Gazetteer of Cities and Towns of Ancient Egypt

The Nile, and its fertile floodplain, as viewed from the tomb of Ankhtifi at Moalla in Upper Egypt. The cattle in the foreground are grazing on a temporary island in the middle of the river. Steven Snape.

Gazetteer of Cities and Towns of Ancient Egypt

So far we have looked at some of the most important and distinctive features of cities and urban life in ancient Egypt. In doing so, we have examined evidence from a range of sources including archaeological excavation, depictions on tomb walls, texts written by the Egyptians themselves and the speculations of modern scholars. This kaleidoscope of sources has not been consistent or even, but has been a product of the accidental survival of different types of evidence. We have been able to look at daily life in the New Kingdom at Deir el-Medina and the organization of a Middle Kingdom settlement at Kahun, but our understanding of where the inhabitants of the great ancient cities of Thebes or Memphis lived and worked is patchy to say the least.

This chequered pattern of good and poor levels of evidence is also very much apparent as we journey down the Nile from Elephantine (Yebu) to the Mediterranean, through the Nile Valley of Upper (southern) Egypt to the broad Delta of Lower (northern) Egypt, and to the adjacent areas of the Faiyum, the Western Desert Oases, Nubia, Sinai and the Mediterranean Coast. We shall see cities, such as Amarna, whose detailed layout has been reconstructed through many years of patient research, abandoned towns such as Balat in the Dakhla Oasis whose remains have been preserved under centuries of drifting sand, and we shall look in vain for substantial traces of some of the major settlements of the Nile Valley and Delta whose presence is only known to us through the survival of their desert cemeteries or references in the works of ancient authors.

Although the task of providing a complete gazetteer of all the important cities and towns of ancient Egypt is bound to be one with substantial gaps (even if some are being and will continue to be plugged by the work of current and future archaeologists), this is a task that would have been both understandable to and approved of by the Egyptians themselves. They – or at least their scribes – were people who loved a good list, and the Gazetteer that follows here is very much in the spirit of a document we have already seen, the Onomasticon of Amenemope.

Elephantine and Aswan

The town of Elephantine (ancient Yebu) is unique. No site in Egypt is more thoroughly surrounded by water and yet it has archaeological remains, with a high level of preservation, that stretch back through the dynastic period to its predynastic settlement. The reason for the unique nature of Elephantine is its specific geographical location on a granite island that forms part of the band of hard stone making up the First Cataract of the Nile. That same landscape feature formed a natural southern border for ancient Egypt, and so for much of its history Elephantine was effectively a border town, and developed a number of important functions because of this location. Elephantine has been the subject of a long-term project of excavation and reconstruction by German and Swiss archaeological institutes who have been working at the site since 1969.

The Development of Elephantine

Today Elephantine is an island that measures 1,500 m (4,920 ft) north to south and 500 m (1,640 ft) at its widest east–west point. It is a relatively small element of the large and still-expanding city of Aswan (Sunu); in ancient times this situation was reversed, with Elephantine the important settlement and Aswan a small off-shoot on the east bank of the Nile. The current island only became a single entity when the base-level of the Nile lowered during the First Intermediate Period; before this, there were two islands, divided by marshland, which would flood during the inundation.

Aerial view of Elephantine. The ancient settlement was concentrated on the southern part of the island. GeoEye satellite image.

In the late Predynastic/Early Dynastic Periods, a town developed on Elephantine, surrounded by a defensive wall. As was the case throughout its history, space was at a premium and this early town seems to have been a tight cluster of buildings. By the late Old Kingdom, the region of the First Cataract, and Elephantine in particular, had become of even greater strategic interest to the Egyptian state, perhaps reflected in the well-organized public buildings and houses that appeared in the 5th to 6th Dynasties and continued through the Middle Kingdom. The town on Elephantine commanded a hinterland beyond the island: in addition to the subsidiary mainland settlement of Aswan, the elite cemetery of Elephantine was created at the Qubbet el-Hawa, a high ridge of cliffs on the west bank of the Nile a little to the north of the island. It is here that the officials and caravan-leaders of Elephantine inscribed their tombs with autobiographical texts describing their (and Elephantine’s) role as the heart of trade with Nubia and central Africa beyond. To the south of Elephantine were an important series of granite quarries on both the east bank of the Nile (the ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ quarries) and islands in the Nile, especially Sehel, which has produced an astonishing series of graffiti, mainly the work of officials sent on stone-procuring missions to the region or en-route further south into Nubia.

Plan of the town of Elephantine, showing some of the major buildings at different periods of the life of the settlement. Steven Snape.

View looking northwest across an area of partially reconstructed Middle Kingdom administrative buildings. Rutherford Picture Library.

The high degree of survival of the archaeological remains at Elephantine from the Early Dynastic to the Graeco-Roman Periods make it one of the most important towns from ancient Egypt whose development can be traced in some detail. Steven Snape.

Temples at Elephantine

As with most large towns in dynastic Egypt, the temple of the local god(s) was at the very heart of Elephantine. The earliest deity to be associated with the town seems to have been the goddess Satet, whose first temple was a grotto within a cluster of granite boulders. This temple was expanded and developed in a way that retained its ancient core, but also saw important additions in the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Ptolemaic Period. By the Middle Kingdom, Satet had acquired a male partner, Khnum, whose temple buildings are now the most striking at Elephantine, especially the monumental additions made in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods. The third major deity at Elephantine was the goddess Anuket, daughter of Khnum and Satet, who was especially associated with the nearby island of Sehel. The most striking aspect of temple building on Elephantine is the extent to which its development can be traced over a long period of time.

This substantial rock graffito on the island of Sehel commemorates an expedition to acquire obelisks by the high official Amenhotep, who may have lived during the reign of Hatshepsut. Rutherford Picture Library.

The earliest substantial settlement remains at Elephantine are the Early Dynastic/Old Kingdom fortress and town in the northeastern part of the town. Steven Snape.

Jewish Mercenaries on Elephantine

One of the most remarkable discoveries made on Elephantine – not least as an example of the high level of preservation of delicate objects on this island – are a group of papyrus documents written in Aramaic, recovered during the early years of the 20th century. These documents refer to the existence of a community of Jewish mercenaries resident at Elephantine from c. 525 to c. 400 BC as part of the Persian occupation of Egypt. This community had built a temple to Yahweh, which had been destroyed in 410 BC as part of an ongoing conflict with the priesthood of Khnum. Nevertheless, this temple – whose location has not yet been discovered – was re-established after permission to do so had been granted from Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most obvious indications of the importance of Elephantine in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods are elements of temple-building on an enormous scale, such as this monolithic naos-shrine in the Khnum temple. Steven Snape.

Kom Ombo is best known for its impressive Graeco-Roman temple, but it also has substantial settlement remains (for example, the large mound on the left of this view), which have hardly been explored. Images of Africa Photobank/Alamy.

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