Journal: Thursday 21 December 1995
Another early start this morning as my friend and I had arranged with Sharif the taxi driver to take us to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, one of the most extensive temple complexes to survive from the Ptolemaic Period. Sharif had already collected his brother who was about to be conscripted into the army and had an appointment in Qena to sign the papers. We took the east bank route beside the Nile travelling northwards and crossed the long bridge over the river where it bends dramatically at Qena. The road to Qena is very long and straight for about 65km with several police checkpoints along the way. Today, if you are not Egyptian, it is impossible to travel freely around Egypt. Since the terrorist problems, any movement outside the major tourist areas is forbidden, unless you travel with a police convoy. But in 1995 the convoys were not yet in operation, though security was still an issue. We had also wanted to visit Abydos but it was closed down completely. In fact our hotel tour guide advised us not to go to Dendera either as two foreigners had been shot dead there the previous year. But we were determined to see as much as possible in our remaining time in Egypt.
Dendera Temple is a few kilometres west of Qena on the other side of the Nile, the road winding around vivid green irrigated fields where farmers were busy tending their crops and cattle. We drove past the occasional donkey loaded with green clover and perhaps one or two farmers taking produce to the market in Qena, but otherwise we were on our own. The temple was equally deserted and the three or four guards who rushed out to welcome us told us that tourists rarely visit here. In fact there were not even any tickets sold. We were guided around the temple by the gafir, or chief guard, who pointed out the important parts of the temple. The high ceilings of the hypostyle hall were dirty but I could just make out the beautiful paintings of astronomical deities against a dark starry sky. We were shown an underground crypt, out of which flew a cloud of bats and where we saw the famous ceremonial scene which some claim depicts a modern light-bulb. I was not convinced! The pitch dark winding staircase up to the roof impressed me with its high narrow apertures for light carved with representations of the streaming sun, while the king led a procession of priests carved onto the walls. One of my favourite parts was up on the roof, which commanded a wonderful view across the desert beyond the cultivated areas of farmland. Today this top part of the roof is no longer accessible. Mysterious chapels and sanctuaries were dotted about the lower roof level and we saw the blackened ceiling of the Dendera Zodiac, though I didn‘t learn until later that this was merely a copy, the real one being in the Louvre in Paris. The beautiful goddess Hathor, to whom this temple was dedicated, was depicted everywhere with her consort Horus, whose temple we had seen at Edfu, and their son Ihy. I especially loved the Hathor-headed columns on the facade. We had an hour or so to look around the complex and we saw the birth-rooms, the Isis Temple at the rear and the peaceful rectangular sacred lake, now dry, with palm trees growing from the sandy bottom.
All too soon it was time to leave. A party of excited Egyptian schoolchildren had just arrived and were shouting for pens, sweets and baksheesh, which went some way to dispel the feeling of desolation here. It was sad to see the shabby café and bazaar all shut up and the few local people desperate for contact with tourists, which meant money for them. It was so unlike the more popular sites south of Luxor.
Our driver Sharif seemed to be much happier when he was on the road back to Luxor. I sensed that he was uneasy driving through Qena where foreign tourists were never seen. On the way back we asked if we could visit a well-known pottery at Garagoz, near the town of Qift, and got permission from the police at a checkpoint and an armed escort to take us. Unfortunately nobody knew the way and we drove around the lanes and along dirt-tracks for many miles before we found it. Tourists often used to visit the pottery in the village of Garagoz, set up in the 1950s for the Christian community there, but had not come for many years because there had been some religious unrest in the area. The pottery factory was opened especially for us (it had been closed for the afternoon siesta) and we were warmly welcomed by the manager. We saw some of the pottery, the quaint little figurines seen in bazaars all over Egypt, in the process of production. We had a cup of tea and bought some of the little figures (we felt obliged to after all the trouble we had put people to). By the time we arrived back in Luxor it was 4.00pm. The whole trip had cost us only LE50 (Egyptian pounds), just under £10 English at that time. It had been a fascinating day and I was so glad to have seen a little of Egypt away from the tourist trail.