Journal: Saturday 4 December 2004
A faint pale promise of daylight was just beginning to colour the sky when I went out onto my balcony this morning, but the freezing night air still enveloped me in my light nightdress. Today was our chosen day to drive to Kharga, having missed the opportunity to go the slightly shorter route from Asyut because I was ill. Abdul told us that the direct road from Luxor was now open to non-Egyptians, so we decided to go just for the day. Sam had been planning to drive us on our own, but Abdul invited himself saying it was too far for her to drive there and back in a day, especially when he heard that we had invited our friend Salah to come along as he had never been there. I have developed a horrible cold but I was determined not to let it spoil my day.
By 7.00am we were driving across the Nile bridge and south on the West Bank towards Armant and the desert road. Colourful birds skimmed the surface of the misty canal looking for breakfast as we speeded along the empty road, with only an occasional donkey cart with its sleepy driver to slow us down. The police at the checkpoints weren’t bothered about us this morning, though a bit puzzled by Sam driving, they just radioing ahead to say ‘itnein Inglezi’ (two English) at every stop. I guess they’d only worry if we didn’t eventually turn up somewhere. Within about an hour we were up on the escarpment and then it was just a long very straight road for about 300km. Sam was driving, with Abdul fast asleep in the front seat, supposedly to keep an eye on her roadcraft, with Salah and I dozing in the back seat.
Sam and Abdul were both bored stiff by the drive, which they have done several times before. It’s a good road now and you can see parts of the old road here and there. When a dune encroaches on the road they have to just build a new road around it until the dune has moved on. Nothing will stop them. The desert here is rather flat and colourless – a bit like the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel, but I always love being in the desert. Half way into the journey I noticed an elaborate bus stop, looking like the entrance to some forgotten ancient temple, at the side of the road, but not a house for 100km in either direction. After about two hours we began to descend the Kharga escarpment and down into the depression of the Oasis to a place called Bagdad, and another checkpoint. We had hoped to avoid picking up a police escort, but here at the checkpoint they decided to come with us and we drove the further 70km into Kharga City. Though it’s called a City, this small town rambles along the road through the oasis, a scattering of old and modern buildings between an occasional plantation of palm trees with nothing very distinctive about it.
Our plan was to visit Hibis Temple and try to get into the hypostyle hall and sanctuary where there are some unique reliefs. The gafir however, told us that it is closed (always has been!) and he couldn’t let us in without permission from the antiquities inspector for Kharga. He wouldn’t take baksheesh and even Salah couldn’t charm him. So off we went back into town to see a lovely man called Mohammed Yusseff, a friend of Sam’s and the director of the Kharga Museum. He tried to get permission for us from the Inspector but couldn’t. He even phoned the SCA office in Cairo and spoke to the lady who issues our antiquities permissions and then Sam spoke to her too. I think Mr Yussef would even have phoned Zahi Hawass himself had he not been out of the country. He was really upset that he himself didn’t have the authority to give us permission to get into the temple. The Cairo office told us it would cost $1000 each to have sites specially opened for us under the new rules. We must have been just lucky up to now with closed sites. This is why the large specialist travel firms have to charge such vast sums for some of their holidays – because they have to buy permission for the sites that are closed. Anyway, we were rather disappointed and after a cup of coffee with Mohammed we left for the temple again.
I was also a bit disappointed to find that the whole temple was covered by scaffolding because of restoration work. There used to be a huge gate through the outer enclosure wall, quite famous for its Roman inscriptions and decrees covering all sorts of topics about Roman rule in the oasis. There has been a plan for the past 20 years to dismantle and move the temple, which has been falling down ever since it was built , and work began a couple of years ago. Rather than get the experts in, the government decided to go for an Egyptian construction contractor who quickly chopped the gate down to about the bottom two courses. In the process they have ruined it and it can never be rebuilt as it originally was. We first learned about this last year – it is not common knowledge outside of Kharga. Mohammed Yussef was talking to us at the Museum and he is livid about it and the fact that it is being kept quiet. It is so sad. The dismantling has thankfully now been halted again, but it is too late for the gate.
Even though we couldn’t get inside, we had another good look at the outside reliefs. They are very unusual because this is really the only well-preserved example of a Persian Period temple and you can see the transition in artwork between the Late Period and Ptolemaic, though the experts say there’s no link. The reliefs are very intricate and the hieroglyphs very well drawn but somehow simplistic. They are lovely. There is some surviving colour, especially the pale ‘Kharga green’ you don’t see anywhere else. Inside the temple is a very special relief of a blue-painted Seth with the head of a falcon, spearing the Apophis serpent. He is a unique desert god revered in the Oases and this temple especially, and this among other reliefs is what I wanted to look at (Sam of course has already been inside before).
After the temple we went back into Kharga and had lunch in a local restaurant in what appeared to be a main square. Sitting at a long wooden table among the workmen, the noise of Egyptian voices in their normal loud animated conversation was tremendous and echoed off the walls and high ceiling. By the time we went to a coffeeshop next door, my cold was getting worse and I was feeling rough. Salah was feeding me countless glasses of hot lemon juice with honey so that I felt like I was turning into a lemon. We had been told by the police that if we were not at the Bagdad checkpoint by 3.30pm we would not be able to leave the oasis today as they don’t allow people to drive on the desert road after dark. We spent as long as we could there, also buying lunch and drinks for four policemen. Eventually we left, driving back towards Baris and the desert road and passing Nadura and Qasr el-Ghueita fortresses in the distance. Unfortunately there was no time to visit anywhere else on a one-day trip.
There was a beautiful sunset on the way back and we had to stop so that Salah could take photographs with his new mobile phone camera which actually looked quite good. I took some paracetamol and fell asleep and woke up to find it was dark and the stars against the inky black sky were incredible. Nothing compares to a clear night sky in the lightless desert. There are a billion more stars than we ever see in the UK, or even in Luxor. We saw many shooting stars too, but it would have been much more enjoyable if I didn’t have a drippy nose and puffy eyes. We arrived back around 7.30pm and dropped Salah at the Luxor Mummification Museum where he had arranged to meet Christine and Jackie to go to a lecture. Sam and I went back to the hotel – she was really tired from driving most of the way so we had a drink and then an early night. I’m feeling really sad because tomorrow is our last day in Egypt.