Elephantine (/ˌɛlɪfænˈtn, -ˈt-/ EL-if-an-TY-nee, -⁠TEE-;[2] Ancient Egyptian: 𓍋𓃀𓅱𓃰, romanizedꜣbw; Egyptian Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين; Greek: Ἐλεφαντίνη Elephantíne; Coptic: (Ⲉ)ⲓⲏⲃ (e)iēb, Coptic pronunciation: [jæb]) is an island on the Nile, forming part of the city of Aswan in Upper Egypt. The archaeological digs on the island became a World Heritage Site in 1979, along with other examples of Upper Egyptian architecture, as part of the "Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae" (despite Elephantine being neither Nubian, nor between Abu Simbel and Philae).[3]

Native name:
جزيرة فيلة
West bank of Elephantine Island on the Nile
Elephantine is located in Egypt
Location in the Nile at Aswan, Upper Egypt
Coordinates24°05′N 32°53′E / 24.09°N 32.89°E / 24.09; 32.89
Adjacent toNile
Length1,200 m (3900 ft)
Width400 m (1300 ft)
in hieroglyphs
View south (upstream) of Elephantine Island and Nile, from a hotel tower.

The island has been studied through excavation sites. Aramaic papyri and ostraca have been collected to study what life was life on Elephantine during the time of Ancient Egypt. There have been studies about the Elephantine Triad and the Jewish presence that formulated on the island.[4]

The standard reference collection of the Aramaic documents of the Elephantine Papyri and Ostraca is the Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt.[5]



Elephantine, or what Ancient Egyptians called Yebu or Abu is located at the uppermost part of the Nile river that is a part of Aswan.[6] With a length of one mile and width of one-third of that, Elephantine had the first nome of the northern part of Egypt.[4] Elephantine is 1,600 metres from north to south, and is 450 metres across at its widest point.[7] 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 called Upper Egypt because it is further up the Nile.[4]

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.[8]

Ancient Egypt


Known to the ancient Egyptians as ꜣbw "Elephant" (Middle Egyptian: /ˈʀuːbaw/ → Medio-Late Egyptian: /ˈjuːbəʔ/ → Coptic: (Ⲉ)ⲓⲏⲃ /ˈjeβ/, preserved in its Hebrew name, יֵב Yēḇ), the island of Elephantine stood at the border between Egypt and Nubia. Trade routes would stop on Elephantine to deliver ivory, a precious good in Ancient Egypt.[4] 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 BC), the fort marked the southern border of Egypt.[9]

Historical texts from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt mention the mother of Amenemhat I, founder of the Twelfth Dynasty, being from[10] the Elephantine Egyptian nome Ta-Seti.[11][12][13] Many scholars have argued that Amenemhat I's mother was of Nubian origin.[14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21]

Archaeological sites


Between 1893 and 1910, Aramaic papyri, consisting of Jewish achievements, were found and collected on Elephantine. There has been a large presence of German excavation with a vast amount of discoveries or papyri and ostraca.[22] The documents have led to discoveries about Jewish presence and significance in Elephantine.[8][23] French teams also set out to Elephantine where they discovered several hundred ostraca but very few have been published thus far.[22][7] The major findings from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century are found in these museums; Berlin, Brooklyn, Cairo, London, Munich, and Paris, with the largest collection being in Berlin.[24]

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 a vital stone quarry, providing granite for monuments and buildings all over Egypt.



Prior to 1822, there were temples to Thutmose III and Amenhotep III[25] on the island. In 1822, 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]

Small Kalabsha Temple Reconstruction, south of the island.

The main two temples of the island were for the Goddess Satet and the God Khnum.[7] The first temple was the Temple of Satet, 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.

Elephantine, as published in the 1809 Description de l'Égypte.

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.

Khnum temple at Elephantine island, New kingdom, Reconstruction
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.[4] The more famous is a corridor nilometer associated with the Temple of Satis, with a stone staircase that descends the corridor.[4] 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' presumed 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.[26]

Elephantine triad


The Elephantine Triad is between Khnum, Satis, and Anuket, it is debated if Anuket is the daughter of the two or the sister of Satis.[4][27] 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.[4]

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. 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 later changed; another deity was ascribed 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.

Anuket was the Goddess of the first cataract and is referred to as the personification of the Nile.[4] A cult is formed on the Island for Anuket.[27]

Jewish presence


The Elephantine papyri and ostraca are caches of legal documents and letters written in Imperial Aramaic dating to sometime in the fifth century BC.[28][29] These papyri document the presence of a community of Judean mercenaries and their families on Elephantine, starting in the seventh century BCE. The mercenaries guarded the frontier between Egypt and Nubia to the south.[30][31] Following the 587 BCE destruction of Jerusalem, some Judean refugees traveled south and, in what may be called an “exodus in reverse,” settled on Elephantine. They maintained their own temple (the House of Yahweh), in which sacrifices were offered, evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Khnum.[32] It is not clear when or why the Jewish community settled in Elephantine.[6]

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.[28]

Conflict Between Jews and Egyptians


There is bias that surrounds the Jewish and Egyptian interactions that occurred on Elephantine but the findings show that there was often culture interchange.[6] Conflict began due to a stone that was originally the Egyptians but turned up in the hands of the Jews.[33]

The earliest recount of the Jewish temple is from 525 BC.[34] In 410 BC, the Jewish temple, the House of Yahweh, was burned down by a Persian military commander due to bribery from Khnum priests.[4][24][8] While no explicit reasoning has been given for this lash out, it has been suspected that the priests did this because of the Jewish rituals of sacrificing of sheep, especially during Passover.[8] Papyri records that have been collected from this time show Jewish letters asking Bagoas for help rebuilding the temple.[8]

The standard reference collection of the Aramaic documents of the Elephantine Papyri and Ostraca is the Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt.[35]

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.

Primary scholarly documents


See also



  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. ^ "Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 7 September 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Bunson, Margaret (1995-11-23), "K", A Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University PressNew York, NY, pp. 130–141, doi:10.1093/oso/9780195099898.003.0011, ISBN 978-0-19-509989-8, retrieved 2024-03-01
  5. ^ Cook, Edward (2022-09-29). Biblical Aramaic and Related Dialects: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-78788-8.
  6. ^ a b c Smith, John Merlin Powis (1908). "The Jewish Temple at Elephantine". The Biblical World. 31 (6): 448–459. doi:10.1086/474061. ISSN 0190-3578. JSTOR 3141839.
  7. ^ a b c Müller, Matthias (2016). "Among the Priests of Elephantine Island Elephantine Island Seen from Egyptian Sources". Die Welt des Orients. 46 (2): 213–243. doi:10.13109/wdor.2016.46.2.213. ISSN 0043-2547. JSTOR 24887875.
  8. ^ a b c d e Rosenberg, Stephen G. (2004). "The Jewish Temple at Elephantine". Near Eastern Archaeology. 67 (1): 4–13. doi:10.2307/4149987. ISSN 1094-2076. JSTOR 4149987.
  9. ^ Ian Shaw, Ed, Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, New York, 2000, page 206
  10. ^ "Then a king will come from the South, Ameny, the justified, by name, son of a woman of Ta-seti, child of Upper Egypt""The Beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty". Kingship, Power, and Legitimacy in Ancient Egypt: From the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom. Cambridge University Press: 138–160. 2020. doi:10.1017/9781108914529.006. ISBN 9781108914529. S2CID 242213167.
  11. ^ "Ammenemes himself was not a Theban but the son of a woman from Elephantine called Nofret and a priest called Sesostris (‘The man of the Great Goddess’).",Grimal, Nicolas (1994). A History of Ancient Egypt. Wiley-Blackwell (July 19, 1994). p. 159.
  12. ^ "Senusret, a commoner as the father of Amenemhet, his mother, Nefert, came from the area Elephantine."A. Clayton, Peter (2006). Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. p. 78.
  13. ^ "Amenemhet I was a commoner, the son of one Senwosret and a woman named NEFRET, listed as prominent members of a family from ELEPHANTINE Island."Bunson, Margaret (2002). Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (Facts on File Library of World History). Facts on File. p. 25.
  14. ^ "The XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) originated from the Aswan region. As expected, strong Nubian features and dark coloring are seen in their sculpture and relief work. This dynasty ranks as among the greatest, whose fame far outlived its actual tenure on the throne. Especially interesting, it was a member of this dynasty – that decreed that no Nehsy (riverine Nubian of the principality of Kush), except such as came for trade or diplomatic reasons, should pass by the Egyptian fortress at the southern end of the Second Nile Cataract. Why would this royal family of Nubian ancestry ban other Nubians from coming into Egyptian territory? Because the Egyptian rulers of Nubian ancestry had become Egyptians culturally; as pharaohs, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies."F. J. Yurco. "'Were the ancient Egyptians black or white?'". Biblical Archaeology Review. (Vol 15, no. 5, 1989): 24–9, 58.
  15. ^ General History of Africa Volume II – Ancient civilizations of Africa (ed. G Moktar). UNESCO. p. 152.
  16. ^ Crawford, Keith W. (1 December 2021). "Critique of the "Black Pharaohs" Theme: Racist Perspectives of Egyptian and Kushite/Nubian Interactions in Popular Media". African Archaeological Review. 38 (4): 695–712. doi:10.1007/s10437-021-09453-7. ISSN 1572-9842. S2CID 238718279.
  17. ^ Lobban, Richard A. Jr (10 April 2021). Historical Dictionary of Ancient Nubia. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781538133392.
  18. ^ Morris, Ellen (6 August 2018). Ancient Egyptian Imperialism. John Wiley & Sons. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4051-3677-8.
  19. ^ Van de Mieroop, Marc (2021). A history of ancient Egypt (Second ed.). Chichester, West Sussex. p. 99. ISBN 978-1119620877.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  20. ^ Fletcher, Joann (2017). The story of Egypt : the civilization that shaped the world (First Pegasus books paperback ed.). New York. pp. Chapter 12. ISBN 978-1681774565.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ Smith, Stuart Tyson (8 October 2018). "Ethnicity: Constructions of Self and Other in Ancient Egypt". Journal of Egyptian History. 11 (1–2): 113–146. doi:10.1163/18741665-12340045. ISSN 1874-1665. S2CID 203315839.
  22. ^ a b Porten, Bezalel (December 31, 1999). "Elephantine". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 2024-02-21.
  23. ^ Margolis, Max L. (1912). "The Elephantine Documents". The Jewish Quarterly Review. 2 (3): 419–443. doi:10.2307/1451065. JSTOR 1451065 – via JSTOR.
  24. ^ a b Porten, Bezalel, ed. (1996). The Elephantine papyri in English: three millennia of cross-cultural continuity and change. Idocumenta et monumenta Orientis antiqui (DMOA). Leiden: New York : E.J. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-10197-5.
  25. ^ de Morgan 1894. J. De Morgan . Catalogue des monuments et inscriptions de l'Égypte antique. De la frontière de Nubie à Kom Ombos. Vienne
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ a b Parikh, Amee (2023-05-24). "Anuket: The Ancient Egyptian Goddess of the Nile | History Cooperative". Retrieved 2024-02-22.
  28. ^ a b Botta, Alejandro (2009). The Aramaic and Egyptian Legal Traditions at Elephantine: An Egyptological Approach. T&T Clark. pp. 15–116. ISBN 978-0567045331.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Schama, Simon (September 2013). "In the Beginning". The Story of the Jews. PBS.
  31. ^ Toorn, Karel Van Der (2019). Becoming a Diaspora Jew: Behind the Story of Elephantine. Yale University Press. pp. 1–88. ISBN 978-0-300-24949-1.
  32. ^ 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
  33. ^ Toorn, Karel van der (2021-12-16). "Previously, at Elephantine". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 138 (2). doi:10.7817/jameroriesoci.138.2.0255. ISSN 2169-2289.
  34. ^ Gordon, Cyrus H. (1955). "The Origin of the Jews in Elephantine". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 14 (1): 56–58. doi:10.1086/371243. ISSN 0022-2968. JSTOR 542551.
  35. ^ Cook, Edward (2022-09-29). Biblical Aramaic and Related Dialects: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-78788-8.

Further reading

  • Bresciani, Edda (1998). "ELEPHANTINE". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. VIII, Fasc. 4. pp. 360–362.