Celebrating New Year
Picture the scene. It’s 10.00pm on New Year’s Eve, it’s freezing cold and raining stair-rods and I’m about to board an overnight coach for Heathrow. The coach pulls up to the bus stop and Tony, who’s brought me to the coach station, prepares to take away my thick soaked Mountain jacket that I’m sheltering under. Just as I’m about to get aboard a group of fifteen merry young people in fancy dress turn up and try to hijack the bus to take them to St Ives (a destination it isn’t going to). They crowd around the doorway, these, angels, fairies, devils and other assorted beings and hammer on the door shouting at the driver to let them on, becoming quite threatening. So the driver pulls away and drives off, leaving the youngsters and a handful of hopeful dripping passengers behind. What a way to begin a new trip to Egypt – things are not looking good at this point.
Eventually the police turned up to disperse the crowd, who by then, thwarted in their travel plans, were throwing cans and bottles and becoming an angry mob. And the coach thankfully did came back for us in the end and we were off. My friend Sam was getting on the coach at Plymouth because we were travelling to Egypt together and we spent the next eight hours slowly drying out, steam rising from our clothes after our drenching, while excitedly making plans for our trip. Although its only January the promised warmth of the Egyptian sun seems even more attractive. We arrived at Heathrow early in the morning with another long wait until our flight left at 2.30pm and then we were off.
Our Egyptair flight was only a quarter full with lots of free space and we were each able to stretch out over two or three seats and get some well-earned sleep during the journey. The sun had already set by the time we reached the south side of the Mediterranean four hours after take-off and looking down I could see the islands of jewelled lights that defined the curving coastline of the Delta. I’d never flown straight from London into Cairo before and it was fascinating to fly low over the city towards the airport at Heliopolis and be able to pick out the landmarks I knew. Sam was giving me a guided tour from the air as she knows Cairo well. For several years Sam has arranged tours in Egypt for small groups of people and she always uses the same driver. Abdul was there to meet us at Cairo airport and took us to the Ciao Hotel, where I had stayed a couple of years ago with Jenny. It felt like nothing had changed since I was last here except that Jenny has been replaced by Sam as once more we went up to the rooftop restaurant to have a ‘welcome’ drink with the manager. The night-time temperature is a comfortable 17 degrees C. but for some reason feels a little chilly – probably because I’m tired. Installed by Midnight in my room on the eighth floor I’d forgotten how noisy Cairo is, even at this time of night, with a constant flow of traffic on the nearby Sharia Rameses flyover. Opposite our hotel, Rameses station also seems to operate through the night as trains pull in and out with the haunting sound of their air horns. But none of this mattered because here I am in Egypt for three whole weeks and it promises to be a very adventurous trip.
A Lazy Day in Cairo
I woke up early this morning with a stomping migraine – something I suffer with from time to time and after several hours of wishing I was dead, I eventually surfaced at 1.00pm. By the time I felt a little better Sam had already written off the day and we decided to mooch about taking it fairly easy for the rest of the afternoon. Sam and I have three days here in Cairo before meeting another friend, Jane, who is arriving on Saturday evening from England and then on Sunday we can begin our adventures for real.
So our day began rather late by taking a taxi to the Nile Hilton on the other side of town. We started with the intention of dropping in at the Egyptian Museum for an hour or two before it closed, but I still wasn’t feeling too great and the terrace of the Hilton was as far as we got. The traffic in Cairo, especially this time of the day when the evening ‘rush-hour’ was already building, was as frenetic as ever and our taxi-driver wove in and out of the lanes, narrowly avoiding several other cars and quite a few pedestrians, with his hand hovering always just above the horn. The Hilton is a little oasis of calm just off the busy Midan Tahrir and Sam and I had a drink while watching tourists wealthier than us, coming and going. A couple of cups of good coffee perked me up, though it sounds a strange cure for migraine, and afterwards we ambled through the hotel shopping arcade. My favourite shop was Nomad, a tiny place that sold Bedouin clothes and jewellery at excellent prices and I bought a scarf and some lovely cards.
Cairo is the place to buy absolutely anything you need, Sam told me, and she knows all the best places to go. She had her heart set on a particular Egyptian ring-tone tune for her new mobile phone, so we set off in another taxi to Sharia Abd al-Aziz. I’ve noticed in the last few years how quickly Egypt has become a mobile phone culture, even more so than the West as fewer people here have telephones in their homes. Every man and boy over the age of thirteen seems to be constantly shouting into a phone wherever they are. I’m not a technophobe, but my own mobile is shared with my husband and whoever uses the car takes the phone for emergencies. I don’t think anyone has ever rung us on it! This could be due to the fact that we can’t get a signal where we live and so it’s rarely switched on, but I can never understand why people have to be in constant touch with the rest of the world in this way, sharing every shouted conversation with a dozen others around them. Abd al-Aziz is a long street that sells everything of an electrical nature, from computers to washing machines. Each shop is devoted to selling electrical goods of some sort and we were dropped off at an indoor arcade crammed with stalls selling mobile phones and every imaginable accessory. It was packed with people and we had to elbow ourselves through the crowd to get to a stall that Sam had visited before. Sam had to shout loudly to make herself heard as other customers tried to push in front. This is obviously not considered to be a place for women and especially not for European women, but eventually the stallholder found the Amr Diab tune she wanted on his computer and was able to download it onto her phone. A few pounds changed hands and an hour or so after we arrived, she was a happy bunny and I was only too pleased to escape from the madhouse out into the fresh air because I was beginning to feel fragile again.
We walked to the top of Abd al-Aziz to Midan al-Ataba and I was reminded of all the historical books I’ve read about Cairo’s colonial past. This was the area of ‘Opera’ (Midan al-Ubra) with it’s faded French colonial-style architecture and home to the once-famous, romantic sounding, Ezbekia (Azbaklya) Gardens, which was disappointingly a very small park with bare patches of grass and surrounded by peeling iron railings. At Ataba we went into another arcade, a street of watchmakers this time. Sam was looking for a new watch and the watch with Arabic numerals I had bought in Luxor a year ago hadn’t lasted long, so I thought I’d have a look around too. Each stall sold a massive assortment of watches, many different styles ranging from a few pounds to a few thousand. Whether you wanted a Rollex copy or a real one, this was obviously the place to come. But Sam couldn’t make up her mind and I couldn’t see anything I really liked either. In this case a huge choice is not the answer. My head was still thumping and more coffee was needed, so we headed back in the general direction of our hotel, stopping in Adli Street for a drink. I was very glad Sam was with me as I’d have been hopelessly lost by now on my own. Another long walk actually helped my head, though the torpid lead-laden air could not be called fresh by any stretch of the imagination. I hadn’t eaten anything at all today, so as it was almost 9.00pm we stopped for dinner at a little restaurant Sam knew near Rameses station.
A new experience for me. This was nothing like the Luxor restaurants I’m used to, many of which are geared towards catering for western tourists, but was where the local population in this part of Cairo come to eat. There were a couple of tables downstairs and four larger scrubbed wooden tables upstairs where we went, each provided with a battered aluminium water jug and several tin mugs. The waiter came and asked what we wanted – no menus here! The choice was beef, chicken or liver and an assortment of vegetables, accompanied by vibrant plastic bowls of sticky white rice. We started with soup, a thin watery concoction that tasted fantastic though I didn’t enquire too closely as to what was floating in it. To follow I had a small portion of rice with several delicious heaps of stewed vegetables. As a vegetarian I often miss out on the finer cuisine in Egypt, but I certainly couldn’t fault this meal. All was accompanied by a tall stack of the local flat bread piled up on the bare table. I hadn’t realised I was so hungry. Around us, galabeya-clad Egyptians came and went in ones and twos – they were mostly men and spent only about five minutes each on their meal. I’ve never seen people eat so quickly and I’m sure they didn’t pause to enjoy or think about what they were having, before washing it all down with several mugs of water, scrubbing their hands under a tap behind the kitchen and leaving.
Cairo seems to come alive at night and as we left the restaurant around 10.00pm the square around the railway station was crammed with stalls selling cigarettes, cheap luggage, shoes, clothes and plastic goods, each stall decorated with festive strings of electric light bulbs. Families with young children were crowded around each stall and everyone seemed to be shouting at nobody in particular. Walking past the station towards the Ciao Hotel we had to take our life into our hands to cross the busy road, teeming with traffic even at this time of night. And then we were safely back, still with time to plan what we would do tomorrow.
As Sam and I sat at breakfast in the rooftop restaurant the morning sky looked grim and grey with low leaden clouds hanging over the surrounding buildings. Undeterred we decided to go and have a look at the area known as Old Cairo, the original Coptic part of the city and found that we could take the Metro all the way from Mubarak (Rameses station) to Mari Girgis, six stops away. Descending into the long tunnels of the Metro station we eventually found the platform we were looking for, bought our tickets for 50 piastres, and waited for the next train which arrived a few minutes later. The Metro is surprisingly clean and bright and the trains run every few minutes, which made the journey very easy and by the time we got off the train we were above ground.
Egypt was one of the first countries outside Rome to embrace the new Christian religion in the First Century AD. The part of Cairo that we were now in is actually the oldest part of the city and was probably known as Misr, a name now used for the whole of Cairo and the whole of Egypt as the modern city spread out from these Roman remains. At the time of building the Roman fort it was on the eastern bank of the Nile, but over the centuries the course of the river has moved gradually westwards. Our first stop here, just opposite the Metro station, was the Roman gate of Babylon, (called Babalog by the Egyptians), built as part of the Roman defences for the city of Memphis, on the edge of the ancient city of ‘On’ (ancient Heliopolis). The name itself is obscure, but may have derived from ‘Bab al-On’ or ‘Gate of Heliopolis’. The high Roman tower is the largest part of the remains of the old fortress and is currently being reconstructed, much of it below ground level, but we could lean over the railings and see the layered pattern of limestone blocks and red brick, similar to other Roman buildings in Europe and North Africa.
Babylon tower is next to the Coptic Museum but we couldn’t go in because it was closed. The Greek Orthodox Church of St George, who tradition tells us was martyred near here, rises high on the other side of the tower, built on top of the northern tower of the fortress. The only circular Christian church in Egypt, it has an impressive dome, but the present building is obviously modern. We carried on walking down the street with the intention of finding the first Arabic settlement in Cairo, al-Fustat, and after several twists and turns through narrow alleyways we came to a fenced area which is currently under excavation. A large area of rubble stood before us but we could make out the foundations of buildings and an impressive drainage system. This was the forerunner to the present city of Cairo, built between 640 and 969 AD. At the time of the Arab invasion, the Roman fortress of Babylon was besieged and the Muslim army made their headquarters at al-Fustat in a city of tents. Although this was a military garrison and several other satellite towns were built which eventually absorbed al-Fustat and Babylon, becoming the al-Qahira we know today, Fustat is still thought of as the first Arab capital of Egypt. The settlement was burned down in 1175 to prevent it falling into the hands of the Christian Crusaders.
It was lovely to explore the winding alleyways in this compact area of Old Cairo. In each street we turned into we found crumbling mushrabiya windows high on the walls above heavy studded wooden doors that looked like they had been there forever. Sam and I were really just wandering and we didn’t have any idea of what there was to see here when we came upon what was obviously an important building whose sign told us it was the Nunnery of St George. Although we didn’t go inside this ancient church, we looked into the courtyard which was very beautiful. Apparently relics from the saint’s martyrdom are kept inside the church.
Wandering again we found ourselves in a large leafy cemetery, with tall trees and winding paths revealing at every turn, wonderfully ornate tombs and mausolea of pashas and beys, as well as more simply constructed shrines containing statues of The Virgin. This was a Greek Orthodox cemetery, a world apart where we spent a very peaceful half hour escaping from the traffic and tourists. A gate on the western side led us back to Sharia Mari Girgis and we confronted by the two white towers of the ‘Hanging Church’. We entered the church through a courtyard in the Coptic Museum and went up the steps beneath a Christmas banner. The front part contains a bookstall and souvenir stall and I bought some booklets about the church and a little rosary made from olive wood. El- Moallaqa is the local name for the Metropolitan Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was built at the site of Babylon in the 4th century AD, right on top of the postern gate of the Roman fortifications with its nave suspended over the passage of the gatehouse, giving it the name of ‘Hanging Church’. It is said to be one of the first churches in the world to host Coptic rituals, though the oldest parts of the church extant today date to the 11th century and there have been many modifications. The three original sanctuaries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and St George. It is very dark inside and very decorative in the style of orthodox churches, though I though it looked quite shabby. Well, I suppose it is rather old!
When we came back out of the Hanging Church we noticed that the Coptic Museum was open now – it must have closed for lunch, though we had assumed it was closed for renovations. Set in lovely tranquil gardens, the museum was inaugurated in 1910 to contain Christian objects then housed in the Egyptian Museum and to collect together other pieces scattered throughout Egypt. We bought our tickets and went inside to find a beautiful airy space, though dark with ancient heavily carved wood. The rooms, on two floors, were filled with wood and stone Coptic artefacts and beautiful painted icons and frescos, painted wooden ceilings and marble fountains. The objects on display illustrate a period of Egypt’s history which is often neglected and they show how the artistic development of the Copts was influenced by the pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic cultures. Many of the earlier objects were clearly styled from Greco-Roman mythology endowed with Christian symbolism and I also noticed a stone Coptic cross that looked more like an ankh from ancient Egypt as well as a ritual musical instrument that looked like a sistrum. Among the many documents on display are two papyrus pages from the Nag Hammadi Codex, found by a farmer in 1945 sealed in terracotta jars near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. These pages represent 13 invaluable books written in Coptic which serve as the primary source of gnosticism, a religious movement in the early years of Christianity. The museum was renovated in the early 1980s with two new annexes, which with the original aisles, houses the collection of 16,000 artefacts arranged in chronological order through twelve sections. It’s a lovely museum and well worth a visit.
Back outside, we stopped to admire the wooden mushrabiya windows on the walls of the museum before going back to the Metro station and taking a train to Rameses and our hotel. Sam and I stayed in the Ciao only long enough to shower and change before going out again to take a taxi to the Khan el-Khalili. Here we had a meal in an Egyptian restaurant before wandering once more in Cairo’s ancient alleyways – this time the old Islamic Quarter. Here I was on more familiar ground as I’ve been here a couple of times before and I love it. We ended the night at the famous Fishawy’s coffee shop. In a back room here, Naquib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel Prize-winning author, wrote many of his famous novels. The inside of the cafe is decorated with old lamps and many ornate mirrors and really feels like the ‘old Cairo’ I’ve been looking for. Outside in the narrow alley there are tables and benches packed down either side through which street traders walk up and down trying to interest the patrons in their goods. It’s a really entertaining place to sit and watch the world go by and the coffee, Egyptian ahwa, is delicious. We didn’t leave until almost 2.00am!
Some weeks ago Sam and I wrote from England to the SCA to ask for permission to visit certain sites we wanted to see in Faiyum and Middle Egypt and this morning we had an appointment at the SCA offices in Abbassiya. This district is on the outskirts of Cairo and I had made a disastrous attempt to get there a couple of years ago on my own but was unable to find the building. But Sam has been several times before and knew exactly how to get there. So today it was meant to be easy. We arrived at the office block in Abbassiya and went up the two flights of stone stairs where we met our contact, a lovely lady who could not have been more helpful. She sorted out our paperwork, read the letters from our college and duly made out our antiquities permission card with our photos attached that would give us free entrance to most of the sites in Egypt. While we were there chatting to her a well-known Egyptologist and excavator came into the office to see her – but she politely asked him to wait until we were finished. There was a slight problem in that she was not authorised to give us permission to visit the sites that were not officially open. For that we had to go across the river to Zamalek to Dr Hawass’s office in the main SCA building. This was right across town and involved another long taxi ride through the busy daytime traffic. We found the office eventually after the taxi driver drove round and round asking people where the SCA office was. I would have thought at least the locals would know how to find the main offices of the Antiquities Service, but then why should they?
This time we went up several flights of stairs, we were passed from room to room and had a long wait before finally being ushered into yet another office where we were interviewed by one of the SCA officials. I had imagined that this main SCA building would be quite grand but it was just an ordinary rather small and shabby Egyptian office, though it looked quite newly built. It was all quite gruelling and we still didn’t know if we would be given the permissions we wanted, but after another long wait we were given the letter we needed signed and stamped by Dr Hawass’s office. All of this had taken up most of the day – but it was well worth the perseverance.
Relieved to have this important mission behind us, Sam and I stopped off in Tahrir Square to go to the American University bookshop. I hadn’t been there before and it was like walking into paradise. The bookshop consists of a large room on the university campus and it’s crammed with every Egyptology book I ever wanted as well as maps and guidebooks, Egyptian novels (in English) and lots more. Many English and American Egyptology books are re-published by the AUC Press at a fraction of the price we would pay at home and I have to confess that Sam and I bought quite a lot of books between us, refusing to think about how we would be able to carry them home on the plane. I also bought a really excellent map of Egypt published by Rough Guide, that would be useful on our travels. It was all too hard to resist and I spent far too much money.
We ate in the hotel this evening for convenience because Sam was taking a taxi to the airport to meet Jane, the third member of our little party, who arrived from London at 10.30pm. Tomorrow our adventures will begin. I’ve come to like Cairo much better in the last three days, it certainly makes a difference seeing the city with Sam who knows her way around and makes it much more enjoyable. I think I’ll be a little sorry to leave Cairo, but we will be back in a couple of weeks.
Faiyum Here We Come
Abdul and his Peugeot taxi were parked outside the Ciao Hotel and we were all loaded up and ready to move. It had taken a while because our driver had decided to have the taxi serviced early this morning because he wanted to make sure everything was just right for our journey, so it wasn’t until 11.00am, with Sam in the front, Jane and I in the back and all our luggage piled high behind us that we set off through the busy Cairo streets on our way to the Faiyum. We drove out to Giza and down al-Haram, the Pyramids Road, under thick heavy clouds with rain threatening. Then we were on the new fast road to Faiyum and we even caught a glimpse of Meidum Pyramid over to our left rising through the mist.
We hadn’t pre-booked a hotel, preferring to wait and see what was available, with the idea of perhaps staying by the Lake, but the police at the first checkpoint we stopped at had other ideas and tried to insist we went into Faiyum City to a tourist hotel of their choice. Sam has been here before and knew the hotel the police suggested. She definitely didn’t want to stay there and held out for the lake. After quite a bit of argument (Sam has a real stubborn streak) they agreed to escort us out to the lake to the Panorama Hotel at Shakshouk.
The large lake of Birket Qarun is on the northwest edge of Faiyum and has a developing tourist industry which we could see from the number of smart hotels and apartments being built. We had followed the police truck along roads bounded on either side by agricultural fields through the area known as ‘the garden of Egypt’ which provides much of the country’s fruit and vegetables, wheat, rice and cotton, as well as dates from the many groves of palm trees. After driving all the way along the eastern shore of the lake we arrived at the Panorama Hotel to find a lovely low modern building right on the lakeside and we all trooped into the reception area. The hotel rates were much more than we were used to paying for rooms but Sam and Abdul between them managed to negotiate ‘Egyptian’ rates for us at EL110 per night. As Jane and I had already decided to share a room this didn’t seem too bad and got even better when we reached our assigned room and I immediately fell in love with it. In fact, it wasn’t just a room but a whole suite, with a huge bedroom, lounge and bathroom under high domed ceilings and curving archways it and even had a little terrace outside that overlooked the lake. There were comfy sofas and armchairs and a little kitchen area with a fridge. I think it’s going to be difficult when the time comes to move on from here.
Birket Qarun supports a small fishing industry and I went out with my camera just before sunset to the little beach to see the tiny colourful boats coming in with their catch. The sky was a blaze of colour as the sun went down, the shimmering blue turning first to a pale delicate apricot and then quickly deepening to an incredible dark red. It really was a heavenly sight. A little later we drove back to Medinet al-Faiyum (the capital, Faiyum City) which is towards the centre of the oasis with all the roads radiating from it like spokes in a wheel. We had been informed that we were not allowed to go anywhere without a police escort and so we had to take a policeman with us in the car and also to eat with us. Our policeman was very grumpy and obviously didn’t like this job of being our nursemaid. He spoke no English and our attempts to make conversation were studiously ignored. While we ate dinner in a restaurant he sat at a nearby table and glared at us and when we all went to a coffee shop later he sat apart and glared at us some more. I’m sure he could have been a little more friendly, but he refused everything we offered him. During the course of the evening we were entertained by a man in the coffee shop, whose party trick was to bend coins in half with his teeth. It made my own teeth ache just watching him. By the time we left the city at midnight it was freezing cold and all the locals were shrouded in woolly scarves wrapped tightly around their heads and most had several warm shawls draped around their shoulders too. I even began to feel sorry for our policeman who had probably never come across western tourists here before who actually wanted to leave the confines of their hotel. On the drive back we saw two small wolves run across the road ahead of us and Abdul told us that Faiyum still has many wild wolves (or maybe they were wolverines). It was an exciting end to the day.
We’d arranged with the police to leave the hotel this morning on our first site visit at 9.00am but when Jane and I turned up for breakfast to meet Sam, she had already been joined by Abdul and Mr Ashraf, the Chief of the Tourist police. We had thought that he had come to organise our day – but he and Abdul sat talking for ages and it wasn’t until 10.30am that we were eventually allowed to leave. Breakfast, however, was excellent.
Our first visit was to Kom Ushim and we drove back north-east along the edge of the lake the way we had arrived yesterday as far as the entrance to Faiyum on the desert road. This was where the cultivated land ended and the desert began, with a huge mound which was once the largest of the Graeco-Roman town sites in this area. The town’s ancient name was Karanis and its now-scattered ruins were inhabited for seven centuries. A truckload of tourist police followed our taxi onto the site, pulling up outside a block built structure that turned out to be a small museum. There were several carved blocks and huge stone vessels lying haphazardly on the ground in front of the building, but the museum itself was very good and even had two of the Faiyum mummy masks on dislplay.
The town was built on a large ‘Kom’, a mound that was the home to two temples and it was the larger southern temple we first went to see. Probably overlaying an earlier temple, this ruined limestone structure was built during the Ptolemaic period towards the end of the first century AD and seemed to follow the standard plan of a traditional Egyptian temple with a paved courtyard, hall, vestibule and sanctuary, though none were decorated. In the walls of the vestibule there are deep niches which, we were told, would have contained mummified crocodiles, for this was a temple dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek or Suchos who was worshipped here as Pnepheros and Petesuchos. Many mummified crocodiles were also found in the land surrounding the temple. In this part of the temple the walls are only a couple of metres high, but the sanctuary still contains a huge stone altar which has a hidden chamber underneath that was probably used by the priests to deliver oracles. A large stone gate marks the entrance to the southern temple which bears a worn inscription of the Emperor Nero, usurped by Claudius. Another large gate to the east beyond a small sacred lake was built by Vespasian. We went up onto the roof of the temple from where we had a great view over the whole site and the land to the south. My goodness – there seemed to be gun-toting policemen on every hill and I wondered whether they were guarding us or their antiquities.
The town itself, which originally would have been on the shores of Lake Qarun, is said to have been founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BC, primarily as a garrison for his troops, but it prospered and grew, probably because of its accessibility from more populated cities to the north. The houses are arranged in clusters around the two main thoroughfares which run from north to south and range in style from simple mudbrick dwellings to the more elaborate villas of the high-status officials. Remains of millstones and olive presses still lie on the ground and ten large granaries and seven smaller ones have been found here as well as six dovecotes, similar to those seen in the Faiyum today suggesting that the Karanis was mainly a farming community.
The northern temple, constructed on an earlier site, also dates to the end of the 1st century AD, but has no inscriptions at all. This grey limestone structure faces north, is smaller than the southern temple and was once surrounded by a mudbrick temenos wall which is now mostly destroyed. There are two small entrance pylons and the outer corners of the temple are decorated with four slender columns. A large stone altar, also with an oracle niche, dominates the sanctuary. In addition to the cult of the crocodile-god, Karanis is known to have had devotees of the divine triad of Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates, as well as numerous other ‘domestic gods’, both Egyptian and Greek, in fact 27 different Egyptian, Greek or Roman deities are recorded here. The town has been excavated several times and has provided a very valuable source of information on everyday life, religious cults, administration and industries during the Graeco-Roman Period. There have also been numerous papyri and documents found – excellently preserved due to Egypt’s dry climate – which have the special significance of being able to be read in context with the architecture and artefacts of the town remains.
A couple of hours later we were back in the taxi and with our police escort and driving alongside a canal about 15km to the next site, Kom el-Atl, which we were told, is pronounced ‘Kom el-Asl’ by the locals. This is another town mound, called Bacchius in ancient times. We stopped at a gafir’s hut and he took us on a tour of the massive site, again in ruins with many remains of low mudbrick walls stretching across the sandy hills. It was difficult to see what was going on here. Our guide the gafir, silently led us between the heaps of bricks and waited a few minutes before taking off to the next hill. We were also accompanied around the site by a wolf, who kept just a few metres ahead of us all the time and if he got too close the gafir threw stones in his direction and he would run a little further away again to stand and wait for us. The police seemed not to be in evidence here.
Once a border town on the desert road from Memphis, the small community of Bacchius which was built on top of an earlier prehistoric settlement, was also founded in the Ptolemaic Period around the 3rd century BC and abandoned in the 4th century AD. As well as much evidence of housing, there is also a very large mudbrick structure, once thought to be a temple but since another stone temple has recently been discovered here the excavators now believe the mudbrick structure to have been temple store-rooms. The oddly-shaped stone temple, found in 1993, is thought to have been dedicated to Soknobkonneus, a form of Sobek. Many Greek and Roman papyri have been found at Kom el-Atl, as well as coins, mummy portrait masks and fragments of statues. The excavators have also uncovered foundations of a large well-built structure of some importance with remains of inlaid wooden furniture and pottery lamps. The whole site, which stretches over many smaller mounds, is strewn with pottery sherds and it was a long and tiring walk around it.
Our next stop, not far away, was the town-site of Kom el-Hamman, also known as el-Roda or Kom el-Kharaba el-Kebir, which means the ‘Great Hill of Ruins’. When we pulled up I couldn’t see why we had stopped here because there was just a large stretch of empty desert, but on looking more closely the whole area was covered by broken pot-sherds. Here lay the ancient town of Philadelphia, named after Ptolemy II who founded it. Although there is little to see this is an important site known to archaeologists as a ‘model town’ set up by Apollonius, a minister of the Pharaoh. It was here that most of the famous Faiyum mummy portraits were found, discovered by locals in the 19th century while taking fertiliser for their fields and bought by a European dealer, who subsequently sold them to various museums. Many papyri have also been found at this site, including the archive of Zeno, a steward of Apollonius, who kept records of his correspondence filled with details of agricultural production. These records have provided a great deal of information about the management of a Ptolemaic town and daily life in this farming community. While it was an evocative place to discuss, we didn’t stay long as there really was nothing to see other than the faint marks of walls beneath the lonely desert.
The police chief wanted to stop for coffee on the way back to our hotel, so Abdul, Sam, Jane and I piled into a cafe with Mr Ashraf and left the half a dozen other policemen sitting in their truck. It was only when we got back to the Panorama at 5.00pm that we realised that today is the Coptic Christmas Day. We had intended to have dinner in the hotel but it was packed with Egyptians out to celebrate the festive occasion, so it was back to Medinet el-Faiyum again – another hour’s drive. This time we had two policemen with us in the car. There were a few problems in the city as the police tried to tell us where we could go to eat and I began to feel like we were prisoners let out on parole. It certainly isn’t a place that feels welcoming to tourists.
The day began with a lovely drive west along the lakeside as far as a little village called Tunis where there were many splendid and expensive looking villas, perhaps holiday properties owned by the rich and famous of Cairo. Right at the end of Birket Qarun our taxi with its accompanying tourist police truck turned down a sandy track leading to the temple of Qasr Qarun. The temple is undergoing restoration by the Egyptian Antiquities Service and looks like a building site.
Qasr Qarun is another temple dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek (here called Suchos) who was very popular in the Faiyum. It was built during the Late Period and surrounded by a town site, now mostly buried beneath the encroaching desert, that was in ancient times known as Dionysias and was the beginning of the caravan route to Bahriya Oasis. Dionysias was founded in the 3rd century BC. As we walked along the track, the temple appeared as a large rectangular uninscribed facade before us, constructed from yellow limestone blocks and didn’t look particularly interesting. Once inside the building however, it was a warren of chambers and corridors, that were being rebuilt. At present only the sanctuary area seems to make any sense. There were staircases going down into crypts and up onto the roof and we ran about exploring – Sam had challenged Jane and I to find the only existing relief left in the temple. We eventually found the relief up in the roof sanctuary; a worn carving of the god Suchos and the lower half of an un-named Ptolemy. From the roof there was a view over the whole town site and we could see the outline of a second smaller mudbrick temple nearby beneath the sand, which dates to the Roman Period. There was also a fortress that we could just see to the west, constructed by the Emperor Diocletian to protect the town against invading Bedouin tribes. It is now fairly ruined with really only the square towers on the corners showing but apparently it still has the remains of a Christian basilica inside.
Time to move on. We were on our way to the Wadi ar-Rayyan on the southern edge of Faiyum, but we stopped on the road-side to take a picture of another site, Medinet Wafta, which was inaccessible, though we could see the town-mound across the desert. This was the site of the ancient town of Philoteras. Another 20km along a straight new tarmac road bounded on either side by endless sand hills and we reached Wadi Rayyan, a recently developed national park where many Egyptian tourists come to walk, swim or take rowing boats out on the lakes. The two large lakes are artificial, made by allowing surplus water to drain from Birket Qarun down to the empty depression of Wadi Rayyan. A small river connects the northern and southern lake and here we found Egypt’s only waterfall. At a height of around three metres I thought it a little disappointing, but the setting was pretty, a little strange and very unusual for Egyptian countryside. The lakes are incongruously surrounded by large sand dunes as well as the wetlands and reed beds that are the habitation of many rare birds in the winter. There are a couple of mountain ranges surrounding the region and pictures I saw on a tourist map show strange rock formations, but we didn’t have time to explore the area. Not far away is the Wadi al-Hitan where 40 million-year-old whale skeletons have been found and which is also part of this protectorate known as the ‘Valley of the Whales’. Our policemen seemed happy to be here and sat on chairs on the little ‘beach’ in front of the lake while Sam, Jane, Abdul and I went for a coffee in the huge cafeteria. There were many Egyptian tourists there, probably still on their Christmas holiday.
We drove on to the southern end of the lakes and shortly turned off to another archaeological site called Qasr Banat, ancient Euphemeria, where there is a temple of Sobek and Isis, but we were not allowed to visit the temple and had to be content to take photographs at a distance across the fields. Batn Ihrit was our next stop, site of the ancient town of Theadelphia, a garrison town situated on the opposite border of the Faiyum to Philadelphia in the east. Also like Philadelphia it was named in honour of Arsinoe, sister of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The site of Theadelphia contains the scant remains of a mudbrick gateway to the Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Pnepheros, an aspect of Sobek the crocodile-god. Although there are few remains of the temple, several artefacts found here are now at Cairo Museum. These include a wooden door donated to the temple by a citizen from Alexandria in 137 BC and a portable barque shrine for the god as well as frescoes from the temple walls. There was little for us to see here today except a vast pottery-strewn area with many large grave-pits on the edge of the desert and a separate building, a strange wall with arches that we were told was a Roman bath-house.
Back at the hotel Sam, Jane and I got together to discuss what to do next. We had originally planned only to spend a couple of nights here at Birket Qarun and then move on, but Jane and I declared that we want to stay here longer. I couldn’t bear to leave our gorgeous suite and the peaceful haven of the lake just yet, even though it is a long way to the rest of the sites we want to visit in Faiyum.
Narmouthis and Tebtunis
If we’d been staying in Faiyum City today’s trip would have been a lot easier, but opting to stay by the lake meant a long and bumpy drive across the desert to our first stop today at Medinet Madi. This site is said to be the one of the most difficult places to get to in the whole of Faiyum, but it is the site I most wanted to see – one of the most important sites too because it contains a Middle Kingdom Temple, which are rare in Egypt. We had a police escort with us in the taxi as well as several in a car up ahead, which was just as well because Abdul wasn’t too sure of the way and luckily they knew how to get to the site.
After leaving the south-western end of Birket Qarun and driving east along the desert road, we eventually reached a remote village called Abu Ghandir, where to my surprise we turned off straight across the sand. There was no track to follow but the police car ahead was making straight towards a sandy ridge in the distance and I’m sure as he was zigzagging about Abdul was praying that his taxi wouldn’t get stuck in the powdery sand. We stopped at some distance from the ridge, not able to go any further and we were told that we had to walk the rest of the way and climb up the mound. That was fun – one step forward and three backwards in the deep sand! At the top we found a little square hut and a gafir and looking down the other side of the ridge I could see the temple buildings and town site stretching out below me half-buried in the sand. Accompanied by the gafir we slid down the bank and walked to the entrance to the site where many stone sphinxes and lion statues were poking their heads out of the sand. Apparently they regularly appear and disappear as the desert blows over them. The light here was dazzlingly bright. The temple is constructed from pale golden limestone blocks which hurt the eyes to look at and played havoc with the exposure on my camera, but I thought it was very beautiful. There are teams of archaeologists who are currently excavating here but today nobody was about and it felt so remote and lonely and quite romantic.
The first temple we entered was the Middle Kingdom temple built by Amenemhet III and his son and co-regent Amenemhet IV of Dynasty XII. I was delighted to see reliefs in the three sanctuaries of this temple, which is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and Renenutet, the snake-headed goddess of fertility and the harvest. The reliefs were very worn but also very rare as Renenutet is seldom seen in temples. The goddess was known to have a strong cult here at Medinet Madi where her role as protector of crops would stem from the large-scale crop production in Faiyum. There were also cartouches of Amenemhet III and IV carved on the sanctuary walls. The temple was restored during Dynasty XIX and greatly expanded during the Graeco-Roman Period. Back to back with the Middle Kingdom temple is a Ptolemaic addition which contains an altar and some Greek inscriptions. It was on the wall in this part that we found a large relief of Sobek, in human form with a crocodile head and a wonderful toothy crocodile grin. The gafir told us that the Italian archaeologists recently uncovered a Ptolemaic gate to the east of the temple and on further investigation another temple dedicated to Sobek was discovered beneath the rubble. This second temple was built of mudbrick with stone doorways and lintels, with its axis at right-angles to the older temple. Tablets and papyri were also found in the debris, including an important oracular document written in demotic script. On the north side of the temple court, a crocodile nursery was discovered with dozens of eggs in different stages of maturation. Medinet Madi, whose modern name means ‘city of the past’, was known in Graeco-Roman times as ‘Narmouthis’. Excavators have discovered two separate towns at the site, though little of these was in evidence today and I imagined that the encroaching sand blown across the site on the desert winds had covered them all over again.
It was a long walk back to the cars on the other side of the ridge and then another long drive to Umm el-Baragat, the site of the Graeco-Roman town of Tebtunis. We travelled back towards Medinet el-Faiyum before following country tracks through many poor-looking villages to a village called Tutin from where we followed a canal until we got to the edge of the desert again. The cars pulled up by a little mosque and we had another long walk across the sand until we eventually reached the paved processional way to the temple. It’s funny how the police escort who are guarding us never bother to come along if there’s any walking involved. We were met by two guardians who showed us around the large town site.
Tebtunis, one of the largest Graeco-Roman towns in Faiyum, is thought to have originated in the New Kingdom but all the extant remains date to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. There has been a lot of restoration here, especially at the domestic site where several Roman villas have been reconstructed, their low walls, many of which still have some plaster and paint, have been consolidated and capped for protection. We entered the site along the processional way to the little Ptolemaic to Greek Period temple dedicated to Soknebtynis (‘Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis’) which was guarded by two yellow limestone lion statues. At the southern end of temple area, several large fine white limestone columns, of Greek style, have been reconstructed in a court on the western axis of the building. The domestic site was quite extensive and very interesting, with small dwellings and large villas clearly laid out and in one part we saw a stone-lined construction that we were told were Roman baths. Umm el-Baragat was home to a vast crocodile cemetery where over 1000 mummified crocodiles and sarcophagi were found by the earliest excavators, Grenfell and Hunt of the EES. In 1900 there was also one of those frequent ‘happy accident’ finds that Egypt is well-known for. A workman found one of the crocodile mummies (which had been considered worthless) to be wrapped in sheets of papyrus and together with many other fragments of papyrus found by excavators in the town’s houses, they became known collectively as the Tebtunis Papyri. The ‘Tebtunis Papyri’ consisted of a small library which contained numerous literary, medical and administrative documents as well as religious texts from the temple.
By the time we had walked around the whole site the sun was already going down and Sam, Jane and I were feeling pretty tired. No wonder the policemen had opted to stay by their car and drink tea! But it has been a really good day and to finish we stopped at Medinet el-Faiyum for a leisurely coffee on the way back to our hotel.
Hawara & Lahun
The weather by the lake seems to get cooler with every passing day. This morning brought a strong breeze and the solid mass of dark cloud hanging over the horizon made me thankful that we were driving in the opposite direction towards Medinet el-Faiyum. As usual our police escort weren’t prepared to move before 10.00am and it was almost a two hour drive to our first destination, the Middle Kingdom pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara. Turning off just before Faiyum City we drove through a pretty valley scattered with small villages and many of the typical Faiyum dovecotes, strange white cake-like structures where the farmers raised their pigeons. Eventually we arrived at the Hawara necropolis, on the southern edge of Faiyum and were met by the Gafir, who seemed delighted to see us.
King Amenemhet III had already built a pyramid to the north of here at Dahshur and this was his second attempt – his earlier ‘Black Pyramid’ having suffered structural stresses during construction. His grandfather had also constructed a pyramid near here at el-Lahun. This was a region that was very popular during Dynasty XII as a pleasure-ground where kings and nobles could enjoy fishing and fowling in the marshes and hunting the many wild animals in the desert areas. It was probably an obvious choice for the King’s last resting place. The gafir showed us all around the site and we looked at each side of Amenemhet’s pyramid, with its reinforced mudbrick core once encased in white limestone now exposed so that we could see how it was constructed. Within the pyramid enclosure there is thought to have been an extensive mortuary complex which classical authors referred too as ‘The Labyrinth’, described by Herodotus as having been constructed from a single rock and to contain three thousand rooms connected by winding passages and courts. Strabo called the complex ‘a palace composed of as many smaller palaces as were formerly nomes’, that is, forty two. Unfortunately this unique building is now so ruined that all we could see were heaps of sand and rubble bisected by a modern canal. There were one or two carved pieces of stone lying about, including fragments of lotus columns and remains of a fine white limestone relief that had once depicted crocodiles. The gafir also showed us over the Roman town site on the northern side of the pyramid where there were several earlier mastabas as well as many graves and in one we even saw a skeleton lying there half exposed. Though I can’t usually get very excited about pyramids I found this site interesting as it was the last major pyramid complex built in Egypt.
After a couple of hours at Hawara we drove on to the town of el-Lahun, which I have to say felt very hostile. The police car had driven on ahead of us leaving Abdul to deal with youths and children who were having fun hitting his taxi with sticks and throwing stones at us as we drove through the narrow streets of the town. Seems that tourists are not welcome here! Once through the town we drove alongside a huge mudbrick embankment for several kilometres that was built by Amenemhet I and said to mark the southern edge of the ancient Lake Moeris. The pyramid of Senwosret I at el-Lahun is an impressive size though now in a ruinous condition. We could see the natural outcrop of yellow limestone spokes around which the structure was built, protruding from the rubble of the mudbrick fill in some places. This too would have been covered in white limestone. It is unusual because its entrance is not, as would be expected, on the northern side but through a vertical shaft several metres east of the southern side and beneath the floor of an unknown princess’s tomb, probably in an attempt to deceive robbers. We walked all around the structure, which is bounded by a row of eight large mastabas on the northern side and we saw a smaller queen’s pyramid on the north-east corner. Petrie and Guy Brunton investigated here in 1914, and on the south-eastern side, found the famous ‘Lahun Treasure’ while excavating the tomb of Princess Sit-Hathor-Iunet. This was a spectacular Middle Kingdom hoard of exquisite jewellery and cosmetic vessels that can now be seen in the Cairo Museum and the Met in New York.
To the North is the King’s pyramid town, established to maintain Senwosret’s mortuary cult, consisting of blocks of workers’ houses and larger villas for the officials. This town, known by the modern name of Kahun, was at the time of discovery the only extant example of a complete pyramid town, and when Petrie excavated it in 1889 it was found with much of its ancient furnishings in place. The town has been the source of a great deal of valuable information about the domestic lives of its inhabitants. Petrie also found an enormous quantity of papyri in Kahun, consisting of contemporary documents relating to wills, medical texts, astronomical texts and the only known veterinary papyrus as well as various letters, accounts and administration documents. Many of these ‘Kahun texts’ come from the temple archive and include religious documents from the period. They are now preserved in Cairo, University College London and Berlin. We decided not to walk the kilometre distance across the desert to the town site because it has now been back-filled and there was little to see.
The drive back through el-Lahun town wasn’t so bad because we had a policeman in the taxi with us. Abdul is inordinately careful with his Peugeot – his main source of income – and he will clean and tend it lovingly at every opportunity. When the boys had been hitting it with sticks Abdul was furious at the damage they may cause, but even so I was surprised that his fury wasn’t taken out on the culprits and that he had a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude to the vandalism. Abdul, like most Egyptian men, always surprises me with his gentle and tolerant manner towards children. On the way back to Medinet el-Faiyum we stopped for gas at a garage at the entrance to the town where we saw, standing in the centre of a traffic roundabout, the red granite obelisk, or more accurately an obelisk-shaped stele that had originally been erected by Senwosret I in the village of Abgig, near Itsa to the south of Faiyum. It had been broken in two and was restored and re-erected here in 1971, but we could see little of the very worn inscription. The ‘Abgig Obelisk’, as it is called, stands at 13m high. We drove on into the town and parked in the square by one of Faiyum’s famous landmarks, the unique wooden waterwheels that were first introduced here by the Ptolemies. The wheels are said to number around two hundred throughout the region, where water from clear, fast-flowing streams, powers the wheels to irrigate the agricultural fields. We saw four of these huge black solid wheels in operation in the centre of town. Nearby there was a stall selling colourful baskets, one of Faiyum’s main crafts. These are woven from palm leaves, rice stalks or straw in red, green and pink and the variety of designs look very attractive. I decided I wouldn’t be able to get one home, tempting though they were. Abdul wanted to go to the mosque so Mr Ashraf the police chief, took Sam, Jane and I on a mini-tour of his city, ending up at a coffee shop to wait for Abdul. Later we had a very good meal in the city before going back to the Panorama Hotel to pack. Tomorrow is our last day in Faiyum.
The Road South
We had a good send off from our hotel on Birket Qarun this morning. Maybe they were keen to get us off their hands, because for the first time this week we managed to get permission from our police guards to be away by 9.00am, knowing that we had a very long and busy day ahead. The policeman we have named ‘The crazy One’ rode with us in the taxi while Chief Ashraf and his troops rode shotgun in their truck in front of us, driving right through the Faiyum as far as the bridge at el-Lahun. On the bridge I disgraced myself by attempting to take a photograph of the Bahr Yussef Canal through the taxi’s window of what I thought was a pretty rural scene with little boats fishing in the waters below the bridge. This almost caused the Crazy Policeman to have a heart attack because unbeknown to me taking photographs anywhere on or near bridges in Egypt is strictly forbidden. Luckily I was yelled at and stopped before my finger hit the shutter button – otherwise I might have been slung into jail and the key thrown away.
At the other side of the bridge, the border between Faiyum and Beni Suef traffic areas, the ‘handover’ took place. At the checkpoint we all got out of our vehicles and there were handshakes and hugs all round. Chief Ashraf, damp-eyed (with relief I suspect) bid us all a fond farewell and made sure Abdul had his mobile number for emergencies before a rather large tip was passed over in gratitude for their ‘assistance’. We were then officially handed over to the Beni Suef police and several troops piled into their truck and waved us to follow behind. Our first stop today was Ehnasya el-Medina, a site on the southern edge of Faiyum.
This vast ancient site covers about 67 hectares of land on the edge of the desert, which my notes told me, had been occupied since the First Intermediate Period. As soon as we got out of the car we were mobbed by village children but the police soon chased them away good-naturedly and we walked over to a fenced-off area that was the site of current excavations by a Spanish team. I had done my homework and knew a little of what was going on here and we looked down into a deep pit where mudbrick and stone tombs from the Third Intermediate Period were being cleared. This area revealed burials from Dynasties XXI to XXVI but were re-used tombs for successive generations which must have been confusing to the excavators. Many important Libyan names have been found here giving much information from this obscure period of history, especially on the political and religious links between Ehnasya and Tanis, the Libyan capital.
In ancient times the town was called Henen-nesw and was capital of the 20th Upper Egyptian nome. Although there wasn’t a great deal for us to see, the site felt full of history. It was from this city that the rulers of Dynasties IX and X originated, who later came into conflict with the early rulers of the Theban Dynasty XI. Henen-Nesw was the cult centre of the ram-headed god Herishef during pharaonic times, a deity which the Greeks identified with their Herakles, giving the town its classical name of Herakleopolis Magna. The existence of a town at here at Ehnasya el-Medina continued into the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic Periods and the extensive remains of the ancient city incorporates a number of cemeteries and temples spanning the Middle Kingdom to Roman periods. We walked over to the south-western side of the site to a boggy area where we found the scant remains of a Temple of Herishef, founded in the Middle Kingdom. The scattered blocks and statue fragments that we could see date to Rameses II who enlarged and added to the temple. Some of the reliefs were wonderful and depicted the god Herishef who I had never seen before. Unfortunately the sand has encroached and the ground-water has risen so much that the plan of the temple was difficult to see but it was great to see some Pharaonic reliefs after all the Roman stuff in the Faiyum during the past week. We did end up in the Roman part of the site, however, where there were a few standing columns and what we thought may have been part if a gateway. Behind this across a vast empty area of sand, the modern village of Ehnasya el-Medina, itself looking very old, romantically stood on a mound like a fortress, with a white-painted Sheikh’s tomb a the bottom of the hill. I must say, our Beni Suef police were very patient, giving us all the time we needed to wander around the site with the gafir, who unfortunately spoke no English, but the day was passing and it was time to move on.
We drove on for about 20km along the edge of the cultivation to the modern village of Dishasha, not far from the Bahr Yussef Canal. Here, the police picked up a gafir and we turned into the desert, following a sandy track that the police seemed to know but we could barely see, towards the escarpment where a cemetery of Old Kingdom tombs are built into a ridge, high on the cliff above the plain. We got out of the taxi and were faced with a very long steep flight of steps leading up the cliff and as the gafir had already started ahead, we followed, a little more slowly behind him, climbing up to the terrace. The gafir was a tiny wiry-looking man with a wrinked face, and looked like he had already seen his 80th birthday, but he had made the climb in half the time it took Jane, Sam and I to puff and pant our way up the steps. At the top, however, the view was magnificent – or at least it would have been if there had been anything to see. There was just flat open desert stretching out on every side as far as the eye could see – pure emptiness – with only Abdul’s taxi and a police truck like toys far below us. We turned around on the narrow terrace and began to look at the tombs. These, for the most part were sand-filled and derelict but there was one important tomb that we knew about and wanted to see, the Dynasty V tomb of Inty, which contains a rare relief depicting a siege of a fortified town and industrial scenes including woodworking. Inty’s tomb was closed by a stout metal door and when we asked the gafir to open it he indicated that he hadn’t brought the key! The three of us just looked at him in disbelief and I thought Sam was going to explode. After that monstrous climb we couldn’t even get into the one tomb that was accessible. Why oh why hadn’t the gafir mentioned this down there at ground level? But nothing can be taken for granted in Egypt and I guess we should have made it clear that we would have liked to go into the tomb. We pottered around the open courtyards of the other tombs but there was little to see apart from one very worn relief of a hes-pot carved into a disintegrating wall. By the time we got back to earth, my thigh muscles felt like jelly. At least Abdul and the policemen had a good laugh with the gafir about it when we got back to the cars. We were not so amused!
Maybe it was to make up for our disappointment, but the police told us to follow them and we travelled on to another unscheduled stop at a site near a little village called Mazura, again on the edge of the desert, somewhere between Biba and el-Fashna, on the west bank of the Nile to the south of Beni Suef. There was a gafir here too, who was willing to show us over the site, but unfortunately he spoke no English – and very little Arabic come to that. None of us knew anything about the site or had ever heard of it, but as we walked over the shallow sand covered hills that were strewn everywhere with pot-sherds we realised that it was something important. The gafir did go as far as to tell us the name of the site, Kom el-Ahmar, which means ‘Red Hill’ and which is quite a common name for red-pottery covered sites in Egypt. There were many graves of different types, some of them were pits in the sand and some were brick-lined. There was also a limestone paved platform and low remains of stone and brick walls which must once have contained a structure (temple or shrine?) but we had no idea of the period this is dated to. The site was bounded by a small canal and the village of Mazura was about 1km away. Closer to the village there was another area covered in broken pottery and lying by the track there were large sections of plain round columns scattered haphazardly on the ground. A real mystery site that was not marked on any of the detailed maps we had.
We had originally intended to travel straight from the Dishasha tombs to Beni Suef, cross the bridge there to the east bank and get onto the long desert road all the way to Minya. Our diversions had already added a couple of hours to our afternoon, but when the police suggested we stop at a roadside cafe for coffee we were all more than ready for a drink. It was there that they told us they could arrange for us to visit the ancient town of Ankhyronpolis at el-Hiba if we would like it. Abdul looked a bit worried, but Sam, Jane and I jumped at the chance to see yet another out-of-the-way site. The Beni Suef police had really been fantastic and seemed to understand (unlike most Egyptians and especially tourist police) that we wanted to visit every site we could. While they made the arrangements, we had our coffee and were ready to set off again, not over the bridge as we had expected, but on a precarious ramshackle car ferry over the Nile straight from el-Fasha to el-Hiba, which at least cut quite a lot of time off the journey. We said our goodbyes and thanked the friendly Beni Suef police at the ferry and were met at the other side by police from the el-Fashna traffic district. It felt rather like a game of pass-the-parcel!
The journey from the ferry to el-Hiba wasn’t far, just a few kilometres following the Nile under the high cliffs of the escarpment, but by the time we got to the site the sun was fast going down. El-Hiba is the site of ancient Tuedjoi. Now thought to have been founded at least as early as the New Kingdom, the town was an important frontier fortress on the northern limits of the Theban region during late Dynasty XX to Dynasty XXII and a temple was built here at that time, probably by Shoshenq I. Although there was continued habitation through the following centuries, the town regained its military importance under the name of Ankyrononpolis during the Graeco-Roman Period.
The huge area of mudbrick ruins of the town sprawled before us from the edge of the Nile up the hillside, bathed golden in the late afternoon sun. There was a spectacular view from the top, overlooking the surrounding plain to the River. We had a quick look around and investigated the small temple thought to be built by Shoshenq I, now bisected by the modern road. The walls were very low and mostly ruined but the whole scene was beautiful in this lonely place. It was a real bonus to be able to visit this site.
As darkness began to draw in, we eventually joined the desert road that goes from Cairo to Asyut. I knew Abdul had hoped to arrive in Minya in daylight and I could see that he was already tired from today’s driving. The desert road is long and straight, with no distractions and we still had about another 150km to go. On the way we were stopped by a terrible accident, involving a lorry and trailer that had overturned onto the edge of the desert. These flat-bed lorries that pull long trailers are incredibly dangerous as they sway from side to side with the weight piled too high on top and I’ve already seen several in Egypt that have been overturned as they hit the camber of the road. As we stopped and our police escort jumped out of their truck it was obvious that the accident had happened only minutes before we arrived. The driver’s mate was climbing out of the smashed window of the lorry, very shaken but unhurt, but the police soon came to tell us that the driver had been killed and that we must wait for an ambulance to arrive from Minya. The whole incident was so tragic and we were all feeling quite shocked and very subdued by the time we were able to leave the scene an hour later. When we eventually arrived in Minya around 9.00pm we stopped at the first cheap hotel that would take us and went quietly off to bed, it was such a sad end to a really lovely day.
Another Dream Come True
I have waited for this day to come for so long. It has been my dream to visit Tell el-Amarna and this trip with Sam has at last make it possible.
We had to meet with the tourist police early this morning to tell them our plans and they tried to insist we see all the sites around the Minya area in one day and then move on. I’m really getting the impression that nobody likes tourists to go anywhere but Luxor, Aswan or Cairo. But having waited this long we were not about to have an hour only at Amarna, so we argued and eventually got our own way. Leaving the town at 9.00am we made our way to the first checkpoint just outside Minya where we collected our escort and were sandwiched in between several police cars and an armoured truck that looked like a tank. The road from Minya to Mallawi on the east bank is surprisingly pretty, an agricultural region with many of the tall pigeon-houses that we had seen in Faiyum and with little villages that were very clean and neat, unusual landscape for Egypt. Over the fields we saw tall crosses on top of several elaborate Christian churches and according to the police, that is the problem here at present. There have been many violent clashes between the large Coptic population here and the local Muslims and this is why the security is so tight. Driving through the town of Mallawi felt very tense with many men stopping to glare at us – though I’m sure the presence of several speeding police vehicles with sirens blaring for people to get out of the way, made matters worse. At one point someone with a donkey cart crashed into Abdul’s taxi, which was misfiring to start with, so he wasn’t in the best of moods either.
We crossed the Nile to Tell el-Amarna on the car ferry from el-Till, a large flat barge-like ferry that is pulled by chains across the river, while local children on board tried to sell us coloured palm-leaf baskets and home-made trinkets through the taxi’s windows. They were very insistent. Once we arrived on the east bank we stopped at the ticket office and when Sam and I produced our letters from Zahi Hawass’s office, the antiquities inspector came to show us around himself. We drove first to the northern tombs, some distance away from the river across an open sandy plain to the escarpment of cliffs that borders the desert. Here we spent a lot of time taking photographs inside the wonderful tombs of Ahmose, Meryre I, Pentu and Panehesy – an absolute delight. These Amarna tombs are so very different in style from the New Kingdom Theban tombs I am more familiar with. For a long while I have been fascinated by the whole of the Amarna Period, the time which centres around the reign of Akhenaten whom some call the ‘Heretic King’ or the ‘First Monotheist’.
The son of Amenhotep III of Dynasty XVIII, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten in year 5 of his reign, brought his personal god The Aten to prominence and founded his own new city of Akhetaten here at Tell el-Amarna in a bay of cliffs. The cult of the Aten became so uncompromising that there was a complete break with the state god Amun and his temple at Karnak was formally closed, supposedly followed by a thorough defacement of the shrines of major gods. The King’s own people followed him to Akhetaten and those who bore names compounded with Amun were obliged to change their names. Texts tell us that the king, with his queen Nefertiti, was directed by The Aten to the new site and the city was to be called ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (Akhetaten). The dedication ceremony is recorded on three boundary stelae carved into the limestone cliffs at the northern and southern extremities of the new city. A further eleven stelae were subsequently cut on both banks of the river to define the boundaries with greater precision – a unique form of delimiting a town not found elsewhere in Egypt. A whole village of workmen were brought in to construct the new city and during the foundation ceremony the king proposed a number of buildings, namely, a Great and a Smaller Aten Temple, many royal apartments and domestic buildings, as well as the necropolis. The building work was hastily done using mudbrick, sandstone talatat (small sandstone blocks) and a limestone plaster in which to cut very detailed reliefs. The whole city was based around a wide thoroughfare extending from north to south – a ‘royal road’ over eight kilometres in length and on which Akhenaten and his family are seen riding in chariots in many of the tomb reliefs. A magnificent Great Palace was constructed which contained colossal statues of the King and beautiful painted pavements with naturalistic designs as well as a ‘window of appearances’ from where Akhenaten and Nefertiti would conduct their interaction with their favoured subjects.
To the north of the central city are the remains of an excavated building known as the North Palace, and this was our next stop on our tour. The North Palace is a self-contained structure which was comprised of apartments built around an open court and a garden and also incorporated a throne room. Unusually this building included a courtyard for cattle and aviaries with nesting niches, and friezes found here show spectacular paintings of birds diving among marsh plants. It has been suggested that this building was a kind of zoological garden where the king could keep animals and birds and satisfy his love of nature. Originally thought to be a residence for Queen Nefertiti, the North Palace has been more recently identified as the home of the king’s lesser wife, Kiya and altered inscriptions show that the building was later usurped by his eldest daughter Meritaten. Although it was first excavated in 1924, much reconstruction and consolidation has been undertaken in this area in recent years and we could clearly see the plan of the various elements over the protective wire fence. To the north of this palace lies the North City where remains of a large fortified villa, the ‘North Riverside Palace’ can be seen and this is locally known as the ‘Qasr’. Barry Kemp, who has directed the site’s most recent excavations, suggests that this was the site of the main royal residence of Akhetaten. We saw remains of the thick mudbrick enclosure walls and a gateway here, as well as scattered blocks and column bases. This structure is badly dilapidated and has had an old disused excavation house built over much of the site, once occupied by John Pendlebury and his team who undertook excavations at Amarna for the Egypt Exploration Society during the 1930s. It was a very evocative site and felt full of history, both ancient and more recent.
As time was running short we drove back to the Central City and had a look at the excavated remains of the Small Aten Temple with it’s single massive replica column standing like a sentry on the plain, a modern landmark of the ancient city. To the north of the small Aten Temple was the ‘House of the Aten’, the Great Aten Temple, the outline of which could just about be seen from the top of the surrounding mound of sand. The Great Temple was originally enclosed by huge walls and inside were several cultic structures including a series of open-air courts and a vast number of offering tables – 365 on each of two sides representing Upper and Lower Egypt. The whole temple complex at Akhetaten seems to have been dominated by offerings of large quantities of food dedicated to the Aten before being distributed among the priests and population of the city. We had seen details of the temples in many of the reliefs on the walls of the nobles tombs.
After a quick look at the reconstructed house of Panehesy with its granaries, from a specially-constructed viewing platform, it was time to leave. We’ve spent most of the day here at Tell el-Amarna but still intend to return tomorrow as there is still a lot of the site we haven’t visited. Driving back towards Minya with our police escort, the policeman in our taxi decided we should stop for coffee (thank goodness) so we all piled out at a little roadside cafe. We were all dying for a drink, having had only bottled water all day and I was desperate for a decent cup of ahwa, the strong delicious Egyptian coffee that comes in a glass half full with grounds. Back in Minya later, we went out to a local restaurant for dinner (again with a policeman in tow) and looked at all the lovely colonial-style buildings as we wandered down the main street. I like the feel of this place, even though we were stared at like beings from another planet. They obviously don’t see many tourists out and about here!
Amarna, Ashmunein & Tuna
The Hotel in Minya we’ve been staying in is called the Hotel Shata, which means Beach, though I can’t imagine why because Minya is about as far as you can get from a beach in Egypt! This was the first hotel we could find in the town when we arrived on Friday night that would take foreign tourists, apart from the much more expensive Mercure further up the Corniche. The Beach Hotel, by comparison is pretty basic, a small Egyptian-run hostelry, but the rooms are clean enough and the price is good. The water is sometimes hot and the showers work after a fashion. The most amusing thing about this hotel is the lift which is the size of a matchbox. It’s big enough to take one suitcase slowly and creakily to the upper floors but we have to walk up the stairs to our rooms, which is actually much faster.
We got an early start this morning, leaving the hotel at 8.00am for a repeat trip to Tell el-Amarna. The tourist police who came with us seemed a lot more relaxed this morning and the journey was an easy one, crossing the Nile again on the ferry from el-Till to the archaeological site of Tell el-Amarna. The antiquities inspector, Nasser, was waiting for us as we had arranged yesterday with him that we would come again, but on the journey out to the northern tombs he seemed very quiet and subdued. We left the taxi at the guardhouse and hurried up the steep stone steps to the tombs, intending to carry on where we left off yesterday. It was here that Nasser dropped his bombshell. A new regulation put into force from today states that there can be no photography inside tombs anywhere in Egypt. At first we didn’t believe him, thinking that the inspector was joking, or else playing games with us, but it soon became obvious that this was serious. He was most apologetic but the orders came from on high and Nasser himself didn’t have a clue what this was about or how long it would last, it was as much a surprise to him as to us. Needless to say, Sam and I were devastated and wandered rather shocked around the tombs of Huya and Meryre II with our cameras tucked away in our bags.
Back in the taxi we drove across a sandy track over the plain to the entrance to the Royal wadi which we were told is inaccessible, blocked by boulders and for this reason the Royal Tomb is locked up. At least we could stop here and take a photograph of ‘Stele U’, one of Akhenaten’s boundary stelae high up in the rocky cliffs, but I had to use a long lens and the sun was right in front of me, so I didn’t expect to get much of a picture. We drove on to the southern tombs where we went into the beautiful tomb of Ay with its fantastic reliefs of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which I thought was similar in style to the Theban tomb of Ramose. Sam and I were so miserable at the photography ban by this time that we didn’t even have the heart to look at the other tombs – something I much regretted before the end of the day. Back at the resthouse we all had a cup of coffee and tried to decide what to do next. Do we stay at el-Amarna or do we move on somewhere else? We had seen most of the other sites here yesterday and it was mainly the southern tombs we had returned for and the fact that we couldn’t photograph these very important and beautiful reliefs left us heartbroken.
By lunchtime we were back on the other side of the river, having decided to visit el-Ashmunein, site of the classical city of Hermopolis Magna and the ancient capital of the 15th Upper Egyptian nome. When we got off the ferry on the west bank, there was no sign of our police escort with their massive armoured vehicle and so we drove off on our own as far as Mallawi before they caught up with us. El-Ashmunein is a distance of around 20km from el-Till back in the direction of Minya through pretty countryside with many trees lining the road, towards the edge of the desert. The ancient town originally named Khmunw, was a cult centre of the god Thoth (classical Hermes) and it is famous for its two colossal stone baboon statues, Thoth’s emblem, that dominate the site of the open-air museum where we stopped first. Jane loves animals of all kinds and had been really looking forward to seeing the baboon statues here, which I think were the highlight of the whole trip for her. We wandered the paths of the garden looking at the stelae and blocks that were scattered around. The town site itself is confusing because much of it is very overgrown, with crumbling ruins of mudbrick and stone structures sticking up above the grass and sand-covered hills. The monuments at Hermopolis have suffered from stone quarrying from early Christian times onward, but some of the stone masonry from the temple complex has remained in place. Archaeologists have uncovered foundations of the great pylon gateways built by Horemheb (Dynasty XVIII) and Rameses II (Dynasty XIX) during the excavations of the Thoth temple. It was in this area that over 1000 re-used talatat blocks from Akhenaten’s city on the east bank were found.
We drove through the ruined area but didn’t venture far into the overgrown city because it looked like a great place for snakes to live. On the eastern side of the track we stopped at the substantial remains of a Roman agora and saw the restored Coptic basilica, constructed with many blocks from the ruined Ptolemaic monuments and which followed an entirely Greek style of architecture. Most of the graceful granite columns still stand in the rectangular structure of the church – said to be the best example of a monument from this period in Egypt. Nearby, a long architrave inscribed with a Greek text lies on the ground. The vast site covers many important periods of Egyptian history but the oldest feature to be found at el-Ashmunein is a Middle Kingdom cemetery which was excavated in the 1980s by a British Museum team. The later cemetery associated with Hermopolis can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel.
Tuna el-Gebel is about 7km north of el-Ashmunein and we drove the short distance to this next site with our personal convoy. Akhenaten’s boundary stela ‘A’ marks the outer limit of the necropolis and we stopped here first to see it. Unfortunately the large stele is enclosed behind smoked glass doors and these were locked, so we had to peer through the glass at the top of a flight of steps to get a glimpse of the worn rock-cut reliefs. A short distance further along the road we came to the entrance gate to the necropolis. The site stretches for about 3km to the south along the desert and contains tombs and mortuary houses arranged in sand-swept streets which vary in style dating from the Late Period to the Roman era. The earliest material to be found here dates from Rameses II, but this is thought to have been out of context.
The first monument we encountered was the family tomb of Petosiris, a high priest of Thoth who probably lived around 300 BC. This temple-tomb is unique, built in pure Egyptian style with a pronaos (pillared entrance hall) at ground level and a cult chapel behind, with the burial chambers cut into the rock below ground. The pillared portico contains scenes of many industries and agriculture. Inside, the cult chapel has four square pillars with the burial shaft in the centre. The wall decoration here is in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the figures wear Greek-style clothing in a rare blend of the two distinct periods. The extremely well-preserved and elegant reliefs are heavily influenced by both Egyptian Old Kingdom and conventional Greek style art. One of the most important texts in the chapel includes a description of works in the temples of Hermopolis. The tomb appeared to have been recently cleaned and modern lighting has been installed, which showed the superb reliefs at their best. Most of the original paint is still in place and the colours are soft and airy with a great deal of pale blue. This is one of the most beautiful Egyptian tombs I have ever visited and Sam and I were absolutely miserable at not being allowed to take photographs here.
Behind the tomb of Petosiris is the tomb of Isadora, which dates to the 2nd century AD, with it’s sparse decoration and Greek texts in memory of the lady buried here. A tragic legend is connected to Isadora – a young girl who lived in the town of Hermopolis and renowned for her beauty and good nature. She fell in love with a young man from Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile but unfortunately disaster struck when Isadora’s boat overturned while sailing to visit her fiancé and she was drowned. Her grief-stricken father built the elaborate tomb in her memory and she lies there still, her mummy enshrined in a case inside the first chamber of the tomb. At the rear of the chapel is a large sculpted half-shell over the funerary couch. To the south-east of Isadora’s tomb is the Oedipus tomb, decorated with copies of scenes from the Greek Theban cycle – the originals are now in Cairo Museum. I have never before seen tombs in this Egyptian-Greek style and I was captivated by them. There were many other tombs in the city of the dead, some interestingly painted with mock stone panelling, but there was no time left to visit any more. We did walk a little further to see the enormous Roman waterwheel and well-shaft, 34m deep, which probably supplied the area with water during the Roman era. Back towards the north of the site a stone balustrade is said to have defined an enclosure in which sacred ibis were raised and beyond this are the ibis and baboon burials in extensive catacombs – the largest feature of Tuna el-Gebel. These are the sacred catacombs of Thoth, his ‘living images’. There seems to be continued excavation going on here everywhere.
The sun was setting when we left Tuna el-Gebel and the police in the big armoured vehicle that looked like a tank without the caterpillar tracks, decided to take us on the desert highway back to Minya. This road is featureless, straight and long and we were entertained by one of the troops sitting on the roof of the vehicle pretending (?) to drink a bottle of beer. Every now and then he would try to stand up and do a little dance. The fact that we were travelling at around 100kph didn’t seem to worry him at all. The police must have been having such a good time that they missed the turn off to Minya and we ended up having to drive an extra 70km out of our way. Abdul, who by this time was very tired from driving, was definitely not amused. He was furious with the police and their ‘shenanigans’. All things have their good side however, because the rest of us were able to enjoy one of the most spectacular desert sunsets I have seen in Egypt.
Back in Minya we went out for dinner and met the owner of our hotel, a lovely man, who took Sam, Jane and I out in his smart private car for a mini tour of the city, including a drive up to the gebel. From here we had a lovely view over the whole of Minya with its twinkling lights stretching down to the river’s edge.
Middle Egypt Archaeology
We’ve done the east bank and early this morning we were heading across the Nile bridge to the west bank opposite Minya, stopping first at Zawyet el-Maiyitin.
Also known variously as Kom el-Ahmar, Zawyet Sultan, or Zawyet el-Amwat, Zawyet el-Maiyitin was the ancient pharaonic town of Henenw, the one-time capital of the 16th Upper Egyptian Nome of the Oryx. A very large town site still exists here, though the low and scattered mudbrick walls are generally in poor condition, apart from one very big chunk of enclosure wall. The site is most well-known for the remains of a small Dynasty III step pyramid, one of a series of seven similar structures throughout Egypt. There was a German team working at the pyramid today, so we kept our distance, but the remains were much more substantial than I had been led to believe from the books which mostly say it’s destroyed. It is thought that these small pyramids were never intended as burial places but were perhaps placed to mark the ancient Nome capitals. We wandered around the ancient town and looked at the very scant stone remains of a temple on the northern side of the site, dated to Amenhotep III and dedicated to Horus of Hebenw. Amenhotep’s temple seems to have been dismantled and rebuilt by Seti I during Dynasty XIX and there are a few remaining blocks showing Seti’s cartouche near a wooden ramp over the quay area. Stone steps leading into the temple were built in the pharaonic and Roman periods, but little else now remains. I thought that one of the most impressive things about Zawyet el-Maiyitin is the adjacent Muslim cemetery. This area has been in use as a necropolis since Predynastic times, with additions right through to the Ptolemaic and Roman eras and until recently served as a cemetery for the whole population of el-Minya governorate. The tomb area is vast, its little blue and cream domes stretching almost from the river up into the gebel and we were told that it is one of the largest Muslim cemeteries in Egypt. We are finding more and more that if we’re looking for an ancient necropolis and we find a modern one, chances are it has been built on top of or next to an earlier site. In the distant gebel behind the site about 1km away we could see the rock-cut tombs that served as the burial places of local officials of the Old and New Kingdoms. We were told that only one of them, that of the Royal Scribe Nefersekheru, is open and photographs were not allowed, so we didn’t spare the time to walk up to the mountain.
We drove a few kilometres to our next stop at Beni Hasan, a small village to the south of Minya, where an important group of rock-cut tombs are carved into the high limestone cliffs on the east bank of the Nile. We got out of the taxi and were faced with a long steep flight of stone steps winding its way up the mountain. Sam was still annoyed at not being able to take photographs and as she’s been here before she didn’t come with Jane and I up to the tombs, preferring to wait in the smart modern cafeteria where good coffee and newly-built toilets seemed more appealing to her than a hard hot climb. Jane and I puffed our way up the steps to the terrace, only to be asked if we wanted to buy camera tickets. The guards seemed not to know about the new photography ban and we didn’t enlighten them. Egypt! I had half a fast film in one camera and a very slow film in the other, but I tried my best to get as many pictures as I could while the going was good. These important tombs of the Middle Kingdom provincial rulers date mostly to Dynasties XI and XII and are spectacular, as was the view from the terrace right up and down the river valley. Out of 39 tombs here, only four are currently open, so Jane and I spent quite a long time in the tomb chapels of Baqet III, Khety, Amenemhet and Khnumhotep. The tombs offer a rare chance to see the distinctive style of mortuary art characteristic of the early Middle Kingdom with their colourfully painted scenes of daily life, recreation and military activities and some of them have been cleaned, the wall paintings restored to their original bright colours. When we got back down to the cafeteria and told Sam that we had taken photographs, she was even less amused and while Jane and I enjoyed a quick cup of coffee she kicked herself for not having bothered to make the climb.
From Beni Hasan, we followed the road along the river for a few kilometres and after going through a village and along a track that turns eastwards into the desert, we came to the rock shrine known as Speos Artemidos, or Istabl Antar. The speos is a small temple hewn completely out of the rock, in an area where there are many ancient quarries. Although the origins of the structure may go back as far as the Middle Kingdom, it was first decorated in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut and dedicated to the goddess Pakhet (or Pasht), a local lion-headed goddess of the desert and an aspect of Hathor, who was given the title ‘She Who Scratches’. Later the Greeks identified Pakhet with Bastet, a feline deity who they associated with their own huntress Artemis, and the temple became known as the ‘Cave of Artemis’.
The modern name for the speos, Istabl Antar, comes from Antar, who was a local pre-Islamic poet. The shrine has a wide facade with four square pillars cut from the rock, two on each side of the entrance, intended for decoration with Hathor-headed capitals on the outer face and Osiride capitals on the inner face. They remained unfinished, except for texts and cartouches of Tuthmose III and Seti I. Inside the transverse hall there are more hieroglyphs and reliefs which are now very worn and difficult to read in some parts. The most important of these was inscribed by Hatshepsut on the architrave over the entrance and denounces the ‘Asiatics of Avaris’ (the Hyksos) who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. The walls contain many other painted scenes of Hatshepsut and Seti I and the goddess Pakhet. Inside the dark sanctuary, next to a high niche on the rear wall that would once have contained a cult statue, a rock-carved sculpture of Pakhet emerges from the rock, very mysterious and beautiful. Outside in the wadi, there are many quarries and tombs in the hillsides and also caves which were inhabited by early Christians during the first millennium AD. Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure are credited with the construction of another smaller rock-temple nearby. All around are the plundered burials of cats in a Late Period cemetery where animals were buried in honour of the goddess Pakhet.
We headed back north along the Nile as far as the Minya bridge where, even though we had Police Captain Ezza in the car with us, we still had to wait for an hour until the next troop truck arrived to escort us further north to el-Siririya. This was a pretty drive through small villages with the high limestone gebel reaching right down to the road. We saw many small limestone industries along the sides of the road – the quarries here are one of the major sources of limestone blocks for building in the country – a fact which is obvious from the dazzling white dust which covers the land and everything on it for miles around. When we came to a cement factory that was belching out clouds of thick white dust, we knew we were in the right area. There are many galleries of quarries at el-Siririya where the cutting technique can be seen, some with ancient builders marks still on the faces of the rock. What we had come to see here was a rock-cut speos (rock-shrine), decorated by Merenptah during Dynasty XIX and dedicated to Hathor ‘Lady of the Two Infernos’ – a fiery aspect of the goddess well suited to this parched site. But first we had to find it. Nobody local seemed to have heard of it and Captain Ezza and two young policemen spent about half an hour wandering the area with Sam, Jane and I looking for it. We eventually found the Hathor chapel just as we were about to give up. It was located on a steep rise, which may have been at one time, cut from a cliff face, but now stands alone. The shrine has a single doorway with a badly worn hieroglyphic text incised on the jambs. Inside is a single chamber with a vaulted ceiling, once carved and painted but now poorly preserved, although remains of the paint can still be seen. At the rear of the chapel, three statues are carved from the rock in high relief, including one of the goddess Hathor on the right-hand side. Below the speos on the western side, a stela is carved into the rock, now quite worn and with the lower part completely gone. The stela depicts a king named in two cartouches of (probably) Rameses II, offering to a god who is difficult to identify, but could be Sobek. Hathor stands behind the king with a hand on his shoulder. How I love these expeditions to places nobody in their right mind would bother with! Then it was back to the car, parked by an ‘Entry Forbidden’ sign near a helicopter pad.
Our final stop today was at Tihna el-Gebel, half-way back towards Minya and another little-visited but important site. Here were the Old Kingdom rock-cut tombs known as the ‘Fraser Tombs’ and the later Graeco-Roman Period town site of Akoris. It was already getting late. The police were becoming impatient with us and we knew we wouldn’t have time to visit the tombs a couple of kilometres further up the wadi, but the two youngest policemen agreed to take another hike with us and we trudged up the steep hillside to the town site. This is the most amazing place, built up the side of a high outcrop of rock that was once the pharaonic town of Dehenet, attested from the Old Kingdom when there was a Temple of Hathor here. Another temple, built during the reigns of Rameses II and Merenptah has four dark chambers cut into the rock and originally had a pronaos or portico with four columns at either side of the entrance. The temple is poorly preserved, but damaged remains of Hathor-headed columns could still be seen in the dark interior. In front of the Temple of Hathor there are wide plain columns still standing and nearby there are Roman and Coptic inscriptions in ink on scattered blocks. A ramp was added during the Roman Period by the Emperor Nero and there are two more small Roman temples that have only single chambers with statue niches at the rear. I climbed around the precarious edge of the cliff to see the Greek and Roman tombs that were cut into the rocks high above the temples, some elaborately decorated on their facades with life-sized reliefs of their owners. Everywhere there were deep open shafts of graves and if we’d put a foot wrong we would have hurtled off the edge of the cliff or down a shaft, but the setting is certainly very dramatic. Our two young policemen (they looked about 16) seemed to be really enjoying themselves even though we all knew we would be in trouble as we’d stayed much longer than the time we had been allotted here.
Later, back in Minya, we ate dinner at the newly-opened KFC on the Corniche, where for some reason we were allowed to go without our police escort. Maybe they’d just had enough of us for one day. In my opinion Minya is one of the nicest towns in Egypt. It’s just a shame we had so little freedom to explore, but I consider myself so fortunate to have seen as much as we have of this wonderful area. I am very grateful to my friend Sam and to Abdul who between them have done all the organizing here. Tomorrow we head back to Cairo.
Meidum and Lisht Pyramids
It was very early morning when we left Minya and the weak daylight was fighting with the thick mist rising from the river as we drove north on the long journey towards Cairo. We were travelling on the road along the west bank of the Nile rather than the faster but boring desert road and we had several changes of police escort as we passed from one traffic district to the next. I slept much of the way in the back of the taxi, snugly bundled up in my fleece and a heap of blankets because the air was cold and damp and we’d had a late night last night, Jane and I talking into the small hours. Near Beni Suef Abdul stopped and bought a big bag of delicious hot falafel for breakfast from a roadside stall and by the time we had stopped a little later for a couple of cups of strong black ‘ahwa I was feeling more awake. The Beni Suef police came as far as Meidum with us and then we were free at last. For the first time in a week and a half we no longer needed to be escorted as we came closer to Cairo.
I think we were all feeling tired from our travels of the last week and by the time we arrived at Meidum Pyramid none of us felt like making much of an effort. The mist had cleared but the sky was still leaden with cloud and a cool breeze made us shiver at the exposed site. The pyramid was open but no-one felt like going inside. We walked around the strange-looking structure, a bizarre tower built in steps, three of which remain without the casing stones, surrounded by a huge mound of rubble around the bottom of the pyramid. Generally ascribed to the Dynasty IV king Snefru, it is thought to be the earliest ‘true’ pyramid; i.e deliberately designed in seven steps in a pyramid shape. From a distance it reminds me of the ‘Devil’s Tower’ in the Close Encounters movie. The most interesting feature here is the small offering chapel on the eastern side which was probably a forerunner to the later larger mortuary temples. Two very tall stelae are still in situ on either side of the entrance but were left uninscribed. Meidum pyramid also had the new feature of a causeway – almost 200m long, which probably ended in a valley temple that so far has not been discovered, but the causeway can be clearly seen.
It is well known that Snefru went on to practice his pyramid building at Dashur – the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid were both built by this king. There is also a tiny step pyramid at Seila, which has recently been attributed to Snefru during excavations in the late 1980s. It is still unknown why Snefru abandoned the Meidum pyramid and his residential city of Djedsnefru with its necropolis to move to Dashur, as it seems likely that the Meidum structure did not collapse until at least the New Kingdom. Snefru’s pyramid at Meidum was surrounded by many private burials of Dynasty IV – the first newly established elite cemetery since the archaic necropolis at Saqqara. The mastaba cemeteries are located to the north and east of the pyramid and provided some of the most well known of the Old Kingdom statuary and paintings, especially two of my favourite pieces, the ‘Meidum Geese’ from the tomb of Nefermaat and the statue of Rahotep and Nofret from Rahotep’s mastaba, both now in Cairo Museum. A couple of the decorated mastabas were open but they were about a kilometre away, unlit and we couldn’t take photographs, so we didn’t bother walking over to them. We were all feeling so lazy today!
From Meidum we drove a little further north to el-Lisht, where we stopped at a little village called Barnasht for coffee. The village is on the edge of Faiyum and at first Abdul missed the turn by about 20km and had to turn around and drive back again. While we were having coffee there was an incident with some boys who spat at us and the taxi, making Abdul very angry and resulting in a shouting match. I don’t know what it is about this area that makes the local youth so unfriendly towards tourists – we had the same thing at el-Lahun, the only place in Egypt I’ve come across this reaction. It felt very threatening and we were only too glad to get back in the car and drive on to the pyramid site.
There are two pyramids at el-Lisht built by Amenemhet I (the northern pyramid) and his son Senwosret I (the southern pyramid). We arrived first at the southern pyramid and had to park the taxi and walk as Abdul was worried about getting the car stuck in the soft sand. This is the larger of the two Middle Kingdom structures here and some of the limestone casing is still preserved on the lower parts. The pyramid itself however, is little more than a low mound. The complex is surrounded by a double perimeter wall, the first enclosing part of the king’s mortuary temple on the eastern side (now mostly destroyed) and a small satellite pyramid at the south-east corner. The inside of the first perimeter wall was uniquely decorated with panels of reliefs with the king’s names and images of fertility gods, which we could see quite clearly. Nine more secondary pyramids for female members of the king’s family were found inside the outer mudbrick enclosure wall.
A short distance away is the older northern pyramid of Amenemhet I. We could see it in the distance but couldn’t find how to get there until we spotted a modern Muslim cemetery on the edge of the site. Originally over 55m high the pyramid today is sadly depleted to around 20m which is due not only to ancient robbing of its materials but also to its poor construction method. Pyramid building had declined since the glorious monuments were built at Giza, and although some stone from earlier structures was used, much of the pyramid was constructed with unfired mudbricks. The small funerary temple on the eastern side is now almost completely gone with only a few blocks remaining. Several mastaba tombs of members of the royal family and high-status officials were found inside the inner wall of the complex, and on its western side there are 22 shaft tombs for the royal women, wives and daughters of the king, some of whose names have been found. By the time we left this site the sun had come out and was shining weakly even as it was beginning to set.
We drove on past Saqqara and into Cairo, arriving in the peak of the rush hour, but Abdul did the run into the city in record time considering the clogged up roads. After being on the road for ten days the Caio Hotel actually felt like home.
Another Lazy Day in Cairo
We had a slow start today. Abdul had disappeared somewhere and Sam announced that she wanted a day off doing nothing at all. Jane and I both felt pretty lazy too but I couldn’t bear the thought of wasting a whole day, so we decided to go to the Egyptian Museum. On this occasion it was quite easy to get a taxi down to Tahrir Square – an exciting ride dodging cars and bicycles as well as donkey carts and kamikaze pedestrians on the busy Sharia Ramses. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Cairo until now but for the first time I am really enjoying being back in the city. After ten days in rural Egypt being escorted everywhere by the police as though we were royalty it’s a good feeling to lose myself among the crowds of the metropolis where nobody took any notice of me and I didn’t stick out too obviously as a tourist. I was even enjoying the now-familiar smell of hot oil, hot animals and a hint of spices.
It was almost lunchtime when the taxi dropped us off near the Nile Hilton, as good an excuse as any for going into the hotel. Besides, I knew from previous visits that the museum would still be crowded with tour groups who mostly go there in the mornings. Jane hadn’t been to the Hilton before and we went to look at the posh shops in the hotel arcade, calling in at Nomad, my favourite store that sells Bedouin crafts, then Miss Egypt and the bank to change some money. We also went into the big two-story shopping mall. Many of the stores there were closed or empty, but we stopped in the cafeteria for coffee and some delicious cakes. It was hard to choose as the patisserie had some amazing confectionary that looked almost too good to eat. Back outside Jane went into a couple of stores in front of the hotel where she bought some souvenirs and then we went on to the museum. I wasn’t sure whether photographs would be allowed here now, but to my surprise they were and we didn’t even have to buy a camera ticket.
I’ve always found it difficult to take pictures in the Egyptian Museum because the light is not good and many of the exhibits are behind dirty glass-fronted cases, but that never stops me from trying again. I particularly wanted to have another look at the Amarna gallery, having been at Tell el-Amarna just a few days ago. The thing that annoys me most about this museum is that many of the objects are badly labelled or not labelled at all. There was also a new exhibition to mark the museum’s centenary year. This was housed in a long room behind the main museum and had some beautifully displayed exhibits in a much more modern setting.
We stayed in the museum until it closed, by which time it was dark outside. Feeling adventurous I suggested that we take the metro back to the Ciao Hotel. Walking down into the labyrinthine tunnels of Sadat Metro Station we eventually found the train to Mubarrack, which is outside Rameses Station and just across the road from our hotel.
Abusir and Abu Ghurob
When we first came to Cairo Sam and I had asked at the SCA for special permission to visit the pyramids at Abusir and we were told that the site was open and we didn’t need special permission. When we arrived there this morning however, the guard told us that the site is closed – hasn’t been open for years and we couldn’t go in. We waved our papers from the SCA and explained to him that we were told we could visit, but to no avail, he was adamant. It was only when Sam, pretty annoyed by this time, took out her mobile phone and said she was going to ring Zahi Hawass’s office, that the gafir relented and said OK. Just as well because her phone had no reception here anyway.
We walked up the track to the pyramid of Sahure and here the guard left us to wander on our own. This pyramid, the first to be built here, was constructed for the second king of Dynasty V. It stands on a little hill, far to the north of Saqqara, where Sahure’s predecessors built their monuments. Although the pyramid itself is now in fairly poor condition, the mortuary temple on the eastern side of the pyramid fared better and there are two lovely restored palm columns still surviving in the courtyard. The pink granite columns bear the names and titles of the king and depict the cobra goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet. A large granite architrave which would have supported pillars in the court, is inscribed with the cartouche of Sahure, still with some of its original green paint and can be seen lying on the ground. The mortuary temple was built from granite and basalt, which is probably why it has been preserved so well and many good-quality reliefs have been found here. The causeway too is still well-defined and leads to the valley temple which is now mostly destroyed, but we walked down to have a look anyway.
Next we walked over to the pyramids of Niuserre & Neferirkare a short distance away to the south. Neferirkare’s pyramid was the second to be built at Abusir and is the largest, dwarfing its close neighbour, the pyramid of Niuserre. There is evidence to suggest that Neferirkare’s pyramid was planned as a step pyramid and today four of the original six steps remain. At some point there was a change in design and the steps were filled with loose masonry and then converted to become a ‘true’ pyramid, enlarged and provided with a casing of red granite. We also saw remains of the King’s extensive mortuary temple on the eastern side, where an archive known as the ‘Abusir Papyri’, which documents temple administration and building work, was discovered in the 1890s. Close to Neferirkare’s pyramid, the king constructed a small pyramid for his consort Khentkawes. Once thought to be just a mastaba of an official, the Queen’s monument was only found to be what it is when the Czech expedition took a closer look in the mid 1970s and discovered the small pyramid was more complicated than it looked. The height is now only around metres, though the mortuary temple on the eastern side of the complex was once quite extensive. Khentkawes is named here as ‘King’s Wife’ (of Neferirkare) as well as ‘King’s Mother’ (of Neferefre or Niuserre).
The huge mastaba tomb of Ptahshepses, second only in size to that of Mereruka at Saqqara, was our last visit here on the way back to the site entrance. As a prince and an important high official in Sahure’s court, his tomb is impressive with its tall stone columns which once supported a roof and with many fragments of inscribed blocks lying about. The tomb itself was locked up, but we were able to see the two boat-shaped pits, unusual in a private tomb, that were probably intended to represent solar boats. There were also the remains of the sarcophagi of Ptahshepses and his wife still in situ in the open funerary chamber. When we got back to the guard house a couple of hours later we were in trouble. The Abusir antiquities inspector had arrived to find that the gafir had let us onto the site and was very angry. Whether he had calmed down by then or was just being polite, he was very nice to us and insisted we have a cup of tea in the office with him, during which time he grilled us about our interest in Abusir and by the time we left he had given us permission to visit Abu Ghurob, which had also previously been closed and sent his gafir to go with us.
The drive to Abu Ghurob was short, only about 1km away from the Abusir pyramids. It became a custom during Dynasty V for pharaohs to dedicate separate temples to the Heliopolitan sun-god Re, in addition to the construction of their pyramids. At Abu Ghurob there are remains of two sun-temples built by Userkhaf and Niuserre of Dynasty V, although the Abusir Papyri documents the names of six temples here. Only traces of Userkaf’s temple now remain and we spent most of our time looking around the better-preserved sun temple of Niuserre. This temple is on the eastern side of a mound once thought to be a pyramid, but is now known to be a flat-topped pyramid-shaped base of an obelisk. In the courtyard there is a large and beautiful altar, 6m in diameter, which was constructed from five blocks of sparkling white alabaster and is still in its original position. This is carved in deep relief with a circle at its centre and four ‘hotep’ symbols on the sides (the hieroglyphic sign representing ‘offerings’, ‘peace’ or ‘satisfied’). At the north-east corner of the enclosure is a series of ten large alabaster basins (nine still surviving) thought to be used in sacrificial rites, either for water or blood. There were many interesting archaeological bits and pieces at this site. As well as the large stone basins, we saw drainage channels cut into stone and a tall block with the cartouche of Niuserre. Outside the upper temple enclosure walls a boat-shaped pit lined with mudbricks can still be seen on the southern side and which is another reminder of the elements of the pyramid complex. I really loved the atmosphere at this site.
Once more we were driving back into Cairo during the afternoon rush-hour, cars and trucks nose-to-tail all along the Pyramids Road and all of the drivers leaning on their horns, as if that would get them anywhere faster. On the way back we stopped at the Cairo Mall which has six floors of shops, including a Metro supermarket that sells all sorts of food I’ve never seen before in Egypt. We bought nibbles and essentials to take back to the hotel and then stopped in a cafe for a lovely cool delicious farawla – fresh strawberry juice. Back at the Ciao there was a pile of freshly laundered clothes waiting on my bed with a bill for 10LE, which worked out at about £1 for ten items. Wish I had this service at home. We rounded off the day with dinner at Hatay, the local Egyptian restaurant around the corner and once more had a delicious meal, followed by coffee in a pavement coffee shop to watch the evening crowds parading up and down.
In Search of Pyramids
Still on the pyramid trail, this morning saw Sam, Jane and I following the road out of Cairo in Abdul’s taxi to Dahshur, a little to the south of Saqqara. The Dahshur necropolis actually borders onto South Saqqara and until 1996 this area was closed as it was in a military zone, but is now open to tourists and contains two Dynasty IV pyramids of Snefru. We saw his first ‘practice’ pyramid at Meidum a few days ago. Leaving the main highway we crept along the military road to the pyramid site but could see nothing except a thick white mist. Snefru’s Red and Bent Pyramids are quite close to the track but even so we could not see them. A brief discussion led us to the excuse to go and have a coffee and we went back to Dahshur village and sat in a coffee shop for an hour waiting for the mist to clear.
Once the sun got through, the mist burned off quickly and we drove back to the site. Snefru was the father of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza and I had the impression that after his father’s several tries at the art of pyramid building, Khufu eventually got it right. Snefru’s first monument here was the ‘Bent Pyramid’, named because the original angle of construction was too steep and it had to be altered along the way producing a curious bend two-thirds of the way up. Some of the smooth casing stone on this pyramid still remains on its sides and it is a good example of how these monuments would have originally looked. We walked around all four sides, looking at the entrance half-way up the northern side and investigating the mortuary temple on the east side. This funerary temple was constructed mostly from mudbrick, but there is a lovely limestone offering table in the form of a hetep symbol which was flanked by two round-topped monolithic stelae, similar to Snefru’s chapel at Meidum, but only the stumps of these remain in situ. On the southern side of the Bent Pyramid is a smaller satellite pyramid, still in quite good condition. To the north-east is the pyramid causeway and we walked the length of this down to the remains of the Valley Temple, currently being restored, which is one of the best examples I’ve seen.
Snefru’s second monument at Dahshur, about 4km to the north of the Bent Pyramid, is known as the Red Pyramid and was built to a less ambitious plan. On this third attempt he got it right and the Red Pyramid looks a more typical pyramid shape. It is called ‘Red’ because of its central core of a reddish limestone, though it would once have been encased in gleaming white casing stones. On its eastern side there are the remains of a mortuary temple which seems to have recently been restored and a capstone or pyramidion found here has been pieced back together and placed on a brick plinth. A plan of the temple has been reconstructed by the German archaeologists from the scant remains, which included a fragment of a pink granite false door stela, fragments of a sed-festival relief and remains of mudbrick store-rooms. The temple also contains several tree pits that I found very interesting. Although the pyramid was open to the public, a couple of tour buses had just arrived and I used the long queue at the entrance as an excuse not to go inside. I really don’t like being inside pyramids and feel very claustrophobic with the thought of all that stone above me – not to mention the stench of bats that usually permeates the underground chambers. Sam feels the same and Jane didn’t seem bothered one way or the other. Stopping by the road we could look across the desert to see the pyramids of South Saqqara in the distance.
By Mid-day the sun was shining brightly and we got back into the taxi for the short drive to Saqqara. Although Sam and I didn’t have specific permission to visit South Saqqara, which isn’t generally open to visitors, we went to see the antiquities inspector and he agreed to show us the site. Our letter from Zahi Hawass’s office seems to be opening many closed doors on this trip, even though we usually have to argue our case. Mr Hasan Faoud the inspector, showed us over the pyramid complex of Pepy I, where there were many more remains than I had expected. Although not the earliest, Pepy’s Dynasty VI pyramid was the first one found to contain pyramid texts, but the structure itself is now quite ruined and looks like a low hill of rubble. The extensive mortuary temple and queens’ pyramids however were beautifully restored. Since the 1980’s six queens’ pyramids have been found buried here, the most found in any pyramid complex. It’s a fascinating place to wander around and there are several colourful reliefs on fragmentary blocks on display between the low mudbrick walls of the temple complex. The golden light of the afternoon sun produced long shadows and was perfect for taking atmospheric pictures.
To the south we could see all the way to Dahshur and to the north, from a rise we could see the Saqqara Step Pyramid of Djoser. We walked further south across the sands to the pyramid of Djedkare-Isisi, the Dynasty V king who was the first ruler to build his pyramid at South Saqqara and from there we could also see the destroyed pyramid of Merenre and in the distance, the ruined pyramids of Pepy II, Ibi, Kendjer and the huge mastaba of Shepseskaf, the so-called ‘Mastabat el-Faraun’ a few kilometres away.
We’ve had a really lovely day seeing many new sites, but it was time to get back to Cairo, once again hitting the rush hour. Later in the evening we went out to eat at a quite famous vegetarian restaurant called Felfela on Tal’at Harb, where the food, though not cheap, was very good. Afterwards we wiled away several hours at a new coffeeshop in a big modern mall that seemed to be the ‘in’ place to go amongst the trendy youth of Cairo. I have to admit that I found the volume of the massive television screens around the walls showing music videos and the shouting of many voices trying to make themselves heard all a bit much and was glad when we decided to leave, proving that maybe I’m not so young and trendy anymore.
A Second Day At Saqqara
This morning we drove again from Cairo to Saqqara in Abdul’s taxi, arriving at 10.00am, the time that we had arranged to meet the antiquities inspector Hasan Fauod again. He had insisted we come back so that he could show us some of the North Saqqara sites that we didn’t see yesterday. Even after many visits here, Sam and I still had a list of things we’d like to see and surprise, surprise, most of them were not open to the public. Unfortunately Mr Faoud had been called away and wasn’t there today, so when we arrived at the ticket office we were taken to the main antiquities office on the northern edge of the site. This was a bit scary because we were told that we’d have to see Dr Ahmed el-Haggar, the Saqqara Director to get his permission to see some of the places. Sam and I had to wait a while until we could see him in his office and it was rather like an interview. He wanted to know all about us and why we had asked to see some of the closed sites. He must have decided our interest was genuine because he gave his permission and assigned an inspector to us for the morning.
Sam, Jane and I set off with inspector Yasser to the other side of Saqqara, south of the pyramid of Unas, to visit the tomb of Horemheb. This is one of a group of New Kingdom tombs discovered and excavated in recent years and where much restoration has been taking place. Horemheb built a tomb for himself at Saqqara while he was a general and regent of the young Tutankhamun. He was later to be buried in his royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes after succeeding Ay as the last pharaoh of Dynasty XVIII, leaving his grand Saqqara tomb for the burials of his anonymous first wife and his second wife Queen Mutnodjmet. This Saqqara tomb was excavated in the 1970s by Geoffrey Martin’s expedition, revealing a vast complex built in three stages of construction, resembling a cult or mortuary temple. The tomb is approached by way of a once-massive pylon and a paved columned courtyard, but many of the original reliefs from here were destroyed. A statue room and second courtyard lead to three chapels at the rear of the structure. Remaining wall reliefs have provided archaeologists with a huge quantity of information about the historical situation at the end of Dynasty XVIII and particularly of Horemheb’s military career. Horemheb’s tomb has been superbly restored, with many replica reliefs cast from blocks in museums. Grand it certainly is and the reliefs are truly spectacular in their detailed depictions of the military life of a New Kingdom general. We were amazed when we were even allowed to take photographs here, considering the fuss elsewhere over the newly imposed photography ban. We also had a quick look at the outside of the tombs of Maya and Tia and Tia but the keys for these were not available as work is taking place at present.
We walked back to the antiquities office down the Unas causeway, Yasser giving us a running commentry on things to look at along the way, as well as news of the French excavations in the tombs to the east of the causeway. We also got to have a quick look at the recently excavated mortuary temple of Teti’s Pyramid as we passed by. One of the main areas Sam and I wanted to look at today were the Early Dynastic mastabas in a closed off area north of the old antiquities office. The Saqqara plateau contains a great number of massive tombs belonging to members of the first royal families and high officials from Dynasty I onwards. The development of the Early Dynastic mastaba tombs for the Memphite elite in the Saqqara region were undoubtedly prototypes for the largest of the royal monuments here. Many of the Early Dynastic rulers appeared to have funerary monuments at both Saqqara and Abydos and there is much debate between archaeologists about which site contained the actual burials of these rulers. Recent opinion however, seems to have shifted away from regarding the Saqqara tombs as being royal at all and they are now being seen as tombs of the wealthy elite of the period. The area isn’t that interesting to look at as most of the excavated tombs have been covered over and are represented only by low mounds, but we did see one or two low mudbrick serekh walls. It was the sense of such ancient history that captivated me and I wondered just how many exciting finds still lay hidden beneath the scrubby wind-swept grass and thorn that covers the site.
The inspector had to leave us in the early afternoon and after looking at a couple of other things at Saqqara we drove on to the ancient capital, Memphis, stopping for coffee at the village of Mit Rahina on the way. The area known today by tourists as ‘Memphis’ is little more than an open air museum displaying the many statues found in the area. The most famous of these is an impressive colossal statue of Rameses II who lies on his back in a specially designed building. This is the twin to the statue of the King that I’d seen in Rameses Square in Cairo, but both were originally set up here outside the Temple of Ptah. Some of the other monuments in the museum include other statues of Rameses, Ptah and a large alabaster sphinx of an unknown king dating to the New Kingdom. Once one of the largest temples in Egypt, Ptah’s enclosure covered a huge part of this area, but much of it is now under cultivation. Memphis is the Greek name for the administrative capital of ancient Egypt, which has its historical roots dating back as far as the Early Dynastic Period. The origin of the city’s foundation is credited to the ‘mythical’ first king, Menes, who is said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time around 3100 BC.
After the museum we went across the road to have a look at the embalming tables from the ‘House of the Apis Bulls’. These animals were sacred to the god Ptah and after living out a pampered life, were ritually mummified and placed to rest with great ceremony in the Serapeum at Saqqara. Although this was a closed area the gafir let us in to have a look at the massive tables. The limestone embalming tables are over five metres long and still in superb condition, some with decorated sides. Opposite this is a small Temple of Hathor, which would once have also been within the Ptah enclosure. As we wandered over towards the temple wondering if we would be allowed to have a look, the gafir came over and offered to let us in. It really has been our lucky day. Although the Hathor temple has been re-buried since it was first excavated we could see the tops of some gorgeous Hathor-headed columns poking up through the grass, as well as a few nice pieces of reliefs. We also saw the modest remains of a Temple of Seti I nearby.
Sam has been to Memphis many times and today she wanted to try to see the mudbrick palace platform of King Apries which is somewhere in the vicinity. While Jane and I were still in the museum Sam went off to speak to the Memphis Director and he agreed to let us go there with an inspector to show us the way. We took Abdul’s taxi several kilometres along many winding roads to a village called Tell el-Aziz and knew that without the inspector we’d never have found the place ourselves. On the edge of the village is an area that looks like waste ground, but on the edge of this there is a huge platform mound built from mudbricks where King Apries of Dynasty XXVI had his palace, which even now contains a few column bases. Surrounding the mound was the site of a Roman encampment. As all of this was still within the area of the Ptah Temple enclosure, it made us realise just how vast the temple area was in ancient Memphis.
The sun was low by the time we left Memphis to head back to Cairo. We’d had a fantastic day and I felt very privileged to have seen all these wonderful sites – much of it thanks to Sam’s winning way with the inspectors. But the day was not yet over. After a quick shower and change in the hotel we went over the river to Mohandesin to a favourite seafood restaurant of Sam’s called Kadoura, where strange fish of all colours and sizes stared glassy-eyed while customers chose which they would like cooked. Being a squeamish vegetarian I averted my eyes and hurried upstairs, where I opted for some lovely salads. Dinner was followed by several cups of coffee and local entertainment on the other side of the road at the Shawary coffee house. We eventually got to bed at 2.00am – again!
Saqqara Day Three
Jane left for England early this morning. Abdul drove her out to the airport at Heliopolis at 5.00am and Sam went with them to see her off safely, but I’d already said my goodbyes and I stayed in bed for the extra couple of hours, meeting up with Sam for breakfast. Sam and I had made tentative plans to go down to Tanis, in the Delta today, but when we checked with Abdul he told us that his taxi permit didn’t cover him for that area. After a brief discussion we decided that another day at Saqqara would be good – there was still enough to see there to keep us going for days yet. It was cold, dull and misty as we drove along the now familiar west bank road south of Cairo. We had a very scary moment when a truck almost wiped us out on the road near the Saqqara turnoff. It was one of those long overloaded flatbed trucks with a long trailer that we had seen tragically overturned on the desert highway towards Minya and it was hurting towards us on our side of the road, looking like the driver had lost control. There was nowhere for us to go because the steep drop to the canal was on our left and the oncoming traffic was on our right. Even now I’m not sure how Abdul avoided a collision because my eyes were tightly closed and I was thinking ‘Goodbye world’. But we somehow survived, thanks I’m sure to Abdul’s quick thinking and we were all silent the for rest of the drive.
When we arrived at the ticket office at Saqqara our friendly antiquities inspector Hasan Faoud was there and very kindly offered to escort us around, having missed us yesterday. I could get used to this privileged treatment. We went first to the mastaba tombs of Ptahotep and Ti, which I thought were closed, but the gafir was there and opened them up. To the west of the Step Pyramid, the tomb of Akhethotep and Ptahhotep, father and son, is a double mastaba dating to Dynasty V. They both held the important offices of Vizier among other things during the reigns of Djedkare-Isisi and Unas. This is a double tomb situated among a group of mastabas on the west side of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Akhethotep was ‘Chief Justice and Vizier’, and ‘Overseer of the Pyramid Towns and Inspector of Priests of the Pyramid of Niuserre, Menkauhor and Djedkare-Isesi’. His son, Ptahhotep, whose tomb is an annex on the southern side of that of his father, was also named as ‘Chief Justice and Vizier’, ‘Inspector of Priests of the Pyramids of Menkauhor and Djedkare-Isesi’ and ‘Inspector of Wab-Priests of the Pyramid of Niuserre’. In the first corridor the damaged remains of the painted walls include scenes of agriculture and fowling, watched by Akhethotep and his eldest son Ptahhotep as a child. There is a chapel dedicated to Akhethotep with many traditional Old Kingdom scenes, a false door and a serdab. Going through a small vestibule we came to Ptahotep’s part of the tomb, decorated with many scenes of industries, offerings and fishing and fowling and we could see Ptahotep with his own young son enjoying these pursuits. Many animals are colourfully and realistically portrayed in this tomb – leopards and lions, hyenas, antelopes, desert animals and domestic animals and birds. There are even two porcupines, one of which is eating a cricket. Ptahotep had two elaborately decorated false doors in his tomb and on the southern one the deceased is shown on the left side being carried in a sedan chair and on the right side seated in a kiosk. The reliefs in this tomb chapel are very beautiful with well-preserved colours.
Next we went into the nearby tomb of Ti, one that I had seen pictures from and have long wanted to see for myself. Mr Faoud had told us that we could take photographs here and I was delighted, although the tombs were very dark. Ti’s mastaba is very well preserved and the reliefs are magnificent with a lot of bright colour. Ti was an ‘Overseer of the Pyramids of Niuserre’, and ‘Overseer of the Sun-Temples of Sahure, Neferirkare and Niuserre’, making him a high-status official during Dynasty V and after visiting these sites a few days ago it was good to see the tomb of one of the people responsible for the monuments of those kings. It brought him to life. This tomb has been well restored and reconstructed and is known as probably the most beautifully decorated mastaba in the Saqqara necropolis. The tomb not only has superb reliefs, but the variety of subjects also makes it very interesting. The main part of the tomb has two large offering chambers at the end of a corridor and in the largest of these, where the roof is supported by two square pillars the most beautiful reliefs can be seen including musicians and dancers, agricultural activities and scenes of boat-building. The most famous scene and most beautiful is on the northern wall of the offering hall and depicts Ti standing on a papyrus boat presiding over a hippopotamus hunt. Papyrus stands erect behind the boat which floats on a swamp full of different fish. Ti is depicted with a dwarf and pet and there are scenes of marshland industries such as gathering papyrus and fishing. The colour here is beautiful. The southern wall has three restored apertures through which the serdab statue can be viewed. The serdab (statue hall) now holds a replica of the original life-sized statue (in Cairo Museum) – Ti would have communicated with the world of the living and witnessed his ritual offerings through these apertures and it was a little spooky to see him gazing back at me. While we were in the tomb a party of French tourists came in and had given the gafir a lot of baksheesh to take photographs. Fair enough – that’s how things work here. But I got really angry that they were using flash everywhere (definitely not allowed) and Mr Faoud was not saying a word, though he did apologise to us afterwards. This whole photography ban has supposedly come about for just this reason, because of people having no regard for the paintings and continuing to use flash which is said to destroy the the colours.
We came out of Ti’s tomb and walked past the ‘Philospoher’s Circle’ on the way to the resthouse. This is a curious semicircle of Greek statues set up by Ptolemy I as a wayside shrine and the best-preserved figures include Plato, Protagoras and Homer. It now stands below ground level and the pit was full of rubbish, making the shrine look derelict. After a welcome cup of coffee at the resthouse we went off to see the Pyramid of Userkaf and had a good look around Userkaf’s mortuary temple with its basalt paving still intact in places and its queen’s pyramid and satellite pyramid remains. Known as the ‘Ruined Pyramid’ because its limestone casing was removed in antiquity leaving it in poor condition, this was the first pyramid of Dynasty V and introduces quite a few non-traditional elements.
Hasan Faoud next took us over to the Unas pyramid complex and we examined the Khaemwaset inscription on the southern side of the pyramid. Khaemwaset was a son of Rameses II and priest of Heliopolis, who restored many of the Old Kingdom monuments, including those of Unas, 1000 years after they were built and who is sometimes referred to as the ‘first Egyptologist’. We also visited the nearby tombs of Unas-ankh, Inefert, the Persian shaft tombs and the Dynasty II tombs which are near the Unas complex. We met an Egyptian archaeologist who was working on the tomb of Princess Idut and with whom we had an interesting conversation. He was most apologetic that he couldn’t show us the tomb because there was a team of Italian archaeologists inside photographing it.
To the south of Unas’s Pyramid a little way out into the desert is the ‘Buried Pyramid’ of Sekhemkhet, Djoser’s successor. This structure seems never to have risen more than a few metres high and was previously unknown before Zakaria Goneim excavated it in the 1950s. All that remains today is the entrance trench on the northern side of the enclosure and a passage and burial chamber underground. Parts of a stone-built niched facade, like that which surrounds the Step Pyramid, could also be seen in places, representing the lower courses of an enclosure wall. The name of Sekhemkhet was found on seal impressions on vessels in the corridor which gave the identification of the pyramid’s owner. At the time of excavation, many precious objects of various materials were found and Goneim was convinced he had discovered an intact burial when he found a highly-polished alabaster sarcophagus in the burial chamber. It was carved from a single piece of stone and uniquely blocked at one end with a sliding stone panel plastered into position. The sarcophagus was opened on 26 June 1954 with great ceremony – but to the huge disappointment of the excavator and the crowd, it was empty. Zakaria Goneim’s sensational discovery of the ‘Buried Pyramid’ with its hoard of treasures ended in tragedy in 1959 when he committed suicide at the height of his career. Knowing this story and that there is a mystery surrounding the pyramid as to why it was never completed, made me feel sad to explore the remains.
Our day at Saqqara ended by once more walking down the Unas Causeway and back to the car park where we found Abdul fast asleep in the taxi. We thanked Mr Faoud the inspector, for his time and for sharing his knowledge with us and said goodbye for the second time. Sam and I had offered him a gift of substantial baksheesh for his trouble, but he flatly refused to take it. That has to be a first in Egypt!
Giving Abdul a well-earned day off, Sam and I took the Metro this morning a few stops to Sadat station and came out into Midan al-Tahrir. This must be one of the busiest places in Cairo to get across the road, with cars and trucks speeding around the multiple lanes of the busy square while crowds of pedestrians try to weave and dodge between them. Luckily we had only one road to get across to the American University bookshop, but we still felt like we were taking our life into our hands trying to avoid the traffic. We’d already been to the bookshop once on this trip and Sam and I had both bought far too many books, but today I only wanted to buy a street map of Cairo and I found a very good one in book form published by the AUC Press. But this place is just so tempting. By the time I had found Sam browsing at the other end of the shop I had picked up two more ‘essential’ Egyptology books, adding even more to the weight of my luggage on my journey home. Although I now have an Egypt Air Frequent Flyer card, which allows me an extra 10kg luggage, I still have to carry my suitcases home. Thank goodness for wheels!
Back across several roads, we went into the Nile Hilton, a favourite place for coffee. We were both feeling a little lazy today and spent a couple of hours in the terrace coffeeshop, chatting to the wife of the Sudanese Ambassador. She was a lovely lady and she even invited us to her villa for drinks this evening. Not sure why because she didn’t know Sam and I at all, but we politely refused, pleading that we were too busy.
Taking a taxi from outside the Hilton, we next went to the Khan el-Kalili, the ancient market that’s been the trading centre of Cairo for centuries. Leaving the taxi at el-Hussein Mosque Sam and I decided to explore some of the older streets here away from the touristy parts and we took a walk from el-Hussein to Bab el-Nasr, along Sharia al-Gamailiya. This is a more or less direct route through the older residential streets of Khan el-Kalili and the heart of Fatimid Cairo. We walked past the little souvenir shops on the edge of the bazaar and into streets that obviously cater for a more local clientele. Here were the butchers, bakers and grocers that provided local residents with their daily food supplies. There were other ‘essentials’ too, like shops that sold only the huge brass tops for minarets, shops devoted to exclusively to shisha pipes, fabric stalls with dozens of bolts of gaudy materials with tailors who sat at their old treadle sewing machines outside. Now and then there was a general hardware store with a huge supply of bright pink plastic laundry baskets or aluminium pots hanging in the doorway. The street here was dusty and dirty, with gullies full of rubbish along each side of the road and the buildings looked very run-down although it was busy with donkey-carts, bicycles and pedestrians. It had rained heavily last night and we had to skirt around pools of muddy water every few metres.
Gradually, as we left the shops behind there were older and more historic Islamic buildings, some of them in the process of being restored and others boarded up and disused. We stopped often to peer through the open arched doorways of wikalas – ancient warehouses where the goods brought by merchants were stored and rooms were available to rent on the upper floors. One particularly large wikala had been beautifully restored and we went inside to have a look. This was the Wikala of Dhu’l Fiquar Oda Bashi, built in 1673. In the eighteenth century this was one of Cairo’s main centres for the trade of coffee. On the ground floor there were thirty two storerooms which had apartments above for the merchants. On the corner of this building was a Sabil-Khutab, a public drinking fountain and a school where young boys would go to be tutored in the Quran. Madrassas were also Islamic places of learning and we saw several of these large but disused buildings, often combined with the site of a mausoleum.
I thought the architecture wonderful as we wandered along the street, gazing up at lattice-work windows and remains of carved wooden mushrabiya screens that overhung the streets. Looking at SCA plaques on the walls of buildings and consulting Sam’s map of Islamic Cairo we learned about all sorts of early Islamic architecture. In this street alone, there were several buildings whose origins dated back to the Fatimid Period (10th to 12th century AD). Mosque and mausoleum, wikala, madrassa, sabil-kuttab and khanquah, these buildings opened up a whole new area of study that we knew nothing about but that we both found fascinating. Eventually we arrived at Bab el-Nasr, a huge fortified gate in the wall which marks the northern limits of the old Fatimid city. This part of the wall, between Bab el-Nasr and nearby Bab el-Fetou, was constructed in 1087 by Armenian military masons brought in from Mesopotamia. Bab el-Nasr means ‘Gate of Victory’ and is flanked by two square stone towers. Sam and I crossed the main road on the other side of the gate to get a good view of the fortifications. It was very impressive with its huge blocks of stone punctuated by little arrow-slit windows for the defence of the city.
We walked back the way we came and found ourselves suddenly at el-Fishawi’s coffeeshop. At 5.00pm it was fairly quiet and we sat at one of the little brass tables outside in the narrow alleyway, drinking coffee and people-watching until it got late and we took a taxi back to the Ciao to get ready for dinner. We ate later at the KFC on Talat Harb, a restaurant I hate because it’s always noisy and crowded, but it was close, cheap and convenient. Walking back I came across a shop selling real galabeyas, that is, those worn by Egyptian women and not the touristy ones we see everywhere in bazaars. I bought two galabeyas which were quiet expensive, but I wanted something I could wear at home and one of them was a rich thick dark green velvet. I was very pleased with my purchases today as we walked back to our hotel through the late evening crowds of local shoppers.
Giza and Saqqara
Yesterday we all had a day off. I spent the day mooching around Cairo on my own, first taking the metro and taxi to Manial to get myself a new Student Card for the next year, which proved easier than I expected once I found the right building. The rest of the day I wandered around just being a tourist with no particular aim but to lose myself in Cairo’s teeming crowds, walking along past the imposing buildings on the Corniche by the Nile and taking photographs of anything and everything. In the evening Sam went off to the airport once again to meet Joyce, a friend of hers who was coming to Egypt to spend a couple of weeks with Sam before they both returned home.
Joyce hasn’t been to Egypt before and because she and Sam are leaving Cairo to drive down to Luxor tomorrow she wanted to have this day to see Giza and Saqqara. We left the Ciao very early this morning in the pouring rain so that Joyce would be able to queue up as soon as the ticket office at Giza opened to get into Great Pyramid – her main goal. Rain in Egypt is fun! The roads quickly flood because many of the streets have high curb stones and no drainage. Cars and taxis are frequently slowed down or parked because they often don’t have windscreen wipers and this causes mayhem on the crowded roads, so we didn’t get to Giza until 7.30am. Luckily Joyce got her ticket straight away with no problem and little queuing. As Joyce wanted to spend a long time in Khufu’s pyramid to meditate and ‘soak up the atmosphere’, Sam and I left her to it and went off to explore other areas ourselves, having arranged to meet Joyce again in a couple of hours.
Sam and I walked down the road to the Sphinx Temple and wandered around the tombs in the Central Field, where Queen Khentkawes’s mastaba rises high above the plateau. Often referred to as a pyramid, the Queen’s huge tomb has many elements of a stepped pyramid structure which was built into the bedrock with a large superstructure above the underground chambers. Little is known about this lady, but she is thought to have probably been the daughter of Menkaure and possibly the mother or wife of Userkaf. This monument has always fascinated me and it was good to get a closer look, even though it is not possible to get inside. There are so many tombs in this area but of course none of them are open, so we had to keep dodging the guards who often try to scam tourists into letting them show you something ‘special’. But it was nice to just wander, occasionally finding a carved block or two sticking out above the sand and trying to work out the names of who the tombs would have belonged to. There is enough to see at Giza to easily fill the whole day, if not a week, but because we were also going to Saqqara today, it was time to meet Joyce and together we all trooped down past the Sphinx again and out to a coffee shop where Abdul was waiting for us with the taxi.
It had stopped raining while we were at Giza but it had become very misty, making it hard to see all three pyramids from any one point. However, once we were on the road to Saqqara the sun came out and by the time we reached the site it was a beautiful day again. Although it hadn’t been arranged, once again Mr Faoud the antiquities inspector came around with us – perhaps he just likes our company! Having already spent three days here this week there wasn’t much that Sam and I hadn’t seen, but we started all over again with Joyce, visiting the Step Pyramid complex as well as the Unas Pyramid and mortuary temple. I was beginning to recognise every stone in the Unas Causeway as we once more walked down this spectacular route as far as the tombs at the bottom of the causeway.
My favourite, the double-tomb of Niankh-khnum and Khnumhotep, who held office during mid-Dynasty V, is in my opinion, the most beautiful and touching tomb in the Saqqara necropolis. Discovered in 1964 by Ahmed Moussa, the tomb belongs to two men who both held the titles of ‘Prophet of Re in the Sun-Temple of Niusserre, Overseer of Manicurists of the Great House’ and is unique in its depictions of the two men appearing together throughout the tomb in intimate embrace. Much has been made of these scenes and the relationship between the owners is still unclear – were they brothers, even twins, close friends, or were they gay? The tomb is popularly called the ‘Tomb of the Hairdressers’. This tomb is large, the earliest parts cut into the rock, while three more chambers with courtyards were added later and constructed with blocks of stone. It is a very complex structure, partly built beneath the Unas causeway, and seems to have been altered and enlarged several times during its construction. As well as the beautifully depicted names and titles of the owners, along with their wives and children, there are many beautifully colourful painted scenes including the traditional fishing and fowling, agriculture and the funeral procession and banquet. In several scenes on the walls and pillars here, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are shown in a close embrace.
After a stop at the old resthouse for coffee, Mr Faoud took us over to the area of Teti’s Pyramid. This is one of the few pyramids I really don’t mind going into because the entrance is not too steep and it doesn’t feel like it’s a long way through underground tunnels. It is also one of the few pyramids where you can see decoration, the rows of beautiful hieroglyphs that constitute parts of the Pyramid Texts seen in all later pyramids. Afterwards we went into the mastaba tomb of Mereruka, the largest of the Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara and one that reflects his very important position during the reign of Teti in Dynasty VI. Mereruka is named as ‘Chief Justice and Vizier, Inspector of Priests and Tenants of the Pyramid of Teti’, ‘Scribe of the Divine Books’. His importance was perhaps increased by his marriage to the King’s eldest daughter, Princess Seshseshet. Mereruka’s tomb, which was first excavated in 1892 by Jaques de Morgan, is famous for its fine reliefs of many aspects of daily life and customs of the Old Kingdom. This is a very elaborate and complex mastaba of 32 chambers which is divided into three separate areas for the burials of Mereruka, his wife Seshseshet and their son Meriteti. The entrance to the complex lies on its southern side, an unusual position for tomb entrances at the time, but faces the entrance to Teti’s pyramid. There are many beautiful scenes throughout the chambers of this tomb, including famous industrial scenes depicting carpenters, sculptors and vase-makers, metal-workers and jewellers. Some of the jewellers are dwarfs, who were traditionally goldsmiths and are shown using blowpipes at a furnace to raise the temperature of the molten metal. There are also full size adults weighing, assessing and recording the precious metals. In the main hall, Mereruka’s funerary rites are traditionally depicted, his coffin transported by boat and accompanied by mourners, priests, clappers and dancers, to the tomb. There are many interesting scenes of cattle-rearing, including the force-feeding of hyenas with pieces of meat – a practice which prevented these hunting animals from eating the wild game they caught. Also in the main pillared hall, is the most startling feature of the tomb, Mereruka’s life-sized statue emerges from a deep niche set into the wall. On the southern side of the complex is the entrance into Seshseshet’s part of the tomb. This is also decorated with standard offering scenes, as well as many depictions of the princess with her small children. Seshseshet also has a false door, this time painted to represent hangings of cloth or matting and the end wall of this chamber depicts an interesting scene of the princess and her son on a lion palanquin. She is carried by female attendants and accompanied by other men and women, pet dogs and a monkey.
It was late afternoon and the site was closing. For the last time we said our goodbyes to Hasan Faoud and thanked the antiquities inspector again before beginning the slow drive back into Cairo. On the way through Giza we called in at the Metro supermarket. Joyce is a vegetarian and also has a wheat intolerance and I could see it was going to be hard for her to find much to eat in Egypt. Knowing she would have problems in Upper Egypt, she stocked up on suitable food to take with her on the journey tomorrow. For my part, tomorrow is the day I go back to England, but I’m not thinking about that yet. We had planned a posh dinner at the Mena House Hotel at Giza this evening, but when we got back to the Ciao Sam had a message to say that a close friend in England had died today. She had been very ill for some time and it was not unexpected, but we had all known her well and felt very saddened. Certainly none of us felt like dressing up and going out to dinner.
Flight Out of Cairo
It’s 24 days since I left England and I’m still not ready to go home, though I somehow don’t feel so bad flying out of Cairo as I usually do when I leave Luxor. I’ve been to so many wonderful new places and had some fantastic experiences on this trip I just never want it to end. I do consider myself very fortunate to have had Sam as my guide here this time but I’m just a teeny bit jealous that she’s now driving down to Luxor with Joyce for another two weeks. Sam doesn’t want me to leave either and we were both quite tearful as I was dropped off at the airport at 6.30am. As soon as we said our goodbyes Abdul was driving them to Luxor, his hometown, staying over tonight in Hurghada to break the journey and to join the early morning convoy to Luxor tomorrow. He’s probably already heaving a sigh of relief!
I negotiated my way through the crowded unfamiliar airport with my bags and was so relieved to find that they weren’t over the weight allowance with all the books I’d bought. My plane left at 10.00am – only half an hour late, which isn’t bad for EgyptAir. We climbed steeply up from the runway into the thick yellow ever-present smog sitting over the city, but looking down through a break in the cloud I caught a glimpse of the Giza pyramids far below, like little toys on the edge of a vast desert. To think I was down there only yesterday, looking up at the huge monuments and the tiny aircraft flying overhead. Very soon we were out over the Delta and I could see this part of Egypt I haven’t yet visited. The long sweeping coastline and the city of Alexandria was very clearly defined and I remembered how much I have yet to see of this beautiful land.
During the flight I thought about the places I had visited. All the Roman sites in the Faiyum had been totally new to me and I remembered the excitement we felt when we happened upon the occasional carved hieroglyph in some of the earlier temples – hieroglyphs were scarce in this area and we missed them. The beautiful Panorama Hotel we had stayed in on the edge of Lake Faiyum seems a lifetime away now. By the time we were in Middle Egypt I’d even got used to our personal police escort everywhere we went. The highlight of this trip was Tell el-Amarna because I’d dreamed of visiting Akhenaten’s city for years. To have two days there was an absolute bonus. We also saw many other Middle Egypt sites that tourists don’t often get to, thanks to Sam’s brilliant planning and Abdul’s willingness to go where he was told (mostly!) and to argue our case with the tourist police. It has been a real adventure. Up to that point the trip had already felt like two separate holidays, but then there was still Cairo. It had been great to explore the Islamic and earlier historical areas and my original dislike of the city has certainly altered because of this. To cap it all, our four days at Saqqara had been amazing and being guided around by our friend, antiquities inspector Mr Faoud, I felt was a real honour. I guess the trip had its ups and downs, but as we began the descent to Heathrow airport it was only the ups I could remember.
London was grey and miserable. I thought about the sunshine of an Egyptian winter and knew it wouldn’t be too long before I was there again.
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