Journal: Wednesday 12 January 2011
After a much earlier breakfast today, by 8.00am the four of us were in Abdul’s minibus speeding south towards Edfu, through wide stretches of agricultural land on the banks of the Nile. Crossing the bridge at Edfu, we stopped in the park for a mid-morning cup of coffee and watched families with small children strolling along the little paths between tall shady trees.
South of Edfu the road climbs gradually up towards the sandstone quarries, passing through increasingly rural villages where men and women and children too were working in the fields or tending their animals. After around an hour the road becomes a bumpy sand-covered track full of pot-holes and begins to climb more steeply through a barren rocky landscape, but always with the river coming in and out of view to our left. Eventually we arrived at our destination, Gebel el-Silsila.
Sam and I came here last year but Fiona and Malcolm have not been before. As we pulled up alongside the ‘visitor centre’ we could see that a beautiful dahabeya moored at the river bank was just leaving and the gafir was arriving from the east bank on a boat. A family of three people arrived on a felucca at the same time, but apart from that the site was deserted.
Our first stop, accompanied by the gafir, was the magnificent Speos of Horemheb, a rock-cut shrine dedicated to the god Amun and a variety of deities associated with the Nile and Aswan region. This is a very nice shrine with some lovely reliefs, though many of them are quite damaged. One or two scenes in particular stand out, including the famous ‘Victory of Horemheb’ which depicts the king being carried on his lion-throne after a Nubian campaign, with his retinue and his Nubian captives. On the south wall the deities of the first cataract are lined up life-sized in a damaged but beautiful relief. Here we see Amun, the goddess Tauret in a rare human-headed form suckling a young Horemheb and looking very like Hathor, as well as the ram-headed god Khnum.
We left the speos to walk along the path beneath high sandstone cliffs and quarry-faces where smaller shrines of private individuals have been carved out of the rock. Many of these still have fabulous painted ceilings and lovely reliefs of the owners. Fiona, who among other things climbs rocks for a living, couldn’t wait to have a go at the less accessible shrines.
When we reached the main part of the quarry the gafir asked if we would like to see the Royal Shrines. What a question! Last year we had been told that they were impossible to get to, completely inaccessible except by river, so I wondered what had changed. I hesitated only briefly as the gafir headed towards a crumbling staircase, its steps each half a metre high rocks and from which I had been told there was no way down the other side.
Reaching the top I could see that there was quite a decent path, not too steep, which wound its way towards a high rock known as ‘the Capstan’ and beyond the Capstan were the three Royal Shrines I had so wanted to see, perched right on the edge of the river. The shrines belong to Merenptah, Rameses II and Seti I (from north to south), with a quay in front of them, but Seti’s shrine and the quay were destroyed by an earthquake. As most of the quay had actually crumbled away into the water we had to watch our footing in order to get far enough back to photograph the shrines.
The fierce mid-day heat was bouncing off the cliffs as we climbed back up to the top of the gebel and then came down again near the Speos of Horemheb. My feet were agony by the time we got back, skin rubbed away by harsh sand because I was wearing sandals, and my out-of-condition leg muscles screaming from the climb, but it had been worth it. We were hoping to be offered a trip in the boat to the East Bank quarries, as we had been last year, but today we were told a definite ‘No – it’s closed’! I guess the gafir wanted his siesta.
It was a very long drive back to Luxor but there was such a fabulous sunset with blood red streaks of cloud reflecting in the river, that I hardly noticed the time it took. We all had a lovely dinner at el-Mersala Hotel on the West Bank, but again it became very cold as the evening wore on. I’m not used to cold weather in Egypt.