Journal: Wednesday 15 March 2000
Jenny and I both woke up this morning feeling wretched. Jenny has had a sore throat for a few days which has developed into tonsillitis and I seem to be in sympathy with her and have a streaming cold as well as a sore throat. Not wanting to waste the day moping around and feeling sorry for ourselves we decided to cross the river and go to Medinet Habu, where I knew we would get lost in the marvellous reliefs and forget about our colds. A strong breeze was blowing as we boarded the ferry and it was quite cold out on the river, but was calmer on the West Bank as we quickly found an arabeya to take us to the ticket office.
The Temple at Medinet Habu was very quiet when we arrived and we were among only a small handful of tourists there, so we took the opportunity to have another look at the reliefs in the First Court, the ‘Hall of Royal Appearances’. The First Pylon is a vast stone structure and originally had a massive single leaf wooden door, which, when opened, rested against a decorative panel called the ‘Shadow of the Door’. The front of the pylon is decorated with the usual portrayals of the King, Rameses III, before the gods, Amun-re and Re-Horakhty and the triumphal scene of King smiting his captive enemies which can be seen on most temple facades. We inspected the four mast-grooves which once would have supported tall colourful fluttering flags. Inside the grooves are dedication texts and each is guarded by female protective deities, with Isis and Nephthys closest to the doorway and Nekhbet and Wadjyt in the outer grooves. The whole massive pylon represents a protective barrier to the temple from the outside world. My favourite scene on the First Pylon, which is shallow and can only be seen properly in the morning when the slanting eastern sun lights the stone, is a little relief of Rameses IV kneeling under the Persea Tree. The god Atum is writing the King’s name on the leaves of the tree and the King is receiving the heb-sed symbol from the Theban Triad, Amun, Mut and Khons.
Although I’ve always preferred the colourful painted reliefs of the religious festival processions of Min and Sokar in the Second Court, the First Court has some very fine and interesting reliefs too. As well as being the temple courtyard, this was also the forecourt of the adjoining Royal Palace where the King had his quarters when in residence. The entrance to the palace area, called the ‘Window of Appearances’ on the southern side is balanced by a portico with seven huge pillars with engaged colossal statues of Rameses III, now unfortunately mostly ruined. On one of the better preserved statues, however, we can still see two of the royal children at the king’s feet.
Many of the reliefs on the walls surrounding the First Court tell of the battle exploits of Rameses III as well as his son, Rameses IV. The King is shown pursuing fleeing Libyans and receiving the spoils of war, including the hands and phalli of prisoners which have been cut off for the soldiers’ reward. These scenes relate mostly to the perennial Libyan wars and several names of the tribal chiefs are included in the texts. These gruesome events are overseen by the king’s scribes who are counting the heaps of hands and phalli of the enemy – an occupation that allowed the defeated army’s losses to be tallied. The King’s soldiers were traditionally rewarded with gold according to the number of ‘trophies’ they brought in and I imagine this could have been open to much cheating. On the wall of the northern portico, the lower register of scenes show Rameses storming a fortress in Amor which is depicted in great detail and followed by the presentation of Asiatic, Syrian and Libyan captives to the Theban Triad. On the Western wall, the outer face of the Second Pylon, yet more captives are shown, this time they are the ‘Sea-peoples’, Shardana and Philistines and a long inscription tells of a campaign in year 8 of the King’s reign.
On a more pleasant note, behind the columns of the southern portico, the king is seen with his pet lion and his entourage setting out to attend the Valley Festival. There are scenes of stick-fighting and wrestling contests which would have taken place during the festival. In the northern colonnade, the details of the Valley Festival ritual are documented on the upper register.
By early afternoon I was fairly worn out looking at all this battle activity so Jenny and I retreated to the Rameses Cafe for some refreshment. Neither of us felt like eating lunch, but we were dosed up with lots of strong hot lemon juice by Salah. The lemon juice must have worked, at least for Jenny, who announced that she was off to walk over the Mountain to take some photographs. She couldn’t tempt me today so I stayed in the shade of the cafe to nurse my cold and stroke the resident cats while she went off to climb a mountain. Where does she find her energy?