Southern Egypt

The stretch of the Nile between the major cities of Elephantine and Thebes, comprising Upper Egyptian Nomes 1–3, contained a number of important settlements. Unfortunately, the level of survival of these ancient towns has been rather poor, with some partial exceptions.

Kom Ombo

The ancient city of Ombos has an especially striking location – on a promontory overlooking the Nile to the west and, to the east, an unusually (for this part of southern Egypt) substantial basin of well-watered agricultural land. The natural advantages of the site made Kom Ombo an obvious choice for settlement from as early as the Upper Palaeolithic. Little work has taken place on the surviving settlement mounds, on this promontory, although they may date back as early as the Old Kingdom, apart from the clearance of the monument for which the site is now famous, the Ptolemaic double-temple of the gods Sobek and Haroeris.


This site is best known for its enormous temple to the god Horus, built during the Ptolemaic Period; it is the best-preserved temple in Egypt. However, immediately to the west of the enclosure of the Horus temple there still exists a substantial town-mound, Tell Edfu. This was excavated by a French/French–Polish team from 1921 to 1939 and has produced substantial evidence for a long occupation of the town (known as Behdet, then Djebat) from at least as early as the late Old Kingdom.

Edfu’s settlement remains have been the subject of some detailed archaeological investigation, though, like Kom Ombo, it is best known for its Graeco-Roman temple. Rutherford Picture Library.

Unfortunately, it appears that the levelling of the ancient town-mound to create the space for the Ptolemaic temple ripped the heart out of the earliest settlement remains, and there are only a few traces of Old Kingdom walls to the west of the temple. However, an important cemetery in the southwest part of the surviving mound has preserved tombs of local officials dating from the Old and Middle Kingdoms. In addition, significant portions of walls from the First Intermediate Period town have also survived, indicating that the town probably doubled in size from c. 7 hectares (17 acres) to c. 13 hectares (32 acres) during the First Intermediate Period, probably reflecting the status of Edfu as an important provincial centre at this time. Excavations conducted since 2005 by Nadine Moeller for the University of Chicago have emphasized this importance with the discovery of administrative buildings of the Middle Kingdom and a set of large grain silos from the Second Intermediate Period.

Recent excavations at Edfu have determined the importance of the town during the Second Intermediate Period. Courtesy Dr Nadine Moeller, The Oriental Institute, Chicago.

Hierakonpolis and el-Kab

Despite its role as perhaps the largest and most important of the first cities of Egypt, Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) quickly became something of a provincial backwater after the Early Dynastic Period. On the opposite (eastern) side of the Nile, el-Kab (Nekheb), which replaced Hierakonpolis as the capital of the 1st nome in the New Kingdom, fared rather better. Long-standing fieldwork – a Belgian expedition has been working here since 1937 – and an impressive range of archaeological remains indicate a long occupation history. These remains include a large cemetery of the late Predynastic, an important series of rock-cut tombs from the New Kingdom and a series of temples in the Wadi Hillal, all in the desert immediately to the east of a huge rectangular mudbrick enclosure measuring 590 by 520 m (1,936 by 1,706 ft). This enclosure, probably the work of the 30th Dynasty, contains a series of temples from the New Kingdom and later, as well as unexcavated parts of the ancient city, suggested by the presence of tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms built close to the north and east walls of the enclosure.

Unexcavated Sites

All that is visible today of the town of Esna (Iunyt) is the inner portico at the entrance of its Graeco-Roman temple, visible at the bottom of a huge hole 9 m (30 ft) deep below the ground level of modern Esna. Beneath the present houses, ancient Esna presumably still awaits excavation. The towns served by the important cemeteries at Moalla and Gebelein are unknown archaeologically although their First Intermediate Period tombs suggest that they must have been important centres, especially in that period.

Although surrounded by one of the most extensive sets of town walls in Egypt, the interior of the town of el-Kab (Nekheb) shown here has not survived as well as its New Kingdom tombs and desert temples. Steven Snape.

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