Journal: Thursday 9 October 1997
I was reading the book ‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’. The author, Amelia Edwards, travelled to Egypt in 1870 and sailed in a dahabeya from Cairo to Abu Simbel, visiting the ruins on the banks of the Nile by donkey. Her book, published in 1876, immediately became a best-seller, a travelogue full of her wonderful descriptions of Egypt, both ancient and modern. Amelia Edwards was so bitten by the Egyptology bug that after she returned to England she spent the rest of her life advocating the preservation of the ancient monuments, co-founding in 1882, the Egypt Exploration Fund, (now the Egypt Exploration Society).
I was enjoying the book immensely, only wishing that I had been around a century ago to witness some of the ruined sites she visited then, in that bygone time. In a mad moment, in the spirit of Amelia Edwards, I asked a friend, a local guide called Hassan (my dragoman?), to arrange donkeys for us to go to Deir el-Medina.
I crossed on the local ferry to the West Bank in the morning, avoiding all offers of taxis on the other side from the touts on the boat. Scrambling up the bank I was met by Hassan, looking dashing in his galabeya and white turban, who told me that the donkeys were arranged and waiting at the stables in Gezira. We walked up the road, past the restaurants along the bank and into the village. The coffee shops were already busy and the other stallholders were preparing for their day, throwing out buckets of water to dampen down the dusty road. At the stables I was introduced to my donkey, who was called Homar (Arabic for donkey!). He was rather threadbare and I thought he looked a little like Eeyore. I had never ridden a donkey before and my horse riding days were a dim distant memory, but I’m always up for a challenge and I was assured that he was slow and gentle. I wasn’t so sure what Homar thought of me.
We set off at a slow walking pace along the road towards the monument area and all went well. I was quite enjoying myself, at least until the crossroads, busy with traffic at that time of the morning, when Homar decided he wanted to go left instead of straight ahead. I was yelling ‘alatuur’ at the top of my voice and Hassan was trying to grab the reins and shout instructions, but the donkey was determined. We got tangled up with a coach and two large trucks in a scary moment, but eventually managed to get Homar back on track and carried on towards the Colossi of Memnon. I guess there was less traffic on the road in Amelia Edwards’ day! There is a knack to riding a donkey. I was told that you have to relax and bounce freely rather than control the ride with your legs in stirrups like you would on a horse. Your legs are meant to dangle down at the sides. I was quite uncomfortable by the time we reached the Colossi and kept thinking about Amelia, who was probably riding side-saddle. We hadn’t intended to stop at the Colossi but Homar decided he wanted a break – and who could blame him?
After about ten minutes we were able to carry on past the little village of Qurnet Murai at the foot of the mountain and around to Deir el-Medina. Instead of going into the workmen’s village however, Hassan and his donkey (who seemed to obey all instructions) turned left and headed straight up the mountain slope. My donkey automatically followed this time, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for this. The donkeys slithered up the path of loose stones and rubble and I wanted to get off but it seemed that the only way to achieve this was to fall off and I was hanging on for dear life. What would Amelia have done? Fortunately, a little way up the hill we turned left again and onto a more level narrow path. I think Homar must have been pre-programmed for this route as he gave no trouble now. Hassan explained that he wanted to show me a special place. And special it was indeed. Before long we arrived at the Sanctuary of Ptah and Meretseger, halfway along the path between Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Queens.
The artisans who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom worshipped a variety of deities, constructing many small shrines and votive chapels in the vicinity of the village. The cobra-goddess Meretseger, sometimes identified as a form of Hathor or ‘Goddess of the West’, was a favourite among the workmen. Her name means ‘she who loves silence’ and she was believed to live in el-Qurn, the mountain overlooking the King’s Valley. Her realm encompassed the whole of the Theban necropolis, but the families of Deir el-Medina in particular dedicated many shrines to her, believing that she punished crime by blindness from the venom in her bite and hoped for atonement by erecting stelae in her name. The shrine we had stopped at was one of the goddess’s largest rock-shrines and here many stelae were erected on behalf of kings and high officials of Dynasties 19 and 20. The god Ptah, who originally came from Memphis was regarded as the patron of craftsmen.
At last I was able to dismount and we spent a long time looking at the stelae. There was a lovely but shallow relief of the goddess and some of the inscriptions still had some colour. It was a lonely, deserted place, but I loved it. The views into the Queens Valley were magnificent and we were just below the towering peak of el-Qurn. There was also a cave, or perhaps an old tomb-chapel here, which Hassan said was known as the ‘snake room’. It certainly looked like a good habitat for cobras, so I didn’t venture in too far. From further up the slope I could see the Temple of Medinet Habu and then nothing but the Libyan desert stretched out before me.
The donkeys had had a good rest and it was time to leave. It was even worse going down the hillside on the back of a donkey, slipping and sliding down the scree. I swore I would never put a poor animal through this again, and I’ve walked everywhere since that time. By the time we got back to the stables I had an extremely painful rear end and felt like I had been bouncing on an old overstuffed horsehair sofa for hours. I expect Homar was glad to be rid of his burden too. My ‘Amelia Edwards’ moment was more like an ‘Amelia Peabody’ adventure (the comic heroine from Elizabeth Peters’ books), but like everything in Egypt, it had been an experience. And thanks to Hassan I had ‘discovered’ the Sanctuary of Ptah and Meretseger which has become one of my favourite places for peace and quiet on the West Bank.