Elkab is the present name of the ancient site of Nekheb (or Elethya), which was situated in the third nome of Upper Egypt. The city is on the right bank of the Nile, opposite the almost as old town of Nekhen (or Hierakonpolis, present Kom el Ahmar). It is situated 90 km. to the south of Thebes and 32 km. to the south of Esna.
Numerous proofs indicate that the site was occupied since prehistory with signs of an pre-paleolithic industry dating from about 7000 years B.C., and an important cemetery dating from the time of Nagada III (toward 3300 B.C.). Very numerous prehistoric graffiti also exist on the walls of the wadis.
Constantly occupied during Pharaonic times, the ruin of the city seems to date the VIIIth century, with the Arabian occupation. The scientists of the Expedition of Egypt could have still been able to see significant remains of local temples (which have since disappeared) and had already drawn up a plan of the site. The sebakh researchers found the mud bricks as a resultant manure and the stones of the monuments reused, giving today an impression an ancient city in total ruin and nearly reduced to nothing.
The actual city had the shape of a massive square with a , at the water level, this wall was probably erected by Nectanebo II of the XXXth Dynasty (toward 360-343 B.C.). The heart of the city consisted of two massive temples. and was erected in sandstone; the second to Sobek and to Thoth. To the east of the surrounding wall, two small temples, one dating from Thutmosis I, the other one from Nectanebo.
Further, at the entry of the Wadi Hilal, one finds the repository chapel of Amenophis III, a Ptolemaic hémispéos (= a monument half dug into the cliff, half external structure), and a chapel from the days of Ramesses II.
A great many inscriptions and even engraved stelae also exist on the rocks the the region ().
The necropolis of Elkab provides the first information of importance about the beginnings of the 18th Dynasty. It shelters several tombs which include unique military chronicles on the expulsion of the Hyksos, notably from that of Ahmose son of Abana and the beautiful tomb of Paheri.
Indeed during the Second intermediate Period an important feudal family held the city, and seem to have given unfailing support for the Theban princes in their struggle against the Hyksos, commencing with Ahmosis (first king of the 18th Dynasty). These victorious princes did likewise for them. It was indeed fundamental to these sovereigns to preserve this city of Nekhen, to establish the legitimacy of their power.
Elkab is indeed the symbolic city of royalty of the South, its tutelary goddess Nekhbet being the counterpart of the goddess Wadjyt, representing the North.
The goddess Nekhbet (= the one of Nekhen) was represented by a white vulture. These birds of prey, whose habitat is restricted to the desert, were easily differentiated from the eagle or milan by the white underside of their wings. Nekhbet is equated to the white crown of Upper Egypt.
At the time when Egypt was not yet unified, the ritual of crowning of the king of the South was certainly done in the original temple of Elkab.
From the 3rd Dynasty, the capital of unified Egypt became (and would always be administratively) Memphis. The establishment of the new king inevitably called on the symbols of the North and the South: the crown white, and also certain types of natron purifiers of the region.
We now go eastward, staying at the foot of the hills, which hardly exceed hundred metres in altitude, except a summit which reaches one hundred and seventy-three metres. We are more or less at the level of the large village of Hilal, with the aspect of an oasis, which I highlighted, with its few groups bushy palm trees. If we were going to visit its mosque, well built and very picturesque, we would see some blocks of stone pulled from our temples there. Our first stop is more than a kilometre distant. We walk on tortured ground there, everywhere, one notices the traces of an excessive flow of water. These dug many canyons in miniature, gnawing at the rocks, which crumble and then return easily to dust. As Egypt is theoretically a land without rain, one allows ones self to dream of the geological times where all these valleys, now desolate, marked the course of innumerable tributaries of the Nile digging its present bed. But don't let ourselves be mislead; some violent rains fall from time to time on the high Arabian mountains between the Nile and the Red Sea. Waters then look for an exit toward the valley with an irresistible strength. Somers Clarke was a witness, at the beginning of the year 1901, of the following phenomenon: "The torrent", he says, "was of dark yellow colour and its clash with the stones so violent that even the strongest screams were choked by it. Approaching the Nile, it followed its usual route, holding a little to the south of the slightly raised land, on which are built the great walls. It succeeds in digging for itself, in the ground of the alluviun bank, a channel with a depth of three or four metres and at least twenty metre wide. During three days, waters hurled themselves down it with a deafening uproar, before beginning to weaken, but it required at least twenty-five days so that they finally stopped flowing." These last days we have found for ourselves stagnant water in some hollows of the wadi. We approach a place where the mountain carries numerous traces of quarrying operations.
On a platform which one reaches by a well constructed staircase, are the remains of a chapel of which the state of confusion and disorder doesn't do honour to the Service of Antiquities. The Ptolemies, it seems, only had to transform, into a place of divine worship, a former tomb close to which is engraved, in the rock, a stela to a son of Ramesses II, prince Setau. Besides, we find in this very place, some distance in front the mountain, a square kiosk, once preceded by a porch, and dedicated by the same prince to the god Thoth and to the other divinities of Elkab. The locals, always expeditious in local assimilation, called this kiosk El Hammam, which means the bath.
From the place where we reached, the valley divides. We remain to the north of a set of rocky hills which are divided in the middle of the Elkab district, and soon we meet successively two massifs having resisted all the forces of erosion. We arrived at one of the preferred roosts of the great white vultures.
These are magnificent birds of prey when they hover, observing the ground to discover a prey, to the great terror of the birds which then hide themselves against the ground. The wings, of a large span, have their central part of white which shines in the sun and, even from afar, one can distinguish the vulture from the milan and falcon, also of large size which are also themselves "masters of the sky". In the Pharaonic temples, in the royal tombs, on the ceilings of the hypostyle halls and corridors, great vultures spread their multicoloured wings, like true heraldic motifs. One also sees them in the relief paintings of the temples, opening out their wings above the kings who preside, holding in their grasp protection emblems.
The great vulture of Nekhabit alternates, in this sublime role of guardian divinity, with the hawk of Horus or the sun disk flanked by the two uraeus snakes.
White vultures rarely meet out of their desert; we saw some however, on the sandy island, attracted by one or the others prey, and so if by chance an animal falls dead in any point of the valley, the whole group assembles to dismember the carcass. A young camel, killed by the train, was thus reduced to a vivid skeleton of whiteness in less than three days and the dogs attracted by the chance of a lifetime were severely held away from the quarry. The vultures haunt, from time immemorial, these big rock massifs of the valley.
Prehistoric inhabitants had already been there to engrave outline drawings of the animals which they hunted and even sometimes the image of a large boat. These rudimentary drawings, cut with the point of a flint, had time to become covered with of a dark patina, long before the dynasties of the Old Kingdom, of which the contemporaries, who always practised the cult of the vulture goddess, came here to write down their names and their titles. This very old graffiti, as ancient as the pyramids, kept, along with the prehistoric, a character of surprising freshness.
Thirty or forty centuries of Pharaonic history took place and pilgrims of Roman times also came to engrave divine images followed of their name, in testimony to their reverence to the sacred vultures. At the upper part of the massifs, long whitish trails show that the great birds of prey are always faithful to their lodging of predilection.
Having passed the last hill, one quickly sees a small oblong construction which occupies the centre of the valley. This is no longer the core of a peripteral chapel, preceded once with a porch of which only the foundations can now be recognised at ground level. Amenophis III, the powerful sovereign of the 18th Dynasty, the Memnon of the legend whose colossi proclaim the title of King of the Kings, built this repository alter in a particularly sacred place, where the priests transported the goddess's holy ark at the time of the solemn processions. The bas-reliefs have kept a good part of their original painting and give an idea of that which could equal the beauty and splendour of the Luxor temple, also raised by Amenophis III.
Before leaving this colourful sanctuary, let's pass a swift eye on the graffiti of the facade; they come from various times. Prince Setau, son of Ramesses II finds himself part of it; a modern traveller, having some knowledge in hieroglyphics, had fun dating a protocol of Napoleon III. Such fantasies hardly harm the building; but what to think these travellers, from the beginning of the 19th century, who engraved their name in great letters throughout the reliefs of the inside, adding to it jokes of bad taste ?
Let's make even more steps in the direction of a road which looses itself eastward and that is especially frequented by the automotive trucks for exploitation of the mountain. During the war years) this road was the object of great works and it became a strategic way joining Luxor to Kosseir (Quseir) on the Red Sea and the first cataract further to the south.
We follow this road in the direction of Aswan to return towards the Nile, by taking the south borrowing the south diverticulum of the double valley. At approximately two kilometres from the temple of Amenophis III, we find the rock of the Borg el Hamam, of which a part has collapsed at a relatively recent time, and at the base of which can be made out some prehistoric engravings.
The road bends southwards to enter another valley which dominates with a height of two hundred and twenty-eight metres, in the form of natural pyramid.
We appropriately leave the domain of Nekhabit by a path frequented at least since the 4th Dynasty and which lead to the region of the gold mines. Mr. Green found, on a terrace commanding this route, a guard shelter near to which the name of Kheops is engraved in the rock. The mountain has been scraped and has been worked almost everywhere, even rather high on the slopes. Since many surface deposits of phosphate are located in the region, people come with their camels to take full loads which they pour on to the fields or load on barges. The intensity of this traffic is marked by the numerous tracks which intersect on the ground, where the footprints of animals and naked feet of the drovers are imprinted.
Soon we emerge into a vast plain in the middle of which rises more independent hills and which only closes several kilometres to the east. Such a region could be comfortably be given over to culture by irrigation works analogous to those which, for less then half a century, made the whole deserts of Kom Ombo a verdant province.