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Explore The Amazing Gebel Silsila

Introduction

Gebel Silsila is the name given to a rocky gorge between Kom Ombo and Edfu where the River Nile narrows and high sandstone cliffs come right down to the water’s edge. There was probably a series of rapids here in ancient times, dangerous to navigate, which naturally formed a frontier between the regions of Elephantine (Aswan) and Edfu.

In Pharaonic times the river here was known as Khnnui, the ‘place of rowing’. 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.

Arthur Weigall in his ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ states that the name Silsileh, is a Roman corruption of the original Egyptian name for the town, Khol-Khol, meaning a barrier or frontier. It is hardly surprising that by Dynasty XVIII, travellers had developed the custom of carving small shrines into the cliffs here, dedicating them to a variety of Nile gods and to the river itself.

Smaller shrines were cut by Tuthmose I, Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III before Horemheb constructed his rock-cut temple here, then many of the Dynasty XIX or later kings left their mark in some way. Gebel 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.

On both banks of the Nile the massive quarries produced the sandstone needed for the prolific construction of monuments during Dynasty XVIII, at first in small quantities and as the skills of the workmen grew, the stone was more extensively quarried to build great monuments such as the colonnade of Amenhotep III at Luxor, the Karnak Temple of Amenhotep IV, the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, to name but a few.

By Ptolemaic times most of the Upper Egyptian temples contained monuments built from Gebel Silsila sandstone. Because of the sanctity of the site, the sandstone was considered to have an extra holiness.

Gebel EL- Silsila West

The steep sandstone cliffs of the West Bank are cluttered with graffiti, shrines and stelae, including 33 rock chapels. Dynasty XVIII saw the construction of shrines by Tuthmose I, Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III and Horemheb and in Dynasty XIX, Rameses II, Merenptah, Siptah, Seti II, Rameses III and Rameses V had elaborate stelae carved on the rocks. 
Seti I left an inscribed Hymn to the Nile and inaugurated two festivals, which were continued to be endowed by Rameses II and Merenptah.

The most prominent deity depicted here appears to be Sobek the crocodile god, ‘Lord of Khennui’, who with Haroeris (Horus the Elder) is one of the twin gods of Kom Ombo. Hapi as the god of the Nile also received a large share of offerings. The site’s proximity to Aswan meant that the Triad of Elephantine, Khnum, Satet and Anuket were worshipped here. Tauret the hippopotamus goddess is also featured at Gebel Silsila, especially in the Speos of Horemheb.

Towards the southern end of the west bank of the river, three shrines were constructed by Merenptah, Rameses II and Seti I (from north to south), with a quay in front of them, but Seti’s shrine and the quay were destroyed by an earthquake. These shrines are now most easily accessible by boat. To the north, sheer quarried rock faces that look like sliced blocks of cheese, contain mason’s marks, artisans’ drawings and other evidence of ancient workings.

A rock-cut staircase leads hopefully up one side of these cliffs, only to vanish at the top leaving you almost stranded. However, there is a rough rocky path that leads past ‘The Capstan’ and on to the royal shrines. The first monument here is a large rock stele at right-angles to the river, built by Rameses III and dated to Year VI of his reign. The first of the royal shines was built in the first year of Merenptah and like the other two was recessed deep into the rock behind two columns and a cornice.

The king is seen worshipping a variety of gods and the inscription depicts a Hymn to the Nile. To the south is a small stele of Merenptah on which the king offers a figure of Ma’at to Amun-re. Behind him stands the Vizier Panahesy and another official. Sadly in June 2012, the lower part of this stele has been badly damaged by thieves attempting to remove it from the rock.

The second shrine belongs to the early reign of Rameses II and also shows the king worshipping several deities. Queen Nefertari is seen before a figure of the hippopotamus goddess Tauret who is dressed in a very unusual robe.

To the south of the Ramses, a shrine is another small stele to Merenptah on which the King is joined by the High Priest of Amun, Roy. A small figure of King Amenhotep I stands beside this stele.

The third shrine and the earliest in the group was mostly destroyed by an earthquake. It was built for Seti I and seems to have been in a similar style to the other two royal shrines.

Further north, the visitor can see the majority of rock-shrines, some with elaborate chapels containing statues of the owners and with beautifully decorated ceilings.

Many of these shrines have been damaged by quarrying or earthquakes and are now open to the elements, but they can be seen from the wide path that runs along the river bank.

The shrines belong to high officials, priests, royal scribes and nobles of the time. There is also a Dynasty XVIII tomb belonging to Sennefer, a libation priest from Thebes who was buried here with his wife Hatshepsut. The tomb is now 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.

At the northern extent of the quarries, there are three large rock-stelae carved for Rameses V, Shoshenq I and Rameses III (from north to south). The stele of Rameses V, one of his largest known monuments, contains an inscription dedicated to Amun-Re, Mut, Khons and Sobek-Re of Khennui.

Shoshenq’s stela tells of how the king quarried here for his building works at Karnak in year 21 of his reign. On the stele of Rameses III, the king is seen offering a statue of ma’at to Amun-Re, Mut and Khons.

Gebel Silsila East

The east bank of the Nile contains the more spectacular quarries of Gebel Silsila which were most exploited during the New Kingdom, particularly under Rameses II, who employed three thousand workers to cut stone for the construction of the Ramesseum on the west bank at Thebes. Many shrines and stelae were cut into the rock here too and the names of kings who worked the quarries are attested by their officials who gave detailed accounts of their work.

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 Silsila East, but this has now been destroyed.

Unfortunately, the east bank quarries are now officially closed to visitors without special permission.