Journal: Saturday 18 January 2003
This morning we drove again from Cairo to Saqqara in Abdul’s taxi, arriving at 10.00am, the time that we had arranged to meet the antiquities inspector Hasan Fauod again. He had insisted we come back so that he could show us some of the North Saqqara sites that we didn’t see yesterday. Even after many visits here, Sam and I still had a list of things we’d like to see and surprise, surprise, most of them were not open to the public. Unfortunately Mr Faoud had been called away and wasn’t there today, so when we arrived at the ticket office we were taken to the main antiquities office on the northern edge of the site. This was a bit scary because we were told that we’d have to see Dr Ahmed el-Haggar, the Saqqara Director to get his permission to see some of the places. Sam and I had to wait a while until we could see him in his office and it was rather like an interview. He wanted to know all about us and why we had asked to see some of the closed sites. He must have decided our interest was genuine because he gave his permission and assigned an inspector to us for the morning.
Sam, Jane and I set off with inspector Yasser to the other side of Saqqara, south of the pyramid of Unas, to visit the tomb of Horemheb. This is one of a group of New Kingdom tombs discovered and excavated in recent years and where much restoration has been taking place. Horemheb built a tomb for himself at Saqqara while he was a general and regent of the young Tutankhamun. He was later to be buried in his royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes after succeeding Ay as the last pharaoh of Dynasty XVIII, leaving his grand Saqqara tomb for the burials of his anonymous first wife and his second wife Queen Mutnodjmet. This Saqqara tomb was excavated in the 1970s by Geoffrey Martin’s expedition, revealing a vast complex built in three stages of construction, resembling a cult or mortuary temple. The tomb is approached by way of a once-massive pylon and a paved columned courtyard, but many of the original reliefs from here were destroyed. A statue room and second courtyard lead to three chapels at the rear of the structure. Remaining wall reliefs have provided archaeologists with a huge quantity of information about the historical situation at the end of Dynasty XVIII and particularly of Horemheb’s military career. Horemheb’s tomb has been superbly restored, with many replica reliefs cast from blocks in museums. Grand it certainly is and the reliefs are truly spectacular in their detailed depictions of the military life of a New Kingdom general. We were amazed when we were even allowed to take photographs here, considering the fuss elsewhere over the newly imposed photography ban. We also had a quick look at the outside of the tombs of Maya and Tia and Tia but the keys for these were not available as work is taking place at present.
We walked back to the antiquities office down the Unas causeway, Yasser giving us a running commentry on things to look at along the way, as well as news of the French excavations in the tombs to the east of the causeway. We also got to have a quick look at the recently excavated mortuary temple of Teti’s Pyramid as we passed by. One of the main areas Sam and I wanted to look at today were the Early Dynastic mastabas in a closed off area north of the old antiquities office. The Saqqara plateau contains a great number of massive tombs belonging to members of the first royal families and high officials from Dynasty I onwards. The development of the Early Dynastic mastaba tombs for the Memphite elite in the Saqqara region were undoubtedly prototypes for the largest of the royal monuments here. Many of the Early Dynastic rulers appeared to have funerary monuments at both Saqqara and Abydos and there is much debate between archaeologists about which site contained the actual burials of these rulers. Recent opinion however, seems to have shifted away from regarding the Saqqara tombs as being royal at all and they are now being seen as tombs of the wealthy elite of the period. The area isn’t that interesting to look at as most of the excavated tombs have been covered over and are represented only by low mounds, but we did see one or two low mudbrick serekh walls. It was the sense of such ancient history that captivated me and I wondered just how many exciting finds still lay hidden beneath the scrubby wind-swept grass and thorn that covers the site.
The inspector had to leave us in the early afternoon and after looking at a couple of other things at Saqqara we drove on to the ancient capital, Memphis, stopping for coffee at the village of Mit Rahina on the way. The area known today by tourists as ‘Memphis’ is little more than an open air museum displaying the many statues found in the area. The most famous of these is an impressive colossal statue of Rameses II who lies on his back in a specially designed building. This is the twin to the statue of the King that I’d seen in Rameses Square in Cairo, but both were originally set up here outside the Temple of Ptah. Some of the other monuments in the museum include other statues of Rameses, Ptah and a large alabaster sphinx of an unknown king dating to the New Kingdom. Once one of the largest temples in Egypt, Ptah’s enclosure covered a huge part of this area, but much of it is now under cultivation. Memphis is the Greek name for the administrative capital of ancient Egypt, which has its historical roots dating back as far as the Early Dynastic Period. The origin of the city’s foundation is credited to the ‘mythical’ first king, Menes, who is said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time around 3100 BC.
After the museum we went across the road to have a look at the embalming tables from the ‘House of the Apis Bulls’. These animals were sacred to the god Ptah and after living out a pampered life, were ritually mummified and placed to rest with great ceremony in the Serapeum at Saqqara. Although this was a closed area the gafir let us in to have a look at the massive tables. The limestone embalming tables are over five metres long and still in superb condition, some with decorated sides. Opposite this is a small Temple of Hathor, which would once have also been within the Ptah enclosure. As we wandered over towards the temple wondering if we would be allowed to have a look, the gafir came over and offered to let us in. It really has been our lucky day. Although the Hathor temple has been re-buried since it was first excavated we could see the tops of some gorgeous Hathor-headed columns poking up through the grass, as well as a few nice pieces of reliefs. We also saw the modest remains of a Temple of Seti I nearby.
Sam has been to Memphis many times and today she wanted to try to see the mudbrick palace platform of King Apries which is somewhere in the vicinity. While Jane and I were still in the museum Sam went off to speak to the Memphis Director and he agreed to let us go there with an inspector to show us the way. We took Abdul’s taxi several kilometres along many winding roads to a village called Tell el-Aziz and knew that without the inspector we’d never have found the place ourselves. On the edge of the village is an area that looks like waste ground, but on the edge of this there is a huge platform mound built from mudbricks where King Apries of Dynasty XXVI had his palace, which even now contains a few column bases. Surrounding the mound was the site of a Roman encampment. As all of this was still within the area of the Ptah Temple enclosure, it made us realise just how vast the temple area was in ancient Memphis.
The sun was low by the time we left Memphis to head back to Cairo. We’d had a fantastic day and I felt very privileged to have seen all these wonderful sites – much of it thanks to Sam’s winning way with the inspectors. But the day was not yet over. After a quick shower and change in the hotel we went over the river to Mohandesin to a favourite seafood restaurant of Sam’s called Kadoura, where strange fish of all colours and sizes stared glassy-eyed while customers chose which they would like cooked. Being a squeamish vegetarian I averted my eyes and hurried upstairs, where I opted for some lovely salads. Dinner was followed by several cups of coffee and local entertainment on the other side of the road at the Shawary coffee house. We eventually got to bed at 2.00am – again!