ASSUAN, or Aswan, a town of Upper Egypt on the east bank of the Nile, facing Elephantine Island below the First Cataract, and 590 m. S. of Cairo by rail. It is the capital of a province of the same name - the southernmost province of Egypt. Population (1907) 16,128. The principal buildings are along the river front, where a broad embankment has been built. Popular among Europeans as a winter health resort and tourist centre, Assuan is provided with large modern hotels (one situated on Elephantine Island), and there is an English church. South-east of the railway station are the ruins of a temple built by Ptolemy Euergetes, and still farther south are the famous granite quarries of Syene. On Elephantine Island are an ancient nilometer and other remains, including a granite gateway built under Alexander the Great at the temple of the local ram-headed god Chnubis or Chnumis (Eg. Khnum), perhaps on account of his connexion with Ammon (q.v.); two small but very beautiful temples of the XVIIIth Dynasty were destroyed there about 1820. In the hill on the opposite side of the river are tombs of the VIth to XIIth dynasties, opened by Lord Grenfell in 1885-1886. The inscriptions show that they belonged to frontier-prefects whose expeditions into Nubia, etc., are recorded in them. Three and a half miles above the town, at the beginning of the Cataract, the Assuan Dam stretches across the Nile. This great engineering work was finished in December 1902 (see Irrigation: Egypt; and Nile). Above the dam the Nile presents the appearance of a vast lake. Consequent on the rise of the water-level several islands have been wholly and others partly submerged, among the latter Philae (q.v.). On the east bank opposite Philae is the village of Shellal, southern terminus of the Egyptian railway system and the starting point of steamers for the Sudan.
In ancient times the chief city, called Yeb, capital of the frontier nome, the first of the Upper Country, was on the island of Elephantine, guarding the entrance to Egypt. But, owing to the cataract, the main route for traffic with the south was by land along the eastern shore. Here, near the granite quarries - whence was obtained the material for many magnificent monuments - there grew up another city, at first dependent on and afterwards successor to the island town. This city was called Swan, the Mart, whence came the Greek Syene and Arabic Aswan. Syene is twice mentioned (as Seveneh) in the prophecies of Ezekiel, and papyri, discovered on the island, and dated in the reigns of Artaxerxes and Darius II, (464-404 B.C.), reveal the existence of a colony of Jews, with a temple to Yahu (Yahweh, Jehovah), which had been founded at some time before the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses in 523 B.C. They also mention the great frontier garrison against the Ethiopians, referred to by Herodotus. Syene was one of the bases used by Eratosthenes in his calculations for the measurement of the earth. In Roman times Syene was strongly garrisoned to resist the attacks of the desert tribes. Thither, in virtual banishment, Juvenal was sent as prefect by Domitian. In the early days of Christianity the town became the seat of a bishopric, and numerous ruins of Coptic convents are in the neighbourhood. Syene appears also to have flourished under its first Arab rulers, but in the 12th century was raided and ruined by Bedouin and Nubian tribes. On the conquest of Egypt by the Turks in the 16th century, Selim I. placed a garrison here, from whom, in part, the present townsmen descend. As the southern frontier town of Egypt proper, Assuan in times of peace was the entrepôt of a considerable trade with the Sudan and Abyssinia, and in 1880 its trade was valued at £2,000,000 annually. During the Mahdia (1884-1898) Assuan was strongly garrisoned by Egyptian and British troops. Since the defeat of the khalifa at Omdurman and the fixing (1899) of the Egyptian frontier farther south, the military value of Assuan has declined.
For the Jewish colony see A.H. Sayce and A.E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri discovered at Assuan (Oxford, 1906); E. Sachau, Drei Aramaische papyrus-Urkunden aus Elephantine (Berlin, 1907). For the dam see W. Willcocks, The Nile Reservoir Dam at Assuan (London, 1901).
(F. Ll. G.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)