Journal: Thursday 25 March 1999 (AM)
I was up with the dawn this morning, excited that today was the beginning of an adventure. My friend Robin and I had arranged to spend a few days at Abydos, hoping to see more of the huge ancient site than is possible on a one-day visit when travelling with the convoy. Robin had previously made a contact in Abydos, a man who went by the name of Horus and who had told her that it was possible to stay there. We were travelling by train and got to Luxor railway station in plenty of time, only to find that the train was forty-five minutes late arriving from Aswan. We both had student cards and were able to get cheap tickets for second class seats at only LE8.50 (less than £1.00) for the two and a half hour journey to el-Balyana. The train journey gave me a different perspective on the countryside as it sped by, its wheels clattering unevenly over the rough tracks, though the windows were so dirty we could hardly see out of them. By the time we were waiting at the end of the carriage for the train to pull in at el-Balyana station, we had attracted a group of young men, as curious as usual about where two women were going alone, somewhere other than the tourist towns of Luxor or Cairo. Egyptians automatically assume that all Westerners are Christian and a little boy of around six years old was pulled in front of us and instructed to show us his tattoo of a Coptic cross on the inside of his wrist, proudly worn and demonstrated, while he grinned and said “I just like you!” This was all very entertaining, but by this time the train had pulled into the station and we were struggling to open the window to release the door. The door was stuck. Several men tried to open it without success, by which time the train was beginning to move again and panic was setting in. Suddenly without warning the door burst open and Robin and I leaped out as the train gathered speed – only to realise that one of Robin’s bags had been left behind. She raced along the platform shouting at the train until one of the men realised what had happened and flung her bag out of the window. That was a close shave and not a very auspicious start to our adventure.
We were met by Horus at the station and accompanied by two police trucks containing a dozen tourist police (with an average age of around 17), automatic weapons pointing menacingly from the windows at each side, he drove us the 6km to from el-Balyana to Abydos. We were reminded that Abydos had only recently been open to visitors and was still a troubled area – not from terrorists specifically, but from ongoing conflicts and feuds between the Christian and Muslim population in the region. Abydos itself is split into two villages, el-Araba el-Madfuna to the left of the Seti temple and Beni Mansur to the right. In front of the temple is a small park, with gravelled paths, a few trees and patches of earth probably intended to be planted beds, which had been tidied up since my last visit. There was also a little cafeteria, with a few tables and chairs shaded by a roof of rushes. This is where the convoy usually parks.
Off to the left of this garden was Abydos’s only hotel, aptly named the Seti I and run by Abdel Alim and his nephew, el-Baset. We went to check in and were shown to a little chalet in the garden where brilliant bougainvillea hung in profusion from trellises along the path. The hotel had no stars and when we arrived had no other guests either. It was what might be called basic, but at LE20 (£2.00) a night we could not have asked for more. Leaving our bags in the chalet Robin and I went out to sit in the garden and were offered lunch. The menu consisted of eggs – boiled, fried scrambled or omelettes and of course flat Egyptian bread which came stacked up in a basket. This was followed by glasses of sweet black Egyptian tea. Thus fortified we set out to the Temple of Seti I.