Wednesday 20 December 1995
This morning there were a group of musicians playing outside our hotel. They wore colourful galabeyas and turbans and played a variety of instruments including several types of drum and tabla and a rababa. The rababa is a curious instrument consisting of half a coconut shell covered in goatskin (traditionally) with a long vertical pole with pegs at the top which keep its two strings taut. It is played like a violin with a bow and is also known as the ‘Fiddle of the Nile‘. To our western ears the discordant screeching noise it made was terrible! I loved the drums though and that wonderful Saidi rhythm. I chatted to the musicians for a while, whose ages ranged from around twelve to eighty, and learned about their instruments, even having a try at playing the rababa. Hmm, It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I could have listened to the insistant drumbeat, and the alternate drone and melody of the rababa all day. It was so different to any music I’d heard before and seemed to come up from the ground through my feet making me want to dance.
But I had other things to do. My friend and I were going to make our first solo foray over to the West Bank. Although there was a special ferry for tourists, we decided to cross the river on the local ferry, a listing, rusty metal hulk which seemed to contain half the population of Luxor. On the way we met a taxi driver called Sharif, who we had spoken to before. His taxi was in Luxor, but he said his father had one on the other side and if we went with him to his parents house he would ask his father to take us to the tombs. This we did, but the whole procedure took much longer than we thought as we were invited by Mother to have a cup of tea in the shaded garden courtyard while Sharif went off to look for Father. Small brothers and sisters stood and silently gazed at us with huge liquid eyes while we tried to make conversation in sign language. Sharif’s father Ahmed was duly found and we eventually set off in his taxi. We were heading for the Nobles tombs out towards the mountains after buying our tickets at the ticket office, which at that time was near the river.
The village of Qurna was nestled in the foothills of the Theban mountains and hidden among (and under) the primitive houses are over 400 ancient tombs and tomb chapels belonging to the local elite. The first we saw, and which I will always think of as one of the most beautiful of the Theban tombs was that of Sennefer, ‘Mayor of the Southern City’ of Thebes and an important official during the reign of Amenhotep II. His tomb, high up on the hillside, is known as the ‘Tomb of the Vines’ because of the beautiful decoration on some of the ceilings which gave me the impression of standing under an tent hung with big bunches of grapes. Its two chambers were deep underground and the paintings of Sennefer, his wife and his sister were very colourful and well-preserved. For a little baksheesh, the guard allowed us to take photographs.
The owner of the next tomb was Rekhmire who was a ‘Governor of the Town’ and ‘Vizier’ during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II. In a long high passageway there were many scenes of industries and craftsmen and in the outer chamber pictures of animals – panthers, giraffes, elephants and horses brought from Nubia. The following tomb. belonged to Khaemhet, who was a royal scribe and ‘Overseer of the Granaries’ during the reign of Amenhotep III. This was not so colourful but had beautifully carved reliefs of agricultural scenes as well as funerary scenes.
In our fourth tomb, that of Userehet, another royal scribe, we saw more agricultural scenes, this time painted rather than carved. The guards here were very good to us, though they spoke no English. They lit the walls of the tomb with a series of shiny metal sheets used as mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the walls (not very archaeologically sound as I later came to realise). Anyway, it worked very well and we were able to take photographs in even the darkest corners of the tomb. I loved the scenes of daily life found in these tombs much more than the formal afterlife scenes in the Valley of the Kings.
Our last call was to the tomb of Ramose, ‘Governor of Thebes’ during the reign of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. This was his tomb-chapel and was much larger and grander than the previous four. The reliefs on the walls were (and still are) in my opinion the most beautiful in the whole of Egypt. After we had a good look around the guard took us down into the burial chamber, which involved an adventurous slide down a steep narrow tunnel on our bottoms. The chamber was roughly hewn from the rock and completely empty and undecorated, but worth the undignified descent just to see the glittering alabaster ceiling. By the time we emerged to see the curious faces of another party of visitors my friend and I were both filthy and dishevelled. Strangely we both felt much more comfortable in these nobles tombs than we had in the tombs of the pharaohs. There was a much more personal atmosphere here – I could imagine the lives of the owners and their families much more easily than the remote lives of the kings. Or perhaps it was because we hardly saw any other tourists and were able to spend as long as we wanted in the tombs admiring the ancient craftsmanship.
Finally we asked Ahmed to take us to the Ramesseum, the temple built for Rameses the Great, but unfortunately the monument was closed for restoration. Instead he took us to Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III. The paintings here were fabulous, with so much colour compared to all the other temples I had seen. I was very surprised it was not more of a major site, being second only to Karnak Temple in size. At that time hardly anyone went to visit it. I was so glad we had come here as it became in the following years my favourite place in Egypt.