Journal: Tuesday 26 January 2010
We left Luxor this morning in Abdul’s minibus, on another foray into the Eastern Desert, this time to the Wadi Hammamat, which runs between the Nile and the Red Sea. We drove north along the Nile Valley on the familiar main road we take towards Abydos, but stopping at the checkpoint just south of Qift. Here the road turns into the desert, an ancient trade and caravan route between Qift (the ancient town of Coptos) and Quseir (the port of Leukos Limen) that ran through the Eastern Mountains.
At the checkpoint the police made us wait for around half an hour while trying to decide if the desert road was still passable after the recent rains. These roads are notorious for being washed away. Eventually, and probably after a little greasing of palms by Abdul, we were allowed to continue. The distance between Qift and Quseir is 180km, but we were only travelling about 85km, as far as the rock inscriptions that are located in a narrow defile just as the road begins to pass between the higher mountains and where the scenery gets more spectacular with every kilometre. Once more we saw evidence of the rain in small lakes at each side of the road and there were parts where the road was covered in mud, or the tarmac had been washed away at the edges, making Abdul concentrate hard on his driving.
As the region became more rugged we could see remains of tall stone-built watchtowers on the tops of the hills, left by the Romans who guarded the trade route. We passed a small Roman fort, then an ancient well known as Bir Hammamat on the left side of the road and stopped a little while later in a very narrow pass between high, dark, jagged mountains. Apart from being a route to the coast, this region was famed for its quarries and gold mines. Throughout pharaonic history expeditions of quarrymen and miners were sent here for months at a time by subsequent kings. Wadi Hammamat contains a variety of sandstone, greywacke and schist-type rocks which were all known as Bekhen-stone in ancient times. The colours of the rocks vary from a very dark basalt-like stone, through reds, pinks and greens and although this stone was usually too flawed for building large monuments it was highly prized for statues, sarcophagi and smaller shrines. I remembered seeing a papyrus map in Turin Museum some years ago which was found in the Deir el-Medina tomb of a scribe named Amennakhte, son of Ipuy, who was commissioned to make the map during an expedition of Rameses IV, the king who sent the largest recorded quarrying expedition to the Wadi Hammamat. The Turin papyrus map is notable for being the only topographic map to survive from ancient Egypt and also for being one of the earliest geological maps in the world with real geographic content.
On the narrowest part of the road, just around a steep bend, Abdul pulled into the side and Sam and I got out of the minibus and picked our way gingerly across the muddy sodden sand towards the cliff. Two hundred metres further on there is a gafir’s hut belonging to the SCA. Sam has been here before so she was able to point out to me exactly where the 200 rock inscriptions in this stretch begin. They are mostly on the south side of the road. Many of the elaborate inscriptions, bruised and engraved into the perpendicular cliffs were left by expedition leaders who announced their allegiance to their king and gave many technical details of the expedition. There are also a large number of cruder carvings, depictions of men, animals and boats left by the workmen or pilgrims travelling through the wadi. Several kings left a record of their expeditions, including Pepy I, Amenemhat, Senwoset I, Seti I and Rameses II. According to the inscription of Rameses IV, his second expedition included 8,362 men, making it the largest since the Dynasty XII reign of Senwosret I, around 800 years earlier. Senwosret records that he sent 17000 men to the Wadi Hammamat to bring back bekhen-stone. It was the Persian conqueror Darius, however, who sent the highest number of expeditions and six separate journeys are recorded.
As I walked along the base of the cliffs I could see inscriptions everywhere. Some of the animal grafitti and boats looked prehistoric – but you can never really date these. I recognised cartouches of kings from the Old, Middle and New Kingdom as well as several of the Persian king Darius I. The god Amun-Min features prominently in many of the inscriptions – Min being ‘Lord of the Desert Tracks’ and in his ithyphallic pose is known as a protector. The Horus falcon is shown in many rock-drawings, as well as the goddess Hathor, ‘Mistress of the Mountain’ and Thoth in the form of a baboon, as he is patron of craftmen. I managed to identify an inscription of Khnemibre, known as the ‘Genealogy of Architects’, which David Rohl and other authors use as a dating tool for the disputed length of the Third Intermediate Period.
Sam and I had just taken out our cameras when a truck pulled up with the gafir and two other men who made their way straight towards us. One of these men, it turned out, was the antiquities inspector for the Red Sea area and he told us in no uncertain terms that this ‘site’ was closed and could not be visited or photographed without special permission from Dr Hawass (and payment of a large fee). We could not believe it. After a lot of pleading and argument the inspector finally let us take a couple of photographs and then insisted that we leave. How is that for bad timing? In the whole of the Red Sea area he had choosen the same day and the exact same time as us to visit Wadi Hammamat. I had waited years to see this place, which is after all on a public road.
As we were escorted away from the base of the cliff I turned around too quickly and my feet slid out from under me on a wet patch of deceptively deep mud and down I went onto my back. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and I know Sam was having trouble keeping a straight face. And in my attempt to keep my camera out of the mud I managed to hurt my wrist. As I was helped up I realised that the whole of my back from my neck right down my legs were absolutely covered in mud and my sandals had sunk about 15cm into the red oozy stuff. But at least my camera was OK!
I knew I couldn’t get back into the minibus in the filthy state I was in, so I had to stand on the road with my back to the sun and dry off for half an hour – luckily the sun was hot and the mud eventually dried to a sandy powder that could easily be brushed off my clothes. The inspector and gafir had moved on a little way up the wadi, but they were still watching us. But even the view from the road was interesting, with stone workmen’s huts on the roadside and half-way up the cliff I could see the remains of a stone sarcophagus that had been left behind, perhaps because it was damaged. When I had dried off we decided to drive a few kilometres further on to a cafeteria at Bir Fawakhir, the only settlement on this road. From the little coffee shop, populated mostly by truck drivers, another wadi branches off to the north where, we were told, are numerous stone huts of the Roman gold-miners camps.
Sam had not been feeling well this morning and after our rest stop, she was getting worse, so we decided to call it a day and head back to Luxor. The day had been a disaster but at least I had finally seen the wonderful Wadi Hamamat inscriptions.