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Encyclopedia > Elephantine Island
Elephantine Island, showing the nilometer (lower left) and the Aswan Museum.

Elephantine is an island in the River Nile, located just downstream of the First Cataract at 24°05' N, 32°53' E. It measures some 1.2 km from north to south, and is about 400 m across at its widest. It is a part of the modern Egyptian city of Aswan.

Known to the Ancient Egyptians as Abu or Yebu, Elephantine stands at the border between Egypt and Nubia. It was a natural transshipping point for river trade, and, as an island, also provided an excellent defensive site for a city. According to Egyptian mythology, here was the dwelling place of Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, who controlled the waters of the Nile from caves beneath the island: he was worshipped here as part of a Triad comprising him, his wife Satis, and their daughter Anuket. There are records of a temple to Khnum here as early as the third dynasty, and most of the southern tip of the island is taken up by the ruins of the later temple to him that was completely rebuilt in the Late Period (30th dynasty).

Ongoing excavations at the town by the German Archaeological Institute have uncovered many finds, including a mummified ram of Khnum, that are now on display in the Elephantine Museum. 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.

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 19th century AD. The 90 steps that lead down to the river are marked with Arabic, Roman, and hieroglyphic numerals, and inscriptions carved deep into the rock during the 17th dynasty can be seen at the water's edge.

Prior to 1822, there were temples to Thutmose III and Amenhotep III on the island. Both were relatively intact, but they were destroyed that same year by the Ottoman government.

The Elephantine papyri are caches of legal documents and letters written in Aramaic, which document the community of Jewish soldiers stationed here during the Persian occupation of Egypt. They maintained their own temple to their Lord, functioning alongside that of Khnum. The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 BCE during Manasseh's reign, to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The documents cover the period 495-399 BCE.

In addition to the archaeological site, the island today houses the Aswan Museum, a luxury hotel, and a sizable population of Nubians in three villages.

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