Journal: Sunday 9 November 2003
When we left our hotel this morning at 9.00am there were no police waiting around to accompany us. Fantastic, we thought – and left without them to drive in the minibus to Tineida on the edge of the oasis. After passing through a green, richly cultivated area, we stopped by some large red rock formations at the side of the road and all piled out of the minibus to wander around the rocks.
On the back of the largest rock there are many ancient carvings, some worn and some better preserved. It was difficult to tell the date of the depictions of giraffes, camels and men on horses as well as old graffiti that were mostly bruised into the soft surface of the sandstone but archaeologists suggest that at least some of them may predate the pharaonic era. There are also many obviously modern Arabic graffiti left by more recent travellers who have passed this way. Smaller rocks here seem to grow out of the desert and moulded by the wind and sand they have formed curious shapes, one of which looks like a camel sitting down.
Back along the road towards Mut we stopped at Ismant el-Kharab, the ancient town of Kellis. We weren’t sure if it would be possible to go onto the site as it is currently being excavated, but when we asked the gafir he said it would be OK to have a look around as long as we kept to the tracks that criss-crossed the area. Sam and I had both met Tony Mills, director of the Dakhla Oasis Project in England and he had told us to give him a call when we were in Dakhla and he would show us around. However, when Sam phoned him yesterday he was away in Cairo, so we were not able to meet up.
Kellis is a huge town site that was inhabited for seven centuries from around 300 BC to 300 AD, when it was suddenly deserted. There are many mudbrick dwellings, four churches, wells, a bath-house, storage buildings, aqueducts and a cemetery of free-standing tombs that have given archaeologists a great deal of information about life during Roman and Coptic times in the oasis. The excavators have also found an enormous amount of papyrus fragments and texts written in Greek and Coptic that they have been able to piece together, which show a great diversity of beliefs here. It is Kellis where the famous wooden notebooks we saw in Kharga museum were found – these illustrate the transition from papyrus scrolls to books and are the best-preserved books known from this period. The most interesting monuments I found here were the two stone temples of Kellis. Although fairly destroyed and now backfilled with sand after excavation so that there was little to see, they were temples and shrines dedicated to the little-known and obscure god Tutu and the goddesses Neith and Tapsais. Tutu was revered in Graeco-Roman times, a son of Neith who was given the intriguing title ‘Master of Demons’ or ‘he who keeps enemies at a distance’ and he was believed to provide protection from hostile forces and evil demons. He was depicted in the form of a walking lion or a sphinx, sometimes with a human head, the wings of a bird and the tail of a snake and Kellis is the only known cult-centre for this deity. It was just a pity there where no reliefs visible here that depicted the strange god.
After driving west again for a few kilometres we came to the modern village of Balat and beyond this, the Old Kingdom necropolis of Qila el-Daba. It was here that the tourist police caught up with us and they were not amused at us for going off without them. More trouble for Abdul and Mohammed! The modern name of the settlement associated with Qila el-Daba is Ain Asil, built on an important junction on the ancient trade routes through the oasis and it is said to be the best example in Egypt of an Old Kingdom town. The French IFAO have been excavating both sites for several years and have found many well-preserved buildings, including a governor’s palace, houses and workshops. The earliest part, once the administrative centre of Dakhla, dates to the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II.
We were not allowed to go to Ain Asil today however so we concentrated on the huge mudbrick mastabas at Qila el-Daba a couple of kilometres away. The seven large mastabas belonged to governors of the oasis, important and wealthy men in their time, and one of the most recently discovered tombs found by the French team still contained the mummy of a Dynasty VI ruler. Other mastabas have already been restored and we were able to enter the subterranean chambers of Khentika and have a look at his small painted burial chamber. Many of the mastabas of the governors were found to contain rich burial equipment with wooden or ceramic coffins, but further cemeteries containing more modest burials have been found to the south and east of the mastabas. The area is also covered with pit-graves where the more humble population were laid to rest wrapped only in layers of matting. I remembered seeing some of the stelae and several items of pottery from Qila el-Daba in Kharga Museum yesterday.
Our visit to Qila el-Daba was spoilt not only by the angry shouting of the police when they caught up with us but also because my Nikon has broken. As my main camera I rely totally on the SLR which now has no metering or frame numbers. Thank goodness I still have my little Pentax compact as a back-up, but I’m feeling pretty upset because this is a trip I won’t be able to repeat for a long time.
When we arrived back at the hotel we were told that there had been a mix-up with bookings and we all had to shuffle around. Kevin and I ended up in rooms in the annex while the others were all given rooms in the main building. It seems that the chalets around the hot-spring had been double booked, but a few of us walked along the road to the pool to wallow in the mud for a short time in the late afternoon. Our early evening meal – Iftar – was a repeat of last night. It wasn’t worth trying anywhere else as the food was so good in the little restaurant. Sam, Val, Elizabeth and I sat in a coffee shop and played Jenga for the rest of the evening until we felt quite cold and walked back to the hotel around Midnight.