Lonely Planet review
The ruins of the original town of Abu and the fascinating Aswan Museum lie at the southern end of Elephantine Island. The older part of the museum is housed in the villa of Sir William Willcocks, architect of the old Aswan Dam. Built in 1898, the villa became a museum in 1912. The newer extension was added in 1998.
The main part of the museum houses antiquities discovered in Aswan and Nubia, although most of the Nubian artefacts rescued from the temples flooded by Lake Nasser were moved to the Nubia Museum. The modern annexe has a delightful collection of objects, from weapons, pottery and utensils to statues, encased mummies and sarcophagi from predynastic to late Roman times, found in the excavations on Elephantine Island. The well-displayed objects, with excellent labels in English and Arabic, are organised in separate glass cases, each explaining a particular facet of life on the island in ancient times: death, trade, religion, weaving, hunting, farming, cooking and so on. At the right of the main entrance, in a room by itself, lies the sarcophagus and mummy of a sacred ram, the animal associated with Khnum.
A path through the garden behind the museum leads to the evocative ruins of ancient Abu . Numbered plaques and reconstructed buildings mark the island’s long history from around 3000 BC to the 14th century AD. The largest structure in the site is the partially reconstructed Temple of Khnum (plaque numbers 6, 12 and 13). Built in honour of the god of inundation during the Old Kingdom, it was added to and used for more than 1500 years before being extensively rebuilt in Ptolemaic times. Other highlights include a small 4th-dynasty step pyramid , thought to have been built by Sneferu (2613–2589 BC; father of Khufu of Great Pyramid fame); a tiny Ptolemaic chapel (number 15), reconstructed from the Temple of Kalabsha (which is now just south of the High Dam); a reconstructed 18th-dynasty temple (number 2), built by Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC) and dedicated to the goddess Satet; a cemetery for sacred rams (number 11), thought to have been the living embodiment of the god Khnum; and the ruins of an Aramaic Jewish colony dating from the 5th century BC.
Heavenly portents and priestly prophecies aside, in ancient times only the Nilometer could give a real indication of the likelihood of a bountiful harvest. When the Nilometer here in the southern frontier town recorded a high water level of the river, it meant a good harvest, which in turn meant more taxes. The Nilometer of the Temple of Khnum (number 7) is below the southern balustrade of the Khnum temple. Built in the 26th dynasty, its stone stairs lead down to a small basin for measuring the Nile’s maximum level. Another stairway, with a scale etched into its wall, leads to the water from the basin’s northern end. Descending to the river’s edge from beneath a sycamore tree near the museum is the Nilometer of the Satet Temple (number 10). Built in late Ptolemaic or early Roman times and restored in the 19th century, its staircase is roofed over and niches in the walls would have had oil lamps to provide light. If you look hard as you descend to the river, you can see the names of Roman prefects carved into the left-hand wall.