Journal: Saturday 9 December 1995
To get to the Land of the Dead, you have to cross to the West Bank, an experience which involved travelling on the passenger ferry – this was before a new bridge was built across the Nile. The ferry, a cantankerous hulk with peeling paint and rotting timbers was the only way to get over to the West Bank without a long journey by road.
When I was young I was given a book about the Valley of the Kings and my imagination was fired by pictures of the rocky cliffs and valleys, a harsh environment in which to hide the deep painted tombs of generations of kings. This was still the vision of Egypt I was expecting – I couldn’t wait to see the wonderful tombs hidden in deep clefts of rock, where Howard Carter had dug down into the sand and found the incredible golden hoard of the young King Tutankhamun. Driving up the tarmac road, the coach wound its way towards the sun-baked Valley to the point where it widens into a large car park. With a sinking feeling I suddenly became aware of how much the place had changed since the romantic picture of earlier days I’d held in my mind’s eye. I was alarmed to see stalls selling gaudily painted papyrus and cheaply made plaster statues which now lined the narrow entrance to the valley; and worse, the whole place was teaming with tourists wearing shorts and inappropriate shoes, crimson-faced with sunburn beneath their straw hats. On that first visit to the valley I wasn’t sure how I would feel about entering the tombs. With a group of tourists it can never be a pleasant experience descending deep into the hot and humid caverns, squeezing past guides whose piercing voices competed in many languages, endeavouring to impart a little knowledge to their charges. Although I was keen to see the tombs, once inside I felt out of place, an intruder from some future time who had no right to be there. After listening to a short introduction to the history of the King’s Valley and visiting two tombs with Salah’s group (so much new information to take in) we were left to our own devices for a short time.
I wandered away from the crowds and resting for a while by a shady boulder at the head of the valley, gradually I began to see that the real atmosphere had not changed at all in those thousands of years but could be felt thinly-veiled just below the modern surface, all still here for those who care to look. No longer aware of the shrill voices of visitors echoing from one side of the valley to the other, I drifted back to this barren isolated place in a far off epoch, its vertical lines of cliffs even then dry and desiccated in the dazzling sun. I glimpsed faces in those wind-eroded limestone rocks and the more I looked the more I could see, spirits of the landscape watching over this sacred place. The valley, or ‘wadi’ as it is called in Egypt, was carved by rushing floodwaters in the remote past, bringing down great boulders to be deposited on its dense clay floor, leaving screes of loose stones in drifts down the mountain-side. Everywhere on the cliffs there are narrow paths zig-zagging their way up through the rocks towards the high smooth-sloped pyramidal peak of el-Qurn, which is said to be the inspiration behind the choice of this place as a cemetery for kings. The ancient Egyptians, it would seem at first glance, were obsessed with death and spent many years of earthly life planning for that event. I reflected on their strong beliefs about the afterlife; their careful preparations suggested that they were not afraid of death but held onto the thought that their existence would be continued, aided by the food, clothes, furniture, tools and other precious goods placed in the tomb. Ritual offerings were periodically made to the dead by their families or by priests, whether they were kings or commoners and in this way their names lived on. The elaborate tombs and burial rituals of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings were no doubt intended to create a stabilising effect in a time which was a potential chaos, between the death of a king and the coronation of his successor. Developed and refined over a five hundred year period the long steep corridors and pillared halls of the tombs depict intricate and colourful religious texts designed to ensure the happy transition of the king whose mummified body was destined to rest forever in his huge sarcophagus, but whose spirit went on to an afterlife in the realms of the gods.
Driving out of the hot sun-baked valley we were told about a side wadi, the Western Valley, where other kings had sited their tombs. I noted this place too as somewhere I would revisit. By now I felt I had absorbed so much information and encountered many new and strange emotions, I was almost ready to call it a day. But there was no rest for poor weary tourists. As light relief we were taken to an alabaster factory, a compulsory detour for all tour groups, its white facade painted with bold child-like drawings of donkeys, camels and aeroplanes, indicating that its owner had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. This one was called Nefertari’s Palace! We were given a demonstration of the process of transforming a shapeless lump of dun-coloured rock into an incredibly fine translucent alabaster vase, by a young man sitting cross-legged among chippings of stone, ghost-like under layers of white dust. I was beginning to learn how charming Egyptian men can be and how flattery is one of their greatest skills. After the factory’s owner had likened one elderly lady of our group to the beautiful Queen Nefertari herself, in an undoubtedly well-rehearsed line of patter, we were ushered inside the shop where we were offered a welcome drink, and expected to return the courtesy by making a purchase.
Our next stop was the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in the wide bay of cliffs known as Deir el-Bahri, its terraces blending seamlessly into the pale sheer limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the Theban mountain which separates it from the Valley of the Kings. The temple is a magnificent spectacle, constructed on three flat terraces which would have originally been surrounded by gardens with trees and statuary. The first monument to be built in this natural amphitheatre was an earlier structure, a mortuary temple of King Mentuhotep which can be seen as a platform next to Hatshepsut’s temple and may have been the reason that the enigmatic Queen chose to site her own temple here. Its name, Deir el-Bahri, is derived from the Coptic monastery built over the site after it had been partially destroyed by an earthquake, concealing the temple until its discovery in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Since then there has been ongoing excavation and reconstruction, a piecing together of the temple and its colossal statues, with the third terrace only recently completed. At the time of my visit in 1995 the third terrace was not yet open to tourists. In ancient times the temple was called Djeser-djeseru, meaning ‘Sacred of Sacreds’ and Hatshepsut’s monument surpassed anything that had been built before both in its architecture and its beautiful delicately-carved reliefs. The female pharaoh chose to site her temple in an area sacred to the Theban Goddess of the West, but more importantly it was on a direct axis with her sanctuary at Karnak’s Temple of Amun on the East Bank. Hatshepsut’s columned porticoes and courtyards have some very important and famous wall reliefs including a depiction of the transportation of obelisks from quarries at Aswan to Karnak Temple. There are also scenes of her divine birth by which she claimed legitimacy for her coronation as pharaoh and reliefs showing an expedition to the land of Punt, with its incense trees, beautiful birds and strange houses on stilts. My favourite part of the temple was a little side chapel, a shrine dedicated to the goddess Hathor, in the southern part of the second terrace. This is a tiny temple in its own right with two hypostyle halls and a sanctuary cut into the rock at the rear, which would have once housed the sacred barque of the goddess of the Theban necropolis. Square stone columns are crowned with capitals showing the head of Hathor with her huge wig and cows ears.
That evening, the sun set with unexpected speed, sinking to a rosy golden glow behind the mountain and lending fire to the gigantic Colossi of Memnon. This massive pair of statues, now standing ruined and forlorn by the side of the road, once marked the entrance to a mortuary temple which was destroyed in ancient times. They were cut from two massive granite blocks, brought from quarries near Cairo, and carved to represent the pharaoh Amenhotep III. The legend behind their name is interesting. After an earthquake in 27 BC, part of the northern colossus collapsed and from then on, each morning at sunrise, the statue produced a strange musical sound. Early Greek and Roman tourists came to hear the sound, and gave the statue the name of ‘Memnon’, a Trojan hero, the son of Eos and Titan, who sang to his mother each morning at dawn. In reality it is thought that the effect of the sun heating up the stone produced the sound. In the third century AD, Septimus Severus attempted to repair the damaged northern statue and the mysterious ‘singing’ was never heard again. As a result of the legend however, the whole of western Thebes became known as ‘Memnonia’.
I was feeling tired, dazed and happy as my first day in Egypt began to draw to a close and our coach drove us back once more towards Esna, the purple shadows of the mountains retreating as the darkness grew. This was a repeat of the journey from only one day before but already I felt like I’d been in the country for weeks. It had been a very long and intense day, but how much I had experienced in a whirlwind of emotions. After dinner, I sat and watched the stars from the top deck of the boat. And stars as I had never seen them before, glittering in an unpolluted sky rarely seen in Britain, so intensely brilliant that I could see each of the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades sharply defined and almost count the billions of tiny sparks in the Milky Way. I had little sleep that night, still charged by an energy I’d never experienced before. At dawn I was again on deck as the boat steamed south towards Edfu, wrapped in blankets and watching the faintly winking lamps of passing villages in the growing light of a crisp clear morning.