High above the clifftops opposite modern-day Aswan, lie some of the oldest tombs in all of Egypt. With the majority of the tombs dating from the Old & Middle kingdoms, the site features some of the best-preserved tomb paintings from this period that you will probably see on your trip outside of a museum. And, unlike the tombs in Luxor, you will probably have the place to yourself.
Nomarchs, Keepers of the Gate of the South, and other dignitaries of ancient Elephantine Island are all buried here. Their tombs tell the story of political and civic achievements, in addition to depicting images of their everyday domestic lives.
Tomb Of Sarenput II
Sarenput II was what Egyptians of the time called a Nomarch (which is basically what we might liken to a Governor) during the reign of Amenemhat II, during the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom.
His tomb, while less decorated than what you may be used to if you’ve just come from the Valley of the Kings, is considered to be an archeological jewel and is the largest – and best preserved – tomb on the site. With corridors guarded by mummiform statues, the highlight of the tomb is the beautifully preserved painting on the interior of the stone niche on the far back wall. Originally the niche held a small granite statue of Sarenput, but this has since been moved to the British Museum.
My most vivid memory of exploring this particular tomb though was when we reached the far back wall, escorted by our trusty guard – who then proceeded to reach into a small side chamber and pull out a large reed basket full of human remains, grabbing out bones to hold up to his body one by one, to indicate where each would go….
Roughly translated the hieroglyphics on this mural read something like this:
“Blessed in the service of Satet, mistress of the Elephantine and of Nekhbet, Nabure-Nakht (second name of Sarenput) Blessed in the service of Khnum, master of the cataract at the head of the Elephantine”
Tombs Mekhu & Sabni
Menku and Sabni were both nomarchs during the incredibly long reign of Old Kingdom, 6th dynasty pharaoh Pepi II (seriously, dude ruled somewhere between 64-94 years depending on who you ask, which is crazy when most people were lucky to not die before hitting 30 at the time). They also happened to be father and son respectively and built a joint family tomb here together.
When Menku was killed in Nubia, we learn from the images in Sabni’s tomb that his son led an army across the border to punish the tribe responsible for killing his father and recover his body.
When Menku was killed on an excursion into Nubia, we learn from the images in Sabni’s tomb that his son led an army into the Nubian desert to punish the tribe responsible for killing his father and recover his body.
When he returned to Elephantine, he was greeted by an envoy sent by Pepi II which included his own royal embalmers and professional mourners as a way to show his appreciation for the keepers of the gate of the south.
Many of the reliefs in Sabni’s tomb feature their original colors and show images of Sabni hunting and fishing scenes with his daughters. The walled ramp in front of the tomb leading down to the Nile, would have been used to drag the sarcophagi up from the funerary barges below.
Tomb Of Khunes
Badly damaged and missing most of its exterior walls, the tomb of Khunes has had an interesting time of it. Originally built as a tomb for Khunes (obviously), you can find reliefs depicting his domestic life with images of things like livestock, fishing and family scenes decorating the walls and pillars.
Then at some point, legend has it that his tomb was taken over and used as the dwelling place for a local hermit who grew to have a fairly large following. (how you build a following and can call yourself a self-respecting hermit I have not idea) Upon his death, its said that his disciples decided to honor him by building a coptic church, right there inside the tomb.
Tomb of Sarenput I
Grandfather to Sarenput II whose tomb we already paid a visit to, Grandaddy Sarenput was “Overseer of the priest of Khnum and Satet and Guardian of the South” (apparently just Nomarch wasn’t going to cut it) during the 12th-dynasty reign of Sesostris I.
During his rule, he was essentially the pharaohs personal trading agent for all the goods coming in from across the nearby Nubian border.
The entrance to his tomb opens into a court with six columns that would have once supported a ceiling, then behind the columns are some larger than life reliefs of Sarenput followed by his dogs and sandal-bearer as well as featuring his mother, wife and daughters. Sadly the interior of the tomb has been badly damaged and we were unable to go inside during our visit.
What You Need To Know Before Visiting The Tombs of The Nobles in Aswan
You’ll need to get there by water
The tombs of the nobles are located on the west bank, across the nile from where the majority of the hotels and accommodations are, so you’ll most likely need to charter a boat or take one of the public ferries across the river to get here.
You’ll need to hike up a pretty steep hill to get there
While you won’t be trekking up a mountain, there is a hella steep ramp/staircase you’ll need to scale to reach the tombs. So come aware and prepared with appropriate clothing, water, shoes, etc.
You can totally do this on your own like we did, but be sure to come prepared with your own research
Personally, I love exploring places on my own. I love not feeling rushed or hurried to keep up with a group, and getting to spend as much time as I want soaking up the location and taking 8 million photos. But in Egypt this can be challenging as there is *very little* to basically no information posted at the different sites telling you anything about them. So if you plan on going it alone, do your research, download info to your phone in advance, find a good guidebook, whatever, otherwise you probably won’t have any idea what you’re looking at. I found a lot of great information at this link here if you want something with more detail than I go into here.
There’s no telling which tombs your “guide” may open up for you
Once you buy your tickets at the little wooden shack at the bottom of the hill and then ascended the steep ramp/staircase of doom lol, you’ll need to locate one of the tomb guards, he’s the only one who has the keys to open up all those locked yellow doors for you. When we went, we were met at the top of the death ramp and then escorted from tomb to tomb, our guard opening up each one, waiting around for us while we snapped a few photos and then locking it up behind us as we left. And while your guard *may* point at a few things and say a few simple words in english like “father,” “baby,” don’t expect them to act as a guide or speak any english. Which brings me to the point: you really don’t have any control over which ones they are going to open up for you. So basically it’s best to just go into the whole thing expecting to get a roll of the dice here.
The guide book we had indicated that there are supposedly 6 decorated tombs currently open to the public. However, our guard never opened up the tomb of Harkhuf for us, which could have been closed for restoration or he could have just decided not to open, who knows lol…
Your guard will expect a tip
Yes you paid your admission to get in already, but you will also need to make sure and have some small change ready to tip the guard who escorts you around and lets you into all the tombs. I’ve mentioned this before, but while you’re in Egypt it’s best just to assume the price of anything is just a base fee and that you’ll also need to also provide a small tip to each of the additional staff members you interact with. For me it helped to mentally plan and budget for this in advance, that way I wasn’t frustrated each time we were asked to tip for something I felt like we’d already paid for.