Journal: Friday 10 January 2003
We had a good send off from our hotel on Birket Qarun this morning. Maybe they were keen to get us off their hands, because for the first time this week we managed to get permission from our police guards to be away by 9.00am, knowing that we had a very long and busy day ahead. The policeman we have named ‘The crazy One’ rode with us in the taxi while Chief Ashraf and his troops rode shotgun in their truck in front of us, driving right through the Faiyum as far as the bridge at el-Lahun. On the bridge I disgraced myself by attempting to take a photograph of the Bahr Yussef Canal through the taxi’s window of what I thought was a pretty rural scene with little boats fishing in the waters below the bridge. This almost caused the Crazy Policeman to have a heart attack because unbeknown to me taking photographs anywhere on or near bridges in Egypt is strictly forbidden. Luckily I was yelled at and stopped before my finger hit the shutter button – otherwise I might have been slung into jail and the key thrown away.
At the other side of the bridge, the border between Faiyum and Beni Suef traffic areas, the ‘handover’ took place. At the checkpoint we all got out of our vehicles and there were handshakes and hugs all round. Chief Ashraf, damp-eyed (with relief I suspect) bid us all a fond farewell and made sure Abdul had his mobile number for emergencies before a rather large tip was passed over in gratitude for their ‘assistance’. We were then officially handed over to the Beni Suef police and several troops piled into their truck and waved us to follow behind. Our first stop today was Ehnasya el-Medina, a site on the southern edge of Faiyum.
This vast ancient site covers about 67 hectares of land on the edge of the desert, which my notes told me, had been occupied since the First Intermediate Period. As soon as we got out of the car we were mobbed by village children but the police soon chased them away good-naturedly and we walked over to a fenced-off area that was the site of current excavations by a Spanish team. I had done my homework and knew a little of what was going on here and we looked down into a deep pit where mudbrick and stone tombs from the Third Intermediate Period were being cleared. This area revealed burials from Dynasties XXI to XXVI but were re-used tombs for successive generations which must have been confusing to the excavators. Many important Libyan names have been found here giving much information from this obscure period of history, especially on the political and religious links between Ehnasya and Tanis, the Libyan capital.
In ancient times the town was called Henen-nesw and was capital of the 20th Upper Egyptian nome. Although there wasn’t a great deal for us to see, the site felt full of history. It was from this city that the rulers of Dynasties IX and X originated, who later came into conflict with the early rulers of the Theban Dynasty XI. Henen-Nesw was the cult centre of the ram-headed god Herishef during pharaonic times, a deity which the Greeks identified with their Herakles, giving the town its classical name of Herakleopolis Magna. The existence of a town at here at Ehnasya el-Medina continued into the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic Periods and the extensive remains of the ancient city incorporates a number of cemeteries and temples spanning the Middle Kingdom to Roman periods. We walked over to the south-western side of the site to a boggy area where we found the scant remains of a Temple of Herishef, founded in the Middle Kingdom. The scattered blocks and statue fragments that we could see date to Rameses II who enlarged and added to the temple. Some of the reliefs were wonderful and depicted the god Herishef who I had never seen before. Unfortunately the sand has encroached and the ground-water has risen so much that the plan of the temple was difficult to see but it was great to see some Pharaonic reliefs after all the Roman stuff in the Faiyum during the past week. We did end up in the Roman part of the site, however, where there were a few standing columns and what we thought may have been part if a gateway. Behind this across a vast empty area of sand, the modern village of Ehnasya el-Medina, itself looking very old, romantically stood on a mound like a fortress, with a white-painted Sheikh’s tomb a the bottom of the hill. I must say, our Beni Suef police were very patient, giving us all the time we needed to wander around the site with the gafir, who unfortunately spoke no English, but the day was passing and it was time to move on.
We drove on for about 20km along the edge of the cultivation to the modern village of Dishasha, not far from the Bahr Yussef Canal. Here, the police picked up a gafir and we turned into the desert, following a sandy track that the police seemed to know but we could barely see, towards the escarpment where a cemetery of Old Kingdom tombs are built into a ridge, high on the cliff above the plain. We got out of the taxi and were faced with a very long steep flight of steps leading up the cliff and as the gafir had already started ahead, we followed, a little more slowly behind him, climbing up to the terrace. The gafir was a tiny wiry-looking man with a wrinked face, and looked like he had already seen his 80th birthday, but he had made the climb in half the time it took Jane, Sam and I to puff and pant our way up the steps. At the top, however, the view was magnificent – or at least it would have been if there had been anything to see. There was just flat open desert stretching out on every side as far as the eye could see – pure emptiness – with only Abdul’s taxi and a police truck like toys far below us. We turned around on the narrow terrace and began to look at the tombs. These, for the most part were sand-filled and derelict but there was one important tomb that we knew about and wanted to see, the Dynasty V tomb of Inty, which contains a rare relief depicting a siege of a fortified town and industrial scenes including woodworking. Inty’s tomb was closed by a stout metal door and when we asked the gafir to open it he indicated that he hadn’t brought the key! The three of us just looked at him in disbelief and I thought Sam was going to explode. After that monstrous climb we couldn’t even get into the one tomb that was accessible. Why oh why hadn’t the gafir mentioned this down there at ground level? But nothing can be taken for granted in Egypt and I guess we should have made it clear that we would have liked to go into the tomb. We pottered around the open courtyards of the other tombs but there was little to see apart from one very worn relief of a hes-pot carved into a disintegrating wall. By the time we got back to earth, my thigh muscles felt like jelly. At least Abdul and the policemen had a good laugh with the gafir about it when we got back to the cars. We were not so amused!
Maybe it was to make up for our disappointment, but the police told us to follow them and we travelled on to another unscheduled stop at a site near a little village called Mazura, again on the edge of the desert, somewhere between Biba and el-Fashna, on the west bank of the Nile to the south of Beni Suef. There was a gafir here too, who was willing to show us over the site, but unfortunately he spoke no English – and very little Arabic come to that. None of us knew anything about the site or had ever heard of it, but as we walked over the shallow sand covered hills that were strewn everywhere with pot-sherds we realised that it was something important. The gafir did go as far as to tell us the name of the site, Kom el-Ahmar, which means ‘Red Hill’ and which is quite a common name for red-pottery covered sites in Egypt. There were many graves of different types, some of them were pits in the sand and some were brick-lined. There was also a limestone paved platform and low remains of stone and brick walls which must once have contained a structure (temple or shrine?) but we had no idea of the period this is dated to. The site was bounded by a small canal and the village of Mazura was about 1km away. Closer to the village there was another area covered in broken pottery and lying by the track there were large sections of plain round columns scattered haphazardly on the ground. A real mystery site that was not marked on any of the detailed maps we had.
We had originally intended to travel straight from the Dishasha tombs to Beni Suef, cross the bridge there to the east bank and get onto the long desert road all the way to Minya. Our diversions had already added a couple of hours to our afternoon, but when the police suggested we stop at a roadside cafe for coffee we were all more than ready for a drink. It was there that they told us they could arrange for us to visit the ancient town of Ankhyronpolis at el-Hiba if we would like it. Abdul looked a bit worried, but Sam, Jane and I jumped at the chance to see yet another out-of-the-way site. The Beni Suef police had really been fantastic and seemed to understand (unlike most Egyptians and especially tourist police) that we wanted to visit every site we could. While they made the arrangements, we had our coffee and were ready to set off again, not over the bridge as we had expected, but on a precarious ramshackle car ferry over the Nile straight from el-Fasha to el-Hiba, which at least cut quite a lot of time off the journey. We said our goodbyes and thanked the friendly Beni Suef police at the ferry and were met at the other side by police from the el-Fashna traffic district. It felt rather like a game of pass-the-parcel!
The journey from the ferry to el-Hiba wasn’t far, just a few kilometres following the Nile under the high cliffs of the escarpment, but by the time we got to the site the sun was fast going down. El-Hiba is the site of ancient Tuedjoi. Now thought to have been founded at least as early as the New Kingdom, the town was an important frontier fortress on the northern limits of the Theban region during late Dynasty XX to Dynasty XXII and a temple was built here at that time, probably by Shoshenq I. Although there was continued habitation through the following centuries, the town regained its military importance under the name of Ankyrononpolis during the Graeco-Roman Period.
The huge area of mudbrick ruins of the town sprawled before us from the edge of the Nile up the hillside, bathed golden in the late afternoon sun. There was a spectacular view from the top, overlooking the surrounding plain to the River. We had a quick look around and investigated the small temple thought to be built by Shoshenq I, now bisected by the modern road. The walls were very low and mostly ruined but the whole scene was beautiful in this lonely place. It was a real bonus to be able to visit this site.
As darkness began to draw in, we eventually joined the desert road that goes from Cairo to Asyut. I knew Abdul had hoped to arrive in Minya in daylight and I could see that he was already tired from today’s driving. The desert road is long and straight, with no distractions and we still had about another 150km to go. On the way we were stopped by a terrible accident, involving a lorry and trailer that had overturned onto the edge of the desert. These flat-bed lorries that pull long trailers are incredibly dangerous as they sway from side to side with the weight piled too high on top and I’ve already seen several in Egypt that have been overturned as they hit the camber of the road. As we stopped and our police escort jumped out of their truck it was obvious that the accident had happened only minutes before we arrived. The driver’s mate was climbing out of the smashed window of the lorry, very shaken but unhurt, but the police soon came to tell us that the driver had been killed and that we must wait for an ambulance to arrive from Minya. The whole incident was so tragic and we were all feeling quite shocked and very subdued by the time we were able to leave the scene an hour later. When we eventually arrived in Minya around 9.00pm we stopped at the first cheap hotel that would take us and went quietly off to bed, it was such a sad end to a really lovely day.
For more pictures from Faiyum see: