Journal: Tuesday 14 January 2003
It was very early morning when we left Minya and the weak daylight was fighting with the thick mist rising from the river as we drove north on the long journey towards Cairo. We were travelling on the road along the west bank of the Nile rather than the faster but boring desert road and we had several changes of police escort as we passed from one traffic district to the next. I slept much of the way in the back of the taxi, snugly bundled up in my fleece and a heap of blankets because the air was cold and damp and we’d had a late night last night, Jane and I talking into the small hours. Near Beni Suef Abdul stopped and bought a big bag of delicious hot falafel for breakfast from a roadside stall and by the time we had stopped a little later for a couple of cups of strong black ‘ahwa I was feeling more awake. The Beni Suef police came as far as Meidum with us and then we were free at last. For the first time in a week and a half we no longer needed to be escorted as we came closer to Cairo.
I think we were all feeling tired from our travels of the last week and by the time we arrived at Meidum Pyramid none of us felt like making much of an effort. The mist had cleared but the sky was still leaden with cloud and a cool breeze made us shiver at the exposed site. The pyramid was open but no-one felt like going inside. We walked around the strange-looking structure, a bizarre tower built in steps, three of which remain without the casing stones, surrounded by a huge mound of rubble around the bottom of the pyramid. Generally ascribed to the Dynasty IV king Snefru, it is thought to be the earliest ‘true’ pyramid; i.e deliberately designed in seven steps in a pyramid shape. From a distance it reminds me of the ‘Devil’s Tower’ in the Close Encounters movie. The most interesting feature here is the small offering chapel on the eastern side which was probably a forerunner to the later larger mortuary temples. Two very tall stelae are still in situ on either side of the entrance but were left uninscribed. Meidum pyramid also had the new feature of a causeway – almost 200m long, which probably ended in a valley temple that so far has not been discovered, but the causeway can be clearly seen.
It is well known that Snefru went on to practice his pyramid building at Dashur – the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid were both built by this king. There is also a tiny step pyramid at Seila, which has recently been attributed to Snefru during excavations in the late 1980s. It is still unknown why Snefru abandoned the Meidum pyramid and his residential city of Djedsnefru with its necropolis to move to Dashur, as it seems likely that the Meidum structure did not collapse until at least the New Kingdom. Snefru’s pyramid at Meidum was surrounded by many private burials of Dynasty IV – the first newly established elite cemetery since the archaic necropolis at Saqqara. The mastaba cemeteries are located to the north and east of the pyramid and provided some of the most well known of the Old Kingdom statuary and paintings, especially two of my favourite pieces, the ‘Meidum Geese’ from the tomb of Nefermaat and the statue of Rahotep and Nofret from Rahotep’s mastaba, both now in Cairo Museum. A couple of the decorated mastabas were open but they were about a kilometre away, unlit and we couldn’t take photographs, so we didn’t bother walking over to them. We were all feeling so lazy today!
From Meidum we drove a little further north to el-Lisht, where we stopped at a little village called Barnasht for coffee. The village is on the edge of Faiyum and at first Abdul missed the turn by about 20km and had to turn around and drive back again. While we were having coffee there was an incident with some boys who spat at us and the taxi, making Abdul very angry and resulting in a shouting match. I don’t know what it is about this area that makes the local youth so unfriendly towards tourists – we had the same thing at el-Lahun, the only place in Egypt I’ve come across this reaction. It felt very threatening and we were only too glad to get back in the car and drive on to the pyramid site.
There are two pyramids at el-Lisht built by Amenemhet I (the northern pyramid) and his son Senwosret I (the southern pyramid). We arrived first at the southern pyramid and had to park the taxi and walk as Abdul was worried about getting the car stuck in the soft sand. This is the larger of the two Middle Kingdom structures here and some of the limestone casing is still preserved on the lower parts. The pyramid itself however, is little more than a low mound. The complex is surrounded by a double perimeter wall, the first enclosing part of the king’s mortuary temple on the eastern side (now mostly destroyed) and a small satellite pyramid at the south-east corner. The inside of the first perimeter wall was uniquely decorated with panels of reliefs with the king’s names and images of fertility gods, which we could see quite clearly. Nine more secondary pyramids for female members of the king’s family were found inside the outer mudbrick enclosure wall.
A short distance away is the older northern pyramid of Amenemhet I. We could see it in the distance but couldn’t find how to get there until we spotted a modern Muslim cemetery on the edge of the site. Originally over 55m high the pyramid today is sadly depleted to around 20m which is due not only to ancient robbing of its materials but also to its poor construction method. Pyramid building had declined since the glorious monuments were built at Giza, and although some stone from earlier structures was used, much of the pyramid was constructed with unfired mudbricks. The small funerary temple on the eastern side is now almost completely gone with only a few blocks remaining. Several mastaba tombs of members of the royal family and high-status officials were found inside the inner wall of the complex, and on its western side there are 22 shaft tombs for the royal women, wives and daughters of the king, some of whose names have been found. By the time we left this site the sun had come out and was shining weakly even as it was beginning to set.
We drove on past Saqqara and into Cairo, arriving in the peak of the rush hour, but Abdul did the run into the city in record time considering the clogged up roads. After being on the road for ten days the Caio Hotel actually felt like home.