Journal: Thursday 25 November 2004
With Abdul driving the car, Sam and I left the el-Badr hotel this morning for Meir, 50km north of Asyut. The site we wanted to visit today was once the ancient capital of the 14th Nome and necropolis of Dynasty VI & XII nomarchs. Once more we were travelling with a police escort, driving fast along the straight road through countryside to the west of the Nile. When we reached a small town called el-Qusiya, we followed the police truck onto a smaller track that leads right to the edge of the cultivation and after around 8km we arrived at the necropolis. As we drove past a large Muslim cemetery we knew we must be getting close, then suddenly the tombs were right in front of us.
These tombs have recently been restored, cleaned and re-opened after being closed for several years. The first thing we noticed was a long and obviously new flight of steps, which didn’t look too strenuous. But they had long patches of very soft sand between each of the flights which really gets to the leg muscles. The first group of tombs belong to the Middle Kingdom governors of the region. The newly-cleaned wall-paintings are absolutely wonderful with beautiful colours unique to Middle Egypt and rare scenes of famine, including a group of people named as ‘Beja herdsmen’ (I think from Nubia) who looked very starved with ribs showing. There are some very unusual hieroglyphs too. We went into 4 tombs in this group all named either Senbi or Ukhotep, which is a bit confusing trying to work out who is who. Unfortunately we were strictly forbidden to take pictures inside these beautiful tombs and no amount of pleading or even baksheesh would sway the gafir.
After this group we set off for the higher group of Old Kingdom tombs. There were no steps this time and we had to climb the very soft sand dunes. Sam gave up half way and headed back, which put our accompanying policeman into a flap. Does he follow me or Sam? This is quite an interesting game. I suspected that Sam was trying to lure away the gafir to let her take photographs if she was on her own, so I carried on. The Old Kingdom tombs were not as interesting as the others and only had a little colour and reliefs. They hadn’t yet been cleaned and there were only two tombs open, Niankh-Pepi and his son Pepi-Ankh. There were more Old Kingdom tombs higher up, another kilometre further on, but I decided to go back down, wondering what had happened to Sam. She hadn’t succeeded with the gafir.
Next we drove back to Asyut and crossed the river to the east bank, heading for Deir el-Gabrawi, a necropolis of over 100 rock-cut tombs of governors from the Old Kingdom and 1st Intermediate Period. The village is most famous for it’s Christian monastery (deir). All of the area smelled wonderful because everyone was involved in the harvesting some kind of green plant grown in the fields. We discovered that the plant is called Rehan and smells and looks very like Basil. Its oil is used in the perfume industry and we were told it is very expensive. In the village we picked up the gafir and headed for the tombs which were very high up on the mountain.
As Sam and I climbed up the steep track a little way, we wondered if we would make it to the top, then by chance we found that the gafir didn’t have a key to open the tombs. At that point we decided to abandon the climb and went back down, leaving the gafir to scratch his head at these crazy tourists. There seemed to be an enormous amount of tomb openings and huge galleries of quarries everywhere on the hillside. At the base of the cliff is an extensive area of mudbrick structures, but we couldn’t decide how old they are. They have obviously been excavated because there are large mounds of pottery lying around. I assumed it must be some sort of town site, but we could not tell if it was ancient or modern and by this time the gafir was totally uncommunicative. I took lots of pictures of yet more tombs we didn’t get to see.
On the drive back to our hotel we had a small bunch of Rehan in the car that someone had given us and I could smell its powerful aroma all the way back to Asyut.