Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.
In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.
There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.
The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.
The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.
Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.
As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.
It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018