GEBEL EL-SILSILA THROUGHOUT THE AGES:PART 7 – LATE PERIOD TO GRAECO-ROMAN ERA
Ancient Egypt|March / April 2021
Continuing their chronological survey, Maria Nilsson and John Ward now focus on Gebel el-Silsila in the post-Ramesside era.
Maria Nilsson and John Ward

While the various rock-cut monuments along the Nile majestically testify to Gebel el-Silsila’s dynastic splendour, the site’s more recent ancient past is primarily represented through archaeology that is directly associated with the quarrying industry. The monumental quarries of the early Roman Period, seen on both East and West Banks, are of comparable visual magnificence to the Nile stelae (AE121) and the Speos of Hatshepsut (AE115). And of equal importance to our understanding of Gebel el-Silsila are the several villages and lookout-stations, with associated infrastructure, burials, and epigraphy.

The Late Period

After the demise of the New Kingdom, Kheny (the ancient name for Gebel el-Silsila) fell into almost complete oblivion; these dark ages would last until the end of the Ptolemaic Period, or perhaps as late as the early Roman Period, around the reign of the Emperor Augustus (c. 30 BC - AD14). Marking this transition was the destruction of the Temple of Sobek along with the eradication of all crocodile images, and also the demise of the town, the closure of its cemeteries and the discontinuation of both primary (official) and secondary (private) epigraphy.

From this obscure period, only a couple of official monuments can affirm activity at Gebel el-Silsila: the royal stela of Sheshonq I (c. 945-924 BC, Twenty-second Dynasty) on the West Bank (shown opposite, centre right), and the cartouches of Apries (c. 589-570 BC, Twenty-sixth Dynasty) on the East (opposite top left and right). While the stela of Sheshonq speaks about an official quarrying expedition, there is no evidence of any quarries from this time. This does not mean that the quarries were not there, but rather that they were reused later by the Romans. The stela is squeezed in between two Ramesside stelae on the main tourist pathway. It depicts the ruler during his twenty-first regnal year, accompanied by his son, the high priest of Amun, Iuput (A); together they are led by Mut before Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah. The rejection and exclusion of Sobek demonstrates that the only acknowledged ‘Lord of Kheny’ was no longer present in the local pantheon during the Third Intermediate Period.

The Ptolemaic Period

Considering the great amount of restoration work and the number of new sandstone temple structures built during the Ptolemaic Period, it is surprising – if not bizarre – to find nothing other than a few beer jugs and two stelae of potential contemporaneity. Naturally, the Romans may have usurped the Ptolemaic quarries, and the material could be buried beneath Roman archaeology, but Gebel el-Silsila as it stands presents very limited indications of this period. Beer jars or jugs have been documented among the ceramic finds at the site of the destroyed Temple of Sobek, and in the Main Quarry (Q34) on the East Bank, as well as on ‘Pottery Hill’ (see AE114) and ‘Black Rock Camp’ on the West Bank. Between the Nile stelae and the stela of Sety I, situated in the far south of the West Bank, there is a stela mentioned by early travellers to the site (see opposite and below). Known as the ‘Tree Stela’ it depicts, from left to right, a tree, a horse and a rare Graeco-Roman deity known as Heron. Below the scene is a Greek proskynema (adoration). It has been suggested elsewhere that the stela dates to the Graeco-Roman age, but it is now too vandalised to determine an absolute chronology. However, its preserved iconographical details, together with the text, follow the same Early Roman style as we have documented in thousands of images and hundreds of texts on the East Bank, so the Tree Stela may be discounted as a Ptolemaic monument.

Twelve Deities

The second stela of potential Ptolemaic age has been visible since antiquity, and is situated just north of the Speos along the pathway that today leads to the ticket office (see left and below left). We excavated its front face in 2018 in order to understand its relationship with the landscape, and learned that the stela was once protected by a wooden shrine, which the visitor could approach via a forecourt and stairs. Footprints in the floor in front of the stela (two square indents flanking a somewhat larger rectangular indentation) suggest that the shrine once held three statuary objects – perhaps similar to the monument of Amenhotep III on the East Bank with its two obelisks flanking a centrally positioned statuary falcon (see AE116).

The scene, which has no inscription (although it contains Greek text graffiti), shows twelve deities divided into four triads across two registers, with two groups of three gods facing each other within each register. The lower register shows the Theban triad (i.e. Amun-Ra, Mut and Khonsu) facing right and representing the South, and the Osirian siblings (Osiris, Isis and Nephthys) facing left and representing the North (probably Abydos), together creating a depiction of sema-tawy [‘the two lands’, north and south]. Their faces have been erased, but their crowns, dress and the objects they hold are clearly visible and enable identification.

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