Issue 4: Egypt, Part II – Aswan and the First Cataract

Hello, friends and readers who may someday be friends!

It’s been a while, I know: since I last posted, I’ve been writing dissertation chapters (two chapters!), doin’ a little public speaking, and traversing Sudan for more fieldwork.

But this issue is about Egypt, so to the topic of Egypt we shall return…

After my visit to Amarna last winter, I had the pleasure of staying at the dig house of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute) on Elephantine Island, an important archaeological nexus adjacent to Aswan, which is in the area of the First Nile Cataract. My friend Nick was working with the German mission, so I was treated to an excellent personal tour of the island. I did some wandering myself, too, which resulted in my stumbling into a shop where a man had a live crocodile in a box in the entryway (no, sorry, I do not have a picture).

Nick in front of a very colorful house at Elephantine

Although I was staying at Elephantine, I was in the area to visit monuments elsewhere in the Aswan area. I knew that there were some living-rock stelae on the east bank of the Nile, including just off the ancient road that ran between Aswan and Philae (four stelae that I refer to as the “Aswan Group”), and some at a place called Konosso Island, a teeny-tiny island barely visible on the below map.

Map of the Aswan/First Cataract area, with sites mentioned in this issue

One of the many benefits of staying with an archaeological mission is the ability to form new professional relationships and pick up local tips and tricks in the process. The team working nearby at Bigeh Island was also staying at the DAI house, and we shared great conversations over meals during my stay. One morning, I hitched a ride with them for a day trip to locate some stelae and royal reliefs that were carved in the area that now lies between the two Aswan dams. Mohamed, an architecture student who was working at Bigeh, set me up with a motor boat driver named Buji, who agreed to take me around the area. I knew that I was in good hands; no sooner had I described what I was looking for (in broken Arabic and with many eccentric hand signals!) than Buji formulated a plan for our mission. He set straight off towards two rounded chunks of granite protruding from the water: this was Konosso Island (although that is not the name used locally; it’s Sawaba, “fingers,” because the island looks like a fist when viewed from the north), the site of three very famous royal stelae and numerous other inscriptions.

As you can see from the above video (click to play if you haven’t already!), most of the monuments on Konosso are now under water due to flooding from the dams. They include a stela of Amenhotep III and two of Tuthmosis IV, as well as 26th Dynasty relief cartouches and a number of Middle Kingdom relief scenes. One hundred years ago, before the dams were built, the island’s upright boulders formed a striking, pylon-shaped protrusion from the Nile that would quite clearly have attracted royal inscriptions with ease. I have recently argued this in an upcoming publication with my colleague Anne-Claire Salmas (see Thum and Salmas 2018); since the main thrust of my dissertation is that living rock was used as meaningful, intentional medium for select royal monuments, the unusual (and perhaps symbolic) shape of Konosso is of major interest to me.

Mid-1800s lithograph of Konosso Island from the south (Lepsius’ Denkmäler, Abth. 1: 103)

Since I am interested in context as much as I am in the contents of the monuments, the flooding was not a major impediment to my study: I mainly wanted to see where Konosso was in the wider landscape and what it looked like up close. I asked Buji to keep circling the island while I took photographs, and we returned later in the day to do the same in better light.

Konosso Island, as seen from Buji’s boat

Between visits to Konosso, Buji spearheaded our search. He went out of his way to climb the rocks on various islands and points on the coast with me, and we saw some incredible rock reliefs together—including some that he has known about since he was a child. On the flipside, when we resigned to the fact that we could not locate some scenes of the 6th Dynasty king Merenre I, I saw that he shared my disappointment. By the afternoon, we had bonded over Mission: Stelae, regardless of its successes and its failures, and he invited me to his home on el-Hesseh Island for a snack and a shisha. It was on Buji’s terrace that I first tried jebena, a delicious mixture of coffee, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon brewed in a long-necked clay vessel (also called a jebena).

We left our gear on the terrace, and Buji took me on a tour of el-Hesseh. When we returned, we found a neighbor’s goat stuck in his fence, bleating wildly. We were confused and set him free… and then our eyes turned to the now-empty 1kg bag of shisha tobacco, which the goat had clearly eaten. We looked at each other, looked at the bag, and cracked up hysterically. It was one of the most hilarious and unbelievable parts of my trip. It all happened too fast for me to get it on video—but trust me, you would have laughed!

Later in the week I managed to snap some photos of the Aswan Group, which is being studied in detail by Linda Borrmann at the DAI (who has put out two publically accessible online reports on the subject: here and here). Because it was closed off at the time of my visit, I stood in a literal pile of garbage in order to have a look over the fence! Today, the Aswan Group—which includes stelae of Tuthmosis II, Amenhotep III, and Ramesses II—is sandwiched between apartment buildings and a supermarket.

The Aswan Group, as seen from a heap of trash outside the gate

Johanna Sigl at the DAI also set me up with the team’s local boat driver, Higazi, who took me to Sehel Island, where I saw the Canal Inscription of Tuthmosis I (among other wonderful things). Sehel is home to hundreds of inscriptions, mostly by officials and travelers, which speak in part to the sanctity of the area to the gods of the Cataract Triad: Khnum, Satet, and Anukis.

The Canal Inscription of Tuthmosis I on Sehel Island
A gorgeous view of the Nile from Sehel Island
OK, this one’s pretty cool (photo by my lovely guide, Ibrahim)

I’m returning to Konosso, Sehel, Aswan, and Elephantine (specifically the rock substructure of the temple to the goddess Satet!) at the end of this week (you may have heard that my dad is coming with me…). This will be my first research trip as a U.S. State Department ECA Fellow of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), and I am sure that I will soon have new updates on my work in this area.

In the meantime, stick with me on Instagram, Twitter, and via email! I love your comments and questions, so please don’t be shy.


Mini Bibliography

  1. Borrmann, L. 2015. Rock Inscriptions and Rock Art in the Area of Aswan: The Rock Inscriptions and Rock Images on Sehel Island Report on the Season 2014 / 2015. Cairo: DAI.
  2. Gasse, A. and V. Rondot. 2007. Les inscriptions de Séhel. MIFAO 126. Cairo: IFAO.
  3. Lepsius, Karl R. 1849–1859. Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung.
  4. Thum, J. and A.-C. Salmas. Forthcoming 2018. “Narrating Temporality: Three Short Stories about Egyptian Royal Living-Rock Stelae.” In J. Ben Dov and F. Rojas (eds.), Carvings in and out of Time: Lives of Rock-Cut Reliefs in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East series. Leiden: Brill.

2 thoughts on “Issue 4: Egypt, Part II – Aswan and the First Cataract

  1. Hi,
    Thanks to this blog post I had the pleasure of seeing Sawab’a inscriptions, witha group of friends. Hope all is good with your study.

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