Journal: Thursday 9 January 2003
The weather by the lake seems to get cooler with every passing day. This morning brought a strong breeze and the solid mass of dark cloud hanging over the horizon made me thankful that we were driving in the opposite direction towards Medinet el-Faiyum. As usual our police escort weren’t prepared to move before 10.00am and it was almost a two hour drive to our first destination, the Middle Kingdom pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara. Turning off just before Faiyum City we drove through a pretty valley scattered with small villages and many of the typical Faiyum dovecotes, strange white cake-like structures where the farmers raised their pigeons. Eventually we arrived at the Hawara necropolis, on the southern edge of Faiyum and were met by the Gafir, who seemed delighted to see us.
King Amenemhet III had already built a pyramid to the north of here at Dahshur and this was his second attempt – his earlier ‘Black Pyramid’ having suffered structural stresses during construction. His grandfather had also constructed a pyramid near here at el-Lahun. This was a region that was very popular during Dynasty XII as a pleasure-ground where kings and nobles could enjoy fishing and fowling in the marshes and hunting the many wild animals in the desert areas. It was probably an obvious choice for the King’s last resting place. The gafir showed us all around the site and we looked at each side of Amenemhet’s pyramid, with its reinforced mudbrick core once encased in white limestone now exposed so that we could see how it was constructed. Within the pyramid enclosure there is thought to have been an extensive mortuary complex which classical authors referred too as ‘The Labyrinth’, described by Herodotus as having been constructed from a single rock and to contain three thousand rooms connected by winding passages and courts. Strabo called the complex ‘a palace composed of as many smaller palaces as were formerly nomes’, that is, forty two. Unfortunately this unique building is now so ruined that all we could see were heaps of sand and rubble bisected by a modern canal. There were one or two carved pieces of stone lying about, including fragments of lotus columns and remains of a fine white limestone relief that had once depicted crocodiles. The gafir also showed us over the Roman town site on the northern side of the pyramid where there were several earlier mastabas as well as many graves and in one we even saw a skeleton lying there half exposed. Though I can’t usually get very excited about pyramids I found this site interesting as it was the last major pyramid complex built in Egypt.
After a couple of hours at Hawara we drove on to the town of el-Lahun, which I have to say felt very hostile. The police car had driven on ahead of us leaving Abdul to deal with youths and children who were having fun hitting his taxi with sticks and throwing stones at us as we drove through the narrow streets of the town. Seems that tourists are not welcome here! Once through the town we drove alongside a huge mudbrick embankment for several kilometres that was built by Amenemhet I and said to mark the southern edge of the ancient Lake Moeris. The pyramid of Senwosret I at el-Lahun is an impressive size though now in a ruinous condition. We could see the natural outcrop of yellow limestone spokes around which the structure was built, protruding from the rubble of the mudbrick fill in some places. This too would have been covered in white limestone. It is unusual because its entrance is not, as would be expected, on the northern side but through a vertical shaft several metres east of the southern side and beneath the floor of an unknown princess’s tomb, probably in an attempt to deceive robbers. We walked all around the structure, which is bounded by a row of eight large mastabas on the northern side and we saw a smaller queen’s pyramid on the north-east corner. Petrie and Guy Brunton investigated here in 1914, and on the south-eastern side, found the famous ‘Lahun Treasure’ while excavating the tomb of Princess Sit-Hathor-Iunet. This was a spectacular Middle Kingdom hoard of exquisite jewellery and cosmetic vessels that can now be seen in the Cairo Museum and the Met in New York.
To the North is the King’s pyramid town, established to maintain Senwosret’s mortuary cult, consisting of blocks of workers’ houses and larger villas for the officials. This town, known by the modern name of Kahun, was at the time of discovery the only extant example of a complete pyramid town, and when Petrie excavated it in 1889 it was found with much of its ancient furnishings in place. The town has been the source of a great deal of valuable information about the domestic lives of its inhabitants. Petrie also found an enormous quantity of papyri in Kahun, consisting of contemporary documents relating to wills, medical texts, astronomical texts and the only known veterinary papyrus as well as various letters, accounts and administration documents. Many of these ‘Kahun texts’ come from the temple archive and include religious documents from the period. They are now preserved in Cairo, University College London and Berlin. We decided not to walk the kilometre distance across the desert to the town site because it has now been back-filled and there was little to see.
The drive back through el-Lahun town wasn’t so bad because we had a policeman in the taxi with us. Abdul is inordinately careful with his Peugeot – his main source of income – and he will clean and tend it lovingly at every opportunity. When the boys had been hitting it with sticks Abdul was furious at the damage they may cause, but even so I was surprised that his fury wasn’t taken out on the culprits and that he had a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude to the vandalism. Abdul, like most Egyptian men, always surprises me with his gentle and tolerant manner towards children. On the way back to Medinet el-Faiyum we stopped for gas at a garage at the entrance to the town where we saw, standing in the centre of a traffic roundabout, the red granite obelisk, or more accurately an obelisk-shaped stele that had originally been erected by Senwosret I in the village of Abgig, near Itsa to the south of Faiyum. It had been broken in two and was restored and re-erected here in 1971, but we could see little of the very worn inscription. The ‘Abgig Obelisk’, as it is called, stands at 13m high. We drove on into the town and parked in the square by one of Faiyum’s famous landmarks, the unique wooden waterwheels that were first introduced here by the Ptolemies. The wheels are said to number around two hundred throughout the region, where water from clear, fast-flowing streams, powers the wheels to irrigate the agricultural fields. We saw four of these huge black solid wheels in operation in the centre of town. Nearby there was a stall selling colourful baskets, one of Faiyum’s main crafts. These are woven from palm leaves, rice stalks or straw in red, green and pink and the variety of designs look very attractive. I decided I wouldn’t be able to get one home, tempting though they were. Abdul wanted to go to the mosque so Mr Ashraf the police chief, took Sam, Jane and I on a mini-tour of his city, ending up at a coffee shop to wait for Abdul. Later we had a very good meal in the city before going back to the Panorama Hotel to pack. Tomorrow is our last day in Faiyum.
For more pictures from Faiyum see: