Thursday, May 05, 2022

Article series in Ancient Egypt Magazine

Gebel el-Silsila through the Ages

Over the past couple of years, we have been writing shorter archaeological (popular scientific) papers for Ancient Egypt Magazine, discussing the history of the Gebel el-Silsila area, our fieldwork, and some more detailed views on certain aspects or features of the site. Thanks to the editors, we have been given the permission to share with you those articles here! So, lets start with the earliest history of the site.

Naturally, you can order the physical copies from AE, and subscribe to receive a fantastic collection of interesting papers related to ancient Egypt. 


Ps. The previous homepage for Friends of Silsila is no longer in use, but we are working on constructing a new, interactive webpage where you will be able to take part of our publications, vlogs, blogs, 3D-models, etc. More of this to come!

Gebel el-Silsila throughout the ages: Part 1 – Early visitors

Perfect view of the surrounding landscape. Predynastic rock art site with giraffes on the west bank.
Photo: M. Nilsson


For over two hundred years, Egyptologists, archaeologists, explorers, knowledgeable enthusiasts, as well as intrepid tourists and laypeople alike have regarded Gebel el-Silsila as a minor archaeological site of little significance within the greater ancient scarred landscape of Egypt. For many, Gebel el-Silsila’s enduring and captivating sculptured stone landscape has been viewed merely from the deck or window of a passing ship or dahabeya, while navigating the narrow passage and cruising the sacred River Nile that separates the sites into two parts. This denigration and outdated perception of the site is something the current archaeological team hope to change. This paper is the first of a series aimed to present Gebel el-Silsila: the site, the team, the various chronological periods, discoveries and new results. Here, the aim is to introduce the site and its early visitors.



Located some 60 km south of the grand Edfu Temple, and 65 km north of the stunning golden landscape of modern day Aswan, Gebel el-Silsila – “Kheny/Khenu” to the ancients – played an important role within the overall development of Dynastic Egypt. First and foremost the site provided with a bountiful supply of prime Nubian sandstone, with a culmination of quarry activity during the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom. However, the site was also a vital strategic trading location, marking the boundary between Egypt and her southern neighbour Nubia, one of Egypt’s chief enemies (also known as the ‘nine bows of Egypt’) of which hundreds of Middle Kingdom inscriptions bear witness of. As we will see, though, Gebel el-Silsila had an important role to play already during the Predynastic period, and this part has yet to be fully understood or told.

From Napoleon to Caminos

The modern historical attestations of Gebel el-Silsila find their beginning with the Napoleonic scientific expeditions, when several scholars visited the site, documented its rock-cut temple and Nile stelae with words and art, after which they left their own engravings and signatures upon the sandstone surfaces and ancient monuments for later visitors to gaze upon. Since then, visiting scholars, including some of the great fathers of Egyptology, such as Lepsius, Petrie, Legrain, and even Carter, merely gave the site but a casual glance. Occasionally and often hastily, such visitors documented a handful of the site’s visible monuments, many of which were inaccurate or regrettably missing vital components to make justice to the original message. Of course, it is understandable that other sites were given presidency over Gebel el-Silsila during these early days of Egyptology, when scholars could choose between majestic temples, such as Karnak and Luxor, royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings as well as Saqqara, and elite burials throughout the country. Simply put, the quarryscape of Gebel el-Silsila was no match for the highly prized temples and tombs that embodied the very essence of Egyptology, which had captivated all who were engrossed in this relatively new science.

Starting in 1955, the Argentinian Egyptologist Caminos spent nine field seasons at Gebel el-Silsila, and documented together with his students the site’s dynastic epigraphy under the auspices of the EES (Egyptian Exploration Society). Unfortunately, only one monograph saw the completion as a publication, in which Caminos and James describe the original epigraphy and iconography of the 32 magnificent New Kingdom cenotaphs that line the West Bank. Years later, Caminos’ epigraphic work of the so called ‘Speos of Horemheb’ (rock-cut temple, re-dated to the reign of Hatshepsut by the current team) was published in a doctoral thesis by Thiem.

The speos. Photo: M. Nilsson

Nevertheless, despite the great efforts of scholars like Caminos, James, Osing and later Thiem, the true spectacular landscape and long forgotten archaeology of ancient Kheny remained undocumented and hidden, buried beneath the ever-shifting sands. It was not until 2012 when the Gebel el Silsila Epigraphic Survey Project (later ‘Gebel el Silsila Project’) – a Swedish-led archaeological mission from Lund University – was granted its concession and begun its monumental task of surveying the massive site (11.5 mile2/30 km2), encompassing also the areas of Nag el-Hammam and Shatt el-Rigal in the north. The goal was to document, catalogue and eventually excavate and restore/preserve the immensely diverse historical context of the ancient landscape of Gebel el-Silsila, which was virtually untouched since the time of Emperors Trajan and Antoninus Pius (2nd century A.D.) when quarrying and moving the last blocks of the Temple of Sobek to a nearby destination.


The early days of Gebel el-Silsila

The new project focused on a visual survey of the scarred quarryscape, numbering and identifying 104 quarries (52 on each side) that had cut into the sandstone scenery at least since the Middle Kingdom. The main goal of the first expedition was to document the Graeco-Roman epigraphy, including the enigmatic quarry marks, pictorial graffiti, demotic, Greek and Latin texts that were engraved into almost all exposed surfaces within the quarries of this time. Simultaneously, the team surveyed the surrounding landscape and archaeological remains, which soon resulted in the discovery of unique and extensive prehistoric rock art sites.

The newly discovered rock art sites at Gebel el-Silsila artistically show a much different and diverse historical timeline of the site than previously thought. For over eight millennia, visitors to Gebel el-Silsila have left their marks on the rock faces and by doing so they give witness to a chronological table of events that have changed and shaped the site’s landscape to what it is today. Each locale provide us with a sequential glimpse into the development of the site from one of a bountiful hunting ground to a pure industry and monumental engineering project, to those of a yet more personal insights and relationships with their contemporary world and divine pantheon.

The rock art at Gebel el-Silsila can be divided into the following periods: Epipalaeolithic (c. 8500 B.P.), Neolithic and Predynastic (c. 6000-3000 B.C.), Dynastic (c. 3000-305 B.C.), Graeco-Roman (305 B.C.-200 A.D.), to which can be added Coptic, Medieval and eventually modern graffiti.

Hammered or pecked into the natural exposed bedrock, primarily found on horizontal surfaces and heavily worn by time, the team found the tell-tale signs of one of the earliest artistic repertoires, known as Epipalaeolithic petroglyphs. These designs, some almost 8500 years old, foremost include geometric motifs, some known from the nearby area of el-Hosh to represent fish-traps, and several abstract patterns, that for us are unique, indiscernible illustrations. By documenting the rock art, the team could track the footsteps of the Epipaleolithic hunter and gatherers, and it was clear that their engravings concentrated in areas providing good hunting or fishing conditions.

With the discovery of Epipalaeolithic depictions at Gebel el-Silsila, the team could change the previous misconception that the site was almost empty of rock art, to the recognition of almost 100 individual rock art locales. Soon, the rock art corpus included thousands of petroglyphs and a stylistic range of depictions equal to acknowledged rock art areas such as el-Kab, el-Hosh, Wadi Kubbaniya, Wadi Abu Suebeira, and Gharb Aswan. 

Epipalaeolithic motifs at Gebel el-Silsila East bank. Photos: M. Nilsson

The discovery of several microlithic tools and workshops in a direct physical context to the rock art supported the age of the sites to several thousands of years. In addition, the team has documented a series of basic rock shelters and far-reaching game traps. With the rock art, stone tools and associated shelters and game traps, the team was able to establish the west and east banks respectively as areas of prehistoric anthropological significance, and Gebel el-Silsila could now be included within the context of the migratory hunter-gatherer tribes of the Kom Ombo plain. These physical remains give witness to the diversity of the site, and tells a story of how the early nomadic tribes utilised the undulating landscape of Gebel el-Silsila by following the rising waters of the Nile around the two sandstone massifs. By doing so, they were able to exploit the generous hunting grounds for the benefit of themselves and their fellow tribesman. Finally, there was evidence of prehistoric activity at Gebel el-Silsila that could relate in time with the lithic industry to which the site gave its name in the 1960’s, known as the ‘Silsilian industry’ (later Ballanan-Silsilian).


Predynastic hunting scenes

While the Epipalaeolithic rock art remains limited to a few sites in Upper Egypt, engravings of animals from the Ethiopian fauna and its famed bushy-tailed giraffes are better spread and make up the largest group at Gebel el-Silsila. As elsewhere, the repertoire includes giraffes, crocodiles, boats and hunting scenes with human figures, dogs and hunted animals, etc.


Panel 2 at Rock Art Site 3 showing a panel with giraffes and other animals. Photo by M. Nilsson

Petroglyphs are often found on vertical cliff surfaces in elevated areas overlooking the landscape, and in spaces that would have escaped the rising waters of the Nile inundation. Their locations also follow natural markers, where the landscape offers more than suitable hunting areas; for example, where the upper escarpment dramatically drops down towards what would have been the Nile edge, creating narrow wadis (valleys), perfect for corralling and entrapment. It has been remarked that the placement of such panels, and their contents, may have had a ritualistic relationship with the actual hunt itself, that depictions carry with it a certain embodiment of the intended game, and by which, the hunter is asking for some kind of divine assistance. If accepting such an interpretation, the communicated message of the Predynastic rock art producers is parallel with that of later periods, when the hunter wishes to control nature and ask the divine world for supporting interference.

The same panel, here with the petroglyphs filled in. Facsimiles by M. Nilsson

Rock Art Sites 3 and 4 marked with panels. Photo and editing M. Nilsson

Thoughts on function and meaning

By documenting and analysing the numerous rock art sites of the Gebel el-Silsila area, the team was also able to produce a geographical and geological map of the sandstone massifs, allowing an interpretation of how the formations had played an important role in the development of the area as a provider of safe sheltering and successful food supply.  The nomadic life of the prehistoric visitors to Gebel el-Silsila aligned with the tide and flood of the Nile, and was naturally regulated by the migration of the local wildlife. During the summer, the river flooded the wadis of Gebel el-Silsila and created a landscape almost like islands, which pebbled beaches in the north and south give witness to still today. The two island-like sides provided humans and animals with a safe and secure environment in which they could thrive. However, with the changing of tides, there would have been increased risks with dangerous and life-threatening wildlife, such as beast-like crocodiles and hippopotami, as well as venomous snakes and scorpions, for which Gebel el-Silsila is still infamous today.


Giraffe panel on the west bank. Photo M. Nilsson

The two sides were separated by the narrow gorge at Gebel el-Silsila may well provide us with an underlying reason as to why so many boat motifs were carved into the cliffs of the region. During the tide, the area presented a cataract landscape, allowing visitors to cross the Nile far easier. It was, and still is, the narrowest point of the Nile, giving history and explanation to the dynastic name of the site, Kheny/Khenu, roughly translated as the ‘Rowing Place’. This may equally explain why Gebel el-Silsila was chosen as the sacred place to perform the annual Nile festival; a topic that will be discussed later. Returning to the prehistoric period, it appears it is by no chance that there is a high concentration of Naqqada boat motifs with various styles in the areas of Gebel el-Silsila and its northern sister-site Shatt el-Rigal.

Predynastic Rock Art Panels surrounding the famous royal scene of Mentuhotep at Wadi Shatt el-Rigal. Photo M. Nilsson 

What is clear, Gebel el-Silsila has now proved important as to the understanding of the larger Kom Ombo area with regards prehistoric rock art and the migratory patterns of hunter-gatherer tribes who roamed and hunted amongst the protruding sandstone bluffs, leaving behind their traps and ritualistic guides for us to view today. The impact later visitors had on Gebel el-Silsila, and how they lives were entangled in the sandstone landscape will be explored in later papers.


Predynastic elephant petroglyph in Wadi Shatt el-Rigal. Photo M. Nilsson
Predynastic boat motifs at Wadi Shatt el-Rigal. Photo M. Nilsson

Ps. All images are copyrighted. For any secondary use or copying of the images, please notify the authors and always recognise the Gebel el-Silsila Project. Thank you!


 The published AE version

Correction: the flood did not circumnavigate the west bank completely, 
although filled its wadis and its northern and southern termini.