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The prosperity of Egypt depends upon the satisfactory flow of the Nile, particularly upon its annual inundation, and that river is antic and unpredictable. Ancient Egyptian texts have frequent references to hunger, "years of misery," "a year of low Nile," and so on. The text which follows tells of seven years of low Niles and famine. In its present form the text derives from the Ptolomaic period (perhaps around the end of the 2nd century B.C.). However, its stated setting is the reign of Djoser of the Third Dynasty (about 28th century B.C.). It states the reasons why a stretch of Nile land south of Elephantine had been devoted to Khnum, god of Elephantine. It is a question whether it is a priestly forgery of some late period, justifying their claim to territorial privileges, or whether it correctly recounts an actual grant of land more than 2,500 years earlier. This question cannot be answered in final terms. We can only affirm that Egypt had a tradition of seven lean years, which, by a contractual arrangement between pharaoh-and a god, were to be followed by years of plenty.
The inscription is carved on a rock on the island of Siheil near the First Cataract. It was published by H. K. Brugsch, Die biblischen sieben Jahre der Hungersnoth (Leipzig, 1891), and by J. Vandier, La famine dans l'Egypte ancienne (Cairo, 1936), 132-39. Photographs were also used for the following translation.
Year 18 of the Horus: Netjer-er-khet; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Netjer-er-khet; the Two Goddesses: Netjer-er-khet; the Horus of Gold: Djoser, and under the Count, Mayor, Royal Acquaintance, and Overseer of Nubians in Elephantine, Madir. There was brought(3) to him this royal decree:
To let thee know. I was in distress on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart’s affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years(4). Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short. Every man robbed his companion. They moved without going (ahead). The infant was wailing; the youth was waiting; the heart of the old men was in sorrow, their legs were bent, crouching on the ground, their arms were folded. The courtiers were in need. The temples were shut up; the sanctuaries held [nothing but] air. Every [thing] was found empty(5).
I extended my heart back to the beginnings, and I asked him who was the Chamberlain, the Ibis, the Chief Lector Priest Ii-em-(ho)tep(6), the son of Ptah, South-of-His-Wall: "What is the birthplace of the Nile? Who is... the god there? Who is the god?"
Then he answered me: "I need the guidance of Him Who Presides over the House of the Fowling Net(7),… for the heart’s confidence of all men about what they should do. I shall enter into the House of Life and spread out the Souls of Re(8), (to see) if some guidance be in them."
So he went, and he returned to me immediately, that he might instruct me on the inundation of the Nile,… and everything about which they had written. He uncovered for me the hidden spells thereof, to which the ancestors had taken (their) way, without their equal among kings since the limits of time. He said to me:
"There is a city in the midst of the waters [from which] the Nile rises, named Elephantine. It is the Beginning of the Beginning, the Beginning Nome, (facing) toward Wawat(9). It is the joining of the land, the primeval hillock(10) of earth, the throne of Re, when he reckons to cast life beside everybody. 'Pleasant of Life' is the name of its dwelling. 'The Two Caverns' is the name of the water; they are the two breasts which pour forth all good things.(11) It is the couch of the Nile, in which he becomes young (again) .... He fecundates (the land) by mounting as the male, the bull, to the female; he renews (his) virility, assuaging his desire. He rushes twenty-eight cubits (high at Elephantine); he hastens at Diospolis seven cubits (high).(12) Khnum is there as a god..." ...(13)
...As I slept in life and satisfaction, I discovered the god standing over against me.(14) I propitiated him with praise; I prayed to him in his presence. He revealed himself to me, his face being fresh. His words were:
"I am Khnum, thy fashioner...(15) I know the Nile. When he is introduced into the Fields, his introduction gives life to every nostril, like the introduction (of life) to the fields... The Nile will pour forth for thee, without a year of cessation or laxness for any land. Plants will grow, bowing down under the fruit. Renenut will be at the head of everything... Dependents will fulfill the purposes in their hearts, as well as the master. The starvation year will have gone, and (people’s) borrowing from their granaries will have departed. Egypt will come into the fields, the banks will sparkle, ...and contentment will be in their hearts more than that which was formerly."
Then I awoke quickly, my heart cutting off weariness. I made this decree beside my father Khnum:(17)
"An offering which the King gives to Khnum, the Lord of the Cataract Region, Who Presides over Nubia, in recompense for these things which thou wilt do for me:
"I offer to thee thy west in Manu and thy east (in) Bakhu, from Elephantine as far as [Takompso], for twelve iters on the east and west, whether arable land or desert or river in every part of these iters..."
(The remainder of the text continues Djoser’s promise to Khnum, the essence of which is that the land presented to the god shall be tithed for his temple. It is finally provided that the decree shall be inscribed on a stela in the temple of Khnum.)
3. To Madir, the Governor at Elephantine.
4. Or: “in a pause of seven years."
5. "Found empty" may be used of the desolation of buildings. However, it is particularly common as a scribal notation to mark a lacuna in an older text. Its appearance here might be raised as an argument that our inscription derived from an earlier and damaged original.
6. Ii-em-hotep was the famed minister of Djoser, whose reputation for wisdom later brought him deification. On his career, see K. Sethe, Imhotep, der Askiepios der Aegypter (Untersuch. II, Leipzig, 1902), 95-118.
7. Thoth of Hermopolis, the god of wisdom and of priestly lore.
8. For this passage see A. H. Gardiner in JEA, xxiv (1938), 166. The House of Life was the scriptorium in which the sacred and magic books were kept. "The Souls of Re," or emanations from the creator-god, were the books themselves.
9. As the southernmost of Egyptian administrative districts, Elephantine was the "Nome of the Beginning" Wawat was that part of Nubia immediately south of the First Cataract.
10. In a context which has many uncertainties, it is certain that Elephantine is likened to the mound on which creation took place.
11. In Egyptian mythology the Nile emerged from two underground caverns at Elephantine.
12. Sema-behdet=Diosopolis Inferior has been located by A. H. Gardiner at Tell el-Balamun in the northern Delta: JEA, xxx (1944), 33-41. In context with Elephantine, it was the "Dan to Beersheba" of the Egyptians. It is not easy to interpret the measurements given here, since we do not know what zero datum was used. The Nile was 28 cubits high (about 14.5 m. or 48 ft) at Elephantine, and 7 cubits (about 3.75 m. or 12 ft.) at Diospolis. Baedeker's Aegypten und der Sudan (8th ed., Leipzig, 1928), lxviii, gives the mean average difference between low and high Nile at
Assuan as 7 m. (23 ft.) and at Cairo as 4.9 m. (16 ft.).
13. Ii-em-hotep’s report goes on to recite the divine powers of the god Khnum and of the other deities of Elephantine, as well as the mineral wealth of the region. Having received the report, the pharaoh performed services for the gods of Elephantine.
14. Khnum appeared to the pharaoh in a dream.
15. This translation omits Khnum’s recital of his powers.
16. The goddess of the harvest.
17. That is, in the temple of Khnum.
18. Manu was the western and Bakhu the eastern mountain range bordering the Nile.
19. The stretch of 12 iters from Elephantine south to a place called Takompso constituted the Dodekaschoinos known from the Greek writers. Unfortunately, the location of Takompso and the length of the iter at the time in question are unknown. See Sethe, op.cit., 59 ff.