Journal: Monday 10 November 2003
This morning we set off to explore the western end of Dakhla Oasis, the road bounded all along its northern edge by the distant line of pale hills that forms the escarpment. Beyond the cultivation and right at the edge of the desert we came to one of the best-preserved Roman monuments of the Oasis – the temple at Deir el-Hagar, whose name means ‘Monastery of Stone’.
This is another temple, like Hibis, that had been buried by sand for many centuries and has recently been restored, with quite a bit of reconstruction. The original building work dates to the reign of the Emperor Nero and was dedicated to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khons, though other emperors have also left their names on its walls. A lovely temple, with a long paved processional way leading from a large gateway in the thick mudbrick enclosure wall. Near the gate we saw remains of brightly painted plaster with decorations and inscriptions in Greek. Travellers have left graffiti here since very early times, even on the round rough columns in the hypostyle hall. The sanctuary once contained a magnificent and unique astronomical ceiling with the arching figure of the sky-goddess Nut and her consort, the earth-god Geb and this has now been set up outside the temple for easy viewing. Many deities are depicted in the sanctuary and I saw again the oasis gods, Amun-nakht and his consort Hathor and Thoth with his desert consort Nehmetaway. Outside the temple there was a small building that displayed plans and information on the temple restoration, including many photographs and in the distance on rising ground to the north-west of the temple I could see the Roman Period cemetery where, we were told, crude human-headed terracotta coffins have been uncovered.
Our next stop was the site of el-Muzzawaka, whose name means ‘The Decorated Hill’ because of the many painted Roman Period tombs found here. Once part of the settlement of Amheida on the edge of the Oasis, the tombs here were cut into the soft ridges of high ground. The two most interesting tombs, belonging to Petubastis and Petosiris which are said to be outstanding for their colourful frescos, were unfortunately locked up and we were not able to go inside because they are collapsing. The guards did offer to show us other tombs, which they assured us had many mummies and skeletons, but were undecorated. I’m not squeamish but I really don’t feel comfortable looking at disregarded human limbs and skulls sticking up out of the sand, so I declined their offer. One thing I did notice here was how small most of the tomb openings were, as though built for tiny people.
Back in the minibus we drove the short distance to Qasr Dakhla, the fortified medieval town of Dakhla that is still inhabited, unlike Mut, which is now crumbling and deserted. History was all around us as we began to walk through the narrow partly-covered alleys and dirt-tracks of the village. El-Qasr was occupied from the Roman period onwards, but what remains today is medieval Islamic architecture, a maze of elaborately carved wooden lintels over dark intriguing doorways and crumbling walls. At least two of the houses that have been restored were quite large and must have belonged to wealthy families. We went into one of the houses where an ancient crooked staircase led up to sleeping quarters with shuttered windows on an upper floor and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live there. Many of the carved door-lintels had verses from the Quran and the names of the occupying family but I noticed in a couple of places there were stone lintels with hieroglyphs, upside-down and obviously recycled from some nearby temple or tomb.
A local guide showed us around el-Qasr because we would have quickly lost ourselves among the narrow interlinking streets. We were shown an ancient olive press and given a demonstration of grinding grain. I have to say it really was a photographer’s paradise and given enough film I could have stayed all day. Coming out of the village we had a look at the mosque with its 12th century Ayyubid minaret, the only original part of the building still standing. The rest was destroyed to build the mausoleum of Sheikh Nasr el-Din. We ended our visit with a look around the Museum of Ethnology where many old photographs adorn the walls and examples of crafts and clothing are exhibited.
Our return journey to our hotel took us past the site of the settlement of Amheida, which an American team has been excavating. Here at the edge of the desert the wind was so strong that dust and sand filled the air and we didn’t even get out of the bus to look at the site from the edge of the road. On the loop road back to Mut we passed the hundreds of blue-domed tombs in the huge Muslim cemetery at Qalamun, several of the tall distinctive oasis pigeon houses and a few areas of mudbrick ruins that we couldn’t identify. It was a lovely day.
Back at the hotel, Elizabeth, Val, Judy and I went for a bob-around the hotspring, which must be about a metre and a half deep as the water reaches up to my chin when I stand on tiptoe. We ate again at our ‘usual’ restaurant and had coffee in the same place as last night. We’re creatures of habit if we find a good place to eat.