Journal: Wednesday 20 January 2010
For Sam and I, no visit to Egypt is complete without a trip to Abydos. It is a pilgrimage just like in ancient times when all Egyptians aspired to visit the ‘Tomb of Osiris’ there. If they couldn’t make the trip in life, then the journey by river was painted in elaborate detail on their tomb walls, at least during the New Kingdom period.
This morning we left at 6.00am in Abdul’s minibus for the two or three hour journey north. The air was freezing and the mist was rising in long drifts from the canals and sugar cane fields. Flocks of white egrets were clustered in the palm trees preparing for a day on the river. I don’t think I have ever seen Egypt look so green as it does now, with tall bright-green stands of ripened sugar cane at either side of the road. January sees one of the twice yearly sugar harvests when the roads are packed with vehicles of every description from donkey carts to big trucks, loaded up with the distinctive bundles of long canes. Beyond the road, little trains chug along on narrow tracks collecting the stalks from each group of fields. Men, women and children are all recruited for the harvest and everyone is very busy.
At Dishna it was market day and Abdul stopped to buy hot falafel and pitta bread from a roadside stall for our breakfast which we ate as we continued towards Naga Hammadi. Here the chimneys from big sugar producing factories were churning out plumes of grey smoke into the still morning air and we could smell the sickly sweet aroma of hot sugar as we passed by. We crossed the bridge over the Nile barrage to the west bank and before long we were turning left off the road at el-Balyana towards Abydos. Sam and I had a swift cup of coffee in the garden cafeteria and went straight into the Temple of Seti I.
For five hours Sam and I worked very hard, photographing as much of this beautiful temple as we could. The current trend of banning photography at ancient sites is worrying and I was determined to try my best to get decent digital pictures of the colourful reliefs in the temple while I still could.
Abydos is never easy to photograph without a tripod because of the dark conditions in the various halls and with each successive camera I always think I can do a better job. My results are always varied though, so I keep trying. I even attempted a couple of short movies on my new camera – but they turned out to be a disaster. My career as a film-maker will have to wait a while.
At one point we went out to the Osirion and I noted that the water table was lower than I have seen it for several years and the little stone ‘islands’ could clearly be seen, but the water in the trenches between them was sludgy green and full of wind-blown rubbish.
I also spent some time in the ‘Hall of Barques’ that is often locked up so I’ve never photographed this room properly before. This was the room which housed the sacred barques of the gods which were brought out for ceremonies and processions. Shafts of sunlight lit the room from rectangular roof openings and in the time of Seti, or his son Rameses II who decorated this room, the divine boats, gleaming with gold or silver, must have been a spectacular sight standing on the stone benches that line the room. The scenes in this room were never finished and some of them are carved, while others are painted. The best preserved barque reliefs are those of Osiris, Isis, Horus and Seti on the southern wall.
The temple today was fairly quiet with small groups of tourists coming in for an hour or so and then disappearing again. By the time we had finished my arms were aching from holding up my camera and I was quite glad to go back to the cafeteria for a rest and a cold drink. I had hoped to go to the Temple of Rameses II today, which is a short distance away, but we had run out of time. Abdul wanted to get back to see an important football match on TV this evening, Egypt against Brazil in the All Africa Cup. In Egypt football takes priority over everything and Egyptians take the game very seriously. The little park in front of the temple has become a building site where a very modern-looking visitor’s centre is being constructed, but the tables and chairs are still there under a shady awning. Shahat is still running the bookstall, and he remembered me from previous visits. As usual, I bought a little shabti from him. These are made locally but look surprisingly genuine.
The low sun on the east bank hills on the drive back to Luxor was gorgeous, turning the tall cliffs and the river below a golden hue. Abdul stopped only once to buy some freshly caught Nile fish for Sam from a roadside vendor near Naga Hammadi and by 6.30pm we were back at the Villa Mut.