Sehel Island is one of the largest islands on the Nile, located upstream from the First Cataract in Aswan region. It contained a quarry for the mining of granite, the hardest stone used in ancient Egypt. The island became a popular resting-spot for the king’s army, and trading expeditions making their way upstream into Nubia. As a result, the island contains hundreds of inscriptions and royal cartouches, immortalizing countless officials and kings. Many of these inscriptions can be seen on the large granite boulders surrounding the island. There are also many within the boundaries of the temple of the goddess Anuket, who was revered as part of the Elephantine triad, along with her parents Khnum and Satet.
Continual use of this island can be seen from its oldest inscriptions dating to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2034–1650 BC), through until the Graeco-Roman Period when the famous “Famine Stela” was carved in to the natural granite rock. One inscription from the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 BC) records that the Overseer of Construction Works managed the feat of extracting six obelisks from the granite quarries of Aswan.
The Famine Stela
The fascinating text of this stela carved on the face of a granite boulder on Sehel Island tells the story of a nation in crisis, its concerned king, and his efforts to find a solution. Although it was composed and carved in the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC), the events are set around 2500 years earlier.
The Famine Stela is inscribed in 32 vertical rows of hieroglyphic script, with a scene above it depicting King Djoser (c. 2686–2667 BC) presenting offerings to the divine triad of Elephantine consisting of the god Khnum, his wife Satet and their daughter Anuket. The country is gripped in seven years of drought and famine and King Djoser summons his famous courtier, the wise Imhotep to find a solution. Imhotep told the king that the inundation came from the sacred spring in Elephantine Island, whose god Khnum was the one who controlled the flow of water. Djoser dutifully made offerings to the gods of Elephantine and Khnum appeared to him in a dream one night, promising him to end the famine by returning the flood. To celebrate the return of prosperity, Djoser built a temple on Elephantine to thank Khnum.