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SYENE sī ē’ nĭ (סְיֵן, סְוֵנֵ֖ה); An Egyp. city, it was located on the E bank of the Nile, on the site of modern Aswan, some 550 m. S of Cairo, at the first cataract of the river and just opposite the island of Elephantine. Recently much publicized because of the building of the new dam just to the S, the area of the cataract marked the effective southern boundary of Egypt during much of the ancient history of that country. Five m. S of Aswan is the site of the old dam and another five m. upstream is the Sadd el Aali, the new High Dam, which is extremely important for the agricultural and industrial hopes of modern Egypt.
The island of Biggah, upstream from the old dam, is referred to in ancient texts as the southern border of Egypt, and fortress and temple buildings were constructed there. Philae, once known as “the Pearl of Egypt,” is famous for its temples, mostly of Graeco-Roman date, and here the religion of the ancient Egyptians celebrated its last services in the 6th cent. of our era.
The cataract served as a barrier to travel and transport, so the area was strategically and commercially important. The name Syene (e.g. swnw) is related to a word swn.t, “commerce, trade.” As a frontier town, Elephantine was the starting point for expeditions to Nubia and during the Old Kingdom several of its residents served in official capacities as leaders of caravans or of military missions.
A number of rock tombs of notables are found on the W bank, opposite Aswan, at Qubbet el Hawa. These date from the Old Kingdom (mostly 6th dynasty, e.g., Mekhu and Sabni, Hekaib, Khunes, Harkhuf, Pepynakht), the Middle Kingdom (Sirenput I and II), and the New Kingdom. To the S are the ruined Coptic monastery of St. Simeon and the modern mausoleum of Aga Khan.
Syene itself did not gain prominence until Saite times, but it gradually replaced the island town as the outstanding city of the district. Today, its successor, Aswan, is still an important city of southern Egypt. Remains of temples can be seen in the city, but excavation has been largely prevented by the presence of modern buildings.
The area was sacred to Khnum, the ramheaded god to whom legend attributes the forming of mankind on his potter’s wheel. Khnum, Satis, and Anukis composed the divine triad of the cataract region.
Southeast of Aswan are the old quarries which provided the fine granite for buildings and objects of art. Stone for temple and tomb structures, obelisks, colossi, and sarcophagi was cut here and transported by boat to determined sites throughout the length of Egypt. Still in the quarry is the huge unfinished obelisk 137 ft. long.
Syene appears in the Bible only twice, both times in prophetic utterances of Ezekiel against Egypt and perhaps in both instances in statements indicating the geographic extent of Egypt, from Migdol in the N to Syene in the S.
A. H. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica (1947), II, H. Gauthier, Dictionaire de noms geographiques contenus dans les textes hieroglyphiques, (1928), V, 17, 18, 1*-5*; P. Montet, Géographie de l’Égypte ancienne, II (1961), 13-29.