Journal: Wednesday 16 November 2005
Having obtained permission yesterday from the tourist police to visit el-Kab, we wasted no time and decided to go there today, joining the 8.00am convoy towards Aswan and leaving it at el-Kab, which is about half way between Esna and Edfu. Sam and I had been there before, but the others hadn’t, so they were quite excited to visit an unfamiliar site.
The ancient town of Nekheb was called Eleithyiaspolis in classical times and consists of monuments spanning periods of Egyptian history from Predynastic through to Ptolemaic. El-Kab and its sister site of Hierakonpolis on the west bank of the river were the home of Nekbet, the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt. This is one of the oldest settlements of Upper Egypt and not often visited by tourists, although it is open and tickets are sold there. There is even a new-ish but as yet unused cafeteria, ready for the coaches that never stop here. The guards always seem delighted when tourists turn up.
There are a great many tombs at el-Kab, you can see the openings high up in the cliff just off the main road, but the ones which are open are a few of the New Kingdom tombs on a terrace reached by a steep flight of steps. We didn’t expect to be able to take photographs in the tombs, but as always when in Egypt we were totally taken by surprise when the guards allowed us to get out our cameras. I hadn’t taken any pictures last time I was here because of the dark conditions, but with my digital camera it’s so much easier.
We began with the Tomb of Paheri (EK3). Paheri was a Mayor of the town of Nekheb during Dynasty XVIII. The paintings in his tomb are beautifully preserved with a lot of remaining colour and show many scenes of offerings at his funeral procession as well as agricultural scenes of daily life. In a niche in the rear wall is a statue of Paheri with his wife and mother. The next tomb was that of Tomb of Setau (EK4). Setau was a priest in the service of Nekhbet during the reign of Rameses III. On the outside wall of his tomb is a stela showing Setau and his wife adoring Re-Horakhty and Khepri. The paintings inside show the tomb-owner with his relatives in various offering scenes and a depiction of the Barque of Nekhbet with jubilee texts of Rameses III on the west wall. The reliefs are not quite so well-preserved as in the previous tomb, but there is still some lovely colour.
A tomb I especially wanted to see was that of Ahmose, son of Ibana (EK5). I had done some work a few years ago on translating parts of his famous biographical text from the hieroglyphs and I was so grateful to be able to photograph the original texts. In his biography Ahmose is described as ‘Captain of Sailors’ and he was prominent in the wars of liberation against the Hyksos rulers when the southern princes laid siege to the town of Avaris in the Delta. The text tells of the favours Ahmose was granted for his part, including the award of the ‘gold of honour’ and tells that he was given four slaves by His Majesty from the booty he carried off. He was the Grandfather of Paheri (EK3) who is seen offering to him in the tomb. The next tomb of belongs to Renni (EK7), a mayor of Nekheb during the reign of Amenhotep I. Renni’s tomb depicts the usual agricultural scenes, banquet scenes and funeral procession. The detail and the colour in these reliefs is superb and there are some very unusual cameos such as ‘muu’ dancers in the funeral precession, the opening of the Mouth Ceremony and a ‘tekenu’, that mysterious object pulled on a sledge that is occasionally glimpsed in a funeral procession. I have long been fascinated by the tekenu. There is a niche in the rear wall of Renni’s tomb which contains the remains of a statue of the tomb-owner flanked by two jackals. One of the most beautiful aspects of all these tombs is the painted ceilings and in Renni’s tomb the ceiling is painted to represent the cloth roof of a tent or canopy.
We had asked to drive down the Wadi Hellal road which runs 4km west towards the desert and where there are many other sites to visit but to our sheer amazement the guard asked us if we would like visit the town site of Nekheb, beyond the massive mudbrick enclosure walls that Sam and I had looked at longingly on previous visits. Last time we were here we got shouted at for even taking a picture of the walls from the side of the road! This was a chance in a million.
The huge mudbrick walls of the town enclosure are 12m thick and still contain within them a vast area of ruined temples, cemeteries and a sacred lake. There was so much more to see than I had imagined. Once inside the walls, which still have a wonderful example of a mudbrick ramp, we walked over the scrubby ground towards the central area, through the low remains of a stone-built pylon gate. The central temple is the oldest of the remains, with its origins possibly dating to the Early Dynastic Period. Of the two ruined structures remaining today, the Temple of Thoth was begun by Amenhotep II in Dynasty XVIII and enlarged by later New Kingdom pharaohs. Another monument, a larger Temple of Nekhbet the vulture goddess, was built during the Late Period and partly overlays the older structure with many re-used blocks from the Middle and New Kingdom. It was difficult to make out the plan of monuments within the town site as the inside is very overgrown and confusing, but the remains of a birth-house and a small Roman temple can still be seen. One feature which captured the interest of the men in our group (always more interested in technical matters) is the complex drainage system which is exposed in front of the second pylon of the Nekhbet Temple. I was captivated by the reliefs of the re-used blocks in the ruins, some of them upside-down or wedged sideways into a space and once or twice we came upon lovely little statues which felt forlorn and neglected.
We spent a long time inside the town site, but all too soon it was time to move on to the wadi Hellal and we collected another guard who had keys to the monuments there. At the entrance to the valley is a Ptolemaic rock-sanctuary dedicated to Seshmetet. Just to the southeast and higher up the hillside, is a temple of Nekhbet consisting of two halls with Hathor columns and a rock-cut sanctuary. This was built by Rameses II, restored by Ptolemies VIII-X and has a stela of Rameses II cut into the façade. The reliefs inside the temple are not well-preserved, but the steps leading up to it and the courtyard have been recently restored. Back towards the road is a structure called locally el-Hammam (the bath), a square single roomed chapel dedicated to local gods and to the deified Rameses II by his Viceroy of Nubia, Setau (a different person to the owner of tomb EK4).
Further along the valley road is ‘Vulture Rock’, so-called because its shape seen at a certain angle (which in my opinion needs a great deal of imagination) is said to resemble the shape of a vulture. Or maybe it is where vultures, probably prolific in the cliffs of this remote spot, go to roost. The southern face of the rock is covered with petroglyphs and Old Kingdom inscriptions probably made by pilgrims passing this way on the ancient desert road towards the Red Sea coast. Several Old Kingdom kings are named on smooth panels cut into the rock, the earliest cartouche is that of Snefru. There are also Late Period primitive rock-carvings including many boats. We scrambled around the rock for a while before moving on further into the desert.
At the end of the track is a lovely little temple dedicated to Hathor and Nekhbet, built by Tuthmose IV and Amenhotep III. The single chamber was apparently a way-station for the barque of Nekhbet when the statue of the goddess was brought to her desert valley. Quite a lot of colour still remains on the wall reliefs inside the temple, depicting Tuthmose IV and his son Amenhotep III. The building was restored in late antiquity and brightly painted scenes of rituals as well as the vulture goddess still can be seen. On the chapel façade is a text by Prince Khaemwaset, the son of Rameses II, announcing his father’s jubilee in year 42, as well as graffiti by other passing travellers including more primitive boats.
It was late afternoon when we left el-Kab to join the convoy back to Luxor and we were all delighted at what a fantastic day we had had, being so fortunate to be able to visit the town site of the vulture goddess. We treated ourselves to a celebratory tea on the terrace of the Old Winter Palace and discussed our day. It’s lovely to be in the company of friends who are all passionate about Egyptology.