Towards the Sun
After a week of very bad snow and ice in Cornwall we decided that it would be better if I went to my friend Sam’s on Friday night instead of Saturday. We were flying to Cairo together on Sunday, due to leave at 2.00pm. I had been checking the flight status over the past couple of days and all flights were being delayed by several hours. By mid-day Saturday we were ready to leave. Sam lives at the bottom of a steep hill which was treacherous with compacted ice and the idea was for her son to tow us up the hill with his big 4×4. After three attempts and at the last engaging the services of a big tractor, we made it to the main road slipping and sliding all the way. I think that was the scariest journey I’ve ever made!
The rest of the journey to Heathrow couldn’t have been better, with the main roads fairly clear all the way and only the risk of ice that we couldn’t see. The weather was clear and bright and apart from the occasional short flurry of snow we made Heathrow in about five hours, stopping only once briefly at motorway services for a coffee and some diesel. Sam had booked us into the Renaissance Hotel at Heathrow, a huge hotel very close to terminal three and we could see planes taking off and landing on the runway opposite. We had a buffet dinner in the restaurant and a quick walk outside but it was too cold to stay out long and within a few minutes we were shivering. The temperature was around -2 degrees C – we’re just not used to cold weather where we live.
When we woke up we found that no more snow had fallen overnight and the planes were taking off on the runway opposite the hotel. Sam & I had a good breakfast and straight afterwards took the car to the Airport Parking and caught the shuttle to Terminal 3. When we arrived we checked in our bags and they were fast tracked through security because Sam has a silver EgyptAir card. To our great surprise our flight was scheduled to leave on time at 2.00pm and actually took off only a little late around 3.00pm, but took only 4 hours to Cairo arriving at 9.10pm local time. We got visas and were through passport control in no time at all and our bags were first off the plane – easier than I’ve ever known it. The new international terminal at Cairo airport is very nice and smooth. Taking a taxi we sped over the Sharia Rameses flyover to the Victoria Hotel where we’d booked rooms. It’s a strange feeling, although I haven’t been in Cairo for three years it feels so familiar, especially that distinctive smell, that is probably mostly traffic fumes. The noise was louder than I remember it. When we landed we were told that the temperature was 17 degrees C and it certainly feels a lot warmer than England.
We went to have a quick shower and change, noting that our rooms have been freshly painted and feel very spacious and airy. We have stayed at the Victoria Hotel on Sharia al-Gumhuriya several times before and I love it for it’s slightly worn old colonial atmosphere. By the time we went out Cairo seemed relatively quiet, with not much traffic and not many people out and about. We took a taxi downtown to a coffee shop we knew on the wide pedestrian street just off Tal’at Harb, stopping at a stall to buy sandwiches to eat, not wanting a proper meal. It felt amazing to sit outside at Midnight watching families with young children doing their shopping, after leaving the freezing weather behind us. We sat on the familiar multi-coloured plastic chairs at little metal tables in the coffee shop. Coloured lights festooned the streets and Ramadan lamps and occasional Christmas decorations were still hanging over the tables. Vendors selling leather belts, perfume and tissues wandered among the tables and every now and then I had a whiff of that lovely honey shisha smell that is so typically Egypt.
After all the expected problems today has gone surprisingly well and it’s so great to be back in Cairo, I can hardly believe I’m here.
A Frustrating Day in Cairo
I didn’t sleep very well, probably too excited by being back in Cairo, until the early morning when I was woken at 8.30 by a man coming into my bedroom to clean. He was most apologetic, I suppose most tourists don’t lie around in bed this late, but we’d had quite a late night. I got up straight away and had a shower, a quick one because the water was cold, and went down to breakfast, where I was shortly joined by Sam. Breakfast here consists of the usual buffet of bread rolls and croissants, jams, a selection of cheeses, tomatoes, cucumber and hard boiled eggs. I asked for an omelette which was very nice. Sam had brought her cafetiere because we knew there were only little packets of Nescafe on offer here and I was grateful for that. In fact both of us had brought a couple of kilos of ground coffee in our luggage. When I looked out of my window earlier this morning it was grey and cloudy, but by the time we had finished breakfast the sun was shining. As we left the dining room I noticed that everywhere in the hotel, something is being painted or varnished. My only comment is that I wish they would get rid of the huge faded artificial flower arrangement in reception that looks like it has been there since the hotel was built. The Egyptians do like their plastic flowers!
We began the day by taking a taxi out to Abassiya to the SCA offices to pick up sites permissions we had applied for, which in past years was just a formality. When we got to the office however, we were told that things have changed and they are not issued there anymore, but at Zamalek. We took another taxi right across Cairo and over the river to Zamalek. We knew where the office was there but couldn’t remember the name of the street and we got out of the taxi in the wrong place. The traffic in Cairo was the worst I’ve ever seen, almost at a standstill. Unfortunately when we left the taxi we walked in the wrong direction and ended up walking right around the block before we found the SCA offices. Here we saw another officer that we have also met before and who now deals with the permissions, but he told us that we would have to come back tomorrow and see Zahi Hawass in person. I thought that Dr Hawass, as head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and known by the media as the ‘Indiana Jones of Egypt’, must have better things to do than sign permissions. Neither of us felt we wanted to come back, a little worried about being interviewed by him, but decided we must keep trying if we wanted to see any out of the way places and anyway it would seem rude not to. This was not a good start.
We next took a taxi back across the river to Midan Tahrir to go to the American University in Cairo (AUC) bookshop, one of our favourite ports of call in Cairo. Having risked our necks crossing the road to get there, we were told that it had moved. Having already walked around the streets of Zamalek, we set off again to find the bookshop, which turned out to be a couple of blocks away. The new bookshop is very smart and glossy, set on two floors, but they didn’t have many interesting titles in the Egyptology section that we didn’t already have. They were however, selling ‘Zahi Hawass Hats’ (his media trademark) and we joked about buying one each for tomorrow’s meeting.
Did I mention the roads? Traffic rules here are only observed when there is a policeman with a whistle and baton waving his arms and sometimes not even then. Maybe this is why he wears a hard helmet. Red traffic lights seem to be ignored and the several lanes of vehicles in Tahrir Square jockey for position by manoeuvring back and forth across the road. Horns are leant on continuously for seemingly no reason at all by bored or frustrated drivers. As you can imagine the noise and fumes are appalling, but at least the drivers for the most part miraculously manage to avoid collisions. Apparently to hit a pedestrian is the worst sin of all, so hoping this was true we left the bookshop and plunged again into the traffic. Once on the other side of the square we headed towards the Egyptian Museum and the Nile Hilton, now called the Nile Hotel. As we walked along the back of the hotel it all looked very closed, then we realised that the whole back of the building, where the restaurant terrace used to be, has been pulled down. We went further, towards the museum and around to the front of the hotel, only to be told by a security guard that the hotel is closed, probably for refurbishment. What a shame, this was one of my favourite places to chill out in Cairo. No more Nomad or Miss Egypt or el-Ahram, or shopping mall. This was the final straw for us in a day that has been a bit of a disaster, or at least a waste of precious time. After a quick glance at the huge crowd entering the Egyptian Museum, we took a taxi back to the Victoria, which took an hour through the clogged traffic in fumes that were particularly obnoxious – and it wasn’t even rush hour yet!
Back in the hotel Sam and I had coffee and a sandwich in the comfortable lounge. Afterwards I went into the ‘internet café’ with the intention of sending some emails, but I couldn’t remember my webmail password, so I had a quick look at a couple of sites and logged off. The hotel doesn’t offer guests wireless internet, but it does have a little cubby hole in the corner of a glass-roofed garden with a few aging computers.
Later we went to Hatay, a familiar nearby restaurant for dinner, a fantastic meal of rice and vegetables of all sorts, along with tahina and salads and the ubiquitous flat bread piled on the table. Afterwards we walked down to the same coffee shop as last night. The mosquitoes were biting again. I didn’t think I had been bitten last night but they have come up today and are very itchy. I bought some vitamin B complex which usually seems to work for me. I wasn’t expecting Cairo to be so warm at this time of year.
Gearing ourselves up to go and meet Zahi Hawass this morning, Sam and I took a taxi to Zamalek. When we got there we were told that Dr Hawass was even busier than yesterday and couldn’t see us today. Our contact said that he would ask Dr Hawass to sign our permissions and fax them through to the Luxor office on Sunday. We are still not sure whether this was said just to get rid of us and we were already quite expecting to be refused, but haven’t given up all hope yet. We had a coffee at a very expensive and trendy coffee shop in Zamalek and were ready for the rest of the day.
We took a taxi once more through the horrible Cairo traffic – I can’t get used to how bad it is now – and Sam tells me that January is the worst month for smog, which isn’t hard to believe. We got out at Sultan Hasan mosque near the Citadel and when I took out my new Canon camera I found that the settings had all changed somehow and I couldn’t get it to work properly. I had to rely on my older camera, which is just as good, but having just bought a new one specially for this trip I was keen to use it. Also the sky was a grey leaden colour and this makes me feel cheated when I’m out with my camera in Egypt.
I wasn’t in the best of moods as we set off walking down the street towards the Sufi Theatre, past the little Mausoleum of al-Muzaffar Alam ad-Din Sangar. However, when we found that the Palace of Amir Taz (1352) is now open after restoration, I felt better. It looked very inviting and we couldn’t resist going inside. We were not even charged admission. Last time I had seen this building it was sheathed in scaffolding and polythene sheeting and was being restored by a joint Italian and Egyptian archaeological mission. Apparently the building had been severely damaged by an earthquake in 1994 and has had to be substantially re-built.
The next couple of hours were spent exploring the vast complex of the palace with its many rooms and corridors. It must have been a wonderful place in its heyday. All of the rooms are surrounding a central courtyard with palm trees and there are many staircases leading up to a warren of different levels of the palace. Some of the carved and painted ceilings are absolutely gorgeous and in several of the halls, massive wooden cartwheels of lights are hung. The Mamaluk Amirs were responsible for upkeep of a private army of soldiers who lived in the palace which also doubled as a fortified barracks. At one side of the courtyard there were two exhibitions, one about the Mamaluks in Cairo which was very interesting with several artefacts from the period on display as well as large informative history boards, and the other a large art exhibition from the Luxor Art Symposium with many lovely paintings.
Back out on the street we continued down to the Sabil-kuttab of Umm ‘Abbas, a more modern building constructed in 1857. The glittering ornate gold on the façade always amazes me. Turning left past the Khanqah and mosque of Sheikhu (1355) we walked back along the street to the citadel – no mean feat in the busy traffic. The taxi ride back to the hotel took about three times longer than usual. I think part of the problem is that many of the roads are now one way and we were driving round in circles if were moving at all. We couldn’t even get out and walk as there was no room to open the doors. Back in the hotel we once again had a drink and sandwich on the terrace and downloaded our pictures from today.
The traffic was better later when we went to the Khan al-Khalili for dinner. Getting out near the al-Azhar mosque, we walked through the subway to the bazaar and to a restaurant we’d been to many times before, al-Nada, where I had a lovely meal of rice with crispy garlic, called fetah, and lots of spicy vegetables. We ate in a downstairs dining room which has been decorated with many old photographs of the Egyptian royal family and old Cairo scenes from the last century. Afterwards we went around the corner to a coffee shop near ‘Egyptian Pancakes’ where we sat for a couple of hours.
I’ve never seen this area so quiet. There were very few tourists around at this hour but several Egyptian couples or families with young children were out shopping. We were surrounded by the bright lights of the bazaar, the shops selling lavishly embroidered tourist galabeyas, rows of decorative shisha pipes and hanging lamps of every shape and size, lit by colourful bulbs and reflecting their surroundings in glittering dangling crystal droplets. Every five minutes one vendor or another would stop at our table and try to get us to buy something. Sam haggled for a while over some sabhas (prayer beads) and later we saw the ‘Rose lady’, a friend of Sam’s, who gave us both flowers before moving on to a table of Saudi gentlemen dressed in their distinctive white robes and chequered headgear. By Midnight the shops were closing and the place was becoming deserted, it was time to leave.
Flight to Luxor
I was up at a reasonable time this morning and finished my packing before going to breakfast because today we were flying down to Luxor. When I got back to my room the cleaners were there so I took my bags out and went down to wait in the lounge. Sam joined me later and we ordered a taxi for 12.30pm. We got our bags loaded onto the taxi and set off for the airport in what should have been plenty of time. We hadn’t however, reckoned on the bad traffic and it took us half an hour just to get out onto the Sharia Rameses to Abbassiya, sitting in the back of the car being nearly asphyxiated by the fumes that hung so thick on the air that we could taste the petrol. By the time we pulled up in front of the airport’s domestic terminal it was 2.0pm and our flight was due to leave at 2.20pm. We rushed through security and dashed over to the check-in desk, but the EgyptAir staff wouldn’t let us on the flight because we had arrived so late. After a lot of haggling we managed to get onto the next flight at 4.00pm but we had to pay for new tickets. Well, it couldn’t be helped but next time we will know to leave much more time for the traffic hold-ups.
Eventually we were airborne and it was a lovely flight down the east bank of the Nile to Luxor. I love this flight that lasts only about 45 minutes. We could see the whole Nile Valley laid out below us. To the east the wadis formed by dried-up river beds made the desert look like the surface of a walnut and the distant line of jagged eastern mountains with their strange shapes were turning red and gold as the sun began to set.
We landed in Luxor and had a very quick and smooth run through the airport. Domestic arrivals is very different from the hassle of international. We were met by a lady from ‘Egypt Property Sales’, who was Sam’s contact when arranging our accommodation. Rashad, who owns the property with his wife, drove us to the ‘Villa Mut’, our home in Luxor for the next couple of weeks.
The villa is very well decorated and very clean and seems to have most of the things we need. It was built in 2008 and probably its main point of favour is the fantastic view from the roof terrace that overlooks the whole of the precinct of the Temple of Mut, which is just to the south of the main part of Karnak Temple. We settled in and soon Abdul arrived with his brand new car that Sam has arranged to drive while we are here and bless him, he went off to do some shopping for us, at least for the basics for breakfast. For many years Abdul has been our driver, Mr Fixit and Sam’s travel partner when she takes groups to Egypt, helping to smooth the way through countless unexpected problems. He is also a good friend. Sam and I didn’t go out to eat as we were very tired, quite strange as we hadn’t really done anything all day except sit around. I tried to connect to the promised internet and although I was picking up the wireless hub I couldn’t get onto the web. Later I phoned home to check how things were and how the weather is in England now. I’m glad I’m here and not still in the big freeze.
From the Roof of Villa Mut
Breakfast consisted of a very lazy morning with several cups of coffee on the roof terrace of the Villa Mut. It’s a lovely roof, part shaded by a colourful awning. There are several tables, upholstered chairs, sofas and sunbeds made from cane, a tall fridge full of soft drinks and even a tiny plunge pool, though empty at present.
The villa overlooks the high mudbrick wall that surrounds the whole of the Precinct of Mut (pronounced ‘Moot‘) and from the roof we could see all the little groups of temple buildings which used to be partly hidden by scrubby grass and camel thorn. Though I have visited the temple many years ago, it has been officially closed since the 1970s while excavations and restorations are taking place.
My memories of the Mut Precinct are hazy and while I recall many statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and one or two other scattered blocks with reliefs, no overall plan of the temple was fixed in my mind. So it was exciting to see the whole area laid out before us and from the height of the third story roof terrace we could even see clearly the shape of the vivid green, crescent-shaped sacred lake, ‘Isheru‘. To the west of the lake are the remains of a temple of Rameses II, with large deep hieroglyphs engraved into the stone of the low rear wall. Beyond the lake, towards the north I could see several tall round columns that I don’t remember and it looks like much of the main part of the Mut Temple have been cleared or rebuilt. And Sekhmet is still there, hundreds of sisterly look-alikes lined up on the edges of a large square area in various stages of ruin. It looks like the excavators might be here at present as I could see several little clusters of people moving around.
Beyond the Mut Precinct I could see the huge gate of Karnak’s Tenth Pylon and above the trees, the top of Hatshepsut’s obelisk. Last night we listened to the music and dialogue from Karnak’s Sound and Light show – three times in different languages, though the coloured floodlights were hidden behind the trees. Today the sun is shining and to the west I could just make out the peaks of the Theban Mountains in the hazy light across the river, above the houses that surround us. Local people came and went along the dirt track in front of the villa, mostly donkey-carts and motorcycles and a little flock of scrawny goats picking at the rubbish on the roadside mingled with a few woolly black sheep nibbling at the long grass. Because the large area of the Mut Precinct acts as a buffer zone, everything seems to be at a distance and muted, including traffic noise from the nearby flyover that leads to the airport road. It felt very peaceful after Cairo.
Most of the day was spent relaxing on the roof. Rachad the villa’s owner, came and went a few times delivering one or two things that we had asked for, including an iron and ironing-board. I asked about the internet connecton we were spposed to have and he tried to connect, then after a phone call he told me that the D-Link service provider was down and should be back soon. Later the electricity went off for a while and the villa was in darkness so Sam & I took the opportunity for a siesta.
In the evening we went for dinner at Maxim’s near the Isis Hotel and Abdul and one of his brothers came too so it was quite a little party with the usual great food. We discussed the trips we wanted to do while we were here. Driving through Luxor I could see some of the massive changes since I was last here and it seems like half the town has gone, with wide roads replacing little narrow streets. Luxor is beginning to look very smart but I think it will lose its charm and character. The Corniche now has several sets of traffic lights and is lit by millions of tiny blue LED lights that are draped over every tree. There is also a new one-way system that means driving anywhere in Luxor takes three times as long.
After dinner we went to the Horus coffee shop in the bazaar and stayed until 12.30am. Sam and I were of course the only women in this local café where rows of men sat at the little metal tables and drank tea, smoked shisha and played noisy games of dominoes or towla, an Egyptian form of backgammon. They seem to get very excited by this and there is a great deal of friendly (and not so friendly) shouting and bantering. Another brother of Abdul’s came by to say hello and we sat chatting and generally watching the world go by. Walking along the road I found a bank that was still open late at night and I finally managed to change some money, so I feel solvent again. By the time we left I was feeling very chilled in the cool night air and I was glad to finally get to my warm comfortable bed back in the Villa Mut.
Driving to the West Bank
After breakfast this morning Sam and I decided to venture over the Nile to the West Bank. Sam has the use of a brand new Hyundi and it was with some trepidation that we set out to drive through Luxor, over the bridge and along the road on the West Bank that leads to the Qurna crossroads then west to the monument area and the mountains. Being Friday, fortunately the roads were fairly quiet apart from the usual reckless donkey carts and tourist coaches that travel far too fast. Sam soon got the feel of the car. Before deciding where we wanted to visit today, we drove along the monument road on the edge of the cultivation just to see what is new. Even though I knew about the destruction of old Qurna village and was there when most of it was happening, it was still a shock to see the empty patch of desert where the ancient houses had been, supporting the Qurnawis for centuries. Little is left now and the little square mosque, once central to the village, looks very lonely on its own.
We took the road to el-Tarif. Everything has changed since I was last here and the little roads have become wide new highways. I hardly recognised where I was. As we passed the Carter House I told Sam that I’d like to see it, knowing that it has just opened as a museum. Something to do another day. We drove back to the ticket office, noting all the activity going on at Dra Abu’l Naga where two tombs are being excavated. There has also been quite a lot of work done at the Temple of Tuthmose III just to the north of the Rameseum, where a Spanish team have been excavating in recent seasons. Buying tickets for Medinet Habu, I was amazed that the man in the ticket office remembered me – it’s three years since I last saw him. Driving along the road by the canal that is so familiar to me from staying here a few years ago, I was surprised to see changes even here. There is a big new parking area for the temple and in front of the temple itself the road has been dug up to put in huge new land-water drainage pipes that will be installed right along the length of the monument area in an attempt to lower the water table.
Sam and I spent about three hours inside the temple that I know so well. At least not too many changes here. The small temple built by Hatshepsut is still roped off with Chicago House’s ongoing restoration work there. After a walk through the temple I went around to the palace area on the southern side. A great deal of clearance work has been carried out to the west of the palace, revealing foundations of houses and a large well. This was obviously an area where many people lived and worked. I walked up to the House of Butehamun, the only house that has survived in part and looked at its slender columns, where I found inscriptions that I hadn’t noticed before. I took a lot of photographs today, even though I already have several thousand taken in this temple. The light is always changing and different scenes show up better at different times.
By the time I had finished, Sam had vanished, but I thought I knew where I would find her and I was right, she was in the Rameses Café just outside the temple. I didn’t recognise any of the staff working in the café and it was looking very run-down, with no other customers. We were told that this café too may be pulled down to make way for all the changes taking place.
We left the West Bank just as the sun was setting behind the mountain, around 5.30pm and drove back over the bridge, through Luxor to the Villa Mut. How Sam interprets the mysterious traffic signs on the roads I will never know. Most of them don’t make sense to me and I wouldn’t dream of trying to drive here so it was with a great deal of admiration on my part that we arrived home. Later we went to dinner again at Maxim’s and Sam drove around the streets of Luxor ‘for practice’ she said. On Television Street we stopped to do some essential food shopping in a small supermarket, while a couple of young boys cleaned the West Bank dust off the car for 1EL. The day ended with a very civilized glass of red wine on our roof terrace watching the dark shadows swirl around the Temple of Mut in the misty lights and listening to the Karnak Sound and Light commentary.
By 8.00am this morning Sam and I were in Abdul’s minibus and on the road to Edfu. Abdul was taking us to Gebel el-Silsila because even though there is no more convoy, permission still has to be got from the tourist police to travel outside Luxor and it was easier for Abdul to get this charter than for Sam to drive us herself and most likely encounter problems at the checkpoints. It felt good to drive straight past el-Shoarowla (the Black Horse) where the convoy used to stop for a break.
We drove on past el-Kab as far as Edfu, where we crossed the bridge to the west bank, through the busy town and then followed the river south through agricultural land, mostly fields of ripened sugar cane and fruit trees. Once away from the town everything was very rural. The roads were narrow and often little more than dirt tracks, with scattered small villages of mudbrick houses here and there, each one with clusters of children and animals scampering everywhere. As we began to climb away from the river the landscape became more barren and rocky. We were in the area of ancient sandstone quarries. As the minibus continued to climb I was reading a section from Arthur Weigall’s ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ in which he describes the method of getting to the quarries:
‘To visit the shrines and quarries of Gebel Silseleh the visitor, who is not travelling by steamer or dahabeya, should take the early train from Aswan which arrives at Kagoug station before 9.00am……. There are no donkeys to be had at Kagoug, except by arrangement with the villagers, and a dragoman therefore should be sent to obtain them, and also a ferry boat, on the previous day. The ancient remains are about three miles from the station, a point of rocky hills to the south-west being one’s objective. To the traveller, the wonderful quarries on the east bank will not fail to be of interest, and the shrine of Horemheb on the west bank deserves a visit; while to the archaeologist there are numerous small shrines, tombs and rock steles which are worth visiting’.
It seems that not much has changed here since Weigall’s day, except that the ride in the minibus must be far more comfortable than any donkey. We were on the west bank of the river and I could see Weigall’s steam ships and dahabeyas still plying this ancient waterway through the rocky defile.
Parking the minibus and leaving Abdul to his customary nap, Sam and I walked down a sandy track where we found a modern but rather neglected rest house where we bought our tickets for 25 EL. The gafir seemed pleased to see us and I imagine he gets few visitors during his working day. A younger guard came with us to the Speos of Horemheb a short distance along the sandy track by the river. Even at 10.00am the temperature was beginning to soar – around 30 degrees C. and it felt unseasonably hot for January.
Horemheb was the last king of Dynasty XVIII and he had this rock shrine carved out of the hillside. The chapel was dedicated to Amun as well as other deities connected to the River Nile. This spot is very ancient. It’s name, Gebel Silsila means ‘the Chain of Hills’ and the sandstone hills came right down to the water’s edge where the Nile once was very narrow and probably contained a series of rapids forming a natural frontier between Elephantine (Aswan) and Edfu. By Dynasty XVIII, travellers developed the custom of carving small shrines into the cliffs here, dedicating them to a variety of Nile gods and the river itself. Smaller shrines were cut by Tuthmose I, Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, before Horemheb constructed his rock-cut temple here, then many of the Dynasty XIX or later kings left their mark in some way.
The Speos of Horemheb consists of a long vaulted hall behind a façade of five doorways and a smaller oblong chamber to the rear. All the walls are covered in reliefs and inscriptions, in some places quite damaged, but in others there are some very fine high quality inscriptions. The deities depicted on the walls, besides Amun-re, are Sobek in the form of a crocodile, the ram-headed god Khnum of the First Cataract, Satet of Elephantine, Anuket, goddess of Sehel, Tauret as a hippopotamus and Hapi, god of the Nile. As well as those of Horemheb, cartouches of Rameses II, Merenptah, Amenemesse, Siptah and Rameses II appear in the reliefs. Two of the most noted reliefs are of Horemheb carried in a portable chair during a festival after his Nubian campaign and a relief with a list of the Heb-sed festivals of Rameses II, which were supervised by his eldest son, Prince Khaemwaset. I have wanted to see this shrine for years and I was not disappointed.
Back outside the heat was staggering, bouncing off the high cliffs even though we were right by the river. Sam was here not long ago, so she opted to sit in the shade while I went on with the guard, who pointed out many interesting rock shrines and funerary niches carved by officials of the New Kingdom. It was fascinating but after a couple of kilometres even I succumbed to the heat and could go no further. The guard had just pointed out the continuation of the track which dropped steeply down some flaky rocks hanging perilously close to the water’s edge, but I knew we couldn’t get much further along the river bank here. There is also a very large rock with a flight of stone steps going partly up the face, but Sam had already told me that the steps were gone on the other side.
After around an hour I was back with Sam and we retraced our steps back past Horemheb’s speos to the rest house, staying for another half an hour and drinking a welcome glass of sugary tea with the guards. There was so much to look at even sitting outside the rest house.
White egrets and kingfishers flew low over the river and we saw a heron catching a fish and slowly eating it on a little island. Gebel el-Silsila is a beautiful spot and we watched as many cruise boats steamed north to Aswan or south to Luxor. We had planned to come another day and go to the larger east bank quarries where many kings quarried stone for the monuments of Thebes and left inscriptions. One thing I particularly wanted to see is a large stele of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) recording that he had ’caused an obelisk for the Temple of the Sun at Karnak to be quarried there’. There are also prehistoric rock-engravings on the east bank. But it was not to be, as the gafir told us that the eastern quarries were closed and visitors were not allowed without special permission. At least I could see the quarries just across the river.
On the way back, Abdul decided that it would be much quicker if we took the desert road back to Luxor. This is a new fast road that bypasses the towns of Edfu and Esna. However, this got him into a lot of trouble at the checkpoint because he didn’t have a charter to travel on this road. As usual he talked his way out of it and managed to keep his licence (which they could have taken away).
By late afternoon we were back at the Villa Mut, sitting watching the sun go down over the Mut Temple with sandwiches and coffee on the roof.
I woke up late on Sunday morning feeling like I had a head full of lead. Every movement was an effort. Sam pottered about the villa for the morning and didn’t feel any urgency to go anywhere either. She tried several times to telephone to the SCA in Cairo about our antiquity permissions from Dr Hawass, but could get no reply. I spent the morning on the roof terrace, trying to take a photograph of a beautiful but elusive tiny bright green Bee-eater. Eventually, just as I was about to give up I managed to capture him (or her) on my camera.
On a good note, Rachad, the villa’s owner finally managed to get us an internet connection using a different service provider. I was just about to connect my laptop when there was a huge crash of thunder. Sam and I rushed up to the roof and saw that the sky was alive with streaks of lightening and distant rumblings of thunder. The children in the street below us were letting out gleeful whoops of joy when big drops of rain started falling. Within seconds everything was soaked. Apparently this was the first rain Luxor had seen for three years and it seemed to be delighting everyone. I just hoped the storm would clear the oppressive heat and humidity. The rain didn’t last for more than an hour or so – not quite the kind of steady horizontal rain we get in Cornwall sometimes day in, day out, for weeks at a time. But the thunderstorm rumbled on for most of the night.
Monday morning dawned with a clear sky. I felt a little better but this morning Sam seemed to have come down with whatever I had yesterday. It wasn’t the usual Egyptian tummy – more like a sleeping sickness and we just couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour at a time. Must be a bug of some sort. As I felt better throughout the day, Sam felt worse so neither of us went out at all.
I finally managed to dash off a few emails and spent a while on the Brooklyn Museum dig diary blog which is documenting Richard Fazzini’s team’s current excavations in the Temple of Mut. I feel privileged to read about all they are doing as it happens and having such a grandstand view too.
Just after lunchtime our electricity went off and we realised the downside of an Egyptian house with no windows in the living areas when we were plunged into darkness. Many of the local houses are built this way to keep out the heat and it works spectacularly well because most of the time we were freezing indoors even though the temperature outside was very high. I kept going out onto the roof to warm up. Eventually Sam went off for an afternoon nap and I stayed on the roof terrace reading until it got too dark. The electricity finally came back on at 6.00pm. I remember these frequent power cuts happening years ago in Luxor and especially on the West Bank, but I thought the power to the town had been much improved in recent years. Maybe yesterday’s storm had done some damage to power lines.
Neither of us felt like going out to eat so we stayed in and watched a few DVDs of an old ‘Blackadder’ series to while away the hours until it was bedtime again.
Changes at Karnak Temple
Today had been set aside for Abydos, but last night we decided to postpone the trip until we were both feeling more lively. This morning however, Sam and I were both much better and over our early morning coffee on the roof terrace, with the tenth pylon tantalisingly close, we could feel Karnak Temple beckoning to us.
Knowing what Karnak is like in the mornings when a sea of coaches descends on the car park and thousands of tourists cram into the temple, we waited until late morning to set off, Sam driving the car the short journey to get there. Sam has already seen all the changes over the last couple of years, but I hardly recognised the place as we pulled into a new parking area to the south of the temple. Here a new bazaar with stalls selling everything a tourist could want and much that they don’t need, lined the walkway towards the temple. The entrance is now through a new modern visitor’s centre where an impressive wooden model of the temples is set up in the middle of the huge hall. To one side, rows of seating offer a place for visitors to sit and watch a video of the history of Karnak before going in and around the walls there are many old excavation photographs and history boards. I have to say the authorities have done a good job here. We bought our tickets – now 65 EL – fended off a few local guides and set off across a sea of landscaped concrete paving towards the row of ram-headed sphinxes at the entrance.
The area that used to be the old coach and caleche park is now an empty space from the temple all the way down to the river – much as it would have been in ancient times. The only thing I felt missing was the canal that would have once been there. In front of the temple a lot of clearance work has been done and the ancient quay, or tribune, has been uncovered. It would have been from here that the statue of Amun on his sacred barque was taken to Luxor Temple for the Opet festival by the river route. In other periods of history the god travelled by land down a route lined with the sphinxes which are currently being exposed right through Luxor.
After going through security I looked towards the first pylon and could not believe how many people there were in the entrance. Even though we had left it until mid-day when it usually quietens down, I have never seen the temple so busy in all the years I have been coming here. Fortunately the thousands of people were all coming out, but I didn’t see how we would ever be able to get into the temple.
Pushing against the crowd, Sam and I went straight to the fourth pylon where we wanted to have a look at some reliefs Sam had been reading about and we walked around the area of the fourth, fifth and sixth pylons in front of the Sanctuary of Alexander. Last time I was at Karnak, much of this area was closed off for restoration, so it was good to spend some time re-visiting the Tuthmose III and Hatshepsut monuments here. At some point Sam and I lost track of each other, so I went off to have a look at the rooms on the northern side of the Middle Kingdom court which had also previously been locked up. Today nobody stopped me, so my camera was working overtime. These rooms carved with reliefs of Tuthmose III, contain some very interesting scenes, particularly those depicting the hippopotamus hunt.
I went on into the Akh-Menu, the festival temple of Tuthmose III. At least there were no changes here. By now Karnak was much quieter and I saw only a few visitors in these parts. After a look at the ‘botanical reliefs’ which are among my favourites, I went over the wall to the back of Karnak. I was hoping a guard would be around to let me into the little temple of Osiris Heka-djet and was amazed and delighted to find the gate open and nobody in sight. I spent a long time systematically photographing the walls of this little chapel built during Dynasties XXIII to XXV. Here the Divine Adoratrix Shepenwepet and Amenirdis are depicted before the deities in many interesting and often unusual reliefs.
I lost track of the time as I picked my way carefully though the prickly camel thorn at the northern edges of Karnak, looking at the remains of each of the tiny buildings I found and trying to work out what they were. Walking back through the Temple of Amun about 15 minutes before closing time I realized that this area was again very crowded and people were still coming in. I wondered how people thought they could see Karnak in the quarter of an hour before closing. I had lost Sam hours ago, but she was waiting at the car when I got back to the car park, having given up the battle with the crowds a while ago.
We hadn’t really eaten much over the past couple of days, so in the evening Sam and I treated ourselves to another great meal at Maxim’s and later still went to the Horus coffee shop in the bazaar. We had intended to walk the couple of kilometers home to the Villa Mut, but as it was midnight by then, a friend insisted on giving us a lift and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The Abydos Pilgrimage
For Sam and I, no visit to Egypt is complete without a trip to Abydos. It is a pilgrimage just like in ancient times when all Egyptians aspired to visit the ‘Tomb of Osiris’ there. If they couldn’t make the trip in life, then the journey by river was painted in elaborate detail on their tomb walls, at least during the New Kingdom period.
This morning we left at 6.00am in Abdul’s minibus for the two or three hour journey north. The air was freezing and the mist was rising in long drifts from the canals and sugar cane fields. Flocks of white egrets were clustered in the palm trees preparing for a day on the river. I don’t think I have ever seen Egypt look so green as it does now, with tall bright-green stands of ripened sugar cane at either side of the road. January sees one of the twice yearly sugar harvests when the roads are packed with vehicles of every description from donkey carts to big trucks, loaded up with the distinctive bundles of long canes. Beyond the road, little trains chug along on narrow tracks collecting the stalks from each group of fields. Men, women and children are all recruited for the harvest and everyone is very busy.
At Dishna it was market day and Abdul stopped to buy hot falafel and pitta bread from a roadside stall for our breakfast which we ate as we continued towards Naga Hammadi. Here the chimneys from big sugar producing factories were churning out plumes of grey smoke into the still morning air and we could smell the sickly sweet aroma of hot sugar as we passed by. We crossed the bridge over the Nile barrage to the west bank and before long we were turning left off the road at el-Balyana towards Abydos. Sam and I had a swift cup of coffee in the garden cafeteria and went straight into the Temple of Seti I.
For five hours Sam and I worked very hard, photographing as much of this beautiful temple as we could. The current regime of banning photography at ancient sites is worrying and I was determined to try my best to get decent digital pictures of the colourful reliefs in the temple while I still could. Abydos is never easy to photograph without a tripod because of the dark conditions in the various halls and with each successive camera I always think I can do a better job. My results are always varied though, so I keep trying. I even attempted a couple of short movies on my new camera – but they turned out to be a disaster. My career as a film-maker will have to wait a while.
At one point we went out to the Osirion and I noted that the water table was lower than I have seen it for several years and the little stone ‘islands’ could clearly be seen, but the water in the trenches between them was sludgy green and full of wind-blown rubbish.
I also spent some time in the ‘Hall of Barques’ that is often locked up so I’ve never photographed this room properly before. This was the room which housed the sacred barques of the gods which were brought out for ceremonies and processions. Shafts of sunlight lit the room from rectangular roof openings and in the time of Seti, or his son Rameses II who decorated this room, the divine boats, gleaming with gold or silver, must have been a spectacular sight standing on the stone benches that line the room. The scenes in this room were never finished and some of them are carved, while others are painted. The best preserved barque reliefs are those of Osiris, Isis, Horus and Seti on the southern wall.
The temple today was fairly quiet with small groups of tourists coming in for an hour or so and then disappearing again. By the time we had finished my arms were aching from holding up my camera and I was quite glad to go back to the cafeteria for a rest and a cold drink. I had hoped to go to the Temple of Rameses II today, which is a short distance away, but we had run out of time. Abdul wanted to get back to see an important football match on TV this evening, Egypt against Brazil in the All Africa Cup. In Egypt football takes priority over everything and Egyptians take the game very seriously. The little park in front of the temple has become a building site where a very modern-looking visitor’s centre is being constructed, but the tables and chairs are still there under a shady awning. Shahat is still running the bookstall, and he remembered me from previous visits. As usual, I bought a little shabti from him. These are made locally but look surprisingly genuine.
The low sun on the east bank hills on the drive back to Luxor was gorgeous, turning the tall cliffs and the river below a golden hue. Abdul stopped only once to buy some freshly caught Nile fish for Sam from a roadside vendor near Naga Hammadi and by 6.30pm we were back at the Villa Mut.
Castle Carter & Deir el-Bahri
This morning the air felt much cooler as we had our morning coffee on the roof terrace and I noticed the haze that has been around since we arrived in Luxor seems to have finally cleared. Sam and I decided to drive over to the West Bank again.
Once more crossing the bridge and turning right along the pretty tree-lined road towards the Gezira cross-roads, I noticed again the activity involved with the sugar cane harvest. Trucks, tractors and donkey carts trundled along the road piled high with canes. One interesting development I’ve noticed this year is the arrival of a new type of vehicle in the form of a motorcycle with a pick-up back, like a motorised donkey cart but much faster. I guess this progress is inevitable and I wondered how long it will take before we no longer see donkeys on the roads. Is this a good or a bad omen for the donkeys who will become redundant?
We stopped briefly at the Colossi of Memnon, the statues of Amenhotep III at the entrance to his Kom el-Hettan temple, because the sun was lighting them perfectly in the late morning. After mid-day the front of the statues are in shadow. A long screen has been erected in front of the excavation area so there was no chance of seeing any work in progress. We had a glimpse from the road of the statue of the king that has been re-erected in the temple area with its replica head. Knowing that visitors are quickly turned away, there was no point in stopping.
Sam drove along Monument Road again slowly so that we could see what has been going on excavation-wise. How lazy is that? But we were on our way to the Carter house, where the famous discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb had lived and worked. I had expressed an interest in seeing the recently re-opened ‘Castle Carter’ last week. I remember from my first excursions onto the West Bank years ago, several people told me that ‘Castle Carter’ was the domed building on the hill at the entrance to the road to the King’s Valley. I was even once taken inside part of this building, which was also a dig house. Later however, I learned that Carter’s house was at the foot of this hill and surrounded by overgrown trees that went a good way to hide it. The larger and more prominent house on the hill is in fact Stoppelaere House, built to a plan of Hasan Fathy in the 1950s as both a guest house for the Department of Antiquities and the headquarters and apartment of Dr. Alexander Stoppelaere who was the chief restorer of the Department at that time.
The real ‘Castle Carter’ was in fact Howard Carter’s second home on the West Bank, his first being near Medinet Habu. The one we visited today has been beautifully restored and we, the only visitors, were welcomed free of charge and shown around by a guide. A fantastic job has been done on the restoration of the house. It is an Egyptian traditional mudbrick house with a dome in the centre to keep it cool. Each room is furnished with lovely period pieces from the time when Carter lived there and even though I knew they were not original to the house they felt like they belonged there. It certainly captured my imagination. There are many copies of photographs and reproductions of some of Carter’s original handwritten notes and his drawings to add extra interest and the present Lady Carnarvon has done a beautiful job of designing posters and history boards with photographs of the two famous men.
Howard Carter built this house shortly after beginning his association with his benefactor Lord Carnarvon of Highclere Castle in England, in 1910. He lived in Luxor for many years and it was his base while excavating in the Valley of the Kings and searching for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Carter’s story after his 1922 great discovery is well known and his last years are rather sad, but it was lovely to see the life this house must have had while he lived there. The most interesting part for me was the darkroom, now lit with the traditional red light and looking like Carter or his photographer Burton might step out at any moment. The walls were hung with black and white photographs and there is even a huge wooden plate camera on display.
The restored house is surrounded by a newly-planted garden that will be very pretty when the plants grow and there are shady rest areas where visitors will be able to get refreshments. Outside there is a wonderful view of Thoth Hill, and with my long lens I was able to take a picture of the temple on it’s peak. I’ve never yet managed the two-hour trek to the top.
After leaving ‘Castle Carter’ Sam and I decided that Deir el-Bahri, where we were headed next, would still be too busy with the morning rush, so we went into the Ramesseum rest house for a drink to while away an hour or so. We finally arrived at Hatshepsut’s Temple around 2.00pm when most of the visitors had gone. Deir el-Bahri has also changed since my last visit and now has a big new visitor’s centre. We were told we were not allowed to walk up to the temple but had to go on the little taf-taf train. It’s becoming like Disneyland here. We bought our tickets (30 EL plus 2 EL for the taf-taf) and off we went. I visited each terrace in turn taking photographs of the walls because many of the reliefs have been newly cleaned since I was last here. The right-hand second terrace is looking especially good and the shallow relief depicting the divine birth of Hatshepsut now shows up well. The Chapel of Anubis has also had a face-lift and the painted walls are now bright and colourful. I love to visit the little Chapel of Hathor with its lovely Hathor-headed columns and today with my zoom lens I got some good pictures of the adjacent Middle Kingdom Mentuhotep Temple from there. I also got some pictures of the old Metropolitan dig-house, a magnificent huge building to the south of the temple that for many years has been used by the Polish Mission working at Deir el-Bahri.
We left Deir el-Bahri when the temple closed at 5.00pm, making our way through the bazaar that is now the only exit. Sam had to park on the road because the enormous car park is now for coaches and taxis only. We drove back into Luxor in the crazy evening traffic, trying to work out why drivers mostly ignore the red traffic lights.
Anyone who’s been to Luxor has probably seen the famous avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that lead to the first pylon of Karnak Temple. This western approach to Karnak was appropriately called ‘The Way of the Rams’ by ancient Egyptians and has been attributed to Rameses II because the statuettes between the sphinxes paws bear his cartouche.
Many scholars suggest that an earlier name may once have been carved here and it seems likely that the sphinxes themselves were the work of Amenhotep III who inaugurated many of the processional ways associated with Karnak. These sphinxes, though not in their original position, would once have extended as far as the second pylon, the main entrance to the temple at that time. They were moved to the temple approach by Pinudjem I and each of the sphinxes has his name carved on the base. The sphinxes in the forecourt were moved to each side to make way for the monuments of Taharqa and Sheshonq I and they remain today on the north and south sides of the forecourt. These are all ‘crio-sphinxes’ having the head of a ram with the curled horns of Amun, a nemes head-dress and the body of a lion.
Today, Sam and I were looking at the sphinxes around the Temple of Mut where two processional routes converge. We walked around the corner from the Villa Mut and along the road north of Abu el-Gud, where all the houses are being demolished. The processional way here is currently being exposed and many of the bases for sphinxes are in situ, but there are few remains of the actual sphinxes. We also saw what looks like it might be a barque station, perhaps one of the six mentioned by Hatshepsut along this north-south route. Where this part of the avenue ends it turns at right-angles towards the entrance to the Mut Precinct. Turning right, we met the gafir from the Temple of Mut and he showed us the sphinxes as we walked together down the paved dromos of the processional way. A lot of restoration has been done here and many of the sphinxes are in good condition. These are human-headed statues with a lion’s body and they bear the cartouche of Pinudjem I. The gafir showed us that the sphinxes were interspersed with trees and shrubs and he showed us the excavated wells and water channels that provided a self-watering system – it must have looked spectacular when in use during the processions to Luxor.
At the end of this avenue, where it meets the entrance to the Mut Temple, we again turned northwards towards Karnak’s tenth pylon. Here the few sphinxes that were preserved enough to tell, had rams heads and I recognised the cartouches of Horemheb on most and Seti II on one base.
In ‘Karnak, Evolution of a Temple’ by Elizabeth Blyth, the author suggests that it may have been the young Tutankhamun who initiated this avenue. She suggests that the sphinxes had rams heads added to the bodies and a statuette of Tutankhamun placed between the paws (though I could see no evidence of this). The original heads of the crio-sphinxes had been human and remains have been identified as portraying Akhenaten and Nefertiti, shown in equal size, which would therefore make them unique. Latest research shows that these sphinxes may have been transported from the Temple of Amenhotep IV on the eastern side of Karnak, since a possible processional way has been found there.
We had arrived at the Tenth Pylon. Before the southern face of the gateway there is a plinth on which stood a massive colossus of Amenhotep III. Today only the feet of the statue remain, but it is said to have been the largest royal statue ever erected in Egypt. In an inscription on a private statue of Amenhotep Son of Hapu, Amenhotep’s architect claims that this mammoth statue was carved for the king from a single block of red quartzite. Another plinth exists on the western side of the gate but archaeologists are uncertain whether a pair of colossal statues were ever erected here.
A couple of local ladies helped us up the bank and over a wall by their house. They had been tending their little flock of black goats that were scavenging around the feet of Amenhotep. They offered us a cup of tea which we politely declined and it was sad to think that their homes too would be scheduled for demolition in the near future. Continuing along the enclosure wall we soon came to Karnak’s Khonsu gate. Standing in front of the gate and looking south, another row of sphinxes ran along the western side of the road.
This is thought to be the oldest part of the processional way linking Karnak and Luxor Temples. The road is lined with figures of seated rams. Not really sphinxes, the ram statues are larger than the crio-sphinxes of the other avenues. They each bear the cartouche of Pinudjem I on the plinth but they are known to be the work of Amenhotep III, perhaps being brought from the Mut Precinct where other similar ram statues have been found. Like the western approach to the Mut Temple, this avenue too was once planted with trees, but today it is in a very ruinous state.
The day was very hot and we had been out at the hottest time with the sun blazing down from a cloudless sky and no shade to be found anywhere. I would have liked to walk further and look at the rest of the sphinx avenue that carries on through Luxor to the temple. I had already caught brief glimpses of the 100m wide swathe that has been cut through the centre of town to expose the sphinxes, looking like bulldozer archaeology at its finest. Walking southwards again, we decided to leave sphinx avenue part 2 for another day. Today I had been endlessly plagued by both children and flies so by mid-afternoon, not knowing which was worse, we headed back to the Villa Mut. The electricity was off again until 6.00pm, so we sat on the roof terrace until dark.
Flat Hunting in Luxor
Today Sam had arranged with the Luxor property letting company to have a look at some of the other villas and apartments on their books with a view to her next Egyptian trip and invited me to tag along for the ride. She was particularly interested to see what was available on the West Bank.
After picking up the two reps from their Luxor office we headed out of Luxor towards the bridge, but before crossing the river they insisted on showing us a new development just past the Moevenpick Hotel. The complex is called ‘Egyptian Experience’ and consists of several blocks of very well finished and highly priced apartments on the east bank of the Nile. Parking in the gardens, we went to have a look at a duplex apartment which was available to rent for short periods. The huge apartment on two levels with long balconies both sides, a roof terrace, large living area, kitchen and three bedrooms, was beautiful. It was spacious, light and airy and had fabulous views over the Nile. Perhaps it was suitable for several people sharing, but for Sam, 7000 EL a week was way out of her price range.
Our next stop, at a more reasonable rent, was a lovely house on the West Bank near the Ramesseum. As we drew close I realised I had visited the house before when a friend of mine had lived there for a while before the present owner bought it and I had fallen in love with it all those years ago. The owner was there to show us around and gave us a cup of tea in her beautiful garden full of flowering trees and brightly coloured bougainvillea. It was a paradise, but unfortunately would not be available at the times when Sam would want to rent it.
Our next stop was at Ramla, on the banks of the Nile near the ferry port. In the years since I used to stay on the West Bank at the Gezira Hotel just around the corner, a whole crop of new buildings have sprung up, stretching along the shoreline. Last time I was along here it was a muddy track that only camels used, where tourists could take rides along the river bank. The camels are still there, but now have smart new housing too. We were told that Luxor council have plans to build a new corniche along the West Bank and it has already smartened up considerably.
Many of the villas and apartments at Ramla are available to rent and we were shown several, some fairly average and others I wouldn’t feel comfortable in for one reason or another. I knew Sam was looking for something a little more special than the average Egyptian apartment that is often badly finished, sparsely furnished and rather gloomy. It wasn’t until we arrived at the last apartment that she found what she was looking for and I agreed, it would be a very comfortable place to stay. Whether it will be available when she wants it is another matter.
Then for something completely different. Our last stop was to have look at a dahabeya moored in the river which was available to hire for private cruises. This would be more my style and I could just imagine sailing south to Aswan in the beautiful old sailing boat, lounging on deck with a cool glass of something in my hand. I think there were half a dozen guest cabins all compact but well furnished and a larger master cabin that was quite splendid. There was a wood-panelled lounge and dining area and of course the upper deck where there were sun-beds and shady areas. We were told that the crew and all food and drink was included in the price of $120 per person per night. If enough people were interested it would be a good way to do a Nile cruise in a more leisurely way, stopping where we wanted and not being tied to any tour company itinerary. Aswan and back would take a week, so it wouldn’t be the cheapest Nile cruise on the market. Tempting, but not what Sam was looking for – at least we had seen it and it could be an idea for the future.
After stopping for a cold drink in a Ramla coffee shop we made our way back to the East Bank and home feeling quite exhausted, though neither of us could think why. It had been an interesting day and a good exercise in seeing what was available to rent. An apartment is so much cheaper than staying in a hotel for two or three weeks. When we arrived back at the Villa Mut the electricity was off again, surprise surprise! I began to think that maybe a hotel would be a better idea after all.
Seti in the Eastern Desert
After a day of pottering about in Luxor it was back to ‘work’, as today I was going to visit a site I hadn’t seen before. Sam had already been to Kanais and she hoped I wouldn’t be too disappointed by the tiny ruined temple of Seti I located on the road from Edfu to Mersa Alam. Places like this are so much easier to visit now that the police convoy is no more, though permission still had to be obtained by Abdul to take us in his minibus. We left Luxor at 6.30am for the long drive south.
In an hour we had reached the ‘Black Horse’, the Shaorawla checkpoint and we continued on the road to Edfu until we reached the bridge over the Nile into the town. Here we turned off into the Eastern Desert and the Wadi Abbad. We drove about 50km on a fairly good tarmac road through quite flat and boring landscape, but on either side of the road there were small lakes, evidence of the rain storm from a week ago. These looked strange in the otherwise parched desert landscape. Eventually the land rose on either side into small hills, some having cairns and Roman lookout posts on their peaks. Openings in the hills showed several side-wadis and just before the most well-known of these, the Wadi Miah, we came to Kanais, also known as el-Ridisiya.
The temple was first mentioned by Cailliaud, an explorer who visited the area in 1816. It is also the site of an old watering station and a small well-preserved Roman fort. Parking first on the road, Abdul tested the wet muddy sand and decided to risk driving over it part of the way to the temple, where we got out and walked the rest of the way. A police truck delivered the gafir about ten minutes later. The gafir went into his hut after saying hello to us, the police left and soon we could see tea being put on to brew on a little stove.
The Temple of Amun-re built by Seti I is a rock-cut speos, carved into the rocky gebel which reminded me of Horemheb’s rock-temple at Gebel-el-Silsila, or Hatshepsut’s temple at Speos Artimedos. Only the sandstone vestibule of Seti’s temple is open, the inner portions of the temple have been bricked up at some point. Four columns with papyrus capitals hold up the roof lintels, which are also decorated and the walls are covered in quite good, though sometimes damaged reliefs depicting the King before Amun-re and especially showing his victories over Kushite and Asiatic warriors. There is an alcove with a statue of the king. The guard left Sam and I alone to take our pictures.
Outside the temple there is a lot of grafitti and ancient inscriptions. At first they are difficult to see and most of them were in the shadow of the high cliff with the sun behind, but once we found one or two they seemed to spring out everywhere before our eyes. Most of them were high up on the cliff and though I scrambled up the scree as high as I dared, my long telephoto came in very useful here. I wondered how the original artists got up there to carve them.
One inscription is by the official responsible for digging the well, another carved by a Viceroy of Kush named Eni. There is Greek script, hieroglyphs and hieratic script and more modern 19th century grafitti from all the travellers who have visited the site over the centuries. Being a source of precious water, Kanais probably represented quite an important stopping place for travellers through the Eastern Desert, and each have left their mark. Apart from obvious hieroglyphic inscriptions there is also what looks like older rock-art depicting boats, giraffes, gazelles, an elephant, ostrich and other animals that have been bruised into the soft sandstone. Far from being disappointed I thought it was a wonderful place.
We walked around the Roman fort and though roofless with low walls, it still contains parts of small rooms and windows and the floor was scattered with pottery sherds. We looked at a round feature we assumed to be the remains of the well, as well as a rectangular pit that looked like it may have been a bathing pool. Eventually we wandered back to the gafir’s hut where he and Abdul were now drinking tea. After a few minutes we gingerly picked our way back to the minibus over the sodden sand, trying to find dry places to walk. The mud had half-dried in places leaving fantastic cracked patterns in large patches on the ground that I couldn’t stop photographing.
Back on the road we carried on east for another 10km where the more beautiful mountainous scenery begins towards the entrance to the Wadi Barramiya. At Bir el-Kanais, a desert track turns off to the right into the Wadi Miah. In this part of the Eastern desert, emerald mines and gold mines have been exploited since Roman times, but here we turned around and headed back towards Edfu. On either side of the road there were a lot of fenced-off military posts, as well as a few unusual Nubian-style domed buildings and several herds of camels. Back in Edfu we crossed the bridge into town and Abdul stopped to buy us some tamiya sandwiches, which we took to a park and ate under the shade of tall trees.
It had been a long morning and I felt like we had already seen a lot today, but the day wasn’t over yet. By the time we left Edfu after our leisurely lunch it was still only 2.00pm and Abdul suggested we stop at el-Kab to visit the New Kingdom tombs, as we would be passing right by the site. Sam and I never pass up the chance to visit tombs. When we arrived at el-Kab there were no other tourists, which didn’t surprise us because although visited much more than it used to be, the site is still off the main tourist itinerary. The guards seemed pleased to see us, so we bought our tickets for 30 EL and headed up the long flight of stone steps to the tomb terrace.
Though we have visited el-Kab several times before, Sam and I spent quite a long time in each of the four open tombs while the two young guards sat outside and chatted as though they hadn’t seen each other for months. And they say women can talk! We began at the Dynasty XVIII tomb of Paheri which has lots of interesting reliefs, including some beautiful agricultural scenes. Next we went into the less well-preserved tomb of Setau, a priest during the reign of Rameses III, where there is a lovely depiction of the barque of the goddess Nekhbet.
The third tomb on the terrace is that of Ahmose, son of Abana, grandfather of Paheri. I have a soft spot for this tomb which contains Ahmose’s long autobiographical text that I had to translate years ago for a hieroglyph course. Of course I have long forgotten the exact wording of the text which describes him as ‘Captain of Sailors’, but I remember seeing the beautiful hieroglyphs carved on the wall of this tomb for the first time and it left a deep impression on me, really bringing the text to life.
Renni is the owner of the fourth tomb, and this is probably my favourite because of the fabulous colourful reliefs and unusual subjects. Renni was a mayor of the town of Nekheb during the reign of Amenhotep I. I particularly love the detail of the funerary scenes in this tomb, which include depictions of Muu-dancers wearing tall basket-weave headdresses. The tiny reliefs are so beautifully drawn and painted. All of these tombs at el-Kab are well worth the effort of a visit.
By the time we arrived back in Luxor the sun had already set. It has been a very long but very productive day with so many new things to think about and discuss, which Sam and I did over a late dinner at Maxim’s.
Karnak Open-Air Museum
Sam and I didn’t feel like going too far today, so we spent the afternoon in Karnak temple again. It’s so convenient being practically just around the corner and even if we went every day there would still be plenty to see. It’s a bit of a hike now from the car park, having to go through the new visitor centre to buy tickets and out across the wide stretch of empty plaza that now fronts the temple.
I’m still not sure if I like the re-design – it all feels sort of ‘sanitized’ now, an archaeological theme park with the sole purpose of getting the dozens of coach-loads of tourists in and out as quickly as possible. While I understand how vital tourism is to the Egyptian economy, on this trip and especially around Luxor, I’ve been forming the impression that Egypt no longer has a place for, or an interest in, the serious student of Egyptology. This saddens me.
We managed to escape the noisy jostling crowds in the Amun Temple by going into the open-air museum, which was practically empty. Tickets for the museum cost 25 EL on top of the temple ticket price of 65 EL. It’s been three years since I was last here and the museum has changed a great deal. A row of black granite Sekhmet statues still guard the museum entrance and nearby, a new barque shrine has been erected that bears cartouches of Rameses II as well as Amenhotep II. Opposite this there is a very large area fenced off where a concrete base has been laid for something obviously important. I wonder what this will be. Hatshepsut’s ‘Chapelle Rouge’, completed a few years ago, has pride of place in the centre of the museum area.
I followed the neatly paved path that winds around the museum, looking at some of my favourite, more familiar monuments, such as Senwosret’s beautiful barque chapel and some of the lovely blocks and lintels from Medamud. The huge porch wall of Amenhotep IV that once stood before the third pylon is in an area of the museum that has been opened up, displaying various doorways and statues that are now much easier to see. Not everything is labelled, but there are more information boards than there used to be. A couple of new barque stations are being put up, though they seem to be mostly constructed from new concrete with a few lonely pieces of relief cemented onto the walls and I wondered what was the point when there were so few original remains. I suppose it gives the visitor some idea of what the original monument would have looked like.
Finally I arrived at the back of the museum where the portico of Tuthmose IV has been reconstructed and this at least looks magnificent, with it’s colourful portrayals of the King before various deities on the pillars. I met up with Sam again in the cafeteria. Even this has been smartened up with even higher prices to reflect the changes. After parting with 20 EL for a small bottle of cold Pepsi, we went and sat out by the lake under the shade of the trees – our favourite place to take a break. I had a moment of panic when I found two sets of my rechargeable camera batteries were corroded (one set brand new and as yet unused), but luckily Sam had a spare set I could use for the rest of the day.
After a while we skirted the ninth pylon and walked down towards the little jubilee temple of Amenhotep II, between the ninth and tenth pylons, probably the only monument at Karnak I’ve never actually looked at properly before. The temple, though reconstructed is in a fairly derelict state, but there are some very nice reliefs which still have some colour. I had read that this was not in its original location and that the temple had once been in front of the eighth pylon, probably removed and rebuilt by Horemheb and the decoration completed by Seti I, who re-used it as a barque shrine to Amun. Today, a ramp leads up into the raised temple which is fronted by a portico of square pillars. The square decorated pillars continue inside where a series of rooms lead off in different directions. On the eastern wall there is a large false door stele and to the south, remains of a large ruined statue stands forlorn among patches of overgrown camel thorn. I decided I would need to learn more about this interesting little temple.
On the way out of Karnak I walked over to the older shops to the right of the new plaza that advertise Camera batteries. I eventually found some rechargable AA’s but I could not get the price below 100 EL for two (I needed four) and these were an unknown brand. At around four times the price I pay at home I decided not to bother. When we arrived back at the Villa Mut at around 5.30pm, the electricity was still off. We’ve decided that the power cuts could be linked to the nearby demolition of houses as it is always off during the working day, though not on a Friday when the bulldozers stop for the morning and the workmen go to the mosque. Or perhaps it’s Luxor council’s way of persuading the residents of this area that they must move out as the homes here are also scheduled to be demolished within the next six months. The electricity came back on as it got dark, much to Sam’s delight as she wanted to watch Egypt play Cameroon on television in the All Africa Cup. Egypt won and as we went out later to eat at el-Hussein Restaurant in Karnak, there was much celebration in the streets.
We left Luxor this morning in Abdul’s minibus, on another foray into the Eastern Desert, this time to the Wadi Hammamat, which runs between the Nile and the Red Sea. We drove north along the Nile Valley on the familiar main road we take towards Abydos, but stopping at the checkpoint just south of Qift. Here the road turns into the desert, an ancient trade and caravan route between Qift (the ancient town of Coptos) and Quseir (the port of Leukos Limen) that ran through the Eastern Mountains.
At the checkpoint the police made us wait for around half an hour while trying to decide if the desert road was still passable after the recent rains. These roads are notorious for being washed away. Eventually, and probably after a little greasing of palms by Abdul, we were allowed to continue. The distance between Qift and Quseir is 180km, but we were only travelling about 85km, as far as the rock inscriptions that are located in a narrow defile just as the road begins to pass between the higher mountains and where the scenery gets more spectacular with every kilometre. Once more we saw evidence of the rain in small lakes at each side of the road and there were parts where the road was covered in mud, or the tarmac had been washed away at the edges, making Abdul concentrate hard on his driving.
As the region became more rugged we could see remains of tall stone-built watchtowers on the tops of the hills, left by the Romans who guarded the trade route. We passed a small Roman fort, then an ancient well known as Bir Hammamat on the left side of the road and stopped a little while later in a very narrow pass between high, dark, jagged mountains. Apart from being a route to the coast, this region was famed for its quarries and gold mines. Throughout pharaonic history expeditions of quarrymen and miners were sent here for months at a time by subsequent kings. Wadi Hammamat contains a variety of sandstone, greywacke and schist-type rocks which were all known as Bekhen-stone in ancient times. The colours of the rocks vary from a very dark basalt-like stone, through reds, pinks and greens and although this stone was usually too flawed for building large monuments it was highly prized for statues, sarcophagi and smaller shrines. I remembered seeing a papyrus map in Turin Museum some years ago which was found in the Deir el-Medina tomb of a scribe named Amennakhte, son of Ipuy, who was commissioned to make the map during an expedition of Rameses IV, the king who sent the largest recorded quarrying expedition to the Wadi Hammamat. The Turin papyrus map is notable for being the only topographic map to survive from ancient Egypt and also for being one of the earliest geological maps in the world with real geographic content.
On the narrowest part of the road, just around a steep bend, Abdul pulled into the side and Sam and I got out of the minibus and picked our way gingerly across the muddy sodden sand towards the cliff. Two hundred metres further on there is a gafir’s hut belonging to the SCA. Sam has been here before so she was able to point out to me exactly where the 200 rock inscriptions in this stretch begin. They are mostly on the south side of the road. Many of the elaborate inscriptions, bruised and engraved into the perpendicular cliffs were left by expedition leaders who announced their allegiance to their king and gave many technical details of the expedition. There are also a large number of cruder carvings, depictions of men, animals and boats left by the workmen or pilgrims travelling through the wadi. Several kings left a record of their expeditions, including Pepy I, Amenemhat, Senwoset I, Seti I and Rameses II. According to the inscription of Rameses IV, his second expedition included 8,362 men, making it the largest since the Dynasty XII reign of Senwosret I, around 800 years earlier. Senwosret records that he sent 17000 men to the Wadi Hammamat to bring back bekhen-stone. It was the Persian conqueror Darius, however, who sent the highest number of expeditions and six separate journeys are recorded.
As I walked along the base of the cliffs I could see inscriptions everywhere. Some of the animal grafitti and boats looked prehistoric – but you can never really date these. I recognised cartouches of kings from the Old, Middle and New Kingdom as well as several of the Persian king Darius I. The god Amun-Min features prominently in many of the inscriptions – Min being ‘Lord of the Desert Tracks’ and in his ithyphallic pose is known as a protector. The Horus falcon is shown in many rock-drawings, as well as the goddess Hathor, ‘Mistress of the Mountain’ and Thoth in the form of a baboon, as he is patron of craftmen. I managed to identify an inscription of Khnemibre, known as the ‘Genealogy of Architects’, which David Rohl and other authors use as a dating tool for the disputed length of the Third Intermediate Period.
Sam and I had just taken out our cameras when a truck pulled up with the gafir and two other men who made their way straight towards us. One of these men, it turned out, was the antiquities inspector for the Red Sea area and he told us in no uncertain terms that this ‘site’ was closed and could not be visited or photographed without special permission from Dr Hawass (and payment of a large fee). We could not believe it. After a lot of pleading and argument the inspector finally let us take a couple of photographs and then insisted that we leave. How is that for bad timing? In the whole of the Red Sea area he had choosen the same day and the exact same time as us to visit Wadi Hammamat. I had waited years to see this place, which is after all on a public road.
As we were escorted away from the base of the cliff I turned around too quickly and my feet slid out from under me on a wet patch of deceptively deep mud and down I went onto my back. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and I know Sam was having trouble keeping a straight face. And in my attempt to keep my camera out of the mud I managed to hurt my wrist. As I was helped up I realised that the whole of my back from my neck right down my legs were absolutely covered in mud and my sandals had sunk about 15cm into the red oozy stuff. But at least my camera was OK!
I knew I couldn’t get back into the minibus in the filthy state I was in, so I had to stand on the road with my back to the sun and dry off for half an hour – luckily the sun was hot and the mud eventually dried to a sandy powder that could easily be brushed off my clothes. The inspector and gafir had moved on a little way up the wadi, but they were still watching us. But even the view from the road was interesting, with stone workmen’s huts on the roadside and half-way up the cliff I could see the remains of a stone sarcophagus that had been left behind, perhaps because it was damaged. When I had dried off we decided to drive a few kilometres further on to a cafeteria at Bir Fawakhir, the only settlement on this road. From the little coffee shop, populated mostly by truck drivers, another wadi branches off to the north where, we were told, are numerous stone huts of the Roman gold-miners camps.
Sam had not been feeling well this morning and after our rest stop, she was getting worse, so we decided to call it a day and head back to Luxor. The day had been a disaster but at least I had finally seen the wonderful Wadi Hamamat inscriptions.
The Wars of Rameses III
Sam was feeling a little better this morning but we both felt rather lazy after our long excursion yesterday to the Wadi Hammamat. The morning brought more clouds racing in the wind which was coming straight from the south and in Luxor this is often a sign of peculiar weather on the way. We decided to drive over to the West Bank again and opted for an easy day at Medinet Habu.
We arrived at the Temple of Rameses III in the late morning and I was astonished at the number of people there, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so busy. Not so many years ago Habu Temple was rarely visited by tourists and was always a lovely peaceful place to be, but today there were five large tourist coaches in the car park, a handful of minibuses and several taxis. It was with trepidation we entered the temple.
Sam went inside into the crowded first court, but I decided to walk right around the outside walls and take pictures of the calendars and the battle scenes of Rameses III where he documents his campaigns in two Libyan wars and his battles against the ‘Sea Peoples’. The battle scenes on the north wall are best photographed very early in the morning because after 9.00am they are in shadow and don’t show up very well. The war reliefs begin on the back outer wall of the temple and progress down the north wall.
Rameses’ first battle with the Libyans began in Year 5 of his reign. By this time the Libyans, troublesome for many years, had accepted a new leader of the Temeh tribe appointed by the Egyptians, but had secretly formed alliances with the tribes of Meshwesh, Seped and Libu in order to advance on Egypt and gain more land. The Egyptian army was mobilised to put an end to the incursions, and the result is carved on the walls in gory relief. Some of these scenes are also depicted in the first and second courts. The victories of Rameses in this war are represented by the number of hands and genitals cut from the slain armies – the traditional way of counting the dead.
The next military campaign occurred three years later, this time against the enigmatic ‘Sea Peoples’, a displaced group of raiders who over many centuries had fought sea battles in the eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to gain land. On the north wall we see Rameses equipping his army for battle in Year 8. In a two-pronged attack Rameses fought the Sea Peoples both at sea and on land, trapping his enemy at the mouth of the Nile with a fleet built especially for the purpose. The raiders were defeated in an ambush, and in the reliefs we see ships capsized and men drowning. Meanwhile the land forces were defeated as they crossed the northern border into Egypt and several of their chiefs captured. We can see the distinctive dress of the Sea Peoples with wide headdresses and striped kilts. In the land battle the enemy brought their women and children and they are depicted cowering behind ox-carts. In another scene the victory is celebrated at the ‘Migdol of Rameses III’, identified as a settlement near the eastern mouth of the Delta. Finally, Rameses III presents his foreign captives to the gods, the Theban Triad.
Three years later, in Year 11, Rameses was again at war. This was the second Libyan war, an attempt to put an end to the Meshwesh and Libu tribes who had occupied a large area of land in the western Delta. This war was fought in the desert regions of the Libyan borders and we see Rameses III in his horse-drawn chariot, bow and arrow poised for another victory. Again there was an ambush and the leader of the Meshwesh, Meshesher, was captured after a gruesome chase through the desert. A delegation led by Meshesher’s father, Keper, was sent to discuss terms and a peace was arrived at where Rameses settled the Libyan survivors in strongholds and they were forced to serve in the Egyptian military. This campaign, documented on the outer wall of the first court, lists the number of men killed and the captives which include women, children and animals with which the Libyan tribes had hoped to settle.
Great victories for Rameses III. The Libyans were once more contained, but the king was not to know that the descendants of these tribes would eventually rise up again and finally rule all Egypt.
It had taken me a couple of hours to photograph each scene on the outer walls and though the contrast was very low I felt I had made my best attempt. By the time I actually went into the temple, the crowds had gone, leaving only a scattering of people wandering around. Where the cloudy sky and shadowed north wall had hampered my photography, in the first and second courts this was a bonus because the dark shadows of the columns invariably present on the inner walls were gone, leaving the painted scenes flat and easier to photograph.
When the temple closed at 5.00pm, Sam and I went over to the Rameses Cafe for a drink and something to eat. Sam had a tagen and I had a pizza which I mostly fed to one of the pregnant cats that always seem to be around here. The Rababa man was there, an elderly galabeya-clad, turbaned Egyptian who sits at a table and plays his stringed instrument to anyone who will listen and occasionally breaks out into song. This man has been a permanent fixture in the Rameses Cafe for at least fifteen years, but never looks a day older. We also finally met our friend Salah, who we hadn’t yet seen on this trip. He was with a party of German ladies but came over to say hello and we had a brief chat. Once more the sun was setting as we drove back to Luxor, with the deep purple hue of the Theban mountain behind us.
Sam and I had a late night last night watching DVDs on the television in the villa, not getting to bed until after 2.00am. We were both quite late getting up this morning and met on the roof for breakfast. This morning the weather was still cloudy and hazy and seemed quite chilly. There was a lot of activity going on in the Mut Temple and it felt like watching a stage performance of excavators, men in lines carrying buckets on their shoulders from one area to another. Unfortunately, because of the layout of the temple and the uneven terrain, we can’t quite see what is going on from our grandstand seat.
We decided to spend another day at Karnak Temple as there is always more to look at and photograph and we arrived there around lunchtime as most of the crowds were leaving. I began in the forecourt, photographing the reliefs in the Sety II triple barque shrine that I have never properly looked at before. This was the first free-standing tripartite shrine to be built at Karnak, an evolution of the single barque shrines and way-stations of earlier kings. In Sety’s monument, during the course of festivals such as Opet or the Valley Festival, the ceremonial barques of Amun, Mut and Khons were set to rest side by side within their own chapels, with Amun in the centre. Interestingly, this building was also named by Sety II as a ‘Temple of Millions of Years’ and was used as a place of worship and prayer and functioned as a cult-chapel for the King’s ka. This multi-purpose monument also contains texts that are dedicated to the eldest son of Sety II, Prince Sety-Merenptah, who is given the epithet ‘True of Voice’, suggesting that he is already deceased and therefore it is a funerary monument, a gift posthumously granted to the prince by his royal father.
Nearby a family of yellow dogs were sleeping in the sun, mother keeping a jealous guard over her litter of puppies, so I kept my distance, knowing how fierce Egyptian bitches with puppies can be. I walked over to the opposite side of the forecourt to the temple of Rameses III and the ‘Bubastite Gate’. These are areas that are not on the main tourist path and are usually nice and quiet. The large gateway in the south-east corner of Karnak’s forecourt was built and decorated by King Sheshonq of Dynasty XXII, the first of Egypt’s ‘Libyan’ kings.
Having looked at the Libyan war scenes of Rameses III at Medinet Habu yesterday, I thought it was ironic that Sheshonq’s monumental gateway adjoins Rameses’ smaller Karnak temple. It was Sheshonq’s own ancestors that had been defeated by Rameses III six generations earlier. Sheshonq had risen to become the most prominent military leader in Egypt, advisor to King Psusennes II in the north. When Sheshonq assumed the crown he became the founder of Dynasty XXII and taking power away from the Theban High Priests, his greatest achievement was to re-unite Upper and Lower Egypt, bringing a long period of peace and stability. On the outer wall of his southern entrance gate, Sheshonq is depicted in an important triumphal scene commemorating his victories against Israel and Judah. Sheshonq offers a khepesh-sword to his god Amun who stands before several rows of name-rings that represent a total of 165 captured cities. The goddess Wast, the personification of Thebes, is also shown here. I first became interested in this scene when doing some work on the Third Intermediate Period, for it has long been argued that Sheshonq is the same king as ‘Shishak’, named in the bible as the Egyptian pharaoh who conquered Jerusalem and plundered the Temple of Solomon. If this is the case, it is a valid argument for the shortened length of TIP chronology. Sheshonq’s monumental gate also offers other beautiful scenes of Osorkon offering to and receiving life or heb-sed from the gods, being suckled by Hathor and always with his son Iuput. The unfinished decoration was added to by later kings, especially Osorkon I and Takelot II.
Leaving the Bubastite Gate I made my way to the cafeteria for a drink and was shortly joined by Sam who had had the same idea. She told me that she had been looking at the back (or should it be the front) of the third pylon which didn’t join up against the rear wall of the hypostyle hall as we had assumed. I walked over to the north side of the pylon a little while later and a policeman let me into the gap of around one metre between the walls, to have a look at the hieroglyphs. This would be the original front or western face of the third pylon built by Amenhotep III, long before Sety’s hypostyle hall had been built. I think it must have been cleared in recent years as I have never noticed it before. There are deep flagstaff niches filled with hieroglyphs, and we know from texts that eight mighty flagstaffs were fashioned from a single piece of Lebanese cedar, the lower ends sheathed in bronze and the tips plated with electrum. There is a depiction, the only one we have of Amenhotep’s Karnak facade, in Tutankhamun’s Opet reliefs at Luxor Temple.
After looking at the beautiful Userhet Barque of Amun, carved on the eastern face of the pylon, I also had a good look at the porch that I had walked past so many times. There is a new history board showing information on the third pylon and its court, where the famous wall of Amenhotep IV, now in the open-air museum, once stood.
I walked out through the ‘cachette’ court on the transverse axis, with the idea of photographing the eighth, ninth and tenth pylons again, but the light by this time was gone, so I went along the southern wall to the front of Karnak where much excavation has been done recently. Here the ancient quay, or Tribune, has been uncovered to show an interesting series of wells and water channels. As I left, Karnak’s huge sandstone walls were bathed in the deep golden light of late afternoon and the dome of the old sheikh’s tomb to the south-west of the temple’s entrance shone with deep rich colours. I was glad to see that the tomb at least had not been removed.
Later in the evening I was on the roof listening to the distant narration of the Karnak Sound and Light show when a mighty roar went up all around. Luxor had beaten Algeria 4-0 in the latest round of the All Africa Cup and the town’s inhabitants seemed to be pleased!!
A Quiet Karnak
Our holiday in Egypt is rapidly drawing to a close, with only three more days before we fly home. During another misty breakfast time on the roof terrace Sam and I decided to spend another day at Karnak, the fourth day there this trip, but as I’ve said before, there is always plenty to look at. Today we arrived a little earlier, around 11.00am and we were amazed at how quiet the temple was compared to the other days we have visited. That’s because it’s Friday and many tour leaders and coach drivers have the day off. Something to remember for the future!
We started by walking around the north side of the hypostyle hall, having another look at the gap between the third pylon and the hypostyle hall where we had discovered you could see the flagstaff niches. Curious that we had never noticed this before. Turning around we saw that the barrier blocking off the track to the Temple of Ptah and the shrines of the Divine Adoratrix was not present today as it had been on previous days, and I had really wanted to see those shrines again. As we walked into the first shrine a gafir came rushing down towards us and I expected to be thrown out, but he just hung around for a while and left again when we ignored him. He was trying to get us to visit the Temple of Ptah (also officially closed).
The office of Divine Adoratrice, or ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ is one that has fascinated me for a long time. Although the position of God’s Wife had been held by royal females since the Middle Kingdom, these ladies came to be supremely important during the Late Period and usually acted as the king’s surrogate in Upper Egypt. The power and wealth of the reigning Divine Adoratrice is said to have exceeded even that of the High Priest of Thebes. By the Late Period the God’s Wife was usually a daughter or sister of the reigning monarch, unmarried, but with the power to ‘adopt’ her successor from within the royal family. Their names were written in a cartouche and the ladies wore regal iconography, crowns with a uraeus and a feathered headdress.
Of the three existing shrines in the northern part of Karnak Temple (there are more in the Montu Temple and also to the north-east of the precinct) we went to look at each one in turn. I have always found them a little confusing because there are several king’s cartouches as well as the God’s Wives cartouches on the monuments, so it’s not easy to work out who built or dedicated the shrines without referring to books. My favourite is the third and probably the least well preserved shrine, which belongs to Shepenwepet II. Inside the sanctuary to the north is a tiny room with a doorway no more than about a metre tall. I just managed to squeeze into this chamber to take some pictures, though there was very little room, but the reliefs inside are very interesting. I would love to know what this tiny chamber was for but can find no reference to it in the books.
When we had finished we walked up to the Temple of Ptah, which is covered in scaffolding and currently closed. The guards however, were very keen to show us inside. Sam and I have seen the temple several times before so we didn’t bother to take more than a cursory glance through the entrance gateway. Now if they had offered to let us into the Montu Temple to the north, it would have been a different matter. As we walked back through the Hypostyle Hall there were only half a dozen other people around and the cafeteria, where we headed next, was deserted.
We wandered again along the transverse axis of the eighth to tenth pylons and had a look at the block fields around the Temple of Khonsu. After many years of being officially closed, the Khonsu Temple is now open and for the first time ever, it is being properly cleaned with a great deal of beautiful colour showing up. I remember from past visits the beautiful reliefs hidden by centuries of soot and grime and wondered why nobody bothered about this lovely temple. Work is now being carried out by the American Research centre in Egypt (ARCE) under the auspices of the SCA and involves conservators of several nationalities, including Egyptian. ARCE have set up a conservation school close to the temple especially to train Egyptian SCA students. Overseeing work within the Khonsu temple is British archaeologist Pamela Rose and a team of stonemasons, epigraphers, and conservators. One of the most important aspects that is affecting many monuments in the Luxor area due to the rising water table, is the dewatering program. The stonework inside the Khonsu Temple must be properly dried out and the salts removed in order to preserve both the structure of the temple and the reliefs. The SCA are hoping that eventually more tour groups will stop at this little visited monument.
Walking back towards the main entrance I stopped to take a sneaky peek through the window of a nearby storage building which houses around 16000 talatat blocks taken from various Karnak monuments. Here ARCE are photographing and stabilising each block before they are moved to more suitable storage facilities. Sam and I also walked along several rows of the block field north of the Khonsu Temple where there are many exquisite Middle Kingdom blocks stored on plinths.
The end of another great day at Karnak – Friday is definitely the best day to visit the temple when it’s so much quieter than normal. We arrived back at the Villa Mut just as it was beginning to get dark, only to discover that (surprise, surprise), the electricity was off again.
North and South of Luxor
Abdul picked us up in his taxi this morning. I hadn’t seen his old Peugeot taxi for several years, but had happy memories of many long trips made in it. Taxis in Luxor now are mostly new smart-looking saloon cars, models like Hyundai and Mitsubishi, but still with the same blue and white livery. Abdul’s taxi looked sad and care-worn and he told us he was going to sell it.
We drove out of Luxor on the Airport Road with thick dusty clouds hanging over the mountains, transforming them into pale ghosts marching along the edge of the cultivated land. Before long the sun came through and picked out the vivid colours of bougainvillea and other pretty flowering shrubs that lined the road. The road-sweepers were out with their rush-headed brooms and push-carts, oblivious to the stream of traffic speeding past. Donkey-carts and bicycles of course have their own road rules, often clinging to the wrong side of the road and facing towards the speeding busses, lorries and cars which swerve violently across the lane to avoid them. At Alamary checkpoint we turned left towards Qena, through Yasa checkpoint and alongside a canal, (named the Shenhuria Canal) where children from rural reed-roofed mudbrick houses played on the banks.
At around 20km north of Luxor, with the town of Qus about 5km further on, we turned left over a bridge into the village of Shenhur. Now I could see why Abdul wanted to drive us here and not let Sam and I come on our own. Shenhur was once an important village but now looked very poor indeed. The main narrow dirt track wound between tall houses towards the mosque and twice we had to stop and ask directions at junctions, even though Abdul and Sam had both been here before, but eventually we arrived at the little Roman Temple we had come to see. The village of Shenhur itself takes its name from the hieroglyphs on the temple walls, read as pa-shn-hr which translated means the ‘ Lake of Horus’, a mysterious name as there is no evidence of a lake or water feature here.
When we got out of the car we were told that Shenhur was closed to visitors and we would need special permission to see the temple – words we were getting used to hearing on this trip. However, Abdul had met the gafir before and after the usual handshakes and exchange of mobile phone numbers (and promise of baksheesh), permission was quickly granted. I was glad he had insisted on bringing us. By the time we entered the temple precinct – a large walled patch of bare earth where a herd of goats were grazing, we were surrounded by seemingly all the children of the village shouting their heads off. Fortunately they were eventually shooed away and told to stay outside the wall. Sam and I went off into the tiny temple. A few early travellers visited Shenhur, but it never drew a great deal of serious interest until a Belgian-French archaeological mission began a decade of excavations there in 1992 under the direction of Jan Quaegebeur and Claude Traunecker and later Harco Wilems. The temple has suffered a great deal of damage over the centuries by both stone-robbing and more latterly, lime-burning. The walls of the structure were built from limestone and the best of this was taken, leaving the poorer quality stone with few badly preserved reliefs. The earliest (northern) part was built by the Emperor Augustus and this contains a central sanctuary, vestibule and door jambs that were decorated by Augustus. One of the most interesting areas is part of an astronomical ceiling in the wabet, which the excavators had re-erected. Other parts of the temple were decorated by later Roman rulers while the outer wall, which still has well-preserved reliefs, were decorated by the Emperor Claudius.
Romans following Augustus added other parts to the temple, a mammisi, a hypostyle hall and a chapel of Horudja, who at Shenhur is associated with the god Tutu, a deity I first came across in the Western Desert and have been interested in ever since. Tutu, here named as a son of the goddess Neith, is in evidence in several monuments around the Coptos area and associated with several different gods. At Shenhur Tutu is named as ‘The Powerful and Victorious God’, and the Personal Saviour ‘…who comes to one calling him’ and he is depicted surrounded by various goddesses. Min is also very much in evidence at Shenhur, as in other parts of the Coptos region. A variety of rituals are depicted on the walls, some of them unidentified and reliefs include a whole range of Theban deities. I read in a report by Jan Quaegebeur that two secret rooms were found in the temple, each with a rolling heavy stone door on wheels, giving access to the crypts – stuff of Indiana Jones!
But it was time to move on. Our next port of call was the village of Tod, around 20km south of Luxor, where the falcon-headed god Montu was worshipped since the Middle Kingdom. Abdul had insisted that we could now buy tickets at the temple, but he ended up having to drive all the way back to Luxor to get them, while we stayed to look around. It’s a good idea to remember that tickets for Tod must be bought at Luxor Temple before setting out.
Most of the monuments which can be seen at Tod today date from New Kingdom to Roman times. On the north side of the site is a small barque shrine or way-station built by Tuthmose III and restored by later Ramesside kings. On the west are remains of a quay and avenue of sphinxes. There is also evidence of a small sacred lake to the north and east. The largest remains of the temple consist of a columned hall begun by Ptolemy VIII, which includes a hidden side room which was a treasury above a chapel on the south side. The later temple was built against a wall of the Middle Kingdom remains, and a long text of Senwosret I has been over-carved with Ptolemaic reliefs. Many of the later cartouches have been left blank, which we often see in Ptolemaic building works, because the rulers changed so rapidly. Having visited Tod several times before, Sam and had a quick look around. The site has been tidied up since I was last there and the temple walls have been cleaned. The block-field has been extended to include many interesting Middle Kingdom blocks as well as a small area of later Coptic reliefs and architectural bits and pieces. It was mid-day and very hot and as Sam and I sat for a while in the shade the guards offered to share their lunch with us, which we politely refused, so they made tea for us instead.
While back in Luxor, Abdul had also bought us tickets for the tomb of Ankhtifi at el-Moalla, about 12km further south, a site that we thought was closed. There are surprises every day in Egypt and some of them are good ones. Sam and I had visited Ankhtifi’s tomb once before and at that time we had only seen the wonderful painted scenes by torchlight after dark. For a long time I have wanted to go back there. Although much damaged, the paintings in this tomb are like nothing else in the Theban region, because it dates to the hazy First Intermediate Period.
Ankhtifi was a nomarch, a provincial governor, who held many titles during the troubled times of the First Intermediate Period. His tomb at el-Moalla is famous for his autobiographical text telling of famine in Egypt and how he helped people from other regions. Like all autobiographies, Ankhtifi’s tale could be a just a little glorified. He states that he saved his people from ‘. . . dying on the sandbank of Apothis’. The text mentions the towns of Hefat and Hor-mer, whose location is not now known. Ankhtifi tells of feeding and clothing the people in adjoining districts, and states ‘. . . I was like a sheltering mountain . . . the whole country has become like locusts going in search of food, but never did I allow anybody in need to go from this nome to another one. I am the hero without equal.’ Famine seems to have haunted the Egyptians periodically and there are many reliefs in monuments over the whole country which show scenes of hunger and hardship. Archaeologists suggest that the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the end of the Old Kingdom was largely due to a prolonged drought when the Nile inundations were low and the fields did not produce enough food. There are many scenes of obtaining and cooking food in Ankhtifi’s tomb, though most of them involve catching wild animals, birds or fish rather than the production of grains and fruit that we see in the New Kingdom tombs.
The architecture of Ankhtifi’s tomb chapel is also very unusual in that there doesn’t seem to be a flat surface anywhere. The walls follow the natural curves and bumps of the rock and the remaining pillars seem to be all irregular shapes and sizes, leaning in different directions, but somehow manage to look elegant. Where painted plaster remains in patches on the walls the colours are very vibrant and the decorative themes are unusual. One colour especially predominates and that is a pale green not usually seen in Theban tombs. On the western wall there are remains of a fishing scene showing a wide variety of very detailed fish.
After we had seen Ankhtifi’s tomb we walked along the terrace where several more tomb entrances could be seen, but in most of these the decoration has been lost. Finally, the guard opened the door to the last tomb, that of Sobekhotep, which was small with several rather deep open burial pits, so there was little room to move around. The decoration here could be seen on the walls but is very damaged. The hill of el-Moalla on which this cemetery is situated is pyramid-shaped and recent excavators have found pyramid elements in the burials, echoes of the Old Kingdom royal tombs. The necropolis stretches for about 5km and contains hundreds of tomb entrances.
As we drove back to Luxor in the late afternoon the sky was again black with dark dusty clouds gathering on either side of us, airbrushing out the surrounding landscape. Could be more bad weather on the way.
Today is our last day in Egypt. Definitely a sun-worshipper, I’m not looking forward to going home to face the rest of the winter in a cold and snowy landscape. Sam didn’t want to visit any sites today so I decided to have a wander around Luxor on my own, having seen many changes while driving through the town in the car.
I began on the Corniche at the ferry dock, noting the flash new ferryboats done up in ancient Egyptian style. Although I hadn’t spent much time at Gezira on the West Bank this trip, my camera picked out the smart new Corniche being built there – such a change from a decade ago. It looks like there are many more new buildings at Gezira and Ramla. On the other side of the road I looked across at the ‘Pasha’s House’, one of the few old colonial buildings left in Luxor. The adjacent house has already been pulled down and I wanted to capture the Pasha’s House on camera before it too disappeared. Beside the house, digging is taking place on the land next to the demolition site, now within the precincts of Luxor Temple, where Egyptian archaeologists are excavating a tell. News about the excavations is very sparse, but the area is said to be revealing medieval material. I continued walking along the western side of Luxor Temple, taking pictures of the architecture and reliefs through my long lens – a different perspective to being up close inside the temple grounds. Around the corner there is a good view of the Roman parts of the temple, recently cleared and protected.
Back on the Corniche I went to have a look at where the glass and concrete tower block of the New Winter Palace Hotel used to stand and where I had stayed on my last visit. It is now just a green lawn, looking like there was never a building there at all. I took lots of pictures of the beautiful Old Winter Palace too, just in case that needs to be pulled down one day – who knows, the way things are going?
By early afternoon the temperature had risen to 30 degrees and searching for a little shade, I crossed the road to sit by the Nile with an iced coffee in el-Khabagy cafe for half an hour. It was nice to sit and watch the frantic activity on the river where cruiseboats were manoeuvring, feluccas were taking tourists out, motor boats criss-crossed the river like flying water-boatmen and police inflatable dinghies roared up and down. One of the graceful old wooden dahabeyas floated by, towed by a motorboat. Abdul had told me there were now eight or nine now working from Luxor.
Feeling refreshed, I set off walking up Sharia Karnak, following the line of excavated sphinxes now exposed right through the town. The new entrance to Luxor Temple is now on the eastern side where a vast and empty paved plaza opens out in front of the mosques. This used to be where shops lined the road, including my old haunt, the Amoun Restaurant where I had spent many happy hours people-watching. The Amoun and el-Hussein restaurants are now on an upper floor in the covered tourist bazaar which runs between el-Karnak Street and the Corniche, but I wasn’t tempted to go inside – the atmosphere was no longer the same.
Dodging down side-streets to look for newly exposed areas of ‘Sphinx Avenue’, I followed Sharia Karnak northwards and the further I walked the more the area became a demolition site. Even the quite smart and enlarged New Emilio Hotel is destined to be pulled down in the coming months. I photographed all the older buildings I could find, including several Christian churches and private schools, beautiful buildings left over from another age. It was a sad pilgrimage, knowing that by the time I return they could all be gone.
I finally arrived at the Airport Road, where the new Culture Centre, an impressively modern piece of architecture stands in stark contrast to the older buildings surrounding it. I have always loved Luxor for its diversity. Ancient temples and archaeology is the root of why I go there, but I have also loved to be part of the exuberant bustle of life in this southern town. Meeting locals, chatting with shopkeepers, sitting in the coffee-shops has been just as much a part of my holiday adventure as all the wonderful sites I have visited. Sadly it would seem that this Luxor is fast disappearing in favour of ‘enriching the tourist experience’. ‘Thebes of a Thousand Gates’ is becoming an archaeological theme park with no thought for the lives of the Egyptians who have lived here for generations.
On the opposite side of the road I noticed that the little foreigners’ cemetery has also now vanished. Years ago an English friend used to help to take care of the graves here and several times I had sat with him in the gardens and put the world to rights. He certainly would be turning in his own grave to see what had happened here. One of an increasing number of parks has replaced the cemetery and the graves have been relocated out into the desert. By this time the light was going, so I made my way back towards the Villa Mut.
Tonight was the final of the All Africa Cup and Egypt were playing against Ghana. Late in the evening I was on the roof trying to photograph the full moon when there was a tremendous uproar. Cruiseboats moored at the Corniche were all sounding their air horns and everyone in Luxor seemed to be shouting. Cars were honking their horns for the next hour or so and even the passing trains were hooting their way into the station. They would probably be hooting all the way to Cairo because, as I guessed, Egypt had won the game. Later we drove into Luxor for a final dinner at Maxim’s and the town was in chaos – flags and flashing lights everywhere. The Egyptians do take their football seriously. Even later still (at 1.00am to be precise), our landlord Rachid was sitting outside the villa in his car singing the Quran at the top of his voice. I realise he was happy but it would have been nice to get some sleep!
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