Journal: Tuesday 19 November 1996
My friends Robin and Lucy, who had been in Egypt with me the previous year, had arrived at last and we decided we would try to get to Abydos. In 1996 this was not an easy journey and we were told that we would need special permission from the Antiquities Office in Luxor because the temple was officially closed. We spent a whole morning going from office to office, having some difficulty because nobody was able to understand what we wanted as they didn’t speak English. We eventually found someone who made a call to the antiquities office on the West Bank and we were told that we didn’t need a permit but would have to get permission from the tourist police. Off on our rounds again, sitting in an office waiting around until someone finally dealt with our request, only to be told that the road between Qena and Balyana was closed. The only alternative was to take the train. Well, so be it – by this time we were even more determined to get to Abydos.
By lunchtime we were in the vicinity of the local ferry so we decided not to waste any more of the day and crossed the river to the West Bank. It was on this occasion that I met Tayib, a West Bank taxi driver, who I have continued to use frequently in the decade since then. Today, I rarely use taxis, but Tayib will always stop for me when I’m out on the West Bank and give me a lift, always very friendly and a delightful person to know. On the day we first met Tayib, he took us to Deir el-Medina, the village of the ancient artisans who had worked on the construction and decoration of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Deir el-Medina is a rare site in Egypt. One of the few discoveries of a community of common people, it has yielded a tremendous amount of archaeological knowledge and textural material detailing everyday life in ancient Egypt, about families and relationships, disputes and social organisation in the new Kingdom.
The village, which dates to the beginning of the New Kingdom, probably from the time of Tuthmose I, consisted of the houses of the families of workers and craftsmen who were employed in the King’s Valley. They probably led quite an insular life and had their own local deities, the deified Queen Ahmose-Nefertari and her son Amenhotep I, as well as Ptah, god of craftsmen and Meretseger, goddess of the Theban necropolis. The village occupied an area of around two hectares, with a total of one hundred and twenty dwellings. The walls of many of these buildings have been preserved, or restored and show that they were all built from mud bricks to a similar plan, usually with four small rooms, a staircase leading to a terrace or upper room and sometimes a cellar. The flat roofs were made from planks of palm trees, internal walls were plastered with gypsum and painted white and floors were of stone. There was a large brick structure in the corner of the entrance hall, entered by a short flight of steps – thought to be either a domestic shrine or a bed-platform used in childbirth (or perhaps both combined). The platform would often be decorated with depictions of the god Bes, who was associated with childbirth as well as being a household god. The main room was lit by windows high in the walls and this room had a low raised platform and stelae dedicated to ancestor cults and to Meretseger. A storage area was also used as sleeping quarters and a kitchen with an oven was in an open area at the rear of the house. The dwellings were not unlike some of the traditional houses on the West Bank today.
Robin, Lucy and I walked along the main street, admiring the houses on either side and trying to picture what life would have been like for the inhabitants. At the northern end of the village there was a temple, originally a cult temple for Amenhotep I, which was later replaced by other pharaohs until the Ptolemaic structure which remains there today. It is well preserved and the beautiful Hathor-headed columns and softly painted wall-reliefs inside are well worth a special visit. We were very pleased to have ‘discovered’ it.
Our tickets included entrance to the two tombs which were open at that time, the first belonging to Sennedjem of the nineteenth dynasty, whose title was ‘Servant in the Place of Truth’. This tomb had a very steep stone staircase descending a long way down into the hillside and was very hot and cramped inside, but felt very intimate and so unlike the bigger private tombs I had seen. The second tomb we entered belonged to Inherkau, who lived during the twentieth dynasty and was ‘Foreman of the Two Lands in the Place of Truth’ – in other words, a foreman of the King’s Valley workmen. A staircase led down into the burial chamber, which still contained colourful paintings, though not as well preserved as those in Sennedjen‘s tomb.
When we had finished at Deir el-Medina, Tayib took us round into the Valley of the Queens, which is close by. Here we saw the tomb of Khaemwaset, a young son of Rameses III, which was very beautifully painted. Next was the colourful tomb of Amunherkhopshep, also a son of Rameses III. He is depicted throughout wearing the side-lock of youth and accompanied by his father. Lastly we visited the tomb of Queen Titi, a small and damaged tomb but also beautifully painted.
It was late in the afternoon when Tayib took us back in his taxi to the ferry. The whole afternoon’s excursion of five hours had cost us only LE40, which worked out at less that £3 each at the exchange rate as it was then, which was only LE5 to £1. We decided then that it was certainly better to do things on our own than to take organised, expensive (and very rushed) tours. And the spirit of discovery was much more fun!