Discussion Group Abroad
Another year, another trip to Egypt, this time with a group of five friends from our Egyptology discussion group. The itinerary has been organised by my good friend Sam and we are all looking forward to some interesting discussions between us in situ at the sites, rather than the ‘armchair Egyptology’ we have enjoyed over the past year. My travelling companions this year are Sam, Jim and Jane, Malcolm and Fiona.
Our group met up at Heathrow airport for the weekly Monday Egypt Air flight to Luxor, which for once left almost on time. We even managed to get seats fairly close together and spent most of the comfortable flight chattering excitedly about our plans. Because we had all been to Egypt before, we knew what to expect and I think we all have our own agendas about where we want to go and what our priorities are.
We finally arrived and got through Luxor airport by 10.00pm. As always, as I left the aircraft, the warm Egyptian night air enveloped me with the unmistakable smells and sounds of Luxor. Although it’s November the night was still mild and the distant orange glow in the sky that is Luxor town was beckoning. In the terminal building we bought our visas and collected our luggage without too much of a scrum. Abdul, our faithful driver, was waiting outside in the car park to pick us up us in a minibus he has organized which is ideal for a group trip, and we spent some time admiring it enthusiastically. Another twenty minutes and Abdul had dropped us off at our hotel.
This year we are staying in the Garden Pavillion of the Old Winter Palace on the Corniche. Although I’ve been into both the Old and New Winter Palace many times, I’ve never stayed here before and I am quite impressed by the standard of the hotel room. We got a really good deal on the flight and accommodation and I’m sharing a room with Fiona, which helps enormously with the cost of the holiday. Although I do like my own space when I’m away, I am always penalised as a single traveller in hotel rooms. Our room is at the back of the hotel with a long balcony overlooking the gardens – a wide expanse of vivid green lawns and palm trees. It’s great to be back!
The morning dawned clear and sunny as it almost always does in Luxor. I love the way that you can depend on good weather here, even in the winter months. If it is cloudy or even raining, it never lasts long. The Abu el-Haggag mosque is close to the back of the hotel block we are in and the first thing I heard this morning was the early call to prayer, beginning with the slow deeply resonant ‘Allahu Ahbar’ chanted in the pre-dawn light. Within minutes the other minarets had picked up the chant and the sing-song voices, albeit mostly recorded these days, rang out from all corners of the town. Then I knew I was truly back in Luxor.
We all met up for a leisurely breakfast and decided we would spend our first day here in Luxor, just looking around. Malcolm and Fiona haven’t been here for a while and wanted to reacquaint themselves with the town and get their bearings. The first thing on my list as usual were the bookshops – just a peek to see if anything important had been published that I don’t already have. Aboudis, my favourite, is right next to the hotel, so this was my first stop, but nothing took my fancy this morning. The trail led from Aboudis, to the other Aboudis next door, to Gaddis on the corner and inevitably to the Amoun Restaurant for coffee later in the morning, where we all sat outside in the sunshine to watch the world go by.
Afterwards I went with Sam to visit the offices of the convoy police to see if we could get permission to go to Medamud Temple, which is only a kilometre or two north of Luxor and to Tod, a few kilometres to the south. Although these sites are very close to town and tickets are sold at Luxor Temple, we still needed to arrange the visits with the tourist police. Inside the police station a few flights of scruffy concrete stairs led us to the convoy office and we were asked to wait to see the officer in charge. We had thought that all this would be merely a formality and were horrified to be told that we would have to pay a small fortune for a police escort, including a specially-hired air-conditioned minibus to take them. It would seem that funds and transport are short and they would not let us go without us fulfilling this condition. After much argument, we refused to pay and tried another plan. We also wanted to visit the tombs and wadi at el-Kab and knew that again we would have to join the convoy for this trip. Fortunately this time the commander said that we could join the regular convoy as far as el-Kab, then I guess we would be in the hands of the Esna police and so not his problem. Well, at least we had won one battle.
At mid-afternoon we all met up again at Luxor Temple, cameras at the ready. I wanted to have a good look at the battle reliefs on the outside wall and the low afternoon sun slanting from the west was ideal for showing these in their best light. It’s an area of the temple that many people neglect but is very interesting. The western exterior wall gives details of the Syrian wars of Rameses II and on the wall surrounding the King’s pillared court there is a depiction of Rameses attacking a fortress at Dapur. On the outer wall where the court meets Amenhotep’s colonnade, Rameses can be seen shooting at the Fortress of Neheren. These reliefs show his Lybian war as well as the capture of the city of Satuna in Palestine. There are some lovely floral motifs here, similar to those in the ‘Botanical Garden’ at Karnak. Further along, on the outer walls of Amenhotep’s sun court, we see again, remains of the poem of the Battle of Kadesh which is also shown high on the temple pylon.
In Luxor the sun is enveloped rapidly at dusk into the violet cloak of the Theban Hills. One minute it’s light and the next the temple is floodlit with only darkness beyond its walls. But this is also a good time to see the reliefs, thrown high by the shadows of the artificial lights. The tall columns in the Colonnade of Amenhotep III look magnificent at dusk. My next stop was the ‘Birth-room’ where I always hope to get some good photographs of the divine birth of Amenhotep III, which in daylight are quite shallow and worn. The low lights provide the best chance of doing this. Here the story enfolds with Queen Mutemwiya , supported by Amun-Re and Hathor, before Tuthmose IV. These are the parents of Amehotep III. The god Khnum stands with his potter’s wheel, ready to make the Ka of the new king. We see the queen led to the birthroom and she delivers her child while seated on a block throne in the presence of the gods. Later we see the Ka of the newborn Amenhotep presented to Amun-Re by Hathor and the king presented to the deities.
By 6.00pm the temple was beginning to fill up once more with tour groups. This is one of the few sites open to visitors in the evening and it is always crowded. We almost had to fight our way out through the mass of people coming into the temple, through the pylon gate, although things have improved since a new rear exit was opened near the mosque.
A visit to el-Kab
Having obtained permission yesterday from the tourist police to visit el-Kab, we wasted no time and decided to go there today, joining the 8.00am convoy towards Aswan and leaving it at el-Kab, which is about half way between Esna and Edfu. Sam and I had been there before, but the others hadn’t, so they were quite excited to visit an unfamiliar site.
The ancient town of Nekheb was called Eleithyiaspolis in classical times and consists of monuments spanning periods of Egyptian history from Predynastic through to Ptolemaic. El-Kab and its sister site of Hierakonpolis on the west bank of the river were the home of Nekbet, the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt. This is one of the oldest settlements of Upper Egypt and not often visited by tourists, although it is open and tickets are sold there. There is even a new-ish but as yet unused cafeteria, ready for the coaches that never stop here. The guards always seem delighted when tourists turn up.
There are a great many tombs at el-Kab, you can see the openings high up in the cliff just off the main road, but the ones which are open are a few of the New Kingdom tombs on a terrace reached by a steep flight of steps. We didn’t expect to be able to take photographs in the tombs, but as always when in Egypt we were totally taken by surprise when the guards allowed us to get out our cameras. I hadn’t taken any pictures last time I was here because of the dark conditions, but with my digital camera it’s so much easier.
We began with the Tomb of Paheri (EK3). Paheri was a Mayor of the town of Nekheb during Dynasty XVIII. The paintings in his tomb are beautifully preserved with a lot of remaining colour and show many scenes of offerings at his funeral procession as well as agricultural scenes of daily life. In a niche in the rear wall is a statue of Paheri with his wife and mother. The next tomb was that of Tomb of Setau (EK4). Setau was a priest in the service of Nekhbet during the reign of Rameses III. On the outside wall of his tomb is a stela showing Setau and his wife adoring Re-Horakhty and Khepri. The paintings inside show the tomb-owner with his relatives in various offering scenes and a depiction of the Barque of Nekhbet with jubilee texts of Rameses III on the west wall. The reliefs are not quite so well-preserved as in the previous tomb, but there is still some lovely colour.
A tomb I especially wanted to see was that of Ahmose, son of Ibana (EK5). I had done some work a few years ago on translating parts of his famous biographical text from the hieroglyphs and I was so grateful to be able to photograph the original texts. In his biography Ahmose is described as ‘Captain of Sailors’ and he was prominent in the wars of liberation against the Hyksos rulers when the southern princes laid siege to the town of Avaris in the Delta. The text tells of the favours Ahmose was granted for his part, including the award of the ‘gold of honour’ and tells that he was given four slaves by His Majesty from the booty he carried off. He was the Grandfather of Paheri (EK3) who is seen offering to him in the tomb. The next tomb of belongs to Renni (EK7), a mayor of Nekheb during the reign of Amenhotep I. Renni’s tomb depicts the usual agricultural scenes, banquet scenes and funeral procession. The detail and the colour in these reliefs is superb and there are some very unusual cameos such as ‘muu’ dancers in the funeral precession, the opening of the Mouth Ceremony and a ‘tekenu’, that mysterious object pulled on a sledge that is occasionally glimpsed in a funeral procession. I have long been fascinated by the tekenu. There is a niche in the rear wall of Renni’s tomb which contains the remains of a statue of the tomb-owner flanked by two jackals. One of the most beautiful aspects of all these tombs is the painted ceilings and in Renni’s tomb the ceiling is painted to represent the cloth roof of a tent or canopy.
We had asked to drive down the Wadi Hellal road which runs 4km west towards the desert and where there are many other sites to visit but to our sheer amazement the guard asked us if we would like visit the town site of Nekheb, beyond the massive mudbrick enclosure walls that Sam and I had looked at longingly on previous visits. Last time we were here we got shouted at for even taking a picture of the walls from the side of the road! This was a chance in a million.
The huge mudbrick walls of the town enclosure are 12m thick and still contain within them a vast area of ruined temples, cemeteries and a sacred lake. There was so much more to see than I had imagined. Once inside the walls, which still have a wonderful example of a mudbrick ramp, we walked over the scrubby ground towards the central area, through the low remains of a stone-built pylon gate. The central temple is the oldest of the remains, with its origins possibly dating to the Early Dynastic Period. Of the two ruined structures remaining today, the Temple of Thoth was begun by Amenhotep II in Dynasty XVIII and enlarged by later New Kingdom pharaohs. Another monument, a larger Temple of Nekhbet the vulture goddess, was built during the Late Period and partly overlays the older structure with many re-used blocks from the Middle and New Kingdom. It was difficult to make out the plan of monuments within the town site as the inside is very overgrown and confusing, but the remains of a birth-house and a small Roman temple can still be seen. One feature which captured the interest of the men in our group (always more interested in technical matters) is the complex drainage system which is exposed in front of the second pylon of the Nekhbet Temple. I was captivated by the reliefs of the re-used blocks in the ruins, some of them upside-down or wedged sideways into a space and once or twice we came upon lovely little statues which felt forlorn and neglected.
We spent a long time inside the town site, but all too soon it was time to move on to the wadi Hellal and we collected another guard who had keys to the monuments there. At the entrance to the valley is a Ptolemaic rock-sanctuary dedicated to Seshmetet. Just to the southeast and higher up the hillside, is a temple of Nekhbet consisting of two halls with Hathor columns and a rock-cut sanctuary. This was built by Rameses II, restored by Ptolemies VIII-X and has a stela of Rameses II cut into the façade. The reliefs inside the temple are not well-preserved, but the steps leading up to it and the courtyard have been recently restored. Back towards the road is a structure called locally el-Hammam (the bath), a square single roomed chapel dedicated to local gods and to the deified Rameses II by his Viceroy of Nubia, Setau (a different person to the owner of tomb EK4).
Further along the valley road is ‘Vulture Rock’, so-called because its shape seen at a certain angle (which in my opinion needs a great deal of imagination) is said to resemble the shape of a vulture. Or maybe it is where vultures, probably prolific in the cliffs of this remote spot, go to roost. The southern face of the rock is covered with petroglyphs and Old Kingdom inscriptions probably made by pilgrims passing this way on the ancient desert road towards the Red Sea coast. Several Old Kingdom kings are named on smooth panels cut into the rock, the earliest cartouche is that of Snefru. There are also Late Period primitive rock-carvings including many boats. We scrambled around the rock for a while before moving on further into the desert.
At the end of the track is a lovely little temple dedicated to Hathor and Nekhbet, built by Tuthmose IV and Amenhotep III. The single chamber was apparently a way-station for the barque of Nekhbet when the statue of the goddess was brought to her desert valley. Quite a lot of colour still remains on the wall reliefs inside the temple, depicting Tuthmose IV and his son Amenhotep III. The building was restored in late antiquity and brightly painted scenes of rituals as well as the vulture goddess still can be seen. On the chapel façade is a text by Prince Khaemwaset, the son of Rameses II, announcing his father’s jubilee in year 42, as well as graffiti by other passing travellers including more primitive boats.
It was late afternoon when we left el-Kab to join the convoy back to Luxor and we were all delighted at what a fantastic day we had had, being so fortunate to be able to visit the town site of the vulture goddess. We treated ourselves to a celebratory tea on the terrace of the Old Winter Palace and discussed our day. It’s lovely to be in the company of friends who are all passionate about Egyptology.
Temples Then and Now
For today we had planned a trip over the river to the West Bank on the big passenger ferry which runs from the Corniche near Luxor Temple, so it was not far to walk from our hotel. I have seen many ferries come and go over the years, some of them little more than rusting hulks on their final voyages to be replaced by the time I visited again. Now there was another new ferry, shiny with bright white paint and with metal floors intact. We all went up to the top deck and watched as the Corniche and the temple receded as we neared the opposite bank. It was still quite early and we were not bothered by the hawkers and touts I was used to seeing hanging around the dock. Sticking with local transport we caught an arabeya to Dra Abu’l Naga. The six of us almost filled the back of the Peugeot pick-up, but of course there was still room for half a dozen young boys to climb onto the back step and cling on. I’m sure they only came along to look at us, as the stares gradually turned into questions, ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Which country?’, ‘Baksheesh?’, ‘Cigarette?’.
Getting off near the junction leading to the King’s Valley, a bargain journey costing only 25 piastres each, we set off walking back along the monument road. Our plan was to look at the sites of all the destroyed temples that line the road, just to see if there are any obvious remains. Just across the road from where we left the arabeya, behind the Temple of Seti I, is the site of the Temple of Nebwenenef, a ‘Prophet of Amun’ and one of the few private individuals to have a mortuary temple in the Theban necropolis. There is now nothing to see here but past explorations have revealed a few Dynasty XVIII or XIX objects found at the site, including two broken pieces from colossal statues of Rameses II. Nearby there was a tiny Temple of Amenhotep I and his queen Ahmose-Nefertari, in which blocks were found that were carved with heb-sed scenes. Three statues of Ahmose-Nefertari were also found here. Again, the site today is just a patch of bare ground.
We walked further along the main road until we came to the site of a colonnaded temple of Rameses IV, just near the end of the Deir el-Barhri causeway. Howard Carter investigated this site and found foundation blocks and some plaques bearing the names of Rameses IV as well as a few other blocks with the names of earlier kings which must have been re-used. The end of the causeway was also the site of Hatshepsut’s Valley temple, but now is a large patch of flat open ground that locals use as a shortcut to the Deir el-Bahri road and boys use to play football. The Valley Temple is known to have been destroyed in antiquity, but Carter discovered foundation deposits from the site during his investigations, which included alabaster jars and tools. A little further along is the site of another destroyed and probably unfinished temple which appears to have been begun by Rameses IV and re-used by Rameses V and VI. Many fragments from the structure have been found. Sandstone reliefs depicting the head of Rameses VI came from the second court and many remains of re-used blocks from other monuments were found including Osirid statues of Amenhotep I and a block depicting Hatshepsut crowned by the god Amun that probably came from her Valley Temple.
To the left and right sides of the road just north of the Ramesseum, is the site of a Temple of Tuthmose III, where at least we could see some evidence of a monument. The modern road now cuts right through this temple and on the left are substantial remains of a mudbrick pylon, while on rising ground to the right the site is marked out by aligned blocks, one or two with some nice reliefs and we saw a couple of column bases and fragments of painted fluted columns. The temple’s ancient name was ‘Henket-ankh’, and it was probably begun in the earlier part of Tuthmose’s co-regency with Hatshepsut. Many of the blocks and objects from here have found their way into museums around the world. Another destroyed temple is situated to the south of the Tuthmose temple, jointly belonging to Kings Merenptah and Siptah of Dynasty XIX. This is now a low mound at the side of the road, with no suggestion of the ruins it possibly covers. It was excavated by Petrie who found foundation deposits naming King Siptah and Chancellor Bay, as well as plaques, jar-sealings and fragments of vessels.
By now we were in the area of the Ramesseum. Just to the northern side of the huge Mortuary Temple of Rameses II, is a ruined Temple of Amenhotep II. Originally excavated by Petrie, it is currently undergoing re-excavation and restoration by an Italian Archaeological Mission. The remains here appear to be quite extensive. Against the Ramesseum’s northern wall was also a chapel of the ‘White Queen’, so named because a white limestone bust of Rameses’ daughter and consort Merit-Amun, depicted in her religious role as ‘Sistrum-player of Mut’ and ‘Dancer of Horus’, was discovered here. This bust is now in the Cairo Museum.
Across the road we had a wonderful view of el-Qurn, the pyramid-shaped mountain peak in which the ancient Egyptians believed that Hathor, the ‘Lady of the West’ resided. At the foot of the Theban mountain between Deir el-Bahri and Deir el-Medina, behind the village of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna, is one of the oldest of the Theban temples, belonging to Mentuhotep Sankhare or Amenemhat I. It is thought that the structure was never completed and the temple consists today of only a platform and causeway, though very difficult to find. Because Sam and I had looked for it before, we didn’t bother today and carried on walking along the main road. Just to the south of the Ramesseum was a tiny temple in the name of Prince Wadjmose, a son of Tuthmose I. The temple is now completely destroyed, but statue fragments bearing the names of Wadjmose and Tuthmose I were found here as well as various blocks of Tuthmose III and several stelae. The next sites we came to were a destroyed temple of Tuthmose IV, and close by, a temple built for Queen Tawosret, wife of Seti II. This she shared with her successor Siptah. Little is known about this monument but there has obviously been some recent restoration done here.
By now we had reached the end of the Monuments Road, with the Merenptah open-air museum to our left. It took several hours to walk along the road, stopping to investigate any possibility of a monument, even examining odd blocks of stone sticking up out of the sand. We were all hot and thirsty so the obvious next step would be the Rameses Cafeteria at Medinet Habu. But on the way there was still more to look out for. Taking the back road past the ticket office, we still had to pass the site of a temple of Rameses IV known as the ‘North Temple’ but there are virtually no remains to be seen. Likewise a ‘South Temple’ of which little is known beyond a ground plan. A mortuary temple constructed as a gift from Amenhotep III for Amenhotep son of Hapu, the king’s chief architect and scribe, contains more extant remains in the form of a large area of pavement with a few scattered blocks and column bases. Finally we all lined up on a large mound of rubbish to get an overview of the destroyed temple of Ay and Horemheb where a team have recently been doing some restoration work.
The café at Medinet Habu was crowded with lunch-time coach tours, most of the long wooden tables were taken by Japanese tourists eating packed lunches provided by their hotels. We managed to find a free table at the edge of the café and gratefully sat down for a rest and a lengthy lunch consisting of lovely Egyptian salads and yummy garlic bread, washed down with deliciously refreshing lemon juice.
Feeling a little more lively as the mid-day heat began to abate we eventually walked across the road and into the Temple of Rameses III. Now this is what I call a temple – it has long been one of my favourite monuments in the whole of Egypt and it always feels like an old dear friend. Fortunately we had come inside during a lull which often happens in the early afternoon and the temple was very quiet. We each set off in different directions, which meant that the couple of guards on duty quickly gave up trying to follow us and went off for their siesta. The small temple, the oldest building at Habu constructed by Hatshepsut was closed due to the ongoing work by Chicago House. I headed off towards the shrines of the God’s Wives. Only two of the original four chapels still remain, but on a lintel above a doorway there is an ‘appeal to the living’, in which the Divine Adoratrice Shepenwepet II asks that a prayer be said for the occupants of the chapels. The request concludes in a threat – that ‘as for those who do not utter these words, the Mistress of the West will cause them to be sick and their wives to be afflicted!‘ So I like to say a little silent prayer as I pass by, just in case.
I wandered around my favourite parts of the temple for a couple of hours and we all met up again in the hypostyle hall as the first of the coach parties could be seen coming through the huge pylon gate. It was time to leave. The afternoon was drawing to a close and we all decided it would be nice to stay and have an early dinner in the Rameses Café where we could sit and watch the sun go down behind the Theban mountain, while the face of the temple gradually comes alive with the artificial lights playing over the walls as dusk falls.
Eventually we made our way back across the river on the ferry to Luxor. It was a beautiful evening.
East and West
I cannot help but regard Luxor as two separate places, the East Bank and the West Bank, always divided by the wide stretch of river. While the west sleeps its peaceful sleep as a necropolis should, in contrast the east is teeming with life twenty four hours a day. Today, Jim wasn’t feeling well and we all decided to stay on this side of the river and keep him company, whether he liked it or not, spending the morning in his hotel room that he dare not leave. In England we are all part of an Egyptology discussion group, so why not carry it on here. Jim lay stretched on his bed as we talked about the walk we had done yesterday and speculated on the temples no longer there and the kings and queens who had built them or stolen them from earlier rulers. Jim is never one to stay silent for long and soon he looked better, chipping in with the conversation as much as the rest of us. We spent time also discussing our plans for he next few days when we would venture north into Middle Egypt.
But by lunchtime Jim was fading again so we left him in peace and went to have a lovely lunch in the hotel. Sam and I rarely eat at lunchtime but the food in the New Winter Palace restaurant was too tempting to resist – the salad buffet is amazing!
After lunch I went for a walk with Malcolm and Fiona. There have been a lot of changes here in recent years and many parts of the town are being smartened up. I was glad to see that the old suq was still there, although the first part of it has a new cobbled pavement and many of the stalls have been painted or rebuilt. There is even a new grand arched entrance! This is the area that attracts tourists, though they don’t often venture very far up the long street. Further along the pavement disappears and the road once more becomes a rough dirt track, littered with dubious puddles and donkey droppings. This is where the locals shop. I love this part of the suq as there is so much to see. Stalls selling bright gaudy fabrics mingle with shops selling spices of every variety. Next there may be aluminium pots and pans for any occasion, or plastic laundry baskets hanging in rows from long nails. Vendors of Galabeyas, shoes, taped Egyptian music and coffee shops line up along the street and they are all busy with their daily trade.
We walked round the town in a big loop and ended up on the Corniche. Looking across the river the Theban mountains of the West Bank were turning a misty mauve in the late afternoon and smoke from cooking fires was drifting low over the villages. Whichever side of Luxor I am, I’m always pulled by the opposite bank as though a magnet is drawing the two halves of the town together.
Abydos Desert Sites & Beit Khallaf
Amid a great deal of excitement we were all up with the larks this morning (are there larks in Egypt?) to join the early convoy to Abydos. Several of our group have never been there before and they couldn’t wait to see the Temple of Seti I at last. We were travelling in the minibus with yet another Abdul as our driver, as well as ‘our’ Abdul – this trip could get confusing. For the first time, we were permitted to drive straight to Abydos instead of turning off with the convoy to Dendera Temple and we arrived at the little village of el-‘Araba el-Madfouna around 10.30am, finding to our joy that we were the only tourists there. Abdul had been in touch with his contacts at Abydos to ask if we could visit the desert sites, though none of us were holding out much hope because they have generally been off-limits for several years.
I love the first view of the temple when driving into Abydos. It stands proudly and sedately at the end of the road, just beyond a little garden area where cold drinks and relatively modern toilets can be found. We all made straight for the temple while Abdul went off to find his contact. I never tire of this Seti Temple with its magnificent reliefs, although today it had to be a swift look around because we knew that we would be coming back this way in a few days. To our great surprise the antiquities inspector gave his permission to visit some of the outer sites, though not the tombs this time as the excavation teams were working there at present. We got back into the minibus and headed north west out into the desert landscape in the company of the inspector and a police escort.
I find this area of Abydos very exciting, invoking thoughts of Egypt’s earliest kings and most ancient artefacts. It is a pilgrimage for me, a pilgrimage which has been happening for 5000 years or so. Since King Djoser built the first pyramid, ancient Egyptians flocked to Abydos, believing it to be the burial place of Osiris and turning it into an ancient ‘Mecca’. An annual re-enactment of the Osiris myth took place here for kings and commoners alike and if an Egyptian couldn’t make the journey in his lifetime, the ‘Abydos Pilgrimage’ was painted on his tomb walls, a symbolic journey to this sacred place. The pilgrims brought offerings of wine and incense in red clay pots which they smashed and millions of fragments can still be seen on the sandy slopes of Umm el-Gab. Many archaeologists have been attracted by the remains at Abydos but it is only since the 1960s that many new elements of the site’s long history have been found by the use of modern technology, slowly emerging like lost pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle.
We drove past Petrie’s evocative old dig-house on the way out into the desert. When he excavated here in the early 20th century, Shunet el-Zebib was the only large standing funerary enclosure – believed to be the oldest surviving brick building in the world. At that time Shunet was interpreted as a fort but it has since become clear that it the massive enclosure walls had a religious significance, a funerary complex built by King Khasekhemwy a generation before Djoser. It is now thought to be a ‘prototype’ for the first pyramid and has many similar elements such as massive niched enclosure walls, separate chapels and an inner pyramid-like mound.
Standing before the huge enclosure of Shunet el-Zebib and looking up at the 130m long, thick layers of sun-baked mud brick walls, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of awe at this ambitious construction which encloses an area of around one hectare. Inside, lying on the yellow sand there are still many potsherds from red clay vessels which contained the ibis burials from a later re-use of the monument. But the most exciting aspect of being here was to stand at the edge of the area where, since 1987, David O’Connor and the Abydos Expedition has unearthed a total of 14 brick-lined boat pits containing the remains of well-crafted and fully functioning wooden boats. Perhaps not as well-preserved as the famous solar boat at Giza, but certainly predating it, these proved to be the world’s oldest surviving boats built of planks, as opposed to those made of reeds or hollowed-out logs. Of course there was nothing to see except a slight depression in the sand because the boat-pits are once more covered up, but I have a good imagination.
We wrenched ourselves away from Shunet el-Zebib after a while to cross the dunes to a mysterious enclosure known as Kom es-Sultan, another impressive mudbrick structure to the east of Shunet. Kom es-Sultan represents part of the ancient city of Abydos, an area made up of complex layers of material, originally a tell which has long been destroyed by sebbakh (organic fertilizer) digging. It is assumed that the town surrounds the site of the earliest Temple of Osiris (or Khenty-Amentiu) in Abydos. Little is known about this structure itself, but the only known statue thought to be Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza was found here.
A good part of the huge middle Kingdom mudbrick walls are still standing but only a few blocks now remain to give us a glimpse of the temples and structures they once contained. Huge numbers of stelae have been plundered or excavated in the past from this area which have provided a great deal of information on the cult of Osiris. More recent excavators have found substantial remains of residential streets of houses, as well as a larger domestic building or ‘mansion’ and many of the local industries are represented by evidence found there. The valuable information that has come from Kom es-Sultan has gone a long way towards piecing together the history of the isolated artefacts found at Abydos over the past century, allowing archaeologists to re-evaluate their context. Today the modern village of el-Khirba partly covers the area of Kom es-Sultan, but adjoining the enclosure is a recently excavated portal temple, built by Rameses II. To this day a wide beaten path through the desert leads from Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Qa’ab, indicating the route of pilgrims over the millennia.
Our route was back to the village and the Seti Temple, where we went into the garden for a cup of coffee. A stall with souvenirs was manned by a young man, perhaps a descendent of one of those vendors of votive pots, incense and statues sold as offerings to ancient Egyptians on their pilgrimage in years gone by. It was here we learned that we had permission to visit Beit Khallaf.
Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf is situated to the north of Abydos and just to the south of Sohag near the village of Mahansa. The huge mudbrick monument is just as impressive as those at Abydos, but because of its remote location few people ever see it. This is an area investigated by John Garstang in the early 20th century and for many years there has been debate about the mastaba’s owner. There are actually five of these monumental stepped tombs in the low desert here dated to the early dynastic period, but K1 is the largest and best preserved. Several artifacts naming the Dynasty III King Netjerikhet (Djoser) were found in mastaba K1, along with numerous seal impressions, one naming a Queen Nimaathap as ‘Mother of the King’s Children’, while impressions bearing the name of Netjerikhet were also found in the other mastabas. Current archaeological evidence suggests Netjerikhet was the son and successor to Khasekhemwy, and probably performed his burial. Nimaathap was possibly related to Netjeriket in some way and may even have been his mother. The quantity of stone vessels found in the Step Pyramid and Nimaathap’s mastaba also contained identical ink drawings of the god Min, suggesting that they came from the same ‘heirloom’ collection.
Our police escort patiently waited at the foot of the mastaba while we thoroughly investigated its walls and climbed up to the top to look into deep shafts left by early excavators. There are several breaches of the walls where robbers have dug into the sides and top of the monument, but whether they found anything of note I don’t know. Today there are no inscriptions or decoration to excite the average tourist, but for me it is much more interesting than a pyramid because of its antiquity and it has captured my imagination with its history since I first saw it on a previous visit a few years ago. Are these mastabas the missing link between Khasekhemwy’s funerary enclosure and the first Pyramid at Saqqara?
With a lot of thought-provoking discussion we carried on our journey in the minibus the short distance towards Sohag, where we booked into the Hotel Safa, which Sam and I had stayed in last year. At around 7.00pm I went out onto our balcony overlooking the River Nile, just in time to see a huge full moon rising over the eastern hills behind the town.
Akhmim & el-Badari Region
Today’s excursions began at the open-air museum at Akhmim, on the east bank of the river at Sohag. Sam and I were here last year, but the others were delighted to get a chance to see the famous statue of Meritamun and others in the museum. In 1981 part of a temple with a monumental gate believed to date to the Graeco-Roman Period was unearthed during building works on the north-eastern edge of the town. Archaeologists found several statue fragments of Rameses II during excavations, as well as a beautiful colossal statue of the king’s daughter and consort, Meritamun, now re-erected in the centre of the area which has become the open-air museum, several metres below the modern ground level. When it was found, the statue of Meritamun was lying face-down and broken in the mud, but today, Meritamun, as always was so beautiful – probably my favourite standing statue in Egypt and she stood out stunningly in the clear early morning light against the deep blue background of sky. The museum also contains a beautiful Roman statue of Venus (Isis) as well as many stelae and architectural elements form the surrounding structures. There are also some large inscribed blocks from el-Amarna which were probably re-used in the later temple building.
Our visit to Akhmim didn’t take long and after a quick peek at the recent Rameses II temple excavations across the road from the museum, we were soon on our way to el-Hammamiya on the east bank of the Nile. The area commonly known as el-Badari Region, stretches roughly between Akhmim and Asyut and encompasses ancient cemeteries at el-Hammamiya, el-Badari, Mostagedda, Deir Tasa and Matma which date from prehistoric times right through to the Roman Period.
There are many Old Kingdom tombs at el-Hammamiya. The only one of the Badari sites open to visitors, a new flight of stone steps lead up the slope to three decorated tombs belonging to the reign of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid.The now familiar sight of an old Islamic cemetery spreads out at the base of the gebel, as usual marking the site of more ancient tombs. The first of open tombs belongs to Kakhent and his wife Ify, who is named as a ‘King’s Daughter’. On the level above, the tomb we entered belongs to another Kakhent and his wife Khentkaus, ‘Prophetess of Hathor and Seth. Below the tomb of Kakhent and Ify there is another unfinished tomb belonging to Nemu, where in the entrance hall the deceased is seen as a priest wearing a leopard skin, a wig and holding a Sekhem sceptre, with his wife and three children. The decoration of the tombs is not well-preserved, but it is still possible to see some of the reliefs and colour in some places and they are very reminiscent of the Old Kingdom tombs at Giza.
Our next stop was Qaw el-Kebir, another part of the ancient cemeteries and the the necropolis and town-site of ancient Tjebu, a town, once capital of the 12th Upper Egyptian Nome and known in Graeco-Roman times as Antaeopolis. The most interesting section of the necropolis is the southern part, where Dynasty XII rulers are buried in rock-cut tombs on terraces slightly set apart from the main cemeteries. We scrambled up the rocky slope to investigate the tombs of the provincial governors, Wahka I (hereditary prince and mayor), Ibu, Sobekhotep and Wahka II (Mayor during the reign of Amenemhet III). The tomb structures followed the basic plan of a pyramid temple and consisted of a chapel with associated valley temple, causeway and mortuary temple. The antechambers of the tomb-chapels were originally decorated with limestone reliefs, now gone, but some of the statue chambers are still painted. Steep ramps rise from the base of the cliffs to the tombs along which the sarcophagi would have been dragged. Petrie excavated at Qaw el-Kebir during the 1920s and in 1925 J L Starkey found a papyrus containing the earliest known Coptic version of St John’s Gospel wrapped in a cloth and buried in a jar at the site.
Our police escort today have been brilliant and we had a leisurely drive back along the base of the gebel on the east bank of the Nile, with the steep rocky slopes towering high above us. Several times we stopped to take photographs and the police waited patiently as though they were having a nice day out too. At one point we stopped to have a look at a mysterious temple that Sam and I have seen several times before but cannot identify. Very close to Gebel el-Haridi, the road leads past this little ruined temple with remains of fluted columns and extensive mudbrick walls at a higher level. The temple is cut by a small canal and is close to two blue-painted sheikh’s tombs (which usually indicates the site of more ancient ruins). It is intriguing.
Back in Sohag at the hotel, a wedding was taking place in the garden. We had a lovely view of the bride and groom at their top table from our second-floor balcony and everyone was having a good time. By midnight, however, the novelty was wearing off as the excruciatingly loud music from a speaker system went on late into the night.
Abydos Temple of Seti I
We left the Safa Hotel in Sohag this morning at 9.00am, after watching a beautiful pale sunrise from our balcony. A couple of little boats were out for the early morning catch, the fishermen beating the water to make the fish rise into their nets. Other than this rhythmic sound the river was as still as a millpond.
Today we were heading back towards Luxor after our brief trip into Middle Egypt, but on the way we just had to stop once more at Abydos for a longer visit to the Temple of Seti I. Once again we were not part of the convoy so we had the temple to ourselves for a few hours and the guards left us alone as we all spread out. I don’t have any digital pictures taken in the temple and set about trying to photograph everything – not an easy task. I worked methodically for once, beginning with the outer hypostyle hall, which is actually the latest part of the temple decorated by Seti’s son Rameses II.
While most of the monumental reliefs of Rameses are large and bold, they are much more subtle here, almost as delicate as his father’s beautiful reliefs in the rest of the temple. Whether this is as a result of Rameses’s youth at the time or simply the superb workmanship of the artists here, I don’t know. I worked my way through the seven shrines of Seti and into the rear of the temple, the Osiris Hall, where some of the finest carving can be found, depicting Seti offering to various deities. The colours are fabulous but the light is very low and without a tripod I wasn’t expecting great results.
One of my favourite rooms is the Hall of Ptah-Sokar and Nefertum, the gods of the Memphis Triad and the Northern counterpart of Osiris. There are some very beautiful and quite rare reliefs of a hawk-headed Sokar and both a human and lion-headed Nefertum.
My next stop was the Gallery of Lists, the famous Abydos King-list in which Seti and Rameses offer to a list of 76 cartouches of their ancestors, beginning with Menes and ending with Seti. Of course there are omissions, such as Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Smenkhare, Tutankhamun and Ay, who were presumably not considered legitimate ancestors.
Time was running out as I made my way out to the Osirion with its huge granite pillars and massive roofing blocks. The water table was quite high today and the subterranean pavement of the structure was under several inches of water. We were not even allowed down the staircase. The Osirion has been interpreted as a kind of cenotaph of the god Osiris or possibly a pseudo ‘royal tomb’, symbolizing his myth, but nobody knows its real purpose.
I would have loved to walk along to the Temple of Rameses II, but we had no time left because we had to leave when the convoy left to drive back to Luxor. A few hours later we were back at the Winter Palace. Our three days in Middle Egypt will be remembered every time I hear a certain Fleetwood Mac CD, as Jim had brought this along and it was played over and over on our journeys in the minibus. Funny how some things stick in your mind!
Deir el-Medina & the Ramesseum
Today we split up to do our own thing, and Fiona, Malcolm and I decided on a trip over to the West Bank. It was a lovely morning and soon after breakfast the three of us wandered down to the local ferry for the crossing, neatly missing the busiest time of the morning ‘rush hour’. Once on the West Bank we managed to avoid the taxi drivers and local touts, hailed an arabeya in the village and got out at the ticket office, where we bought tickets for Deir el-Medina and the Ramesseum.
The walk to Deir el-Medina past the tiny hamlet of Qurnet Murai is lovely in the morning before the sun gets too hot and we were in luck as the local children must all have been in school. When we arrived in the workmen’s village there were not even any tourist coaches parked there yet. We had the village all to ourselves and walked through the main street where Dynasty XIX artisans and their families had lived. The houses are fascinating even today, and it’s not difficult to image the daily lives the men, women and children must have led there. I have seen so many museum artefacts from the workmens village it was just nice to remind myself where they all came from. This must be one of the places that tells us most about the lives of ancient Egyptians because of the tremendous amount of textural objects found here spanning most of the 18th and 19th Dynasties.
We didn’t bother with the tombs today but finished our walk through the village at the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor and went inside to admire the beautiful temple with its lovely colourful reliefs. After spending some time chatting with the temple guard and stopping a while at the massive ‘Great Pit’ where so many ostraca have been found, we set off along the sandy track that meets the main monument road.
From here it wasn’t far to the Ramesseum and we re-traced our steps from last week when we were looking at the destroyed temples, this time stopping longer to have a look at the Temple of Amenhotep II that is currently being excavated and restored. As it was now lunchtime we took a detour into the Ramesseum café for a much-needed drink. Their lemon juice is especially good.
The Temple of Rameses II, otherwise known as the Ramesseum, never seems to look any different, even though it has been undergoing work for decades. The colossal statues of Rameses still stand as sentinels on the remains of the second pylon and the huge fallen colossi still lies on the ground where it fell in antiquity. The giant feet of the statue always fascinate me – they are carved so perfectly. Here I met Taya, a guard I have known for many years and we chatted for a while.
As the sun began to sink behind the hills it cast a golden light onto the walls and we wandered around the hypostyle hall and noted that the great pillars have had a facelift, their colours now bright and clean. We stopped at each relief, as I worked out from my notebooks which festival they referred to and which deities were depicted. Rameses II was never shy and liked to have all his exploits carved on his temple walls. His plan worked, he certainly was not forgotten.
By the time we were back on the ferry crossing over to Luxor it was beginning to get dark and the lights from the town were already shining colourful reflections over the river. Back at the Winter Palace we met up with the others and later all went out to dinner at Farag’s restaurant in the bazaar.
South to Edfu
By 7.00 this morning our little group was leaving Luxor and travelling towards Edfu. The police convoy is still obligatory on this route and we were one little minibus among what seemed like hundreds of vehicles snaking our way through Luxor, past the checkpoint by the bridge and speeding up on the road south. There was a lot of honking of horns and overtaking until the convoy settled down into a natural order – the speedy ones at the front and the dozy ones, like us (what’s the hurry?) bringing up the rear and being herded like sheep by occasional police trucks. Our driver Abdul really hates the convoys.
The familiar road, first alongside the Nile and then a canal, follows the railway line and leads past the site of Middle Kingdom tombs at el-Moalla. I would have loved to stop and visit the tomb of Ankhtifi, but a quick glimpse of the hill as we sped past was all I got. After about an hour and a half we all stopped at ‘The Black Horse’, where the Luxor police change places with the Edfu police. I can never remember the proper name (Sharaola??) for this well-known checkpoint because I’ve always known it as the Black Horse but never knew why it was called that. The taxis and coaches disgorged their passengers who made as one for the coffee shop and toilets and both had very long queues within a couple of minutes. I got out to stretch my legs and took a few pictures of the surrounding fields of green crops and a bored-looking policeman in his concrete tower. A large poster of President Mubarak smiled down at us all from a hoarding.
After a ten minute break we were off again, this time passing by el-Kab, which we had visited a week ago, and eventually arriving at Edfu at around 10.30am. I haven’t been to Edfu since the entrance was changed and as soon as we pulled into the large new coach park I could see the difference. Before, we approached from the back of the temple, walking along by the huge enclosure wall and around to the front pylon. Now the new entrance with its long and wide paved walkway leads straight to the front entrance and the pylon gate looks magnificent and much more impressive from a distance. I also noticed the new open-air museum on the western side of the path which hadn’t been there before.
Fiona, Malcolm and I stopped first at the mammisi, which I’ve never had time to visit before. This little colonnaded building unique to Graeco-Roman temples, is a birth-house, built to celebrate the divine birth of Horus and is the prototype for the ones at Dendera. We spent a long time looking at the reliefs, some of which are quite unusual and many depicting birth-scenes of Ihy, the son of Hathor and Horus as well as my favourite little god Bes.
On the massive twin towers of the pylon, the king strikes the traditional pose of smiting his enemies before Horus, and I could imagine the bright flags which would have fluttered above the gate when the temple was in use. The grooves for the flagpoles can still be clearly seen. Guarding the main gateway, two statues of Horus as a falcon are still in situ and are an instant identification of the temple. Of course everyone has to stop and have their picture taken with the big birds. For the rest of the morning I stayed in the portico of the first court taking photographs of the scenes of the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’, the important festival in which the cult statue of Hathor travelled each year from Dendera to Edfu on a barge to reunite with her consort Horus.
We had all arranged to meet up at lunchtime in the cafeteria, so I went off to find my friends. The temple itself was quite busy by this time, but after an hour or so most of the other tourists had left and we had the temple almost to ourselves. I revisited each of the familiar chambers, all very similar to Dendera and tried to work out the names of each room from my copy of ‘Porter and Moss’. One thing here I love is the reproduction of the barque of Horus standing on a low pedestal in a chapel behind the sanctuary. This full-scale model was built for Arthur Weigall early in the 19th century, who used it in a re-enactment of a Horus Festival, and it is beautiful.
For the rest of the afternoon, I walked around the ambulatory corridor of the inner enclosure walls, where the whole myth of the battle of Horus and Seth is depicted in relief. The Edfu Drama, or the ‘Triumph of Horus’, tells the story of Horus’s mythological triumph over Seth which was celebrated each year as a mystery play. Another important ritual celebrated at Edfu and depicted on the ambulatory walls was known as the ‘Installation of the Sacred Falcon’ in which a live falcon representing both the god Horus and the king, was crowned.
Too soon it was time to leave and by 4.30pm we were once more driving with the convoy back towards Luxor as the sun began to set.
Kom el-‘Abt & al-Moudira
Taking the minibus over the bridge to the West Bank, we dropped the group off at the Valley of the Kings for the day. This was to be their first visit there on this trip and they wanted to go into several of the royal tombs, the Western Valley and then walk back over the mountain to the Ramesseum. Sam and I opted out for an easier day, preferring to explore the wide-open spaces of the desert rather than the hot crowded tombs.
We had read a report about a site called Kom el-‘Abt, an enigmatic mound in the desert beyond Malqata where Amenhotep III had built his royal palace. We eventually found the isolated mudbrick platform on the edge of the cultivation just beyond the modern Suzanne Mubarak Village. It wasn’t much to look at, a roughly rectangular platform built from mudbrick and filled with sand and gravel, but as we walked closer we could see just how huge it was, 45m by 40m and about 3.75m high. Apparently the fill has revealed predynastic flints and pottery sherds and this was paved over by a surface of mudbrick, but the purpose of the structure remains a mystery. It has been likened to the desert altars at Akhetaten.
There are foundations and remains of several mudbrick houses to the south-east of the structure that are similar to those built at Malqata from the time of Amenhotep III and some are also said to bear a resemblance in plan to Amarna-style villas at Akhetaten. Excavated by OH Myers for the EES in 1937, he found bricks stamped with the cartouche of Amenhotep III, giving a secure date to the buildings, as well as pottery typical of the period. The complex was later extended to include an unexcavated settlement from the Third Intermediate or Late Period. Sam and I looked all around the platform, noticing a well-preserved mudbrick ramp on the south-west side. We had also read that to the west of the structure, a 5km long cleared strip of desert headed in a straight line towards the western foothills and it is suggested that this may have been the initial stages of a road or causeway leading to a monument that was never started, or interrupted by the death of the king. Archaeologists know that the road was left unfinished as there were small piles of surface stones which were not cleared away. Standing on a rise, Sam and I could just about make out the route of the clearing. Taking the suggestion of Myers, it was nice to imagine the road used for chariot races or games, with the elite using the platform as a viewing point. It may seem silly to get so excited by a mysterious pile of sand and stones, but Sam and I both find that getting away from the usual hieroglyph-laden temples and out into the desert, bordered by the magnificent Theban hills and using our imagination is often very rewarding.
Because we were in the area, we next went to visit a secluded and very exclusive hotel called al-Moudira, built as a dream of its owner, Zeina Aboukhir and opened in 2002. We had seen photographs on their website of this beautiful Arabian Palace and had wanted to see the hotel for ages. Arriving at the wrought iron gates, we asked if we could have coffee and take a look around the gardens. We were first kindly shown a few of the 50 suites, all like something from the Arabian Nights, each uniquely decorated with hammam-style bathrooms. The ochre domes, patios ornate with arabesques, fabulous antique furniture and amazing attention to detail took my breath away. No words can describe the hotel accurately, you just have to see it. Afterwards we wandered around the beautiful eight hectare gardens, full of palm trees, vibrant bougainvillea and other exotic plants. We had a leisurely coffee on a shaded patio and I felt like I never wanted to leave. One day, if I can ever save enough money, I will be back to stay there.
But back to reality, we had to collect the others from the Ramesseum where we had arranged to meet them in the cafeteria. They were red-faced but happy after their walk over the mountain and eager to talk about the tombs they had visited. I however, was still back in the cool gardens of al-Moudira with its tinkling fountains and shady corners and felt very remote from the Egyptological discussions.
Later in the evening, refreshed and ready to go again, we all went to el-Hussein Restaurant in Karnak village for dinner. Always a good Egyptian meal there.
The Temples of Karnak
Staying on the East Bank in Luxor today, Jim and Jane, Fiona, Malcolm and I set off together for a day in Karnak Temple. Getting there around 12.00pm is about the best time of day to visit the temple because the tour groups are generally leaving and it gets gradually less crowded as the afternoon progresses, until around 4.00pm when the next groups arrive.
We began our tour together, but as always at Karnak because there is so much to see, we gradually drifted off into different directions. I took my camera on a walk-through of the Amun Temple and spent quite a lot of time in the Festival Temple of Tuthmose III. The ‘botanical reliefs’ in the back of the temple were beautifully lit by the afternoon sun. Later I went into the open-air museum to see what was new. The Chapelle Rouge, the barque-shrine built by Hatshepsut has been reconstructed by the French team working in Karnak over the past several years and now completed, it looks magnificent. I spent a long time photographing each block in the shrine, remembering those that used to be stored on risers many years ago. It is a work of pure dedication. The portico of Tuthmose IV at the back of the museum has also had much more added since I was last here. The colourful reliefs of the King and the Gods, today shining in the sun, really bring it to life.
We had arranged to meet up in the cafeteria later in the afternoon, but getting side-tracked on the way, I began to photograph the reliefs of Rameses II on the southern girdle wall as the light here was perfect. Surprise surprise, I met Jim who had the same idea. After a quick drink in the café it was time to leave. The sun was low as we left through the main entrance, stopping only briefly to say goodbye to the ram-headed sphinxes that lead up to the first pylon.
In the evening we all went out to eat together at Farag’s open-air restaurant in the bazaar, which is set in a little garden festooned with coloured lights. Sitting chatting about Karnak in the cool of the evening was a perfect end to another good day.
Dendera Temple of Hathor
Having visited the Temple of Horus at Edfu earlier this week, it seems only right to pay our respects to Horus’s consort Hathor at her Dendera temple. Our little group left early in the morning with the convoy in the minibus with the Abduls and followed the Nile north towards Qena.
Dendera is around 60km from Luxor and it took less than an hour to reach the town of Qena. Here the convoy split up, some of us taking the bridge to the west bank while others carried on through the eastern mountains towards the Red Sea coast and Hurghada. The long bridge that crosses the Nile here is right in the centre of the wide bend in the river that can be clearly seen when flying south down the Nile Valley. Once over the bridge it is just a short journey through agricultural land to the temple at the edge of the desert.
I’ve been to Dendera many times and although it is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt and very beautiful in places, it is not one of my favourites. I can’t explain this feeling except that it may be because the reliefs there are Ptolemaic rather than from an earlier period that I prefer. The temple itself is very dark inside, the walls blackened with the grime of centuries and in the past it has never been easy to photograph on film. But today the columned hall was littered with scaffolding poles and it looks like a thorough cleaning and restoration is in progress. Some of the ceiling panels have been completed, revealing the most beautiful astronomical scenes in gorgeous blues and browns. And at last with a digital camera that copes well with dark conditions, I could take some decent pictures.
Our group split up and went our separate ways and eventually I ended up on the roof – a part of the temple I have always liked the most for its wonderful views over the whole precinct. Visitors are no longer allowed up onto the upper level of the roof (apparently someone fell off not long ago), so I had to make do with the lower level where the lovely little kiosk of Hathor stands in a corner. I also had a good look at the Osiris rooms where the mysterious reliefs of the resurrection of the god are displayed on the walls. There is also the replica ‘astrological ceiling’ here, the original I had seen in the Louvre recently.
We had only an hour and a half at Dendera before we had to leave with the convoy on the journey back to Luxor, but as I went out of the Gate of Domitian, the main entrance into the temple precinct, I looked up to see one of my favourite reliefs. This is a winged scarab on the lintel, but it is unusual and possibly unique in that it is the underside of the beetle that is shown.
We were back in Luxor by early afternoon, though it seemed like we had been out all day because of the early start. In the evening we went out to eat at a little local restaurant near the railway station called ‘Salt and Bread’ where I had eaten before. It is nothing fancy but the food is local, freshly cooked and very good and most of all is not expensive.
West Bank Temples
On our last day in Egypt, Sam, Jim and Jane wanted to stay around the hotel and relax, so I went over to the West Bank with Fiona and Malcolm. Since they had first experienced the local passenger ferry for the first time earlier on this trip, we had been to the West Bank taking the minibus over the bridge so they were keen to go on the ferry again, loving it as I do.
We sat up on the top deck that gives a lovely view downriver and chatted to a few of the locals on the way. When we reached the other side we had to fight our way through the hoards of touts and taxi drivers before making our way to the arabeya station. I bumped into an old friend that I’d known for years and he guided us through the bus station to get us onto the right arabeya for the ticket office. We paid our 50 piasters, went to buy tickets for the Seti Temple and Deir el-Bahri and hopped on another arabeya to the end of the monument road.
We entered Seti’s Qurna Temple, which he named ‘Glorious Seti in the West of Thebes’, through a side gate in the northern wall. From the now-ruined First Pylon there was once an avenue of sphinxes which lined the processional way, but only a couple of these are still in place by the main gateway. It must have indeed looked glorious in it’s heyday. The façade is quite different to Seti’s Abydos temple and the reliefs inside are beautiful, but unlike Abydos have lost much of their colour. Seti dedicated this temple to the god Amun-Re and his father Rameses I, but it was Seti’s son who completed the decoration. The temple has had a great deal of restoration work since the 1970s by the German Archaeological Institute and now looks very smart. We wandered through each of the side rooms and marvelled at the six elegant papyrus columns in the Hypostyle Hall. My favourite part of the temple is to the south of the Hypostyle Hall where a series of chapels were associated with the royal mortuary cult. The central chapel was dedicated to Seti’s father Rameses I and has a beautifully-preserved false door at the rear showing Rameses I in a kiosk with a falcon above it. This is an unusual feature in a West Bank temple. We investigated the rear of the temple which is less well-preserved and finally looked at the ‘Solar Court’ built on the northern side and unmistakably decorated by Rameses II.
By lunchtime the temperature had risen so we decided to walk along to the Ramesseum and have lunch in the cafeteria there. It was very pleasant in the shade watching the little sparrows hopping around our feet in search of crumbs. After our break we set off towards Deir el-Bahri, cutting across the sandy area of Asasif and looking at the remaining wall of Hatshepsut’s causeway along the way. When we got to the famous queen’s temple I was surprised a how quiet it was. We must have arrived at just the right time in between coach parties.
The next couple of hours we spent exploring the terraces of Hatshepsut’s picturesque temple. We worked our way along each of the terraces looking at reliefs of Hatshepsut bringing her obelisks by river from Aswan to be erected in Karnak Temple, the expedition to the land of Punt and the variety of incense and trees that were brought back. Birth scenes on the second terrace showing the queen’s divine birth, gave legitimacy to her claim to the throne. My favourite area here has always been the Hathor chapel on the southern side of the second terrace, with it’s beautiful Hathor-headed columns and reliefs depicting the queen suckling from the Hathor cow. The third terrace, now open after many years of reconstruction by Polish archaeologists, has some beautiful and colourful scenes from Hatshepsut’s ‘Beautiful Feast of the Valley’, where the statues of the Theban triad were carried on barques from Karnak each year, along with statues of her ancestors to take part in the festival.
We left Deir el-Bahri as the late afternoon crowds once more began to filter into the temple and the sun began to slide down behind the mountain. This is a temple which is ideally best viewed in the morning when the reliefs have the full sun on them, but of course that is also the time when it is most crowded. We walked back to the main road, taking in all the sights and sounds of the West Bank for the last time and saying a fond farewell to the mountains. After a short arabeya ride to the ferry dock and jumping onto the ferry that was just leaving, we were back in Luxor as the sun was setting over the river, turning it a fiery golden-red and dozens of little feluccas were out sailing in the evening breeze.
In the evening we were a large party dining at Maxim’s, as we were joined by the two Abduls who had accompanied us on many of our trips, faultlessly driving us wherever we wanted to go and smoothing the way considerably. The owner of the minibus, Badawi, also joined us for the meal and we all went for coffee afterwards at the Novotel, which is now under new management and called the Iberotel. It will always be the Novotel to Sam and I who have stayed there several times. As we sat on the terrace looking out over the river Nile, we all were sad to say goodbye to Egypt for another year.
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