Gebel Silsila is the name given to a rocky gorge between Kom Ombo and Edfu where the River Nile narrows and high sandstone cliffs come right down to the water’s edge. There was probably a series of rapids here in ancient times, dangerous to navigate, which naturally formed a frontier between the regions of Elephantine (Aswan) and Edfu. In Pharaonic times the river here was known as Khennui, the ‘place of rowing’. On the West bank there is a tall column of rock which has been dubbed ‘The Capstan’ because of a local legend which claims there was once a chain (Silsila in Arabic) which ran from the East to the West Banks. Arthur Weigall in his ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ states that the name Silsileh, is a Roman corruption of the original Egyptian name for the town, Khol-Khol, meaning a barrier or frontier.
It is hardly surprising that by Dynasty XVIII, travellers had developed the custom of carving small shrines into the cliffs here, dedicating them to a variety of Nile gods and to the river itself. Smaller shrines were cut by Tuthmose I, Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, before Horemheb constructed his rock-cut temple here, then many of the Dynasty XIX or later kings left their mark in some way. Gebel Silsila became an important cult centre and each year at the beginning of the season of inundation offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods associated with the Nile to ensure the country’s wellbeing for the coming year.
On both banks of the Nile the massive quarries produced the sandstone needed for the prolific construction of monuments during Dynasty XVIII, at first in small quantities and as the skills of the workmen grew, the stone was more extensively quarried to build great monuments such as the colonnade of Amenhotep III at Luxor, the Karnak Temple of Amenhotep IV, the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, to name but a few. By Ptolemaic times most of the Upper Egyptian temples contained monuments built from Gebel Silsila sandstone. Because of the sanctity of the site, the sandstone was considered to have an extra holiness.