Discovering Middle Egypt
It’s a year since I was last in Egypt and I’m delighted to say I’m here again with my good friend Sam after flying into Cairo last night at 9.00pm. We left home in the predawn hours yesterday morning, travelling along mist-bound autumnal roads for the long drive from Cornwall to Heathrow and the waiting around. Our Egypt Air flight was an hour late departing but still managed to arrive in Cairo on time. By the time we reached our hotel, the Victoria on Sharia el-Gumhariya, we were both fit for nothing but an early night.
This morning the sun is shining and stepping out into the mild November air felt wonderful, even with the stinky Cairo ochre fug. It’s great to be back. Sam and I began the day with a trip to the SCA offices at Abbassiya where we had arranged to meet our contact for our usual antiquities permissions. This year we want to visit as many sites as possible in Middle Egypt, though we found that we could no longer get permission to visit selected sites, but only for the region in general. With the business of our permits concluded we thankfully escaped the gloomy concrete office block and took another taxi back into the city centre to Tahrir Square.
Our first destination was as usual the American University bookshop, where I bought several small books but Sam bought many more, including the massive (and heavy) tome by Schwaller de Lubitz, ‘Temple of Man’ which was an irrisistable bargain she just had to have. Having spent as usual too much money there we retired to the Nile Hilton for coffee and a leisurely lunch that lasted around three hours. We also dropped into one of our favourite stores in the Hilton, Nomad, where I bought a pretty scarf and Sam bought a large brass lamp – another dead weight for her to carry home.
But home at the moment is the Victoria Hotel and the journey back to England was as far from our thoughts as it could possibly be. Dinner this evening was at our local favourite restaurant Hatay – very basic and inexpensive, but the food is superb. Here we met up with Abdul who would once more be our driver and Mr fixit on this trip. With him was his brother Mahmoud and his nephew Dia who were visiting Cairo from their home in Luxor.
Into the Delta
After an early breakfast at 6.00am in the hotel, Sam and I left at 7.00am with Abdul to drive down into the Delta. I’ve wanted to go to Bubastis for years but never managed it before now. We arrived at the modern town of Tell Basta, 83km from Cairo at around 9.30pm.
There is much more to see at the site than I had expected. Many guide books will say that there were once temples at Bubastis but with little now remaining except a field of jumbled stone. For us it was a real feast of inscribed blocks, all with reliefs from the temple of Bastet, mostly re-used Ramesside from Qantir, or Libyan (Third Intermediate Period) and all very interesting. The plan of the site is a bit confusing but we were able to vaguely work out the different areas of the Temple of the cat-headed goddess Bastet. I could have spent all day there as I’ve been starved of decent reliefs for the last couple of trips. There is also a recently erected and greatly restored colossal statue of a lady, probably Rameses II’s daughter Meryt-Amun, that is stylistically very similar to the one at Akhmim. Behind the temple site is a large mudbrick town site which is undergoing excavation. It’s thought that there may be a palace here dating to Amenemhet II. Bubastis is a strange place with modern apartment blocks crowding in around the edge of the large site, looking like they can’t wait to get in across the fence. The site is bisected by the main road but Sam said there really is very little to see on the other side as it’s now all covered up. After a couple of hours it was time to leave because it’s quite a long drive down to Tanis, our next stop.
The Delta roads are awful, but at least we didn’t have to have the police with us on the drive today. Something I haven’t seen anywhere else were the hundreds of little 3-wheel Mitsubishi cars which were like motorised rickshaws, the driver sits in the middle above the front wheel and there is a bench seat behind and a soft hood over it. A sort of horseless caleche and these seem to be used as taxis in the Delta towns. At one point we hit a burst water main and had to drive through two feet of water flooding the road – with fingers crossed that there were no deep potholes in this stretch. Our car, a Lancer, is quite low to the ground and it was a worrying moment.
Tanis again had much more to see than I had expected and is a huge and quite confusing site with several ruined temples from different periods. We had the gafir and a security man (riding shotgun) with us but they let us go wherever we wanted and were very patient. The French IFAO are currently excavating here in the rear of the Amun Temple section, but we couldn’t really see what they were doing. At last I got to see the Third Intermediate Period royal tombs of Osorkons, Takelots Shoshenqs, Psusennes et al. and was even allowed to take a photograph in one of them. I have wanted to see these for years. The gafir unlocked three of the tombs for me. Osorkon II’s tomb is open but entails a climb up a very rusty set of metal steps, some with the rungs missing or replaced by dubious bits of wood and you then have to perch on the wall at the top and look down into the roofless tomb where the huge granite sarcophagus of the king is still in situ, with lots of reliefs on the walls surrounding it. It was here that the archaeologist Montet found the wonderful Tanis treasures in 1939, including the silver coffins of Shoshenq II and Psusennes I, now in the Cairo museum.
It was all very new and exciting. Much of the site is now an open-air museum with many carved blocks and large Ramesside statues. These probably came from Per-Rameses at Qantir to be reused in the later temple structures at Tanis. Sam has been here three times before, but again we really couldn’t spend as much time as we would have liked to as Abdul wanted to get out of the Delta before it got dark because of the bad roads in this area. Because we were late we ended up driving over to Ismailia on the Suez Canal and back to Cairo along the big new highway.
It was a long drive to Cairo and we arrived back at 7.00pm. Went out to eat and sat outside in a coffee shop near Opera Square until around midnight as it has been quite a mild night again.
A Holy Day
Because of the long day yesterday we didn’t get down to breakfast until quite late today. A coach full of German tourists had arrived overnight and so there wasn’t much food left on the buffet when we got to the dining room. Sam and I decided to do the first of our ‘Islamic walks’ today as Friday is Abdul’s day off when he goes to the mosque. We took a taxi to Sultan Hassan Mosque and getting out at the foot of the Citadel, we walked around the huge walls looking for the remains of the medieval amphitheatre wall that we had read about. I think we found it, but it was a building site with no more than a couple of short courses of stone blocks left so we couldn’t be certain. It was here where the great Sultans and Pashas used to have their games and horse races and train their armies.
Sam and I walked on southwards, towards Sayyida Aisha Mosque. Being Friday there were crowds of people here in the square under the Salah Salim flyover. We wanted to investigate the tombs and mausoleums in the southern end of the ‘City of the Dead’, known as the Southern Qarafa. During the last few visits to Cairo we have become fascinated by Islamic architecture and history – something most tourists ignore, but it makes a wonderful contrast to the ancient Egyptian monuments. Neither Sam or I are particularly interested in the Pyramids, which we have seen many times, preferring the ancient temples and tombs, so Islamic Cairo is a good alternative. We went up a little side street and were invited to go into the cemetery by an old woman, so guessed it must be OK. We found ourselves in the complex of Qawsun (14th century), with its domes and minarets and by the Northern minaret of al-Sultaniya we followed the path through to the tomb of Ali Badr al-Dinal-Qarafi. We had to be careful not to step on graves all around the area. Some women asked us if we needed the key to enter some of the mausoleums, which we politely refused, but took some photographs before leaving. This felt much better than some of the more threatening areas of the Qarafa we have been in, but I’m never very comfortable about being here, where many of Cairo’s poorest people live in make-shift houses among the tombs.
Back out to the main road and walked down from Sayyida Aisha Mosque to Sayyida Nafisa Mosque. There were many Friday crowds here too, both inside and outside the mosques. We found it amusing to watch the women waiting for their men outside their section of the mosque (they have separate entrances) and the women were giggling and standing on tiptoe peering through the high windows trying to catch a glimpse of the men inside – very reverential I thought!
We found ourselves in yet another cemetery so turned around to walk down Sharia al-Khalifa, past the huge almost derelict domes of al-Ashraf al-Khalil, Fatima Khatun, Sayyida Ruqayya, Shagaret al-Durr and down to the Mosque of Sayyida Sukayna. There are many women commemorated in this street. We were not bothered by anyone – sometimes in the past I have felt quite out of place because tourists do not usually enter these areas, but today it was surprisingly peaceful and hassle-free.
The street came out near the big Ibn Tulun mosque which we have visited before, so we got a taxi over to the Nile Hilton for a late lunch and wandered around the shopping arcade for a while. Later we went back to our hotel to download and sort out pictures I’ve taken so far – it’s surprising how time-consuming this is. We were both fairly tired so decided to eat in the hotel and sat talking in the bar over a bottle of wine until about 1.00am.
Beyt Suhaymi and More
My friend Sam and I had thought of going out to Abu Rawash pyramids today but we both decided against it because there are still several sections of medieval Cairo we want to see. We got a taxi to the Bab al-Nasr and walked down to the Bab al-Fetou. These are two of the enormous gates in the city walls. The first mosque is Sultan al-Hakim, which is open to visitors, so we decided to don headscarves, take off shoes and venture inside. Our SCA permissions give us free entry to the Islamic monuments as well as Pharaonic, so we may as well make use of them.
The Fatimid mosque of Sultan al-Hakim is very beautiful – with its marble walls and floors it is light and airy compared to some of the others we have seen and has a wonderful air of serenity about it. Even though it is a tourist attraction it is also still used for prayers. History tells that, built in the 10th century it is one of the oldest remaining mosques in Cairo, built by the imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who enforced the confinement of women by forbidding cobblers to make shoes for them. He also forbade the eating of Mulukhiya and had all the honey in Cairo tipped into the Nile – pleasant chap! Since that time it has been variously used as a place of torture and prison for Crusader captives, a stables, a billet for Napoleon’s troops and a repository for Islamic art. During the Nasser period it was a boys school. From time to time it has also been used as a mosque and it must have been thoroughly cleansed to feel as good as it does today.
We followed the road further on, down the Sharia al-Mu’izz li-Din as far as Harat al-Darb, where we found a beautiful medieval street which reminded me a little of the Shambles in York. Here there were some restored merchants houses open to the public. Although we were supposed to be concentrating on mosques etc we decided to investigate.
Inside the doorway of Beyt al-Suhaymi, built in 1648, we came into the most beautiful house I have ever seen and we both fell in love with it instantly. It is a huge warren of rooms and passageways on three floors surrounding two shady courtyards with fountains. I could happily live within its walls for the rest of my life, and wouldn’t even mind being confined to the Harem quarters because it’s amazing how much the women could see and hear from behind their mushrabiya-screened windows. The air is thick with a feeling of medieval intrigue and we spent a happy couple of hours getting frequently lost in the dark interconnecting staircases and passages, which would sometimes end in a bedroom, bathroom or big audience hall.
It’s little gems and surprises like this which makes the ‘Cairo Experience’ so enjoyable. By now it was getting late. We had arranged to meet Abdul in Fishawi’s coffee shop in the Khan el-Kalili and were already an hour past the arranged time, so wandered down in that direction along my favourite street with its Complex of Qalamun, Sabil-Khutab of Katkhuda and the lovely little al-Ahmar mosque, only stopping briefly to take pictures. I think the Beyt Suhaymi had blown both our minds and finished us for domes and minarets for today. Taking a shortcut through the back of the Khan el-Khalili, and getting only slightly lost, we found a wonderful stone shop on the way. Sam bought some amethyst prayer beads and I bought a lovely lapis bead necklace for LE100, because my last one broke and I lost some of the beads. I love lapis.
We eventually arrived at Fishawi’s. This is one of Cairo’s most famous coffee shops, though I had never been here during the day before. It’s in a narrow alleyway with people walking through all the time selling things, and we know many of the vendors quite well. Abdul had gone off somewhere so we sat for an hour and a half watching the world go by until it got dark.
To The Citadel
Today is probably our last day in Cairo so Sam and I decided to go to the Citadel as neither of us had been there for years. We took a taxi to the Citadel gates. I really don’t much like this massive fortress, with its military feel, but we wanted to visit the mosques there, so in we go. It was very windy and dusty and quite cold on top of the hill, but with spectacular views over Cairo all the way to the Giza Pyramids and we could pinpoint many of the places we had visited.
Our first stop was at the Mamaluk mosque of Sultan al-Nasr Mohammed, built in 1318 and notable for its two different minarets. One is near the main entrance and the other in the far corner so that the call to prayer could be projected into the northern enclosure to the troops. They are both unique stylistically with a great Persian influence. Inside the mosque it is very plain and simple because all the marble panels were carried off by Sultan Selim the Grim to Istanbul, although the qibla wall has now been restored. Many of the columns in the arches around the two-story arcade have been reused from various sources and you can see Ptolemaic, Roman and Christian capitals and bases. The ceiling decoration inside the arcade is a lovely light blue and silver.
Across the road is the Mohammed Ali Mosque, probably the most famous mosque in Cairo. Built in Turkish Imperial style, I love the shape of its great domes and towering minarets which dominate the Cairo skyline, but I find the interior far too ostentatious for my taste – very baroque in style. It was very crowded with tourists but I was pleased to note that women wearing shorts or with bare arms were made to wear long green robes to cover up, and were not allowed in without a head covering.
We had a mango juice in the cafe and walked around the rest of the citadel, looking at the gates and walls but we found that many areas were closed off. On the way out there was a bookshop. We tried to walk past but it drew us in like a magnet! I bought a French publication on the Luxor Tomb of Menna with some great pictures and also the Medieval Cairo guide maps I have been trying to find for ages. I bought three, but they didn’t have the fourth in the set, which covers the Citadel area. They were only EL15 each so I wasn’t too extravagant today.
It was soon time to go back to our hotel and after downloading pictures and having a siesta we went across the river to Mohandasin for dinner at Kadoura. This is a well-known fish restaurant which Sam loves, but they also do amazing salads. Being vegetarian I close my eyes and hurry past the slabs of hundreds of different fish (all eyeing me suspiciously), which you have to chose and they cook them fresh for you. The upstairs restaurant is very nice but was spoiled tonight by the inevitable TV with football blaring out. After the meal we went across the road to el-Shakowa coffee shop for our usual evening cups of Ahwa (Turkish coffee). I can’t get through a day without this! Got to bed around 2.00am. I Love driving around Cairo at night, it’s so full of life!
On the Desert Highway
Up at 6.00am to pack, we had an early breakfast and left the Hotel Victoria by 8.00am. It’s odd to think we won’t becoming back to Cairo before we fly home. Probably just as well we’re leaving because there is rain forecast and it’s pretty dark and gloomy this morning. Everyone is hurrying about to avoid being caught in the imminent downpour. It took over an hour to get across the city through the rush-hour traffic and onto Sharia al-Ahram in Giza. Abdul was driving (even Sam refuses to drive in Cairo!) and he had decided to take the desert highway up to Minya as it is the quickest route. It was not nearly as boring as I had expected. We drove past the Giza Pyramids – this was our first real sight of them this trip, and out onto the Desert road past the turnoff to Bahariya and the Faiyum.
We actually skirted the Faiyum and could see its green swathes of palm trees and watery fields not far away. We also went past Hawara and Meidum Pyramids, seen in the distance from the highway. I Managed to get a fuzzy picture of Meidum as we flew past at 120km an hour. It seems to be much easier travelling in a private car than it is in a taxi and we were waved through all the checkpoints and had no police with us on the journey.
By 1.00pm we had arrived in Minya and began to look for a hotel. The cheaper ones were all full, so we ended up at the Mercure Nefertiti and Aton, which is quite expensive, even though Abdul negotiated Egyptian discount rate for us. Bless him, he does come in useful! Still, $35 per night is quite expensive for me in Egypt, though as I get older I am appreciating decent hotels (and hot showers) much more, no longer so happy to ‘rough it’. We had a Nile view room, with a balcony and it felt like pure luxury. I even had some laundry done. Bliss!
In Minya all tourists have to be accompanied everywhere by the police. I can never work out why this is because there is never any feeling of a threat here and it’s such a beautiful town. The Corniche has gardens and parks all the way along and it is full of old colonial-style buildings. And so clean after Cairo. Anyway, we wanted to go out to eat so we had to arrange with the police for a security man to come with us (plain clothed but his gun bulged from his belt for all to see). There aren’t many places to eat in Minya, and most of the local ones are understandably reluctant to serve tourists who have a police escort. We ended up at a KFC, which is just down the road from the hotel – not a brilliant meal and we had to complain about the coleslaw which was definitely off. Afterwards we persuaded our guard that he would like to spend the rest of the evening in a coffee shop, to which he readily agreed. The alternative for him would have been to go back and sit on a chair outside the hotel all night. We found a newly-opened coffee shop where a few locals were playing dominoes and back-gammon and had several cups of really good ahwa while Abdul and Mohammed our guard chatted and smoked shisha and Sam & I played Egyptian Trivia. The inevitably loud TV was playing Arabic pop music on a Sky channel. By about midnight we had got very cold, even in my fleece and scarf I was shivering and my toes were beginning to turn blue to match my sandals, so we made our way back to the hotel.
We have now been in Egypt almost a week and the time seems to be flying by on the one hand, while on the other it feels like we have been here forever. Sam & I had decided to go to Amarna today on the off chance that we may be able to take pictures in the Southern tombs. Last time we were there we took lots of photographs in the Northern tombs on the first day, but when we returned on the second day we were told ‘no photos’. That turned out to be the first day of the photo ban which began in 2003 but we had thought at the time that the inspector, Nasser was just being awkward. When we met Abdul at breakfast today he happened to let slip that he had taken some tourists from Luxor to Amarna a couple of months ago and that there was a new road all the way to the Royal Tomb. Of course we didn’t believe him as he loves to wind us up. The royal tomb has for years been fairly inaccessible, entailing a long hike up the boulder-strewn wadi. More recently the tomb has been off-limits altogether. When we realised he was telling the truth we were so excited. Neither Sam nor I thought we would ever be fit enough to do the 15km hike up the wadi and back in the desert heat and we were desperate to see Akhenaten’s tomb.
The journey to Amarna through Mallawi was much better than last time, when we had been surrounded by armoured vehicles all the way there. Today was much more laid back with only one escort truck (with four sleeping policemen in the back). After crossing by the car ferry over the wide stretch of Nile from el-Till, we were met by Nasser who remembered us from last time.
Yes, there really is a new road system at Akhetaten which has cost the Egyptian government EL9 million to build. Why?? Tourists are not exactly encouraged to visit this part of Egypt. The drive up the steep-sided Royal Wadi felt very much like the road up to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, a winding stretch of unmarked black tarmac between the sheer rock-faces and side-valleys of the Amarna cliffs. While I imagine it has totally destroyed the atmosphere there I was still very grateful. The Royal tomb is currently being restored by a team of Egyptians who were working in the two-pillared burial chamber when we got there.
There are more surviving reliefs than I had expected, though many people would probably think there was little to see. The ‘Princesses Chambers’ were especially interesting and very well lit and cleaned, with scenes of the King and Queen mourning and Meketaten’s death-bed scene beautifully clear and still with a little colour showing. I had only seen these scenes as sketches in books. Even our six accompanying policemen were very interested as they had never been here before. We could have taken brilliant photographs but decided not to ask, which I later regretted. We walked along the curving corridor in another suite of chambers thought to have been possibly built as a secondary tomb for Nefertiti, when the generator failed and we were plunged into darkness. Nobody had a torch and the floor was very uneven, but we managed to get out as far as the main stairs by light from the flames of cigarette lighters. I wondered briefly if this was done for effect.
Our next port of call was to be el-Sheikh Said and we had hoped we could drive around the northern end of the Amarna cliffs, as it is just a few kilometres away, but Inspector Nasser told us that the track wasn’t good enough to drive. It was a hard decision to leave Amarna without seeing the Southern tombs again, but time was getting on if we wanted to see other sites today. Back across the el-Till ferry, up the road through Mallawi to Roda and across the river by ferry again to el-Sheikh Said. This turned out to be a disaster.
Nasser had said there was a good road on that side, but it quickly turned into a very bumpy dirt track after a couple of kilometres and Sam & I had to get out of the car and walk the rest of the way. When we got there the gafir turned up and pointed to where the tombs were – half way up the gebel and we realised it would take another hour of climbing to reach them. Risking the wrath of both Abdul and the police escort, we smiled sweetly and told them that we had decided not to climb up to the tombs after all.
These are among the earliest examples of rock-cut tombs, a development from mastabas in this region and date back to Dynasty V and VI. They were built for the officials of Ashmunein across the river, but there is no contemporary evidence of this cemetery found at the capital, Ashmunein. They are considered to be archaeologically very important. It seemed like a bit of a cop-out not to go up and see them, but it would probably be dark before we got back, so we had to make do with long-lens shots of the tombs. We had also planned to go to el-Sheikh ‘Ibada which is nearby, just to see if there is anything left of the Roman town of Antinopolis, built by the Emperor Hadrian in memory of his friend Antinous who drowned in the Nile. However, the road to that site was just as bad as the one we had just driven so we reluctantly decided not to try it.
We got back to Minya at 6.00pm and later went to eat at KFC again. It’s very cold tonight so we went back to the hotel for coffee and were in bed by midnight.
Sam and I left the hotel after breakfast this morning, with Abdul driving the car. We have decided to see a couple more sites in the Minya area then press on to Asyut today, so we left our bags in the hotel to collect later.
Our first stop was Tihna el-Gebel to the North of Minya, a place we visited only briefly last time we were here. It’s a large, mostly Graeco-Roman town site, known as Akoris, with a rock-temple of Hathor, built on a hill in a very dramatic situation. This time we wanted to try to visit the Old Kingdom tombs known as the ‘Fraser Tombs’, which are nearby. There is always a great fuss with the police who will insist that it is TUNA el-Gebel we want to go to, which is the better known site of Ashmunein on the other side of the river. Nobody pronounces TIHNA el-Gebel the same way twice so it’s difficult to get across where we want to go as they’ve never heard of it. In the end the police were sensible and let Abdul lead the way. We met the gafir and he led us up the hill through the very extensive mudbrick town site and we had another look at the rock-cut temples. One of them is supposed to date to Rameses II & Merenptah, but the only poorly-preserved reliefs in the temple court are from much later. The temples are in a very sorry state and the whole site is a confused jumble, with deep pits everywhere. The site dates from the Old Kingdom but has been used and reused right through to Christian times.
We wandered around the back of the temples, scrambling over the rocks with the gafir shaking his head and saying ‘no, no’. In the end he just let us go – must have realised by now that we are quite mad. On the other side of the hill past dozens of sanded up late period tombs in the necropolis, we found an area where a Japanese team have been excavating for the past three seasons. They have uncovered Late Period granaries, a textile workshop, leatherworking shop and a copper/bronze refinery and a great deal of pottery and other artefacts. There is so much here at this site and there are wonderful views from the top of the hill over yellow and green agricultural fields to the Nile.
We asked about the Old Kingdom ‘Fraser’ tombs but the gafir said they were a few kilometres further up the wadi and he didn’t have a key. Standing on top of the hill we could see hundreds of tombs cut into the slopes all around, but I think these are mostly Late Period or Roman. There are some very odd bits and pieces, such as a lovely heart-shaped column base on the temple platform – I’ve never seen one like it before. There is quite a lot of inscribed stone but nothing really complete enough to read properly, and I didn’t recognise the cartouches, which probably means they’re Late or Graeco-Roman. After a while we decided we had tried the patience of the gafir enough for one day, so it was time to leave.
Next stop the tiny pyramid of Zawiyet el-Maiyitin, Zawiyet el-Amwat, or Zawiyet el-Sultan as it is called locally. This is just across the river from Minya. The pyramid only has its lower courses remaining and is one of the seven Old Kingdom mini-pyramids in the Nile Valley, known as the Sinki Pyramids and sometimes ascribed to King Huni. However, we wanted to walk up to the Dynasty XVIII tomb of Nefersekheru, up on the gebel. There are many New Kingdom tombs but this is the only one open, so we puffed and panted our way up and went inside. I left with little recollection of what the tomb looked like – which just proves I need photographs (not allowed) to jog my memory and should have taken notes. We also saw what we think is the Old Kingdom tomb complex of Khunes, which has recently been re-excavated and still has reliefs in the outer parts.
We find more and more, and especially in Middle Egypt that wherever there is a modern cemetery there is almost certain to be an ancient site nearby. This theory has been very helpful when we are searching for places. The Muslim cemetery at Zawyet is one of the biggest in Egypt and dates back a long time. Its little mud domes stretch for miles along the banks of the Nile. We walked back down towards the pyramid and looked at the site of a New Kingdom Temple. There are few remains except in the quay area, but you can just make out the ground-plan of the temple to the north and we saw a nice block of stone with a Seti I cartouche.
We left Zawyet and drove back to the hotel to collect our bags and then on to Asyut, arriving around 3.30pm. The only hotel which took tourists and had rooms free was the Hotel Badr Touristic, quite expensive for an Egyptian-run hotel at $29 per night and not really tourist standard but not too bad. A strange place, it looked more like a nightclub than a hotel, with lots of mirrors everywhere on the red plush walls and large glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. We were allowed out to play on our own here and went out to eat later in a local restaurant serving the usual meat, rice and vegetables, followed by a coffee shop. I can’t decide if I like Asyut or not, it’s not as pretty as Minya and much bigger, being one of the main university towns.
Nomarchs Tombs at Meir
With Abdul driving the car, Sam and I left the el-Badr hotel this morning for Meir, 50km north of Asyut. The site we wanted to visit today was once the ancient capital of the 14th Nome and necropolis of Dynasty VI & XII nomarchs. Once more we were travelling with a police escort, driving fast along the straight road through countryside to the west of the Nile. When we reached a small town called el-Qusiya, we followed the police truck onto a smaller track that leads right to the edge of the cultivation and after around 8km we arrived at the necropolis. As we drove past a large Muslim cemetery we knew we must be getting close, then suddenly the tombs were right in front of us.
These tombs have recently been restored, cleaned and re-opened after being closed for several years. The first thing we noticed was a long and obviously new flight of steps, which didn’t look too strenuous. But they had long patches of very soft sand between each of the flights which really gets to the leg muscles. The first group of tombs belong to the Middle Kingdom governors of the region. The newly-cleaned wall-paintings are absolutely wonderful with beautiful colours unique to Middle Egypt and rare scenes of famine, including a group of people named as ‘Beja herdsmen’ (I think from Nubia) who looked very starved with ribs showing. There are some very unusual hieroglyphs too. We went into 4 tombs in this group all named either Senbi or Ukhotep, which is a bit confusing trying to work out who is who. Unfortunately we were strictly forbidden to take pictures inside these beautiful tombs and no amount of pleading or even baksheesh would sway the gafir.
After this group we set off for the higher group of Old Kingdom tombs. There were no steps this time and we had to climb the very soft sand dunes. Sam gave up half way and headed back, which put our accompanying policeman into a flap. Does he follow me or Sam? This is quite an interesting game. I suspected that Sam was trying to lure away the gafir to let her take photographs if she was on her own, so I carried on. The Old Kingdom tombs were not as interesting as the others and only had a little colour and reliefs. They hadn’t yet been cleaned and there were only two tombs open, Niankh-Pepi and his son Pepi-Ankh. There were more Old Kingdom tombs higher up, another kilometre further on, but I decided to go back down, wondering what had happened to Sam. She hadn’t succeeded with the gafir.
Next we drove back to Asyut and crossed the river to the east bank, heading for Deir el-Gabrawi, a necropolis of over 100 rock-cut tombs of governors from the Old Kingdom and 1st Intermediate Period. The village is most famous for it’s Christian monastery (deir). All of the area smelled wonderful because everyone was involved in the harvesting some kind of green plant grown in the fields. We discovered that the plant is called Rehan and smells and looks very like Basil. Its oil is used in the perfume industry and we were told it is very expensive. In the village we picked up the gafir and headed for the tombs which were very high up on the mountain.
As Sam and I climbed up the steep track a little way, we wondered if we would make it to the top, then by chance we found that the gafir didn’t have a key to open the tombs. At that point we decided to abandon the climb and went back down, leaving the gafir to scratch his head at these crazy tourists. There seemed to be an enormous amount of tomb openings and huge galleries of quarries everywhere on the hillside. At the base of the cliff is an extensive area of mudbrick structures, but we couldn’t decide how old they are. They have obviously been excavated because there are large mounds of pottery lying around. I assumed it must be some sort of town site, but we could not tell if it was ancient or modern and by this time the gafir was totally uncommunicative. I took lots of pictures of yet more tombs we didn’t get to see.
On the drive back to our hotel we had a small bunch of Rehan in the car that someone had given us and I could smell its powerful aroma all the way back to Asyut.
Today was a lost day. We had planned to drive to Kharga from Asyut, but I was ill all night with an attack of Dysentery. I haven’t had this for a few years but everyone says that once you’ve had it, it will keep coming back. That will teach me not to take the eating and drinking advice I give to everyone else! Sam went out during the day and got me some pills from the pharmacy. When I looked at the ingredients there were enough chemicals to stop an elephant in its tracks. And they worked brilliantly. I stayed in my room all day and mostly slept. The less said about this day the better.
Following in Petrie’s Footsteps
Feeling much better today – the elephant pills worked, though I’m still a little fragile. As the other sites we wanted to visit in this area are to the south of Asyut, we decided to check out of the hotel and head towards Sohag, visiting the sites on the way. Abdul, Sam and I left at 9.00am taking the ‘farmer’s road’ on the east bank of the Nile which took us past the huge limestone cliffs at el-Badari, with our first stop at el-Hammamiya. I had no information on this site, apart from the fact that it is one of the group of Predynastic cemeteries which form the core of Petrie’s ‘Badarian Culture’ pottery sequence dating system, the earliest predynastic level of occupation in Middle Egypt. It was a surprise to find a site with rock-cut tombs, a new flight of steps and a gafir with a key to three of the tombs. We climbed up to the tombs, which turned out to be Old Kingdom.
The first tomb we went into belonged to a man called Nemu who is seen dressed as a priest in a leopard skin and with a sekhem sceptre. Nemu’s tomb is entered by a corridor with a statue niche and statue of the deceased at the back wall. In the second corridor there are typical Old Kingdom funerary scenes of boats etc which I thought very similar to some of the Giza tombs, though this one was obviously unfinished. A second similar tomb with better reliefs, belongs to Kakhent ‘Chief of the Tens’ and his wife, Ify, named as ‘King’s daughter’ and ‘Prophetess of Neith’. Abdul lured away the gafir for a couple of minutes and we gave some baksheesh to his assistant who let me take a couple of photographs, though he was terrified of being caught poor man. The third tomb above this, which I had to climb over a precarious ledge to get into, belongs to another Kakhent with his wife Khentkaus, ‘Prophetess of Hathor and Seth?’. There is a long passage with statues, badly damaged but which reminded me of the tomb of Irukhaptah at Saqqara. I must do some research on these tombs. When I came out Abdul (who usually stays well away from tombs!) along with the gafir and all the policemen had climbed right up on top of the gebel and were waving down at us. A large bird of prey circled in the clear blue sky above their heads. At the base of the cliffs is another Muslim cemetery on the edge of the village.
The next stop on our route was at Qaw el-Kebir, another predynastic site with tombs dating right through to the Roman Period, and the site of the ancient town of Tjebu or Antaeopolis. There was once a Temple of Anti here which the books say was completely swept away by floods. We stopped by the roadside and looked at the vast area of rock-cut tombs and many quarries but they all look fairly inaccessible. We could clearly see one of the Middle Kingdom ‘pyramid tomb’ complexes with its causeway sweeping down towards the river. Everywhere you look in this area the cliffs are riddled with tombs and quarries. We also drove past the dramatic Gebel el-Haridi where Chris Kirby and Selima Ikram were excavating in the 1990s and said the excavators had to be tied on with ropes to stop them from sliding down into the river. It makes me marvel at just how the ancient Egyptians managed to build the tombs in such a precarious position in the first place.
A little further on we discovered what has become yet another ’mystery site’, as we can find no mention of it anywhere. There are quite extensive remains of a small temple or shrine close to the river, with stone fluted columns, paving and much mudbrick remains, possibly Roman. It fits the description of the Temple of Anti at Qaw el-Kebir which is said to be totally destroyed, but it appears to be too far south of that site and doesn’t much look like the drawing in ‘Description L’Egypte’. It looks like the small canal has been cut through the site and the Nile is just on the other side of the road.
Our last stop before we reached Sohag was the necropolis of el-Salamuni – more rock-cut tombs I had no information on. We found the gafir in the village but he didn’t have the key to the tombs and told us we would have to return next day if we wanted to see them, so we just took photos and drove on to Sohag. While we were waiting at el-Salamuni there was a terrific dust storm which obliterated everything and we had to hang onto the cars not to be blown over, but it only lasted a few minutes before moving on.
The Hotel Safa, on the west bank of the river in Sohag, is brand new and quite luxurious (though relatively expensive at $40 per night). It overlooks the river and there are wonderful views across to the city on the east bank. At about 7.00pm I went out onto the balcony and the full moon was just rising over the mountain on the opposite bank, so I quickly grabbed my camera. We ate in the hotel with Abdul and his nephew Dia, who lives in Sohag and had an early night.
Akhmim and Wanina
We rather reluctantly left the luxury of the newly-opened Hotel Safa this morning for the next stage of our journey. By the end of today we should be in Luxor. But before leaving Sohag we wanted to visit the open-air museum at Akhmim on the east bank of the river. For once, I have been there before but Sam hasn’t. We followed a police truck through the streets of Sohag until reaching Akhmim which is rather run-down – one of the poorest areas of the city. The museum is built on the site of a Graeco-Roman temple of Min, that was probably built over an even earlier site and it contains statues and blocks found there, including the absolutely gorgeous limestone statue of Meryt-Amun, which was found in pieces half buried and in water. It’s amazing how this lovely piece survived all this time and it has been beautifully restored.
There are also statues and fragments of Rameses II, though the most complete statue was usurped from Amenhotep III (I think). There are several blocks with Amarna reliefs which were also found on the site. A Coptic church has been excavated above the level of the temple. The inspector of antiquities for Akhmim, a very nice man, met us in the museum and when we had finished he took us across the road and behind some hoardings where another massive seated statue of Rameses has recently been discovered, about the size of one of the Colossi of Memnon. This is a huge hole in the ground currently being excavated and you can see more bits of Rameses sticking out of the dirt walls of the pit, waiting to be liberated. It was very interesting though he asked us not to take pictures as none of it has been published yet. This second, recently discovered site is thought to be the biggest temple of Rameses II ever found and they think it is at least as big as Karnak! The inspector was very excited about it and said one day people would come from all over Egypt to see it and Akhmim would be very famous.
The unfortunate side to the story is that the new temple extends a long way beneath the modern Muslim cemetery and the government have decided to dig up the graves and relocate them to el-Hammamiya (quite a long way away). A few years ago there was understandably a lot of trouble in Akhmim because of this scheme. The inspector said that everyone now understood and there were no more problems – ‘mafish mishkela’. I am not so sure about that. While we were looking at the statue, a funeral procession went by from the cemetery gates and some of the men started banging on the boarding with sticks and shouting. We felt very uncomfortable being there and I definitely felt that there is no excuse for moving the cemetery – not even for Rameses! After all, he will always be there for future generations. Of course, when it would have been nice to have the police around just in case of trouble, they had stayed at the other end of the road and left us on our own.
We beat a hasty retreat and left Sohag for our next stop, Wannina, a mainly Ptolemaic to Roman Period Temple dedicated to the lion-headed goddess Repyt, or Triphis. The town site is called Athribis. We soon realised that it was going to be ‘one of those days’. We arrived at Wannina and eventually hunted out the gafir in the village and went to the temple, which is quite large but without a roof. He told us we could not go inside and could not take pictures. We did eventually get to see into a small part of the temple and there were beautiful reliefs of Repyt – very different to anything we had seen before and with lovely colour. We couldn’t understand why no photos – the ban only applies to tombs. Then another man turned up and started making problems. He was somehow in charge of the site but wasn’t an inspector and didn’t like us being there, even with SCA permission. The inspector at Akhmim had said it would be OK to visit Wanina too. It was all a bit difficult as nobody could speak any English and our Arabic wasn’t quite up to arguments on this scale. When the man started grabbing roughly at Sam’s arm our police guard got a bit irate, so Sam and I walked away amid all the shouting, with the guy trying to apologise and asking us to stay. But by then we’d had enough of the situation and were ready to leave. It was such a shame because the temple reliefs were wonderful. I did manage to grab one photograph showing the remains of the Ptolemaic gate, but this was the most boring part of the temple! There are also many tombs in the cliffs above as well as a rock-cut shrine of Asklepius.
We drove on to Girga, where Abdul went to buy some falafel for our lunch, but came back to the car empty-handed, declaring the stall was not clean enough. Staying on the small roads on the west bank as far as Nag Hammadi, where the Sohag Police left us, we crossed the barrage over the river there. At the next checkpoint we were allowed to carry on with no escort. We expected to have to wait at Qena to join the convoy from Abydos, but to our surprise the police let us go alone all the way to Luxor. It was a lovely drive along the Nile on the east bank, past Qift and Qus (pronounced Gift and Goose – Qus with a Q means something very rude in Arabic!), past Medamud, until I had my first glimpse of Karnak Temple. I dearly love all of Egypt but cannot describe the feeling of elation at being ‘home’ in Luxor at last. Driving along the Corniche, those wonderful Theban Hills just across the river, clothed in late-afternoon shadows of deep pinks and purples were, as always waiting just for me.
In Luxor, we had decided to stay at the Novotel, which I was glad about because I can wake in the morning looking at the mountains. I had a Nile view room on the second floor, complete with a basket of fruit and a fridge full of drinks. Who cares what it costs? I’m in Luxor at last! Sam & I went out for a celebration meal at Maxims and sat on the hotel balcony until late.
Luxor West Bank
When I woke this morning it was still dark, so I went out onto the balcony to watch the Theban Mountain begin to faintly glow with it’s beautiful pink tinge reflecting the rising sun. I could gaze at this view forever. A couple of early morning balloons were drifting about and one of them almost landed in the Nile, but knowing the pilots this was probably done for effect. It eventually landed on the west bank. When it began to get light I took some photographs but it is impossible to capture the wonderful quality of light at this time of day.
At breakfast Sam & I discussed where we want to go this week – we’ll never fit it all in. We both want a fairly lazy week too after all that travelling. My first priority is to get over to the west bank, so we decided to visit the Temple of Merenptah which was opened a couple of years ago. We have both been before but wanted to get some digital pictures. Our priorities are to get photographs of the temples here which have good remaining colour, before the authorities introduce a photo ban in those too. As Sam has the car this week we drove over the bridge – not the same delicious feeling as crossing on the ferry, but less hassle. When we stopped near the ticket office, who should we see walking along the road but our friend Robin, who now has a house near Tarif. She was with a friend and they were off to the Ramesseum where a statue was in its final stages of re-erection today, so we promised to be in touch later in the week.
Before going to the Merenptah Temple we drove all the way along the monument road to Dra Abu’l-Naga. There is a lot of work going on behind the Tombs of Roy & Shuroy, especially around the Spanish excavations at the Tomb of Djehuty where mummy of a woman (princess?) was found in a coffin last year, generating much press coverage. There seemed to be many more exposed tombs since I was last in the area.
The Temple of Merenptah is an open-air museum with some lovely statues and carved blocks, many usurped from Amenhotep III. This trip we have been looking at the construction phases of Amenhotep especially relating to his solar symbolism – his reign seems to be divided into four phases of artwork, so it was useful to look at the re-used blocks. We also had a good look at the reliefs in the magazines, which I absolutely love as well as the Anubis heads and sphinxes. With a little baksheesh the gafir allowed us to take photographs in the magazines. I really wanted to photograph the reproduction of the Merenptah ‘Israel’ Stela, but as usual it was in heavy shadow and the reverse side is up against a wall. We wandered around the rest of the temple for a couple of hours and had a quick look in the museum too.
Eventually we reached the all-important Habu cafe just after the lunchtime crowds had left. I must have spent hours, days, even weeks sitting here in the past looking at the gate of Medinet Habu. Our friend Salah was there to welcome us as usual. We chatted for a couple of hours over many cold drinks, cups of ahwa and lunch. Salah gave us a couple of lovely scarves each too and then would accept no payment for any of it when we left. It gets embarrassing to have to keep accepting Salah’s generosity but we’ll make it up to him somehow.
On the way back we tried to find the el-Moudira Hotel which is a luxury complex out past Malqata. The sign from the main road led us through villages and eventually to a dead end, or at least a track into the desert. We then drove the other way past Suzanne Mubarak village on the road to Armant but saw a police checkpoint ahead so decided to turn around. We hadn’t realised that the hotel was just before the checkpoint. From pictures on its website it looks an amazing place, though at around $250 per night we know we’ll never be able to stay there – may just be able to afford the price of a coffee!
We drove back over the bridge to Luxor in the late afternoon and decided after briefly calling in at the Novotel that we would go to Luxor Temple, which was by now floodlit in it’s night-time guise. There are a few reliefs we wanted to look at (Amenhotep again) and I wanted to get some decent photographs of the temple at night, which I’ve only done before on slide film and now want to get digital pictures. There are many reliefs which show up much better at night and digital cameras are certainly better in low light than conventional film. After a late dinner at Maxims, Sam and I met up with Abdul and his brothers at the new el-Kalaa coffee shop nearby and sat chatting late into the night.
Qurna Temple of Seti I
We had quite a lazy morning today as Sam & I got up late. At breakfast we decided to go over to the West Bank again, this time to the Seti Temple at Qurna. It is supposed to have recently been re-opened, but I have never known it to be closed in the past eight years. I did notice that the processional way is more complete and new trees have been planted along the route. There are also some very nice blocks, now on risers and a good plan of the temple for visitors. The German restorers have done an excellent job. We began by looking at the many royal stelae near the remains of the first Pylon. I had never looked at these before.
We spent a lot of time in the chambers on either side of the hypostyle hall. There is always scaffolding in at least one of these rooms, making it difficult to take pictures and they are pretty dark and gloomy. We noticed one curious relief I’ve never paid much attention to, in the middle right-hand room. Seti is offering to a god, seated on a throne with an iunmutef fetish behind him. The peculiar thing about him is his headdress, which I have only ever seen on Meskhenet, a goddess of childbirth and destiny. Unfortunately the hieroglyphs are too high up and not clear enough when blown up to identify him. When I got back to the hotel I checked in Porter & Moss and they say this particular relief is Osiris! Isis and Anubis are behind him. I’ve never really noticed the lovely lintel in the Sanctuary either, with cartouches of Seti & Rameses.
There were many other interesting little scenes to look at. Every time I go to any of the temples there is always something else to see and I think it will always be like that. I was only a little disappointed because all of the outside scenes I wanted to photograph were bisected with deep shadows, so no good for pictures. We must have spent about three hours in the temple – so long that the gafir had given up trailing around after us and gone to sleep in a corner. He turned up for his baksheesh however, just as we were leaving.
Today was much hotter than it has been recently, just about perfect for me. We thought about calling in at the Ramesseum, but decided the Rameses Cafe at Habu was probably a better bet, so ended up there again around 3.00pm. Had a couple of drinks and chatted to Salah and Shahat for a while before leaving the West Bank, back across the bridge. Sam seems to be getting the hang of this driving business – she can even anticipate when a donkey-cart is about to do a U-turn on our side of the road or a tourist bus will try to run us into a canal! I really don’t know why they bother having two lanes on a road as nobody takes any notice of the white lines. You realise this as a huge truck comes hurtling towards you on your side of the road, stepping on the gas to overtake an invisible vehicle on their own side. Yesterday the police at the checkpoint had made a problem with Sam driving the car, wanting to see all her papers etc. (apparently there’s another one she’s supposed to have especially to drive in Luxor, but doesn’t). Today they just waved us through.
Back to the hotel for few hours to download pictures, have showers and chill out for a while before going for dinner. We ate at a new (to us) place below the Corniche called el-Khabagi. It was OK but quite expensive and a bit touristy. I’ve never known Luxor to be so quiet, except after the Deir el-Bahri incident a few years ago. The reason for this apparently is because there are no cruiseboats here, as the lock at Esna is closed and they are all staying upriver on the other side of the lock. There are hardly any tourists in Luxor at the moment. It’s like a ghost town at night. We had arranged to meet Abdul and the others at el-Kalaa coffeeshop at 10.00pm, but they didn’t turn up until almost midnight. Meanwhile we were the floorshow in an all-male coffee place where few tourists go, though it was OK because the staff know us now, though there were a few sly looks from the young guys playing dominoes. Another late night.
At breakfast today Sam & I decided to drive up to Esna as neither of us have visited the temple there for a few years. Because the tourists are all south of Esna (at least the ones on cruiseships) the police have temporarily stopped the convoy between Luxor and Esna for the duration and we could drive there at our leisure. It was a lovely drive along the east bank – hardly any other vehicles on the road. We passed el-Moalla tombs and also saw Gebelien Hill in the distance.
Sam only got a little lost in Esna but that was due to the one-way system – an unusual experience in Egypt. The entrance to the bazaar leading to the temple is not easy to find when you’re driving past as it’s a very narrow lane and the temple is not signposted. We eventually found it by parking on the Corniche and walking. Got a little side-tracked in the bazaar while Sam bought a lovely bright red scarf and I tried on a really nice linen galabeya. Unfortunately they only had the particular galabeya I liked in extra large which was much too big for me. I told myself I really didn’t need it – I’d already bought a beautiful and very expensive ‘suede-look’ galabeya in Cairo. I have a passion for galabeyas which I wear all the time at home and have several winter ones from Cairo which are velvet or linen and warm enough for England. I don’t like the tourist ones you see in Luxor with lots of garish embroidery. We also found a lovely wikala very close to the temple. This is a medieval trading post and a sort of inn where merchants would stay and trade their wares. This one, hidden behind a stall in the bazaar, was a bit derelict but had some lovely carved woodwork.
We managed about an hour and a half in Esna Temple before the first lot of boat people turned up and took over the temple. First we walked around the outside walls looking at the reliefs of Roman emperors before various gods. Kings named are Titus, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla. They wear an amazing array of decorative crowns. Divinities include Neith, Sobek, Khnum & Menhyt.
Inside the temple there has been quite a lot of restoration and cleaning done since I was last here and although it was very dark many of the reliefs were quite easy to photograph. There is also much more colour showing in some parts than I remember seeing before. These weird and wonderful Roman hieroglyphs continue to defeat me and I find it almost impossible to recognise and identify the names of the deities. I’m always intrigued by the crocodile and ram ‘cryptograms’ (or calendars?).
There are some lovely temple ritual scenes with some unusual deities – mostly upper Egyptian gods and many of the Elephantine deities are depicted. On one pillar there is a relief of four Meskhenyts with the same headdress we found on a god in the Seti Temple at Qurna. Another column has a curious relief of a king in an odd pose which looks like he’s dancing. He wears a long diaphanous kilt. The astronomical ceiling and the column capitals are particularly beautiful, as is the relief on the north wall of the king, Commodus hunting with a clapnet in the marshes with Khnum, Horus, Thoth and Sefkhet-wert.
After leaving the temple we walked back down through the bazaar and went to a coffee shop we’d noticed near where we parked the car. All of the cruiseboats are lined up along the corniche and occasionally a group of brave tourists will venture off a boat for a short stroll. As we were sitting (among the men) drinking our ahwa and Sam was having her shoes polished by a little boy, we noticed one cheeky bunch of tourists taking our photograph and videoing us. Yes, we’re the floorshow yet again!
We had a lovely leisurely drive back to Luxor. Thought about stopping at el-Moalla but decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to visit Ankhtifi’s tomb as there has been a lot of excavation there recently. Last time we went there we had to wait hours for the gafir with the key and it was pitch dark by the time we got into the tombs. They were very helpful on that occasion as they dragged a generator up the hill and we saw the reliefs by torchlight. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures then. Wish I had! We also stopped so that I could take a picture of the distant hill of Gebelein with it’s distinctive sheikh’s tomb on the top – a site I have yet to visit.
Arriving back in Luxor around 5.00pm, Sam and I later went out to eat at Farag’s (green) restaurant on Yussef Hassan St. This is an Egyptian restaurant and the only veggy food they had was a tuna pizza (which was horrible). I should have stuck to my usual rice and vegetables, but it gets a bit boring by the third week. After we had eaten, our friend Salah phoned and invited us to the Etap where a friend of his from Cairo was singing. Her name is Maha and she has a very good voice – especially when singing Arabic songs including some Omm Kulthoum numbers. Bed by 2.00am.
Meeting up with Friends
Today was a day off sites. Sam & I had arranged to meet some friends, Christine and Jackie, who arrived yesterday from Cornwall and are staying at the St Josephs Hotel, just a little further up the road to the Novotel. We found them in their hotel, sitting over a leisurely prolonged breakfast on the roof terrace at 11.00am and claiming to be jetlagged. After catching up on news, we all sat lazily chatting around the tiny pool enjoying the warm sunshine for a couple of hours while Luxor busily carried on its business in the dusty streets far below. The weather is warming up at last to temperatures I’m more familiar with in Egypt and it was nice to be inactive for a while.
Promising to meet up later for dinner, Sam and I went back to the Novotel where we sat by the pool there too for the afternoon, this time with a few books each to keep us company. I tried to use my laptop but the sun was just too bright to see anything on the screen. Although I’ve stayed in the Novotel before I’ve never sat at the pool side. It’s built on a floating platform on the Nile and sitting there by the water is almost like being on a felucca. Looking up from my books now and then I could see many water-birds skimming over the surface of the river and the familiar hawks circling overhead against the sun. Even at this time of year the terraced gardens of the Novotel are very pretty, an oasis of green on a perfect day.
Later, we met up with Christine and Jackie at Maxims for dinner together, which as always was very good. Afterwards we all went to the Etap to hear Maha singing again. The tented area next to the main hotel was full of Egyptian families, which was nice to see, but so crowded that we had to sit outside and almost froze to death. After such a warm day it’s very easy to forget that it’s winter here and the nights can get very cold indeed. We left about midnight, my teeth chattering all the way back to my room.
We had arranged to Meet Christine and Jackie to go to Deir el-Medina, which is Christine’s favourite place. She is an Egyptologist who we have known for many years, but she only visited Egypt for the first time a couple of years ago as she was terrified of flying. I find it odd how so many Egyptologists have never been to Egypt, so that their knowledge is purely academic, while others who excavate in Egypt often never have time to visit any sites other than the ones they are working on. Ask almost any professional Egyptologist a question and unless it is their own particular field of interest they often cannot give you an answer. Christine and Jackie phoned us during breakfast and said they were too tired to go out today – so Sam & I drove over to the West Bank to Deir el-Medina anyway.
We walked through the workmen’s village to the temple and spent a couple of hours there, first looking at the outside walls and then the chambers inside. There is so much beautiful colour left here that we wanted to take digital pictures before it was no longer allowed. You can never tell, the way things are going. I think we photographed every scene in the temple. There are some beautiful and colourful depictions of the gods at Deir el-Medina and they are so well-preserved. Ptolemaic reliefs are not my strong suit and once more I was having difficulty in reading the hieroglyphs, which to me don’t seem to make sense. After leaving the temple we walked back along the top of the workman’s village. As usual here we were accosted by men selling ‘genuine antiquities’ which they bring out of pockets in little tobacco tins in a very secretive way. I managed to get rid of them quite quickly by speaking Arabic – they soon lost interest, realising we were not gullible tourists, this usually works. Every time I walk through the village there seems to be more and more of it – I’m sure it’s growing.
Later we drove over to Medinet Habu for lunch. I left Sam in the cafe and went off into Habu Temple. I rushed around quite quickly, first in the shrines of the Divine Adoritix – two of them have been closed off with gates, with only the Amenirdis and Shepenwepet shrines open. Took photographs in the first and second courts and the rooms around the hypostyle hall, especially in the Osiris suite and then had a walk around the palace area. I have large albums crammed full of Habu pictures but wanted digital ones too. A gafir kept hassling for baksheesh, but as he hadn’t actually done anything I ignored him for once. There were plenty of other people there to hassle. I had an enjoyable hour and a half wandering around the temple – most of the other people only stayed for 15 minutes or so.
When I got back to the cafe some old friends of ours were there so I stopped to chat with them for a while. Sam had been talked into pricing up an AUC book order which had just come in and she was hidden under piles of books (she works for a book-seller in England). I helped too for a while and we soon got the job done. We have invited our friend Salah to come to Kharga with us tomorrow and we thought if we helped finish this job it was more likely that Shahat would give him the day off. He’s never been to Kharga and is quite keen to go. While pricing the books I found new copies of Aidan Dodson’s ‘Complete Royal Families’, a new book which Sam has just paid £20 second hand for in the UK. Here it was LE150 – about £13, so I had to buy it. It’s very heavy but too much of a bargain not to take it.
We left Habu around 5.00pm and drove back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before meeting up with Christine and Jackie at Salt & Bread restaurant near the Railway Station for dinner. Afterwards we all went to the Etap to hear Maha singing again (we are such creatures of habit). Sam and Christine proceeded to drink a bottle of wine each while I stuck to my ahwa on this occason.
Day Trip to Kharga Oasis
A faint pale promise of daylight was just beginning to colour the sky when I went out onto my balcony this morning, but the freezing night air still enveloped me in my light nightdress. Today was our chosen day to drive to Kharga, having missed the opportunity to go the slightly shorter route from Asyut because I was ill. Abdul told us that the direct road from Luxor was now open to non-Egyptians, so we decided to go just for the day. Sam had been planning to drive us on our own, but Abdul invited himself saying it was too far for her to drive there and back in a day, especially when he heard that we had invited our friend Salah to come along as he had never been there. I have developed a horrible cold but I was determined not to let it spoil my day.
By 7.00am we were driving across the Nile bridge and south on the West Bank towards Armant and the desert road. Colourful birds skimmed the surface of the misty canal looking for breakfast as we speeded along the empty road, with only an occasional donkey cart with its sleepy driver to slow us down. The police at the checkpoints weren’t bothered about us this morning, though a bit puzzled by Sam driving, they just radioing ahead to say ‘itnein Inglezi’ (two English) at every stop. I guess they’d only worry if we didn’t eventually turn up somewhere. Within about an hour we were up on the escarpment and then it was just a long very straight road for about 300km. Sam was driving, with Abdul fast asleep in the front seat, supposedly to keep an eye on her roadcraft, with Salah and I dozing in the back seat.
Sam and Abdul were both bored stiff by the drive, which they have done several times before. It’s a good road now and you can see parts of the old road here and there. When a dune encroaches on the road they have to just build a new road around it until the dune has moved on. Nothing will stop them. The desert here is rather flat and colourless – a bit like the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel, but I always love being in the desert. Half way into the journey I noticed an elaborate bus stop, looking like the entrance to some forgotten ancient temple, at the side of the road, but not a house for 100km in either direction. After about two hours we began to descend the Kharga escarpment and down into the depression of the Oasis to a place called Bagdad, and another checkpoint. We had hoped to avoid picking up a police escort, but here at the checkpoint they decided to come with us and we drove the further 70km into Kharga City. Though it’s called a City, this small town rambles along the road through the oasis, a scattering of old and modern buildings between an occasional plantation of palm trees with nothing very distinctive about it.
Our plan was to visit Hibis Temple and try to get into the hypostyle hall and sanctuary where there are some unique reliefs. The gafir however, told us that it is closed (always has been!) and he couldn’t let us in without permission from the antiquities inspector for Kharga. He wouldn’t take baksheesh and even Salah couldn’t charm him. So off we went back into town to see a lovely man called Mohammed Yusseff, a friend of Sam’s and the director of the Kharga Museum. He tried to get permission for us from the Inspector but couldn’t. He even phoned the SCA office in Cairo and spoke to the lady who issues our antiquities permissions and then Sam spoke to her too. I think Mr Yussef would even have phoned Zahi Hawass himself had he not been out of the country. He was really upset that he himself didn’t have the authority to give us permission to get into the temple. The Cairo office told us it would cost $1000 each to have sites specially opened for us under the new rules. We must have been just lucky up to now with closed sites. This is why the large specialist travel firms have to charge such vast sums for some of their holidays – because they have to buy permission for the sites that are closed. Anyway, we were rather disappointed and after a cup of coffee with Mohammed we left for the temple again.
I was also a bit disappointed to find that the whole temple was covered by scaffolding because of restoration work. There used to be a huge gate through the outer enclosure wall, quite famous for its Roman inscriptions and decrees covering all sorts of topics about Roman rule in the oasis. There has been a plan for the past 20 years to dismantle and move the temple, which has been falling down ever since it was built , and work began a couple of years ago. Rather than get the experts in, the government decided to go for an Egyptian construction contractor who quickly chopped the gate down to about the bottom two courses. In the process they have ruined it and it can never be rebuilt as it originally was. We first learned about this last year – it is not common knowledge outside of Kharga. Mohammed Yussef was talking to us at the Museum and he is livid about it and the fact that it is being kept quiet. It is so sad. The dismantling has thankfully now been halted again, but it is too late for the gate.
Even though we couldn’t get inside, we had another good look at the outside reliefs. They are very unusual because this is really the only well-preserved example of a Persian Period temple and you can see the transition in artwork between the Late Period and Ptolemaic, though the experts say there’s no link. The reliefs are very intricate and the hieroglyphs very well drawn but somehow simplistic. They are lovely. There is some surviving colour, especially the pale ‘Kharga green’ you don’t see anywhere else. Inside the temple is a very special relief of a blue-painted Seth with the head of a falcon, spearing the Apophis serpent. He is a unique desert god revered in the Oases and this temple especially, and this among other reliefs is what I wanted to look at (Sam of course has already been inside before).
After the temple we went back into Kharga and had lunch in a local restaurant in what appeared to be a main square. Sitting at a long wooden table among the workmen, the noise of Egyptian voices in their normal loud animated conversation was tremendous and echoed off the walls and high ceiling. By the time we went to a coffeeshop next door, my cold was getting worse and I was feeling rough. Salah was feeding me countless glasses of hot lemon juice with honey so that I felt like I was turning into a lemon. We had been told by the police that if we were not at the Bagdad checkpoint by 3.30pm we would not be able to leave the oasis today as they don’t allow people to drive on the desert road after dark. We spent as long as we could there, also buying lunch and drinks for four policemen. Eventually we left, driving back towards Baris and the desert road and passing Nadura and Qasr el-Ghueita fortresses in the distance. Unfortunately there was no time to visit anywhere else on a one-day trip.
There was a beautiful sunset on the way back and we had to stop so that Salah could take photographs with his new mobile phone camera which actually looked quite good. I took some paracetamol and fell asleep and woke up to find it was dark and the stars against the inky black sky were incredible. Nothing compares to a clear night sky in the lightless desert. There are a billion more stars than we ever see in the UK, or even in Luxor. We saw many shooting stars too, but it would have been much more enjoyable if I didn’t have a drippy nose and puffy eyes. We arrived back around 7.30pm and dropped Salah at the Luxor Mummification Museum where he had arranged to meet Christine and Jackie to go to a lecture. Sam and I went back to the hotel – she was really tired from driving most of the way so we had a drink and then an early night. I’m feeling really sad because tomorrow is our last day in Egypt.
Luxor Museum Extension
I woke this morning to look out at the Nile and the mountains. This will be my last early morning view for a while as it will be dark when I get up tomorrow. Sam was in a funny mood at breakfast and said she doesn’t want to do anything today. But while drinking our many breakfast cups of coffee we realised that we absolutely had to go and reconfirm our flight with Egyptair, which should have been done three days ago. Maybe they’ve given our seats to someone else by now……? I said I wanted to go to the museum and Sam decided she would come too.
Sam and I walked down to the Egyptair office by the Winter Palace Hotel and had to wait almost an hour for our turn. At least they have a numbered queuing system now – it used to be a free-for-all with the Egyptians pushing in front all the time. They still do this but it’s not quite so bad. They still have our seats reserved – oh well…
Feeling lazy we took a taxi to the museum and spent about three hours looking around and taking photos of almost every exhibit. I took a complete set of pictures of the Amenhotep IV talatat wall this time and they should come out really well with the digital camera. I panicked a little when I went upstairs and found they’d moved Amenhotep Son of Hapu, my favourite statue, but eventually I found him in the new section. This is the first time I’ve seen the finished new extension and I thought it was very well done. The architectural and scribal exhibits are especially interesting. I didn’t visit the royal mummies because I hate to look at the faces of kings who should be enjoying their eternal rest, not gawped at by tourists. A big banner outside the exhibit welcomes Rameses back home to Luxor but doesn’t mention poor Amenhotep. Finally we had a look in the bookshop but there was nothing new there and the new coffee shop isn’t open yet.
Back to the hotel around 2.00pm. I toyed with the idea of going over to the west bank to say a last farewell to the temples but didn’t go because I’d probably just end up at Habu again. I had some articles to read and notes to catch up on so I just went and sat out on the terrace for a couple of hours on my own, enjoying the sunshine and trying not to think about going home tomorrow.
We had invited Abdul and Salah out for a farewell meal and Abdul said he’d been recommended a new restaurant called Habiba, out towards the bridge. It’s owned by Blue Skies tour company and it’s a vast place by the river. We realised when we got there that it was really intended for coach loads of people (and we were the only ones there). They did a buffet meal, kept warm like in a hotel, which none of us were very keen to try, so we just had a lemon juice and left, much to the disgust of the manager. The decor in Habiba is beautiful – oriental in style which was obviously very expensively done and it was worth going just to see this. There were wonderful wall lamps and floor tiles and fabrics. Salah even surreptitiously took some pictures with his phone camera for ideas for his house he says he’s going to build. Eventually we ended up at Maxims again. Everyone was in a bit of a funny mood and nobody was saying much. Sam had raging toothache again and I still have a streaming cold, which didn’t help. Afterwards we went to the Etap (just for a change) and sat listening to Maha sing Arabic songs. Abdul and Salah kept getting a bit silly – I think it was their way of trying to cheer us up, though they wouldn’t share their jokes. There was one Omm Kulthoum song which they were both listening to intently. It was a love song about a man who will wait forever for his love. Watching the two men listening was so funny – Abdul had a big grin on his face and was obviously enjoying the music very much, while Salah had his face screwed up and looked like he was dying of an emotional overdose. You’d have thought they were listening to two totally different songs. This amused Sam & I greatly but they couldn’t understand what we found so funny. We left the Etap around 12.30am and dropped Salah at the ferry, then Abdul drove Sam and I back to the hotel. I didn’t get much sleep because I sat on the balcony until 2.30am, just taking in the never-sleeping sounds of Luxor.
Another Journey Home
Sam and I were up at 5.00am. Abdul had arranged to take us to the airport at 7.00am but it was actually nearer 7.45am by the time we left, which just reminded me that Egyptians have no concept of being on time. When we got to the airport, there was a big queue of locals for the Cairo flight, but Abdul managed to persuade the police to let us go to the front of the queue as we were late. We checked in our luggage and they grumbled about the weight but let us through as we were the last to check in – the flight was due to leave at 9.00am. We hurried up to the cafeteria, only to be confronted by another big queue at the counter and there was not enough time for a last cup of coffee. At least we didn’t have long to wait and soon almost everyone else had boarded the busses so we thought we’d better go too. We were both very subdued but I felt OK as we climbed the steps on to the plane, with a last look around before going inside. It wasn’t until we were taxiing up the runway that Sam & I dared to look at each other. My cold suddenly got particularly bad and Sam put on her sunglasses and hid her head under a blanket. After about an hour we could speak to each other for the first time today! I really hate this bit.
We spent the flight talking about where we had been. We’ve covered a lot of Egypt this time, from the Delta and Cairo, right down through Middle Egypt and finally Luxor, even venturing south as far as Esna. The flight was good, the movie, as usual, unmemorable and we arrived in a grey wet London only half an hour late. The rest of the day entailed a long tiring drive down the motorways. Home eventually with all my memories of another fantastic trip until the next time.
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