Journal: Thursday 12 October 2000
As we strolled quietly along the road and around the corner to Medinet Habu this morning I was caught up in my own thoughts of bright glowing moments in my life. Suddenly, there in front of me was the Temple of Rameses III, its carved stones sunlit against a backdrop of pink mountains, gods and kings forever striking a pose capturing a moment in time. A breeze was rustling through the Acacia trees in the garden of the Habu Hotel as we passed by and I wished I could capture this ephemeral moment of absolute happiness. I never get tired of this wonderful view.
We spent our morning in the palace area on the south side of the temple. Medinet Habu is like a little city, all enclosed by a massive outer mudbrick wall. Within this space was an inner enclosure wall which contained the magazines and workshops that were intimately associated with the temple, with the main temple buildings in its centre. The area outside was once filled with neat rows of offices and houses for the temple staff although little but mounds of rubble now remain and the semi-wild pale yellow dogs are free to roam this lonely silent place. During Dynasty XX in the reign of Rameses XI, the workmen and their families from Deir el-Medina were relocated inside the temple enclosure for protection against marauding Libyans and parts of one rather large house from this period remains at the north-west of the town area, the house of Butehamun. His private apartments are now gone and all that remains is a vestibule with slender columns, which led into the main room of the house where Butehamun would conduct his business. He was a Necropolis Scribe, a secretary and administrative officer who worked with the royal tomb-builders during Dynasties XX and XXI. Butehamun’s name is recorded on many graffiti on the rocks of the Theban hills and documents from his family archive, known as the ‘later Ramesside letters’, also survive to tell us of his considerable power in Western Thebes. One of the projects he was involved with was the re-burial of the cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri during the reign of Pinudjem I, around 1050 BC. Sometime later the temple and town was besieged and captured and the western gate totally destroyed. In the dark thick mudbrick walls of the outer enclosure, the crumbling and haunting private dwellings of an even later Coptic town of Djeme, abandoned in the 9th century AD, can still be seen. It was these same Christians who painted over the reliefs in the second court that was used as a church, which fortunately preserved the magnificent colour we can see there today.
On the southern exterior wall of the temple is the Medinet Habu calendar, giving details of the various daily rituals and annual feasts celebrated in the temple. Each rite is named, with the offerings that must be given and on the bottom register, rows of offering bearers laden with bread, meat and poultry, beer and wine are shown delivering the fare to the temple. This is a virtual copy of a calendar that was found at the Ramesseum. On the rear of the first pylon is a very famous large hunting scene depicting Rameses III. In the bull-hunt, the King is seen in his chariot charging into the marshes, spear poised, after his prey. His military escort equipped with bows and arrows, march along below. While Rameses goes after the bigger game, his escort catch birds and fish in a lake. These grand reliefs are yet another symbol emphasising the King’s might and his mastery over all the forces of the cosmos.
Almost nothing actually remains of the original palace, but the ground plan has been recreated with restored low walls so that we can see how the building was laid out. This is a second palace which was built to replace an earlier, simpler structure. Constructed from mudbrick with stone doorways, this two-storied palace abutted the south wall of the first court, where a ‘Window of Appearances’ can still be seen. Similar in plan to other palaces known from temples, the chambers were small and probably would have only been used for brief flying visits by the King and his entourage, perhaps during the times of major festivals. Some authorities refer to the palace as a ‘dummy’ or mock-building, constructed not only for the King’s personal use, but mainly for his spirit throughout eternity, as a false door in the throne-room suggests. Three gracious apartments, with tall columns and high vaulted ceilings, would have been where the King conducted his business, giving audience to his petitioners while seated on a throne on a central dais, still in situ. In a private suite behind the main hall, a passage gives onto an antechamber and bathroom where a bath consisting of stone slabs can be seen, like a shower-tray, which drained into a stone basin below. I found this idea of the King having a shower right here three thousand years ago fascinating.
By 2.00pm Jenny and I were very hot as there is no shade out in the palace area, so we decided to walk along to the el-Marsam Hotel, next to the Temple of Merenptah, for a drink. In the 1920s this low simple structure was the original site of the ‘Chicago House’ dig-house but since the 1930s has been locally known as ‘Sheikh Ali’s’ Hotel’. Sheikh Ali Abd er-Rasoul established the small hotel as a place where artists, writers and archaeologists could meet and stay, and many still do today. El-Marsam, means in Arabic, ‘a place where artists meet’. The Abd er-Rasoul family name is notoriously connected to the Egyptian antiquities industry; it was Ahmed Abd er-Rasoul, who in 1881, discovered the Deir el-Bahri cache of mummies that Butehamun helped to hide, two thousand years before. Ahmed and his brothers managed to keep the cache a secret for many years until the quantity of antiquities appearing on the market alerted the authorities. Ahmed’s descendent Sheikh Ali, like many of his family had long worked with archaeological missions and himself had been present as a young boy who witnessed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. As an art-lover he wanted to create a special place where people from all over the world could meet and talk in peaceful surroundings. One of the early regular guests was Hassan Fathy and sitting in the shady garden we could see his architectural influence all around us in many of the low buildings with thick walls of butter-coloured mudbrick, small windows and domed ceilings. Jenny and I were shown around by Natasha, the Czech-Australian lady who now manages the hotel. Little has apparently changed over the past half a century and although now owned by Sayed Ali since the death of his father, the eight small rooms and garden still retain the simplicity and natural colours of Sheikh Ali’s vision. We stayed for a long time sitting beneath the fig trees, surrounded by vibrant shades of bougainvillea in the garden at a traditional table and cushioned wooden benches, where the sound of twittering birds was the only thing to break the silence. We eventually left after getting contact details for a possible future stay here, it was such a lovely lazy afternoon that we never did return to Habu Temple.