Journal: Friday 26 March 1999
The mastabas at Beit Khallaf are in an isolated spot near the edge of the desert escarpment and some kilometres from the main road north from Abydos to Sohag. Horus called for us this morning and asked if we would like him to drive us there. Would we! We left Abydos at 10.30am, accompanied by our truckload of policemen, most of whom promptly fell asleep lounging on the hard benches lining the back of the Peugeot pick-up. I thought they would have been grateful for a trip out, but maybe they needed the sleep more. After about half an hour we turned off the main road and wound our way for a short while along lanes and past fields of crops and grazing animals at the edge of the cultivated land, before striking out straight across the desert. Before long we stopped in front of a massive mudbrick structure, a mastaba tomb known in Arabic as Beit Khallaf, ‘House of the Caliph’. This huge rectangular tomb (K1), which covers an area of 45m by 85m, with sloping walls rising to a current height of around 8m is the most impressive of five Early Dynastic Period mastabas here. When excavated by Garstang it was attributed to King Djoser, the owner of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, but now it is thought to have been built for a Queen Nimaathap ‘Mother of the King’s Children’, who may have been Djoser’s mother or other female relative. Many seal impressions have been found in these mastabas bearing the names of Dynasty III kings. On the eastern side of K1, a ramp leads to the roof of the structure and on the top a steep entrance staircase was sealed by blocking stones and was covered by a vaulted ceiling over mudbrick arches. From the staircase the passageway turns to the south and consists of a wide corridor with several chambers leading off to the east and west, in which Garstang found huge numbers of stone and pottery vessels similar to those found in the Step Pyramid. Horus, Robin and I left our police guards to sleep and climbed up the ramp to the top of the imposing mastaba, where we could look down into four excavation pits. Horus told us that much of the digging here has been done not by archaeologists, but by treasure seekers (both ancient and modern). The treasure we found there was the wonderful view from the top of the structure, across a wide stretch of yellow sand to the escarpment and the high Libyan desert beyond.
Before long we were back on the main road travelling north again. Our Abydos policemen left us at the checkpoint at Girga, to be replaced by tourist police from Sohag, which was in a different traffic region. Horus was pointing out interesting views along the route until soon we were driving into the large town of Sohag, crossing the wide stretch of the River Nile on a new road bridge to the East Bank. I instantly liked Sohag, with its ancient yellow taxis that looked like something out of an old American movie. I noticed that the cars here all seemed to be decades old and were extremely well-preserved. I guess vehicles just don’t rust in this dry desert air like they would at home. Horus told us that many of the artefacts excavated at Abydos over the years were to be housed in a new museum here, but it wasn’t yet open.
On the East Bank we drove through streets that were increasingly shabbier this side of the river, until we arrived in the ancient town of Akhmim, famous for its tapestries and textile weaving. We pulled up in front of a high, modern brick wall, enclosing what was once a Graeco-Roman temple dedicated to the god Min and Triphis (Repyt), the goddess who was his consort at Akhmim. Many of the ancient buildings of Akhmim were dismantled to be used in later periods and today little exists in its original form. In 1981 however part of a temple with a monumental gate was unearthed during building works here. Archaeologists found several statue fragments of Rameses II during excavations, as well as a beautiful colossal statue of the king’s daughter and consort, Meritamun. As we walked down the wide steps into what has now become an open-air museum several metres below the modern ground level, we could see her beautiful re-erected statue, standing tall in the centre of the area. The statue of Meritamun was a spectacular discovery, although when it was found lying face-down before the temple gateway, it was broken. Carved from limestone and now restored, the queen who stands 11m tall, wears a close-fitting pleated robe and is crowned with a modius (head-dress), decorated with serpents and the double-feathers of the ‘God’s Wife of Amun’.
The museum also contains a beautiful Roman headless statue of Venus (Isis) as well as many stelae and architectural elements from the surrounding structures. There are also some large inscribed blocks from el-Amarna which were probably re-used in the later temple building. Apparently the large temple, which was described as similar in style to the Temple of Edfu, was still in good repair until the 14th century, when it was dismantled to be used as building material. More recent excavations in the town have uncovered yet another temple, close to the Graeco-Roman site, beneath a modern cemetery. We were taken across the road by one of the guards and shown this new excavation site, a temple built by Rameses II, possibly his largest temple yet found. A ruined colossal statue of Rameses II (probably one of a pair) lay half buried at what is thought to be the entrance of a temple once known as ‘The Birba’ which is referred to in Coptic and Arabic literature.
We left Akhmim to drive the 60km back to Abydos with our police escort. About half way back, the police captain stopped to pray at a little mosque in a village (it is Friday, the Muslim holy day). While we sat in the car and waited, watching the antics of a group of small boys playing nearby, one of these cute little boys let the air out of one of our tires. What a cheek! And so much for our police guard.