Journal: Wednesday 22 January 2003
Yesterday we all had a day off. I spent the day mooching around Cairo on my own, first taking the metro and taxi to Manial to get myself a new Student Card for the next year, which proved easier than I expected once I found the right building. The rest of the day I wandered around just being a tourist with no particular aim but to lose myself in Cairo’s teeming crowds, walking along past the imposing buildings on the Corniche by the Nile and taking photographs of anything and everything. In the evening Sam went off to the airport once again to meet Joyce, a friend of hers who was coming to Egypt to spend a couple of weeks with Sam before they both returned home.
Joyce hasn’t been to Egypt before and because she and Sam are leaving Cairo to drive down to Luxor tomorrow she wanted to have this day to see Giza and Saqqara. We left the Ciao very early this morning in the pouring rain so that Joyce would be able to queue up as soon as the ticket office at Giza opened to get into Great Pyramid – her main goal. Rain in Egypt is fun! The roads quickly flood because many of the streets have high curb stones and no drainage. Cars and taxis are frequently slowed down or parked because they often don’t have windscreen wipers and this causes mayhem on the crowded roads, so we didn’t get to Giza until 7.30am. Luckily Joyce got her ticket straight away with no problem and little queuing. As Joyce wanted to spend a long time in Khufu’s pyramid to meditate and ‘soak up the atmosphere’, Sam and I left her to it and went off to explore other areas ourselves, having arranged to meet Joyce again in a couple of hours.
Sam and I walked down the road to the Sphinx Temple and wandered around the tombs in the Central Field, where Queen Khentkawes’s mastaba rises high above the plateau. Often referred to as a pyramid, the Queen’s huge tomb has many elements of a stepped pyramid structure which was built into the bedrock with a large superstructure above the underground chambers. Little is known about this lady, but she is thought to have probably been the daughter of Menkaure and possibly the mother or wife of Userkaf. This monument has always fascinated me and it was good to get a closer look, even though it is not possible to get inside. There are so many tombs in this area but of course none of them are open, so we had to keep dodging the guards who often try to scam tourists into letting them show you something ‘special’. But it was nice to just wander, occasionally finding a carved block or two sticking out above the sand and trying to work out the names of who the tombs would have belonged to. There is enough to see at Giza to easily fill the whole day, if not a week, but because we were also going to Saqqara today, it was time to meet Joyce and together we all trooped down past the Sphinx again and out to a coffee shop where Abdul was waiting for us with the taxi.
It had stopped raining while we were at Giza but it had become very misty, making it hard to see all three pyramids from any one point. However, once we were on the road to Saqqara the sun came out and by the time we reached the site it was a beautiful day again. Although it hadn’t been arranged, once again Mr Faoud the antiquities inspector came around with us – perhaps he just likes our company! Having already spent three days here this week there wasn’t much that Sam and I hadn’t seen, but we started all over again with Joyce, visiting the Step Pyramid complex as well as the Unas Pyramid and mortuary temple. I was beginning to recognise every stone in the Unas Causeway as we once more walked down this spectacular route as far as the tombs at the bottom of the causeway.
My favourite, the double-tomb of Niankh-khnum and Khnumhotep, who held office during mid-Dynasty V, is in my opinion, the most beautiful and touching tomb in the Saqqara necropolis. Discovered in 1964 by Ahmed Moussa, the tomb belongs to two men who both held the titles of ‘Prophet of Re in the Sun-Temple of Niusserre, Overseer of Manicurists of the Great House’ and is unique in its depictions of the two men appearing together throughout the tomb in intimate embrace. Much has been made of these scenes and the relationship between the owners is still unclear – were they brothers, even twins, close friends, or were they gay? The tomb is popularly called the ‘Tomb of the Hairdressers’. This tomb is large, the earliest parts cut into the rock, while three more chambers with courtyards were added later and constructed with blocks of stone. It is a very complex structure, partly built beneath the Unas causeway, and seems to have been altered and enlarged several times during its construction. As well as the beautifully depicted names and titles of the owners, along with their wives and children, there are many beautifully colourful painted scenes including the traditional fishing and fowling, agriculture and the funeral procession and banquet. In several scenes on the walls and pillars here, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are shown in a close embrace.
After a stop at the old resthouse for coffee, Mr Faoud took us over to the area of Teti’s Pyramid. This is one of the few pyramids I really don’t mind going into because the entrance is not too steep and it doesn’t feel like it’s a long way through underground tunnels. It is also one of the few pyramids where you can see decoration, the rows of beautiful hieroglyphs that constitute parts of the Pyramid Texts seen in all later pyramids. Afterwards we went into the mastaba tomb of Mereruka, the largest of the Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara and one that reflects his very important position during the reign of Teti in Dynasty VI. Mereruka is named as ‘Chief Justice and Vizier, Inspector of Priests and Tenants of the Pyramid of Teti’, ‘Scribe of the Divine Books’. His importance was perhaps increased by his marriage to the King’s eldest daughter, Princess Seshseshet. Mereruka’s tomb, which was first excavated in 1892 by Jaques de Morgan, is famous for its fine reliefs of many aspects of daily life and customs of the Old Kingdom. This is a very elaborate and complex mastaba of 32 chambers which is divided into three separate areas for the burials of Mereruka, his wife Seshseshet and their son Meriteti. The entrance to the complex lies on its southern side, an unusual position for tomb entrances at the time, but faces the entrance to Teti’s pyramid. There are many beautiful scenes throughout the chambers of this tomb, including famous industrial scenes depicting carpenters, sculptors and vase-makers, metal-workers and jewellers. Some of the jewellers are dwarfs, who were traditionally goldsmiths and are shown using blowpipes at a furnace to raise the temperature of the molten metal. There are also full size adults weighing, assessing and recording the precious metals. In the main hall, Mereruka’s funerary rites are traditionally depicted, his coffin transported by boat and accompanied by mourners, priests, clappers and dancers, to the tomb. There are many interesting scenes of cattle-rearing, including the force-feeding of hyenas with pieces of meat – a practice which prevented these hunting animals from eating the wild game they caught. Also in the main pillared hall, is the most startling feature of the tomb, Mereruka’s life-sized statue emerges from a deep niche set into the wall. On the southern side of the complex is the entrance into Seshseshet’s part of the tomb. This is also decorated with standard offering scenes, as well as many depictions of the princess with her small children. Seshseshet also has a false door, this time painted to represent hangings of cloth or matting and the end wall of this chamber depicts an interesting scene of the princess and her son on a lion palanquin. She is carried by female attendants and accompanied by other men and women, pet dogs and a monkey.
It was late afternoon and the site was closing. For the last time we said our goodbyes to Hasan Faoud and thanked the antiquities inspector again before beginning the slow drive back into Cairo. On the way through Giza we called in at the Metro supermarket. Joyce is a vegetarian and also has a wheat intolerance and I could see it was going to be hard for her to find much to eat in Egypt. Knowing she would have problems in Upper Egypt, she stocked up on suitable food to take with her on the journey tomorrow. For my part, tomorrow is the day I go back to England, but I’m not thinking about that yet. We had planned a posh dinner at the Mena House Hotel at Giza this evening, but when we got back to the Ciao Sam had a message to say that a close friend in England had died today. She had been very ill for some time and it was not unexpected, but we had all known her well and felt very saddened. Certainly none of us felt like dressing up and going out to dinner.