Elephantine (جزيرة الفنتين) is an island in the River Nile, located just downstream of the First Cataract at at the southern border of Ancient Egypt. This region is referred to as Upper Egypt because the ancient Egyptians oriented themselves toward the direction from which the river flowed. It may have received its name because it was a trading place for Ivory.
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.
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, Chnum 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.
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 Chnum. 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.
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.
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. They maintained their own temple (also see House of Yahweh (Biblical term)), evincing polytheistic beliefs, which functioned alongside that of Chnum, . 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. The documents cover the period 495 to 399 BCE.
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, dominating luxury hotel at the downstream, northern end.