Journal: Saturday 19 November 2005
Amid a great deal of excitement we were all up with the larks this morning (are there larks in Egypt?) to join the early convoy to Abydos. Several of our group have never been there before and they couldn’t wait to see the Temple of Seti I at last. We were travelling in the minibus with yet another Abdul as our driver, as well as ‘our’ Abdul – this trip could get confusing. For the first time, we were permitted to drive straight to Abydos instead of turning off with the convoy to Dendera Temple and we arrived at the little village of el-‘Araba el-Madfouna around 10.30am, finding to our joy that we were the only tourists there. Abdul had been in touch with his contacts at Abydos to ask if we could visit the desert sites, though none of us were holding out much hope because they have generally been off-limits for several years.
I love the first view of the temple when driving into Abydos. It stands proudly and sedately at the end of the road, just beyond a little garden area where cold drinks and relatively modern toilets can be found. We all made straight for the temple while Abdul went off to find his contact. I never tire of this Seti Temple with its magnificent reliefs, although today it had to be a swift look around because we knew that we would be coming back this way in a few days. To our great surprise the antiquities inspector gave his permission to visit some of the outer sites, though not the tombs this time as the excavation teams were working there at present. We got back into the minibus and headed north west out into the desert landscape in the company of the inspector and a police escort.
I find this area of Abydos very exciting, invoking thoughts of Egypt’s earliest kings and most ancient artefacts. It is a pilgrimage for me, a pilgrimage which has been happening for 5000 years or so. Since King Djoser built the first pyramid, ancient Egyptians flocked to Abydos, believing it to be the burial place of Osiris and turning it into an ancient ‘Mecca’. An annual re-enactment of the Osiris myth took place here for kings and commoners alike and if an Egyptian couldn’t make the journey in his lifetime, the ‘Abydos Pilgrimage’ was painted on his tomb walls, a symbolic journey to this sacred place. The pilgrims brought offerings of wine and incense in red clay pots which they smashed and millions of fragments can still be seen on the sandy slopes of Umm el-Gab. Many archaeologists have been attracted by the remains at Abydos but it is only since the 1960s that many new elements of the site’s long history have been found by the use of modern technology, slowly emerging like lost pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle.
We drove past Petrie’s evocative old dig-house on the way out into the desert. When he excavated here in the early 20th century, Shunet el-Zebib was the only large standing funerary enclosure – believed to be the oldest surviving brick building in the world. At that time Shunet was interpreted as a fort but it has since become clear that it the massive enclosure walls had a religious significance, a funerary complex built by King Khasekhemwy a generation before Djoser. It is now thought to be a ‘prototype’ for the first pyramid and has many similar elements such as massive niched enclosure walls, separate chapels and an inner pyramid-like mound.
Standing before the huge enclosure of Shunet el-Zebib and looking up at the 130m long, thick layers of sun-baked mud brick walls, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of awe at this ambitious construction which encloses an area of around one hectare. Inside, lying on the yellow sand there are still many potsherds from red clay vessels which contained the ibis burials from a later re-use of the monument. But the most exciting aspect of being here was to stand at the edge of the area where, since 1987, David O’Connor and the Abydos Expedition has unearthed a total of 14 brick-lined boat pits containing the remains of well-crafted and fully functioning wooden boats. Perhaps not as well-preserved as the famous solar boat at Giza, but certainly predating it, these proved to be the world’s oldest surviving boats built of planks, as opposed to those made of reeds or hollowed-out logs. Of course there was nothing to see except a slight depression in the sand because the boat-pits are once more covered up, but I have a good imagination.
We wrenched ourselves away from Shunet el-Zebib after a while to cross the dunes to a mysterious enclosure known as Kom es-Sultan, another impressive mudbrick structure to the east of Shunet. Kom es-Sultan represents part of the ancient city of Abydos, an area made up of complex layers of material, originally a tell which has long been destroyed by sebbakh (organic fertilizer) digging. It is assumed that the town surrounds the site of the earliest Temple of Osiris (or Khenty-Amentiu) in Abydos. Little is known about this structure itself, but the only known statue thought to be Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza was found here.
A good part of the huge middle Kingdom mudbrick walls are still standing but only a few blocks now remain to give us a glimpse of the temples and structures they once contained. Huge numbers of stelae have been plundered or excavated in the past from this area which have provided a great deal of information on the cult of Osiris. More recent excavators have found substantial remains of residential streets of houses, as well as a larger domestic building or ‘mansion’ and many of the local industries are represented by evidence found there. The valuable information that has come from Kom es-Sultan has gone a long way towards piecing together the history of the isolated artefacts found at Abydos over the past century, allowing archaeologists to re-evaluate their context. Today the modern village of el-Khirba partly covers the area of Kom es-Sultan, but adjoining the enclosure is a recently excavated portal temple, built by Rameses II. To this day a wide beaten path through the desert leads from Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Qa’ab, indicating the route of pilgrims over the millennia.
Our route was back to the village and the Seti Temple, where we went into the garden for a cup of coffee. A stall with souvenirs was manned by a young man, perhaps a descendent of one of those vendors of votive pots, incense and statues sold as offerings to ancient Egyptians on their pilgrimage in years gone by. It was here we learned that we had permission to visit Beit Khallaf.
Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf is situated to the north of Abydos and just to the south of Sohag near the village of Mahansa. The huge mudbrick monument is just as impressive as those at Abydos, but because of its remote location few people ever see it. This is an area investigated by John Garstang in the early 20th century and for many years there has been debate about the mastaba’s owner. There are actually five of these monumental stepped tombs in the low desert here dated to the early dynastic period, but K1 is the largest and best preserved. Several artifacts naming the Dynasty III King Netjerikhet (Djoser) were found in mastaba K1, along with numerous seal impressions, one naming a Queen Nimaathap as ‘Mother of the King’s Children’, while impressions bearing the name of Netjerikhet were also found in the other mastabas. Current archaeological evidence suggests Netjerikhet was the son and successor to Khasekhemwy, and probably performed his burial. Nimaathap was possibly related to Netjeriket in some way and may even have been his mother. The quantity of stone vessels found in the Step Pyramid and Nimaathap’s mastaba also contained identical ink drawings of the god Min, suggesting that they came from the same ‘heirloom’ collection.
Our police escort patiently waited at the foot of the mastaba while we thoroughly investigated its walls and climbed up to the top to look into deep shafts left by early excavators. There are several breaches of the walls where robbers have dug into the sides and top of the monument, but whether they found anything of note I don’t know. Today there are no inscriptions or decoration to excite the average tourist, but for me it is much more interesting than a pyramid because of its antiquity and it has captured my imagination with its history since I first saw it on a previous visit a few years ago. Are these mastabas the missing link between Khasekhemwy’s funerary enclosure and the first Pyramid at Saqqara?
With a lot of thought-provoking discussion we carried on our journey in the minibus the short distance towards Sohag, where we booked into the Hotel Safa, which Sam and I had stayed in last year. At around 7.00pm I went out onto our balcony overlooking the River Nile, just in time to see a huge full moon rising over the eastern hills behind the town.