March 1999

A Spring Break

An overnight train journey to Reading and a coach from there to Heathrow, once more saw me waiting in the airport departure lounge, excited to be going back to Egypt. Since I left Luxor in November last year, my friend Robin had been living in an apartment there and although I was making the journey alone this time, Robin and I were looking forward to going to lots of places together. The trip was smooth and my Egyptair flight arrived on time, touching down in Luxor at 9.00pm. Yet again I experienced the thrill of standing at the top of the aircraft steps and feeling that warm Egyptian night breeze in my face, with its exotic desert perfumes. This is always the best moment – and I left the plane behind to get onto the airport bus, knowing I had two weeks of adventure ahead of me.


Robin and our English friend David were a welcome party, come to the airport with a taxi to meet me. After hugs all round, we loaded my luggage into the taxi and we were on our way, chattering excitedly all the way through Luxor and over the bridge to the West Bank. Before long we were in Geziret where I was once more staying at the el-Gezira Hotel, my home from home. I should have been dropping with tiredness after my 24-hour journey, but I was in Egypt and as usual it had totally invigorated me. I didn’t wind down enough to sleep until after another couple of hours of drinks and conversation on the hotel roof terrace, where the familiar welcoming hotel staff felt like a second family.

In Search of Causeways

Probably the one thing I love most about the el-Geziret Hotel is its rooftop restaurant where I could sit at a table in the open air and look out over the terrace wall, across the Nile to Luxor. A leisurely breakfast with several cups of coffee found me gazing out at the familiar sights and sounds of the river bank. The ferry landing to my left at the edge of the river was busy this morning, a boat had just come in and I watched as the big rusting ferry disgorged its brightly coloured multitude, mostly Egyptians but also one or two tourists, who climbed up the ramp to be assaulted by stall-holders and taxi drivers who plied their trades at the dock. Black clad ladies hitched their bundles onto their heads and hurried homewards while others made for the waiting arabeyas to take them to nearby villages. A few metres further along an untidy jumble of red and green motor boats with funny English names were gathered, waiting to attract the tourists who would make their return journey over the river a little later in the morning. For now their captains and crews of young boys lazed happily on the bank, glasses of tea in hand, always keeping an eye open for a likely customer. Other men were gathered around in small groups earnestly discussing the problems of the day, shouting and gesticulating wildly as they pressed a point of view or passed on local gossip. Nobody loves to gossip more than Egyptian men. It was a wonderful scene, one I never grow tired of watching.

I was joined by Robin and together we walked through the streets to her apartment not far away, a lovely spacious airy set of rooms at the top of a house which boasted, to my great amazement, a full-size replica sarcophagus in the centre of the living room, left, I believe, by a previous occupant. She had been living here since November last year and was very happy. After spending a little time making plans for what we would do during my visit, we went back to the main street and caught an arabeya to Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna and the monument area. We wanted to look for the old causeways at Assasif. The ancient causeways were paved processional ways connecting the mortuary or cult temples to their valley temples, most often associated with pyramids. But we had read about the Deir el-Bahri causeways and were determined to find evidence of them. Unlike the pyramid causeways which were originally enclosed, at Deir el-Bahri there were ‘open’ or ‘false’ causeways linking the temples and only a few scattered sections of the fallen walls now remain. There were originally three causeways leading to the temples of Mentuhotep, Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III at Deir el-Bahri, the latter once planted at the lower end with a double row of trees. They would have been used as processional ways during the festivals of Amun and the Valley Festival.

Causeway of Tuthmose III

As we wandered around Assasif looking at each of the scattered blocks of stone which still litter the landscape, Robin and I pondered the reason why causeways were built for the Deir el-Bahri temples but not the other mortuary temples on the west bank. Perhaps it was because the first temple to be constructed in this virgin ‘bay’ of cliffs was the Temple of Mentuhotep Nebhepetre, on which Hatshepsut’s more famous multi-level colonnaded monument was said to be modelled. Mentuhotep II of Dynasty XI, who reunited Egypt as first king of the Middle Kingdom, reigned at a time when pyramid temples and causeways had long been the tradition. Unlike the New Kingdom temples, his structure seems to have been designed as a royal tomb – an empty coffin and a large wrapped statue of the king were found here by Howard Carter. Possibly it was simply a continuation of this tradition which inspired Hatshepsut and Tuthmose in their building. On the other hand, these temples are much further away from the edge of the cultivation than other mortuary temples, which had easy access to the Nile floodplain during inundation, or to the river via canals, so perhaps a paved processional route was more necessary.

Arial view of Deir el-BahriWe had read that Mentuhotep’s causeway was destroyed and we could certainly see no remaining evidence of the long, 16m wide structure which had once led from his valley temple to a tree-lined court in front of the pyramid-style mortuary temple. We had better luck with the causeway of Tuthmose III, sandwiched between the Mentuhotep and Hatshepsut temples. Back towards the road we found the remains of a mudbrick pylon and enclosure wall of the mortuary temple of Tuthmose III, a cleared sandy space with scattered stone blocks, some of which were carved with hieroglyphs. We found one or two blocks with inscriptions overcarved on what looked to our amateur eyes like Middle Kingdom reliefs, but as there is so little information available on these remains, we could not be sure. This temple, however, was separate from the Deir el-Bahri shrine bearing the name of Tuthmose III, which was only discovered in 1962, as it had previously been covered by a rock fall. The causeway we were searching for had connected this shrine to the cultivation and had probably been used during the annual Feast of the Valley, when the statue of the god Amun was transported from Karnak across the river in his sacred barque. We eventually found the remains of the stone walls of Tuthmose’s causeway, which were surprisingly well preserved, though bore no inscriptions of any kind. In the same area there were also several stone-faced tunnels or caves disappearing under the mounds of sand, which looked intriguing. Whether they were tunnels or tombs, we couldn’t tell, though they looked to be of a later date. It was something to find out about.

We walked northwards to the area on my map where Hatshepsut’s valley temple was situated. This was disappointing, nothing more than a levelled patch of sand with no remaining structures visible. But we could see the route the causeway would have taken joining the valley temple to her mortuary temple, now mostly covered by the modern tarmac road. Originally this structure was a 37m wide sphinx-lined route leading from the valley temple to the now destroyed pylons of Deir el-Bahri.

Finally, we could not come up to the monument area without a visit to the Rameses cafe at Medinet Habu, where we had a drink and chatted to the staff there while gazing out at my favourite temple. I also wanted to say hello to Egyptian friends who lived in the village of Kom Lolla, before returning to Geziret for the evening.

Sunset On the River

This morning I met Robin and together we crossed the river on a motor boat to Luxor. Motor boats are an alternative to the passenger ferry, either to be privately hired for LE5 or as a public means of transport for the fare of LE1 each – twice the cost of the ferry but much faster. Our first call was to the bank to change some money and then on to do a tour of the bookshops to see what was new. We had arranged to meet our friend David at the Amoun restaurant for lunch and met some new English ex-pats there too, which provided an hour or so of lively conversation as we gave them all news from home. The Amoun seems to be one of the main meeting places for Europeans living in Luxor. I noticed that the restaurant had a fancy new slatted roof over the outside tables, providing shade against the hot mid-day sun. Lentil soup was on the menu, one of my favourites which must be eaten with a twist of lemon juice.

Sunset on the Nile

We were having a lazy day and what could be lazier than a couple of hours wallowing on a felucca at sunset. We boarded the ‘Moon Valley’ and drifted slowly to the north as there was very little wind, but we didn’t mind because it was lovely just to be out on the river, watching the various types of birds swooping down to the water in search of insects or fish as clumps of water-hyacinth drifted on the current past the boat. Luckily, as often happens at sunset, a slight breeze had sprung up and the felucca captain was able to put up the sails and get us back to the Corniche. A very peaceful and relaxing way to end an afternoon.

Train Journey to Abydos

I was up with the dawn this morning, excited that today was the beginning of an adventure. My friend Robin and I had arranged to spend a few days at Abydos, hoping to see more of the huge ancient site than is possible on a one-day visit when travelling with the convoy. Robin had previously made a contact in Abydos, a man who went by the name of Horus and who had told her that it was possible to stay there. We were travelling by train and got to Luxor railway station in plenty of time, only to find that the train was forty-five minutes late arriving from Aswan. We both had student cards and were able to get cheap tickets for second class seats at only LE8.50 (less than £1.00) for the two and a half hour journey to el-Balyana. The train journey gave me a different perspective on the countryside as it sped by, its wheels clattering unevenly over the rough tracks, though the windows were so dirty we could hardly see out of them. By the time we were waiting at the end of the carriage for the train to pull in at el-Balyana station, we had attracted a group of young men, as curious as usual about where two women were going alone, somewhere other than the tourist towns of Luxor or Cairo. Egyptians automatically assume that all Westerners are Christian and a little boy of around six years old was pulled in front of us and instructed to show us his tattoo of a Coptic cross on the inside of his wrist, proudly worn and demonstrated, while he grinned and said “I just like you!” This was all very entertaining, but by this time the train had pulled into the station and we were struggling to open the window to release the door. The door was stuck. Several men tried to open it without success, by which time the train was beginning to move again and panic was setting in. Suddenly without warning the door burst open and Robin and I leaped out as the train gathered speed – only to realise that one of Robin’s bags had been left behind. She raced along the platform shouting at the train until one of the men realised what had happened and flung her bag out of the window. That was a close shave and not a very auspicious start to our adventure.

The village of el-MadfunaWe were met by Horus at the station and accompanied by two police trucks containing a dozen tourist police (with an average age of around 17), automatic weapons pointing menacingly from the windows at each side, he drove us the 6km to from el-Balyana to Abydos. We were reminded that Abydos had only recently been open to visitors and was still a troubled area – not from terrorists specifically, but from ongoing conflicts and feuds between the Christian and Muslim population in the region. Abydos itself is split into two villages, el-Araba el-Madfuna to the left of the Seti temple and Beni Mansur to the right. In front of the temple is a small park, with gravelled paths, a few trees and patches of earth probably intended to be planted beds, which had been tidied up since my last visit. There was also a little cafeteria, with a few tables and chairs shaded by a roof of rushes. This is where the convoy usually parks.

el-Baset & Su at the Seti I HotelOff to the left of this garden was Abydos’s only hotel, aptly named the Seti I and run by Abdel Alim and his nephew, el-Baset. We went to check in and were shown to a little chalet in the garden where brilliant bougainvillea hung in profusion from trellises along the path. The hotel had no stars and when we arrived had no other guests either. It was what might be called basic, but at LE20 (£2.00) a night we could not have asked for more. Leaving our bags in the chalet Robin and I went out to sit in the garden and were offered lunch. The menu consisted of eggs – boiled, fried scrambled or omelettes and of course flat Egyptian bread which came stacked up in a basket. This was followed by glasses of sweet black Egyptian tea. Thus fortified we set out to the Temple of Seti I.

Abydos (Day One)

After lunch, Horus came to the hotel and suggested that he escorted Robin and I on a tour of the Temple of Seti I. This was my second time at the temple, having been here for a brief visit just over a year ago, but I knew that today our tour would be much more leisurely and enjoyable. As we walked together up the road towards the temple, which dominates the centre of the village with its backdrop of desert and high cliffs, a few tourists were going in the opposite direction to leave in their taxis with the convoy. I realised then that we would have the temple to ourselves. Oh what joy!

Temple of Seti I, Abydos

Walking around the temple with Horus and Robin, I could imagine Omm Sety herself showing tourists around, with bare feet and covered head to show her respect for the long-remembered deities whose house this was. Horus and his family had known Omm Sety very well and had taken care of her in her last years of illness before she died in 1981. Now, having walked through the magnificent shrines and halls in the main part of the temple, we went out of the back entrance to see the Osirion, a subterranean structure with huge square granite pillars surrounded by water-filled trenches. This monument, once covered by a mound, has been interpreted as a cenotaph to the god Osiris, but its true purpose is still obscure. The fact that the decoration in a later entrance passage built by Merenptah, contains scenes usually associated with a royal tomb, suggests that in the New Kingdom, the structure may have been regarded as a tomb. Alternatively, some archaeologists have interpreted the Osirion as a symbolic ‘Mound of Creation’, representing the first dry land to emerge from the primeval sea.

The Osirion

The Osirion is frequently completely flooded, but today we were lucky that the water in the trenches was very low and we could walk around the ‘island’ to the large Transverse Hall at the eastern end of the Great Hall. This room was in fact flooded, but we went inside the huge dark chamber far enough to disturb the biggest bat I have ever seen, which flapped scarily around the ceiling. The further in we went, the darker it became until I could see nothing, but I could hear some loud plops in the water, presumably made by a fish or other aquatic beasty. There is an astronomical ceiling on the saddle roof in this chamber with a fine relief of the sky-goddess Nut, but it was too dark to see and I decided to leave before I lost my footing and risked being eaten by the giant fish.

Looking into the 'Blind Roms'Before going back inside the temple, Horus took us up onto the roof to show us the mysterious ‘Blind Rooms’. These two rooms, now open to the sky, are situated behind the chapels of the Osiris complex, one above the other. The strange thing about these rooms is that there were no doors or windows, no visible entrance into them from the temple or outside, nor any way to get from one room to the other. The lower room contained very short, but massive, disproportionate pillars that supported the floor of the room above and both rooms were undecorated. Looking down into the now-open rooms from above, I was intrigued by these mysterious chambers, my mind filled with possible pivoting stones and secret passageways like a real-life Indiana Jones movie.

Inside the temple once more, Horus left us and I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photographs. The guards had all retired into various dimly lit corners for their afternoon siesta and Robin and I could wander wherever we wished. I had bought an extra ticket so that I could use my camera on a tripod and I was in heaven, spending long minutes setting up shots in the lovely dim atmospheric lighting.

When we later got back to the Seti Hotel, we met a new couple who had just arrived to stay the night. They were working at Tell el-Amarna and we shared a dinner of rice, vegetables and chicken and some very interesting conversation.

Beit Khallaf & Akhmim

The mastabas at Beit Khallaf are in an isolated spot near the edge of the desert escarpment and some kilometres from the main road north from Abydos to Sohag. Horus called for us this morning and asked if we would like him to drive us there. Would we! Mastaba K1 at Beit KhallafWe left Abydos at 10.30am, accompanied by our truckload of policemen, most of whom promptly fell asleep lounging on the hard benches lining the back of the Peugeot pick-up. I thought they would have been grateful for a trip out, but maybe they needed the sleep more. After about half an hour we turned off the main road and wound our way for a short while along lanes and past fields of crops and grazing animals at the edge of the cultivated land, before striking out straight across the desert. Before long we stopped in front of a massive mudbrick structure, a mastaba tomb known in Arabic as Beit Khallaf, ‘House of the Caliph’. This huge rectangular tomb (K1), which covers an area of 45m by 85m, with sloping walls rising to a current height of around 8m is the most impressive of five Early Dynastic Period mastabas here. When excavated by Garstang it was attributed to King Djoser, the owner of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, but now it is thought to have been built for a Queen Nimaathap ‘Mother of the King’s Children’, who may have been Djoser’s mother or other female relative. Many seal impressions have been found in these mastabas bearing the names of Dynasty III kings. On the eastern side of K1, a ramp leads to the roof of the structure and on the top a steep entrance staircase was sealed by blocking stones and was covered by a vaulted ceiling over mudbrick arches. From the staircase the passageway turns to the south and consists of a wide corridor with several chambers leading off to the east and west, in which Garstang found huge numbers of stone and pottery vessels similar to those found in the Step Pyramid. Horus, Robin and I left our police guards to sleep and climbed up the ramp to the top of the imposing mastaba, where we could look down into four excavation pits. Horus told us that much of the digging here has been done not by archaeologists, but by treasure seekers (both ancient and modern). The treasure we found there was the wonderful view from the top of the structure, across a wide stretch of yellow sand to the escarpment and the high Libyan desert beyond.

Before long we were back on the main road travelling north again. Our Abydos policemen left us at the checkpoint at Girga, to be replaced by tourist police from Sohag, which was in a different traffic region. Horus was pointing out interesting views along the route until soon we were driving into the large town of Sohag, crossing the wide stretch of the River Nile on a new road bridge to the East Bank. I instantly liked Sohag, with its ancient yellow taxis that looked like something out of an old American movie. I noticed that the cars here all seemed to be decades old and were extremely well-preserved. I guess vehicles just don’t rust in this dry desert air like they would at home. Horus told us that many of the artefacts excavated at Abydos over the years were to be housed in a new museum here, but it wasn’t yet open.

Colossal statue of Meitamun at AkhmimOn the East Bank we drove through streets that were increasingly shabbier this side of the river, until we arrived in the ancient town of Akhmim, famous for its tapestries and textile weaving. We pulled up in front of a high, modern brick wall, enclosing what was once a Graeco-Roman temple dedicated to the god Min and Triphis (Repyt), the goddess who was his consort at Akhmim. Many of the ancient buildings of Akhmim were dismantled to be used in later periods and today little exists in its original form. In 1981 however part of a temple with a monumental gate was unearthed during building works here. Archaeologists found several statue fragments of Rameses II during excavations, as well as a beautiful colossal statue of the king’s daughter and consort, Meritamun. As we walked down the wide steps into what has now become an open-air museum several metres below the modern ground level, we could see her beautiful re-erected statue, standing tall in the centre of the area. The statue of Meritamun was a spectacular discovery, although when it was found lying face-down before the temple gateway, it was broken. Carved from limestone and now restored, the queen who stands 11m tall, wears a close-fitting pleated robe and is crowned with a modius (head-dress), decorated with serpents and the double-feathers of the ‘God’s Wife of Amun’.

Statue of Venus (Isis) at AkhmimThe museum also contains a beautiful Roman headless statue of Venus (Isis) as well as many stelae and architectural elements from the surrounding structures. There are also some large inscribed blocks from el-Amarna which were probably re-used in the later temple building. Apparently the large temple, which was described as similar in style to the Temple of Edfu, was still in good repair until the 14th century, when it was dismantled to be used as building material. More recent excavations in the town have uncovered yet another temple, close to the Graeco-Roman site, beneath a modern cemetery. We were taken across the road by one of the guards and shown this new excavation site, a temple built by Rameses II, possibly his largest temple yet found. A ruined colossal statue of Rameses II (probably one of a pair) lay half buried at what is thought to be the entrance of a temple once known as ‘The Birba’ which is referred to in Coptic and Arabic literature.

We left Akhmim to drive the 60km back to Abydos with our police escort. About half way back, the police captain stopped to pray at a little mosque in a village (it is Friday, the Muslim holy day). While we sat in the car and waited, watching the antics of a group of small boys playing nearby, one of these cute little boys let the air out of one of our tires. What a cheek! And so much for our police guard.

The Eve of the Feast

It was the eve of the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid el-Adha, which lasts for three days and is the conclusion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid el-Adha is known as the ‘Great Feast’ and is the most important date in the Muslim calendar, as opposed to the ‘Small Feast’, Eid el-Fitr which is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The Feast of Sacrifice commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (called Ismail in Egypt) to god when a voice from heaven intervened and allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Each year the prophet Mohammed sacrificed a sheep in memory of the occasion and established the tradition of the Muslim festival. Each family who can afford it will kill a sheep, eating about a third of the animal and distributing the rest of the meat to the poor.

Dressed for the feastWhen Robin and I arrived back at our hotel in Abydos after our trip to Sohag, we were met by the hotel owner Abdel Alim, who invited us to his house for dinner this evening. We were the only guests staying at the hotel and there was nobody to cook a meal for us because of the holiday, so to Abdel Alim this seemed the obvious solution and also meant he was doing his religious duty by sharing his food with us. His little son and three daughters, dressed for the occasion in pretty dresses with flowers decorating their hair, sat and chatted with us in the garden before excitedly running off on other business. At sunset came the Azaan, the Islamic call to prayer, the muezzin’s voice beginning the low, slow chant of Allah u Akbar, repeated over and over again until I was totally mesmerized. The chant built and gained volume, joined by other chanting from what seemed like numerous mosques in the village, prayers offered, spiralling out and floating from the tops of minarets on their journey to god. This wonderful sound lasted for over an hour, eventually rising to a crescendo before it became a sudden silence which filled me with a tremendous sense of awe. This incredible moment was the closest I have ever come to a religious experience and one I will never forget.

A little later Abdel Alim arrived to conduct us to his home in el-Madfuna, where his lovely wife, dressed in her best clothes waited to welcome us. Robin and I ate with the women and children, as tradition dictates, though Mrs Alim’s teenage son Hisam stayed to translate for us as she spoke no English. The meal was a veritable feast of Egyptian cuisine and we all had a really good time.

Abydos Temple of Rameses II

Day of the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid el-Adha, the Saturday holiday saw everyone out on the streets dressed in their finest clothes, greeting each other with smiles and handshakes and blessings. Today the people will go to the cemeteries with gifts for their ancestors, just as they did in pharaonic times, just as they did in the Beautiful Feast of the Valley celebrated in ancient Thebes. Tonight they will feast on ritually slaughtered lamb and other specially prepared dishes, eaten beneath festive banners and bunting in the bosom of their families. I was told that though Egyptians may live at the other end of the country, they will make a special effort to come home to spend the festival with their families.

Temple of Rameses IIWhen we first arrived in Abydos we were assigned our own policeman, who followed us everywhere like a faithful dog, even sleeping in a chair in the hotel garden. He was very young and I felt sorry for him landing such a boring duty, especially as he seemed to be the only person working on the holiday. This morning Robin and I, with our policeman trailing behind, walked up the road to a bakery, where yesterday we had seen many different kinds of tempting bread and cakes, intending to buy our lunch. We should have realised that the bakery wouldn’t be open today and we were disappointed. We carried on walking past the Seti Temple and along the road through the village of Beni Mansur for about half a kilometre until we reached the Temple of Rameses II. Many books say that this temple is ‘destroyed’ with little left to see, but due to various periods of restoration there was much more than I expected, with enclosing walls around 2m high and a very impressive restored black granite gateway, 5m tall and decorated with scenes and inscriptions. His temple, like that of his father, was dedicated to Osiris and construction began while the two kings ruled together. Rameses’ cartouches here were later altered to contain his pharaonic names and titles when he became sole ruler.

Human-headed god AnubisThe temple’s greatest attraction for me were the brilliantly coloured painted reliefs which are possibly the finest in any monument built by Rameses II. The carvings are shallow and tasteful, with colours now muted to soft hews, unlike the rather brash, self-important reliefs seen on Rameses’ later monuments. Towards the back of the temple there were chapels dedicated to Seti I and the king’s deified ancestors and there was once a king-list, now a fragmentary piece in the British museum. The pylons and courts, tall statues, pillars and colonnades and the high walls decorated with scenes of religious processions and military campaigns are now very reduced in size, giving only fleeting glimpses of what a lovely temple this must have been. There were several groups of side-chapels dedicated to various deities. My favourites were those on the western side of the hall, dedicated to Amun-Re, Osiris and possibly Horus and in the latter shrine there was a beautiful and colourful relief of the goddess Hekat ‘Mistress of Abydos’, usually portrayed as a frog, but in this case showing her human face. Next to her the god Anubis ‘Lord of the Sacred Land’ also has the head of a man rather than the usual jackal which, we were told, is the only known example of Anubis with a human head.

In the corners of the western wall at the north and south were two chambers thought to be statue halls which also had some very colourful reliefs. Each contained decorated niches and the southern chamber had a beautiful relief of Rameses offering to Osiris who is being protected by a winged djed pillar. This is thought to be one of the earliest representations of a symbol which became popular in later dynasties. Back outside the temple, Robin and I walked around the remains of the exterior walls, where we saw a version of Rameses’ Battle of Kadesh in beautiful incised relief, a calendar of festivals and offering lists. In one of the texts, Rameses describes his temple as a pylon of white limestone, granite doorways and a sanctuary of pure alabaster, which must have been very beautiful in its time.

Desert Sites

Robin and I basked in the afternoon sun in the Abydos cafeteria garden waiting for Horus, who was to take us to see some of the desert sites out towards the escarpment. Staying in Abydos meant that we had ample opportunity to visit some of the earliest monuments in Egypt, which I had longed to see. Although we went in Horus’s car, the obligatory truckload of policemen had to come too, along the track through Beni Mansur, past the Rameses II temple and northwards to Kom es-Sultan, a large impressive mudbrick structure which has been dated to the Middle Kingdom. These massive brick walls surround the site of the earliest known temple of Osiris (or Khenty-Amentiu) in Abydos. There is little information about the structure itself, but the only known statue thought to be King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, was found here. It was hard to imagine what these walls once contained, they were so vast – if it was a just a temple it must have been massive, but only a few scattered blocks now remain inside to give us a glimpse of past glories, as well as a large muddy puddle, which we were told was once a sacred lake.

Shunet el-Zebib from Kom es-Sultan

Driving another half a kilometre west we arrived at the second dynasty enclosure of Shunet el-Zebib, named for its more recent use as a storehouse of dates. Although not far from Abydos and almost overshadowed by the nearby walls of a Coptic village, Deir Sit Daminia, which was built on top of another ancient enclosure, I felt like I was in the truly desert. Shunet el-Zebib stands tall, with a double enclosure wall of mud brick, over 5m thick and rising to 12m. The outer wall is niched, just like Djoser’s step Pyramid complex walls at Saqqara. This ‘Palace of Eternity’ was built by King Khasekhemwy and is thought to be a mudbrick prototype of the earliest pyramids. While its original purpose is unclear, recent excavations have uncovered a low mound in its centre which is thought to be of religious significance. Surrounding the enclosure are 14 boat pits which, when excavated, were found to contain the world’s oldest boats. The pits are now back-filled due to the fragile condition of the wooden boats. While we were here our ‘personal policeman’ caught up with us. Having mislaid us and missed a ride with the others, he had walked out from Abydos and looked extremely hot and flustered.

Horus at the grave of Omm SetyOur last stop was very special. On this feast day when Egyptians visit the graves of their ancestors, Horus took us to see Omm Sety’s grave, in the desert outside the walls of the Muslim and Coptic cemeteries. We had come prepared with offerings of bread and incense to place on her grave, but when we got to the site we could hardly see her final resting place because the stones had been scattered and there was no headstone or other identifying mark. It was very sad that she should be so little remembered. As Robin and I placed our offerings and said a little silent prayer, Horus built up stones around the plot and marked them with her name. It felt like a good thing to do on this day.

Back in Abydos we had a couple of hours free, so Robin and I went into the Seti Temple again. Being a holiday the temple was very crowded and noisy with Egyptian visitors and large groups of children who displayed their habitual curiosity about us. I Mohammed Maghella with shishawandered around the halls and out to the Osirion, but I was followed everywhere, so decided to call it a day. Later in the evening, Robin and I had been invited by Horus to his home near the temple for a meal and to meet his family. The other men of the family were very devout and actually put on cotton gloves before shaking hands with two foreign infidels. I had not come across this strict observance of Islamic tradition before – it made me feel uncomfortable to be imposing. Of course they did not eat with us and Robin and I were seated at a table in a separate room on our own. The ladies were also shy with us and kept their distance, I guessed they had not met many foreigners and didn’t know how to treat us. It was very different to what I had become used to in Luxor. When the meal was over we went back to the hotel and sat in the garden until midnight talking with Horus, Abdel Alim and Mohammed Maghella, the Abydos Antiquities Inspector, a fascinating man. The evening air was mild, the sky like an enveloping cloak of soft black velvet studded with millions of diamond stars. I felt totally content.

Into the Desert Again
We were out very early this morning, at 7.00am the Bakery was open but no bread had been made yet, so our plans for a picnic lunch were thwarted again. After stocking up on large bottles of water and a couple of bags of potato crisps instead, Robin and I set out to walk to some of the desert sites we had not yet visited. Our young policeman, who hadn’t let us out off his sight since losing us yesterday, tried to persuade us to get a taxi to drive the 5km out on the desert track, but we were adamant we wanted to walk – an activity he didn’t seem able to comprehend. Bless him, it was very hot and he was still wearing his thick winter woollen uniform poor boy. With the policeman trailing sullenly a few yards behind, we set off past the Seti Temple and the old dig-house where the police camels were housed, into the desert. Although he spoke no English we tried to cheer our policeman up with a little conversation and asked him what he would do if we were attacked or shot at.
‘Me?’, he indicated, ‘I would run away fast!’. Then he showed us his impressive, but broken, handgun. Having established our level of protection we carried on towards Umm el-Qa’ab.

Umm el-Qa'ab

Walking the desert to the north and west of Abydos we couldn’t help but feel the antiquity of the area. Low sand-covered mounds everywhere hide tombs and shrines of early pharaohs, much of it still unexcavated, while vast tracts of smashed pottery attests to the millions of ancient Egyptians who performed their pilgrimage to this sacred place to fulfil their obligations to Osiris. Umm el-Qa’ab is such an area and the tomb of Dynasty I King Djer, once thought to be the ‘Tomb of Osiris’, attracted pilgrims from all over Egypt who smashed pots on the sandy mounds as offerings to the god. The area became known as ‘Mother of Pots’ and now it is almost impossible to walk on the sand without stepping on the sherds that deeply cover the surface. We looked down below ground-level into the large tomb of King Den, which has recently been undergoing restoration by a German team led by Dr Gunter Dreyer and I was very impressed by the work that had been done. Several subsidiary burials surrounded the tomb and we could see various pieces of pottery and other small finds lying in the bottom of the graves.

The desert hereabouts, which for convenience has been divided up into named cemetery areas, is littered with the burials of Protodynastic and Early Dynastic rulers whose names have been found on stelae at the tomb entrances. Some of the early royal tombs to be identified at Abydos belong to kings Djer, Djet, Den, and Queen Mer-Neith of Dynasty I, and Peribsen and Khasekhemwy of Dynasty II. The largest and latest royal tomb to be built at Abydos is that of King Khasekhemwy, which is currently being re-excavated and this was where Robin and I headed next.

Tomb of KhaselhemwyWalking through soft sand in the blazing heat was extremely tiring and we were ready for a rest by the time we got there. Our policeman had disappeared, probably to look for shade somewhere until we were ready to go back and it took us quite a while to find the tomb of Khasekhemwy because nothing of the structure was showing above the surface of the desert. At the beginning of Dynasty I a royal tomb consisted of a mound of rubble or sand which covered a deep rectangular brick-lined chamber. With each generation however, the tombs became more elaborate and were often surrounded by a great many subsidiary burials of wives, servants and pets. The tomb of Khasekhemwy was deep and vast and looking down into it we could see many separate chambers built from mudbrick. We sat for a long tome contemplating our surroundings, the wide stretches of desert enveloped in a deep silence all around us. To the west rose the limestone escarpment which curves in a large crescent shape encompassing the villages on the edge of the cultivation and in its centre is a cleft, known as ‘Pega-the-Gap’ believed by ancient Egyptians to lead directly to Amenti, the kingdom of the dead. Perhaps this was why the Thinite kings chose this area as their burial place from earliest times. The area was the sacred centre of the cult of Osiris from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, but it was in use through all the historical periods, right up to Christian times.

Door to Omm Sety's houseBack in Abydos, the festival still seemed to be going on, with bands of children in best clothes running about while small groups of men stood chatting and women walked up and down the gardens arm in arm. Back in the hotel I longed for a shower but we found that the water in the bathroom was not working and we had to make do with a wash from the remains of our bottled water. Later, Horus came to take us to Omm Sety’s old house, now a sad and derelict ruin, in the village of el-Araba. In front of her house were the remains of a large mudbrick tomb she had built for herself and where she had wanted to be buried, but in the end the local health authorities would not permit it. Climbing up to the first floor, I looked out over the village with its arched doorways, pigeon lofts and walls topped with clay pots and tried to picture the eccentric English woman, Dorothy Eady who had lived alone here for so many years, both part of the village but also an outsider.

Au Revoir Abydos

The feast was over and we were leaving Abydos today, but not until later in the afternoon, so getting up early Robin and I were able to spend a whole morning with the Seti I Temple completely to ourselves until the arrival of the noon convoy.

Abydos helicopterArmed with my SLR and trusty tripod, there were several things I wanted to look at again. One of the sandstone roof lintels in the outer Hypostyle Hall bears a relief that has become famous for including the so-called ‘Abydos helicopter’, which actually forms part of the names and titles of Rameses II. While there has been much written, offering ‘proof’ that the ancient Egyptians had a high level of technology (undeniably!), the carvings of a helicopter, submarine or tank, and flying saucer can be easily explained as the layering of one inscription over another, which archaeologists call palimpsest. I have come across this in lots of places in Egypt, where one king has over-carved an inscription replacing the names of a predecessor with his own. This glyph in Abydos is no different, having been modified at least once and then worn down to produce the strange appearance of the relief, which actually does look like a helicopter. My apologies to UFO enthusiasts, but I remain very sceptical.

I also wanted to take another look at one of my favourite chambers, the Hall of Sokar, where there are many unusual and beautiful reliefs which had never been painted. Sokar was a Memphite god who was often identified with Osiris and here is portrayed the story of Osiris and Isis; Osiris being restored to life and the mystic conception of Horus. Near this scene is a very rare relief representing the Goddess Nut in the form of a pregnant hippopotamus, squatting on her haunches and holding a large knife in her forepaws. Before her Seti offers wine. It is more usually the goddess Tauret, the protector of women in childbirth who is shown as a hippopotamus.

Nefertem as a lion-headed godThis chamber also includes a vaulted chapel of Nefertem, with more unusual scenes as well as inscriptions taken from the Pyramid texts. Nefertem, in the Memphis theology, was the son of Ptah and Sekhmet and is often depicted with a lotus blossom on his head by which he was recognised as a god of perfumes. He is usually depicted anthropomorphically as a man, but here at Abydos he is shown as a lion-headed god and is carrying cradled in his hand, the sacred eye of Horus. Nefertem is named as ‘Protector of the Two Lands‘, ‘Lord of Kas’ and on his head perches a falcon crowned with a lotus flower. This is one of my favourite reliefs in the whole temple.

I walked through some of the other halls and out to the Osirion, collecting some of the water in a little jar which Omm Sety claimed had magical healing properties. Soon it was time to leave to go back to the hotel to gather our things and pay our bill. The four nights here had cost us only LE40 each (about £5.00) so we were quite generous with our baksheesh all round. Our young policeman who had hardly left our side for four days was delighted with his tip and was suddenly our best friend, begging us to come back soon. After saying a fond goodbye to all the good friends we had made in Abydos, Horus drove us to the station at el-Balyana to catch the 3.00pm train and we had an uneventful journey back to Luxor.

The Market at el-Tarif

It was nice to wake up in ‘my own’ bed this morning. I have the only room at the el-Gezira Hotel that has a bath and I made long use of it last night. Abydos had been a wonderful experience, one that I will never forget, but to be back in luxor with a shower and a bath, both with hot running water (nearly all the time), is bliss.

This morning I was up early to meet Robin. On Tuesday there is a market in Luxor, which I had visited a few years ago, but we recently discovered that there was also a big Tuesday market here on the West Bank. This morning at 7.00 am we set out along the road in Geziret to catch an arabeya to Qurna, getting out just past the Seti Temple. We hadn’t been sure where exactly the market was, but once in el-Tarif all we had to do was to follow the donkey-carts piled high with cabbages or tomatoes. There was a stream of men leading animals by ropes, chickens held by a wing flapping at their sides and women with large baskets balanced on their heads were leading small children by the hand. The narrow dirt track behind the Muslim cemetery eventually opened out into a large open space covered with a sea of vendors and customers. Overhead a brightly striped hot-air balloon was hovering low over the scene, which must have looked spectacular from that perspective.

The Suq at el-Tarif

The el-Tarif suq is by no means a tourist place, it is purely for the local people who come to buy and sell their produce and probably, as on market days the world over, meet friends to exchange their weekly gossip. It certainly sounded like everyone was talking at once. Many of the stalls were set out on the ground, where a man or woman sat behind scales, surrounded by their goods. I saw a great variety of vegetables. Potatoes with a light dusting of earth still on them, huge juicy red tomatoes, succulent green salad leaves, dark glossy aubergines and giant cabbages and cauliflowers, each one big enough to feed me for six months, were all piled up into pyramids. Bananas, oranges and pears were laid appetizingly in large wide woven baskets on carts. Aluminium bowls were heaped with dried herbs in every imaginable shade of green, contrasting vividly against the brightly coloured spices alongside, while lentils, beans and other grains and pulses were similarly displayed. It was not only food sold here, but household goods of all descriptions; pots and pans and crockery in aluminium, terracotta and plastic were everywhere. Handcarts manned by ladies selling fabrics and haberdashery were a delight and Robin bought several lengths of fabric that caught her eye, while I bought a couple of very nice scarves. We found freshly baked bread and some of the local hard salty cheese to take back for our lunch and walked along the rows of stalls selling eggs, milk and round white goat cheeses, which made us feel hungry. When we came to a man with a little gas cooking stove we could no longer resist, so we bought some ta’amiya, flat cakes made from a sort of mashed green beans and deep fried, similar to falafel. These were freshly fried in a deep pan of sizzling oil and served up in paper cones – they were delicious.

Lady selling herbsThe far corner of the market ground was the place where animals were bought and sold. Beside stacks of palm crates containing live chickens, ducks and geese, there were many sheep and goats as well as donkeys for sale. This was the domain of the men and when I pointed my camera in their direction I got shouted at. I couldn’t blame them, they were not here as tourist attractions, so I confined myself to taking pictures of one or two children, paying them 50 piastres for each shot, which satisfied them and me. Unfortunately when their friends caught on to this new money-making scheme I was followed like the pied piper with ever-increasing groups of kids asking for money, sweets and pens and planting themselves in front of my camera demanding ‘photo me, photo me’. After a couple of hours Robin and I were quite exhausted, so we left to go back to her apartment in Geziret for coffee and spent the rest of the morning lazing around.

After lunch our friend David from Luxor came over to the West Bank and together we went up to Asasif to visit the tomb of Kheruef, one of my favourites and the tomb of Ankh-hor (TT414), both of them just to the south of Deir el-Bahri. Ankh-hor’s titles were ‘Steward of the Divine Votress Nitocris’, ‘Great Mayor of Memphis’, ‘Overseer of Upper Egypt in Thebes’ and ‘Overseer of the Priests of Amun’ during the reigns of Psamtek II and Apries (Wahibre) of Dynasty XXVI. His tomb is one of a series of large tombs in the Asasif area built at the end of the Third Intermediate Period for high officials in the estates of the Gods Wives of Amun.

The tomb of Ankh-horLike Kheruef, Ankh-hor was a wealthy man of great importance and this was reflected in the size of his tomb. Little of the above-ground structure now remains, but a steep staircase leads deep down to a solar court with square pillars and an offering table still in situ. The tomb was obviously not completed by the time Ankh-hor died and the inner chambers were left rough and undecorated. The Sun Court, however, contains some of the finest reliefs found in the Theban tombs, beautifully and delicately carved on the walls, in the same style as Pabasa’s slightly earlier tomb (TT279) not far away. Ankh-hor’s tomb also has rare scenes of beekeeping, although the complete hives are not shown as they are in Pabasa’s tomb, but only the honeycombs. Part of the decoration in the Sun Court was unfinished and although there is still some good colour in places we could see a striped carvetto cornice around the top of the walls with areas which are sketched in red but left incomplete. A cartouche of Psamtek II can be seen on the entrance wall. All of the inner chambers of the tomb, which is quite extensive, were left unfinished. On the western side of the Sun Court is a short passage with a corbelled roof which leads to a large unplastered hall with eight roughly carved pillars. This chamber in turn leads to a vestibule with a small cult chamber and statue niche at the western end. Other chambers off the northern side lead to small rooms on an upper level. The tomb was re-used in later periods and contained intrusive burials including the remains of a mummy, which we saw in one of the side-chambers.

By the time we left Asasif to walk to the Rameses Cafe at Medinet Habu, a strong wind had blown up and we were sand-blasted all the way along the road. Later it became gale force, a typical Khamsin wind that forces dust and sand into every crack and crevice. It’s that time of year again!

Down Time

I’d had no plans for today, so getting up late I spent a couple of hours over breakfast and coffee on the rooftop terrace, chatting with some German guests. Later in the morning Robin called round asking if I would go with her to the pool in Luxor’s newest hotel, the Sonesta St George. Beach holidays leave me cold and I am not good at lazing by a pool watching a crowd of European tourists sunbathing. I like to be seeing new things or at least exercising my mind, so after a minimum of protest I agreed to go with her if we could call in at Aboudi’s book shop first. This is where I found what is possibly my greatest treasure. The bookshop had a copy of ‘Abydos, Holy City of Ancient Egypt’, by Omm Sety and Hani el-Zeini. I had heard about this large format book, published in America by the LL Company in 1981, but had never seen it, so I was delighted to find a copy here in Luxor. It was an expensive treat at LE150 but worth every piastre.

Sonesta St George HotelOn the way to the Sonesta, Robin and I had a look in the Akhmim fabric shop below the Old Winter Palace at their beautiful textiles. The fabrics cushions and bedcovers in fabulous woven designs and subtle muted colours were superb, but I was glad they were too heavy and bulky to take home as they were also very expensive. It was very hot walking to the Sonesta Hotel, so after we paid our LE25 for use of the pool, I did condescend to have a quick swim. This was followed by a very nice lunch at the poolside before I got totally immersed in my wonderful new book. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur as I read Omm Sety’s descriptions of the Abydos Seti Temple, the images of which were still so clear in my mind after our time spent there last weekend.

Valley of the Queens

This morning I went to Robin’s apartment, where we had coffee on her roof which has lovely views of both the Nile and the Theban mountains. Looking straight down from my viewpoint into the street, I could see it was baking day in Geziret and all along the road there were dozens of round flat loaves of bread laid out on wooden benches to prove in the sun. This morning the weather was perfect, warm but not scorching hot, or else the bread would have baked where it was. Later we caught an arabeya up to the taftish and bought tickets for the Queen’s Valley which, for some reason I had only visited once before. Instead of taking the wide tarmac road, we walked over the mountain from Deir el-Medina, past the Ptah and Meretseger shrines and down into the Valley of the Queens on the ancient workmen’s path.

First we went into the tomb of Prince Khaemwaset, the eldest son of Rameses III (QV44). The tomb is a wide corridor with a couple of side annexes and a long burial chamber and the decoration is very beautiful with delicately painted reliefs and very well-preserved colour mostly on a pale background. The young prince is shown on the walls with his father who seems to be presenting him to various deities and there are also scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’

Prince AmunhirkhopshepThe tomb of Amunherkhopshef, another of Rameses III’s sons (QV55), is also a simple corridor design. Here the superb detailed reliefs are painted on a blue-grey background and the overall appearance has an ultramarine hue which gives a soft and gentle feel to the young prince’s tomb. The prince is depicted wearing the ‘sidelock of youth’ and is accompanied by his father and many gods. A rear annex, undecorated but perhaps intended to be the burial chamber, houses the small sarcophagus of Amunhirkhopshef. Robin wanted to do some sketching in this tomb and got annoyed when the guard tried to throw us out after only five minutes. Nobody else was there and after an argument he let us stay longer. It wasn’t until we got back outside that we saw the sign to say visitors were only allowed five minutes in the tomb, but by then we had had half an hour. Whops!

The third tomb we visited was that of Queen Titi, a royal lady of Dynasty XX of whom little is known. Her small tomb was greatly damaged by later re-use, but some decoration remains, showing lightly carved reliefs painted in delicate warm colours on a white plaster background. When we had finished we walked back along the road to Medinet Habu, passing through the destroyed temple of Ay and Horemheb to the Rameses Cafe for cold drinks and a chat with friends there.

Later in the evening Robin and I went to a party in Luxor, given by one of the English ladies living there. It took a while to find Molly’s apartment – all Robin knew was that it was somewhere off Television Street, near a computer shop and had fairy lights on the balcony. But we did find the place eventually when we were just about to give up and spent a pleasant evening meeting old friends and some new ones too. Leaving after Midnight to go back on the almost deserted ferry across to the West Bank, I was feeling very tired. As I got into bed at 1.30am the local rooster, who always gets up early, was crowing. It must be time to sleep!

A Temple of Hathor

This morning I went to Kom Lolla, near the Temple of Medinet Habu, to visit my Egyptian friends, Nubi and Zeinab. When I arrived Nubi wasn’t home, so while Zeinab made tea I played with their two youngest children, Mona and Hassan. Mona, a girl of around eight years old, is very quiet but self-composed and has the most beautiful sparkling brown eyes which seem to speak volumes. Hassan, who is three, is very cute and as the baby of the family is petted and pampered and gets away with all sorts of mischief. I had taken toys for the children when I first arrived last week and they were still playing with them. Egyptian children do not seem to have the abundance of toys that western children do and they really appreciated their gifts. Just as I was about to leave Nubi returned and I stayed for another hour, more tea and interesting archaeological conversation.

The Temple of HathorLeaving Nubi’s house I walked around the edge of Medinet Habu to Qurnet Murai and along the road to Deir el-Medina This is the ‘Village of the Workmen’, the community of artisans who were employed in the construction of the royal tombs and other monuments of the Theban necropolis during the New Kingdom. My son and I had visited the Hathor Temple last year with Antiquities Inspector Dr Mohammed Sayed, but on that occasion had I taken no pictures. This time I bought a ticket and with my camera ready for action, went straight to the temple which luckily at mid-day was empty. Originally there were several small earlier temples on the site, but the largest extant today, the Temple of Hathor, ‘Goddess of the West’, was begun by Ptolemy IV Philopator and was one of the last temples in Egypt to be contained within a high mudbrick enclosure wall. Various other Ptolemaic kings added to it and decorated it over the years and the result was a lovely little monument which still has a lot of colourful reliefs. The vestibule is beautifully decorated in soft feminine hues of pinkish-blue, with floral columns and Hathor-headed pillars. A column to the left-hand side of the doorway of the vestibule depicts the deified Imhotep with his mother and wife and on the right shows the deified Amenhotep, Son of Hapu. On the left-hand side a staircase, with a lovely little window, leads up to the roof and beyond the vestibule, three doorways lead to three sanctuaries. The centre chamber is dedicated to Hathor as the local goddess of the Theban necropolis, on the left, Amun-Sokar-Osiris representing the underworld and on the right, Amun-Re-Osiris as a solar god. The reliefs in each of the sanctuaries, showing the king offering to a wide variety of deities, are very well-preserved. In the sanctuary of Amun-Sokar-Osiris there is a relief showing a judgement scene where the heart is being weighed – usually only seen in tombs. Another interesting scene from this sanctuary shows the four-headed Ram of Mendes who represents the four winds and the souls of Osiris, Geb, Shu and Amun.

I spent a couple of hours in the temple, photographing the reliefs and talking to the guard, who was very knowledgeable and all the time I was there nobody else came in. I was very hot, so I walked back to Medinet Hubu for a cold drink and a restful hour in the cafe before going back to Geziret to the hotel. Later in the cool of the evening, I met up with Robin and we had dinner in one of my favourite restaurants, the Tutankamun by the ferry dock, where we could sit up on the rooftop restaurant and watch for shooting stars, with a light breeze coming off the river.

St Tawdros Monastery

It is Sunday and the last day of this trip. I don’t know where the time has gone, it seems like only a few days ago I arrived in Luxor, excited at the prospect of two weeks here. I have achieved one of my dreams – to spend a few days at Abydos and I feel particularly fortunate to have been there at the very special time of the Muslim Feast of Eid el-Adha, the ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’. Well, that was a week ago and today is the Christian holy day of Palm Sunday. Robin and I decided to balance our festive Abydos experience by today visiting the Coptic Monastery of St Tawdros, which lies in the shadow of the Theban Mountain, out in the desert near Malqata. We took an arabeya to the taftish and walked out over the desert track as the sun was rising and the hot air balloons were hovering overhead, a riot of colour against the pale pink glow of the dawn sky. The Palm Sunday service began at 7.00am. It was a long walk and we didn’t want to miss it.

Towards the Monastery of St TawdrosSt Tawdros Monastery is also known locally as El-Mohareb and is part of the Luxor Coptic Orthodox Bishopric. It is a very old set of buildings surrounded by a high wall, which houses a small community of nuns and the church is obviously the main place of worship for Coptic Christians on the West Bank. When we arrived at the large wooden doors, painted with a picture of a saint on horseback, the place was packed with people and I didn’t know what to expect as I had never visited a Coptic Church in Egypt before. Perhaps I had imagined something like the pictures I had seen from St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, but this was not a church full of richly decorated icons or gleamig with gold. It was very much a place used by the local community and families with young children were milling about everywhere in the grounds and inside the entrance to the church. We were welcomed by a nun and shown into a room with the women and children who were sitting on rugs on the floor. Around the walls were pictures and a few statues and I noticed a row of small stone Coptic crosses set into a wall. The large room was divided into two; the women were all on our side and the men were sitting on the other side of a screen. The Priests (there seemed to be several of them) were up in front at an altar beneath a large brass cross. During the service, children were playing and running about, mothers were feeding their babies and many people were talking, while the words of the priest came over a distorted speaker system. It was incredibly noisy. The language of the service seemed (to my ears) to be a mixture of colloquial Arabic and High Arabic with ‘hymns’ chanted sonorously every now and then. Robin and I followed the actions of the other ladies, getting up on our feet then sitting down on the floor again every few minutes but we really didn’t have a clue what was going on. Towards the end of the long service a priest came around with a censor and wafted incense over the crowd, which smelt wonderful.

Feast days in the Coptic calendar traditionally follow the ancient Egyptian agricultural calendar of inundation, planting and harvest and this was also the calendar used by the Egyptian government until the Nineteenth Century. The modern use of the word ‘Coptic’ describes Egyptian Christians, whose religion is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century AD. Since then the Coptic Church has produced thousands of texts, biblical and theological studies and the language they were written in is believed to be the last stage of ancient Egyptian. Today they are important resources for archaeology.

On our way out of the church after the service had ended, we met Nasra, a lady who works at the el-Gezira Hotel and suddenly I didn’t feel so out of place. Nasra was so happy that we had come to her church today and so was I.

The End of the Day

I was back in the hotel by 9.30am – just in time for a late breakfast! I was exhausted from the long walk, the crowds and the noise of the Coptic service, but after a shower, some reluctant packing and several cups of coffee, I was fit to meet Robin again to cross the river on the ferry to Luxor.

We wandered around Luxor and through the Suq, today with time to stop and chat to the shopkeepers and of course drink tea with them. This is an occupation I have to be in the mood for. The bantering and haggling, or just passing the time of day with the vendors we knew can be fun and today it felt like a good thing to do. Several times we were asked by Egyptians to read or to help reply to letters from English friends. I know this is sometimes a ruse to get tourists into a shop and that the letters have probably been read dozens of times already, but we had the time, so we didn’t mind. Mostly they were not too personal. We had lunch with David and other friends at the Amoun Restaurant and I knew I would miss them all. We spent some time on Television Street in the tour offices where Robin was trying to find a flight back to England in the next week, without much success so far.

Sunset from 'Moon Valley'Later we decided to go sailing on a felucca, always a nice thing to do on my last day here, so we walked along the Corniche until we found our friend Ashraf on ‘Moon Valley’. It was a good relaxing time, but there was very little wind and a lot of mosquitoes. We had to be towed by a motor boat upriver as far as the Sheraton Hotel before beginning a slow journey back, drifting quietly on the sluggish current. After a couple of hours the sun began to set and the sky behind the mountains to the west gradually enfolded us in a warm blanket of deep orange. We were still drifting with sails flapping limply for want of a breeze until darkenss began to creep over the river and poor Ashraf began to row the heavy felucca homeward.

Party night at the el-GeziraBack at the hotel I finished my packing and paid my bill, which came to just over £60 for my two weeks stay – including food and drinks! Tonight was party night at the el-Gezira so Robin and I ate together in the hotel on the rooftop terrace. Sammy the chef had made lentil soup, followed by one of his amazing Nubian Pizzas, which he had made specially for me because he knows I love them. There was live local music and dancing to entertain a visiting tour group, which everyone took part in, then as people began to drift away, Robin and I stayed to talk with Gamal and the staff, who by 1.00am were winding down after their long day’s work. Feeling very relaxed with soft Egyptian music playing over the hi-fi, I wished I didn’t have to leave in the morning!

A Day at Luxor Airport

Ahmed came with his taxi early this morning to drive me along the quiet mist-covered West Bank roads to the airport. We crossed the bridge and drove through Luxor while I watched the town waking up and beginning a new day. A mile or two out of Luxor is the airport entrance with an old military plane sitting proudly on display by the traffic control gate. Once inside the gate I always feel like I am in prison – there is no turning back and I am committed to going back to England. My flight was due to take off at 8.30am and happily my very overweight suitcase went through baggage check-in without comment. Each time I go home it gets easier because I know I will be back.

Waiting on the Tarmac

The departure lounge had been spruced up a bit and this time I could see out of the windows. At 8.30am the Egyptair plane with its Horus Logo on the tail was out on the tarmac waiting, so why were we not boarding? After another hour the announcement came. Our plane had damaged a wheel on landing and new parts had to be flown in from Cairo. Was this to be a repeat of my delayed departure last year? Well, not quite, but it was 5.00pm when we eventually got airborne. I seem to be destined to spend long hours in Luxor airport, which is not my favourite place in the world.

My journey home doesn’t end at Heathrow. I still had to catch a train down to Cornwall and had missed my connections by about ten hours. Luckily I just managed to catch the sleeper train from Reading and arrived home at 8.30am on Tuesday. Why do I put myself through this gruelling journey? Well, I know the answer to that and I would do it again tomorrow given the chance!

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