Journal: Sunday 13 July 1997
Robin and I had arranged to meet the others at 5.00am to go to the West Bank. Some people are just so lazy! They didn’t show up at breakfast, so at 6.00am we decided to go on our own, walking down to the Corniche and crossing to the West Bank on the local ferry, which cost us LE1 for a return ticket. Luckily most of the West Bank was crossing to Luxor at the same time, so we didn’t get caught in the rush. We found a taxi parked near the ferry dock and interrupted the driver, a trusty-looking man dressed in a galabeya who was drinking tea with some friends. They all looked as though they had just woken up. We asked him to take us to Malqata and agreed on the price of LE40 for the use of his taxi for the morning.
We first wanted to visit the tiny temple at Deir el-Shelwit, which was on the road to Armant, about 4km south of Malqata. At the time there was no problem in driving that road, but today there is a police checkpoint and tourists are not allowed beyond Medinet Habu and the Queen’s Valley road. The small Roman temple at Deir el-Shelwit was dedicated to the goddess Isis and decorated by several Roman Emperors. Unfortunately the door was locked and no guard was available to let us in, so we had to satisfy ourselves with peering through an iron grill over the doorway into the two visible blackened rooms beyond. We saw reliefs depicting Isis, Horus, Amun-Min and Sokar. There was also remains of a large propylon gateway which was richly decorated with deeply carved reliefs. We walked around the small building and noticed several upside-down blocks built into the base of the temple wall.
Back in the taxi along the road we had come, we stopped at Malqata, which was just a little to the south of Medinet Habu. Robin and I had wanted to see this important archaeological site, once the palace and town of Amenhotep III which is now bisected by the dirt road. On the eastern side, overlooked by the French excavation house, lies the site of the royal palace, now only barely marked out by low stone walls and a few excavation ditches. It is thought that the young Tutankhamun may have lived there as a child. There really was little to see, but I loved the feeling of the place, right on the edge of the desert. A guard appeared and offered to show us around the site. We saw the king’s throne room, with it’s dais still in place and the harem rooms for the royal ladies, as well as a kitchen area. He pointed out areas which had been excavated in recent years and we could see remains of painted limestone walls in the trenches where the wind had uncovered the back-filled sand. We saw several large pieces of Amarna-style pottery, decorated with swirling designs in the reds and blues of the period, just lying on the ground and I was amazed that it had just been left there, very lightly covered over. We also had a tour of the western side of the site, the town area where shapes of houses could still be seen marked out. At one place, a skull was poking out of the ground! Across the desert towards the mountains we could see a little green oasis – a Coptic monastery which was still in use.
To the south-east of the palace and town site, Amenhotep constructed a huge artificial lake or basin called Birket Habu. The area is still bordered by the massive earthwork created by its original digging – a series of artificial hills which enclosed the lake’s southern shore. We scrambled up the hills to get a good view of the site and noted that the ground was littered with pottery sherds. There was a tremendous atmosphere at the site and I instantly loved it.
When our tour was over, the guardian invited us into the garden of the French house for tea. It was mint tea, shai bi-nana, brewed over a little gas stove, and the best I have ever tasted. I fell in love with the French house and decided that if I lived in Egypt, it would have to be here. The gardens were lovely, full of exotic flowers and plants and obviously well-tended. There was even a small swimming pool. I wished I was an excavator and could spend time living and working in this beautiful place.