Journal: Saturday 16 January 2010
By 8.00am this morning Sam and I were in Abdul’s minibus and on the road to Edfu. Abdul was taking us to Gebel el-Silsila because even though there is no more convoy, permission still has to be got from the tourist police to travel outside Luxor and it was easier for Abdul to get this charter than for Sam to drive us herself and most likely encounter problems at the checkpoints. It felt good to drive straight past el-Shoarowla (the Black Horse) where the convoy used to stop for a break.
We drove on past el-Kab as far as Edfu, where we crossed the bridge to the west bank, through the busy town and then followed the river south through agricultural land, mostly fields of ripened sugar cane and fruit trees. Once away from the town everything was very rural. The roads were narrow and often little more than dirt tracks, with scattered small villages of mudbrick houses here and there, each one with clusters of children and animals scampering everywhere. As we began to climb away from the river the landscape became more barren and rocky. We were in the area of ancient sandstone quarries. As the minibus continued to climb I was reading a section from Arthur Weigall’s ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ in which he describes the method of getting to the quarries:
‘To visit the shrines and quarries of Gebel Silseleh the visitor, who is not travelling by steamer or dahabeya, should take the early train from Aswan which arrives at Kagoug station before 9.00am……. There are no donkeys to be had at Kagoug, except by arrangement with the villagers, and a dragoman therefore should be sent to obtain them, and also a ferry boat, on the previous day. The ancient remains are about three miles from the station, a point of rocky hills to the south-west being one’s objective. To the traveller, the wonderful quarries on the east bank will not fail to be of interest, and the shrine of Horemheb on the west bank deserves a visit; while to the archaeologist there are numerous small shrines, tombs and rock steles which are worth visiting’.
It seems that not much has changed here since Weigall’s day, except that the ride in the minibus must be far more comfortable than any donkey. We were on the west bank of the river and I could see Weigall’s steam ships and dahabeyas still plying this ancient waterway through the rocky defile.
Parking the minibus and leaving Abdul to his customary nap, Sam and I walked down a sandy track where we found a modern but rather neglected rest house where we bought our tickets for 25 EL. The gafir seemed pleased to see us and I imagine he gets few visitors during his working day. A younger guard came with us to the Speos of Horemheb a short distance along the sandy track by the river. Even at 10.00am the temperature was beginning to soar – around 30 degrees C. and it felt unseasonably hot for January.
Horemheb was the last king of Dynasty XVIII and he had this rock shrine carved out of the hillside. The chapel was dedicated to Amun as well as other deities connected to the River Nile. This spot is very ancient. It’s name, Gebel Silsila means ‘the Chain of Hills’ and the sandstone hills came right down to the water’s edge where the Nile once was very narrow and probably contained a series of rapids forming a natural frontier between Elephantine (Aswan) and Edfu. By Dynasty XVIII, travellers developed the custom of carving small shrines into the cliffs here, dedicating them to a variety of Nile gods and the river itself. Smaller shrines were cut by Tuthmose I, Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, before Horemheb constructed his rock-cut temple here, then many of the Dynasty XIX or later kings left their mark in some way.
The Speos of Horemheb consists of a long vaulted hall behind a façade of five doorways and a smaller oblong chamber to the rear. All the walls are covered in reliefs and inscriptions, in some places quite damaged, but in others there are some very fine high quality inscriptions. The deities depicted on the walls, besides Amun-re, are Sobek in the form of a crocodile, the ram-headed god Khnum of the First Cataract, Satet of Elephantine, Anuket, goddess of Sehel, Tauret as a hippopotamus and Hapi, god of the Nile. As well as those of Horemheb, cartouches of Rameses II, Merenptah, Amenemesse, Siptah and Rameses II appear in the reliefs. Two of the most noted reliefs are of Horemheb carried in a portable chair during a festival after his Nubian campaign and a relief with a list of the Heb-sed festivals of Rameses II, which were supervised by his eldest son, Prince Khaemwaset. I have wanted to see this shrine for years and I was not disappointed.
Back outside the heat was staggering, bouncing off the high cliffs even though we were right by the river. Sam was here not long ago, so she opted to sit in the shade while I went on with the guard, who pointed out many interesting rock shrines and funerary niches carved by officials of the New Kingdom. It was fascinating but after a couple of kilometres even I succumbed to the heat and could go no further. The guard had just pointed out the continuation of the track which dropped steeply down some flaky rocks hanging perilously close to the water’s edge, but I knew we couldn’t get much further along the river bank here. There is also a very large rock with a flight of stone steps going partly up the face, but Sam had already told me that the steps were gone on the other side.
After around an hour I was back with Sam and we retraced our steps back past Horemheb’s speos to the rest house, staying for another half an hour and drinking a welcome glass of sugary tea with the guards. There was so much to look at even sitting outside the rest house.
White egrets and kingfishers flew low over the river and we saw a heron catching a fish and slowly eating it on a little island. Gebel el-Silsila is a beautiful spot and we watched as many cruise boats steamed north to Aswan or south to Luxor. We had planned to come another day and go to the larger east bank quarries where many kings quarried stone for the monuments of Thebes and left inscriptions. One thing I particularly wanted to see is a large stele of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) recording that he had ’caused an obelisk for the Temple of the Sun at Karnak to be quarried there’. There are also prehistoric rock-engravings on the east bank. But it was not to be, as the gafir told us that the eastern quarries were closed and visitors were not allowed without special permission. At least I could see the quarries just across the river.
On the way back, Abdul decided that it would be much quicker if we took the desert road back to Luxor. This is a new fast road that bypasses the towns of Edfu and Esna. However, this got him into a lot of trouble at the checkpoint because he didn’t have a charter to travel on this road. As usual he talked his way out of it and managed to keep his licence (which they could have taken away).
By late afternoon we were back at the Villa Mut, sitting watching the sun go down over the Mut Temple with sandwiches and coffee on the roof.