Journal: Sunday 28 November 2004
We rather reluctantly left the luxury of the newly-opened Hotel Safa this morning for the next stage of our journey. By the end of today we should be in Luxor. But before leaving Sohag we wanted to visit the open-air museum at Akhmim on the east bank of the river. For once, I have been there before but Sam hasn’t. We followed a police truck through the streets of Sohag until reaching Akhmim which is rather run-down – one of the poorest areas of the city. The museum is built on the site of a Graeco-Roman temple of Min, that was probably built over an even earlier site and it contains statues and blocks found there, including the absolutely gorgeous limestone statue of Meryt-Amun, which was found in pieces half buried and in water. It’s amazing how this lovely piece survived all this time and it has been beautifully restored.
There are also statues and fragments of Rameses II, though the most complete statue was usurped from Amenhotep III (I think). There are several blocks with Amarna reliefs which were also found on the site. A Coptic church has been excavated above the level of the temple. The inspector of antiquities for Akhmim, a very nice man, met us in the museum and when we had finished he took us across the road and behind some hoardings where another massive seated statue of Rameses has recently been discovered, about the size of one of the Colossi of Memnon. This is a huge hole in the ground currently being excavated and you can see more bits of Rameses sticking out of the dirt walls of the pit, waiting to be liberated. It was very interesting though he asked us not to take pictures as none of it has been published yet. This second, recently discovered site is thought to be the biggest temple of Rameses II ever found and they think it is at least as big as Karnak! The inspector was very excited about it and said one day people would come from all over Egypt to see it and Akhmim would be very famous.
The unfortunate side to the story is that the new temple extends a long way beneath the modern Muslim cemetery and the government have decided to dig up the graves and relocate them to el-Hammamiya (quite a long way away). A few years ago there was understandably a lot of trouble in Akhmim because of this scheme. The inspector said that everyone now understood and there were no more problems – ‘mafish mishkela’. I am not so sure about that. While we were looking at the statue, a funeral procession went by from the cemetery gates and some of the men started banging on the boarding with sticks and shouting. We felt very uncomfortable being there and I definitely felt that there is no excuse for moving the cemetery – not even for Rameses! After all, he will always be there for future generations. Of course, when it would have been nice to have the police around just in case of trouble, they had stayed at the other end of the road and left us on our own.
We beat a hasty retreat and left Sohag for our next stop, Wannina, a mainly Ptolemaic to Roman Period Temple dedicated to the lion-headed goddess Repyt, or Triphis. The town site is called Athribis. We soon realised that it was going to be ‘one of those days’. We arrived at Wannina and eventually hunted out the gafir in the village and went to the temple, which is quite large but without a roof. He told us we could not go inside and could not take pictures. We did eventually get to see into a small part of the temple and there were beautiful reliefs of Repyt – very different to anything we had seen before and with lovely colour. We couldn’t understand why no photos – the ban only applies to tombs. Then another man turned up and started making problems. He was somehow in charge of the site but wasn’t an inspector and didn’t like us being there, even with SCA permission. The inspector at Akhmim had said it would be OK to visit Wanina too. It was all a bit difficult as nobody could speak any English and our Arabic wasn’t quite up to arguments on this scale. When the man started grabbing roughly at Sam’s arm our police guard got a bit irate, so Sam and I walked away amid all the shouting, with the guy trying to apologise and asking us to stay. But by then we’d had enough of the situation and were ready to leave. It was such a shame because the temple reliefs were wonderful. I did manage to grab one photograph showing the remains of the Ptolemaic gate, but this was the most boring part of the temple! There are also many tombs in the cliffs above as well as a rock-cut shrine of Asklepius.
We drove on to Girga, where Abdul went to buy some falafel for our lunch, but came back to the car empty-handed, declaring the stall was not clean enough. Staying on the small roads on the west bank as far as Nag Hammadi, where the Sohag Police left us, we crossed the barrage over the river there. At the next checkpoint we were allowed to carry on with no escort. We expected to have to wait at Qena to join the convoy from Abydos, but to our surprise the police let us go alone all the way to Luxor. It was a lovely drive along the Nile on the east bank, past Qift and Qus (pronounced Gift and Goose – Qus with a Q means something very rude in Arabic!), past Medamud, until I had my first glimpse of Karnak Temple. I dearly love all of Egypt but cannot describe the feeling of elation at being ‘home’ in Luxor at last. Driving along the Corniche, those wonderful Theban Hills just across the river, clothed in late-afternoon shadows of deep pinks and purples were, as always waiting just for me.
In Luxor, we had decided to stay at the Novotel, which I was glad about because I can wake in the morning looking at the mountains. I had a Nile view room on the second floor, complete with a basket of fruit and a fridge full of drinks. Who cares what it costs? I’m in Luxor at last! Sam & I went out for a celebration meal at Maxims and sat on the hotel balcony until late.