As a frequent independent visitor to Egypt over many years, I enjoy visiting sites that are generally open to the public yet do not get the footfall that they should. Whether this is due to location, lack of information, nervousness when going ‘off the beaten path’, or any number of other logistics, I have never been totally sure. Recently, I visited the Temple of Nekhbet-Hathor in the Wadi Hilal at Elkab, and the only visitors there were me, my British travel companion, and an Egyptian friend.
I had visited the early New Kingdom rock-cut tombs at Elkab several times in the past, but had never before managed to go further up into the valley – the Wadi Hilal. There is a clearly defined, rough dirt track, but the terrain is quite hard going for standard vehicles, and the walking distance, at around 3 km, was a little too far for me in the heat of Upper Egypt. I had, therefore, hired a car and driver from an agency in Aswan to drive us to Luxor, and requested a vehicle that could specifically cope with some off-road driving.
My goal was to see the small temple that is co-dedicated to Nekhbet and Hathor, located deep into the wadi. The temple is believed to have been started by Thutmose IV and finished by his son Amenhotep III – or perhaps built at the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep III, as there are several scenes of him honouring his father.
Elkab is around 25 km north of Edfu and 80 km south of Luxor (see map on p.5). It is located on the eastern side of the Nile and was the settlement site of ancient Nekheb. The Greeks called it Eleithyiopolis. Travelling there independently is relatively easy by car if you are journeying from Luxor to Aswan – or Aswan to Luxor – and most drivers should be able to locate the ticket office by the rock-cut tombs.
To visit the wadi, you need first to buy a ticket for the tombs and let the ticket-seller know that you are also heading up to the temples and chapels. He can then inform his colleague, located further into the wadi, that you will be arriving shortly. The guardian in charge of the tombs does not come with you to the temples, but another guardian in a rest house about 2 km along the wadi road will join you. The tombs are up an escarpment opposite the ticket office, and well worth visiting.
Once you have bid farewell to the guardian of the tombs, ask your driver to carry on along the track of crushed sandstone rocks heading in an easterly direction. The second guardian, who has the keys to the wadi sites, will then get into the car with you for the remainder of the route. Be warned: it’s a very bumpy ride in any vehicle.
Temple to two goddesses
The temple of Nekhbet-Hathor itself is situated at the far end of the wadi, past several other speos sites that are largely cut into the rock on the left-hand side. Part of the reconstructed temple is believed to have been a repository chapel or waystation for the barque of the goddess Nekhbet when her statue was taken out into the desert valley during certain festivals.
Nekhbet is one of the ‘Two Ladies’ (the other being Wadjet) who represent a unified Egypt. She is often depicted as a vulture, with Wadjet as a rearing cobra. In female form, Nekhbet is seen wearing either a vulture headdress or the hedjet, the white crown of Upper Egypt. As the protector goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet also clutches a shen ring to show that her protection was both eternal and encircling. Her cult centre was at Nekheb (Nekhbet means ‘she of Nekheb’) and there is a large rock that you pass on your way through the wadi known as ‘Vulture Rock’.
All over the surface of the rock are ancient inscriptions and petroglyphs, some of which date back to the Predynastic era. Most are assumed to be either ritual symbols made by local priests, or marks made by pilgrims and desert travellers. The importance of the goddess Nekhbet to the area is seen in several other monuments in and around Elkab. Her name appears, for example, on wall scenes in the early Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Ahmose, son of Ibana, with its famous autobiographical text highlighting his illustrious military career.
Outside the temple, there is evidence of what looks like a pillared portico and pronaos in front of a relatively modest and plain box-shaped sandstone building. Much of the original colour remains on the walls and ceiling inside this small shrine or sanctuary (some of which was apparently touched up during restoration both in the reign of Sety I and also in late antiquity). The colourful paintings make you wonder what the wall scenes at somewhere like Luxor Temple might once have looked like.
There are four rather squat and chunky Hathor-headed columns topped off with sistra. These columns support a frieze of Hathor heads running along horizontal lintels. In several raised relief wall-scenes, Thutmose IV is depicted seated behind his son Amenhotep III, as both receive offerings. Amenhotep III receives life in the form of the ankh symbol from Amun-Ra in one scene, and in another he receives it from Horus of Nekhen while protected by Nekhbet as a vulture above him. He wears the khepresh (blue crown) in some of these scenes, and in others what looks like an early version of the hemhem crown (with two feathers and solar discs, rather than the usual three) in others.
There are two scenes of the goddess’s barque resting on an altar on opposite walls, although one is badly damaged and covered with old graffiti.
Old graffiti of one form or another is rather prevalent at the site. Inside, you can see various forms of votive inscriptions, and possible pilgrim texts from late antiquity, alongside the more destructive Victorian travellers’ scribblings. Many of the references to Amun had been defaced during the reign of Akhenaten, but were subsequently restored by Sety I according to a restoration inscription.
On a curious scene on the façade of the temple (just to the right of the main door as you approach), Prince Khaemwaset is seen in front of his father Ramesses II, with a text announcing his father’s Year 42 jubilee. Khaemwaset was known to inscribe monuments with restoration texts, but this appears simply to be an announcement, or recording, of an event.
Might this be considered an early form of flyposting?
All images: Karl Harris
Karl Harris is a freelance consultant to the heritage education sector. He was a senior management teacher in a Manchester primary school for many years before switching to design and delivery of gallery-based education programmes. He delivered the Ancient Egypt session for KS2 pupils at Manchester Museum, and went on to design and deliver the first Ancient Egypt session for under-5s there. He visits Egypt as an independent traveller several times a year.