Journal: Wednesday 8 January 2003
If we’d been staying in Faiyum City today’s trip would have been a lot easier, but opting to stay by the lake meant a long and bumpy drive across the desert to our first stop today at Medinet Madi. This site is said to be the one of the most difficult places to get to in the whole of Faiyum, but it is the site I most wanted to see – one of the most important sites too because it contains a Middle Kingdom Temple, which are rare in Egypt. We had a police escort with us in the taxi as well as several in a car up ahead, which was just as well because Abdul wasn’t too sure of the way and luckily they knew how to get to the site.
After leaving the south-western end of Birket Qarun and driving east along the desert road, we eventually reached a remote village called Abu Ghandir, where to my surprise we turned off straight across the sand. There was no track to follow but the police car ahead was making straight towards a sandy ridge in the distance and I’m sure as he was zigzagging about Abdul was praying that his taxi wouldn’t get stuck in the powdery sand. We stopped at some distance from the ridge, not able to go any further and we were told that we had to walk the rest of the way and climb up the mound. That was fun – one step forward and three backwards in the deep sand! At the top we found a little square hut and a gafir and looking down the other side of the ridge I could see the temple buildings and town site stretching out below me half-buried in the sand. Accompanied by the gafir we slid down the bank and walked to the entrance to the site where many stone sphinxes and lion statues were poking their heads out of the sand. Apparently they regularly appear and disappear as the desert blows over them. The light here was dazzlingly bright. The temple is constructed from pale golden limestone blocks which hurt the eyes to look at and played havoc with the exposure on my camera, but I thought it was very beautiful. There are teams of archaeologists who are currently excavating here but today nobody was about and it felt so remote and lonely and quite romantic.
The first temple we entered was the Middle Kingdom temple built by Amenemhet III and his son and co-regent Amenemhet IV of Dynasty XII. I was delighted to see reliefs in the three sanctuaries of this temple, which is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and Renenutet, the snake-headed goddess of fertility and the harvest. The reliefs were very worn but also very rare as Renenutet is seldom seen in temples. The goddess was known to have a strong cult here at Medinet Madi where her role as protector of crops would stem from the large-scale crop production in Faiyum. There were also cartouches of Amenemhet III and IV carved on the sanctuary walls. The temple was restored during Dynasty XIX and greatly expanded during the Graeco-Roman Period. Back to back with the Middle Kingdom temple is a Ptolemaic addition which contains an altar and some Greek inscriptions. It was on the wall in this part that we found a large relief of Sobek, in human form with a crocodile head and a wonderful toothy crocodile grin. The gafir told us that the Italian archaeologists recently uncovered a Ptolemaic gate to the east of the temple and on further investigation another temple dedicated to Sobek was discovered beneath the rubble. This second temple was built of mudbrick with stone doorways and lintels, with its axis at right-angles to the older temple. Tablets and papyri were also found in the debris, including an important oracular document written in demotic script. On the north side of the temple court, a crocodile nursery was discovered with dozens of eggs in different stages of maturation. Medinet Madi, whose modern name means ‘city of the past’, was known in Graeco-Roman times as ‘Narmouthis’. Excavators have discovered two separate towns at the site, though little of these was in evidence today and I imagined that the encroaching sand blown across the site on the desert winds had covered them all over again.
It was a long walk back to the cars on the other side of the ridge and then another long drive to Umm el-Baragat, the site of the Graeco-Roman town of Tebtunis. We travelled back towards Medinet el-Faiyum before following country tracks through many poor-looking villages to a village called Tutin from where we followed a canal until we got to the edge of the desert again. The cars pulled up by a little mosque and we had another long walk across the sand until we eventually reached the paved processional way to the temple. It’s funny how the police escort who are guarding us never bother to come along if there’s any walking involved. We were met by two guardians who showed us around the large town site.
Tebtunis, one of the largest Graeco-Roman towns in Faiyum, is thought to have originated in the New Kingdom but all the extant remains date to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. There has been a lot of restoration here, especially at the domestic site where several Roman villas have been reconstructed, their low walls, many of which still have some plaster and paint, have been consolidated and capped for protection. We entered the site along the processional way to the little Ptolemaic to Greek Period temple dedicated to Soknebtynis (‘Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis’) which was guarded by two yellow limestone lion statues. At the southern end of temple area, several large fine white limestone columns, of Greek style, have been reconstructed in a court on the western axis of the building. The domestic site was quite extensive and very interesting, with small dwellings and large villas clearly laid out and in one part we saw a stone-lined construction that we were told were Roman baths. Umm el-Baragat was home to a vast crocodile cemetery where over 1000 mummified crocodiles and sarcophagi were found by the earliest excavators, Grenfell and Hunt of the EES. In 1900 there was also one of those frequent ‘happy accident’ finds that Egypt is well-known for. A workman found one of the crocodile mummies (which had been considered worthless) to be wrapped in sheets of papyrus and together with many other fragments of papyrus found by excavators in the town’s houses, they became known collectively as the Tebtunis Papyri. The ‘Tebtunis Papyri’ consisted of a small library which contained numerous literary, medical and administrative documents as well as religious texts from the temple.
By the time we had walked around the whole site the sun was already going down and Sam, Jane and I were feeling pretty tired. No wonder the policemen had opted to stay by their car and drink tea! But it has been a really good day and to finish we stopped at Medinet el-Faiyum for a leisurely coffee on the way back to our hotel.
For more pictures from Faiyum see: