Journal: Sunday 28 March 1999
We were out very early this morning, at 7.00am the Bakery was open but no bread had been made yet, so our plans for a picnic lunch were thwarted again. After stocking up on large bottles of water and a couple of bags of potato crisps instead, Robin and I set out to walk to some of the desert sites we had not yet visited. Our young policeman, who hadn’t let us out off his sight since losing us yesterday, tried to persuade us to get a taxi to drive the 5km out on the desert track, but we were adamant we wanted to walk – an activity he didn’t seem able to comprehend. Bless him, it was very hot and he was still wearing his thick winter woollen uniform poor boy. With the policeman trailing sullenly a few yards behind, we set off past the Seti Temple and the old dig-house where the police camels were housed, into the desert. Although he spoke no English we tried to cheer our policeman up with a little conversation and asked him what he would do if we were attacked or shot at.
‘Me?’, he indicated, ‘I would run away fast!’. Then he showed us his impressive, but broken, handgun. Having established our level of protection we carried on towards Umm el-Qa’ab.
Walking the desert to the north and west of Abydos we couldn’t help but feel the antiquity of the area. Low sand-covered mounds everywhere hide tombs and shrines of early pharaohs, much of it still unexcavated, while vast tracts of smashed pottery attests to the millions of ancient Egyptians who performed their pilgrimage to this sacred place to fulfil their obligations to Osiris. Umm el-Qa’ab is such an area and the tomb of Dynasty I King Djer, once thought to be the ‘Tomb of Osiris’, attracted pilgrims from all over Egypt who smashed pots on the sandy mounds as offerings to the god. The area became known as ‘Mother of Pots’ and now it is almost impossible to walk on the sand without stepping on the sherds that deeply cover the surface. We looked down below ground-level into the large tomb of King Den, which has recently been undergoing restoration by a German team led by Dr Gunter Dreyer and I was very impressed by the work that had been done. Several subsidiary burials surrounded the tomb and we could see various pieces of pottery and other small finds lying in the bottom of the graves.
The desert hereabouts, which for convenience has been divided up into named cemetery areas, is littered with the burials of Protodynastic and Early Dynastic rulers whose names have been found on stelae at the tomb entrances. Some of the early royal tombs to be identified at Abydos belong to kings Djer, Djet, Den, and Queen Mer-Neith of Dynasty I, and Peribsen and Khasekhemwy of Dynasty II. The largest and latest royal tomb to be built at Abydos is that of King Khasekhemwy, which is currently being re-excavated and this was where Robin and I headed next.
Walking through soft sand in the blazing heat was extremely tiring and we were ready for a rest by the time we got there. Our policeman had disappeared, probably to look for shade somewhere until we were ready to go back and it took us quite a while to find the tomb of Khasekhemwy because nothing of the structure was showing above the surface of the desert. At the beginning of Dynasty I a royal tomb consisted of a mound of rubble or sand which covered a deep rectangular brick-lined chamber. With each generation however, the tombs became more elaborate and were often surrounded by a great many subsidiary burials of wives, servants and pets. The tomb of Khasekhemwy was deep and vast and looking down into it we could see many separate chambers built from mudbrick. We sat for a long tome contemplating our surroundings, the wide stretches of desert enveloped in a deep silence all around us. To the west rose the limestone escarpment which curves in a large crescent shape encompassing the villages on the edge of the cultivation and in its centre is a cleft, known as ‘Pega-the-Gap’ believed by ancient Egyptians to lead directly to Amenti, the kingdom of the dead. Perhaps this was why the Thinite kings chose this area as their burial place from earliest times. The area was the sacred centre of the cult of Osiris from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, but it was in use through all the historical periods, right up to Christian times.
Back in Abydos, the festival still seemed to be going on, with bands of children in best clothes running about while small groups of men stood chatting and women walked up and down the gardens arm in arm. Back in the hotel I longed for a shower but we found that the water in the bathroom was not working and we had to make do with a wash from the remains of our bottled water. Later, Horus came to take us to Omm Sety’s old house, now a sad and derelict ruin, in the village of el-Araba. In front of her house were the remains of a large mudbrick tomb she had built for herself and where she had wanted to be buried, but in the end the local health authorities would not permit it. Climbing up to the first floor, I looked out over the village with its arched doorways, pigeon lofts and walls topped with clay pots and tried to picture the eccentric English woman, Dorothy Eady who had lived alone here for so many years, both part of the village but also an outsider.