Journal: Tuesday 23 November 2004
We have now been in Egypt almost a week and the time seems to be flying by on the one hand, while on the other it feels like we have been here forever. Sam & I had decided to go to Amarna today on the off chance that we may be able to take pictures in the Southern tombs. Last time we were there we took lots of photographs in the Northern tombs on the first day, but when we returned on the second day we were told ‘no photos’. That turned out to be the first day of the photo ban which began in 2003 but we had thought at the time that the inspector, Nasser was just being awkward. When we met Abdul at breakfast today he happened to let slip that he had taken some tourists from Luxor to Amarna a couple of months ago and that there was a new road all the way to the Royal Tomb. Of course we didn’t believe him as he loves to wind us up. The royal tomb has for years been fairly inaccessible, entailing a long hike up the boulder-strewn wadi. More recently the tomb has been off-limits altogether. When we realised he was telling the truth we were so excited. Neither Sam nor I thought we would ever be fit enough to do the 15km hike up the wadi and back in the desert heat and we were desperate to see Akhenaten’s tomb.
The journey to Amarna through Mallawi was much better than last time, when we had been surrounded by armoured vehicles all the way there. Today was much more laid back with only one escort truck (with four sleeping policemen in the back). After crossing by the car ferry over the wide stretch of Nile from el-Till, we were met by Nasser who remembered us from last time.
Yes, there really is a new road system at Akhetaten which has cost the Egyptian government EL9 million to build. Why?? Tourists are not exactly encouraged to visit this part of Egypt. The drive up the steep-sided Royal Wadi felt very much like the road up to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, a winding stretch of unmarked black tarmac between the sheer rock-faces and side-valleys of the Amarna cliffs. While I imagine it has totally destroyed the atmosphere there I was still very grateful. The Royal tomb is currently being restored by a team of Egyptians who were working in the two-pillared burial chamber when we got there.
There are more surviving reliefs than I had expected, though many people would probably think there was little to see. The ‘Princesses Chambers’ were especially interesting and very well lit and cleaned, with scenes of the King and Queen mourning and Meketaten’s death-bed scene beautifully clear and still with a little colour showing. I had only seen these scenes as sketches in books. Even our six accompanying policemen were very interested as they had never been here before. We could have taken brilliant photographs but decided not to ask, which I later regretted. We walked along the curving corridor in another suite of chambers thought to have been possibly built as a secondary tomb for Nefertiti, when the generator failed and we were plunged into darkness. Nobody had a torch and the floor was very uneven, but we managed to get out as far as the main stairs by light from the flames of cigarette lighters. I wondered briefly if this was done for effect.
Our next port of call was to be el-Sheikh Said and we had hoped we could drive around the northern end of the Amarna cliffs, as it is just a few kilometres away, but Inspector Nasser told us that the track wasn’t good enough to drive. It was a hard decision to leave Amarna without seeing the Southern tombs again, but time was getting on if we wanted to see other sites today. Back across the el-Till ferry, up the road through Mallawi to Roda and across the river by ferry again to el-Sheikh Said. This turned out to be a disaster.
Nasser had said there was a good road on that side, but it quickly turned into a very bumpy dirt track after a couple of kilometres and Sam & I had to get out of the car and walk the rest of the way. When we got there the gafir turned up and pointed to where the tombs were – half way up the gebel and we realised it would take another hour of climbing to reach them. Risking the wrath of both Abdul and the police escort, we smiled sweetly and told them that we had decided not to climb up to the tombs after all.
These are among the earliest examples of rock-cut tombs, a development from mastabas in this region and date back to Dynasty V and VI. They were built for the officials of Ashmunein across the river, but there is no contemporary evidence of this cemetery found at the capital, Ashmunein. They are considered to be archaeologically very important. It seemed like a bit of a cop-out not to go up and see them, but it would probably be dark before we got back, so we had to make do with long-lens shots of the tombs. We had also planned to go to el-Sheikh ‘Ibada which is nearby, just to see if there is anything left of the Roman town of Antinopolis, built by the Emperor Hadrian in memory of his friend Antinous who drowned in the Nile. However, the road to that site was just as bad as the one we had just driven so we reluctantly decided not to try it.
We got back to Minya at 6.00pm and later went to eat at KFC again. It’s very cold tonight so we went back to the hotel for coffee and were in bed by midnight.