Journal: Saturday 27 March 1999 (PM)
Robin and I basked in the afternoon sun in the Abydos cafeteria garden waiting for Horus, who was to take us to see some of the desert sites out towards the escarpment. Staying in Abydos meant that we had ample opportunity to visit some of the earliest monuments in Egypt, which I had longed to see. Although we went in Horus’s car, the obligatory truckload of policemen had to come too, along the track through Beni Mansur, past the Rameses II temple and northwards to Kom es-Sultan, a large impressive mudbrick structure which has been dated to the Middle Kingdom. These massive brick walls surround the site of the earliest known temple of Osiris (or Khenty-Amentiu) in Abydos. There is little information about the structure itself, but the only known statue thought to be King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, was found here. It was hard to imagine what these walls once contained, they were so vast – if it was a just a temple it must have been massive, but only a few scattered blocks now remain inside to give us a glimpse of past glories, as well as a large muddy puddle, which we were told was once a sacred lake.
Driving another half a kilometre west we arrived at the second dynasty enclosure of Shunet el-Zebib, named for its more recent use as a storehouse of dates. Although not far from Abydos and almost overshadowed by the nearby walls of a Coptic village, Deir Sit Daminia, which was built on top of another ancient enclosure, I felt like I was in the truly desert. Shunet el-Zebib stands tall, with a double enclosure wall of mud brick, over 5m thick and rising to 12m. The outer wall is niched, just like Djoser’s step Pyramid complex walls at Saqqara. This ‘Palace of Eternity’ was built by King Khasekhemwy and is thought to be a mudbrick prototype of the earliest pyramids. While its original purpose is unclear, recent excavations have uncovered a low mound in its centre which is thought to be of religious significance. Surrounding the enclosure are 14 boat pits which, when excavated, were found to contain the world’s oldest boats. The pits are now back-filled due to the fragile condition of the wooden boats. While we were here our ‘personal policeman’ caught up with us. Having mislaid us and missed a ride with the others, he had walked out from Abydos and looked extremely hot and flustered.
Our last stop was very special. On this feast day when Egyptians visit the graves of their ancestors, Horus took us to see Omm Sety’s grave, in the desert outside the walls of the Muslim and Coptic cemeteries. We had come prepared with offerings of bread and incense to place on her grave, but when we got to the site we could hardly see her final resting place because the stones had been scattered and there was no headstone or other identifying mark. It was very sad that she should be so little remembered. As Robin and I placed our offerings and said a little silent prayer, Horus built up stones around the plot and marked them with her name. It felt like a good thing to do on this day.
Back in Abydos we had a couple of hours free, so Robin and I went into the Seti Temple again. Being a holiday the temple was very crowded and noisy with Egyptian visitors and large groups of children who displayed their habitual curiosity about us. I wandered around the halls and out to the Osirion, but I was followed everywhere, so decided to call it a day. Later in the evening, Robin and I had been invited by Horus to his home near the temple for a meal and to meet his family. The other men of the family were very devout and actually put on cotton gloves before shaking hands with two foreign infidels. I had not come across this strict observance of Islamic tradition before – it made me feel uncomfortable to be imposing. Of course they did not eat with us and Robin and I were seated at a table in a separate room on our own. The ladies were also shy with us and kept their distance, I guessed they had not met many foreigners and didn’t know how to treat us. It was very different to what I had become used to in Luxor. When the meal was over we went back to the hotel and sat in the garden until midnight talking with Horus, Abdel Alim and Mohammed Maghella, the Abydos Antiquities Inspector, a fascinating man. The evening air was mild, the sky like an enveloping cloak of soft black velvet studded with millions of diamond stars. I felt totally content.