Journal: Sunday 12 January 2003
The Hotel in Minya we’ve been staying in is called the Hotel Shata, which means Beach, though I can’t imagine why because Minya is about as far as you can get from a beach in Egypt! This was the first hotel we could find in the town when we arrived on Friday night that would take foreign tourists, apart from the much more expensive Mercure further up the Corniche. The Beach Hotel, by comparison is pretty basic, a small Egyptian-run hostelry, but the rooms are clean enough and the price is good. The water is sometimes hot and the showers work after a fashion. The most amusing thing about this hotel is the lift which is the size of a matchbox. It’s big enough to take one suitcase slowly and creakily to the upper floors but we have to walk up the stairs to our rooms, which is actually much faster.
We got an early start this morning, leaving the hotel at 8.00am for a repeat trip to Tell el-Amarna. The tourist police who came with us seemed a lot more relaxed this morning and the journey was an easy one, crossing the Nile again on the ferry from el-Till to the archaeological site of Tell el-Amarna. Our contact, Nasser, was waiting for us as we had arranged yesterday with him that we would come again, but on the journey out to the northern tombs he seemed very quiet and subdued. We left the taxi at the guardhouse and hurried up the steep stone steps to the tombs, intending to carry on where we left off yesterday. It was here that Nasser dropped his bombshell. A new regulation put into force from today states that there can be no photography inside tombs anywhere in Egypt. At first we didn’t believe him, thinking that the he was joking, or else playing games with us, but it soon became obvious that this was serious. He was most apologetic but the orders came from on high and Nasser himself didn’t have a clue what this was about or how long it would last, it was as much a surprise to him as to us. Needless to say, Sam and I were devastated and wandered rather shocked around the tombs of Huya and Meryre II with our cameras tucked away in our bags.
Back in the taxi we drove across a sandy track over the plain to the entrance to the Royal wadi which we were told is inaccessible, blocked by boulders and for this reason the Royal Tomb is locked up. At least we could stop here and take a photograph of ‘Stele U’, one of Akhenaten’s boundary stelae high up in the rocky cliffs, but I had to use a long lens and the sun was right in front of me, so I didn’t expect to get much of a picture. We drove on to the southern tombs where we went into the beautiful tomb of Ay with its fantastic reliefs of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which I thought was similar in style to the Theban tomb of Ramose. Sam and I were so miserable at the photography ban by this time that we didn’t even have the heart to look at the other tombs – something I much regretted before the end of the day. Back at the resthouse we all had a cup of coffee and tried to decide what to do next. Do we stay at el-Amarna or do we move on somewhere else? We had seen most of the other sites here yesterday and it was mainly the southern tombs we had returned for and the fact that we couldn’t photograph these very important and beautiful reliefs left us heartbroken.
By lunchtime we were back on the other side of the river, having decided to visit el-Ashmunein, site of the classical city of Hermopolis Magna and the ancient capital of the 15th Upper Egyptian nome. When we got off the ferry on the west bank, there was no sign of our police escort with their massive armoured vehicle and so we drove off on our own as far as Mallawi before they caught up with us. El-Ashmunein is a distance of around 20km from el-Till back in the direction of Minya through pretty countryside with many trees lining the road, towards the edge of the desert. The ancient town originally named Khmunw, was a cult centre of the god Thoth (classical Hermes) and it is famous for its two colossal stone baboon statues, Thoth’s emblem, that dominate the site of the open-air museum where we stopped first. Jane loves animals of all kinds and had been really looking forward to seeing the baboon statues here, which I think were the highlight of the whole trip for her. We wandered the paths of the garden looking at the stelae and blocks that were scattered around. The town site itself is confusing because much of it is very overgrown, with crumbling ruins of mudbrick and stone structures sticking up above the grass and sand-covered hills. The monuments at Hermopolis have suffered from stone quarrying from early Christian times onward, but some of the stone masonry from the temple complex has remained in place. Archaeologists have uncovered foundations of the great pylon gateways built by Horemheb (Dynasty XVIII) and Rameses II (Dynasty XIX) during the excavations of the Thoth temple. It was in this area that over 1000 re-used talatat blocks from Akhenaten’s city on the east bank were found.
We drove through the ruined area but didn’t venture far into the overgrown city because it looked like a great place for snakes to live. On the eastern side of the track we stopped at the substantial remains of a Roman agora and saw the restored Coptic basilica, constructed with many blocks from the ruined Ptolemaic monuments and which followed an entirely Greek style of architecture. Most of the graceful granite columns still stand in the rectangular structure of the church – said to be the best example of a monument from this period in Egypt. Nearby, a long architrave inscribed with a Greek text lies on the ground. The vast site covers many important periods of Egyptian history but the oldest feature to be found at el-Ashmunein is a Middle Kingdom cemetery which was excavated in the 1980s by a British Museum team. The later cemetery associated with Hermopolis can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel.
Tuna el-Gebel is about 7km north of el-Ashmunein and we drove the short distance to this next site with our personal convoy. Akhenaten’s boundary stela ‘A’ marks the outer limit of the necropolis and we stopped here first to see it. Unfortunately the large stele is enclosed behind smoked glass doors and these were locked, so we had to peer through the glass at the top of a flight of steps to get a glimpse of the worn rock-cut reliefs. A short distance further along the road we came to the entrance gate to the necropolis. The site stretches for about 3km to the south along the desert and contains tombs and mortuary houses arranged in sand-swept streets which vary in style dating from the Late Period to the Roman era. The earliest material to be found here dates from Rameses II, but this is thought to have been out of context.
The first monument we encountered was the family tomb of Petosiris, a high priest of Thoth who probably lived around 300 BC. This temple-tomb is unique, built in pure Egyptian style with a pronaos (pillared entrance hall) at ground level and a cult chapel behind, with the burial chambers cut into the rock below ground. The pillared portico contains scenes of many industries and agriculture. Inside, the cult chapel has four square pillars with the burial shaft in the centre. The wall decoration here is in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the figures wear Greek-style clothing in a rare blend of the two distinct periods. The extremely well-preserved and elegant reliefs are heavily influenced by both Egyptian Old Kingdom and conventional Greek style art. One of the most important texts in the chapel includes a description of works in the temples of Hermopolis. The tomb appeared to have been recently cleaned and modern lighting has been installed, which showed the superb reliefs at their best. Most of the original paint is still in place and the colours are soft and airy with a great deal of pale blue. This is one of the most beautiful Egyptian tombs I have ever visited and Sam and I were absolutely miserable at not being allowed to take photographs here.
Behind the tomb of Petosiris is the tomb of Isadora, which dates to the 2nd century AD, with it’s sparse decoration and Greek texts in memory of the lady buried here. A tragic legend is connected to Isadora – a young girl who lived in the town of Hermopolis and renowned for her beauty and good nature. She fell in love with a young man from Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile but unfortunately disaster struck when Isadora’s boat overturned while sailing to visit her fiancé and she was drowned. Her grief-stricken father built the elaborate tomb in her memory and she lies there still, her mummy enshrined in a case inside the first chamber of the tomb. At the rear of the chapel is a large sculpted half-shell over the funerary couch. To the south-east of Isadora’s tomb is the Oedipus tomb, decorated with copies of scenes from the Greek Theban cycle – the originals are now in Cairo Museum. I have never before seen tombs in this Egyptian-Greek style and I was captivated by them. There were many other tombs in the city of the dead, some interestingly painted with mock stone panelling, but there was no time left to visit any more. We did walk a little further to see the enormous Roman waterwheel and well-shaft, 34m deep, which probably supplied the area with water during the Roman era. Back towards the north of the site a stone balustrade is said to have defined an enclosure in which sacred ibis were raised and beyond this are the ibis and baboon burials in extensive catacombs – the largest feature of Tuna el-Gebel. These are the sacred catacombs of Thoth, his ‘living images’. There seems to be continued excavation going on here everywhere.
The sun was setting when we left Tuna el-Gebel and the police in the big armoured vehicle that looked like a tank without the caterpillar tracks, decided to take us on the desert highway back to Minya. This road is featureless, straight and long and we were entertained by one of the troops sitting on the roof of the vehicle pretending (?) to drink a bottle of beer. Every now and then he would try to stand up and do a little dance. The fact that we were travelling at around 100kph didn’t seem to worry him at all. The police must have been having such a good time that they missed the turn off to Minya and we ended up having to drive an extra 70km out of our way. Abdul, who by this time was very tired from driving, was definitely not amused. He was furious with the police and their ‘shenanigans’. All things have their good side however, because the rest of us were able to enjoy one of the most spectacular desert sunsets I have seen in Egypt.
Back in Minya we went out for dinner and met the owner of our hotel, a lovely man, who took Sam, Jane and I out in his smart private car for a mini tour of the city, including a drive up to the gebel. From here we had a lovely view over the whole of Minya with its twinkling lights stretching down to the river’s edge.