Maat-ka-Ra Hatshepsut

last update: 16.10.2008

Gebel es-Silsilah

  Latitude: 24° 38' 46.84 N
  Longitude: 32° 55' 46.31 E

Boating the Nile upstream, approx. 150 kms to the south of Luxor one passes the rock monuments of Gebel es-Silsilah. The modern arabic name Gebel es-Silsilah means "the mountain of the chain" and tells of chain that was fastened across the Nile to hinder navigation. The pharaonic name was $nw, $nj (= place to row).
From the Middle Kingdom to Roman times sandstones were continuously quarried on both sides of the river and used for the pharaonic constructions. To the greater extent the quarrying of sandstone obviously began in the reign of Hatshepsut. The work in the quarry presumably began in the area 3 at Silsilah-West where , e.g., the stones for the temples of Satet and Chnum built by Hatshepsut on the island of Elephantine had been obtained.
The southern border of the area 3 is marked by a loading platform for stones, to the north the area continuous with totally 32 historic architectural monuments whose row is closed in the north after approx. 195 ms by the Speos of Haremhab (see below).

Speos of Haremhab at Gebel es-Silsilah (photo by E. Noppes)


The following table gives an overview about the builders of the chapels, provided that these can be identified up to now. Strikingly often officials from the beginning of the 18th Dynasty are represented, particularly from the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III.

Shrine No. Name / Transliteration Date

Distance to the Speos of Haremhab
[~ m]

1   195 uninscribed
2   199 uninscribed
3   228 uninscribed
4 prob. a Djehutjmose End of 18th Dynasty or shortly after 231  
5 Min (Menu) Thutmosis III 237  
6 Ahmose, JaH-msw joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 249  
7  joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 255  
8   280 uninscribed
9   292 uninscribed
10   304 uninscribed
11 Senynefer, Hatshepsut, and others Amenophis II 337  
12 Min-nakhte Thutmosis III 364  
13 Senneferi joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 367  
14 Nehesj NHsj joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 370  
15 Hapuseneb ¡pw-snb Hatshepsut 373  
16 Senenmut %n-n-mwt Hatshepsut 376  
17 User-amun Wsr-Jmn Thutmosis III 379  
18  Amenhotep II 387  
19   394 uninscribed
20  probably Thutmosis I 418 uninscribed
21 Menkh Thutmosis I 422  
22  joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 428  
23 Min-nakhte joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 429  
24   494 uninscribed
25 Amenemhat prob. Amenhotep II or Thutmosis IV 541  
26 a viceroy of Cush (Merimose?) Amenhotep III 567  
27   577  
28   588 uninscribed
29   600  
30  joined reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III 664  
31 Neferkhewe Thutmosis III 669  
32   680 uninscribed, ruined
All data according to Caminos, 1963

These historic monuments were called sometimes grottos, graves, cenotaphs, shrines, chapels or rock temples. The different terms reflect the uncertainty upon which purpose they could have served. This uncertainty was also not solved by the discovery that most of the owners had a complete tomb at Thebes west. Based on the wall inscriptions the latest interpretation (Bommas) recognizes in these constructions offering chapels.

The chapels have been built on a east-west axis, i.e. the entrance to the chapels lies on the eastern side directed to the Nile. In the most cases the chapels only one room was cut into the rock.
The lintel usually shows the name of the king during whose reign the owner carried out his duties and whose favor(s) made it possible for the owner to build the chapel. Above that a winged sun-disk (BHdtj) is depicted. The door-jambs shows offering formulas. In many chapels the walls show banquet scenes, offerings for the deceased, lists of offerings, and cleansing rites.
On the rear wall, the west-wall of the chapels, frequently seated statues of the owner - with or without relatives - had been cut out of the rock. Similar seated statues can be found in the tombs of the Theban necropolis. Without exception the owners had been high-ranking officials of this era.
On the other hand, there is no false-door in any of the chapels, which is a clear hint, that a burial of the owner has been never intended.

The fact that the chapels had been built so near to the river must be of central importance regarding their interpretation. The chapels had been built at the level of the yearly flood which happened from May to the end of August / beginning of September. However, this can not be observed anymore after the dam had been built at Aswan. Today, the chapels are 4 to  5 ms above the water level. Nevertheless, traces of erosion as well as photos from the beginning of the 20th century show that the chapels No. 12 to 17 had been flooded.
Only the chapels No. 1, 2 and 11 had been built markedly above the high(est) water level that was reach during the Nile flood, while the chapel No. 19 had been been built markedly below this level. Chapels No. 30 to 32 were built next to the low water level so that they were flooded early with the ascending flood and eventually became totally flooded.
It is no accident that at least the floor of about 80% of the chapels were flooded during the high tide of the Nile.

Situation today in comparison to the water level mid of November - today the entrances of the most chapels are located some ms above the water level of the Nile so that the chapels can not be entered directly (photo by E. Noppes).

Thus, Bommas points to the regeneration of the country in connection with the cyclically returning Nile-flood. Only the cyclically returning flooding of the fields by the Nile ensures the (new) life. On the other side, a guaranteed material supply in the afterlife is one of the most important desires of the deceased. Hence, the Nile should not only flood the earthly fields, but also find the way to the dead (his tomb) and flood his fields in the hereafter.
The desire of the dead for the presence of the Nile resp. the flooding of his tomb is testified several times, e.g. in the spell No. 169 (lines 118 u. 119) of the "Book of the Dead" (Hornung, 1998):
The flood (Hapi) undulates above your chest,
and this is more useful than what is carved on the stela.
Due to this passage in the Book of Dead the Nile flood is more important than a prayer carved in stone - since a prayer must be articulated to be effective. However, most of the ancient necropoles are - with good reasons - located outside the flood area. Therefore, there was not too much hope that the Nile would reach the tombs.

The course of the Nile at Gebel es-Silsilah is determined by a geologic specific feature. In contrast to other places in Egypt here the riverbed becomes narrowed by sandstone rocks rising directly at the river banks. Before the construction of the dam the flood was blocked by the natural narrowing and did not only rose higher but also reached chronologically earlier higher levels as somewhere else. Here the Nile flood manifested itself more impressive than somewhere else.
According to Bommas it is this effect that is of essential importance for the ritual understanding of the chapels at Gebel es-Silsilah. According to his view this imposing high Nile flood was interpreted as an expression of the primeval water, in most cases - as shown by several inscriptions in the chapels - worshipped as the god Nun.
Hence, here in Gebel es-Silsilah the desire for the "supply" in the afterworld by the Nile flood could be "realized" because it was possible to build the chapels not only directly on the banks of the river but also in the flood area. This would also explain the similarities of the architecture and the decoration of the chapels in comparison with the tomb chapels in Thebes which was presumably chosen deliberately to keep the differences to the chapels in the necropolis as low as possible. Furthermore, any risk of the destructive power of the water on the afterlife was banished here, far away from the real tomb. No other place in ancient Egypt was more suitable to fulfill the desire of the deceased for cyclic regeneration.
(Purification and) regeneration of the deceased were guaranteed, actually, in ritual actions. Whether in Gebel es-Silsilah really a lasting cult for the deceased was carried out by the surviving relatives, cannot be proved. However, in the opinion of Bommas this is also irrelevant because (purification and) regeneration are kept ongoing by the annual Nile flood itself.

In the view of Bommas the chapels built in the flood area of Gebel es-Silsilah are the petrified desire of their builders for regenerative supply in the afterlife by the returning flood by the Nile. Furthermore, the cyclic return of the Nile flood makes the supply in the afterlife independent of the imponderabilities of a cult for the deceased which should be carried out by the dependents.


Copyright: Dr. Karl H. Leser (Iufaa)