Sources attribute the name Elephantine Island to three possibilities: the elephant cult symbol of a predynastic Egyptian tribe; the ancient Greek name Abu (Elephant Land); and, more prosaically, to the presence of gargantuan granite boulders that resemble the animals' rumps. The island was the site of a sanctuary to the gods of the flood and the home of noblemen whose tombs lie farther north on the West Bank. These days Elephantine is, in large part, an open-air museum,
brilliantly excavated and restored by German and Swiss archaeological institutes; the island also is home to a few Nubian villages and a five-star hotel.
Start with the Aswan Museum, built in 1912 to house the British engineer of the first dam. It is small and rather dingy, but you can pay your respects to the mummy of "the bearded man," whose horny toes peek out of the linen binding. A more modern Museum Annex is even smaller, but it is a revelation. Maps inside show the areas you are visiting as they appeared from 3000 BC to 300 AD, along with some unusual finds, such as a papyrus marriage contract—accompanied by its translation—and a hefty hoard of Ptolemaic coins.
The archaeological area is so jam-packed with debris of the island's ancient town that every time you move, you crunch pottery shards beneath your feet. Highlights include the Temple of Satis (the goddess who "let fly the current with the force of an arrow"), a fine example of modern restoration techniques. The Temple of Khnum (a ram-headed god of the flood and the whole locality) was the center of the ancient town and was cleared of rubble in the 1990s. On the southern tip of the island is a small Ptolemaic shrine dedicated to the Nubian god Mandolis. Beside it is a statue of an elephant. Back near the dock is the Nilometer, built by the Romans on the site of an older one and reused again in the 19th century to gauge the annual floods. Close by are a flight of metal stairs and a platform erected by the German archaeological team, from which you can take in a panoramic view of the island and its neighbors.
North of the archaeological area is a Nubian village, where you can go for a stroll and imbibe in the traditional rhythms of village life. Children are likely to approach you, and you might receive an invitation for a cup of tea.