January 2011

ADVENTURES IN THE DESERT

Heathrow to Luxor

Why oh why do I go to Egypt in January and spend a fraught couple of weeks wondering if we will get to the airport and whether the flights will be cancelled due to frozen runways when we arrive? This year I was travelling with my friends Fiona and Malcolm and meeting Sam, who had flown out a week ahead, in Luxor. We took the necessary precautions and stayed in a Heathrow hotel overnight, just to be certain of catching our flight.

A long wait at Heathrow

By 11.30am we had checked our bags for our 2.00pm flight, only to be told that it was delayed until 5.00pm. No explanation! Heathrow airport is nice as airports go, but seven hours sitting around before a long flight just makes me twitchy. We Eventually took off at 6.45pm and after a very good flight Sam picked us up with Abdul in his minibus at 1.15am Egyptian time.

Egypt Air

Luxor of course is still buzzing at that time of the morning as we drove through the town. Sam was bundled up in fleece and scarf saying how cold the nights were, but it felt warm to me coming from the frozen north. We had a long drive over the bridge as Sam has rented an apartment for us from Egypt Property Sales, one that we looked at last time we were in Luxor, in Ramala on the West Bank. It’s a beautiful apartment on the second floor of a villa and right on the banks of the River Nile, almost opposite Luxor Temple. Fiona and Malcolm have an apartment just next door so the locations could not be more ideal. We all sat on the balcony for a while admiring the view, a remote but glowing Luxor with ribbons of coloured lights streaming over the black water.

Lights reflected in the Nile

After a while I had to admit that the night air was a little cooler than normal in Egypt. By the time we went to bed the first morning call to prayer could be heard from the nearby mosque, which in turn woke the dogs, donkeys, roosters and horses eager to start a new day, but I was soon fast asleep.

Two Tiny Temples

It was mid-morning before Sam and I were awake but we didn’t see Fiona or Malcolm until lunchtime, which actually became a late breakfast for us all. We decided on an easy afternoon and asked Abdul to drive us in his minibus to Deir el-Shelwit.

Temple of Isis at Deir el-Shelwit

Temple of Isis at Deir el-Shelwit - PropylonThis little Roman Temple of Isis is on the edge of the cultivation beyond Medinet Habu. As usual the temple itself was locked up and no key was available (or ever has been the few times I’ve visited), but we wandered around the temple grounds for a while taking pictures. The most interesting monument here are the two tall walls of a propylon gate, which are covered in good quality reliefs depicting Roman Emperors, Vespasian, Otho, Galba and Domitian before various deities. To the north-west of the temple is a tiny sacred lake, or more probably a well, which looks like it has been cleared since I was last here. The square-shaped temple is undecorated on its exterior walls, except for a few blocks which obviously don’t belong, as some of them are upside down. We could peer through the grid of the gate into the temple to see the blackened walls with unfinished cartouches in the sanctuary. The few Romans mentioned inside the temple include Hadrian and Antonius Pius.

Temple of Isis and the well

One of the most surprising things we found here is a new gigantic modern wall, about 3 or four metres high, that has been built around the site. A team of painters were engaged in painting it – I wondered how long that would take. Presumably the wall is to protect the monument, but it is a bit of an eyesore. We were soon to discover that the wall continued several kilometres all the way to Medinet Habu.

We stopped a couple of times on the track leading back to Medinet Habu to see if we could identify an area known as Kom el-Samak, part of the vast city complex of Amenhotep III which was excavated by the Japanese in the 1970s. Of course this would be now all covered over and from the road, one sandy mound looks very much like another.

Temple of Thoth at Qasr el-Aguz

Back at Medinet Habu we sent Abdul off to see if he could find the gafir for the little hidden temple of Qasr el-Aguz – I say hidden because it is almost impossible to find amongst the houses of the village of Kom Lolla. I’ve only been here once before and have wanted to see it again for years, but it has always been locked up. Fortunately the temple is currently being cleaned and the gafir was found and was able to open it up for us.

Gods and Kings at Qasr el-Aguz

This is a rare temple of Thoth, miniscule in size, from the time of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. Parts of the outer wall are still complete and a gate leads into a wide courtyard. There are some beautiful and impressive cornices and lintels with winged serpent motifs on the doorways into three further chambers. These rooms are lit by small apertures high on the walls, throwing the remaining hieroglyphs into relief. Some of the reliefs are unfinished revealing red-painted outlines.

On my last visit many years ago the walls inside the temple were blackened and neglected and almost unreadable. What a surprise to see brightly painted deities now looking down from the walls.

Newly cleaned paintings at Qasr el-Aguz

When the visit was over we had a coffee at Ahmed’s Hapy Habu cafe (a new one to me), before driving along the monument road at dusk as the new lights on the Theban mountain began to glow. I’m not sure how I feel about the new lights which span the whole length of the monument area and floodlight tomb entrances and the surrounding hills. Perhaps a bit touristy? I’ll reserve judgement for now.

Lights on the Theban Hills

We all had dinner later at Tutankhamun Restaurant on the West Bank. I haven’t been here for years but it is just as I remember it – more food than we could possibly eat and a magnificent view from the roof across the river to Luxor.

Gebel el-Silsila Royal Shrines

After a much earlier breakfast today, by 8.00am the four of us were in Abdul’s minibus speeding south towards Edfu, through wide stretches of agricultural land on the banks of the Nile. Crossing the bridge at Edfu, we stopped in the park for a mid-morning cup of coffee and watched families with small children strolling along the little paths between tall shady trees.

The Road to Edfu

South of Edfu the road climbs gradually up towards the sandstone quarries, passing through increasingly rural villages where men and women and children too were working in the fields or tending their animals. After around an hour the road becomes a bumpy sand-covered track full of pot-holes and begins to climb more steeply through a barren rocky landscape, but always with the river coming in and out of view to our left. Eventually we arrived at our destination, Gebel el-Silsila.

Dahabaya at Gebel Silsila

Sam and I came here last year but Fiona and Malcolm have not been before. As we pulled up alongside the ‘visitor centre’ we could see that a beautiful dahabeya moored at the river bank was just leaving and the gafir was arriving from the east bank on a boat. A family of three people arrived on a felucca at the same time, but apart from that the site was deserted.

Speos of Horemheb, Gebel el-Silsila  West

Our first stop, accompanied by the gafir, was the magnificent Speos of Horemheb, a rock-cut shrine dedicated to the god Amun and a variety of deities associated with the Nile and Aswan region. This is a very nice shrine with some lovely reliefs, though many of them are quite damaged. One or two scenes in particular stand out, including the famous ‘Victory of Horemheb’ which depicts the king being carried on his lion-throne after a Nubian campaign, with his retinue and his Nubian captives. On the south wall the deities of the first cataract are lined up life-sized in a damaged but beautiful relief. Here we see Amun, the goddess Tauret in a rare human-headed form suckling a young Horemheb and looking very like Hathor, as well as the ram-headed god Khnum.

The CapstanWe left the speos to walk along the path beneath high sandstone cliffs and quarry-faces where smaller shrines of private individuals have been carved out of the rock. Many of these still have fabulous painted ceilings and lovely reliefs of the owners. Fiona, who among other things climbs rocks for a living, couldn’t wait to have a go at the less accessible shrines.

When we reached the main part of the quarry the gafir asked if we would like to see the Royal Shrines. What a question! Last year we had been told that they were impossible to get to, completely inaccessible except by river, so I wondered what had changed. I hesitated only briefly as the gafir headed towards a crumbling staircase, its steps each half a metre high rocks and from which I had been told there was no way down the other side.

Royal Shrines at Gebel Silsila West

Reaching the top I could see that there was quite a decent path, not too steep, which wound its way towards a high rock known asShrine of Seti I, Gebel Silsila ‘the Capstan’ and beyond the Capstan were the three Royal Shrines I had so wanted to see, perched right on the edge of the river. The shrines belong to Merenptah, Rameses II and Seti I (from north to south), with a quay in front of them, but Seti’s shrine and the quay were destroyed by an earthquake. As most of the quay had actually crumbled away into the water we had to watch our footing in order to get far enough back to photograph the shrines.

The fierce mid-day heat was bouncing off the cliffs as we climbed back up to the top of the gebel and then came down again near the Speos of Horemheb. My feet were agony by the time we got back, skin rubbed away by harsh sand because I was wearing sandals, and my out-of-condition leg muscles screaming from the climb, but it had been worth it. We were hoping to be offered a trip in the boat to the East Bank quarries, as we had been last year, but today we were told a definite ‘No – it’s closed’! I guess the gafir wanted his siesta.

Sunset, Esna to Luxor Road

It was a very long drive back to Luxor but there was such a fabulous sunset with blood red streaks of cloud reflecting in the river, that I hardly noticed the time it took. We all had a lovely dinner at el-Mersala Hotel on the West Bank, but again it became very cold as the evening wore on. I’m not used to cold weather in Egypt.

Kanais

Another day, another speos. This morning found us back on the road south following the route to Edfu that we had taken yesterday. Sam and I had visited Kanais last year, but as Fiona and Malcolm had never been there, I was keen to re-visit this little temple of Seti I in the Eastern Desert. Sometime in the past year I had heard that the inner chamber of the speos was now open and I was keen to see Seti’s important inscription in which he details the building of the temple. Sam decided that she would rather spend the day in Edfu Temple, so we crossed the bridge into the town to drop her off there before continuing eastwards 50km along the Wadi Abbad and the road through the desert from Edfu to Marsa Alam.

Temple of Seti I at Kanais

Inner chamber of the SpeosI recognised the location of the temple, on the right-hand side of the road, by the three tall aerial masts on a hill just before the site.Two guards were waiting for us when we arrived. Fiona, Malcolm and I went straight to the temple and I was delighted to see that the inner chamber had a gate rather than the bricked up entrance of last year. The guard opened the gate for us without being asked. When I went inside the reason it is now open became obvious from the scaffolding that filled the space, the walls and ceiling of this lovely little temple are being cleaned and conserved. Although some of the reliefs are quite worn and damaged, the cleaned walls look stunning. The colour is typical Seti I, grey-blues on a white background and the ceiling is particularly spectacular with yellow stars in a blue sky and a fabulous winged vulture motif down the centre isle.

Vulture Ceiling

Seti's First InscriptionIn the entrance to the rock-cut chamber is the first part of Seti’s long inscription, dated to Year 9 of his reign. The text tells the story of how the king stopped here while making an inspection of his gold mines, from where the gold to furnish his Abydos temple was acquired. His journey had been long and arduous in the heat of the desert and the king decreed that a well be dug to quench the thirst of all desert travellers and for the gold-miners who must pass this way and a shrine that they may praise the gods and the king. To the right is the second part of the inscription, devoted to blessings on those who look after the shrine and the mines with which it is associated, and threatening those who allow it to fall into neglect with curses. A third inscription, to the left of the doorway, was intended to echo the dialogue of travellers who have benefited by the king’s benevolence.

The walls on either side of the chamber depict the King offering to various deities, while nine engaged seated statues are ranged in three alcoves on the far end wall. There are four square pillars in the centre, also with reliefs of the King and gods, though some are very damaged. The temple is dedicated principally to Amun-re and to Horus of Edfu, but the seven main deities honoured here are the same gods who have shrines at Seti’s Abydos temple.

statues

Needless to say, we spent a long time looking at the reliefs, while the guard waited patiently outside.

Rock-cut Temple of Seti I

While Seti’s speos is really lovely, the site at Kanais has another attraction. The high cliffs and large boulders surrounding the temple are covered in ancient reliefs and graffiti. Near the temple, high on the cliffs there are three stele belonging to men from Seti’s reign: Anena and Nebseny, Yuni and Panub.

Astarte and Stele of Panub

I particularly wanted to have another look at Panub’s stele in which Panub is kneeling before an un-named goddess who is probably Astarte, mounted on a galloping horse brandishing a shield and spear. I had missed photographing this last year. This part of the stele is very worn but I managed to get a photograph through a long lens.

Fiona looking at Boats

Meanwhile Fiona had gone off exploring and I eventually spotted her half way up the cliff face perched on a ledge looking at some high graffiti. Malcolm and I stuck mostly to the lower levels. Ancient carvings suddenly appear everywhere when you begin to look. My favourite ones are the very early depictions of curved boats. There are also lots of animals, particularly elephants (brought through this wadi by the Romans), gazelle and birds. I could spend a whole day looking at these pictures, carved, painted or bruised by ancient travellers who have passed through the wadi. Of course there are quite a few more modern graffiti too.

Ancient Graffiti

Finally we had a look at the deep well said to have been dug on Seti’s orders to sustain travellers and workmen on the way to his gold mines. There is also a Roman fortified water station consisting of the lower parts of an enclosure wall in which a few chambers can still be seen. The sandy floor is covered with broken pottery sherds.

Roman Watering Station

After thanking the guards and giving them their baksheesh, we set off back towards Edfu, collected Sam from the car park in front of Edfu Temple and then continued on the long drive back to Luxor in the glow of another beautiful sunset.

A Few Qurna Tombs

Four days in Egypt and we seem to have been dogged by water problems. That is, water or the lack of it. Each day the water in our apartment has gone off for most of the day and sometimes at night too – something to do with the mains running along this stretch of the Ramla road. Malcolm and Fiona next door haven’t had a problem, so we think it’s related to the pump to our second floor apartment. This morning Sam and I woke to a flooded apartment, when I stepped out of bed I was ankle deep in cold water. It would seem that a bathroom tap had been left open when the water was off! Thank goodness for tiled floors. We spent a couple of hours with squeegees mopping up before breakfast, but at least the floors were spotless by the time we had finished.

Early morning dip in the Nile

This morning’s entertainment from the balcony included a hot-air balloon dipping and hovering only a few metres above the Nile. I love hot air balloons but I was grateful not to be in this one.

Luxor Ferry

Later in the morning Fiona, Malcolm and I went over to Luxor on the ferry to change some money. The ferry boat was as usual crammed with locals and tourists alike, crossing the Nile at frequent intervals. This is a pastime I always enjoy because river life is so vibrant and varied and there was a great assortment of boats out on the water this morning. We didn’t spend long in Luxor, just went to Thomas Cook to change money, followed by a walk through the Winter Palace gardens that we all love so much. The gardens always seem so green and lush with flowering plants and dazzling shades of bougainvillea, the lawns fluttering with hoopoes and colourful finches. Walking up to the new Aboudi’s bookshop we happened across a strange procession of Egyptian pharaohs. This was a band of men dressed in pseudo-ancient-Egyptian costumes and playing a cacophony of brass instruments. Hmmm… !

Band of Pharaohs

Back on the West Bank we took an arabeya up to the monument area. It’s quite a few years since I visited the Qurna tombs and I had not been in any of them since the village of Old Qurna was completely bulldozed a couple of years ago. The slopes of the Theban hills look almost naked without the colourful clusters of houses and while I deplore the villagers losing their homes I had to admit that visiting the tombs was much easier without the hassle of crowds of village children and packs of village dogs. However, to me the loss of homes in the name of tourism is despicable.

View from Sennofer's Tomb

Tomb of RekhmireOur first visit was to the Tomb of Rekhmire (TT100) which is on the slopes of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna area. Rekhmire was Governor of the Town of Thebes and Vizier during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II. I had forgotten just how fascinating this tomb is, especially the long passage with a steeply sloping ceiling that depicts all sorts of industries of Dynasty XVIII, mostly connected to the Temple of Amun at Karnak. The paintings here show the artisans at work on their crafts, with leather-workers, rope-makers, carpenters, metal-workers, brick-makers and builders. Sculptors haul stone to be used in the manufacture of two royal colossal statues. These are important scenes showing the methods of production of the crafts of ancient Egypt. The quality of drawing and the detail of the scenes is superb.

Making a colossal statue in the Tomb of Rekhmire

Further up the slope is the Tomb of Sennefer (TT96). Sometimes called the ‘Tomb of Grapes’, Sennofer’s burial monument is in contrast more roughly executed than that of Rekhmire and is famous for the undulating plastered ceiling covered with vibrant painted grape vines. Another important official of Dynasty XVIII, Sennofer was Mayor of Thebes and is depicted in the tomb chapel with his sister-wife Senet-nefert. This has always been one of my favourites and on entering the antechamber after descending a long deep flight of stone steps, the colour and freshness of the painted walls stuns me every time.

Paintings in the Tomb of Sennefer

It was late afternoon by the time we walked across to the Tombs of Menna (TT69) and Nakht (TT52). Unfortunately we made the mistake of asking a local young man who passed by on the path if we were going in the right direction. It turned out that the first tomb was only a few metres from where we were and we thanked him for his help and said goodbye, but the man insisted on coming with us, staying with us and demanding money afterwards for his services which we had not requested or needed. While I am happy to give baksheesh for genuine help I find this kind of persistent pest a nuisance and must be very off-putting to tourists. He didn’t get his extortion money and I should have known better.

Tomb of Menna

We had little time left to see these last two tombs, as it was almost closing time. They are often described as among the most beautiful Dynasty XVIII tomb chapels in Qurna for their well-preserved colourful painted walls depicting agricultural and funerary scenes. But of course photography is no longer allowed in the tombs.

Back at the apartment in Ramla, Abdul told us that he has finally got permission for us to go to the Wadi Gedid, the New Valley oases of the Western Desert which is the main part of this year’s trip to Egypt. It has taken several days and long waits in various offices for Abdul to get the necessary travel permission. Apparently one branch of the police and the big tour companies have done a deal and are trying to stop individual travel there from Luxor!

West Bank Monument Area

I woke this morning to another cloudy day. I’ve never seen so much consistently cloudy weather in Egypt in all my years of coming here. The days are fairly warm, perhaps like a spring day in the UK, but the nights are cold enough to need two duvets on my bed. But enough of weather – an obsession of the English we are told. My main gripe is that my photographs look dull and flat when cloud covers the sun.

We all went up to the monument area and bought tickets at the ticket office. It amazes me that the man in the ticket office remembers me from years ago, even though my visits to Egypt are much less frequent now than they used to be. Fiona, Malcolm and I bought tickets for some nobles tombs, but Sam was going straight to Medinet Habu, where we would meet up later. The three of us began our day at Dra’Abu el-Naga.

Tombs of Roy and Shuroy

The tiny Dynasty XIX tomb of Roy (TT255) was restored and opened to visitors a decade or so ago and that was when I last visited the tomb. Luckily I took photographs then, as they are no longer allowed. The colours and naturalistic paintings are superb and depict Roy, a royal scribe, with his wife Nebtawy in a series of agricultural and funerary scenes. The ceiling of this tomb chapel is especially beautiful with an undulating geometric textile design in yellow, red and black.

Tomb of Shuroy, Dra Abu'l-NagaThe adjacent tomb of Shuroy (TT13) is only a few metres away. Shuroy was chief brazier-bearer of Amun during the Ramesside Period. I think this tomb must have had more restoration since I last saw it as I don’t remember the paintings here being so beautiful. Shuroy’s tomb chapel is slightly larger than Roy’s, being T-shaped, with the modern entrance cut into the rear chamber. This tomb also has beautiful ceilings and typically Ramesside scenes. Tickets for the two tombs cost 15 LE.

Leaving the Dra’ Abu el-Naga tombs we decided to walk along the monument road. The sun had finally made an appearance. We stopped briefly to watch the activity at a big busy tomb excavation nearby, but there is so much happening in this area now that I wasn’t sure who was working here.

Excavations at Dra Abu'l-Naga

Carving AlabasterMany of the old alabaster shops have been pulled down or have now closed. It’s a sad sight, their cheery and colourfully painted exteriors have been a part of the monument road for so many years. A few of the larger ones still exist and one or two had tourist coaches parked outside, the stone-carvers busily chipping away, demonstrating their craft to the tourists, who probably don’t realise that many of the heavy statuettes and translucent vases for sale are factory-manufactured elsewhere. I photographed each building as we passed by – they too could be gone by the time I come again.

Alabaster Factory

We walked past the entrance to Deir el-Bahri, the Temple of Hatshepsut, with its sign saying that photographs are not allowed, even from the end of the road, without buying a ticket! Walking along the sandy track past the huge Shoshenq tomb structure I was chased off by the gafir just for carrying a camera and not even trying to take a picture. We could feel his eyes on us all the way down the road. But I did take photographs of el-Qurn and the vast empty space that was once the village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri

Ramesseum ResthouseReaching the Ramesseum we decided on a break. I was feeling quite cold in my short sleeved t-shirt, and it was nice to sit in the sun in the sheltered cafeteria garden to warm up. After half an hour or so we carried on, looking at each of the destroyed temples in turn along the monument road. Not a lot has changed since last year, though I noted that more work has been done on the Tuthmose III temple by the Spanish team of excavators. Standing on the road we looked at the area of Tuthmose’s pylon on the eastern side of the road which has obviously had more uncovered and several rounded low mudbrick shapes have now emerged from the sand.

Jumping for joyEventually we reached the Temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu and spent a couple of hours looking around. Few changes here either. I wondered how many hours and days I had spent in this temple – probably more than anywhere else in Egypt and every stone and relief is very familiar to me. Occasionally scaffolding has been moved to where cleaning is taking place and I can take a picture or two of a wall that has previously been obscured. Casual visitors to the small Temple of Hatshepsut are still not allowed to go inside due to ongoing work. We watched amazed as a group of young Americans spent their whole temple visit trying to capture each other in mid-leap positions on camera. Fiona decided she just had to emulate them!

Medinet Habu, King offering to Horus

By the time we left the temple we were all freezing as there was a cold wind and the sun had once more vanished. We all went into the Hapy Habu Cafe for a delicious hot lemon to warm us up before making our way back to Ramla and an evening of home-cooked dinner and packing up for our desert journey that begins tomorrow.

The Desert Road

The planned early start today didn’t happen until about 9.30am, after a few hours of cleaning the apartment, breakfast, finishing packing up and then loading Abdul’s minibus for our trip to the Western Desert. Eventually we were on the road at last and heading south to Armant then turning east at el-Rizeiqat checkpoint onto the road over the escarpment.

The Road to Kharga

It’s around 240km from el-Rizeiqat to the checkpoint at a village called Bagdad where we join the main road that runs through the New Valley. The desert road is straight and featureless with endless stony sand stretching as far as the eye can see, seemingly devoid of any living thing. But at least the road surface was generally good – not always the case – and we were only slowed down by spitting gravel during a few kilometres where re-surfacing was taking place. The most interesting part of the drive is coming down over the Kharga escarpment, where we stopped for a few minutes to admire the view. The Kharga depression seen from here is a far-off strip of green, a distant patchwork and the promise of civilization to any desert traveller. On reaching Bagdad we turned south to the town of Baris and then onto a new road leading to the winding sandy tarmac track that would take us to the Roman Fortress and Temple of Dush.

Suddenly the large hill on which the fortress stands was there before us and we pulled up in front of a cluster of buildings at it’s foot. I’ve been to Dush before and then, like now, I was impressed by the site of the fortress and temples on this huge sandy slope. We met the gafir and bought our tickets for 25 LE each. Although overcast, the day was warm and made warmer by our tramp up the steep slope through soft sand on a path leading up to the temple.

The Temple of Dush

The Fortress, Qasr ed-Dush, was completed around AD 177 on the site of the ancient town of Kysis whose remains lie scattered around the hillside. As a border town, the fortress was strategically placed at the intersection of five desert tracks and probably guarded the Darb al-Dush, an east–west track to the Esna and Edfu temples in the Nile Valley. As a result it was solidly built from mud bricks and heavily garrisoned during Roman times. Parts of the massive walls can still be seen.

The sandstone temple adjoining the fortress was dedicated to Isis and Serapis, the Greek name for Osiris. We walked through the monumental stone gateway with its dedicatory inscription by Trajan dated to AD 116 and noted also the graffiti left by nineteenth century travellers many of whose names are now famous. The forecourt is still paved though wind-blown sand has piled up in the corners and against the remains of its five columns. A pillared hall, containing four slender columns fronts the sanctuary where an offering table still stands. The best view of the temple is from the roof which is accessible via a stone staircase to one side of the sanctuary. The gold decorations that once covered parts of the temple and earned it renown have long gone, but there is still some decoration on the inner stone walls.

Mudbrick TempleThe area around the temple is covered by low mudbrick walls outlining ancient buildings of the town and the sandy ground is littered by a mass of red pottery sherds. We walked across to another intriguing structure, apparently another temple built from mudbrick and with a vaulted roof. This is undecorated and little is known about the building. After a while we made our way back down the slope. I noticed a lot of recently landscaped buildings which I imagine is a new dig-house belonging to the French archaeologists of the IFAO who have been excavating here since 1976. Last time I visited here we saw only a village of tents!

Driving onwards in the minibus towards Kharga City we asked Abdul to stop so that we could photograph a series of sand dunes – the largest ones to be seen in this oasis and a good example of how nothing will stop a dune when it is marching. Telegraph poles, roads and even villages just have to be moved out of their way. After another 100km we arrived at our destination which was the Solimar Pioneer Hotel for two nights.

Kharga Dunes

 

Sites and Museum of Kharga

I woke up this morning and the sky was once more full of clouds that got steadily worse throughout the day. We even had a few spots of rain later. The Pioneer Hotel does a quite a good breakfast on the days when there are tourists to feed, as there were this morning and we all feasted ourselves from the buffet to fortify us for a day’s sightseeing. Outside on the lawn we found some recycling containers – never before seen in Egypt! They were empty however.

A Green Egypt

When we went outside to the minibus we were told that we had to have a policeman in the car with us as well as an accompanying police car – this ‘security’ was new in Kharga, and a bit of a nuisance because we had to pack ourselves in more tightly to accommodate him. Sam, who has been to Kharga many times, declared that she would spend the morning in the museum while Abdul took Fiona, Malcolm and I to our first port of call, Nadura.

Fortress & Temple of Nadura

Nadura is another of the Roman fortresses here in Kharga and just a couple of kilometres outside the centre of the city. Perched atop a high sandy hill like many of the others, it was probably used as a lookout post. Surrounded by the crumbling remains of the mudbrick walls of the fortress is a sandstone temple, at least what is left of it, built during the reigns of the emperors Hadrian and Antnius Pius. We saw a courtyard which once contained three rooms and part of a pronaos on the western side, but it was all very damaged. The remaining worn but still visible reliefs are a little confusing and appear to depict the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, though the most recent research by Yale University who have been documenting the reliefs, suggest that the temple may have been dedicated to Khonsu who dominates the reliefs. A Coptic church once stood within the space outside the temple and the whole structure was later reused as a Turkish fortress during the Mamaluk and Ottoman Periods. The great thing about Nadura were the spectacular views over the oasis and we could see the Temple of Hibis and the cemetery of Bagawat far below, nestled among the blue-green sea of date palms.

The Cemetery of el-Bagawat

Back in the minibus we drove another couple of kilometres to Bagawat. This is a main tourist site and we stopped at the entrance to buy tickets costing LE30 each. A guide took us across to the tombs and silently showed us around. A huge site, el-Bagawat is one of the oldest major Christian cemeteries in the world and was in constant use until the 11th century. The area is made up of ‘streets’ containing tomb chapels and mausoleums with burials pits below ground, just like in ancient Egyptian tombs. Many are finely decorated with painted biblical scenes and ornate architecture, and domed roofs. We were shown two of the most famous and best preserved of the decorated chapels. The ‘Chapel of the Exodus’, one of the earliest structures, is decorated in two bands illustrating scenes from the Old Testament; Adam and Eve, Moses leading the Israelites through the Sinai desert in the Exodus, Pharaoh and his armies, Noah’s ark, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale and several other biblical episodes. In the second important tomb, the ‘Chapel of Peace’, themes depicted on the domed ceiling include the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and other biblical motifs, each identified in Greek. The interior walls are also painted with many Byzantine frescoes of grape vines, peacocks, allegorical figures and inscriptions. There are a total of 263 tomb chapels here, but we saw only a few of the decorated ones. There is also a roofless mudbrick church with niches for lamps and icons on the rear wall.

Hibis Temple fron Nadura

What was to have been the highpoint of our morning was a planned visit to Hibis Temple, which I had recently read was now open to visitors. Indeed, I had been to Hibis on two occasions since the ‘Grand Opening’ and it has always been closed. Well today was no different and although I felt disappointed, I should have expected as much. This is Egypt. At least today we could actually see a team of restorers at work there. No amount of Abdul talking to the gafir could get us inside.

Upper floor of Kharga Museum

Back in the centre of Kharga we stopped at the museum to collect Sam. We went inside and found that she had spent most of the morning talking with the director, an old friend. We were all invited into the office and given cups of tea, while he telephoned various people to try and get permission for us to visit Hibis, but to no avail. Afterwards we spent a couple of hours looking at the wonderful exhibits in the museum, most of which come from the Kharga and Dakhla area. There are some beautiful artefacts, including some very early wooden books from Kellis and several stelae and statues from different periods. The large modern museum is laid out on two floors with Pharaonic exhibits on the ground floor and Islamic artefacts on the upper floor.

Kharga produce in the old suq

When we finished in the museum we drove into Old Kharga and had a walk through the suq. I have never been in this part of the city before and it was interesting to see some of the buildings that still contained parts of their original medieval architecture. Of course we were tailed by two plain-clothed policemen, but they kept at a distance behind so we didn’t mind. The stalls in the suq were mostly filled with the fresh produce of the fertile oasis fields, potatoes, aubergines, oranges and tomatoes – all bigger and fresher than I’d seen anywhere else. And of course there were several stalls and shops selling the dates for which Kharga is famous. I expected to feel a little out of place in the suq because tourists must be a rare sight, but the stallholders were quite friendly and didn’t seem to mind us staring at their goods or taking the odd picture.

We ate at the hotel in the evening, not from choice but because the police would not allow us to go out into the town. Sam and I have a habit of sitting in a coffee shop after dinner and watching the world go by and this could not be done here. But the evening was very cold, so it was probably just as well.

To Dakhla Oasis

The drive from Kharga to Dakhla Oasis is perhaps the most varied and interesting stretch of the New Valley road. We left Kharga City this morning for the long drive, only after discovering that Basim, the policeman who had accompanied us around the Kharga sites, was to travel with us in the mini-bus all the way to Dakhla. There didn’t seem to be any explanation for this extra security, if that’s what it was, it was just the way it had to be. We also had a police truck escorting us out of the city as far as Dakhla Governorate.

Conical hills on the Road to Dakhla

The Arabic name Dakhla means the ‘inner’ oasis, being further west and deeper into the desert than Kharga. We drove along the road that follows the ancient route of the Darb el-Ghabari, past sickle-shaped sand dunes, yardangs that look like sleeping sandstone lions, then fields of black conical hills that seem to extend deep into the desert. These strange natural hills look like prototypes for the pyramids and I’m sure this is where the pharaohs got the idea from. The road follows the distant slopes of the Abu Tartur plateau which rises steeply to the east.

'The Camel'

Our first stop, about 140km from Kharga, was at the rock inscriptions just before the village of Tineida, at the entrance to Dakhla Oasis. Here, large outcrops of sandstone rocks rise on either side of the road, one especially notable as being shaped like a camel. Many faces of the rocks are covered in inscriptions and graffiti. I have seen drawings of prehistoric figures on these rocks and when I first visited the site in 2003 I’m sure there were at least a few surviving ancient carvings that we could identify. Today we could find nothing that we could be sure was old. The four of us covered every inch of the largest of the rocks but could see nothing but modern graffiti. It was very disappointing. Admittedly, the sky had clouded over and the hammered and bruised inscriptions that we did find, looked very shallow without the sun to define them. The dry harsh wind that is invariably blowing at Dakhla may have eventually destroyed them, but I cannot believe that rock inscriptions which have survived thousands of years could disappear in a few decades. It is more likely that modern graffiti has obliterated much of the original prehistoric art. This is pure vandalism!

Driving onwards into the oasis we began to see vibrant green fields of rice, wheat and animal fodder and of course date palms. We passed the village of Bashendi and the site of a recently discovered temple of Amun-Nakht at Ain Birbiya, knowing that it has now been back-filled to preserve it so we didn’t stop. We took a detour up the sandy track to Ismant el-Kharab, the ancient town of Kellis. The gafir here told us that a team was working at the site and though he offered to let us look around we didn’t feel it right to disturb the archaeologists.

Shadows on the Escarpment

The escarpment to the east of the road looked amazing as we contnued our journey. The palest apricot sand-covered slopes reflect dark, constantly-moving cloud patterns and look like they have been airbrushed in above lush green fields. We began to see men and women wearing the distinctive conical woven sun-hats traditional to Dakhla who were driving donkey-carts along the road, at last suggesting that we were nearing civilization. Dakhla has a totally individual flavour unlike any of the other oases and a wonderful feeling of tranquility.

Mastaba of Khentika

Our next stop was near the village of Balat at the Old Kingdom necropolis of Qila el-Dab’a. It was only early afternoon but the clouds were thickening and the wind was raw and cutting as we left the parked minibus to meet the gafir. We bought our tickets for 25 LE and were shown around the site by a guard. There are remains of seven or eight large stepped mastabas here, most belonging to Dynasty VI governors of the oasis. When we reached the mastaba of Khentika, who governed the oasis during the reign of Pepi II, we descended a steep flight of stone steps into the beautifully painted and restored subterranean burial chamber. We also visited another restored tomb, or at least the sarcophagus, of a man named Bitsu which I hadn’t seen on my last visit. Some of the other mastabas can be seen only as low walls that mark out the area of the superstructures.

We would have liked to visit Ain Asil, the town site associated with the necropolis, but the track from Qila el-Dab’a was covered with sand and none of us especially felt like walking the few kilometres to the site as we were freezing by this time. Back in the minibus we drove on to our destination, the town of Mut, capital of Dakhla Oasis, and to the Mut 3 Hotel. Last time I stayed here a friend had dubbed it the ‘Mudhole Hilton’ because of its hot spring, one of several in Dakhla. At the hotel we were given chalets around the spring, which is in the form of a circular pool, though the brown sludgy colour could easily put anyone off going for a dip. Today however, the water from the spring was turned off so no-one was allowed to use it anyway. We were told that there had been rain in the oasis in recent days and the farmers who controlled the spring had turned it off to conserve the water as it was not needed for the fields.

Hot Spring at Mut 3 Hotel

We all had dinner in the main hotel building which is a short walk down the road. It didn’t look like there were any other guests today. Later, in the darkness, Sam and I sat muffled in our coats near the pool and watched giant bats sweeping over the water after insects and piercing the otherwise silent night with their high-pitched peeping noises.

The Old and the Very Old

The modern town of Mut is the main centre of population in Dakhla and was built up around an earlier Medieval town, also called Mut. Then there is Mut el-Kharab (Mut the Ruined) earlier still. Leaving our hotel this morning – the Mut 3 – we went off to explore, yes, Mut!

Named after the Goddess Mut, Mut el-Kharab was the original settlement in the centre of Dakhla Oasis, said to date back to Dynasty XVIII, though its high mudbrick enclosing walls and the remains visible today are Roman. We pulled up by an entrance and began to climb a sandy slope towards the high point of the site. There seemed to be nobody about as we stopped to examine an interesting circular mudbrick structure with a deep cavity below, but within a minute we were spotted and shouted at by a guard. Apparently the site is closed and a team from the Dakhla Oasis Project were working. We got no further and were not even allowed to take a photograph of the site. I had wanted to see the remains of a temple of Seth which has been found here, but walking around the outside of the site there was a high wall or bushes with little opportunity to even take a peak. You win some, you lose some.

Medieval Mut

The Medieval town of Mut was accessible however and Fiona, Malcolm and I walked a little way into the warren of narrow crumbling shaded streets with Basim, our minder. Few people actually live there today and the old town has a very neglected feel, with buildings in various states of decay, but I could imagine how beautiful it must have been in its prime.

Mut the modern town is quite charming with wide streets and well-kept buildings and has a feeling of quiet rural prosperity. It’s quite a contrast to Kharga City which, though busy and bustling, looks quite run-down in some parts. I think the goddess herself would be pleased with her town today. By mid-morning we were near the medieval town outside a coffee-shop for the first strong Egyptian coffee of the day, surrounded by cats and enjoying the sunshine – something we hadn’t seen much of until today.

We took the loop road to Qasr Dakhla, our next stop on today’s itinerary and for me one of the high-points of the Oasis. We passed by the ancient sites of Galamun and Amheida, both of which are under excavation, past fields, cemeteries and Sheikh’s tombs, then around to the north-western edge of the depression. Nestled under the ever-present apricot-pink escarpment, el-Qasr is said to be the longest continuously inhabited town in the oasis.

Minaret of Nasr el-DinNo tickets were necessary for the guided tour of the medieval fortified town of Qasr Dakhla. We began at the mosque of Sheikh Nasr el-Din, which is a 19th century restoration of an older building that was destroyed, leaving only the original and very distinctive Ayyubid minaret. Leaving the mosque we wound our way through the narrow streets and alleyways, dark and mysterious, where the tall narrow three-storied mudbrick houses almost touched above our heads. Some of the wooden doors were below the current ground level and elaborate wooden windows high on the upper stories of houses were almost falling out in places. Most of the buildings were numbered and had the owner’s name painted or carved on a sign. Intricately carved lintels illustrated quotations from the Quran and we even saw a few pharaonic blocks that had been built into walls. The old town, though fairly neglected, is still populated by around 700 people but we only caught a fleeting glance of any inhabitants – here and there, a colourfully-dressed lady throwing out a pan of water to settle the dust or a couple of girls balancing baskets on their heads disappear around a corner.

Qasr DakhlaThe guide showed us the olive press, made from the wood of an old olive tree and a mill for grinding grain that would once have been turned by an ox, then a blacksmith’s shop complete with forge and bellows from which strange giant iron nails were produced for sale – all preserved for tourists of course. We saw the madrasa, a school where boys went to learn Quranic scriptures and which was the largest building in the town. The whole place is seeped in history and the atmosphere is one of a bygone time. Most of all it is very photogenic and I must have taken hundreds of pictures on our tour. We ended up by the Ethnographic Museum where traditional crafts and costumes are displayed and sold and photographs on the wall tell of the history of el-Qasr. Ladies outside sat on the ground surrounded by their colourful woven palm-leaf baskets for sale. But it was time to move on. Sam and Abdul had stayed in a coffee shop outside the town and we went to meet up with them and have another coffee. From the roof there was a fabulous view of el-Qasr.

View over Qasr Dakhla

Further to the north-west Dakhla’s only mountain, Mount Edmonstone, named after the first western traveller to Dakhla (by whom, I wondered), rose high above the desert, marked by its distinctive flat top. We drove towards the mountain and turned off down a track past remains of several Roman farmsteads to the Temple of Deir el-Hagar, literally ‘the Stone Monastery’. It was Sir Archibald Edmondstone who first began to clear the sand-filled interior of the temple in 1819. When he and other early explorers first encountered this Roman temple it must have been a romantic sight, in reasonable condition but with an air of decay. Today it has been thoroughly restored by the Dakhla Oasis Project and the story and photographs illustrating the temple’s restoration can be seen in a small visitor centre at the site. There are many interesting elements at Deir el-Hagar including a single intact papyrus column at the entrance to the sanctuary which bears the names in carved graffiti of nineteenth century explorers of the Rohlfs expedition. A huge ceiling block with an astronomical motif has been pieced together and displayed upright for easier viewing on the south side of the temple – a unique scene for a sanctuary ceiling apparently. The original temple was built by the Emperor Nero, added to by Vespasian, Titus and finally Domitian in the first century AD.

Temple of Deir el-Hagar

This was an area of agricultural importance and the temple would have served the Roman soldiers and the farmers who lived in the area. A stone gate was the main entrance through a large mudbrick enclosure wall and a processional way was defined by 20 mudbrick columns leading to the temple. Inside there are six chambers, including a staircase to the roof. It gives the impression of a miniature version of the Ptloemaic temples seen in the Nile Valley and is similar in style to other Roman temples we had seen in Kharga. This was the only place in Dakhla we saw other tourists as a coach of around a dozen people was just leaving as we arrived.

Tombs at el-Muzzawaka

El-Muzzawaka means ‘the Painted Rock’ and here, not far from Deir el-Hagar, are hundreds of robbed tombs that honeycomb the flat-topped gebel. The most famous are the colourful painted tombs of Padiosiris and Petubastis which combine typical Egyptian funerary art with un-Egyptian classical figures. These tombs were closed last time I was here in 2003 and though we were told the restoration has been completed, we were still not allowed inside. Instead, after we had bought tickets, the gafir took us on a walk-about of the hill urgently insisting we look at the mummies. I remembered from my last visit, the various undecorated tombs with quite a number of mummified corpses lying about haphazardly so I was just as insistent about not seeing them. I did have a look at some kind of extensive water feature and there was a great view of yardangs scattered about on the slope below. A big new visitor centre has been built here since my last visit but this too was not yet open.

A dip in the hot spring

When we got back to the hotel late in the afternoon we found the hot spring was now running. Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring my swimsuit, but Malcolm and Fiona were soon having a dip in the warm muddy water while I sat on the edge and dangled my legs in, watching them slowly turn brown from the minerals. It’s been a long but very enjoyable day.

Sunset and Sunrise in the White Desert

Goodbye to Mut and on with the next and most exciting leg of our journey. When we left Dakhla at 9.30 in the morning the weather was dull, with dark mountainous clouds scudding over the horizon to either side of the road. The four-hour drive from Dakhla to Farafra took us up over the escarpment and onto a flat and fairly featureless plain. Bordered by the surrounding mountains, we saw many fields of crops irrigated by huge water sprayers – high-tech agriculture for Egypt. We stopped for a much needed cup of coffee at a tiny place called Minqar, about 200km into our journey. By then the sun was hot and we sat outside in the shade while several tiny scrawny tabby cats scampered about and one very well-fed ‘English-looking’ black cat sat presiding over them all. Many locals stop here and several 4WD vehicles were parked on the side of the road while their passengers and drivers sat drinking tea and playing dominoes. On my map I saw that there is a bir, or well, some distance from the road, which must be why there is a building here in the middle of nowhere.

Going down into Farafra Oasis

Another 100km on the road and we arrived in Qasr el-Farafra pulling up outside the Hotel Badawiya. We had expected that our police escort Basim would have only come with us as far as Dakhla, but he was now in Farafra with us, having squashed into the minibus with all our luggage and slept most of the way. As I glanced over to him I noticed his gun laid on the seat beside him, his finger was loosely curled around the trigger and I hoped we wouldn’t hit any big bumps in the road. I also wondered what Basim would do tonight as Sam was staying at the hotel in a beautiful suite (she said she’d spent too many nights in the desert already and refused to do it one more time), while Fiona, Malcolm and I were camping in the White Desert. It would be interesting to see how he could be in two places at once. As it turned out, he stayed in the town – a night in the desert was obviously beyond the call of duty.

Towards the White Desert

We had pre-arranged with the hotel for a guide and a Toyota Landcruiser to take us on our expedition and before long our transport was ready, loaded up with canvas, blankets and drums of water on the roof and sleeping bags and food inside. The three of us were allowed only a small bag each. Our guide/driver was called Mustapha and after saying hello he set off straight across a sandy track and back out onto the road. I was last here in 2003 and since then the White Desert has become a National Protectorate with very strict guidelines for driving and camping and is now known as White Desert Park. Certain routes are marked out because tourism was destroying so much of the environment here. I have to say I did feel guilty for contributing to this, but wanted to see it one more time and for Fiona and Malcolm it was the whole purpose of this trip to Egypt. When we turned off the road there were several vehicles already stopped in various places and my first thought was that we were not to be allowed very far off the road. However, Mustafa was just showing us the main places of interest that all tourists are taken to in the Old Desert, such as the Mushroom Field, The White House, the Cave and other famous spots I had seen in other people’s pictures.

Exploring the rock formations

Soon we had left the main track and were bumping our way over the sand past weird alien shapes and brilliant white boulders seeming to grow out of the surface of the desert. The rocks are sculpted by harsh winds and rough sand so they are constantly changing shape. The formations are given descriptive names such as ‘mushrooms’ or ‘ice-cream cones’ and some look like chickens, camels, hawks and pigs. In some areas it felt like we were travelling through a strange polar sea because the white chalk surface of the desert is rippled like ice-capped waves.

Chicken and Mushroom?

Each of the guides has his own favourite spots for camping and Mustapha took us to a remote location far away from other people, into the New Desert where he had a hidden stash of kindling and twigs for a campfire. He stopped the Toyota close against a rock and we all piled out. The sun would soon be setting.

Weird shapes in the White Desert

While Mustapha put up a windbreak to form a little camping area and laid out rugs and sleeping bags, the three of us began to explore. Here in the New Desert the landscape becomes even whiter and the boulders crowd together and are higher and larger than in the Old Desert. As the sun went down the landscape began to turn amazing shades of vivid pink and burnt orange. On the horizon we could see a row of giant rock figures, cloaked in black shadows with the fiery sun outlining their shapes. Fiona, who has travelled the world extensively in adventure mode, was speechless.

Our White Desert Camp

As the darkness gathered around our little camp the smell of cooking drew us back. Mustapha had got the fire going and a large pot of chicken and vegetables was simmering nicely, along with another pot of rice. A little low table had appeared and bread, mugs for coffee and fruit and biscuits were laid out ready for dinner. We sat on our sleeping bags and enjoyed a real feast. Our only light was the camp fire and a candle in a sawn off plastic water bottle, which slowly melted as the candle burned down, keeping us amused.

Cooking Dinner

Mustapha had asked if we would like to sleep in tents, but we all preferred to be out in the open, however cold it got. After a delicious dinner we went off for another walk. The desert now pitch black, lit only by the stars and the rising full moon, we were careful to note the direction in which our camp lay. It would be very easy to get lost here and be doomed to wander the desert all night. As the moon rose the surface of the land and the surrounding boulders took on a pale eerie light and the rocks looked like ghosts glowing from within. Finally, around 9.00pm we crawled into our sleeping bags that were laid out in a row. We must have looked like mummies lying side by side. A desert fox visited us for a while, investigating scraps of left-over rice and a few chicken bones that Mustapha had thrown aside. It took me a long time to get to sleep, the moon was now so bright that it seemed like a flashlight shining in my face, but even so the stars were more brilliant and numerous than I’ve ever seen. The desert is immensely silent at night with few birds or animals to disturb the peace. But in the far distance a long way from us, another group of campers were playing music and drumming late into the night and it sounded as if they were just on the other side of our rock, so clear was the air.

Sunrise!

I woke with the morning light and Fiona urgently whispering “Quick, the sun’s coming up!” and crawling out from my sleeping bag, hurredly piled on several extra layers of clothes. Dawn is the coldest time in the desert – it’s hard to believe just how cold it can get and my fingers were numb as I fumbled with my cameras in a race to capture the sunrise. Malcolm had woken up too and we all went off for a walk, leaving Mustapha still sound asleep. Then the sun rose rapidly and washed the desert clean for a new day to begin. As the sand and the rocks turned a beautiful delicate pink we investigated animal and bird tracks – it seemed like there was a lot of activity around us during the night after all.

A morning stroll

Eventually Mustapha woke up and began to get the fire going to make coffee and we were grateful to huddle round it now to warm ourselves. Breakfast consisted of flat Egyptian bread and jam, fruit and wafer biscuits and lots of hot coffee. All too soon it was time to break camp and we helped Mustapha to re-load the Toyota. He told us that in his day job he teaches philosophy in Farafra and had to get to work on time.

Back at Hotel Badawiya

We were all subdued on the drive back through the desert to Qasr el-Farafra, awed by the night’s experience and not yet ready to leave this wonderful place. Back at the hotel we took turns to borrow Sam’s bathroom for long hot showers which at least made us feel human again, before the long drive back towards Kharga.

A Long Long Drive

Around 11.00am, showered and somewhat refreshed but with amazing images of the White Desert still in our heads, Fiona, Malcolm and I joined Sam and Abdul at the minibus, all loaded up ready for the long drive from Qasr el-Farafra all the way back to Kharga. Our policeman Basim had mysteriously re-appeared to join us too. Some protection that was!

Dakhla Escarpment

The journey in reverse was no more interesting than on the way. I was listening for several hours to a Paul Sussman narrated e-book on my Kindle, ‘The Last Secrets of the Temple’. This allowed me to watch the road for any possible excitement on route and not to miss anything. We saw several mirages towards the distant hills, giving the impression of vast lakes in the desert, but quite illusive to photograph. Half way to Dakhla we saw a guy on a bicycle pushing his way up a hill, laden with side panniers and looking very hot. Wow, that’s some ride!

Pidgeon HouseAfter 300km we reached Dakhla and looked for somewhere in Mut to stop for a coffee break. Nowhere seemed quite right to Abdul. The reason for this was because we also needed to find a toilet, more of a difficult proposition in Egypt where coffee shops are populated only by men. Eventually we pulled up on a street and Basim got out and disappeared down the road, coming back and saying he had found us a toilet. Fiona Malcolm and I followed him to a small Egyptian hotel where the manager showed us upstairs to his ‘best suite’ which had a huge bathroom we could have held a party in. Though I hate putting people to so much trouble, Basim had his uses after all!

After a quick coffee on one of Mut’s main streets we were back on the road and arrived at the Pioneer Hotel in Kharga City just in time for dinner. Abdul was relieved that he didn’t have to drive too far on the desert road in the dark as there are many potholes and hidden obstacles. We were all tired and travel-weary and the five-course meal we were presented with in the dining room was mostly untouched. An early night for all.

Nearing Kharga at Sunset

 

More Temples in Kharga

It’s just typical – the morning we are due to leave the New Valley to drive back to Luxor, the weather has really brightened up, the sun already hot by 9.00am. We were planning to see a few more sites on the way out of Kharga, which would make the day ahead a lot more interesting. We still had the company of Basim, our constant police companion and there were mutterings about him asking for a lift back to Luxor with us, but we also had a police truck to escort us today too.

Qasr el-Ghueita

Qasr el-GhueitaOur first stop was at Qasr el-Ghueita, one of the Kharga chain of hilltop fortresses which may once have housed a garrison of Roman troops, but which also contains a temple dated to Persian Dynasty XXVII and XXVIII, during the reigns of Amasis and Darius. The Arabic name of the mudbrick Roman fortress means ‘fortress of the small garden’, evidence that it was once part of a thriving agricultural community. It is perched on a high hill and a long sandy path leads up the slope to the temple entrance. Though dated to the Persian rulers the temple itself may have existed here from as early as the Middle Kingdom and it is thought that pictures of grape harvests in many Theban tombs may have described the gardens. Oasis wine was also a favourite during the New Kingdom. Within the high walls of the fortress, the sandstone temple occupied about one fifth of the space and was dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons. Much of the remaining decoration is Ptolemaic, with well-preserved screen walls and several floral columns.

Reliefs at Qasr el-Ghueita

Gheuita is probably the most well-decorated temple I’ve seen in the New Valley and the reliefs are superbly intricate. In typical Ptolemaic style, there are three sanctuaries in the back of the temple which still contain many remnants of coloured paint. We climbed up an adjacent staircase to the roof, from where we had a lovely view into the temple as well as across the surrounding countryside. The sandstone temple is surrounded by remains of the mudbrick structures of the fortress which are also scattered down the slopes of the hill. The temple is currently under the auspices of Yale University’s Theban Desert Roads Project.

Qasr el-Zayyan

Further west we stopped at another fortress and temple, the ruins of Qasr el-Zayyan, one of the largest and most important ancient settlements in Kharga Oasis. This time situated on a flat plain, Qasr el-Zayyan was also a Ptolemaic and Roman monument which was famous for its large well, an important source of water that gave the town the name of Takhoneourit, or Tchonemyris in Greek. The deep well can still be seen inside the massive enclosure wall of the temple.

The Great Well

The small sandstone temple within the fortress was dedicated to the god ‘Amun of Hibis’, who was known to the Romans as Amenibis and who we had met in other sites in the Oasis. The entrance gate in the southern side of the wall and has a lintel with a dedicatory inscription in Greek: ‘To Amenibis the great god of Tchonemyris and to the other gods of the temple, for the eternal preservation of Antoninus Caesar, our Lord and his whole house . . .’ and goes on to name the governor and officials involved in the restoration. The inscription is dated 11 August AD140. Though the temple is not so prolifically decorated as Qasr el-Ghueita, or as well preserved, it is a nice little monument. There are also a great many mudbrick structures in the surrounding area within the fortress walls.

Roman remains within the fortress walls

Time was moving on and we also had to get a move on if we were to get to Luxor today. But first we were hoping to stop for coffee. I was beginning to despair as we drove further and further out of Kharga Oasis, until we eventually pulled up at a roadside coffee shop right on the edge of the Oasis. We stayed here for around an hour and had several cups of delicious coffee while Abdul and Basim drank tea and played dominoes with some of the locals. When we were asked if we needed a toilet before the next long leg of the drive, Sam and I accepted, thinking they must have one around the back of the café. We followed a man down a village street wondering where he was taking us and eventually were shown into the courtyard of a house where the owner had recently installed a new European-style toilet. A galabeya-clad lady proudly showed us the bright pink facilities and left us to it. The necessities of life have always been a problem while travelling around out-of-the-way places in Egypt. It’s a little embarrassing the way tourists are specially treated but Egyptian hospitality will prevail. Personally I’d rather go behind a rock in the desert, so as not to cause any trouble to people, but they are all so kind and eager to please. It’s also a source of baksheesh of course.

Dominoes and a cup of tea

When we arrived at the little village of Bagdad and the last police checkpoint of the New Valley, Basim finally left us to travel back to Kharga City with the police truck. A fair bit of baksheesh had been handed over for his ‘services’, which has become an expensive part of tourist police protection on this trip – whether we wanted it or not, we were not given the choice. Waving the police goodbye we turned onto the Luxor road for the long four hour drive over the plateau. We passed the railway line that goes from Kharga all the way to Toshka, far out in the southern Sahara, now all sanded up and I wondered who cleans up the tracks when a train is coming.

Tracks in the desert

Today there were many road works and long stretches of resurfacing work that was difficult to drive over and by the time we reached Luxor the sun had set and darkness had arrived.

Abdul drove over the bridge and dropped us at our apartment in Ramla. Fiona, Malcolm and I decided to go down the road to the Mersala hotel for dinner and who should we meet there but my old travelling companion Robin, now a Luxor resident. It was lovely to see her and we stayed and chatted for a while before walking home and collapsing into bed.

Good Morning Luxor Sphinxes

We woke in our Ramla apartment to a beautiful Luxor morning, the River Nile sparkling in the early morning sunlight just beyond our little garden. Fiona, Malcolm and I decided to go for a walk and have breakfast in the little café down the lane on the river bank. Very quickly a wonderful breakfast was produced – orange juice, coffee, rolls with butter and fig jam, omelettes – what more could we ask.

Camels rides on the West Bank

As we ate, we sat and watched the nearby activity. Camels were lazing on the banks waiting for their daily quota of tourists, at which time they would stumble up to amble along the bank at their own slow pace, accompanied by boys whose job it was to lead the laden animals a couple of kilometres along the track and back again. Next to us some men had laid out a huge felucca sail and were busy repairing small tears. All was peaceful.

Approaching the Old Winter Palace

I suggested we cross the river and take a walk along Sphinx Avenue to see how the excavation was coming along. Fiona and Malcolm were keen to do this and we crossed the river on the ferry, going up to the upper deck to get a good view of the river traffic. I love approaching Luxor by river, with the pylon and columns of Luxor Temple getting ever nearer and the whole stately expanse of the Old Winter Palace gleaming ochre in the sunlight. In just a few minutes it was time for the scramble to get off.

Luxor Temple Block Field

We walked along by the temple and around the corner onto Sharia el-Karnak, the road that leads all the way to Karnak Temple and the route that the avenue of sphinxes follows. I had walked along this route last January and was appalled by how much destruction of shops and homes there was, but first we stopped to look into the block field behind the temple that is now very well organized. I remember a few years ago when it was just a jumbled heap of stones. The Roman remains at the back of the temple have been extended too.

Luxor before and after

Luxor has been ‘prettified’ in recent years, all in the name of tourism and as we began our trail at the new entrance to the temple in the big empty paved plaza, I wasn’t sure that I like the so-called improvements. Nectanebo I of Dynasty XXX constructed his processional avenue of sphinxes on top of an older route which was used at certain periods to carry the sacred barque of Amun from the Karnak Temples to Luxor Temple at festival times . An inscription of Nectanebo reads “I have built a beautiful road for my father Amun-Re surrounded by walls and decorated with flowers for the journey to the temple of Luxor”. Another inscription bears a cartouche for Queen Cleopatra, possibly to mark a visit by the queen to Luxor. Was she the first ‘tourist?’

Luxor Temple Avenue of Sphinxes

We followed the sphinxes from the temple pylon, more paving work has been done here and this part of the row has been extended and further cleared. I remembered the lovely old mosque, a landmark that used to be here, now gone. We stood on the road that at present still crosses the avenue and looked along the line of sphinxes towards Luxor Temple and then looked to the other side of the road, which is still a demolition site. Nothing much seems to have been done here in the past year and mounds of rubbish have collected in the sandy trenches, though big diggers look busy today. I noticed a man who looked like he was in charge, sitting beneath a sun shade dangerously close to the falling mounds of earth.

Demolition

Further along past the big Christian church another section of paving began and this is where several new structures have been uncovered recently. Nearer the Airport Road and behind the modern Culture Centre a huge containing wall has been constructed and access points will allow visitors into certain parts of the avenue. Someone waved for us to come down into the avenue, but we preferred to continue walking along the outside to get an overall view.

Newly paved Sphinx Avenue

On the other side of Airport Road a lot more clearance and paving work has been done. This area is near the villa we stayed in last year and where many houses were being demolished at that time. It has now been mostly cleared but it looks as though more houses will be torn down before very long. I only hope that the people who lose their homes will be properly compensated. We carried on along the road towards Karnak’s Khonsu Gate past the dog-leg that joins the avenue leading to the Temple of Mut. More excavation here too with a grid of mudbrick walls newly uncovered.

Crossroads to the Temple of Mut

In front of the Khonsu Gate and behind the oldest of the sphinxes, we came upon a large curved excavation which I later found out is thought to be part of the original Nile embankment, increasing archaeological evidence that Karnak Temple, as depicted in reliefs, was indeed on the banks of the river. This was an exciting find.

Old River Embankment

We were all feeling hot and fairly tired by this point so we decided to walk around to the new entrance to Karnak Temple, which Fiona and Malcolm hadn’t yet seen – it was further than we thought! They too, as I was last year, were pretty amazed by the spectacle of a wide open plaza, modern tourist bazaar and new visitor centre built in front of Karnak’s first pylon since they were last here. I don’t think they were overly impressed, especially when we came to pay for the over-priced glass of fruit juice in one of the cafés. I guess that’s progress. We also went into the visitor centre that can be accessed without paying for a temple ticket. There is a large wooden model of the Karnak Temples here now which is quite impressive. The things I liked most were the old black and white and sepia photographs of temple excavation that line the walls, and a little train built in 1934 and used by Henri Chevrier in his Karnak excavations around that time.

Karnak Visitors Centre

After we left Karnak we decided to walk the quickest route back to the ferry – not an easy task because we had forgotten that part of the Corniche was closed to all traffic, with barriers across its northern end. We had to take a long detour, back to Sharia el-Karnak and down onto the Corniche near the Etap Mercure Hotel and I was quite shocked to see a whole stretch of the Corniche torn up.

Luxor Corniche demolished

Back at the apartment we went up onto the roof to watch the sun setting over the Theban Hills on this, our last evening in Luxor. As the sun went down I could see farmers and their wives and children on their way home from the fields, everything was bathed in a warm golden light which slowly turned a vivid deep red before darkness descended.

Last Sunset

Later in the evening Fiona, Malcolm, Sam, Abdul and I had a farewell meal at the Italian restaurant in the Iberotel (the old Novotel). The Iberotel, despite it’s name-change a few years ago, hasn’t changed much at all I’m happy to say, apart from the price of its rooms. This has always been my favourite Luxor hotel. We sat on the terrace in the gardens long into the evening listening to the familiar noises from the town and the river. Tomorrow we fly back to England.

Home Before the ‘Arab Spring’

Early on Monday morning Abdul took us to Luxor airport in his minibus. Watching the steam-like mist rising from the canal alongside the road on the West Bank and taking a last look the beautiful pink sunrise glow of the Theban Mountains my heart was already missing Egypt. This is a longing I always feel when it’s time to go home.

Luxor Airport

It is quite a long journey over the bridge and as usual we were late arriving at the airport, being among the last to check in. We checked our luggage and hurried up to the smart new cafeteria area and bought cups of coffee – this airport has changed a great deal in the years I’ve been coming to Luxor. Once, little more than a few low buildings on a desert runway, it now feels much more like any international airport in the world – well almost. Within a couple of minutes the announcement came that our flight was now boarding. Goodbye Luxor, I hope I’ll be back soon.

Aerial view of the Theban Monuments

We flew out over Karnak Temple and the Theban Hills and had a great view of the West Bank monuments before turning and rising out over the high desert, now and again getting glimpses of the shining water of the Nile below. Within an hour we were heading over the coast west of Alexandria and out across the sea.

Leaving Egypt

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