Gebel El-Silsila

Gebel El-Silsila or Jabal al-Silsila is 65 km north of Aswan between Edfu in the north and Kom Ombo in the south. The site is situated where the cliffs on both sides close to the narrowest point along the length of the entire Nile and high sandstone cliffs come right down to the water’s edge; the bedrock here changes from limestone to sandstone. Gebel El-Silsila encompasses both the East and West bank. On the West Bank, there is a tall column of rock which has been dubbed ‘The Capstan’ because of a local legend which claims there was once a chain (Silsila in Arabic) which ran from the East to the West Banks. In ancient Egypt Gebel, El-Silsila was known as ‘The Place of Rowing’.

Historically the area was known to be used from the end of the Old Kingdom and throughout the Middle Kingdom onwards with evidence that as well as frequent quarrying expeditions sent to Gebel El-Silsila, the area was also supported by permanent communities from at least the time of Mentuhotep II. In the New Kingdom Period the massive quarries situated on both banks of the Nile at Gebel El-Silsila produced the sandstone needed for the prolific construction of monuments. Many of Ancient Egypt’s great temples derived their sandstone from here, such as Amenhotep III’s colonnade at Luxor Temple, Ramesses III’s Medinet Habu, Kom Ombo, and the Ramesseum. Many of the talatat used by Akhenaten were quarried from Gebel El-Silsila and used in buildings at Luxor and Amarna. From the 18th Dynasty to the Greco-Roman Period the quarries were used extensively.

Gebel El-Silsila became an important cult centre and each year at the beginning of the season of inundation offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods associated with the Nile to ensure the country’s wellbeing for the coming year. Because of the sanctity of the site, the sandstone was considered to have an extra holiness.

The principal deity of Gebel El-Silsila was Sobek, the crocodile god. Hapi, the god of the Nile also received offerings here as did the goddess Taweret. Due to Gebel El-Silsila being located not far from Aswan the Triad of Elephantine, Khnum, Satet and Anuket were also worshipped at Gebel El-Silsila.

West Bank of Gebel El-Silsilah

The steep sandstone cliffs of the West Bank are cluttered with graffiti, shrines, and stelae, including numerous tombs and rock chapels. Most of the monuments were cut directly into the cliff-face.

Speos of Horemheb

The rock-cut temple of Horemheb is referred to as the Great Speos. Comprising five openings formed by four pillars, the openings lead to a narrow hall that ends with a small sanctuary. The temple is dedicated to seven deities Amun, Mut, Khonsu, Sobek, Taweret, Thoth and the Pharaoh Horemheb himself. The walls and the ceilings of the speos are covered in reliefs and inscriptions, many displaying later rulers. The external walls of the Great Speos depict Ramesses III making offerings to the deities Maat, Amun-Re, Mut, Khonsu and Sobek. The central doorway contains a stele showing Seti II before Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu.

Temple of Horemhab at Gebel El-Silsila
Temple of Horemhab at Gebel El-Silsila

The Great Speos also contains two chapels belonging to Viziers. On the south end of the entrance is the chapel of Panehesy, Vizier to Merenptah. Panehesy is shown adoring Merenptah. Panehesy is also depicted on a stele showing Merenptah, Queen Isetnofret, and Prince Seti-Merenptah (later Seti II). On the northern end is a similar chapel of the Vizier Paser from the reign of Ramesses II. A stele in the doorway shows Ramesses II, Queen Isetnofret and Princess-Queen Bintanath. The king is offering to Maat, Ptah and Nefertem.

To the south of the Great Speos royal stelae can be seen, two erected in the 19th Dynasty belong to Ramesses III and V. Ramesses III is depicted making offerings to Maat, Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu. Ramesses V’s stele is seen standing before Amun-Re, Mut, Khonsu and Sobek. A third stele is dated to the reign of Sheshonq I of the 22nd Dynasty. Sheshonq is depicted along with his son, Iuput, being led by the goddess Mut to stand before the gods Amun-Re, Re-Harakhty and Ptah.

The Sanctuary of Horemhab Temple at Gebel El-Silsila
Sanctuary of Horemhab Temple at Gebel El-Silsila

Several rock cut shrines can be found south of the royal stelae, two of which are dated to the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Maa holds the titles ‘Scribe of the Treasury of Thutmose’ and ‘Overseer of the Seal of Min’ and the ‘Scribe of the Nome’, Ahmose.

North of the royal stelae more shrines can be found. One of which belonged to an official User who was a vizier during the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III. This shrine contains a record of User’s family tree.

Rock cut shrines, some with elaborate chapels containing statues of the owners and with beautifully decorated ceilings can be found, many located near the river’s edge.  The shrines belong to high officials, priests, royal scribes, and nobles including a tomb belonging to Sennefer of the 18th Dynasty who was a libation priest from Thebes buried here with his wife Hatshepsut. The tomb today is open to the sky, and the remains of five seated statues as well as hieroglyphic inscriptions can be seen, close to the water’s edge.

Within the quarry area itself mason’s marks, artisans’ drawings and other evidence of ancient workings can be seen.

East Bank of Gebel El-Silsila

The east bank today is mainly known for the huge quarries dating mostly to Ptolemaic and Roman times. There was also a Predynastic cemetery and a Ramesside temple. Survey work of the East Bank has so far revealed 49 quarries, the largest being Quarry 34 which contains 54 stone huts.

A number of pharaonic monuments and graffiti can be found in the east bank quarries, several of which are dated to the reign of Amenhotep III. The stelae are damaged, but one of them was inscribed in year 35. Amenhotep is shown adoring Amun-Re and is called ‘beloved of Sobek’ in the inscriptions. A shrine with stelae on three sides depicts Amenhotep III accompanied by an official named Amenhotep, who held the title ‘Eyes of the King in the whole land’.

The inscription on a large stele of Amenhotep III records the transport of stone for the construction of a temple of Ptah. His son Amenhotep IV, who later became Akhenaten, also has a stele here on which he worships Amun and records that he quarried stone for an obelisk to be erected in his Temple of the Sun at Karnak. Stelae of Seti I and King Apries can also be seen. Among the grottos and shelves of quarried sandstone, several unfinished sphinxes remain, of both the ram and human-headed variety, forever rooted to the bedrock. At the foot of the hills, there are a number of small rock-cut tombs. Rameses II built a temple at Gebel El-Silsila East, but this has now been destroyed.

The walls of the quarries are covered by a significant number of graffiti and early rock-carvings and there are indications that there may have possibly been stables providing horses to the Roman Caesars on the site.

Work Continues

The entire site of Gebel El-Silsila covering about 20 square kilometers is in a multi-year epigraphic survey project started in 2012 that is led by archaeologists Maria Nilsson and John Ward. Emphasis has been placed on the east bank due to insufficient recording in the past and deteriorating conditions in the present epigraphically.

The rediscovery of the Temple of Kheny is a significant find for the east bank. The finding confirms that Gebel El-Silsila is a sacred site in addition to its quarry function. It is unknown at this time to whom the temple is dedicated, but there are indications that it may be to Sobek. Further, the site seems to lean towards solar worship. Two painted sandstone fragments indicate that the temple’s ceiling had an astronomical motif with stars and sky representing the celestial heavens.

In February 2019, the joint Swedish-Egyptian archaeologists revealed a 16.4-feet long and 11.5-feet high ram-headed sphinx (or a criosphinx) carved from sandstone dated back to the reign of Amenhotep III. In addition to this find, an ‘uraeus’ or wrapped cobra symbol and hundreds of stone fragments engraved with hieroglyphs were also found.

Gebel El-Silsila is included in some of our Nile cruise itineraries, especially the Dahabiya Nile cruises as well as from the Felucca Nile cruises.