gebel el silsila

Charles Woods

Gebel is a word which means mountain and Gebel el-Silsileh is in fact a mountain of sandstone rock, or indeed a quarry.   It is one of Egypt’s several sandstone quarries and lies about 40 miles to the north of the first nome known as the region of Ta-Khent, the Capital town of which is often referred to as Elephantine but is now officially known  as Aswan.       

gebel el silsilaGebel el Silsila
Gebel el-Silsila

The kings of the 12th Dynasty, particularly Montuhotep II (2066-2014), were largely responsible for securing the borders and deserts in and around Nubia, and Aswan, and a note of this has been carved into some reliefs at Shatt er-Rigal not far from Gebel el-Silsileh.  Other texts also record a number of military operations,  at the time, aimed at restoring Egyptian control over the area upstream of Aswan. 

Several illustrious kings and queens have quarried at Gebel el-Silsileh during the 18th Dynasty, the most notable ones, perhaps, leaving behind, stone carvings in the form of stelae or rock-cut temples or shrines. Queen Hatshepsut during the 22 years that she wielded power during the 18th Dynasty (1479-1457)  left a rock-cut temple dedicated to Hathor. Amenhotep II left a shrine, and Akhenaton at the start of his 17-year reign (1360-1343) commissioned a large stelae depicting himself, in the early days before wide-scale Atenism became endemic, making offerings to Amun-Re.  Horemheb during his 15-year reign (1328-?) (his long reign of 30 years is now seriously in question) made the best use of the quarry and dedicated a rock-cut sanctuary there, including his own personal record of a rather obscure Nubian campaign about which little else is known. 

Seti I made use of the quarry and dedicated a shrine, as also did his son Ramesses II.  Following on, Merenptah (1212-1201),  13th son of Ramasses II,  who eventually came to the throne during the 19th Dynasty  had, sometime, during his 11-year reign dedicated a rock-temple of his own.  Ramesses V (1146-1141) of the 20th Dynasty has intentions of re-opening the quarry workings, but was thwarted in his attempt due to an untimely death.    The later pharaoh, Sheshong,(948-926) of the 22nd dynasty quarried extensively at Gebel el-Silsileh, during his 21-year reign, in order to fulfill his ambitious plans at Karnak Temple.  

The quarry was worked or managed by gangs of ‘leppers’.    This word should not be understood in its current medical context.   The word ‘leppers’ was a generic term conveniently applied by the Greeks to describe all persons of a similar ilk who were in some way either the criminal element, or of lowest class society, in bondage or foreign slaves of all kinds, and commonly referred to by the Egyptians as “Asiatics”. The term, therefore, has nothing whatever to do with the medical condition of leprosy, but arose as a generic for the likes of such as an eclectic mix of individuals and gangs plucked from many sources and origins.   It is to be expected, therefore, that with such an eclectic melting pot of people, many foreign gods and goddesses would have been imported and  worshiped in the area, not just the odd one or two Egyptian ones  that remain in evidence today.  

The most common dedication seen at Gebel el-Silsileh today is to the goddess Hathor, but, of course,  this would have included, Amun and Re,  Sobek, Hapi the bisexual Nile Fertility god with the female breasts and massive pot-belly,  Horus the Elder, and Khonsu at the very least of the Egyptian pantheon.  From about the 18th Dynasty onwards and the period starting round about Hatshepsut, many worshipers began to think that gods could communicate with them as individuals, and ears began to appear carved on stelae in the hope the various gods would hear their private individual  prayers and supplications, this idea being reinforced  if ‘heard’ through the greatest of the gods and goddesses.    Many diverse offerings would possibly have been brought to the several major shrines, temples or rock-cut sanctuaries representing all local and  foreign gods, but all could be acceptable to the Great Mother goddess - Hathor.

SilsilaSilsila 1809
Gebel el Silsila - painting by David Roberts circa 1849 and lithograph circa 1809

Perhaps one of the most important and well-known pharaohs to quarry at Gebel el-Silseleh was Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton).    During the reign of Akhenaton’s father, Amenhotep III, the Egyptian historian, Manetho had recorded that at one of the major quarries in the Northern Delta there had been a number of potentially dangerous  rebellions amongst the crews which had proven difficult to keep under control.  This has led a number of biblical historians to believe this might have pre-empted the Exodus and gave rise to speculation regarding the entry by Manetho the Egyptian historian concerning the Osarseph theory. 

Osarseph is believed to have originally been a military man who had subsequently entered the priesthood.    After a while he apparently turned his back on the gods and the religion, probably inappropriately voicing his opinion rather too loudly, and for his trouble was punished by being incarcerated along with those in bondage and slavery.  It seems from here, he then undertook covert military instruction with them, championed their cause and may even have incited them to rebellion.    Unfortunately, there are no actual Egyptian records of these rebellions surviving apart from those recorded by Manetho.  Osarseph is believed by some scholars to be the Biblical Moses, but this is not a widely held view. 

There is no obvious reason why Manetho would have invented this information.  Nevertheless, it may have some bearing on the history of Gebel el-Silsileh and the workforce there.  It appears from circumstantial evidence that Akhenaton had transferred gangs of inexperienced quarry workers from the north to Gebel el-Silsileh in the deep south of Egypt.   The evidence of this is born out by the fact that for the first time, a king had ordered very small blocks, known by us at “talatat” which could be easily worked and handled by inexperienced workers whereas the larger blocks would have required a much more skilled work team to produce them.

Akhenaton had opened up the Gebel el-Silsileh quarry almost at the very start of his reign when he begun his ambitious plans to construct his new  Aten Temple, called Gem Paaten,  adjacent to the Karnak Temple complex near Luxor.  For speed, ease of production, and to facilitate a new artistic style, Akhenaton had ordered that the blocks be made of a uniform size so that they could be easily fitted together rather like building a brick wall, and then would be carved in his new and very personal innovative art-style.    It is quite likely that Akhenaton would have visited the quarry on one or two occasions perhaps, and at least in the company of his chief sculptor, Bek.  Indeed, Bek has even left a record of one such visit that he made, wherein he explains that the king had personally taught the new methods and art-style to him and presumably to some of his other senior foremen working on the new project.

Akhenaton’s whirlwind of building from the start to the finish of his reign lasted 13 years which has led some Biblical scholars to speculate that these were the 13 years of oppression recorded in the Bible.   However, his plans to transform the religion from the State version of Amun at Thebes (Luxor) into that something resembling the religion of Heliopolis, with Re in the guise of the Aten, were short-lived.   In a major sweeping effort to eradicate all traces of the disastrous Atenist religion, Horemheb, more forcibly, reinforced the reversal changes  introduced by Tutankhamum and then Aye, and began adding his own mark to the Karnak Temple Complex.   One of the first things he did was to commission a new Pylon which he dedicated to Amun-Re.  In order to provide suitable infill for the pylon, and at the same time demolish the Aten Temple, work began immediately on Horemheb’s pylon, known as the “Ninth” Pylon. (He later added a tenth pylon)   It is rather ironical that, since in his effort to actually erase the memory of the Akhenaton years, Horemheb actually preserved it, with at least some 12,000 talatat blocks being recovered by archaeologists;  many of them now translated into useful information about the period.

Photographs of Gebel el Silsila circa 1900 and circa 1876

Ramesses V, the fourth king of the 20th Dynasty had arbitrary plans to re-open the Gebel el-Silsileh quarry at the start of his reign.  Unfortunately, he appears to have died of smallpox within four years, and little progress was made.   Nevertheless, this king is still remembered for the production of the Papyrus Turin in which it is described that there was an abysmal level of corruption amongst the Priesthood of Aswan round about that time.

Another important king connected with Gebel el-Silsileh was Shoshenq I.  He came from a long line of wealthy Libyans who had married into the Royal family and thus became pharaoh and inaugurated the 22nd dynasty.  He was at least on one written occasion referred to, rather rudely,  as a “Chief of the Ma” (Libyans).  He, nevertheless, reigned successfully for 21 years, is thought to have been a rather greedy king, and some say was responsible for the eventual decline of Egypt as her powers gradually waned.

Shoshenq is known in Bible history circles as Shishak, the Egyptian king who is alleged to have plundered the Jerusalem Temple and won a victory over the Judean and Israelite tribes of Palestine at the time of k.Jeroboam.   He had made his power base at the Northern Delta city of Tanis in Nome 14.  which had for some time been his family stronghold.  It is  not far from where he was actually born at Bubastis, and the Biblical name for the city of Tanis is Zoan.

Shoshenq apparently made two major incursions into Palestine, one of them is recorded in a commemorative inscription in the Temple at Karnak.  For those who like to temper their Egyptology with other sources, the only reference we have to the second incursion is from the First Book of Kings in the Old Testament.   The following is the entry:

“In the 5th year of King Rehoboam, Shishak (i.e. Shoshenq), King of Egypt, came up against Jerusalem.  He took away the treasures of the House of Yahweh, and the treasures of the house of the king; he took all.   He took all the golden shields that Solomon had made.”

Towards the end of his long reign, Shoshenq commissioned extensive quarrying work at Gebel el-Silsileh in order to construct a huge forecourt and gateway in the South East corner of Karnak Temple, the main feature of which remains standing today being the Bubastis Portal – a reminder, perhaps, that although essentially Libyan, he was, nevertheless born in Egypt.     Shoshenq had very much left his son, Iuput,  whom he had appointed the Chief Priest at Karnak, in charge of his quarrying and building operations at Karnak.

It is probable that much of the capital outlay necessary for such a huge undertaking at Karnak at that time was paid for largely from the plunder previously stolen from the Jerusalem temple if the Biblical account can be relied upon.  Nevertheless, he was gracious enough to mention his victory over the Palestinians and had a few scant  details engraved on the walls at Karnak – yet there is no mention of the Jerusalem Temple treasure!  .   

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