Journal: Wednesday 19 January 2011
The modern town of Mut is the main centre of population in Dakhla and was built up around an earlier Medieval town, also called Mut. Then there is Mut el-Kharab (Mut the Ruined) earlier still. Leaving our hotel this morning – the Mut 3 – we went off to explore, yes, Mut!
Named after the Goddess Mut, Mut el-Kharab was the original settlement in the centre of Dakhla Oasis, said to date back to Dynasty XVIII, though its high mudbrick enclosing walls and the remains visible today are Roman. We pulled up by an entrance and began to climb a sandy slope towards the high point of the site. There seemed to be nobody about as we stopped to examine an interesting circular mudbrick structure with a deep cavity below, but within a minute we were spotted and shouted at by a guard. Apparently the site is closed and a team from the Dakhla Oasis Project were working. We got no further and were not even allowed to take a photograph of the site. I had wanted to see the remains of a temple of Seth which has been found here, but walking around the outside of the site there was a high wall or bushes with little opportunity to even take a peak. You win some, you lose some.
The Medieval town of Mut was accessible however and Fiona, Malcolm and I walked a little way into the warren of narrow crumbling shaded streets with Basim, our minder. Few people actually live there today and the old town has a very neglected feel, with buildings in various states of decay, but I could imagine how beautiful it must have been in its prime.
Mut the modern town is quite charming with wide streets and well-kept buildings and has a feeling of quiet rural prosperity. It’s quite a contrast to Kharga City which, though busy and bustling, looks quite run-down in some parts. I think the goddess herself would be pleased with her town today. By mid-morning we were near the medieval town outside a coffee-shop for the first strong Egyptian coffee of the day, surrounded by cats and enjoying the sunshine – something we hadn’t seen much of until today.
We took the loop road to Qasr Dakhla, our next stop on today’s itinerary and for me one of the high-points of the Oasis. We passed by the ancient sites of Galamun and Amheida, both of which are under excavation, past fields, cemeteries and Sheikh’s tombs, then around to the north-western edge of the depression. Nestled under the ever-present apricot-pink escarpment, el-Qasr is said to be the longest continuously inhabited town in the oasis.
No tickets were necessary for the guided tour of the medieval fortified town of Qasr Dakhla. We began at the mosque of Sheikh Nasr el-Din, which is a 19th century restoration of an older building that was destroyed, leaving only the original and very distinctive Ayyubid minaret. Leaving the mosque we wound our way through the narrow streets and alleyways, dark and mysterious, where the tall narrow three-storied mudbrick houses almost touched above our heads. Some of the wooden doors were below the current ground level and elaborate wooden windows high on the upper stories of houses were almost falling out in places. Most of the buildings were numbered and had the owner’s name painted or carved on a sign. Intricately carved lintels illustrated quotations from the Quran and we even saw a few pharaonic blocks that had been built into walls. The old town, though fairly neglected, is still populated by around 700 people but we only caught a fleeting glance of any inhabitants – here and there, a colourfully-dressed lady throwing out a pan of water to settle the dust or a couple of girls balancing baskets on their heads disappear around a corner.
The guide showed us the olive press, made from the wood of an old olive tree and a mill for grinding grain that would once have been turned by an ox, then a blacksmith’s shop complete with forge and bellows from which strange giant iron nails were produced for sale – all preserved for tourists of course. We saw the madrasa, a school where boys went to learn Quranic scriptures and which was the largest building in the town. The whole place is seeped in history and the atmosphere is one of a bygone time. Most of all it is very photogenic and I must have taken hundreds of pictures on our tour. We ended up by the Ethnographic Museum where traditional crafts and costumes are displayed and sold and photographs on the wall tell of the history of el-Qasr. Ladies outside sat on the ground surrounded by their colourful woven palm-leaf baskets for sale. But it was time to move on. Sam and Abdul had stayed in a coffee shop outside the town and we went to meet up with them and have another coffee. From the roof there was a fabulous view of el-Qasr.
Further to the north-west Dakhla’s only mountain, Mount Edmonstone, named after the first western traveller to Dakhla (by whom, I wondered), rose high above the desert, marked by its distinctive flat top. We drove towards the mountain and turned off down a track past remains of several Roman farmsteads to the Temple of Deir el-Hagar, literally ‘the Stone Monastery’. It was Sir Archibald Edmondstone who first began to clear the sand-filled interior of the temple in 1819. When he and other early explorers first encountered this Roman temple it must have been a romantic sight, in reasonable condition but with an air of decay. Today it has been thoroughly restored by the Dakhla Oasis Project and the story and photographs illustrating the temple’s restoration can be seen in a small visitor centre at the site. There are many interesting elements at Deir el-Hagar including a single intact papyrus column at the entrance to the sanctuary which bears the names in carved graffiti of nineteenth century explorers of the Rohlfs expedition. A huge ceiling block with an astronomical motif has been pieced together and displayed upright for easier viewing on the south side of the temple – a unique scene for a sanctuary ceiling apparently. The original temple was built by the Emperor Nero, added to by Vespasian, Titus and finally Domitian in the first century AD.
This was an area of agricultural importance and the temple would have served the Roman soldiers and the farmers who lived in the area. A stone gate was the main entrance through a large mudbrick enclosure wall and a processional way was defined by 20 mudbrick columns leading to the temple. Inside there are six chambers, including a staircase to the roof. It gives the impression of a miniature version of the Ptloemaic temples seen in the Nile Valley and is similar in style to other Roman temples we had seen in Kharga. This was the only place in Dakhla we saw other tourists as a coach of around a dozen people was just leaving as we arrived.
El-Muzzawaka means ‘the Painted Rock’ and here, not far from Deir el-Hagar, are hundreds of robbed tombs that honeycomb the flat-topped gebel. The most famous are the colourful painted tombs of Padiosiris and Petubastis which combine typical Egyptian funerary art with un-Egyptian classical figures. These tombs were closed last time I was here in 2003 and though we were told the restoration has been completed, we were still not allowed inside. Instead, after we had bought tickets, the gafir took us on a walk-about of the hill urgently insisting we look at the mummies. I remembered from my last visit, the various undecorated tombs with quite a number of mummified corpses lying about haphazardly so I was just as insistent about not seeing them. I did have a look at some kind of extensive water feature and there was a great view of yardangs scattered about on the slope below. A big new visitor centre has been built here since my last visit but this too was not yet open.
When we got back to the hotel late in the afternoon we found the hot spring was now running. Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring my swimsuit, but Malcolm and Fiona were soon having a dip in the warm muddy water while I sat on the edge and dangled my legs in, watching them slowly turn brown from the minerals. It’s been a long but very enjoyable day.