Journal: Saturday 8 November 2003
Kharga City is flanked on its northern edge by the Gebel el-Teir and it was here that we found the early Christian cemetery of Bagawat this morning, about five minutes drive from the town centre. The cemetery, said to be one of the oldest Christian burial places in the world, sprawls up the sandy hill-slopes of the gebel and I wondered whether it was like the old Muslim cemeteries, built on the site of more ancient tombs and later found that it was.
The cemetery of 263 chapels is like a little mudbrick city with streets of domed-roof tombs, each having a tall arched doorway. We walked along a couple of the ‘streets’ and went inside two of the most elaborately decorated. These were named the ‘Chapel of the Exodus’ and ‘Chapel of Peace’ and are well-preserved with beautiful frescos and painted ceilings depicting scenes from the Old Testament in a mixture of Pharaonic, Greek and Byzantine styles. Similar to ancient Egyptian tombs, the chapels were constructed over a deep burial pit which usually contained several burials and their purpose was to revere the deceased. Many of the chapels date from the 4th century onwards and we were told by the guide that the cemetery was in use until the 11th century. The Christians of Kharga embalmed their dead long after the tradition had been discontinued in other areas of Egypt. We walked as far as the mudbrick church in the centre of the cemetery on higher ground.
A few minutes back towards town we arrived at Hibis Temple, the largest and best preserved temple of the oasis and I had been really looking forward to this visit. Sam had been here before and I had seen her photographs of some unique reliefs, so it was a little disappointing that we were not allowed to go inside today. The large stone structure is covered in wooden scaffolding because restorations are taking place. The limestone temple was once part of Hebet, the pharaonic capital of Kharga Oasis and dates to the Persian ruler Darius I, though decorated and enlarged by successive kings. Dedicated to the Theban Triad, we could see some of the lovely colourful reliefs of offering scenes on the large stone gateway and could peek through an iron grill into the courtyard which still has 12 palm columns of an early composite style. I couldn’t see the relief I had wanted to see however, which is in one of the rear chambers and depicts an unusual winged figure of Seth, god of the desert oases, with the head of a falcon and painted blue. The noticeable colour of paint predominant here is a distinctive kind of pale blue-green that Sam calls ‘Kharga green’ and which isn’t seen anywhere else. We walked all around the outer temple walls and saw some very fine hieroglyphs and reliefs from the Persian era – a period that is not well represented in other temples – preserved by the sand that had buried the temple for centuries.
Time to move on and back into Kharga to visit the Cultural Museum, one of the Ministry of Culture’s new wave of museums in a newly constructed building. The building itself is quite special, constructed to echo the style of the chapels at Bagawat. Inside there are two floors of artefacts, mostly from the oases of Kharga and Dakhla and ranging in date from the prehistoric through to Christian and Islamic eras. It would take more time than we had to look at everything properly, but one of the highlights for me were the Kellis Codices, very early wooden books written in Greek and Coptic that were found at Kellis. These important documents contain lists of accounts and payments in kind by tenant farmers during Roman times. They also give details of marriage contracts and letters and have given archaeologists tremendous insight into productivity and everyday life in the oases. I was very impressed by the museum with its modern lighting and beautifully-displayed objects.
When we were all settled back on the bus we set off on the longest single journey of our trip, leaving Kharga for Dakhla Oasis, a distance of 216km. The desert scenery was fascinating with long stretches of deep apricot-coloured undulating sand punctuated now and then by clusters of dark pyramid-shaped rocky outcrops. I wondered if this was where the Egyptian kings first came across the pyramid shape before making the decision to construct their own from stone. The drive was magical.
It had already seemed like a very long day by the time we arrived in the town of Mut, Dakhla’s capital, at 3.30pm and pulled into the Mut Talata Hotel. We had been more than happy to leave our previous hostelry but this really seemed like paradise. The hotel comprises three areas: the main hotel building, a villa and five chalets set in gardens around a hot-spring. When we went to check in we were told that the room prices had almost doubled since we first booked. Oh well, it looks like it’s worth the extra. Most of us were housed in the chalets, where I shared a room with Elizabeth. The room was basic with only two mattresses on wooden plinths, a small table and a bathroom, but at least it was very clean. Dakhla is famous for its hot-springs of which there are several, but the one in the hotel here was intriguing. The large circular pool was filled to the brim with deep brown bubbling muddy water – it certainly didn’t look inviting but is supposed to be full of iron and very therapeutic. Kevin instantly dubbed the hotel the ‘Mudhole Hilton’ and refused to be tempted to try it, though several of us spent an hour in the pool before dinner. The warm sulphur-smelling water felt wonderful! Unfortunately my new swimsuit will never be the same again.
We all ate early in a little restaurant not far from the hotel so that Abdul and Mohammed could break their fast and the food was very good. The rest of the evening we sat around the hot-spring chatting in the garden, enjoying the mild evening air while Abdul wallowed alone in the dark pool. Mohammed had again disappeared off to bed, tired from the drive. It must be a very long day for them after getting up at 5.00am for Suhoor.