Monday,17 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Monday,17 December, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Islands in the Nile

The Heisa, Sehel and Elephantine islands emerge like rocky gems from the heart of the Nile at Aswan

pper Egyptian city of Aswan

Near the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan in the sweeping waters of the Nile stand rocky islands struggling against the wrath of nature to preserve the history of our ancient ancestors and representing a picturesque creation of magic and beauty.  



pper Egyptian city of Aswan

HEISA ISLAND: In the middle of the Nile between the Aswan reservoir and the High Dam stands Heisa Island like a rocky gem in the Nile. Serenity reigns over this virginal island that has been untouched by modern technology.  

Heisa is one of the only two Nubian islands that survived after the High Dam was built. The inhabitants did not have to move away from their homes during the construction of the dam, though some were relocated to neighbouring islands. The other remaining Nubian island between the dam and the reservoir is Aawad Island.

A small motorboat with a colourful sunshade belonging to boatman Yasser Heisa took us to the island close to the Philae Island. Along the way, spectacular rock formations emerged from the clear water of the Nile.  

A dozen young men in white garb and blue marine vests appear suddenly on top of a rock at the entrance of the island, welcoming us with Nubian folk songs while beating on duff (large frame drums) and tambourines.

Walking in Heisa, visitors are often struck by the picturesque panorama of the island. To reach the residential area, it is necessary to cross a narrow ramp lined with beautiful women in Nubian traditional clothing sitting in rows before colourful mats covered with Nubian handicrafts.

The women of Heisa are responsible for the colourful and beautiful objects they sell. These are unique artistic goods in bright colours, triangular and round in shape, and with patterns derived from the surrounding nature. They also have delicate jewellery and appealing home items and domestic instruments.

Walking further in the island, there are traditional Nubian houses with vaulted ceilings, colourful façades and walls covered with drawings. Here there are scorpions, fish, flowers and palm trees. Drawings holding symbolic meanings to protect homes from envy are found on the walls. Bright blue, turquoise, pink, green and yellow are the colours used to bestow a cheerful atmosphere. Characters from the Egyptian cartoon relating the story of a young Nubian child called “Bakar” and his family and friends are also drawn on the walls.

Yasser Heisa told Al-Ahram Weekly that every word on the walls has a meaning. For example, the word “Anouka” means the “house of my grandfather”, while “Al-Kadouly” means “I love you.”

Inside the homes there is a sitting area to welcome visitors. This does not have chairs, but instead is equipped with bright, colourful cushions scattered on the floor and a number of short wooden tables called tableya.

The residents swamp visitors with their generosity. Every visitor to the island is welcome to any home for tea at any time during the day. The people are kind enough to treat strangers as if they were members of the family.

Yasser Heisa invited us to the most delicious dinner we had ever had. We ate fried pigeon stuffed with rice and peanuts as well as cooked dried okra called wekka, torli (a blend of cooked vegetables including peas, carrots and potatoes with tomato sauce), and lentil soup.

The island’s inhabitants have a strong connection with their culture and traditions. They dance and sing their own dances and songs and speak their own language called “Kenzy”. Nubians generally speak two languages, “Kenzy” and “Fejikey”, neither of which are written.

Yasser Heisa told the Weekly that the island took its name from the Seventh Dynasty Pharaoh Heisa. It was originally an ancient Egyptian necropolis for priests living and working on the neighbouring Philae Island. It was also a natural quarry, its stone being transported to the Saqqara Necropolis in Giza on the Nile.

At the beginning of the Islamic era, the Arab conqueror of Egypt Amr Ibn Al-Aas stood on the border of Nubia, but was not able to enter because the inhabitants fired darts into the eyes of the Arab soldiers, Yasser Heisa said. Ibn Al-Aas then signed a friendship agreement with the Nubians, and trade between the two communities began. Many Nubians converted to Islam.

Ahmed Awad, head of the Cultural Development Fund at the Ministry of Culture, told the Weekly that during the tenure of the Muslim caliph Osman Ibn Afan the first mosque was built in Nubia on the banks of the Nile. Even when all the Nubian villages were inundated after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, he said, the soaring minaret of one of the mosques survived and became the only element still existing.

Yasser said that during the Napoleonic Expedition to Egypt in the late 18th century, the French had led a military campaign to Aswan and Nubia. The Nubians defeated the campaign with their simple weapons and built a wall to stop the soldiers going further.

He explained that 4,500 people now live on the island, among them 22 families working in tourism. They were opening their houses to tourists where they could enjoy a meal, a drink, and a shisha for a small fee. “Living standards have declined with the reduction in tourism after the 25 January Revolution,” Yasser said.

He added that the island had an old water station, but this was still incomplete. It has a small primary school, the teachers all being from Aswan.


Upper Egyptian city of Aswan



SEHEL ISLAND: This is located between the modern city of Aswan and the Old Aswan Dam at the first cataract of the Nile.

It is famous for its picturesque landscape with towering granite formations and more than 600 ancient rock inscriptions from prehistoric times to the Graeco-Roman period. The inscriptions bear witness to almost 4,000 years of the island’s history.

During the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, Mustafa Khalil, director of the Aswan Museum, said, the Elephantine Island inhabitants as well as people working nearby had eternalised themselves by carving texts giving their names and titles on rocks on Sehel Island. Prayers and depictions of the inscription’s owner and the gods he venerated are also shown, but those relating specific historical events or the reason why inscriptions were carved are less frequently shown.

The inscriptions are inseparably linked to their setting, Khalil said, indicating that the island’s landscape was gradually shaped by men and thus transformed into a living body of texts that formed part of the cultural and sacral landscape of the first cataract as a whole.

Over the last 200 years, the Sehel rock inscriptions have been the subject of much research.

Among the first European travellers who visited the island was British adventurer William John Bankes whose folio of notes and drawings gives an account of local monuments and other archaeological remains that are today largely destroyed or damaged.

The first scientific studies were conducted by the Royal Prussian Expedition to Egypt and Sudan led by Carl Lepsius in 1842. This was followed by a series of epigraphic ventures carried out by archaeologists Auguste Mariette in 1867, Heinrich Brugsch in 1884, and Jacques De Morgan in 1893, who recorded and published 230 of the island’s texts with the help of his colleagues.

In the 20th century, Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habashi devoted a great deal of his time to the rock inscriptions and succeeded in understanding much of the meaning of the epigraphic heritage of the first cataract region.

Although a large volume, covering more than 550 texts displayed on Sehel rocks, was released in 2007 by French archaeologists Annie Gasse and Vincent Rondot, research on the island’s history and the textual tradition of its inscriptions is still not complete and will require further investigations.

For 30 years, the German Archaeological Institute has been working in cooperation with the Ministry of Antiquities on the epigraphic heritage of the Aswan region as well as conducting field work on Sehel Island. It aims to revise the already published texts, to survey and protect the area, and to document unknown rock inscriptions and images.

“Scholars are trying to answer crucial questions regarding the different functional aspects of the island and the chronology of its use during Pharaonic times,” an institute spokesperson said.

More than 60 rock images, mostly standing male figures lacking an inscription, have been newly discovered. These figures can be considered as self-representations of semi-literate or illiterate people employed on Sehel from the Old Kingdom onwards. They seem to be connected to the island’s function as an important checkpoint within the first cataract region rather than to the local cult of Anuket, a revered goddess and the main recipient of the cult on Sehel.


Upper Egyptian city of Aswan



THE FAMINE STELAE: Among the most important rock inscription on Sehel Island is the Famine Stelae, considered as one of the most intriguing inscriptions.

It appears on the face of a large, free-standing granite rock on the summit of the Bibi Tagug hill facing in a south-eastern direction. It was found in 1890 by American archaeologist Charles Wilbour and is carved in 32 vertical columns, relating that one year the Nile failed to rise high enough to flood the land and that Egypt was afflicted by a severe seven-year-long famine.

Distraught over the hardship his people were facing, Djoser, the second pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, wrote to the “governor of the domains of the south” Mesir, probably stationed at Elephantine Island. He told him that he had consulted a lector-priest in order to obtain knowledge on the source of the Nile and how to influence its actions. From him, he had learned that the god Khnum of Elephantine like a divine doorkeeper controlled the coming of the Nile flood as it entered Egypt.

Later, Khnum appeared to Djoser in a dream, promising him to restore the inundation and to end the famine. Relieved and grateful, the pharaoh issued a decree donating the region of the Dodekaschoinos (“12 mile land”, the northern part of Lower Nubia from the first cataract to Takompso) as well as a 10 per cent share of the revenue derived from it and from Nubian trade to the Temple of Khnum on Elephantine Island.

He ordered that the temple should be restored and its resources used as offerings to Khnum. Accordingly, right above the text of the Stelae Djoser is depicted burning incense for Khnum-Ra, Satet, and Anuket, which form the Triad of Elephantine.

Upon its discovery the text instantly caused puzzlement over its dating and authorship. For though the language and phrasing indicate that it is a work of the Ptolemaic era, the events described on it are stated to have taken place in the Old Kingdom during the reign of Djoser.

According to the German Archaeological Institute, it is uncertain who originally composed the text of the Famine Stelae and when it was cut into the stone. Although a few scholars believe that it could originate from a genuine decree of the Third Dynasty, the majority regard the inscription’s early date as a fiction.

Hence, it was argued that the clergy of the Temple of Khnum had been responsible for setting up the Stelae, because in the Ptolemaic era the temples of the local deities were eventually overshadowed by the Isis Temple of Philae that was important at that time. Possibly, the priests of Khnum wanted to strengthen their position with the aid of a pious forgery.


The Famine Stelae on Elephantwine



ELEPHANTINE ISLAND: To the north of the first cataract lies the Elephantine Island with its ancient Egyptian temples, administrative structures, residential houses and remains of a Fourth Dynasty pyramid.

At the island’s southern end lies the two Nubian villages of Siou and Koti, making a surprising counterpoint to the movement of the city across the water.

German researcher Johanna Sigl told the Weekly that the island was the seat of government and that it had been inhabited from the Early Dynastic period onwards. Its ancient name was “Abu”, which means elephant, because the island was the core of trading ivory from elephants. Others say that the name comes from the shape of the smooth, grey boulders that surround the island, making it look like an elephant swimming in water.

Sigl said that a German archaeological mission had been working on the island since 1960 in collaboration with a Swiss mission and that they had succeeded in discovering a large number of antiquities.

The work focused on the development of the ancient town of Abu to the present day. For 30 years the mission had focused on architectural developments and the Satet Temple, erected by queen Hatshepsut and the pharaoh Thutmose III in honour of the Elephantine deity Satet. This is the most important monument on the Island and the most completely excavated one.

Sigl explained that various stages of the temple had been uncovered as well as the offerings people had once made to Satet. Hence, it is possible to follow 2,000 years of the temple’s development. It was originally built on the remains of a Middle Kingdom structure of different floor levels and also a Sixth Dynasty temple. The Satet Temple blocks were reused in the foundations of a successor building and reassembled.

The temple was sensitively reconstructed by German-Swiss restorers with a few reliefs supplemented by drawn elements to give a complete vision of what it once looked like. The temple of the ram-headed god Khnum is another structure at the southern end of the island. The earliest Nilometer used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the Nile flood is also found there.

A number of granite blocks with inscriptions naming the kings and governors associated with the island are also found, along with a First Intermediate Period palace and a bakery. Thousands of bread moulds and ostraca containing distribution lists and mentioning the cult of the god Heqaib were also found.

The Elephantine Island hosts the ruins of an Old Kingdom pyramid from the Fourth Dynasty, but without any inscription it is impossible to tell to which pharaoh it belongs. “The pyramid was not used as a burial place but to show the king’s influence on Elephantine Island,” Sigl said.


The oldest minaret on Heisa

She added that the mission now sought to emphasise the life the ancient Egyptians once lived on the island, including the design of their houses, the shape of their domestic tools, their eating habits and food, and their professions, handicrafts and jewellery.

“Settlement excavations are still very rare in Egypt,” Sigl said, adding that they had taken place in the Delta at Tel Al-Farayeen, Qantir, Peramissa and Tel Al-Dabaa. From studies of some of the houses, the mission had discovered that the governors’ houses and those of top officials were different from those of ordinary people, having larger open courts.

The remains of furniture have also been found such as chairs and boxes for clothes. Pieces of jewellery made of semi-precious stones were also unearthed, as well as shells that were used for necklaces.

Sigl said that there had been a high measure of privacy in the houses, and the inhabitants had produced jewellery made from semi-precious stones, beads and shells. “They also cut small strips from the rock and turned them into pendants,” she said. Studies have also been carried out on animal bones and food residues to know more about the inhabitants’ food production and what they ate.

Sigl told the Weekly that studies of animal bones had revealed that the island’s inhabitants had eaten a lot of fish like Nile perch and puffer fish.

She said that Elephantine had flourished until the Graeco-Roman period. At the beginning of the First Dynasty, a fortress was built on the island to establish Egypt’s southern frontier. The town soon became an important customs point and trading centre, and it remained strategically significant throughout the Pharaonic period as a departure point for military and commercial expeditions into Nubia.

During the Sixth Dynasty, it gained in strength as a political and economic centre, and despite occasional ups and downs the island retained its importance until the Graeco-Roman period.

Later, Aswan itself was built on the east side of the Nile under the name of “Sienna”, which means the “place of trading” in ancient Egyptian. The town developed and slowly took over from Elephantine. People lived in Aswan to take advantage of trade and to protect the country’s southern borders as well as the caravan trade to the Red Sea and central Africa.



Elwi (left) and Héroult

Aswan on screen

A film promoting the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan as Heritage Capital for 2017 is now in cinemas in France and other European countries

Agilikia and the Woman of the Nile is the title of a Franco-Egyptian film now being screened in cinemas in France and other European countries that looks at life on Agilikia Island in Aswan as a way of promoting tourism to Egypt and the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan as the 2017 Heritage Capital, reports Nevine El-Aref.

The film was made on Agilikia, known in Arabic as the “Anas Al-Wogoud Island”, located near the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile. The island has been the new home of the Philae Temple since its relocation within the UNESCO salvage operation of the Nubia Temples in the 1960s during the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

The Philae Island, now submerged by the waters of the dam, was originally located near the first cataract of the Nile and was the site of the ancient Egyptian Philae Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis.

Today, the temple occupies almost a quarter of Agilikia Island with its huge pylons and beautiful wall engravings. It was built in the style of the New Kingdom temples and contains Graeco-Roman elements such as the house of the god Horus and a Nilometer. Its construction started in the reign of the Pharaoh Ptolemy II, and Ptolemy IV, V, VI, VII and XI all contributed to it.

According to the Arab Heritage Cultural Centre (AHCC) in France, which has launched a campaign to promote tourism to Egypt and the Agilikia Island, the film presents renowned Egyptian actress Leila Elwi as the “Woman of the Nile” accompanied by famous French actress Catherine Héroult, known as “the Lady of French Theatre”.

The film was produced by the AHCC in collaboration with the Egyptian Tourism Authority.

Director of the AHCC Reem Elkatry told the French newspaper Le Quotidien that “the film is a jewel promoting tourism to Egypt and Aswan, a province situated near the first cataract of the Nile where the River widens and narrows quickly. It is a place where granite islands emerge from amidst the swirling water of the River Nile.”

Elkatry said that Aswan was the gateway to Africa between the first and second cataracts of the Nile and leading to Lower Nubia. This had been engulfed beneath the waters of Lake Nasser in the 1960s, she said, adding that Aswan today was a city with a relaxed, African character and many ancient monuments.

“The charm of its streets, its souk [market], its location on the Nile crisscrossed by numerous feluccas with spreading sails, and its hibiscus gardens all make Aswan a city of calm and an ideal respite after visits to the area’s temples and museums,” Elkatry said.

She added that Agilikia and the Woman of the Nile was now on show in many European and French-speaking countries.

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