I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of a baggage handler’s strike, but thankfully there was little evidence of it as I met up with six of the other people I am going to Egypt with. My friend Sam is leading our little expedition and she has already gone on ahead to Egypt to sort out our final travel plans.
Most of my travel companions are friends of Sam’s who have expressed a wish to do a trip in the Western Desert and they are members of her local Egyptology society. Tom, Tim and Judy, Elizabeth, Val and Kevin were already waiting in terminal 3 when I arrived so we all went off to check in for our 2.00pm flight to Luxor. Kevin I already know, a friend of mine who lives near me. Although the plane was an hour late leaving, we had a good flight in Egypt Air’s old jumbo ‘Hatshepsut’, a familiar plane I had flown in before and we were able to get to know each other a little on the way.
That old familiar concoction of a warm gentle night breeze and the various smells of Luxor – spices, animals and dust, hit us as soon as we left the aircraft. It’s good to be back, even though it’s only nine months since I was last here. By 10.00pm we all trooped out of the airport terminal and were met by Sam with the minibus that she has arranged for two weeks at which point the others will be returning home. I, however, am staying for four weeks.
We checked into the New Radwan Hotel in Luxor near the railway station and by Midnight the rest of the group, tired from the long journey went off to bed. I’d gone to have a shower, but finding the water turned off in my room I ended up chatting with Sam in the hotel lounge until around 3.00am. However tired I am – and I’d been up on the overnight train to London all last night – I always get a new lease of energy as soon as I arrive here.
A Day in Luxor
Most of our little group have been to Egypt before and we decided to go our separate ways today. Sam told me it’s been unseasonably hot since she arrived here a few days ago – too hot for her – but apparently the weather has now cooled a little, though it still feels quite warm to me coming fresh from the English winter. I spent the morning walking in Luxor, saying hello to street traders and others I knew and just getting into that lazy Egyptian pace of life. Aboudi’s book shop was my first stop and I bought a copy of Florence Nightingale’s ‘Letters from Egypt’ that I found half-price, it would make a good read on my travels. There was nothing else new to interest me thank goodness. I think I took home enough books from my last trip to keep me going for a while.
After stopping at the pharmacy to stock up on necessaries for the desert, I met Sam at the Amoun Cafe for lunch, where I love to sit at the pavement tables with a cool lemon juice and people-watch. After a while Kevin walked by – if you sit here long enough you see everyone you know eventually. He joined us for a drink and then Kevin and I decided to take a taxi to Karnak, not wanting to totally waste a day here without seeing any monuments.
It’s a couple of years since I was at Karnak so it was exciting to see what work had been going on. Not expecting to be visiting Karnak today I didn’t have my camera equipment, only my little Pentax compact (I never go anywhere without it) so I didn’t bother taking many pictures. It was actually nice to walk around and look at things with my eyes instead of through the camera lens. Karnak was very hot and humid and the main part of the temple was crowded with tourists when we arrived, so I walked around the peripheral monuments at the edges of the complex where most people don’t go. When I met up again with Kevin near the 7th Pylon we managed to persuade the guard to let us through to look at the 8th, 9th and 10th Pylons and we also spent some time looking at the nearby block field. The crowds had thinned a little by mid-afternoon but were beginning to trickle back as the sun got lower and the day cooled but by then we were both feeling tired, so we were glad to make our way back to the hotel.
Dinner at Maxim’s near the Sonesta Hotel was somewhat of a celebration, a lavish three-course affair. Sam had booked a table in the restaurant and we all went as a group to enjoy our first meal together. We spent a leisurely couple of hours over the meal, good food as always here and good conversation too, with all of us passionate in one way or other about Egyptology. We spent a lot of time talking about our long-anticipated Western Desert trip and the sites we would be visiting. Sam is the only one of us who has done the New Valley route before a couple of times so it was all familiar to her and she was able to give us a good idea us what to expect.
When the others went back to the hotel Sam and I went off to sample Luxor’s ‘night life’. OK, maybe not the bars and discos for us, but we did end up sitting in a smart new Egyptian coffee shop down a side street near the Sonesta Hotel for an hour or two. Our friend Abdul, who would as usual be our driver on the coming trip, came by with two of his brothers who Sam and I also knew and we again discussed the route we would take. Well, it’s rude to leave too early so it was once more Midnight by the time we got back to the New Radwan. Hurray! My plumbing is fixed but there’s no hot water. After a very hot day I had got cold sitting in the coffee shop and had to ask for an extra blanket for my bed.
A Stroll on the Mountain
Sam and the gang were going to the West Bank to the tombs in the King’s Valley this morning. Although most of the others had been to Egypt before at some time, they were not as familiar with the sites as Kev and I were. Like me, Kevin has been to Egypt several times in the last few years so neither of us was keen to do the ‘tourist thing’ today. Abdul was taking the rest of the group over the bridge in the minibus and Kev and I were not averse to begging a lift with them as far as the Temple of Seti I.
As we didn’t have tickets we wandered around the outside of the Seti temple before setting off along the monuments road back towards the taftish, eventually catching a passing Arabeya because the day was already hot. Kevin wanted to walk over the mountain, but I wasn’t too sure about that idea, so we decided first to go to Deir el-Medina, spending time wandering in the workmen’s village looking at the amazing reconstructed houses, pointing out sleeping platforms and niches in the walls, pillar bases in a couple of the larger houses and the occasional quern.
As Kevin had never been to the Sanctuary of Ptah and Mertetsger, on the path to the Queen’s Valley, we climbed part way up the steep steps leading up the mountain and branched off to the south towards the shrines. I love this place and it’s always so peaceful. We examined all of the stelae, which are mostly from the Ramesside period and tried to make out the worn hieroglyphs. One or two of these stelae still have colourful painted decoration. Here the artisans from the workmen’s village constructed a rock-shrine to the cobra-goddess Merteseger, who they believed lived in the Theban Mountain. By this act they hoped for her blessing and that of the god Ptah who was the artisans patron. Seven shrines were actually found here, each with a large stele built into the back wall and although the roofs and walls of the shrines are mostly destroyed, the stelae can still be seen. If the light is right you can also see a shallow relief of the goddess Meretseger herself, but today it was barely visible.
By early afternoon the temperature was very hot, but Kevin was still determined to walk over the mountain. He usually comes to Egypt in the summer months and is more used to the heat than I am. He’s obviously much fitter than me too. While he backtracked to the mountain path I went down the more gentle route and into the Valley of the Queens to walk back along the tarmac road. Stupidly I had only taken a small bottle of water with me, already gone and I was surprised by the fierce heat at this time of year. The road from the Queen’s Valley to the ticket office seems a very long way when you’re hot and thirsty and there is not a scrap of shade anywhere. I decided to make for the Rameses Cafe at Medinet Habu, have a drink and take the opportunity to say hello to any Egyptian friends who happened to be around.
As I staggered into the cafe who should I see but Sam, sitting with a cold drink and her feet up reading a book! I might have known. She’d left the others in the King’s Valley for a while and escaped to do the sensible thing. She said she was quite shocked when she saw me – bright red face and looking like I was about to expire. I have to admit I’ve never been so hot in Egypt before – not even in the summer months. By the time Abdul arrived back with the rest of the group an hour later I’d had a couple of large glasses of lemon juice, doused my face and neck with cold water in the bathroom and was once more quite composed.
We all spent the next couple of hours in Habu Temple – always a favourite place for me. The temple was very quiet, no other visitors today in the late afternoon and even the guards couldn’t be bothered to follow anyone around. Back in Luxor after a quick shower in the hotel (I still have no hot water) we all went out to a nearby restaurant that I’ve been to a few times before. Aysh wa Mal – ‘Bread with salt’ is a small local place right opposite the railway station and conveniently just around the corner from our hotel. It’s not classy or touristy like Maxim’s from last night, but the Egyptian food is always very good and very inexpensive. Early to bed tonight ready for a dawn start tomorrow when our desert adventure will begin.
Abydos and Onwards
The route we were taking to the Western Desert meant driving north as far as Sohag with the convoy. By 7.30am we were lined up in Luxor’s ‘Convoy Street’ with all the other coaches, minibuses and taxis waiting for the tourist police to give the signal to be off. It’s mayhem with drivers meeting and greeting each other, leaning against their vehicles and chatting while trying to keep an eye on their passengers who are wandering about, buying last minute supplies of cold drinks and snacks at the little kiosk. Eventually we were off and the long snake of traffic began to slither out of the street and through Luxor. As well as Abdul who accompanies us on all our trips as driver/guide, we have with us Mohammed who is the official driver of the hired minibus.
This particular convoy goes to Abydos, so we were all glad to stop there for a brief visit. Most of the group had never been to Abydos and they tore around the Seti temple in the hour and a half allotted, while Sam and I wandered more leisurely taking pictures of scenes we particularly wanted to look at again. This is one of my favourite temples and the exceptionally well-crafted colourful reliefs of Seti and his son Rameses always take my breath away. There was no time to walk along to the Rameses Temple today, but we did manage a quick coffee in the cafe in the park in front of the Seti Temple. There was a stall selling some really good replica antiquities where I found a lovely little shabti that looks surprisingly genuine. and I was still haggling as the convoy police blew their whistle to signal time to leave. The stall-holder didn’t want to lose the sale and I came away with a bargain, though not so much from my powers of haggling but because he remembered me from previous visits.
Back in our bus we drove with the convoy as far as Sohag and then had a change of police who would take us down to Asyut. This lot were really crazy and we had to endure some very fast driving with the lovely countryside whizzing past too fast to appreciate as we bounced up and down on the seats over the potholes and ridges in the road and tried to hang on as best we could. Poor Mohammed was driving and getting very stressed trying to keep up. At Asyut we crossed the river to the West Bank and onto the desert road where the police left us to travel onwards by ourselves. We still couldn’t dawdle because there are checkpoints at intervals on the long desert highway and if we didn’t arrive at the next checkpoint when we were supposed to there would be trouble. In the early evening we had a spectacular view coming down off the escarpment into the oasis of Kharga with the soft orange afterglow of the sunset ahead of us and lights beginning to flicker in the scattering of houses at the edges of the cultivated area. At 8.00pm we pulled up outside our hotel in Kharga City, all of us feeling very stiff and tired from our long journey.
There are only two tourist hotels in Kharga. One of them is the Solymar Pioneer and quite a bit more expensive than the hotel that we were booked into. After ten minutes in our hotel we all wished we’d chosen the more expensive option. ‘Basic’ is a generous description, but ‘clean’ obviously isn’t in their vocabulary. This was when the problems began. After a little time spent swapping around unacceptable rooms we learned that the hotel didn’t serve food, but that was OK, we’d planned to go out to eat. Mohammed had done all the driving and he had to be almost carried up to his room – already half asleep. It was at this point that we all realised the implications of travelling in the month of Ramadan, which we had been assured was not a problem.
While we westerners had been at least guzzling bottled water all the way here, Abdul and Mohammed had had nothing to eat or drink since dawn this morning. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar is held as a holy time by most Egyptians. When the sun has set Muslims are permitted to break their fast, usually with a simple snack before evening prayers in the mosque. Prayers are followed by Itfar, often a quite elaborate feast enjoyed by friends and family together. It’s a time of joyful celebration and companionship. The only other meal is Suhoor, which traditionally includes dates and is taken before sunrise – i.e. about 5.00am! Mohammed the driver, dumped unceremoniously on top of his bed in the hotel room, was oblivious to Itfar tonight. He could not be woken. The rest of us went out into town to look for a restaurant, only to find that the few there were had closed at 7.00pm after the Itfar meal.
Eventually we found our way to the Pioneer Hotel, whose deserted restaurant, the manager opened for us. Tired as we were, I think the others enjoyed their meal, though my recollecton of tepid spaghetti with a thin tomato sauce – the only vegetarian option – leaves a less happy memory. Once back in our own hotel later however, the Pioneer suddenly seemed very grand and palatial. I slept on top of the bed and didn’t unpack anything.
Roman Fortresses in Kharga
We all form pictures in our mind of the places we will visit and even though I’ve seen photographs of the fortress of Dush, it seemed very different to how I’d imagined it. For a start the drive from Kharga was much further than I’d thought – at the very southern edge of the oasis, Dush is an outpost at about 100km from the city and we drove past several crescent-shaped Barkan sand-dunes and yardangs, or mud-lions, on the way. As we turned off the main Kharga road onto a sand-covered tarmac track we finally found the Roman fortress rising from the high ground ahead of us, while a group of little white tents belonging to the French IFAO excavation team were clustered below on the plain.
It was quite a climb up the slope of soft sand to get to the temple, which was built from stone and was bigger and better preserved than I had imagined. This area in ancient times was known as Kysis and comprised several villages surrounded by cultivation with quite a sophisticated irrigation system of underground pipes, which has been investigated by recent excavators. The sandstone temple, dedicated to Osiris and Isis, butts onto the side of the fortress, within its outer walls and was probably built by the Emperor Domitian, with further additions and decoration by Trajan and Hadrian. There is a dedicatory inscription of Trajan on the large stone entrance gate and this is dated to 116 AD. Inside there is a courtyard with remains of columns, a pillared hall and further chambers leading to the sanctuary. Some of the walls in the inner temple have lovely reliefs depicting Roman emperors and deities. The walls were reputedly once partially sheathed in gold leaf, which must have looked amazing. We went up a staircase onto the roof from where there are wonderful views across the once-cultivated area which the desert has now reclaimed. In 1989 a hoard of treasure was discovered in one of the store-rooms in the temple. Known as the ‘Dush Treasure’, now in Cairo Museum, a collection of superb religious artefacts was buried for safety probably during the 5th to 6th centuries AD. I made a mental note to look for it in Cairo.
From the stone temple we could see mudbrick ruins of a second temple across the sloping hillside. When we walked over the pottery-covered sand to the site we could stand inside the tall walls and look up at the barrel-shaped vaulted roof, but there was no plaster or decoration remaining here and little to give us any information. This structure is also probably Roman but little else is known about it. We spent quite a long time in the mudbrick temple, an eerily romantic setting, before moving on to our next destination.
Back towards Kharga City, a little way off the main road, we came to the ‘fortress of the small garden’, Qasr el-Ghueita. This is another imposing Roman fortress, perhaps once a garrison headquarters, that commands wonderful views from the top of a hill over the surrounding desert. The settlement which dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom was called in ancient times Per-ousekh and was renowned for its grape cultivation and wine and is mentioned in many Theban tombs. Within the Roman fortress walls is a large yellow sandstone temple probably dating from the Persian Period or perhaps even earlier and dedicated to the Theban Triad. We walked between the screen walls of a Ptolemaic pronaos into a courtyard. I liked this temple even more than Dush and its richly decorated hypostyle hall with beautiful floral columns was a joy. Most of the decoration here appeared to be Ptolemaic with the usual scenes of Nile Gods and nome symbols lining the lower registers and I saw several cartouches as well as unusual-looking deities. There were three small sanctuaries here which would have once held the cult statues of Amun, Mut and Khons but the decoration was blackened with age. From the roof we could see another structure with screen walls and columns, perhaps a mammisi or birth-house.
Our next stop was Qasr el-Zayyan, just a little further towards Kharga and close to the main road. One of the largest and most important settlements in the oasis Qasr Zayyan is another link in the chain of Roman fortresses that guarded the trade routes. The Greeks called the settlement Tchonemyris, which means ‘The Great Well’ and the well itself can still be seen within the massive well-preserved mudbrick enclosure walls. This major source of water would have given the place a great deal of importance in ancient times and it would have probably functioned as an overnight stop for travellers. Inside the enclosure is a sandstone temple dedicated to one of the major oasis gods, ‘Amun of Hibis’ (the Roman Amenibis) and constructed during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. A large stone gateway, partially covered by blown sand, fronts the temple and on the lintel above a dedicatory text has a Greek inscription dated to 140 AD: ‘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. Inside the small temple there is a courtyard that leads to a sanctuary.
We wanted to get back to Kharga as early as possible today so that our drivers could break their Ramadan fast at the proper time. At 6.00pm all went out into town to a local restaurant where Abdul had pre-arranged a table for us straight after the Itfar meal for the locals had ended. This was a typical Egyptian restaurant with long tables and bench seats. The scrubbed wooden tables already contained stacks of local flat bread and metal jugs of water when we were seated and the only menu choice was beef or chicken. Fortunately this was accompanied by my usual Egyptian vegetarian diet of rice and vegetables, but it was very good. We have been accompanied today by an Indian lady called Mina, a solo traveller who we met in our hotel this morning. Unfortunately having an extra unscheduled person with us has caused problems for the drivers with both the tourist police and the minibus company so it looks like she won’t be going any further with us. After our meal a few of us sat in a coffee shop for a couple of hours. It’s great to chill out and talk about the day’s sites with like-minded people, but before Midnight we reluctantly walked back to the hotel, while Kevin told us about something quite unidentifiable but disgusting he found in the fridge in his room. I am thankful that this will be the last night sleeping here because I still haven’t identified those insects that were in my bed last night.
To the ‘Mudhole Hilton’
Kharga City is flanked on its northern edge by the Gebel el-Teir and it was here that we found the early Christian cemetery of Bagawat this morning, about five minutes drive from the town centre. The cemetery, said to be one of the oldest Christian burial places in the world, sprawls up the sandy hill-slopes of the gebel and I wondered whether it was like the old Muslim cemeteries, built on the site of more ancient tombs and later found that it was. The cemetery of 263 chapels is like a little mudbrick city with streets of domed-roof tombs, each having a tall arched doorway. We walked along a couple of the ‘streets’ and went inside two of the most elaborately decorated. These were named the ‘Chapel of the Exodus’ and ‘Chapel of Peace’ and are well-preserved with beautiful frescos and painted ceilings depicting scenes from the Old Testament in a mixture of Pharaonic, Greek and Byzantine styles. Similar to ancient Egyptian tombs, the chapels were constructed over a deep burial pit which usually contained several burials and their purpose was to revere the deceased. Many of the chapels date from the 4th century onwards and we were told by the guide that the cemetery was in use until the 11th century. The Christians of Kharga embalmed their dead long after the tradition had been discontinued in other areas of Egypt. We walked as far as the mudbrick church in the centre of the cemetery on higher ground.
A few minutes back towards town we arrived at Hibis Temple, the largest and best preserved temple of the oasis and I had been really looking forward to this visit. Sam had been here before and I had seen her photographs of some unique reliefs, so it was a little disappointing that we were not allowed to go inside today. The large stone structure is covered in wooden scaffolding because restorations are taking place. The limestone temple was once part of Hebet, the pharaonic capital of Kharga Oasis and dates to the Persian ruler Darius I, though decorated and enlarged by successive kings. Dedicated to the Theban Triad, we could see some of the lovely colourful reliefs of offering scenes on the large stone gateway and could peek through an iron grill into the courtyard which still has 12 palm columns of an early composite style. I couldn’t see the relief I had wanted to see however, which is in one of the rear chambers and depicts an unusual winged figure of Seth, god of the desert oases, with the head of a falcon and painted blue. The noticeable colour of paint predominant here is a distinctive kind of pale blue-green that Sam calls ‘Kharga green’ and which isn’t seen anywhere else. We walked all around the outer temple walls and saw some very fine hieroglyphs and reliefs from the Persian era – a period that is not well represented in other temples – preserved by the sand that had buried the temple for centuries.
Time to move on and back into Kharga to visit the Cultural Museum, one of the Ministry of Culture’s new wave of museums in a newly constructed building. The building itself is quite special, constructed to echo the style of the chapels at Bagawat. Inside there are two floors of artefacts, mostly from the oases of Kharga and Dakhla and ranging in date from the prehistoric through to Christian and Islamic eras. It would take more time than we had to look at everything properly, but one of the highlights for me were the Kellis Codices, very early wooden books written in Greek and Coptic that were found at Kellis. These important documents contain lists of accounts and payments in kind by tenant farmers during Roman times. They also give details of marriage contracts and letters and have given archaeologists tremendous insight into productivity and everyday life in the oases. I was very impressed by the museum with its modern lighting and beautifully-displayed objects.
When we were all settled back on the bus we set off on the longest single journey of our trip, leaving Kharga for Dakhla Oasis, a distance of 216km. The desert scenery was fascinating with long stretches of deep apricot-coloured undulating sand punctuated now and then by clusters of dark pyramid-shaped rocky outcrops. I wondered if this was where the Egyptian kings first came across the pyramid shape before making the decision to construct their own from stone. The drive was magical.
It had already seemed like a very long day by the time we arrived in the town of Mut, Dakhla’s capital, at 3.30pm and pulled into the Mut Talata Hotel. We had been more than happy to leave our previous hostelry but this really seemed like paradise. The hotel comprises three areas: the main hotel building, a villa and five chalets set in gardens around a hot-spring. When we went to check in we were told that the room prices had almost doubled since we first booked. Oh well, it looks like it’s worth the extra. Most of us were housed in the chalets, where I shared a room with Elizabeth. The room was basic with only two mattresses on wooden plinths, a small table and a bathroom, but at least it was very clean. Dakhla is famous for its hot-springs of which there are several, but the one in the hotel here was intriguing. The large circular pool was filled to the brim with deep brown bubbling muddy water – it certainly didn’t look inviting but is supposed to be full of iron and very therapeutic. Kevin instantly dubbed the hotel the ‘Mudhole Hilton’ and refused to be tempted to try it, though several of us spent an hour in the pool before dinner. The warm sulphur-smelling water felt wonderful! Unfortunately my new swimsuit will never be the same again.
We all ate early in a little restaurant not far from the hotel so that Abdul and Mohammed could break their fast and the food was very good. The rest of the evening we sat around the hot-spring chatting in the garden, enjoying the mild evening air while Abdul wallowed alone in the dark pool. Mohammed had again disappeared off to bed, tired from the drive. It must be a very long day for them after getting up at 5.00am for Suhoor.
When we left our hotel this morning at 9.00am there were no police waiting around to accompany us. Fantastic, we thought – and left without them to drive in the minibus to Tineida on the edge of the oasis. After passing through a green, richly cultivated area, we stopped by some large red rock formations at the side of the road and all piled out of the minibus to wander around the rocks. On the back of the largest rock there are many ancient carvings, some worn and some better preserved. It was difficult to tell the date of the depictions of giraffes, camels and men on horses as well as old graffiti that were mostly bruised into the soft surface of the sandstone but archaeologists suggest that at least some of them may predate the pharaonic era. There are also many obviously modern Arabic graffiti left by more recent travellers who have passed this way. Smaller rocks here seem to grow out of the desert and moulded by the wind and sand they have formed curious shapes, one of which looks like a camel sitting down.
Back along the road towards Mut we stopped at Ismant el-Kharab, the ancient town of Kellis. We weren’t sure if it would be possible to go onto the site as it is currently being excavated, but when we asked the gafir he said it would be OK to have a look around as long as we kept to the tracks that criss-crossed the area. Sam and I had both met Tony Mills, director of the Dakhla Oasis Project in England and he had told us to give him a call when we were in Dakhla and he would show us around. However, when Sam phoned him yesterday he was away in Cairo, so we were not able to meet up.
Kellis is a huge town site that was inhabited for seven centuries from around 300 BC to 300 AD, when it was suddenly deserted. There are many mudbrick dwellings, four churches, wells, a bath-house, storage buildings, aqueducts and a cemetery of free-standing tombs that have given archaeologists a great deal of information about life during Roman and Coptic times in the oasis. The excavators have also found an enormous amount of papyrus fragments and texts written in Greek and Coptic that they have been able to piece together, which show a great diversity of beliefs here. It is Kellis where the famous wooden notebooks we saw in Kharga museum were found – these illustrate the transition from papyrus scrolls to books and are the best-preserved books known from this period. The most interesting monuments I found here were the two stone temples of Kellis. Although fairly destroyed and now backfilled with sand after excavation so that there was little to see, they were temples and shrines dedicated to the little-known and obscure god Tutu and the goddesses Neith and Tapsais. Tutu was revered in Graeco-Roman times, a son of Neith who was given the intriguing title ‘Master of Demons’ or ‘he who keeps enemies at a distance’ and he was believed to provide protection from hostile forces and evil demons. He was depicted in the form of a walking lion or a sphinx, sometimes with a human head, the wings of a bird and the tail of a snake and Kellis is the only known cult-centre for this deity. It was just a pity there where no reliefs visible here that depicted the strange god.
After driving west again for a few kilometres we came to the modern village of Balat and beyond this, the Old Kingdom necropolis of Qila el-Daba. It was here that the tourist police caught up with us and they were not amused at us for going off without them. More trouble for Abdul and Mohammed! The modern name of the settlement associated with Qila el-Daba is Ain Asil, built on an important junction on the ancient trade routes through the oasis and it is said to be the best example in Egypt of an Old Kingdom town. The French IFAO have been excavating both sites for several years and have found many well-preserved buildings, including a governor’s palace, houses and workshops. The earliest part, once the administrative centre of Dakhla, dates to the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II. We were not allowed to go to Ain Asil today however so we concentrated on the huge mudbrick mastabas at Qila el-Daba a couple of kilometres away. The seven large mastabas belonged to governors of the oasis, important and wealthy men in their time, and one of the most recently discovered tombs found by the French team still contained the mummy of a Dynasty VI ruler. Other mastabas have already been restored and we were able to enter the subterranean chambers of Khentika and have a look at his small painted burial chamber. Many of the mastabas of the governors were found to contain rich burial equipment with wooden or ceramic coffins, but further cemeteries containing more modest burials have been found to the south and east of the mastabas. The area is also covered with pit-graves where the more humble population were laid to rest wrapped only in layers of matting. I remembered seeing some of the stelae and several items of pottery from Qila el-Daba in Kharga Museum yesterday.
Our visit to Qila el-Daba was spoilt not only by the angry shouting of the police when they caught up with us but also because my Nikon has broken. As my main camera I rely totally on the SLR which now has no metering or frame numbers. Thank goodness I still have my little Pentax compact as a back-up, but I’m feeling pretty upset because this is a trip I won’t be able to repeat for a long time.
When we arrived back at the hotel we were told that there had been a mix-up with bookings and we all had to shuffle around. Kevin and I ended up in rooms in the annex while the others were all given rooms in the main building. It seems that the chalets around the hot-spring had been double booked, but a few of us walked along the road to the pool to wallow in the mud for a short time in the late afternoon. Our early evening meal – Iftar – was a repeat of last night. It wasn’t worth trying anywhere else as the food was so good in the little restaurant. Sam, Val, Elizabeth and I sat in a coffee shop and played Jenga for the rest of the evening until we felt quite cold and walked back to the hotel around Midnight.
Temples Tombs and Medieval Dakhla
This morning we set off to explore the western end of Dakhla Oasis, the road bounded all along its northern edge by the distant line of pale hills that forms the escarpment. Beyond the cultivation and right at the edge of the desert we came to one of the best-preserved Roman monuments of the Oasis – the temple at Deir el-Hagar, whose name means ‘Monastery of Stone’. This is another temple, like Hibis, that had been buried by sand for many centuries and has recently been restored, with quite a bit of reconstruction. The original building work dates to the reign of the Emperor Nero and was dedicated to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khons, though other emperors have also left their names on its walls. A lovely temple, with a long paved processional way leading from a large gateway in the thick mudbrick enclosure wall. Near the gate we saw remains of brightly painted plaster with decorations and inscriptions in Greek. Travellers have left graffiti here since very early times, even on the round rough columns in the hypostyle hall. The sanctuary once contained a magnificent and unique astronomical ceiling with the arching figure of the sky-goddess Nut and her consort, the earth-god Geb and this has now been set up outside the temple for easy viewing. Many deities are depicted in the sanctuary and I saw again the oasis gods, Amun-nakht and his consort Hathor and Thoth with his desert consort Nehmetaway. Outside the temple there was a small building that displayed plans and information on the temple restoration, including many photographs and in the distance on rising ground to the north-west of the temple I could see the Roman Period cemetery where, we were told, crude human-headed terracotta coffins have been uncovered.
Our next stop was the site of el-Muzzawaka, whose name means ‘The Decorated Hill’ because of the many painted Roman Period tombs found here. Once part of the settlement of Amheida on the edge of the Oasis, the tombs here were cut into the soft ridges of high ground. The two most interesting tombs, belonging to Petubastis and Petosiris which are said to be outstanding for their colourful frescos, were unfortunately locked up and we were not able to go inside because they are collapsing. The guards did offer to show us other tombs, which they assured us had many mummies and skeletons, but were undecorated. I’m not squeamish but I really don’t feel comfortable looking at disregarded human limbs and skulls sticking up out of the sand, so I declined their offer. One thing I did notice here was how small most of the tomb openings were, as though built for tiny people.
Back in the minibus we drove the short distance to Qasr Dakhla, the fortified medieval town of Dakhla that is still inhabited, unlike Mut, which is now crumbling and deserted. History was all around us as we began to walk through the narrow partly-covered alleys and dirt-tracks of the village. El-Qasr was occupied from the Roman period onwards, but what remains today is medieval Islamic architecture, a maze of elaborately carved wooden lintels over dark intriguing doorways and crumbling walls. At least two of the houses that have been restored were quite large and must have belonged to wealthy families. We went into one of the houses where an ancient crooked staircase led up to sleeping quarters with shuttered windows on an upper floor and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live there. Many of the carved door-lintels had verses from the Quran and the names of the occupying family but I noticed in a couple of places there were stone lintels with hieroglyphs, upside-down and obviously recycled from some nearby temple or tomb.
A local guide showed us around el-Qasr because we would have quickly lost ourselves among the narrow interlinking streets. We were shown an ancient olive press and given a demonstration of grinding grain. I have to say it really was a photographer’s paradise and given enough film I could have stayed all day. Coming out of the village we had a look at the mosque with its 12th century Ayyubid minaret, the only original part of the building still standing. The rest was destroyed to build the mausoleum of Sheikh Nasr el-Din. We ended our visit with a look around the Museum of Ethnology where many old photographs adorn the walls and examples of crafts and clothing are exhibited.
Our return journey to our hotel took us past the site of the settlement of Amheida, which an American team has been excavating. Here at the edge of the desert the wind was so strong that dust and sand filled the air and we didn’t even get out of the bus to look at the site from the edge of the road. On the loop road back to Mut we passed the hundreds of blue-domed tombs in the huge Muslim cemetery at Qalamun, several of the tall distinctive oasis pigeon houses and a few areas of mudbrick ruins that we couldn’t identify. It was a lovely day.
Back at the hotel, Elizabeth, Val, Judy and I went for a bob-around the hotspring, which must be about a metre and a half deep as the water reaches up to my chin when I stand on tiptoe. We ate again at our ‘usual’ restaurant and had coffee in the same place as last night. We’re creatures of habit if we find a good place to eat.
The White Desert
The stretch of desert between Dakhla and Farafra is probably the least interesting landscape on our trip so far, just a long ribbon of tarmac without even a decent sand dune to break the monotonous endless vista to either side of the road. To the west the road is bordered by the edge of the Great Sand Sea, a vast wilderness of high wind-blown dunes that march all the way to Libya and beyond and reputedly where Cambeses lost his army. This road is relatively new and Farafra once would have been cut off from Dakhla, even in living memory, except for several days journey by camel. After about three hours drive we stopped at a cafe on the road-side where the road bends steeply back on itself and where a small community exists around a tiny oasis with a source of water. The place is called Abu Minqar and we were glad to be out of the minibus and to have coffee and make use of the facilities for half an hour. Abdul was outraged about the price of a cup of coffee here, but the rest of us were grateful. Back on the road it wasn’t long before we wound our way up onto the escarpment that heralded our long descent into Farafra and from the top of the hills there was a great view looking back over the desert.
Farafra Oasis is arrow-shaped and as the road gradually came down into the depression we could see the far distant high hills that bound both sides to meet in an apex to the north. This is the largest and lowest of the oases, famed for its gardens and was recorded as a famous source of dates and wine since early pharaonic times. As we drove towards the town of Qasr Farafra there were many small villages and farms, no doubt part of the government’s New Valley Project – the greening of the desert.
Eventually we pulled up outside the Hotel el-Badawiya, owned by Hamdi and Saad and where Sam has been before. Abdul went off to arrange our night camping in the White Desert while we sat in the hotel lounge drinking more coffee and browsing in the little shop which sold crafts made in the oasis. Many of the items were made by ‘Mr Socks’ from knitted camel wool – caps, scarves, socks and decorative embroidered items. I bought a beautiful fine gauzy cotton scarf and a couple of pairs of camel socks in natural muted shades of brown. We’d been warned that it gets very cold at night in the desert. Although I really wanted to go off and explore the old town we were told to stay put because we had to leave as soon as everything was ready. This was a bit annoying because it all took a couple of hours and I could have had time for at least a short wander, but we were eventually ready to go. Our drivers Mohammed and Abdul stayed in the hotel where they would at least get a good night’s sleep and so did Tom, who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the trip as much as the rest of us. He is a bit of a loner and doesn’t fit into the group no matter how hard we try to include him in everything. All he could think of was getting to Cairo and several times we had to dissuade him from leaving the group and getting on a bus. He had no interest in seeing the White Desert. I don’t know why he came on this trip at all.
We left the hotel at 3.45pm, later than we had hoped, because there was some problem arranging our 4×4 transport and we had a fast drive towards the White Desert, arriving just before sunset. The thing that amazed me first was how crowded the camping area was. In the place where we first stopped, every rock seemed to have a group camping in its shade. There were camels, four-wheel drives and groups of tourists wherever we looked and tyre tracks criss-crossed the whole area in every direction. I could see why conservationists are worried that the White Desert is being destroyed by tourism and felt quite guilty myself for being part of this. We drove further on to a quieter part of the desert and by the time we all piled out of the Landrover the sun was disappearing quickly. While our driver Shahban and our guide set up camp in the lee of a large rock the cameras were clicking away. I set up my tripod but wasn’t really hopeful of getting any good pictures, having to guess at the metering on my broken Nikon in the rapidly fading light. In the end I resorted to my compact just to be sure I’d get something worthwhile. The desert was stunningly beautiful with strange rock formations all around us that looked like giant heads, silhouetted against the deepening orange light, but in a very short time the light had faded to blue then black as darkness and silence crept in. From our camp we could see no other people thank goodness. Only a herd of camels in the distance, tethered and resting for the night, stopped us from feeling quite alone.
Our guides had rigged up a canvas windbreak against the vehicle and a fire of wood and twigs was already blazing. Thin mattresses, covered by blankets and sleeping bags were laid out in rows on the fine powdery sand. As dinner was prepared on the open fire we watched the stars begin to appear one by one in the black velvet sky then a huge round yellow moon, a little past full, peeped out from behind a high rock. None of us spoke much, it was enough to lie back and enjoy the moment, the silent vastness of this space and the amazing vista of star-studded sky. There were several shooting stars that arced from horizon to horizon, seeming so close in the unpolluted sky that we felt we could reach out and catch them. As the moon rose higher and brighter the stars gradually began to fade and the nearby rocks were lit as though from inside with a pale eerie light. It was magic!
Dinner was a simple but delicious meal. A chicken was cooked in a large pot on the fire, with potatoes and vegetables added to it, with another pot of rice and mountains of bread. We ate and talked in low voices as we sat close to the fire and the temperature dropped rapidly. After they had cleared up the meal and scoured the cooking-pots with sand, our guides melted away to sleep inside the Landrover and we all eventually crept into our sleeping bags on the piles of blankets. I lay awake for a long time watching the sky and trying not to listen to Kevin snoring loudly next to me. We were all lined up cocooned like mummies in our warm wrappings.
It was not so warm next morning as we woke up before sunrise. In the freezing air I wandered off to find a private rock where I could dig a hole to use as a toilet. I was aware of the saying that if a rock in the desert affords any kind of shelter, something has usually got there before you and I noticed numerous tracks of small animals, birds and insects that zig-zaged across the sand. The pre-dawn light was glowingly bright – white tinged with the palest pink and I saw for the first time why this area is called the White Desert. The chalky white rock formations all around me produced some very odd shapes. Tiny weathered peaks that looked like frosting on a cake dusted with powdered icing sugar were scattered over the pale orange sand. Taller rocks, like little islands, rose in the form of mushrooms with narrow stems, many of them already broken off, eroded over the years by the action of wind and sand. The early light was crystal clear and the fabulous colours in the sky and reflected on the rocks changed every few seconds as the sun rose higher. I climbed up onto a large outcrop about a kilometre away from the camp, where I could look down and see the rest of my group, huddled in scarves and blankets and preparing to leave. After taking a last few photographs I reluctantly hurried back.
We were taken back to the main road on a hair-raising ride over the desert at high speed, climbing steep rocks and toppling over the top in the Landrover. Shahban was showing off his driving skills, but I wasn’t impressed. It was certainly exhilarating, but this is exactly the kind of behaviour that is destroying the desert landscape. Back at the hotel we all felt like we had crawled out from under a rock and couldn’t wait to make use of the hotel’s hot showers, in a newly built block behind the main building. These, followed by a good hearty breakfast went some way to warm us up. It was certainly a night I will never forget.
The Road to Bahariya
Leaving the Farafra hotel after breakfast this morning we set off in the minibus to drive to our next destination and the last oasis in the New Valley, Bahariya. We climbed up over the high chalky-white Farafra escarpment and onto the plateau, past the solitary hill called ‘Twin Peaks’ that is a Farafra landmark. At a point about 65km from Farafra, we found Gebel el-Izaz, also known as Crystal Mountain. Stopping at the side of the road we all got out to have a walk around this area where many lumps of sparkling quartz crystal are lying about on the sand. The main feature here is a large rock with a hole through its centre like an arch and all the surrounding rocks contain a large proportion of quartz – a geologists heaven!
After spending last night in the White Desert, we now approached the Black Desert, an large area of desert that is covered with black stones, and it reminded me a little of the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel. It also reminded me of the slag-heaps littering the mining areas of north-east England half a century ago. We were aiming for el-Hayz, but Sam wasn’t sure if the road to the little oasis would be passable in our minibus as it was in poor condition last time she was there. When we reached the turnoff however, we found that the road had been re-made. We were in luck.
El-Hayz, the collective name for several small hamlets, is an important area of mostly Roman remains that has been under excavation by the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Prague’s Charles University, for the past few seasons. It is possibly the ‘Fourth Oasis’ of the seven that are mentioned at Edfu Temple, lying on the main ancient caravan route between Farafra and Bahariya. There are springs, ancient settlements with elaborate underground irrigation systems, old orchards and remnants of agriculture. The largest settlement was at Ain el-Ris, where remains of a Roman mudbrick fortress can still be seen and this was probably once a major and wealthy Roman camp and an important stopping place on the desert trade routes. There is also a large and well-preserved early Christian church which was described by Belzoni and Cailliaud in the early 19th century, but the paintings and frescos have deteriorated even since Ahmed Fakhry wrote about it in the 1930s. The now-roofless church is a basilica type, constructed in two stories of mudbrick and was probably dedicated to St George, suggested by descriptions of a man riding a horse in the paintings, he was a popular saint in the oases. Fakhry suggested that the date of the church was no later than the 5th to 6th century and it is the only well-preserved early Christian Church in the Western Desert.
Eventually in the late afternoon we arrived in Bawiti, the main town in Bahariya Oasis and checked into the Oasis Panorama Hotel where we had pre-booked rooms. This was a big new hotel described in the Rough Guide as ‘… a Red Sea hotel half-way up the Black Mountain’. It is indeed nestled into the side of a mountain that looms up behind it. I was not very impressed however as it is large, basic and anonymous with lots of concrete and could not be called picturesque. Kevin dubbed it the ‘Tacky Hilton’ because of its big neon sign that showed up for miles. We had an early dinner in the hotel and some of us then went to a coffee shop in town where we sat and chatted to the friendly locals.
The Sites of Bahariya
We only have one full day in Bahariya and we wanted to try to see all the ancient sites that are open – and there aren’t that many, so our first stop this morning was at the antiquities office in the centre of Bawiti where we bought our tickets for all the monuments. There is also a magazine housed in a warehouse here where we saw some of the mummies that had recently been excavated from tombs in the famous Valley of the Golden Mummies. There were four glass cases on display containing mummies that had golden masks as well as a few other objects found in the oasis.
Our tickets took us next to Qarat Qasr Salim, on the northern edge of Bawiti where there are four well-decorated Dynasty XXVI tombs belonging to wealthy members of the community. We climbed down the newly-installed and locally-made iron steps which the gafir seemed to be very proud of. The first tomb was identified as the burial place of the Governor of the Oasis, Djedamun-ef-ankh, whose large tomb has beautiful squat round painted pillars, unusual in oasis tombs, several painted false doors and extensive religious scenes depicting the owner offering to the deities. On the ceiling of the burial chamber the goddess Nekhbet is shown as a vulture in a starry sky. It really is a lovely tomb with gorgeous earthy muted colours. Bannentiu, the son of Djedamun-ef-ankh, was also a wealthy business owner and his recently restored tomb is even larger and more elaborate that that of his father. The paintings were stunningly bright and fresh, though somewhat damaged by tomb-robbers in recent years. Unfortunately, photography was not officially allowed here, though the gafir permitted one picture. The other two tombs were not open.
Back in the minibus for the short drive to Ain el-Muftilla, the area of the ancient town of Psobthis. There are few remains now of the settlement that once existed here, thought to have been the capital of the oasis and its main source of water. Four chapels or shrines have recently been restored and were found to be part of a larger temple complex dating to the reign of Dynasty XXVI King Ahmose II (Amasis). Photography was a definite no-no here and much to my disappointment we couldn’t persuade the gafir otherwise. Parts of the chapel walls had some lovely painted scenes and one of them was built by Djedkhonsu-ef-ankh whose tomb we had just seen. This chapel was dedicated to the little god Bes, whose cult monuments are quite rare. The chapels, now under protective wooden roofs, had some unusual deities and cult standards. I would have loved to take pictures here but we were closely watched the whole time.
Our next port of call was the Temple of Alexander at Qasr el-Migysbah. This area was the beginning of the old caravan route from Bahariya to Siwa Oasis and the temple here is the only known temple in the whole of the Western Desert to be built in the name of the Greek conqueror Alexander ‘The Great’, whose images and cartouches were found by Ahmed Fakhry when he excavated the monument between 1939 and 1942. Though we searched for a cartouche, the reliefs in the largest chamber are so damaged and worn that little can be made out at all and the low walls of the smaller square chamber were quite bare. A lot of consolidation has taken place here recently and the walls of the main building are built up and roofed, but there is really little to see of interest. The surrounding area which is comprised of mudbrick walls of priests’ houses is strewn with pottery. The guards here were quite unfriendly and couldn’t make up their minds whether to allow photography or not so in the end we gave up and after stopping a while to admire the view over the palm and grass-covered landscape, we went back to the hotel.
The most interesting part of the day came later in the afternoon when I went for a walk with Kevin and Tim, up the mountain behind our hotel to Gebel el-Maysarah. We were just going to climb to the top and look at the view, but the amazing landscape kept leading us on further. This is called the ‘Black Mountain’ for good reason because it is covered in a very strange black residue – a thick layer of ferruginous quartzite and dolomite rock that felt like we could be walking on the surface of some alien planet. Once on the flat top of the mountain, gentle slopes led to steep gorges as we wound our way around the edges of the hills until we came eventually to some dark disused stone buildings with a story that I heard later in the Bawiti coffee shop. Locally known as ‘English Mountain’, Gebel Maysarah’s peak was the location of a fortress built by a Captain Williams during the second world war. This housed British troops and was a lookout post to keep an eye open for Sanusi raids from Libya. Situated in such a wild and remote place, the fortress gave a view over the whole of Baharia Oasis to the north and south and to the west, but must have been a lonely spot for the soldiers. We could see groves of palm trees and cultivated agricultural areas far below us and in the distance there were two large lakes, all bounded by the gentle escarpment that surrounds the oasis. By the time we came down off the mountain it was already quite dark.
Back to the Metropolis
The pale golden sun had just risen and the air was clear and sharp as we left Bahariya early this morning for the drive to Cairo, the last leg of our oasis trip. Passing the checkpoint at the entrance to the oasis we followed the ancient caravan route from Bahariya to Cairo on a road that was first paved only as recently as 1978. To our right a raised railway line also followed the route, built to serve the Managim iron mines at the edge of the oasis. These mines are the main source of iron for the Egyptian steel industry. We saw no trains today, but passed at least two overturned and abandoned goods-wagons on the line. The road is long and winds lazily over the plateau, but there is little to look at. Apparently the remains of a petrified forest are scattered near the roadside at one point – but we missed it!
We were all pretty quiet and sleepy for most of the four and a half hour journey. Our week in the desert was over and we would shortly be back in civilization. I wasn’t sure that was such a good thing because I have loved being in the desert. The only one of us who chattered on the journey was Tom, who at last would be able to fulfil his dream of Cairo. I think this was the first time he’d spoken more than a few words to any of us. As we hit the traffic at the edge of Cairo it was like driving into a brick wall. All the open space and vast skies of the past week vanished and we were suddenly confronted with bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks, steep-sided buildings and the Cairo yellow smog that hangs in a permanent cloud over the city. And the incessant noise. Even those of us who knew what to expect experienced a culture shock.
One of the main reasons Tom wanted to visit Cairo was to see the Nag Hammadi Gospels. Thirteen of these 4th century Coptic books or codices were discovered by a farmer in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, bound in leather and buried in large pottery jars. Written on papyrus in the Coptic language, they are said to be the primary source of Gnostic Christianity. The Coptic Museum in Cairo has two pages of the manuscripts on display and so this was our first stop in Cairo today. Mohammed drove us straight to Old Cairo and parked near the museum. I was looking forward to seeing it again, but Tom was like an excited little boy. You can imagine his disappointment when we arrived outside the beautiful old building only to discover that it was closed for one month. We all felt really sorry for him.
After wandering around Old Cairo for a while, looking at the Babylon Gate and the Hanging Church, we drove on to our hotel on the eastern edge of Cairo. We were staying in the Ciao, near Rameses Station, where Sam and I have stayed several times before. By the time we had all got our rooms sorted out to our satisfaction (which involved several changes again), it was time for dinner. Again we were eating early because of Ramadan and today is Friday, the holy day. It seemed like the whole city was out to eat tonight and there was a celebratory feeling everywhere we went. Families young and old were parading up and down in their best clothes. Bright Ramadan lamps hung in the markets and coffee shops and there were colourful decorations everywhere. We had decided to have dinner at Felfella, the famous vegetarian restaurant, but it was packed and we had to wait quite a long time for a table. Abdul and Mohammed were with us and they were starving by the time we were seated – their Iftar delayed by the long wait. But the meal was good as always here and turned into quite a celebration of a successful trip – except maybe for Tom, who was now quite subdued again.
Peace and Quiet at Giza
Many of our little group have never been to Cairo before and they naturally wanted to make the Giza Pyramids their first stop. Sam arranged with the hotel to hire an Egyptian guide for the day because she’s not allowed to guide the group herself at Giza. Kevin and I have both visited Giza many times and although I’ve never been with a guide, I decided to go off with Kevin to look around the plateau on our own, first hitching a ride with the rest of the group in the minibus. We picked up the young Egyptian guide on the road to the pyramids and he immediately started in on the usual witticisms and jokes – so I was glad to have opted out.
It was still early when we arrived at the entrance to the Plateau, a perfect morning with the sun just beginning to burn off the mist with wisps of thin smoky vapour drifting across the sand. The pyramids looked huge and majestic and we could hardly make out the rag-bag of tall buildings that are always just a stone’s throw from the site and seem to be closer every time I come here. Saying goodbye to the group, Kev and I struck off across the desert, pretending to be deaf or stupid whenever we were approached by the few early morning touts selling horse or camel rides. They didn’t believe that anyone could want to walk here. For most of the morning Kevin and I wandered around, taking time to look at things that tourists often don’t get enough time to do. We explored the eastern mastaba field and were left totally alone – no touts or gafirs offered to ‘show us something special’.
By the time the Plateau got really crowded, around Mid-day, we were right over on the southern side and we climbed up the rocky outcrop that overlooks the whole area. A policeman called after us in Arabic that we were not allowed to climb the hill …. but we didn’t hear him. From the top there is the classic view of the three pyramids nestled closely together on the desert plain, the monuments of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure with his three queens were laid out before us to the north and from this perspective they really looked like they were alone in the desert. To the east the layout of the mastaba cemeteries could be clearly seen. Immediately below us the modern Muslim and Coptic cemeteries reached out over the earlier necropolis towards Khafre’s causeway and the Sphinx, while down below us to the east stretched the enigmatic ‘Wall of the Crow’, a huge stone structure with a colossal gateway that may once have been the entrance to the ancient necropolis. Beyond this we had a good overview of the excavations directed by Mark Lehner of the Pyramid town, the workmen’s village where archaeologists have recently discovered the bakeries, breweries, houses and burial places of the population who sustained the building and maintaining of the pyramids. We spent a couple of hours up on the hill in wonderful undisturbed peace and quiet.
In the mid-afternoon heat we walked back down to the mayhem on the Plateau, back into the throng of tourists and touts and we had to fight our way through crowds of Egyptian schoolchildren to get out of the entrance near the Sphinx Temple. We were in luck and found a taxi easily and the driver agreed to take us all the way across the city to our hotel for only LE30, a journey of about an hour at that time of day. It has probably been the most enjoyable day in Giza I’ve ever had.
I had time for a shower and a rest before joining the others who returned later in the afternoon. Some of us went back over the river to eat at Kadoura, Sam’s favourite fish restaurant in Mohandesin and to sit and while away the hours until Midnight, watching Cairo’s trendy young set under the bright lights of Shakawa coffee shop opposite the restaurant.
Last Day for Some
It was a familiar route, the hair-raising dash through downtown Cairo in the midst of the morning rush hour with Mohammed at the wheel of the minibus. Crossing 6th October Bridge, below which the Nile flows sluggishly around either side of Gezira Island, I looked down to see the bright green artificial-looking lawns of the sports club as we flew high above it. Our driver smoothly negotiated the wealthy suburbs of Dokki and before long we were on the wide Sharia al-Haram, the Pyramids Road. On the road through the less salubrious suburb of Giza, at every traffic light, boys in baseball caps wove their perilous way between the slow-moving traffic and tried to sell stems of roses or boxes of tissues to stressed drivers. This morning we were on our way to Saqqara.
Today was the last day for the group and the last day for Mohammed, who will head back home to Luxor tomorrow with the hired minibus. Saqqara is an outing not to be missed and several of the group had never been there – they were in for a treat. But when we arrived, Sam took the group off to see the site’s highlights and Kevin and I once more wandered off on our own. Last time I was here, in January, Sam and I had seen the Buried Pyramid of Sekhemkhet and now Kevin wanted to see it. The two of us walked around the Unas Pyramid complex for a while and then struck off towards the Buried Pyramid, expecting to be turned back by the tourist police, but nobody bothered us. A gafir came out of a hut near the pyramid, but just stopped to chat a while and then left us to investigate on our own. You can never tell what’s going to happen in some of the sites. Sometimes places are off-limits and other times they’re not – it’s the luck of the draw and the unpredictability of Egypt is both frustrating and endearing. However, we ran out of luck when we began to walk into the desert towards the Gisr el-Mudir enclosure and were hauled back by the police.
Kevin and I met up again with the rest of the group later in the tomb of Mereruka. I had hoped to be able to get some photographs here but this was not allowed. It’s one of my favourite tombs at Saqqara and there is always something new to see that I haven’t noticed before. We left Saqqara in the mid-afternoon, hoping to beat the evening rush hour, but it seems to me that the rush hour lasts all day, or is at least indistinguishable to us. We stopped near Midan Tahrir to visit the American University bookshop. I’d been hoping we wouldn’t because the place is just too much of a temptation for me and as usual I came away with several books. I found a copy of Ahmed Fakhry’s Bahariya and Farafra that I’d been looking for and also a new book about the Oases with fabulous pictures that made me hope all the more that my own would come out. I also bought a very good new map of Egypt published by Rough Guide that is better than the one I already have.
An early ‘last night’ dinner at Felfella – a real feast for this special occasion – was followed by several hours in Fishawi’s coffee shop in the Khan el-Kalili. The old bazaar was busier than I’d ever seen it before because of Ramadan and crowds of Egyptian families were out for the evening. We all commented on the fact that in Egypt the children seem to go to bed at the same time as their parents, so it is not unusual here to see babies and young children scampering about until midnight. There was a very festive air to the place tonight.
Garden City and Cairo Tower
I’ve had a fantastic holiday. I sat with the group for an early breakfast this morning and was quite sad that Val, Elizabeth, Tim and Judy, Kevin and Tom were leaving soon for the airport to fly home today. We talked about our desert experience over coffee and rolls and made promises, as you do, to keep in touch back in England. At the same time, I was quietly ecstatic that Sam and I were staying on in Egypt for another two weeks. Today is the beginning of my second holiday!
Mohammed took the group to the airport in the minibus and then he too was leaving for the long drive back to Luxor. Abdul was going with Sam across the river to hire a private car for the next leg of our adventures. What to do with my free day? I still don’t know the city that well and with a little trepidation I took the metro to Tahrir and once there, I would decide how to spend my day. Starting at the Nile Hilton, I browsed in the shops and bought a few presents in Nomad before the smell of the Hilton’s excellent coffee became just too much to resist. After whiling away another hour on the terrace at my favourite occupation – people-watching – I set off for a walk.
I’ve read many books about Cairo’s varied past and while hating the idea of colonialism I’m still captivated by the city’s history of the past couple of centuries; the street names, the architecture, statues of pashas and beys in every square. Walking by the river on the Corniche I gravitated naturally towards Garden City, the focus of many historical novels by both European and Egyptian authors. I had read that this district was born around the turn of the 20th century. Home to genteel palaces and villas, Garden City was designed by a European engineer José Lamba, who shunned the grid-like wide avenues, squares and boulevards of the rest of Cairo in favour of a maze of winding tree-lined streets that more often than not deposited me right back where I started as I wandered through them. Later in its history, the beautiful buildings of Garden City that began life as upper class residences, hospitals or private schools, were mostly occupied by embassies and banks. The exotic street names from my much-loved fiction have changed over a century from honouring European founders then Egyptian ruling families and stories of the pre-war intrigues of Garden City élite are many. Today, I saw no European nannies watching over their semi-royal charges playing in the gardens, no richly liveried Nubian bawaabs (door-keepers) and no chauffeured Rolls Royces waiting discreetly at the curb. Nowadays the district feels forlorn and forgotten and while it is still secluded, the roar of lions from Giza Zoo across the river can no longer be heard in the breeze.
From its earliest days Garden City was subject to many changes. The district has the distinction of being the location of Cairo’s first skyscraper, a 30-story concrete monolith built in 1957 that was by far Cairo’s tallest building. It was nick-named Emaret Belmont because of its cigarette advertisment on the roof. The name stuck, though the sign has changed many times and I regard this building as the beginning of Cairo’s architectural downfall. Over the years, changes in Egyptian property laws prompted many of Garden City’s owners to convert their sumptuous villas to more lucrative luxury apartment blocks and even these have been usurped in their turn by insurance companies or other commercial enterprises. Large Nile-side tourist hotels now form Garden City’s western edge, the most recent being the most expensive, the Four Seasons Hotel. The secluded leafy Garden City of my imagination seems now thoroughly doomed with only the occasional glimpse of former splendour still surviving.
Walking back along the Corniche towards Tahrir, I crossed the river to al-Gezira Island over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, narrowly missing being run over by the constant stream of traffic. I had spotted the Cairo Tower, soaring some 187m into the sky and this was my goal. When I finally reached the tower it looked run-down, its concrete lotus-styled latticework cracked and broken in places and it had the air of being long-forgotten by tourists. When it was completed in 1961 this was Egypt’s greatest landmark and the tallest building in Africa. The tower, though at first it didn’t look it, was open and I walked up a pink granite staircase and admired the mosaic walls in the entrance foyer before taking the lift that whisked me up to the restaurant and observation deck in less than a minute. The restaurant at the top of the tower is supposed to revolve, but today it was static. I paid my LE50 which included a drink and piece of cake and saw that there were telescopes on the observation terrace to view the city laid out below, but the view was misty and obscured by a layer of smoggy cloud. I could just about make out the Giza and Dahshur pyramids away to the west with the naked eye. To the east, the river and Garden City lay far below me and Cairo’s impressive skyline was bounded by the far-away Mukkatam Hills. I could see the Citadel with its crowning glory the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, and closer still, Tahrir Square and the Nile Hilton. The new gleaming white Cairo Opera House was almost directly below me at the edge of Gezira Sporting Club. Apart from the hazy cloud, it was very windy outside the restaurant and difficult to keep my camera still enough for photographs. By the time I went inside I was freezing and very glad of a hot cup of coffee.
Leaving the tower I wandered around the island, where Zamalek to the north, seemed to consist purely of large buildings housing colleges, schools and libraries of every type, as well as all the embassies that have been ousted from Garden City. Gezira, the south of the Island is mostly covered by the lawns and racetracks of the Sporting Club but there are also one or two small museums, galleries and cultural centres on the fringes. I must have walked miles today. Consulting my Cairo map I was pleased to see that I could get all the way back to Rameses Station from the Metro at Opera on the island which saved me having to walk back across the bridge to Tahrir again. A wonderful invention, the Metro!
I finally met up with Sam again around 6.00pm in the hotel and we walked through the crowded streets to Downtown Cairo for a low-key meal in an Egyptian restaurant. This of course was followed by our customary several hours in a coffee-shop somewhere in a back alley. While galabeya-clad Egyptian men sat smoking shisha and watching a noisy game of football on the huge TV inside the cafe, Sam and I sat on orange plastic chairs outside and talked to a motley crew of hungry street cats while catching up with each other’s day. She has managed to organise a hire car that she can collect tomorrow.
Another Day Another Desert
Yesterday was uneventful, a lazy day which Sam and I spent wandering the streets of Cairo. In the evening we went to collect the hire car from Mohandesin, a Hyundai, that Sam had chosen because it looked a little more beaten up than the brand new Dawoo that was also available. The car was booked to Sam for 8 or 9 days and is costing us LE750 each – £75 English.
This morning we were up early and ready to set off on the next stage of our journey, to Dahab on the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Peninsula. As we left the Ciao Hotel several ladies were setting up a market in the street opposite, selling eggs and locally made soft cheese. It all looked very colourful and the ladies were enjoying each others’ company as little children scampered around the bowls, crates and boxes laid out on rugs on the ground. As we left the city huge dark rain clouds gathered over the suburbs – an ominous sign.
Abdul drove out of Cairo, past the airport at Heliopolis and as far as the mile-long Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel that drops down under the Suez Canal. The tunnel, which took five years to build, was named after an Egyptian officer who was killed during the 1973 October War. It seemed odd to be under the canal when there had been no visible sign of it above ground. Sam hadn’t felt confident enough to brave the busy Cairo traffic just yet, especially in the morning rush hour when commuters were driving fast and furious towards the city and I certainly had no intention of driving anywhere in Egypt. On the other side of the tunnel we stopped and Sam took the wheel. We were in Sinai at last.
The Sinai Peninsula is bisected across the central plain by a road running from just south of the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, all the way across to the Israel border at the top of the Gulf of Aqabah and this was the route we took, rather than the longer road running down the West coast. The first part of our trip was interesting as we drove up onto the high ground through the Mitla Pass, between steep sided cliffs. But from then on it was just flat and rather boring with nothing to see on either side of the road for 250km. Half way, there is a small town called Nakhl and I found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to live there. At the other end of the road we stopped for coffee at a tiny place with a block-built cafe called el-Nakab. The coffee was very welcome but the toilets were the worst I’d yet come across in Egypt (and I’ve seen some bad ones). Rather than carrying on to the border and driving along the East Coast road, we took a short-cut, dropping steeply down from the plateau on a road that wound backwards and forwards between towering cliffs and along the edge of the Coloured Canyon, where limestone and sandstone rocks blend into a hundred different warm-toned hues. By this time Abdul was driving again and after a while he looked exhausted as he negotiated the continuous steep bends and twists in the road for another 100 or more kilometres. The scenery here was magnificent and nothing like I’d ever seen before in Egypt.
We joined the coast road near Nuweiba and before long caught our first glimpse of the sea – the Gulf of Aqaba. On the eastern side of the narrow waterway we could see the mountains of Jordan, then Saudi Arabia, both looking very close, but soon we were back among the cliffs as the road veered inland. By late afternoon we arrived in Dahab and found a beautiful small hotel called the Sphinx, right by the beach, that boasted hot showers and even a fridge in the rooms. Luxury! We all went out and had dinner in a local restaurant followed by a short walk during which I decided that I really like Dahab. But being chauffeured all day is very tiring and I was glad for once to get an early night.
Red Sea Coast
All through the trip so far we had been getting up very early, so this morning was a real treat to sleep late and meet up at 9.00am for breakfast in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant overlooking the beach. A wonderful array of food waited for us as well as very good coffee. This was followed by quite a leisurely day, at least for me.
We decided to drive from Dahab up the coast road as far as Taba on the Israeli border and Sam was happy to drive the hire car on the quiet roads here. The road winds around between cliffs of limestone and sandstone in many colours of pink, orange and gold, streaked now and then by thick black lines of basalt-like rock. One minute we were in bright sunlight, the next in deep shade. The road through the mountains comes out on the coast approaching Nuweiba, and follows a steep hill that gave us a spectacular view of the port from its crest and we could see the big ferry ready to depart for Jordan. The sea that is the Gulf of Aqaba was the deepest blue-green, with lakes of jagged turquoise that stretched across to the shore of Saudi Arabia. We went into Nuweiba and drove around the town, but it seemed to consist mostly of part-built hotels. On the main road there were many beach camps that offered the cheap accommodation favoured by back-packers and mini-towns of timeshare villas, painted in warm Mediterranean colours. All seemed totally deserted.
Driving north and after once more climbing through mountains, we came down again to a deep inlet on the coast, known as ‘The Fjord’, a spectacular idyllic spot with a lonely beach of perfect unmarked sand. A little further on there was an island, about a hundred metres off-shore, which for some reason is called ‘Pharaoh’s Island’, in Arbic Geziret Faraun. It is believed to be the site of an ancient Phoenician port, Eziongaber, founded by King Hiram of Tyre in the 10th Century BC. The island is dominated by a large stone castle, built by Crusaders at the beginning of the twelfth century and enlarged by the Sultan Salah el-Din. I would have loved to take the little ferry over to explore the island, but there was not enough time today.
Then suddenly we were approaching the town of Taba, 133km from Dahab. The road led straight to the border post and there were guards everywhere so we were not allowed to stop. From here we could see the Israeli border, its flag flying over the customs post, the Jordanian town of Aqaba, just a little way across the gulf and the factories and oil refineries of Saudi Arabia a little to the south on the other shore. Sam decided to turn around and we didn’t venture into the town, which is just another holiday destination with large hotels.
It has been a really lovely day and the spectacular coastal scenery took my breath away several times. We arrived back in Dahab in the late afternoon and went to eat this evening at a local fish restaurant. Dahab is famous for its fish, which unfortunately I don’t eat, so once more it was rice and vegetables for me. Sitting outside a coffee shop until almost midnight, Sam and I played Jenga and watched the tourists meandering around town. It’s a very relaxing place to be.
St Catherine’s Monastery
The route through the desert to the Monastery of Saint Katerina must be one of the most spectacular roads in the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Sam and I set off this morning to drive 130km to the famous monastery, though we knew it would be closed on a Friday.
Leaving the main coast road a little north of Dahab, just past a police checkpoint, Sam and I turned off into the desert. At the top of a steep hill we stopped to admire the view and take some pictures. A Bedu man sat at the side of the road selling rocks and polished stones and we spent some time talking to him and bought some of his lovely minerals. The road is long and fairly straight but the passing scenery of jagged pointed mountains and shallow wadis leading away from the road is indescribably beautiful. There was hardly any traffic today and every now and then the tarmac became very rough and in need of repair. We spotted a couple of camel trains led by solitary tribesmen and one or two Bedouin camps with brightly coloured canvas awnings and I wondered where they got their water from. About half way to St Catherine’s we came upon a tree – not the only tree but certainly the biggest – standing alone in the sand and we stopped to photograph it. The lone tree was a large old Acacia, sculpted into shape by years of desert winds. Mushroom-shaped rocks of limestone sprang up out of the sand at intervals and an occasional herd of roaming camels grazed on patches of dry sparse grass they found in the wadis. This was an entirely different world to the Western desert we had left a week ago.
After three hours we came to St Katerina ‘City’, which is actually a small community made up of block-built Bedouin homes and a modern tourist hotel. The road leads straight to the monastery gates. Stopping at a cafeteria for coffee and a sandwich, we sat on the terrace in the sun looking out onto the almost deserted town. I guess it was siesta time. After a while we drove up to the monastery entrance, passing a little shrine called the ‘Setting of the Prophet Nabi Salah’. We saw the terraces that were once ancient gardens and the Chapel of the prophet Aaron on the slopes of Gebel Musa. But we couldn’t get even a glimpse of the monastery itself.
The monastery has a long history. The biblical story relates how Moses led the Hebrews for 50 days through the mountains to the plain of el-Raha, where he received the Ten Commandments. The mountain where the tablets were supposed to be found was named Mount Horeb, later to become in Arabic, Gebel Musa, a holy mountain and place of pilgrimage for early Christians. Religious communities sprang up around the mountain and a small church was founded in the name of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine who had ended Christian persecution with his edict of 313 AD. Later the Emperor Justinian founded a monastery with a large basilica to be built on the site. This was enclosed within protective walls to safeguard the monks from raiding Bedouin tribes. Between the 8th and 9th centuries the monks found the body of St Katerina, a young martyr from Alexandria who by legend had been transported by angels to Gebel Katerina and subsequently disappeared. The saint’s presumed body still lies in a sarcophagus inside the basilica and the monastery became known as St Katerina or St Catherine. Today the monastery is still home to many of the Eastern Orthodox monks who live and work there. The Prophet Mohammed himself is said to have issued a decree of protection for the monastery and it subsequently survived the conquest of Sinai by Muslim Arabs and was undisturbed by the Crusader wars and the Napoleonic Expedition. Today as it has always done, the monastery’s heritage, rich in architecture and art, draws pilgrims from all over the world.
The leisurely drive back to Dahab into the setting sun was every bit, if not more magical than the journey to St Catherine’s had been earlier in the day. It was wonderful to be able to stop at will without the police escort we had become accustomed to in the Western Desert and the day lodged itself in my memory as a day of absolute freedom. Back in Dahab, Sam and I ended the day with dinner, a short walk to the touristy area of Assila Bay and finally settled down on mats on the beach with a bottle of wine beneath a velvet, star-studded sky. A heavenly day!
No Room at the Inn
I was up early this morning and before breakfast I walked along the sea front to a small fenced-in archaeological site with a notice board stating that it was a Nabatean port dating from the first to second centuries BC. Named el-Mashraba Hill, the site was excavated by the SCA in 1989 when it was discovered that there had been a lighthouse to guide ships through the Arabian Gulf.
After quite a lazy morning in Dahab, I was sad to be leaving this lovely little town to drive to Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of Sinai, where we had planned to stay for three more days. There is only one problem with Dahab and that is the fact that the majority of the hotels don’t have fresh water, relying on sea water for washing facilities. Sam had warned me about this, claiming that she can only stand salty showers for two or three days. You can’t get clothes clean either and by the time we left we were both itching with the salt. The road to Sharm once more wound through a gorgeous mountainous landscape with occasional glimpses of the glittering Red Sea and I sat back to enjoy the scenery with Sam driving again. In two hours we arrived in Sharm and I immediately wished we had stayed in Dahab. Sharm el-Sheikh is a paradise for those who like beach holidays. The coast, consisting of Naama Bay, Shark Bay and Sharm Bay, is a continuous stretch of beautiful white beaches lined with hundreds of high-rise hotels interspersed with bars and nightclubs. Most people are attracted to Sharm by the beaches and the diving and water sports as well as the wide range of leisure activities loved by tourists, but this is not my kind of holiday. Give me temples any day!
Sam has stayed here before and we headed to her favourite hotel, the Sharm Reef. Unfortunately the room price has risen from 170 LE earlier this year to 480 LE a night. A little out of our price range, even with Abdul negotiating Egyptian prices for us all. We next called at the Uni Sharm, a large hotel situated high on a hill right next to Egypt’s ‘Disneyland’ – ‘Alf Leila wa Leila (1001 Nights), which looked intriguing. It is a huge complex of colourful oriental domes and towers, mixed with pseudo ancient Egyptian temples. There are many restaurants, clubs and oriental shows to entertain the tourists, but it looked to me like a copy of Las Vegas built on a low budget. I was not too disappointed that the Uni Sharm, though less expensive, could not give us the accommodation we needed. The rest of the afternoon was spent driving around dozens of hotels, some nice and some less salubrious, but there was no room for us anywhere. Because the Feast of Eid which signifies the end of Ramadan, is only three days away, it would seem that half of Egypt had come to spend the holiday in Sharm. We even had a look at a couple of apartments but decided against them for various reasons.
By late afternoon we were sitting despondently in a cafe in Naama Bay wondering what to do next. Everywhere we looked brighly-lit signs beckoned tourists into shops to buy pirate CDs, gaudy printed T-shirts and postcards galore. Loud music issued from every store-front in a cacophany of sound. This was an Egypt I hadn’t seen before and didn’t like. After a much-needed meal and a couple of cups of coffee, Sam voted to drive back to Cairo tonight and I readily agreed. I really hadn’t taken to Sharm at all and in preference would have rather gone back to Dahab, but we knew that the Sphinx hotel where we had been staying had no rooms vacant either. Leaving Sharm el-Sheikh around 8.00pm we set off for the long and uneventful drive up the west coast of Sinai, through the Ahmed Hamdy Tunnel and on towards Cairo. This was where the fun started. Around 1.00am we hit very dense fog and Sam could see nothing but whiteness through the car windscreen. She missed the turning off to the city and ended up on the 26th July corridor – not realising her mistake until we were half way to Alexandria. By the time we got back to Cairo and checked into the hotel we’d booked earlier this evening, it was 4.30am and Sam was exhausted. Sleep came easily for us all!
Getting to know Cairo
We are staying in the Victoria Hotel on el-Gumhuriya, a lovely fading colonial-style building where I could imagine modestly-dressed Victorian ladies, complete with parasols, gossiping and sipping tea in the glass conservatory. Though it has undoubtedly seen more prosperous days, the Victoria must once have been a grand hotel. The huge foyer leads to a wide curving stone staircase curling around several floors. The high-ceilinged bedrooms are large and airy and mine has recently been decorated – so recently that it still smells of paint and I had to open the windows. The lounge has many scuffed leather sofas and armchairs, antique polished tables and faded oriental rugs and has the quiet air of a gentleman’s club. I loved it instantly.
After our late arrival in Cairo in the early hours of Sunday morning we didn’t surface again until lunchtime, though I did wake once, startled by the morning’s first Allah’u Akhbar from the mosque right outside my second floor window. I met Sam in the lounge for a couple of cups of coffee and was delighted to find that the hotel has computers with internet that can be used by guests, so I spent a couple of hours catching up on emails. I also was able to unpack my suitcase properly for the first time in three weeks. Being on the move constantly since I arrived in Egypt I found that my bag was full of dirty laundry, so set about rectifying this, filling my bathroom with dripping clothes. Next time I’ll send them to the laundry.
After an early meal at Hatay, a local restaurant that was packed with Egyptian men and a few couples taking their Iftar meal, Sam and I took a short evening stroll through the nearby streets, inevitably ending up sitting outside a coffee shop. We were both still feeling like zombies, so we didn’t linger and went back to the hotel for an early night.
Monday morning found me a little more alert, but at breakfast Sam announced that she was going back to bed. Not wanting to waste another day I set off to practice crossing roads through the vicious Cairo traffic, an act of bravery on my part. Whenever I walk in Cairo I seem to gravitate towards the Nile, invariably finding myself in the vicinity of the Egyptian Museum and today was no exception. Joining the queue to get into the museum gardens and then another into the museum itself, I watched people of all nationalities excitedly chattering in dozens of different languages. I usually make a point of not visiting the museum in the mornings as it is often at its most crowded then, tourist guides shouting to their charges and elbowing solo people out of the way in the rudest manner. But it is always possible to get into some of the less popular rooms and out of the fray. The museum, with its dirt-encrusted skylights, dusty glass cases and huge statues packed into a space far too small for so many valuable treasures is both delightful and frustrating and like nowhere else on earth.
On the way to the museum I had dropped off a film to be developed in a Kodak shop, eager to see if I had been able to take pictures after my Nikon stopped working in the White Desert. I collected the film on the way back to the hotel and was pleased to find that the photographs were not as disastrous as I had imagined. With no metering and no wind-on mechanism it had all been pure guesswork.
This evening we had to return the hire car to Mohandesin on the West Bank so Sam and I took the opportunity to eat at her favourite restaurant Kadoura, where fishy eyes stare out at customers entering the restaurant and implore you to chose them for dinner. I had Kadoura’s excellent salads as usual after hurrying past the fish and up the stairs without looking. Taking a taxi back into Cairo, the roads were so clogged up with traffic at 11.00pm that we had to get out at Opera and walk the rest of the way to the hotel. It was raining, which was perhaps the reason for the jammed-up roads. Cairo drivers seen to panic with the first few drops, abandoning cars everywhere. They’d never survive in England!
Mosques and Minarets
This morning found Sam and I in the back of a taxi, being driven through streets washed clean by last night’s rain, the few puddles that were still in evidence in shady places, reflecting tall buildings glittering in the morning sun. We got out at al-Azhar, one of Cairo’s largest and oldest mosques at the edge of Khan el-Kalili. Today we were going to do another ‘Islamic walk’.
Walking in a southerly direction we entered a dim and narrow street between the mosque and khangah of al-Ghuri. The mausoleum and madrassa (theological college) and a sabil-kuttab (Quranic school with a public drinking fountain) are known collectively as al-Ghuriya. These buildings were constructed during the early 16th century Mamaluk period by Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri. Below these imposing sandstone buildings, decorated in stripes of black and white marble, was a market where stalls containing herbs and spices and perfumes and textiles lined the sides of the street. This commercial centre, once a main thoroughfare of Cairo, was until the 19th century, the city’s original silk market and was originally roofed over to protect the brightly coloured bolts of silk and finished garments that I could imagine floating in the breeze like banners.
This is a wonderful area of old Medieval Cairo, but we saw no other tourists today. The street was very quiet because this is the last day of Ramadan and only a handful of children slowed our progress with their customary curiosity. Walking down towards Bab Zuwayla, we were able to stop and look at many old wooden mushrabiya windows and ancient studded wooden doors leading into intriguing dark courtyards. Bab Zuwayla is the most southerly of Cairo’s Medieval gates, built in 1092. The fortified gate with its two tall towers, was named after a Berber tribe who were charged with guarding the royal city. The gate is flanked on the west by the huge mosque of Sultan al-Mu’ayyad, constructed on the site of a notorious prison where the Sultan was once incarcerated and the mosque’s two tall minarets perch on top of the gate’s towers.
Opposite Bab Zuwayla we entered the Qasaba of Radwan Bey, Cairo’s only surviving covered market and I realised that this is what we in the west know as a ‘kasbah’. This area is also known as the ‘Street of the Tentmakers’ and though I saw no tents, there were plenty of embroidered textiles and appliqué work on sale to tourists. The high walls of Radwan Bey’s palace run alongside the market. There were many interesting buildings in Sharia al-Khayamiyya and although many looked fairly derelict there were signs that some were under restoration. Each medieval building has an SCA monument number, and we were able to look up each one on the maps that we had brought with us.
As Sam and I carried on walking down the long street, now called Sharia al-Surughiyya, we passed many medieval Islamic buildings with names like Zawiya, Sabil-kuttab, Hammam, Maq’ad, Takiyya, as well as numerous small mosques, at present only magical-sounding names, but I determined to learn more about the different types of buildings and their purposes. Each one was elaborately decorated in varying styles depending on their period of construction. At the end of the street we turned right and eventually saw the Citadel rising on its steep mound in front of us and this at least I instantly recognised. Below the Citadel, called in Arabic, al-Qal’a, were the two large mosques of al-Rifa’i and Sultan Hasan, but we still had a lot of walking to do and could spare no time to go into the mosques. That will keep for another day.
Skirting the Citadel we turned back into another narrow street called Sharia Bab al-Wazir, where we saw many more ancient dwellings, mausoleums and mosques, built by the early Islamic rulers of Cairo. We were walking parallel to the remains of the city walls of Salah ad-Din, built in the 12th century. About halfway down the road we came to an old arched gateway with a sign that said Biban al-Torah and tried to get to the old walls but the gateway only led as far as a group of private houses haphazardly piled on top of each other. By the time we reached Bab Zuwayla again both Sam and I were pretty tired, but we had covered a lot of ground and had enjoyed the long walk very much. It wasn’t difficult to find a taxi and before long we were both quite glad to flop into the leather armchairs of the hotel lounge for a much-needed cup of coffee.
Tonight was the beginning of the three-day feast, when everyone goes out to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Expecting Cairo to be very busy, we had booked a table for dinner in the Omar Khayyam restaurant in the Mena House Hotel at Giza as a special treat. This was an occasion and a venue to be dressed up for, because it’s a very swish (and very expensive) restaurant, but well worth it for a special occasion. The food was excellent and there was even a floor show of folk dancing to entertain us as we ate. A secondary floor-show happened when an over-enthusiastic waiter set fire to our crepes and had to rush back to the kitchen with his trolley ablaze. As we drove back in a taxi to the Victoria, Cairo was still celebrating. Families dressed in their finest clothes clogged the pavements and the city seemed to be full of light. It’s true what they say, that Cairo never sleeps.
Hooked on Islamic Architecture
I’ve loved our walks through old Medieval Cairo and today Sam and I decided to walk another route, this time from al-Azhar to the northern gates of Bab al-Fetou and Bab al-Nasr.
This route led us through the Khan al-Khalili, past blocks of colourful shops selling spices and tourist souvenirs, then many perfume sellers and eventually onto Nahazin, the street of the gold workers. Here we saw one jewellery store after another, some selling gold and some selling silver or semi-precious stones. As this was a feast day there were lots of Egyptian women out browsing, looking for gold jewellery, which many buy and wear as an investment and a sign of good fortune. A few tourists were bargain-hunting or just window shopping. It was a slow progress as Sam is fond of window-shopping in the jewellery stores too.
From Nahasin it’s a straight walk to the northern gates. We passed the large mosque of al-Salih Ayyub, built during the Ayyubid Period in the 13th century – the Dynasty of Saladin, opponent of the Crusaders, who took back the city of Jerusalem and saved Cairo from invasion. The builder of this complex was the wife of the last descendent of Saladin and this structure was the first to combine a madrassa (theological college) and a mausoleum. The building is now very damaged, but the impressive facade still survives as well as the pepper-pot shaped minaret and the dome of the mausoleum.
The next building to be represented on this street belongs to the Bahri Mamaluk period, the complex of Qalaoun. Qalaoun, whose name means ‘The Duck’, began a dynasty which lasted for three generations and this complex of buildings represents some of the finest architecture I have seen in Cairo. There are the remains of a maristan (hospital) which was reputedly very well-equipped and although the original is now in ruins there is still a hospital on the site. A madrassa is also still in use, not as a college but as a place for homeless people. Qalaoun’s mausoleum boasts a large dome and the mosque’s beautiful minaret shows an oriental style with Syrian influence. The building today was closed and under restoration, so we passed on. Almost hidden behind the hospital is a tiny mosque of al-Nasr Mohammed, whose large mosque I had seen in the Citadel. The next structure in the complex belonged to Sultan Barquq (The Plum). Another fabulous dome and minaret marks his mosque and rises high, sending its intricately carved decoration to the heavens in praise of Allah.
A few yards further on, in the middle of a little island, is one of my favourite buildings on this street, the Sabil-Kuttab of Khatkuda. A tall square building, once a religious school for young boys, this had also recently been cleaned and restored and we could see the beautiful decorated wooden ceiling through the open sides of the upper floor. This structure was built during the Turkish Ottoman period by Abd al-Rahman Khatkhuda, whose prolific building work can be seen all over Cairo. The sabil (public drinking fountain can still be seen behind an iron grill below the classroom.
Carrying on up the long street towards Bab al-Fetou, we next stopped to admire the mosque and sabil-kuttab of Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar, a more recent building constructed in the 19th century which has a very tall pencil-shaped minaret. The street here is narrow and on either side the bakeries, greengrocers and coffee shops are populated exclusively by local people. Every few minutes we had to stand aside while donkeys pulling carts laden with unidentified sacks of goods or fodder, slowly plodded by.
Eventually we came to the huge mosque of al-Hakim. The original building here was constructed during the 11th century Fatimid period. The Caliph al-Hakim inaugurated some very strange laws, including forbidding the manufacture of shoes for women to keep them indoors. The mosque has had a chequered history after falling in an earthquake during the 14th century. It was eventually rebuilt to become among other things a stable and barracks for Napoleonic troops and a school for boys. Although we didn’t go inside today as the mosque is now once again used for its original purpose as a place of prayer, we stopped to admire the entrance and the two unusual stumpy minarets on each corner of its facade.
Al-Hakim’s mosque adjoins the northern city walls at the gate of al-Fetou, where two massive fortified crenellated towers still survive. The busy road goes right through the gate and inside its archway we saw a sheikh’s tomb with steps down into it. He must have been an important man to be buried inside the gate. We continued along the wall to come back into the old city limits at the nearby Bab al-Nasr, a less decorative gate but equally fortified. Two very solid-looking square stone towers guard the entrance.
Walking back toward the Khan al-Khalili we saw many more old and impressive structures, the biggest of which is the complex of Baybars al-Gashankhir, a Sufi monastery and mausoleum, whose fine architecture is a tribute to his short reign during the Mamaluk period. As we neared the end of our walk we came to a wikala and Sam and I were lured inside through the intriguing archway that led into a large courtyard. This is another recently restored monument now open to the public. This wikala, built in 1695 by Dulfiquar Oda Bashi, was once an inn for the merchants who travelled to Cairo to sell their wares. It consists of a large courtyard which once had stabling and warehouses on the ground floor with accommodation above. There are many wikalas in Cairo, now mostly run-down yards used for storage but this one I thought was beautifully restored and the colourful potted plants and bright flowers added to the feeling of harmony of the place. I imagine it would have been very different when used for its original purpose, bustling with commercial activity.
Sam and I passed a few more small mosques and other unidentified structures then we were suddenly back in the part of the Khan al-Khalili we knew well, near the tourist coach park and we stopped for a late lunch at the famous Egyptian Pancakes. These pancakes are not as I know them, they are quite heavy and filling and more like an omelette that can contain a wide variety of sweet or savoury fillings. It is also a great place to sit and watch the world go by, which we did for a couple of hours before making our way back to the hotel in a taxi.
City of the Dead
Today’s medieval walk was a different route for Sam and I, beginning at the back of the Mosque of Sultan Hasan, below the Citadel and down a street called Sharia Suyufiya. We had a little trouble in the taxi to the Citadel area because the driver spoke no English and neither Sam nor I could remember the Egyptian name, al-Qala and it would seem that he’d never heard of Sultan Hasan Mosque or al-Rifa’i either. Perhaps he doesn’t take tourists very often.
The first monument we saw on the corner of the long street was the mausoleum of Muzaffar ‘Alam ad-Din Sangar. Once attached to a mosque, this tiny forlorn mausoleum with one of the earliest stone domes in Cairo (14th century), is now overshadowed by the modern high-rise apartment block immediately behind it. Sometimes I am more impressed by the smaller monuments than the great and famous. Nearby was another interesting little structure, built in the 18th century this sabil-waaf of Yussuf Bey was a water dispensary once attached to a rab (lower class accommodation) and a kuttab (elementary school for young boys). Along the street another larger sabil-kuttab and rab, constructed in the 17th century by al-Qizar which is still used as accommodation and though still impressive, its facade is now very run-down. Opposite, though we could see little of the building except a high wall covered in scaffolding and polythene sheeting, is the Dervish Theatre of Mawlawi, built during the reign of Mohammed Ali. Mawlana (master) Jalal ad-Din Rumi was a Turkish mystic and poet who founded the Sufi order we know as the ‘whirling dervishes’, who perform a spinning dance as a meditative ritual. The theatre is unique and is under restoration as a joint Egyptian-Italian project. Most of the theatre and Sufi living quarters are hidden behind the remains of a related monument, the madrassa of Sunqur al-Sa’di.
The Sharia Suyufiya contains many old buildings, the largest of which is the 14th century palace of Amir Taz, who married the daughter of Sultan al-Nasr Mohammed. The palace was not only a grand house but also a barracks where the Amir’s private army was housed. A century ago the palace was used as a school for girls, but unfortunately the building was badly damaged during the 1992 earthquake. At the corner of the street is a very elaborate, though obviously more modern sabil-kuttab of Umm ‘Abbas. Emine, mother of the ruler Abbas II, was a much loved member of the community who donated to many charitable institutions. The ornate facade is decorated with floral motifs and garlands and colourful Quranic and poetic inscriptions on smooth white marble and is a delight.
Here Sam and I turned left into Sharia Saliba, where the road passes between two long and high matching facades of the 14th century mosque and qanqah of Amir Shaykhu. On the northern side of the street Shakhu’s mosque, the first of his monuments and one of Cairo’s largest religious foundations, was severely damaged during the Ottoman period. On the south side the qanqah, built five years later was home to 70 Sufis who lived in cells surrounding a central court. Shaykhu’s tomb was also built in the prayer hall of this building. The cornice over the entrance bears a close resemblance to pharaonic architecture. High on the plain outer walls there is a beautiful restored mushrabiya window and a little open wooden balcony. On the corner of Amir Shaykhu’s qanqah are the remains of another qanqah and sabil of Amir ‘Abdallah, built in 1719. These monolithic grey structures are not very interesting from the outside and I decided that one day I will come back and visit those that are open, as their history is fascinating.
A little further along Sharia Saliba we saw the compact mosque of Qani Bay Mohammadi, another 15th century monument with a chevron-covered dome and tall minaret. Probably the most prominent building on the street is the large sabil-kuttab of Qa’it Bay, which is currently undergoing a lot of restoration. Built in 1479, it is situated on a little island in the road, making it the first free-standing sabil-kuttab in Cairo and not attached to another institution. It is also noted as the first public water dispensary in Cairo. The facade of Qa’it Bay’s monument is richly and colourfully decorated with lovely examples of wooden upper balconies and mushrabiya windows. The striped red and white entrance doorway is especially fine.
I was not feeling at my best today and the dusty streets and the muggy heat were taking their toll, so Sam and I decided to look for a coffee shop and headed back towards the Ibn Tulun mosque. We sat on tiny rickety wooden stools outside the little cafe and provided much amusement to passers-by and local children, who abandoned the little fairground just around the corner to come and stare at us. After half an hour and two cups of strong Egyptian coffee, I was feeling much better. As we were so close to Ibn Tulun’s mosque we couldn’t resist going inside.
Although Ahmad ibn Tulun was born the son of a Turkish slave belonging to the Caliph al-Ma’mun, he was educated in the Caliph’s court and was sent to Egypt to govern the town of al-Fustat in 868. He soon became governor of the whole country, establishing his independence of the Abbasid caliphs of Iraq as ruler of the province. Ibn Tulun’s mosque was constructed in the centre of his old administrative district of Cairo, among the earliest palaces and gardens and It still remains the masterpiece of all Cairo’s mosques and one of the most well preserved even though it is the oldest surviving religious building in Cairo in its original form. The beauty of ibn Tulun’s mosque lies in its simplicity, which is said to be a rare example of classical Islamic architecture, hidden behind its high crenellated walls. After donning scarves and removing our shoes to enter the mosque, I was immediately struck by the vast open space of the courtyard which even made the huge ablution fountain in its centre look insignificant.
All around the sides of the courtyard there are high dark arcades with stone arches supported by pillars and roofed with wooden panels, walls with decorative stone lattice-work windows and beautiful mouldings. The deep prayer hall to one side is also beautifully simple where the plain and elegant mihrab, a niche which faces Mecca, frames the main pulpit, or minbar. The square ablution fountain in the centre of the courtyard was covered by scaffolding and being cleaned or restored, but we could see the shape of the high domed roof, an addition during a restoration in 1296. The very distinctive minaret is on the northern side of the courtyard, originally built as a spiral with a staircase on the outside, looking like a ziggurat of ancient Babylon. Although the minaret has been damaged and restored several times it still retains its outer spiral staircase. I would have loved to go up to the top to look at the view, but it was closed today.
By the time we came out of the ibn Tulun mosque it was mid-afternoon. One of the things Sam had wanted to do was to visit the Northern Cemetery. We are running out of time with only one more day in Cairo, so we decided to carry on and we took a taxi to the multi-lane highway, Sharia Salah Salem, getting out at the Complex of Amir Qurqumas. I remembered the ‘City of the Dead’ from an early coach tour of Cairo I made a few years ago. More properly known as the Northern Cemetery, the area is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Cairenes, both living and dead. In the Northern Cemetery, among the grand marble tombs and mausoleums of Mamaluk rulers, some of Cairo’s poorest families live in small shanty-like huts and even in the courtyards of family tombs. Navigating our way around the large tombs, we came to one of the biggest, a complex which includes the tomb of Anas, father of Sultan Barquq, built in 1382 and the qanqar of Sultan Farag ibn Barquq, dated 1481. The structure looks like a fortress, though its facade includes two domes and two minarets of a mosque and the living quarters of the qanqar or Sufi monastery. The whole area is surrounded by military graves.
Picking our way between unidentified buildings and elaborate tombs, I have to say I felt uncomfortable here, even though a lady with a large basket of shopping balanced on her head asked if she could show us around. Further on an old toothless man in ragged dirty galabeya and brandishing a large iron key wanted to let us in to see one of the tombs. Again, a family sitting in the street at a three-legged table offered us a cup of tea. They could not have been more welcoming, but I still felt I should not be there.
Were the sultans, beys and and pashas of a bygone age pleased that we were gawping at their last resting places or outraged that only infidels remembered them? Sam and I explored a number of ‘streets’ – the cemetery is set out in blocks just like a city. Some of the structures are huge and some tiny but all very interesting. I think my discomfort was due to the fact that all the live inhabitants of the cemetery were obviously very poor and needy and to them we were lucrative ‘rich’ tourists. I was quite relieved when it was time to leave and make our way back to our hotel, another Cairo and another world.
Cairo is quiet today, especially for a Friday, but the three-day Feast of Eid is almost over and this is a holy day for many Egyptians. Sam had stuff to do today, our last day in Egypt and she was going off on her own. Once more I was drawn down towards Midan Tahrir wandering through the (comparatively) deserted streets to the always-busy square, I’m even getting braver at crossing the roads there. Stopping in the Nile Hilton for a cup of coffee, I sat on the terrace watching passers-by for a while, an occupation I always enjoy.
Later in the morning I went into the Egyptian Museum, hoping the morning rush would have subsided by now, but it was still very crowded. I did manage to get a few more photographs in the smaller galleries upstairs, but as usual the light here wasn’t very good and the glass on the cases was dusty and smeared with fingerprints, so frustrating.
From here I took a taxi to the Citadel. This was the only area of ‘Islamic Cairo’ that we hadn’t visited on this trip and I wanted to visit the mosques there. I have already been in Mohammed Ali’s mosque – which is a bit ornate for my taste – and so I wanted to see what other monuments there were. But I had forgotten it was a special Friday and the whole of the Citadel was closed to tourists when I got there.
I decided to walk back to the Victoria Hotel, which seemed to be much further than it looked on my street map, but I enjoyed the walk and thought about all the things I had seen in Cairo. The whole trip this time has felt like several separate holidays and it’s hard to believe I have only been in Egypt for a month. It seems a lifetime ago I flew into Luxor with half a dozen friends from England.
We had spent a few days in Luxor and then Abydos before beginning our adventure in the Western Desert, visiting sites in the oases of Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahariya. As these were all new sites for me it was very exciting. Still with the group we had visited the most important pharaonic monuments in Cairo, the fabulous pyramids and tombs of Giza and Saqqara before they left to go home. A couple more days mooching about Cairo on my own and I felt like I was getting to know the real city and not just the tourist spots.
Then Sam and I left Cairo in a hire car for our own adventure, staying in the lovely little laid-back town of Dahab in Sinai. It was on our long drive to St Catherine’s Monastery that I truly fell in love with the desert – at least from the comfort of a car. I wouldn’t want to be lost or marooned out there in the wide expanse of parched sands and strangely carved and colourful mountains. But it is so beautiful and the scenery is truly captivating.
Back in Cairo another vista of the city had opened up for us in the form of the wonderful medieval monuments that told the story of Cairo’s later dynasties of Sultans and Amirs, Pashas and Beys. I was transfixed by the narrow ancient streets and the grand domes and minarets, intermingled with fabulous houses of centuries past.
It’s going to be very hard to leave, but early tomorrow morning Sam and I will be on our flight home to London. We will have a huge amount of really great memories and an even bigger amount of photographs to sort out that will keep us busy until we return again next year.
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