Aswan are considerably more expensive than in other Egyptian cities.
While I cam across some reasonably priced and centrally located hotels, many of them seemed to have poor reviews. I went ahead and booked a midrange hotel on Elephantine Island, but the hosts never responded to any of my questions, leading me to cancel.
Eventually, I decided on a place called David Hostel located in the south of the city. While I’m not much of a hostel person, this turned out to be a good choice. Not only did I meet some nice people, but David the owner was incredibly helpful in regards to advice on sightseeing and transport. He was upfront and honest about all the different options and helps his guests get the local prices when possible.
While I thought it would be a bit out of the way, I found the location to be completely reasonable. It was close to places like Seheil Island, and most of the locations in central Aswan were still walkable. There were also plenty of decent and affordable restaurants nearby.
For those with more money to spend, there are lots more luxurious options around Aswan. The most famous of them is the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie famously stayed when she wrote Death on the Nile.
Aswan isn’t that big. Aside from staying in the city center around the train station, Elephantine Island would be a good choice as well. It features plenty of hotels and guest houses while it’s just an easy ferry ride to the city center. It’s also home to a luxury resort called Movenpick.
Aswan can be accessed by plane, rail or car.
I got there from Luxor with a private driver. On the way I stopped at four locations (Esna, El Kab, Edfu and Kom Ombo). After Aswan I needed to return to Cairo, so I just hopped on an early morning train.
Strangely, when it comes to train travel in Egypt, it’s often impossible for a foreigner to buy the cheapest tickets in person at the station. However, it’s still perfectly legal for foreigners to ride any train. The trick is to just buy them online from the official Egyptian National Railways site and print them out before departure.
Here is an excellent resource for all train timetables in Egypt. It’s worth going for the nicest AC1 trains, which are still quite cheap. Snacks and coffee are sold onboard. But expect the entire cabin to reek of smoke, as people constantly use the space in between the train carriages as a smoking lounge.
If you’re not able to book online for some reason, here’s another solution: simply show up at the station, hop on the train and sit down. When the ticket inspector comes by, pay him. Strangely, while you can’t buy tickets from the ticket booth, this method is completely acceptable.