Journal: Saturday 11 January 2003
I have waited for this day to come for so long. It has been my dream to visit Tell el-Amarna and this trip with Sam has at last make it possible.
We had to meet with the tourist police early this morning to tell them our plans and they tried to insist we see all the sites around the Minya area in one day and then move on. I’m really getting the impression that nobody likes tourists to go anywhere but Luxor, Aswan or Cairo. But having waited this long we were not about to have an hour only at Amarna, so we argued and eventually got our own way. Leaving the town at 9.00am we made our way to the first checkpoint just outside Minya where we collected our escort and were sandwiched in between several police cars and an armoured truck that looked like a tank. The road from Minya to Mallawi on the east bank is surprisingly pretty, an agricultural region with many of the tall pigeon-houses that we had seen in Faiyum and with little villages that were very clean and neat, unusual landscape for Egypt. Over the fields we saw tall crosses on top of several elaborate Christian churches and according to the police, that is the problem here at present. There have been many violent clashes between the large Coptic population here and the local Muslims and this is why the security is so tight. Driving through the town of Mallawi felt very tense with many men stopping to glare at us – though I’m sure the presence of several speeding police vehicles with sirens blaring for people to get out of the way, made matters worse. At one point someone with a donkey cart crashed into Abdul’s taxi, which was misfiring to start with, so he wasn’t in the best of moods either.
We crossed the Nile to Tell el-Amarna on the car ferry from el-Till, a large flat barge-like ferry that is pulled by chains across the river, while local children on board tried to sell us coloured palm-leaf baskets and home-made trinkets through the taxi’s windows. They were very insistent. Once we arrived on the east bank we stopped at the ticket office and when Sam and I produced our letters from Zahi Hawass’s office, the antiquities inspector came to show us around himself. We drove first to the northern tombs, some distance away from the river across an open sandy plain to the escarpment of cliffs that borders the desert. Here we spent a lot of time taking photographs inside the wonderful tombs of Ahmose, Meryre I, Pentu and Panehesy – an absolute delight. These Amarna tombs are so very different in style from the New Kingdom Theban tombs I am more familiar with. For a long while I have been fascinated by the whole of the Amarna Period, the time which centres around the reign of Akhenaten whom some call the ‘Heretic King’ or the ‘First Monotheist’.
The son of Amenhotep III of Dynasty XVIII, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten in year 5 of his reign, brought his personal god The Aten to prominence and founded his own new city of Akhetaten here at Tell el-Amarna in a bay of cliffs. The cult of the Aten became so uncompromising that there was a complete break with the state god Amun and his temple at Karnak was formally closed, supposedly followed by a thorough defacement of the shrines of major gods. The King’s own people followed him to Akhetaten and those who bore names compounded with Amun were obliged to change their names. Texts tell us that the king, with his queen Nefertiti, was directed by The Aten to the new site and the city was to be called ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (Akhetaten). The dedication ceremony is recorded on three boundary stelae carved into the limestone cliffs at the northern and southern extremities of the new city. A further eleven stelae were subsequently cut on both banks of the river to define the boundaries with greater precision – a unique form of delimiting a town not found elsewhere in Egypt. A whole village of workmen were brought in to construct the new city and during the foundation ceremony the king proposed a number of buildings, namely, a Great and a Smaller Aten Temple, many royal apartments and domestic buildings, as well as the necropolis. The building work was hastily done using mudbrick, sandstone talatat (small sandstone blocks) and a limestone plaster in which to cut very detailed reliefs. The whole city was based around a wide thoroughfare extending from north to south – a ‘royal road’ over eight kilometres in length and on which Akhenaten and his family are seen riding in chariots in many of the tomb reliefs. A magnificent Great Palace was constructed which contained colossal statues of the King and beautiful painted pavements with naturalistic designs as well as a ‘window of appearances’ from where Akhenaten and Nefertiti would conduct their interaction with their favoured subjects.
To the north of the central city are the remains of an excavated building known as the North Palace, and this was our next stop on our tour. The North Palace is a self-contained structure which was comprised of apartments built around an open court and a garden and also incorporated a throne room. Unusually this building included a courtyard for cattle and aviaries with nesting niches, and friezes found here show spectacular paintings of birds diving among marsh plants. It has been suggested that this building was a kind of zoological garden where the king could keep animals and birds and satisfy his love of nature. Originally thought to be a residence for Queen Nefertiti, the North Palace has been more recently identified as the home of the king’s lesser wife, Kiya and altered inscriptions show that the building was later usurped by his eldest daughter Meritaten. Although it was first excavated in 1924, much reconstruction and consolidation has been undertaken in this area in recent years and we could clearly see the plan of the various elements over the protective wire fence. To the north of this palace lies the North City where remains of a large fortified villa, the ‘North Riverside Palace’ can be seen and this is locally known as the ‘Qasr’. Barry Kemp, who has directed the site’s most recent excavations, suggests that this was the site of the main royal residence of Akhetaten. We saw remains of the thick mudbrick enclosure walls and a gateway here, as well as scattered blocks and column bases. This structure is badly dilapidated and has had an old disused excavation house built over much of the site, once occupied by John Pendlebury and his team who undertook excavations at Amarna for the Egypt Exploration Society during the 1930s. It was a very evocative site and felt full of history, both ancient and more recent.
As time was running short we drove back to the Central City and had a look at the excavated remains of the Small Aten Temple with it’s single massive replica column standing like a sentry on the plain, a modern landmark of the ancient city. To the north of the small Aten Temple was the ‘House of the Aten’, the Great Aten Temple, the outline of which could just about be seen from the top of the surrounding mound of sand. The Great Temple was originally enclosed by huge walls and inside were several cultic structures including a series of open-air courts and a vast number of offering tables – 365 on each of two sides representing Upper and Lower Egypt. The whole temple complex at Akhetaten seems to have been dominated by offerings of large quantities of food dedicated to the Aten before being distributed among the priests and population of the city. We had seen details of the temples in many of the reliefs on the walls of the nobles tombs.
After a quick look at the reconstructed house of Panehesy with its granaries, from a specially-constructed viewing platform, it was time to leave. We’ve spent most of the day here at Tell el-Amarna but still intend to return tomorrow as there is still a lot of the site we haven’t visited. Driving back towards Minya with our police escort, the policeman in our taxi decided we should stop for coffee (thank goodness) so we all piled out at a little roadside cafe. We were all dying for a drink, having had only bottled water all day and I was desperate for a decent cup of ahwa, the strong delicious Egyptian coffee that comes in a glass half full with grounds. Back in Minya later, we went out to a local restaurant for dinner (again with a policeman in tow) and looked at all the lovely colonial-style buildings as we wandered down the main street. I like the feel of this place, even though we were stared at like beings from another planet. They obviously don’t see many tourists out and about here!