On a rocky hill on the south-eastern side of Elephantine Island at Aswan in Upper Egypt stands the white clapboard building of the Aswan Museum, waiting for restoration.
The edifice was originally built in 1898 as the villa of the Old Aswan Dam’s British designer, Sir William Willcocks.
In 1912, the house was converted into a museum displaying antiquities that had been discovered in Aswan and Nubia. Nearby, a modern 220 square metre annex was built and inaugurated in 1998 to house artefacts unearthed on Elephantine Island.
Both buildings were closed for restoration in 2010. A month ago the annex was reopened, but the main building is still closed and will be reopened after the completion of its restoration.
statuettes showing love scenes
The restoration work is funded by the German Foreign Ministry and carried out in collaboration with restorers from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo.
Museum director Mustafa Khalil told Al-Ahram Weekly that the restoration work included the installation of new lighting and state-of-the-art security systems connected to a closed-circuit TV that was self-operating. New showcases have been installed and the walls painted.
Khalil said that the annex put on display a selection of 1,788 artefacts considered to be the finest and most important discoveries by the German-Swiss archaeological mission in Elephantine from 1969 until the present day.
Among the objects on display are a collection of small baboon statues unearthed from the Satet Temple and children’s toys made of fired clay and faience including dolls and chess pieces. Offerings are also on show, as well as jewellery such as necklaces, rings, amulets and scarabs.
Domestic pots, pans, spoons and knives and utensils are also exhibited, shedding light on the island’s inhabitants’ daily lives, as well as the economy and trade with neighbouring countries.
Hunting, fishing and farming tools as well as weapons are also exhibited, along with tools used in the construction of houses such as stone plumb lines, wooden mallets, sanding stones and tools for polishing hard stone, smoothing wall plaster and decorating temple walls. Copper axes from the Second Intermediate Period are exhibited along with moulds used to make oil lamps.
Decorative clay elements found in ancient Egyptian houses
Middle Kingdom statuettes depicting dignitaries of status are exhibited, as well as a colossus of the Pharaoh Thutmose II and coins from the Ptolemaic period. “The marriage contract papyrus from the reign of Nectanebo II is the most distinguished object on display in the annex,” Khalil told the Weekly.
He said that the contract dated to the eighth year of the king’s reign and the first month of the inundation season. It mentions the names of the married couple, the gifts the bride gave to the groom, and the furniture she came with to his house. The contract also mentions the marital rules they agreed upon during their daily lives and in case of divorce.
“Although it is a small annex museum, it shows the history of Elephantine Island, which is a unique archaeological park in Aswan,” Khalil said, explaining that the island’s southern end was dominated by the remains of an ancient town.
This settlement was inhabited from late prehistory to the Middle Ages, and the modern Nubian village to the north of the ancient site continues this tradition to the present day.
Ancient Elephantine was the capital of the region situated just below the first cataract of the Nile, and it was for long the southern border town of Egypt. “From here, expeditions for war and trade were sent far into Nubia and the adjacent deserts, today parts of the northern Sudan,” Khalil said.
The island also contained important quarries, and both banks of the Nile were sources of granite and silicified sandstone. The religious cults and temples of Elephantine were devoted to the goddess Satet and the ram-headed god Khnum, and they were closely linked to the cult of the annual Nile flood on which the life of the country depended.
“In politics, economy and religion the importance of ancient Elephantine went far beyond the regional scale,” Khalil added.
Nowadays, the ruins of some five millennia of settlements form a mound about 15 metres high on the island, and extensive living areas from all periods form the core of the settlements.
For much of its history, Khalil said, the town was fortified by a massive city wall in which a city gate is preserved. Among the monuments found on the island are the enormous temples of Satet and Khnum, each of which includes a nilometer to measure the level of the Nile.
On the northern part of the site, the remains of a step pyramid can be found, demonstrating the importance of the city during the Old Kingdom.
Elephantine also offers a unique glimpse of ancient Egyptian urban life as a collection of houses from different periods has been found. This provides information on the daily lives of the Island’s inhabitants in antiquity as well as their economy and domestic culture.
The remains of a Coptic church and pots from the Islamic period have also been found.