Journal: Sunday 8 November 1998
Although Kit was feeling a little better this morning, he decided to stay in the hotel, while I was up before sunrise to catch the early morning ferry over to Luxor with Robin to meet Sam and Abdul with his taxi. We were travelling with the 7.00am convoy towards Aswan, but had permission to leave it to visit el-Kab, roughly halfway between Esna and Edfu. With the convoy rattling ahead of us along the main road like a bloated snake, our taxi, with a small police escort all to ourselves, crossed a railway line and followed it through a village. It was a beautiful clear morning as we drove along the track leading towards the Wadi Hellal and the site of el-Kab, with its high vertical cliffs. I knew we were fortunate to be allowed to come here as, at the time of this first visit, the site was not officially open. When we pulled up by some low concrete buildings that constituted an empty ticket office and deserted cafeteria, several guards came out to greet us. We asked if we could first drive down the wadi and were told no problem. There are times when the road is impassable, often broken up after a rain storm has washed away the surface, but it would seem that at present the condition of the road was good enough. One of the guards got into the taxi with us and off we went.
Hugging the East Bank of the Nile, El-Kab is one of the oldest settlements in Egypt and in ancient times was known as Nekheb which, with its sister town Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) on the West Bank, was the home of the vulture goddess Nekhbet. Leading into the Eastern Desert, the valley provides evidence of many Nubian gods who were also worshipped there because during the New Kingdom, el-Kab was on the northern limits of the region presided over by the Viceroy of Kush (Nubia).
The road through the Wadi Hellal runs 4km east towards the desert, but we first stopped after only a few hundred kilometres, where there was a Ptolemaic rock-cut sanctuary dedicated to Nekhbet. A long restored staircase led up the hill, through a stone gateway with carved lintel and into the paved courtyard of a small temple. This consisted of two decorated chambers hewn into the cliff, with Hathor-headed columns and a sanctuary deep inside. A stela of Rameses II was cut into the facade and there were also Ramesside reliefs which probably gives the shrine an earlier origin. Closer to the road was a tiny square single-roomed stone structure known locally as el-Hammam (The bath?), a little chapel built by the Viceroy of Nubia, Setau and dedicated to the deified Rameses II and local gods. The reliefs inside were shallow and poorly preserved.
Back in the taxi we continued further into the wadi, a desolated wide scrubby plain with high cliffs bounding it to the north and south. After about 2km we arrived at a large isolated jagged rock by the road, known locally as Vulture Rock. Some say it is the shape of the rock which suggests its name, while others tell of the colonies of vultures in the area. I could see neither the shape nor the birds and decided it must have been named for the Vulture Goddess Nekhbet herself. Around the back of the rock there are many well-preserved rock carvings and inscriptions dating from prehistoric times to the late Old Kingdom. Petroglyphs of primitive birds, animals, boats and strange undecipherable shapes were bruised into the surface of the rock and several small smoothed panels contained more recognisable hieroglyphs, left by travellers and pilgrims to this once sacred place. I managed to pick out the names of kings Teti and Pepy, but couldn’t find Snefru which is said to be the earliest king’s name carved here.
Another couple of kilometres into the desert and we stopped before a small free-standing temple built for Tuthmose IV and Amenhotep III and dedicated to Hathor and Nekhbet. This had obviously been restored and a low wall surrounded a paved courtyard before the single chamber of the temple. Inside there were some beautiful colourful reliefs depicting rituals for the goddess Nekhbet, which were apparently restored in late antiquity. On the facade is a text by Prince Khaemwaset, the son of Rameses II, announcing his father’s jubilee in year 42, as well as graffiti by other passing travellers.
As the sun rose higher and hotter out in the desert, we made our way back along the road to the wadi entrance to see several New Kingdom tombs cut high up into the cliff. After climbing up a long concrete staircase we arrived on a terrace and visited the tombs of Ahmose Pennekhbet (EK2), Paheri (EK3), Setau (EK4), Ahmose, son of Ibana (EK5) and Renni (EK7) each with their lovely colourful painted reliefs.
Although we asked to visit the walled town just across the main road, we were not allowed on this occasion, but we did stand and look at the massive mudbrick enclosure walls for a while before getting back into Abdul’s taxi for the journey back to Luxor. Luckily we didn’t have to wait for the next convoy but were allowed to carry on back by ourselves – a much more leisurely drive.