Definitions

Elephantine

Elephantine

[el-uh-fan-teen, -tahyn, -tin, el-uh-fuhn-teen, -tahyn]
Elephantine, island, SE Egypt, in the Nile below the First Cataract, near Aswan. In ancient times it was a military post guarding the southern frontier of Egypt. The Elephantine papyruses, which date from the 5th cent. B.C. and describe a colony of Jewish mercenaries, were found there. Surviving ruins are extensive. The ancient nilometer, built to gauge the water level of the Nile, was restored in 1870.

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.

The island measures some from north to south and is about across at its widest point. It is a part of the modern Egyptian city of Aswan.

Ancient Egypt

Known to the Ancient Egyptians as Abu or Yebu, the island of Elephantine stands 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.

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.

Temple

There are records of a temple to Chnum on the island as early as the third dynasty. Most of the southern tip of the island is taken up by the ruins of a later temple to him. 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 (from 305 BC to 30 BC) and maintained the ancient religious customs and traditions, albeit, often associating the Egyptian deities with their own. Egypt then became part of the Roman Empire and its religious traditions existed alongside those from many diverse cultures until 600 AD.

In ancient times, the island was also an important stone quarry providing granite materials that would be transported widely within Egypt for monuments and buildings.

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.

Elephantine Calendar

A rare calendar, known as the Elephantine Calendar, dating to the reign of Thutmose III, was found in fragments. Also on the island is one of the oldest nilometers in Egypt, last reconstructed in Roman times and still in use as late as the nineteenth century CE. Ninety steps that lead down to the river are marked with Hindu-Arabic, Roman, and hieroglyphic numerals. Inscriptions carved deeply into the rock during the seventeenth dynasty can be seen at the water's edge.

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.

Jewish Presence in Elephantine

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.

Nilometer

The Island is very famous because the Well of Eratosthênes is located here (most probably the same Nilometer) and was where Eratosthenes was able to make the first measurement of the circumference of the Earth, circa 240 BC. It was almost correct, closely estimating the angle of the curvature of the Earth and its size as a globe and his estimate was accepted for hundreds of years.

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.

References

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