Journal: Sunday 20 November 2005
Today’s excursions began at the open-air museum at Akhmim, on the east bank of the river at Sohag. Sam and I were here last year, but the others were delighted to get a chance to see the famous statue of Meritamun and others in the museum. In 1981 part of a temple with a monumental gate believed to date to the Graeco-Roman Period was unearthed during building works on the north-eastern edge of the town. Archaeologists found several statue fragments of Rameses II during excavations, as well as a beautiful colossal statue of the king’s daughter and consort, Meritamun, now re-erected in the centre of the area which has become the open-air museum, several metres below the modern ground level. When it was found, the statue of Meritamun was lying face-down and broken in the mud, but today, Meritamun, as always was so beautiful – probably my favourite standing statue in Egypt and she stood out stunningly in the clear early morning light against the deep blue background of sky. The museum also contains a beautiful Roman statue of Venus (Isis) as well as many stelae and architectural elements form the surrounding structures. There are also some large inscribed blocks from el-Amarna which were probably re-used in the later temple building.
Our visit to Akhmim didn’t take long and after a quick peek at the recent Rameses II temple excavations across the road from the museum, we were soon on our way to el-Hammamiya on the east bank of the Nile. The area commonly known as el-Badari Region, stretches roughly between Akhmim and Asyut and encompasses ancient cemeteries at el-Hammamiya, el-Badari, Mostagedda, Deir Tasa and Matma which date from prehistoric times right through to the Roman Period.
There are many Old Kingdom tombs at el-Hammamiya. The only one of the Badari sites open to visitors, a new flight of stone steps lead up the slope to three decorated tombs belonging to the reign of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid.The now familiar sight of an old Islamic cemetery spreads out at the base of the gebel, as usual marking the site of more ancient tombs. The first of open tombs belongs to Kakhent and his wife Ify, who is named as a ‘King’s Daughter’. On the level above, the tomb we entered belongs to another Kakhent and his wife Khentkaus, ‘Prophetess of Hathor and Seth. Below the tomb of Kakhent and Ify there is another unfinished tomb belonging to Nemu, where in the entrance hall the deceased is seen as a priest wearing a leopard skin, a wig and holding a Sekhem sceptre, with his wife and three children. The decoration of the tombs is not well-preserved, but it is still possible to see some of the reliefs and colour in some places and they are very reminiscent of the Old Kingdom tombs at Giza.
Our next stop was Qaw el-Kebir, another part of the ancient cemeteries and the the necropolis and town-site of ancient Tjebu, a town, once capital of the 12th Upper Egyptian Nome and known in Graeco-Roman times as Antaeopolis. The most interesting section of the necropolis is the southern part, where Dynasty XII rulers are buried in rock-cut tombs on terraces slightly set apart from the main cemeteries. We scrambled up the rocky slope to investigate the tombs of the provincial governors, Wahka I (hereditary prince and mayor), Ibu, Sobekhotep and Wahka II (Mayor during the reign of Amenemhet III). The tomb structures followed the basic plan of a pyramid temple and consisted of a chapel with associated valley temple, causeway and mortuary temple. The antechambers of the tomb-chapels were originally decorated with limestone reliefs, now gone, but some of the statue chambers are still painted. Steep ramps rise from the base of the cliffs to the tombs along which the sarcophagi would have been dragged. Petrie excavated at Qaw el-Kebir during the 1920s and in 1925 J L Starkey found a papyrus containing the earliest known Coptic version of St John’s Gospel wrapped in a cloth and buried in a jar at the site.
Our police escort today have been brilliant and we had a leisurely drive back along the base of the gebel on the east bank of the Nile, with the steep rocky slopes towering high above us. Several times we stopped to take photographs and the police waited patiently as though they were having a nice day out too. At one point we stopped to have a look at a mysterious temple that Sam and I have seen several times before but cannot identify. Very close to Gebel el-Haridi, the road leads past this little ruined temple with remains of fluted columns and extensive mudbrick walls at a higher level. The temple is cut by a small canal and is close to two blue-painted sheikh’s tombs (which usually indicates the site of more ancient ruins). It is intriguing.
Back in Sohag at the hotel, a wedding was taking place in the garden. We had a lovely view of the bride and groom at their top table from our second-floor balcony and everyone was having a good time. By midnight, however, the novelty was wearing off as the excruciatingly loud music from a speaker system went on late into the night.