Journal: Tuesday 26 October 1999
On our last full day in Egypt, we again returned to my favourite temple, the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu on the West Bank. We made the familiar journey over the river on the tireless workhorse that is the passenger ferry, with its battered decks strewn with any rubbish that had escaped being thrown or blown over the side. Sitting up on the top deck in the morning sunshine on a wooden bench polished by thousands of passengers, we could see far down the river to the north and south, while spread behind us was the whole vista of Luxor Corniche with the temple as its crowning glory. Usually it is only the tourists who sit on the uncovered top deck and of course the young guys and touts who hope to make some money out of them. I’d much rather sit there in the fresh air than in the cramped lower deck with fumes belching out over those too near to the engine room and where space is at a premium and always must be shared with bicycles, various animals and caged birds as well as bundles of shopping, sacks of rice or grain and the ferry vendors selling little bags of nuts and seeds. Jenny and I sat in the stern next to an old man with a stout stick who must have been at least a hundred and who nodded and smiled his toothless smile, saying ‘welcome’ over and over all the way to the West Bank. How I love the Luxor ferry!
At the dock we got off the ferry and had to fight off a barrage of aggressive taxi drivers before finding the arabeya to Qurna, which we took as far as the Colossi of Memnon. Getting off and going round to the front of the truck to pay the driver our 25 piastres each, I was aware of curious stares from groups of visitors gathered around several tourist coaches parked by the statues. We were obviously a distraction from the guides’ well-rehearsed monologues. After buying our tickets to Habu Temple at the taftish, we set off down the dusty track leading the village, stopping for a while on the way to watch a couple of vivid green bee-eaters sitting on a telephone wire.
Inside the temple, I wanted to look at the various festival scenes. On the south exterior wall of the temple there is a calendar of festivals which names over 60 festival days in a year, most of them fixed dates in the civil calendar. These were occasions when the king, or his representative, the High Priest, would celebrate the feast in the name of the people of Egypt, offering to the various deities to ensure that order, or ma’at, would be maintained. The second court at Medinet Habu was the ‘Festival Hall’ and its main function is reflected in the reliefs on the surrounding walls.
On the east wall of the second court, the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt lead Rameses III to a shrine containing the Theban Triad, Amun, Mut and Khons. On the north wall, the king is ritually prepared to take part in the fertility Festival of Min which originally took place on the first day of the lunar month at the beginning of harvest, Shemu. At the west end of the north wall the King, wearing the ‘blue crown’ is carried out of his palace on a portable throne, followed by fan-bearers and surrounded by priests and officials and the royal children. Musicians lead the procession, playing trumpets, flutes and sistra, while drummers beat out the pace. Further along the King performs sacrifices at the shrine of Min, offering ‘bread, beer, oxen, fowl and every good thing’ In the next scene the statue of the fertility god Min is in full view, borne aloft on carrying poles draped in metal-studded red cloth and a chest containing his emblematic lettuce plants is carried behind. In front of this are the King, this time wearing the ‘red crown’, the Queen, a row of priests carrying standards and a while bull which may have represented one of the aspects of Min. The subsequent order of the festival rites gets a bit lost and is partly on the east wall and partly on the north. There is a lovely scene of the King cutting a sheaf of wheat, a ritual act of sympathetic magic designed to ensure a good harvest, the sheaf being presented to the god to be blessed. With statues of the royal ancestors looking on, the King finally releases four doves, symbols of the ‘Four sons of Horus’, who carry news of the ritual to the four corners of the universe.
The south wall of the second court depicts an even more important annual festival performed at Medinet Habu, that of the god Sokar. This festival traditionally took place on the eve of the planting season, Peret, and lasted for ten days. The god Sokar represented the dark potent counterpart of Min in the underworld and was assimilated with Osiris, also an underworld deity. The first five days of the festival, (not depicted in the second court) concentrate on the preparation of ‘Osiris beds’, wooden frames containing grain which were planted and germinated, again an aspect of sympathetic magic embodying the symbol of resurrection and fruition. In the second court the reliefs begin once the festival gets underway on the sixth day, which was a major holiday for the people of Thebes at this time. At the west end of the south wall the celebrations begin at dawn with the King, Rameses III, offering a heaped platter of food to the god. Behind the hawk-headed Sokar-Osiris is the ‘Great Ennead’ of Memphis who were the god’s companions. We see the cult statue of Sokar in his portable shrine, the henu-barque, with its aegis of an antelope head and little birds on the prow. For the public ceremonies the barque of Sokar was taken out of the god’s sanctuary in the temple by the priests and dragged around the walls on a sledge pulled by ropes. Many standards and other divine barques are depicted in the procession that wended its way through the Theban necropolis and it is easy to imagine a great day of feasting when the whole Theban population would join in the celebrations. In the reliefs the King is seen pulling the end of the rope, joined by officials, priests and the royal children, but the barque itself, in a later scene, is carried on the shoulders of priests. One unusual scene in the procession shows the standard of Nefertem, another Memphite god, in the form of a long pole capped by a lotus flower and two plumes and this is followed by a standard of Horus as a falcon wearing the ‘double-crown’. The final stage of the festival is depicted on the eastern wall where the procession is joined by barques of five Memphite goddesses and several other deities, priests carrying offerings to be placed upon the altars, officials and the King’s retinue. The festival of Sokar, so colourfully depicted in the second court, was a festival of renewal, for both the land and the King and was confirmation for the local community that the annual cycle of harmony and growth would carry on for the coming year.
Jenny and I spent almost the whole day in Medinet Habu with only a short break for lunch at the Rameses Cafe and by the time we made our return journey over the river the sun was setting in an apricot glow over the Theban Mountain. As the tall white billowing sails of feluccas scudded by the ferry in the evening breeze, I tried hard not to remember that this would be my last sunset here for a while.