On the east bank of the Nile 23km north of Edfu is one of the oldest settlements of Upper Egypt. The ancient town of Nekheb was called Eleithyiaspolis in classical times and comprises of monuments spanning periods of Egyptian history from Predynastic through to Ptolemaic. El-Kab and its sister site of Hierakonpolis on the west bank of the river were the home of Nekbet, the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt.
Driving north along the road between Edfu and Esna the visitor comes first upon the huge mudbrick walls of the town enclosure, 12m thick, which still contain within them the ruins of temples, cemeteries and a sacred lake. The central temple is the oldest of the remains, with its origins possibly dating to the Early Dynastic Period. Of the two ruined structures remaining today, the Temple of Thoth was begun by Amenhotep II in Dynasty XVIII and enlarged by later New Kingdom pharaohs. A contiguous monument, a larger Temple of Nekhbet built during the Late Period, partly overlays the older structure and many blocks from the Middle and New Kingdoms have been re-used. It is difficult to make out the plan of monuments within the town site as the inside is very overgrown and confusing, but the remains of a birth-house and a small Roman temple can still be seen. One interesting feature is the drainage system which is exposed in front of the second pylon of the Nekhbet Temple.
A short distance away on the other side of the road are several rock-cut tombs, ranged on a terrace in the side of the cliff at the entrance to the Wadi Hellal. These are the burial places of New Kingdom officials of the region and are now open to visitors. The style of the early New Kingdom wall-paintings is similar to those of the nobles tombs from the same period at Thebes.
Tomb of Ahmose Pennekhbet (EK2)
Ahmose Pennekhbet was ‘Overseer of the Seal’ in early Dynasty XVIII. Biographical texts and portrayals of Ahmose with his son and other relatives can be seen around the door jambs.
Tomb of Paheri (EK3)
Paheri was a Mayor of Nekheb during Dynasty XVIII. The well-preserved paintings in his tomb show scenes of offerings at his funeral procession and agricultural scenes of daily life. In a niche in the rear wall is a statue of Paheri with his wife and mother.
Tomb of Setau (EK4)
Setau was a priest in the service of Nekhbet during the reign of Rameses III. On the outside wall of his tomb is a stela showing Setau and his wife adoring Re-Horakhty and Khepri. The paintings inside show the tomb-owner with his relatives in various offering scenes and a depiction of the Barque of Nekhbet with jubilee texts of Rameses III on the west wall.
Tomb of Ahmose, son of Ibana (EK5)
Ahmose in his biographical texts is described as ‘Captain of Sailors’ and was prominent in the wars of liberation against the Hyksos rulers when the southern princes laid siege to the town of Avaris in the Delta. The text tells of the favours Ahmose was granted for his part, including the award of the ‘gold of honour’ and tells that he was given four slaves by His Majesty from the booty he carried off. He was the Grandfather of Paheri (EK3) who is seen offering to him in the tomb. A separate burial chamber opens off to the east.
Tomb of Renni (EK7)
A mayor of Nekheb during the reign of Amenhotep I, Renni’s tomb depicts the usual agricultural scenes, banquet scenes and funeral procession. The remains of a statue of the tomb-owner flanked by two jackals can be see in a niche in the rear wall. The ceiling of this tomb is beautifully painted to represent the cloth roof of a tent or canopy.
There are also Middle Kingdom tombs at El-Kab which are presently inaccessible.
If you have time (and permission) to drive down the Wadi Hellal road which runs 4km west towards the desert, there are many other sites to visit. You will need to collect a guard with the keys to the monuments at the resthouse. At the entrance to the valley is a Ptolemaic rock-sanctuary dedicated to Seshmetet. Just to the southeast higher up the hillside, is a temple of Nekhbet consisting of two halls with Hathor columns and a rock-cut sanctuary. This was built by Rameses II, restored by Ptolemies VIII-X and has a stela of Rameses II cut into the façade. The reliefs inside the temple are not well-preserved, but the steps leading up to it and the courtyard have been recently restored. Back towards the road is a structure called locally el-Hammam (the bath), a square single roomed chapel dedicated to local gods and to the deified Rameses II by his Viceroy of Nubia, Setau (a different person to the owner of tomb EK4).
Further along the valley road is ‘Vulture Rock’, so-called because its shape seen at a certain angle (and with imagination) resembles the shape of a vulture. The faces of the rock are covered with petroglyphs and Old Kingdom inscriptions probably made by pilgrims passing this way on the ancient desert road. Several Old Kingdom kings are named on smooth panels cut into the rock, the earliest cartouche is that of Snofru. There are also Late Period primitive rock-carvings.
A little further on is a small temple dedicated to Hathor and Nekhbet, built by Tuthmose IV and Amenhotep III. The single chamber was apparently a way-station for the barque of Nekhbet when the statue of the goddess was brought to her desert valley. Quite a lot of colour still remains on the wall reliefs inside the temple, depicting Tuthmose IV and his son Amenhotep III. The building was restored in late antiquity and brightly painted scenes of rituals as well as the vulture goddess still can be seen. On the chapel façade is a text by Prince Khaemwaset, the son of Rameses II, announcing his father’s jubilee in year 42, as well as graffiti by other passing travellers.
There is also a destroyed temple built by Tuthmose III to the west of the nobles tombs, and Old Kingdom mastaba tombs of Kiamen and Nefershemem of Dynasty IV.
In December 2000 news was announced that Belgian archaeologists have discovered a small and mostly intact cemetery at El-Kab which has been dated to Dynasty II. The 35 graves, mostly belonging to infants, are reported to be circular stone structures sometimes arranged around natural boulders and 18-20m in diameter. This type of tomb has not been seen before in Egypt and they have been compared to Neolithic burial mounds in Europe. Although there is no evidence of wrapping or mummification, the largest tomb contained fragments of a pottery coffin. It is suggested that the new cemetery represents a ‘missing link’ between the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic burial ground found within Elkab’s town walls and a recently discovered Third Dynasty mastaba.
During 2003 a team of conservators led by Vivian Davies of the British Museum, began work on the Dynasty XVII tomb of Sobeknakht, a governor of Nekheb. The cleaning process revealed an inscription of a previously unknown attack on Egypt by the Kingdom of Kush and their allies from Punt. The biographical text tells of the Kushite raid and subsequent counter-attack by the Egyptians. Egyptologists are regarding the text as one of the most significant inscriptions about Dynasty XVII military history found to date. Evidence corroborating these events have also recently been found in Sudan, where archaeologists discovered a vessel that was once in Sobeknakht’s tomb.
How to get there
El-Kab can be reached by road en route to Luxor from Aswan or combined with a trip to Edfu or Esna temples.