Autumn in Luxor
Another long and tiring journey to Egypt and less than three months since I was last here. I just couldn’t stay away. It was early October 1997 and I had come to Luxor again with two of my regular travelling companions, Robin and Lucy. We landed at Luxor airport at 4.30pm and after negotiating the free-for-all in the terminal we looked for a taxi into Luxor. This was not as easy as it sounds – when we left the airport building we were confronted with dozens of hopeful taxi drivers who tried to take our bags and rush us off to their cabs. We had managed to hang onto them so far, the porters already tried to grab the luggage and even though we had refused to let go were now asking for baksheesh and calling out to taxi drivers. But eventually we found a taxi and negotiated a reasonable price of LE20 for the drive to Luxor. The sun was setting over the Theban Hills as we drove into town and along the Corniche. I was in paradise!
The three of us had booked rooms in the Etap Hotel, now known as the Mercure, right on the Corniche opposite the Nile, with wonderful views across the river from the balcony. It was quite a big tourist hotel and very smart and the rooms were beautifully clean. The evening temperature outside was still warm at 90 degrees F. so we quickly dropped our bags and went out to the Amoun Restaurant near the bazaar for something to eat. The restaurant staff were full of smiles and welcomes, Luxor was buzzing with life and once more I felt like I had come home.
Wonderful Things on the West Bank
My two friends and I walked out of our hotel in the early morning and who should we bump into but Ali, our friendly taxi driver from our last trip, standing by the door of his cab in front of the hotel, looking stately in his long white galabeya with his gold teeth glittering in a wide grin. He was delighted to see us but very apologetic that he was waiting for some American guests who were going to the West Bank and so he couldn’t be at our disposal this morning. The American couple appeared and very kindly insisted that we share their taxi, refusing to take no for an answer. We had intended to take the local ferry across the river, but instead Ali drove us across on the ‘new bridge’. This was not the grand Luxor Bridge which was opened a few years later, but a temporary bridge built to accommodate the influx of traffic generated by the Opera Aida, which, we were told, was to be performed on the West Bank later this week. We were dropped off at the Colossi of Memnon as we wanted to have a look at the site of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. There had been some excavation going on at the site, but only the guard was there this morning and he offered to let us have a look around. We saw the beautiful crocodile sphinx, at least it was a rear end and tail of a crocodile sphinx, and other small blocks which had been found buried here. The water table was high, making the ground very soggy underfoot and the grass was long and full of camel thorn which tore at our feet and legs. At the back of the temple area the excavators had begun to uncover a pillared hall which we thought was very exciting and we were allowed to have a look around the edge of it.
We thanked the guard and turned left to walk down by the canal along the road towards Medinet Habu, past the little fields of peas and sweetcorn which grew behind the houses of the village of Kom Lolla. As we neared the temple we realised that we hadn’t bought tickets at the ticket office. Oh well, we would have a drink at the Rameses Cafeteria and decide what we wanted to do today. At the café we sat in the shade for a while looking at the magnificent temple façade and chatted to the waiters, who knew us from previous visits. This is my favourite rest place on the West Bank and I always end up at the Rameses café at some time during a day here. One of the guys working at the Rameses Café who we had met before, was studying for a degree in Egyptology. Salah is a mine of information about the local sites which he knows very well and loves them as though he had built them himself.
This morning Salah told us about a little temple just around the corner from the café, called Qasr el-Aguz, so of course Robin, Lucy and I wanted to go and have a look at it. We walked around the corner, weaving our way through the village, until we saw the temple nestling among the little houses and found the guard who let us in with his key. The tiny temple was dedicated to the god Thoth and built by Ptolemy VIII. Behind a small courtyard, only three chambers remain intact, the last room being the sanctuary, where the king is portrayed making offerings to the gods. Unfortunately the decoration was quite blackened and the reliefs shallow and worn, making it difficult to see anything much in the darkness but looking up we saw a lovely ceiling in typical Ptolemaic style, showing the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nekhbet and Buto, as vultures.
Later we hopped on a bus and took a ride along the road at the edge of the cultivation, past Qurna as far as the junction to the Valley of the Kings. ‘Bus‘ is a misleading description of the ‘arabeya kabud’, meaning something like ‘people’s car’, which is the local public transport on the West Bank. It is usually a covered Peugeot pick-up truck with a narrow bench down each side to seat around twelve people. Sometimes at the busiest times of the day, there can be as many as twenty passengers, many of them standing on the back foot-plate and hanging on to each other or crammed into the front of the cab with the driver, as the bus speeds along the bumpy tarmac. The fare should be 25 piastres for any journey, however long or short, on the circular route from the ferry. The driver will often try to charge tourists more, but handing him the correct change with a polite ’Shukran’ (thank you) and walking away usually works well. The great thing about the arabeya is that you never need to wait more than a few minutes for one to pass by and they will stop anywhere.
Near the road junction to the King’s Valley, is a lonely low domed building where Howard Carter lived during his excavation years in the 1920s. Howard Carter (1874-1939), the renowned British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, first came to Egypt in 1891, to work with Percy Newberry as an artist and afterwards with William Flinders Petrie at Tell el Amarna. By 1893 Carter had introduced the practice of photographing tomb walls in his pioneering spirit of experimentation. Just before his appointment by the Egyptian Antiquities Service as inspector-general of the monuments of Upper Egypt in 1900, while working at Deir el-Bahri, Carter had accidentally discovered ‘Bab el-Hosan‘, his first intact royal tomb. During this time, he had begun to take an active interest in the archaeology of the Theban necropolis and supervised the clearance of several newly-discovered tombs, including those of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose IV. At the time he was also working for Theodore Davis, an American excavator in the Valley of the Kings. It was not until 1908 that Howard Carter began working for the English earl, Lord Carnarvon, excavating many sites in Egypt. In 1914, Carter heard that local Egyptians at Thebes had discovered a cliff tomb of Amenhotep I outside of the Valley of the Kings, where a cache of New Kingdom pharaohs had been buried. He found someone who would show him the tomb and subsequently excavated it. He also excavated the tomb of Amenhotep III in the Western Valley as well as an early cliff-tomb belonging to Hatshepsut. Carter worked with Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings from 1917-22 until the earl had exhausted his interest there, convinced that nothing more was to be found. It was only at Carter’s insistence and offer to finance further work for one more season himself, that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in November 1922, in a last minute investigation of a mound of rubble. By far the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, the story of the subsequent excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb has been told many times. The tomb was officially opened in 1923 amidst a fanfare of dignitaries and press, to reveal the famous golden shrine, but it was not until October 1925, almost three years after the discovery of the stairway leading to the boy-king’s tomb, that Carter gazed upon the face of Tutankhamun with his mask of beaten gold.
Carnarvon, whose health was already failing, had died of an infected mosquito bite and pneumonia shortly after the opening of the tomb in 1923 and the legend of ‘the curse’ was born. Carter died in London in March 1939 and although rich and famous, he was hardly recognised at the end of his life for his achievements in archaeology.
Howard Carter’s house, when I visited in 1997, was planned to open as a museum. This year was the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and Luxor was commemorating the event in many different ways. As the guard showed us around the empty rooms, it seemed to me a sad and lonely place, though we were told that there would soon be photographs and original equipment as well as some of Carter’s personal belongings. Even in the bright sunlit day, I could feel the spirit of Howard Carter, sitting at his desk writing his diaries by lamplight each evening after a day in the King‘s Valley. The views from outside the house towards the Theban mountains and el-Qurn, were lovely, and I knew why Carter had chosen to site his house here.
Haga Omm Mohammed
Haga’s other name is Omm Mohammed. Haga (or Haja) is a honorary female title given to those who have done Haj, the sacred journey to Mecca. Omm is the name given to a mother and Mohammed was her son, the first of twenty children she was to bear in a life of hardship and poverty in the village of Kom Lolla near the ancient temple of Medinet Habu on the West Bank of Luxor. According to Haga, she made one great mistake in her life. After the early death of several sons she prayed to Allah, bought amulets and charms from the local sheikhs and sufis and even sought the help of Coptic priests in the hope that she would bear a son who would survive into adulthood. After all else failed she had prayed to the god Amun-Re for a strong son, in a local tradition associated with the sacred lake in the Mortuary Temple of Rameses III. The Koran states that ‘There is no god but Allah’ and Omm Mohammed had spent many years of her life ashamed and trying to atone for this one un-Islamic act. Her great desire to visit Mecca was to appeal to Allah for forgiveness. Her wishes were both granted. She bore a son, Shahat, (who she named Mohammed after the prophet) and who survived many of his brothers. Much later in life she was able to go to Mecca and became known as Haga.
Haga’s story, or rather that of her son Shahat, was written down in a book by Richard Critchfield, published in 1978 – ‘Shahhat, an Egyptian’, which tells about the life of an Egyptian fellah.
I first met Haga in October 1997 when I was introduced by her nephew Hassan Sayed, knowing nothing at the time about the book. Haga struck me as a proud and stately lady, around her mid-sixties and she welcomed me into her humble home as though I was a long-lost relative. I could not speak Arabic and Haga spoke no English, but somehow we communicated and were friends from the beginning. Her house in Kom Lolla was small and entered through a courtyard which led to the front door. The outside wall, now faded, had once been painted with the traditional scenes of Haj, the brightly coloured aeroplanes and flying carpets, busses, camels and mosques which represent the holy journey which she was so proud of. Inside, there was invariably a tray of tea and a welcome, and it seemed like there was always a religious programme or prayers coming from the radio on the table. As I got to know her over the next few years, I would sit in the kitchen with the women and Haga tried several times to teach me (rather unsuccessfully) one of her favourite pastimes, to crochet blankets and table-covers in brightly coloured wools. The women, their heads uncovered away from the public gaze, sat and gossiped and smoked their home-made shisha pipes, while children and grandchildren scrambled on and off their laps. I felt very privileged to be included and accepted, even though I was just another western tourist.
When I later found Critchfield’s book and read it, I felt like I knew the whole family, even though I had never met Shahat himself. Another son of Haga’s, Nubi Abd el-Baset, became a good friend and I would often go to visit him, his wife Zeinab and their young family. Nubi is a skilled reis (overseer) who has worked with many Egyptologists throughout Egypt and especially as an assistant surveyor to David Goodman. In fact most of the Abd el-Baset men were connected to Egyptology, being part of the Saidi team of workmen who are so much valued by excavators. Shahat, Nubi and their brother Ahmed have all worked for Mark Lehner at Giza. Since the time of my first meeting with Haga, Shahat has sadly died and I haven’t seen Haga in a while, but I will never forget this wonderful lady and my introduction to her traditional Egyptian family.
An Amelia Edwards Moment
I was reading the book ‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’. The author, Amelia Edwards, travelled to Egypt in 1870 and sailed in a dahabeya from Cairo to Abu Simbel, visiting the ruins on the banks of the Nile by donkey. Her book, published in 1876, immediately became a best-seller, a travelogue full of her wonderful descriptions of Egypt, both ancient and modern. Amelia Edwards was so bitten by the Egyptology bug that after she returned to England she spent the rest of her life advocating the preservation of the ancient monuments, co-founding in 1882, the Egypt Exploration Fund, (now the Egypt Exploration Society).
I was enjoying the book immensely, only wishing that I had been around a century ago to witness some of the ruined sites she visited then, in that bygone time. In a mad moment, in the spirit of Amelia Edwards, I asked a friend, a local guide called Hassan (my dragoman?), to arrange donkeys for us to go to Deir el-Medina.
I crossed on the local ferry to the West Bank in the morning, avoiding all offers of taxis on the other side from the touts on the boat. Scrambling up the bank I was met by Hassan, looking dashing in his galabeya and white turban, who told me that the donkeys were arranged and waiting at the stables in Gezira. We walked up the road, past the restaurants along the bank and into the village. The coffee shops were already busy and the other stallholders were preparing for their day, throwing out buckets of water to dampen down the dusty road. At the stables I was introduced to my donkey, who was called Homar (Arabic for donkey!). He was rather threadbare and I thought he looked a little like Eeyore. I had never ridden a donkey before and my horse riding days were a dim distant memory, but I’m always up for a challenge and I was assured that he was slow and gentle. I wasn’t so sure what Homar thought of me.
We set off at a slow walking pace along the road towards the monument area and all went well. I was quite enjoying myself, at least until the crossroads, busy with traffic at that time of the morning, when Homar decided he wanted to go left instead of straight ahead. I was yelling ‘alatuur’ at the top of my voice and Hassan was trying to grab the reins and shout instructions, but the donkey was determined. We got tangled up with a coach and two large trucks in a scary moment, but eventually managed to get Homar back on track and carried on towards the Colossi of Memnon. I guess there was less traffic on the road in Amelia Edwards’ day! There is a knack to riding a donkey. I was told that you have to relax and bounce freely rather than control the ride with your legs in stirrups like you would on a horse. Your legs are meant to dangle down at the sides. I was quite uncomfortable by the time we reached the Colossi and kept thinking about Amelia, who was probably riding side-saddle. We hadn’t intended to stop at the Colossi but Homar decided he wanted a break – and who could blame him?
After about ten minutes we were able to carry on past the little village of Qurnet Murai at the foot of the mountain and around to Deir el-Medina. Instead of going into the workmen’s village however, Hassan and his donkey (who seemed to obey all instructions) turned left and headed straight up the mountain slope. My donkey automatically followed this time, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for this. The donkeys slithered up the path of loose stones and rubble and I wanted to get off but it seemed that the only way to achieve this was to fall off and I was hanging on for dear life. What would Amelia have done? Fortunately, a little way up the hill we turned left again and onto a more level narrow path. I think Homar must have been pre-programmed for this route as he gave no trouble now. Hassan explained that he wanted to show me a special place. And special it was indeed. Before long we arrived at the Sanctuary of Ptah and Meretseger, halfway along the path between Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Queens.
The artisans who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom worshipped a variety of deities, constructing many small shrines and votive chapels in the vicinity of the village. The cobra-goddess Meretseger, sometimes identified as a form of Hathor or ‘Goddess of the West’, was a favourite among the workmen. Her name means ‘she who loves silence’ and she was believed to live in el-Qurn, the mountain overlooking the King’s Valley. Her realm encompassed the whole of the Theban necropolis, but the families of Deir el-Medina in particular dedicated many shrines to her, believing that she punished crime by blindness from the venom in her bite and hoped for atonement by erecting stelae in her name. The shrine we had stopped at was one of the goddess’s largest rock-shrines and here many stelae were erected on behalf of kings and high officials of Dynasties 19 and 20. The god Ptah, who originally came from Memphis was regarded as the patron of craftsmen.
At last I was able to dismount and we spent a long time looking at the stelae. There was a lovely but shallow relief of the goddess and some of the inscriptions still had some colour. It was a lonely, deserted place, but I loved it. The views into the Queens Valley were magnificent and we were just below the towering peak of el-Qurn. There was also a cave, or perhaps an old tomb-chapel here, which Hassan said was known as the ‘snake room’. It certainly looked like a good habitat for cobras, so I didn’t venture in too far. From further up the slope I could see the Temple of Medinet Habu and then nothing but the Libyan desert stretched out before me.
The donkeys had had a good rest and it was time to leave. It was even worse going down the hillside on the back of a donkey, slipping and sliding down the scree. I swore I would never put a poor animal through this again, and I’ve walked everywhere since that time. By the time we got back to the stables I had an extremely painful rear end and felt like I had been bouncing on an old overstuffed horsehair sofa for hours. I expect Homar was glad to be rid of his burden too. My ‘Amelia Edwards’ moment was more like an ‘Amelia Peabody’ adventure (the comic heroine from Elizabeth Peters’ books), but like everything in Egypt, it had been an experience. And thanks to Hassan I had ‘discovered’ the Sanctuary of Ptah and Meretseger which has become one of my favourite places for peace and quiet on the West Bank.
Tombs and Tea Drinking
Another day on the West Bank. Three months ago I visited the tomb of Kheruef at Asasif and having read more about the mass of information contained in the beautiful reliefs there, I wanted to see it again. Kheruef, among other things, was a steward of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III. At the entrance to the passage a double-scene on the lintel depicts Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten) with his mother Tiye offering to deities and includes offering texts with a cartouche of Tiye at the bottom. The scenes in the passage were very damaged but could just about be recognised as Amenhotep IV adoring his deified parents, with Kheruef kneeling below. Representations of Amenhotep IV were defaced, presumably after the Amarna period, even though work on the tomb had ceased before he had become Akhenaten. Perhaps Kheruef was buried at Amarna, as this tomb was not used. As a steward of Queen Tiye, he may later also have been part of Akhenaten’s court, but we shall probably never know. Many of the reliefs contain details of Amenhotep’s jubilee festival, in which Kheruef must have played an important part. The nobles’ tombs, much more so than the kings’ tombs, show more about the lives of the men and women for whom they were built. They have a human quality not seen in the grander royal tombs. In Kheruef’s portico there is a lovely depiction of a frolicking calf, a bird and a baboon. There is also a row of dancing girls, part of the king’s jubilee celebrations, which fascinate me. The dancers are bending forwards with their hair falling in a shower over their faces. Their bodies are graceful and supple and the movement of the dance is beautifully depicted. Even the girl’s hands are bent in a symbolic way. They reminded me of the Sufi trance dances I saw at a festival in Karnak village last year. Having spent a while in the tomb, the two guardians insisted that we drink tea with them. They had been a great help to us, positioning mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the dark walls in just the right places for photography. Kheruef’s tomb is one of the lesser visited tombs on the West Bank and I think the guardians enjoyed our company for a while.
Not far away was the tomb of Ankh-Hor, who was a steward to the ‘Divine Votress Nitocris’ as well as a Mayor of Thebes and an Overseer of Priests of Amun. Another powerful and obviously wealthy personage, this time from a later date – the 26th Dynasty. I hadn’t visited this tomb before and was surprised at how large it was. The staircase down into the underground levels of the tomb is steep and leads into a sun court, deep below ground but open to the sky. There are square pillars and an offering table still in situ but the wall reliefs are shallow, although delicately carved. Although much of the decoration was unfinished, some colour remains in places and it was interesting to see some of the lines drawn in red paint, where carvings were to be made but were left incomplete. The tomb reminded me of Pabasa’s tomb near Hatshepsut’s Temple not far away, which dates from the same period and has similar rare scenes of beekeeping. All of the inner chambers of the tomb were left unfinished. A pillared hall, vestibule and cult chamber are roughly cut and unplastered and remains of a mummy (of a later date) could still be seen in one of the side-chambers. When we came out of the tomb, blinking our way up the stairs in the bright sunlight, the guardian said that they had made tea for us in their little hut up on the hill. It would have been rude to refuse, so once again we found ourselves sitting on tiny wooden stools in the guards’ shelter and drinking glasses of very hot, very sweet black tea. They spoke a little English and were full of the usual questions and conversation; ‘What country? How many children? You like Manchester United? One of the men kept going outside and prowling around with his ancient rifle – either being diligent in his job or just trying to impress us. The view from outside the hut looked right across to Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el-Bahri. After a decent interval and baksheesh all round (funny how more guards always turn up at this point) we said goodbye and walked back down the dusty track onto the main road to wait for an arabeya to the ferry.
Back at the hotel in the afternoon, I had put my name down for the first of a series of Arabic lessons. If I was going to spend any more time on the West Bank, I had decided, I needed to be able to talk to people and was very keen to learn more of the language.
That evening my friends and I went back across the river to eat at the Africa Restaurant on the river bank. These old restaurants and shops have now been demolished to make way for new buildings and the new, smarter Africa Restaurant has moved further up the road into Gezira, but in 1997 it was a little humble cafe set in a garden overlooking the Nile and served wonderful Egyptian food. A really good meal of soup, bread, main course with salads, then coffee and fruit to follow, cost around LE20. I sat under the dark starry Egyptian sky, looking across the wide black river with streamers of coloured lights from the Corniche reflected in the water and felt totally at home here.
Luxor was changing. Since I arrived, I’d noticed a difference in the town. It was the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and there were many events scheduled to commemorate it. The most prominent event was the performance of Verdi’s opera Aida against the stunning backdrop of the Deir el-Bahri Temple of Hatshepsut, starting on October 12th and running for eight days. There were many dignitaries expected for the opening night, including Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, and his wife, Suzanne along with opera fans from around the world. Luxor had been smartened up for the event. Everything standing still had been painted white; curb-stones, tree trunks, buildings, even the tourist police were still wearing their white summer uniforms. All of the hotels were full and the Corniche in the evenings was bustling with people strolling around. The thing I noticed most was the tightened security which, with only two days to go until Aida, was starting to get scary. There was an air of tension in Luxor which made me uncomfortable. I had a strong feeling that something horrible was about to happen. Maybe I was more anxious because we were spending a lot of time on the West Bank and often coming back late at night. The local ferry, crossing the river after dark, was accompanied by armed police in a motor launch. There seemed to be guns everywhere – much more so than usual.
We had tried again to get to the Montu temples at Tod and Medamud, but we were not allowed outside of Luxor in a taxi on our own. Medamud is only a few kilometres to the north of Karnak, but there were police roadblocks which we could not go through. The same for Tod, which is about 20km south of Luxor.
On Sunday my two friends and I spent a whole day at Medinet Habu Temple – my favourite West Bank site which was so often overlooked by tourists in favour of the Ramesseum or Deir el-Bahri. Many tour groups spend only a morning on the West Bank. Time is necessarily limited on these tours and the morning trip usually consists of a quick dash around The Valley of the Kings (and possibly Queens), Hatshepsut’s Temple and if they’re lucky, one or two nobles’ tombs. It is only those people who stay in Luxor and are able to return again and again to the West Bank that are able to see more of these wonderful monuments. Even so, Medinet Habu wasn’t well known. This was my fourth time in Luxor and I still considered that I hadn’t seen a fraction of the sites.
The temple at Medinet Habu is a huge complex of stone towers and pylons and massive mudbrick ramparts, once a place of great importance, not only as the mortuary temple of Rameses III during Dynasty XX but as an earlier place of worship as well as a fortress and administrative centre for Thebes which spanned several dynasties.
The distinctive eastern gateway overlooks the inside of the temple grounds. The high towers are typical of Egyptian defences from early times, but this gate is unusual in that it has broad windows which overlook the main entrance to the temple through the first pylon. The interior of the high gate is reached by a modern staircase on the south side of the tower and leads to the second storey. The floors have long gone and we could look up at the whole extent of the inside of the tower at the scenes which show the king at leisure, surrounded by young women. One inscription tells us that these were ‘The King’s children’ but other scenes may be of the royal harem. It was to these rooms that Rameses III must have retired when in residence at Medinet Habu. From the first floor windows there was a fabulous view over the whole temple.
As we were all studying together, we decided to spend the whole day at the temple and look at the reliefs in greater detail. I had developed a great interest in the ‘God’s Wives of Amun’, or ‘Divine Adoratrices’, king’s daughters of the Third Intermediate Period who were Amun’s earthly consorts and lived unmarried in ceremonial splendour. These women were representatives of royal power, visible symbols of Theban loyalty to the king who lived in the north. In the forecourt of the temple grounds there are four chapels which are both mausoleums and mortuary shrines, belonging to Amenirdis I, Nitocris, Shepenwepet II and Mehytenweskhet .
In the north-east corner of the courtyard there is a small temple which is a mixture of both the earliest and latest construction at Medinet Habu. This temple was already present when Rameses III began work at the site in the 20th Dynasty, having been built by Hatshepsut in the mid-18th Dynasty and extended by her successor Tuthmosis III, but archaeologists have found traces of an even older construction here. This small temple was being restored, the three shines at the rear were closed, but we could go through it into the more modern Roman parts.
Back into the forecourt we were faced with the First Pylon of the Rameses Temple, a massive structure that had the usual gigantic depictions of the king smiting his enemy captives before the gods, a symbolic representation I was now used to seeing in most Egyptian temples. There are actually three pylon gateways, the inner two with a portico and court before them, two hypostyle halls and numerous side chambers, all in an excellent state of preservation. The colour on the reliefs is still quite vivid in places, due to the fact that parts of the monument was later re-used as a Christian church and the reliefs were painted over, keeping them in good condition. The first court, which adjoins the king’s palace, mostly depicts the military exploits of the king, but also the daily temple rituals, with the king censing, libating and offering to the gods. It was the priests of course, who performed these rituals daily in the absence of the king. The gods had to be fed, dressed and cared for each day and after the process was completed the offerings would be distributed to the priests and temple staff. In this way the temple was able to provide divine offerings and pay its staff at the same time, a highly practical arrangement.
Following the general layout of Egyptian temples the floor slopes gradually upwards towards the sanctuary, the home of the god at the back of the temple, which would have been low and dark when in use. A ramp of shallow steps leads out of the first court and through the gate of the second pylon into the second court. This is the festival hall which shows in great detail, the religious festivals of the gods Min and Sokar that were celebrated here at Medinet Habu. The square pillars in the second court have many depictions of gods and goddesses and because we were learning to read hieroglyphs we were able to work our way around and work out their names. The Portico leads through the third pylon and looking up to the door soffit we could see the beautifully painted cartouches of Rameses III. Once past the Portico we entered the inner parts of the temple where the resident gods and goddesses had their shrines. Only properly purified people, i.e. the king or certain members of the priesthood, were allowed access to the temple proper. When it was in use the temple and its hypostyle halls would have been very dark and lit only from the roof or high windows. Today there is little left of the main temple apart from the surrounding suites of rooms and the stumpy bases of the hypostyle columns.
Going back out through the first pylon, we walked around the outside walls of the building where many large reliefs document the life of Rameses III. One especially beautiful relief on the back of the first pylon on the south side of the temple shows the king hunting in the marshes in pursuit of game. Here we could see the bull hunt, with the king balancing himself in his chariot and wielding a long spear. Below him his escorts march with bow and arrows towards the birds and fish in the lake in front of them. Also on the southern side are the remains of the restored palace area, containing the throne room with the dais still in situ and parts of the king’s living quarters which include a bathroom and stone bath, or shower, complete with drains – this was fascinating.
The rest of the space inside the mudbrick enclosure walls was occupied with neatly planned rows of offices and private houses which have now mostly vanished, except for one house, that of the scribe, Butehamun, but remains show that Medinet Habu was more than just a temple, it was a whole town which survived long after the reign of Rameses III.
After seven hours in the temple, working our way through the various courts and rooms we were all very tired. The guard who had followed us around for the first hour or so had given up on us long ago. We had gone out for a short lunch break at the Rameses Cafe opposite and now we decided we would stay on the West Bank and have dinner there too. This led to several hilarious games of an Egyptian form of Ludo afterwards, so it was around 10.00pm by the time we got back to the ferry to cross the river. Tonight the crossing was even scarier. It was the opening night of Aida at Deir el-Bahri and security was especially tight. We still had the police launch with its big guns to escort the ferry but there was also a police helicopter with searchlights flying overhead. We had also noticed that there were lines of soldiers camping on top of the Theban Mountain and soldiers on the ferry too. It felt like being in a war zone, but I guess they were just being cautious with the president and other bigwigs here today.
The Tombs of Menna and Nakht
Because of the feeling of tension in Luxor at the moment, I wanted to take a break and decided I would like to go to Hurghada on the Red Sea coast for a day or two. The idea was that my friends and I would take a bus from Luxor, but everyone said it was going to rain – and you don’t go to Hurghada in the rain as the road was likely to be washed away! Sure enough, in the aftenoon the sky began to cloud over, a rare occurrence here. Later that afternoon Robin and I went over to the West Bank to see more tombs, this time we visited Menna and Nakht at Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna.
Menna was a ‘Scribe in the fields of the Lord of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt’ during Dynasty XVIII, and his job was probably to document the records of land ownership. His tomb was well-known for its superb wall-paintings of scenes of daily life and the agricultural methods of the Theban people, depicted in bright colours. The wall of the long inner funerary chapel shows the funeral procession with traditional scenes of offering-bringers carrying food and burial equipment to the tomb. Menna’s sarcophagus is transported on the river Nile in a barque which is towing another boat containing mourners, and later the sarcophagus can be seen dragged on a sledge towards the Western Goddess and Anubis. The far end of the wall depicts a judgement scene, in which Menna must account for his earthly actions and have his heart weighed. Here it is Horus rather than Anubis who is in charge of the scales and Thoth, god of writing and wisdom, who records the verdict. Osiris, as usual presides over the scene. The other side of the chapel shows boats in the ‘Abydos Pilgrimage’ with Menna and his wife depicted as statues being taken towards Abydos, with burial goods in another boat. This is the final pilgrimage to which all people aspired, either actually or symbolically and is often portrayed in the Theban tombs. Another scene shows the return from Abydos. The remaining scenes depict the ‘Opening of the Mouth Ritual’, with a priest supporting Menna’s sarcophagus.
The tomb of Nakht is just a little way to the east of Menna’s tomb. He was an 18th Dynasty scribe who held the title of ‘Astronomer of Amun’ or ‘Observer of the Hours’ (of the night). At the end of the 1980s this tomb underwent an experimental restoration in the hope of finding a satisfactory technique for the preservation of tomb paintings and its walls were covered with glass – something which was still quite unusual in 1997. The wall to the left side of the entrance to the burial chamber depicts the famous banquet scenes from this tomb. A naked maidservant helps three ladies to prepare themselves for the occasion. Behind this is a blind harpist is sitting with his legs crossed before the festivities. One of the most famous pictures from any Egyptian tomb is in the centre of the banquet scene where a group of three female musicians entertain the guests with flute, lute and harp. The girl in the centre whose head is turned to look behind, is depicted richly jewelled but almost naked for the first time in Egyptian painting. The grace and harmony and the colours of this composition are beautiful.
It was late afternoon and the guards were wanting to lock up the tombs and go home – so no cups of tea were offered today. We walked along the Qurna road to the Hatshepsut Restaurant, one of our favourites because we could sit on the rooftop terrace and watch the sun setting behind the mountains of Deir el-Bahri. This evening however, the sky was black and threatening. Before long, some English friends we had met arrived unexpectedly and we all decided to stay and have a meal together. It was lovely to look out towards Deir el-Bahri and although we couldn’t see the temple from here we could see the floodlights from the stage for tonight’s performance of Aida. Later we could even hear snatches of the music drifting on the wind. I would have loved to go and see the opera but tickets were very expensive and pretty well sold out. This was the next best thing. And later in the evening we had our own special light show when it began to thunder and streaks of lightning flashed across the sky. The predicted rain was heavy, but didn’t last long. People will say it doesn’t rain in Egypt, but I had seen my fair share of dramatic storms over the past couple of years and especially at this time of year.
A Trip to the Seaside
An Australian couple from our hotel were going to Hurghada so we arranged that I would share a taxi with them for the journey. Apparently the road was still intact after yesterday’s rain, which sometimes can make it impassable, so we left Luxor with a long line of other taxis and coaches on the 5.30am convoy. By the time we were a few kilometres south of Luxor, the convoy of vehicles was quite spread out and it was an almost leisurely drive through the Nile valley as far as Qena. There, the convoy split up, some going to Dendera, some to Assyut, but the majority to Safaga on the Red Sea coast. We turned right towards the coast and suddenly we were in an entirely different landscape, now desert, with the long straight road enclosed on each side by high, strange-looking jagged mountains, bisected by deeply cut wadis. Although the rain hadn’t affected the road, it did disappear for a few kilometres where a new section was being constructed and we bumped along over a rough sandy track, deeply pitted from the huge wheels of bulldozers, the sand swirling up around us in the wind. We could see the old road running alongside, the tarmac broken up into large black chunks as it does, I was told, every five years or so. We had seen no habitation of any sort – no evidence of life at all apart from the odd straggling acacia tree for an hour or more. Suddenly there was a cafeteria, little more than a wooden shack, where the convoy stopped for a break and as I drank a most welcome cup of Turkish coffee I wondered how they get water out here in the middle of nowhere. By 10.00am we were on the outskirts of Hurghada, known as el-Ghadaga to Egyptians and to the rest of the world as the ‘Las Vegas of Egypt’. There were miles and miles of half-built holiday villages, seemingly self-contained in their own little world. I marvelled at the extent of this rash of construction work, much of which seemed to consist of little more than large heaps of rubble, as we drove down the wide new road into the town. I hadn’t booked a hotel and I was looking for something very cheap as I hadn’t budgeted for this trip. After looking at a few bleak and run-down hostels in the area of the Old Town I settled for a small Egyptian hotel near the beach, little better than the hostels but only LE25 a night.
Hurghada was at one time a small fishing village that has been taken over by tourism in the past few decades. I spent the afternoon looking around the old town, though as far as I was concerned, all it had to offer were cafeterias and souvenir shops. I had a look in the Aquarium which contained some very weird fish. In the evening I met my Australian friends and we ate in a fish restaurant – the Red Sea is famous for its wonderful fish. Being vegetarian I don’t eat fish but it seemed that this was all there was on offer. I settled for a plate of plain rice feeling rather gloomy and already ‘homesick’ for Luxor. The clear jade water and coral reefs of the Red Sea and the teaming marine life found there has made Hurghada into a tourist paradise, a popular destination for divers and beach-lovers from all over the world, but the only beach I saw was covered in concrete blocks and oil drums and didn’t look at all inviting. I was desperately missing the ancient monuments and Hurghada had little to interest me. I was just as gloomy back at the hotel. My room was sparsely furnished with a lumpy double bed, one blanket covering the mattress and a grubby uncovered bolster pillow, which felt like sleeping on a stone door lintel. In the bathroom down the hall, someone had been unpleasantly ill and it wasn’t any better the next morning as there was no water for a shower. I decided to go back to Luxor on the bus later that afternoon.
I didn’t bother with breakfast, but went into town where I met my Australian friends and together we arranged a trip to a coral island on a glass-bottomed boat through a local agent. This at least was a pleasant interlude. I was told that we would see dolphins and sharks, though there were none about. My friends loved to swim, so we borrowed some equipment and went snorkelling off the island where the clear, warm water was like blue-tinted glass sparking in the mid-day sun. Shoals of tiny colourful fish caressed my face and legs as I floated on the surface and swam over the coral. I’m not a natural ‘water-baby’ but I enjoyed it as another ‘experience’, another side of Egypt.
I had to rush back to the hotel to collect my bag to be at the bus station by 2.30pm, though the bus was late and didn’t leave until 5.00pm. I took the ‘Kul’, or Superjet, the air-conditioned bus, but it was very crowded and Egyptian videos played on overhead screens at full volume as we drove back through Safaga and out on the desert road to Qena. Still, the five and a half hour journey cost me only LE15, so I couldn’t really complain. The relief and joy at being back in Luxor, even though it was late at night and I was very tired, made me forget why I had ever wanted to leave.
Ladies Who Lunch
The next morning I had a message to say I had been summoned to the West Bank by my friend Haga Omm Mohammed who lived at Kom Lolla, near the temple of Medinet Habu. She had a gift for me. I was greeted with the usual smiles of welcome and invited to stay for lunch with the family, an informal meal with the women and children that took place in the kitchen at the back of the little house. We sat on mats on the floor around a big metal tray and shared delicious dishes of rice and vegetables, salads and freshly baked bread. It took me a while to get used to eating Egyptian style. The dishes were set out in the centre of a circle and everyone helps themselves. There were no separate plates and no knives and forks. The food was scooped up in folded pieces of bread – a technique which takes a bit of practice and a lot of mine was lost before it reached my mouth. The ladies thought this was hilarious! One Egyptian speciality dish which Haga is famous for, was molokhiya, something I usually try to avoid, but this time could not politely refuse. It is made from a green leafy plant which is stewed with spices until it becomes a sort of green soup with a rather slimy viscous texture. It is not my favourite Egyptian food but I had to admit that this was tastier than I’d had before. It is the texture that is off-putting. We ended the meal as usual with glasses of sweet tea and Haga brought out my present all wrapped up in tissue paper and tied with string. It was one of her beautiful brightly coloured crochet cloths. I was very touched, knowing the work that goes into producing these.
Afterwards I went with Haga’s son Nubi to see his new house which he was building himself near the canal by Medinet Habu. It was almost finished and Nubi and his wife Zeinab were working on getting the garden in order, planting rows of vegetable seeds in the red sandy soil. I sat with Nubi for a while in the shade of a tree talking about his archaeological work. It had been a lovely afternoon.
Birket Habu, Malqata
This was my last full day in Egypt and most of it had been spent on Luxor West Bank. We were going there again today. Robin and I had visited Malqata earlier this year and I had fallen in love with this remote site on the edge of the desert, once the palace and town of Amenhotep III but now deserted, the ruins mostly devoured by the blowing sand and the natural destruction of the centuries. The area was first excavated in 1888 and later much of the remaining monument was removed by Metropolitan Museum excavations during the early years of the 20th century. Most of the palace and town was constructed from mud brick and wood, which doesn’t often survive the ravages of time and which is why there is little left of the buildings. There were originally four palaces with service areas plus several large villas for the elite of Amenhotep’s court, as well as homes for the local population. There was also a Temple of Amun here.
We wanted to see the site again and perhaps walk over the area of Birket Habu where Amenhotep had constructed an artificial lake for the entertainment of his queen, the Great Royal Wife, Tiye. Birket, in Arabic, means ‘lake’, and this was part of a T-shaped harbour, connected to the River Nile by a canal. The excavation of the harbour left huge earthworks, mounds of sand up to 14m high in a line which are now part of the natural landscape at the edge of the cultivation. These high mounds are populated by a few small villages, whose children (and dogs) ran over the hills to meet us. They had curious home-made toys which were fascinating, made of a tin can on a long pole which they would push along in front of them. No Gameboys for these children! Robin and I wandered along the base of the Birket Habu mounds towards the southern end of Malqata, followed by our inquisitive tribe of children. Amenhotep’s palace was given the name ‘The Dazzling Aten’ and a great golden barge was said to have been housed on the lake. A commemorative scarab of Amenhotep III dated to year 11 of his reign states that:
‘….His majesty commanded a lake to be built for the Great Royal Wife Tiye…. His majesty celebrated the festival of the opening of the lake on day 16 of the third month of Akhet (Season of inundation)….His majesty sailed on it the royal barge, named “The Aten Gleams”….’
The name Malqata, in Arabic, means ‘place of debris’ and there was plenty of this. The mounds were covered in red clay pottery sherds, mostly modern, but quite a few pieces of pottery that looked quite ancient too. More recent debris consists of tin cans and windblown plastic water bottles and carrier bags. But the romance of the site will always remain in my imagination.
In the evening my friend and guide Hassan invited me to go with him to part of the wedding celebrations of a friend of his in the village of Kom on the West Bank. I’m not sure how long the celebration had been going on already but this evening, he told me, there was to be music and dancing, which he knew I couldn‘t resist.
I was getting used to crossing the river on my own at night on the local ferry. I had even become accustomed to the gun-toting police launch alongside and the helicopter flying overhead. I had so hated these when I first got to Luxor earlier this month but they were no longer present now that Aida had finished. There were a few curious glances by men on the ferry who must have wondered where a tourist was going at this time of night, but nobody paid me much heed or bothered me at all. Hassan met me on the other side and we took a service taxi to Kom. When we reached the village there were a lot of arabeyas with horns honking loudly and crowds of people in the narrow streets, all going in the same direction, congregating in a little square in front of some of the houses. I could hear the music as soon as I got out of the car.
We walked down an alley and when we arrived at the square Hassan was made welcome by his friends while I, as a foreign guest, was given a place of honour at the front of the crowd and was provided with a bottle of Pepsi. This was very different to the urban wedding I had attended in Luxor two years ago, which had taken place in a street with loud amplified music. This time there was a small group of musicians playing rababa and drums which sounded fantastic. A young man in a galabeya was dancing alone in the small space before the band, with his arms in the air holding a scarf and his hips swaying and swirling in slow motion in time to the beat of the drum. This was a true Saidi (Upper Egyptian) wedding, with little influence from western culture. The bride wore no fancy wedding dress, but a colourful galabeya and headscarf, just like the rest of the younger women around her. The married ladies covered their galabeyas with a black outer garment and a wore a black head scarf or hijab over their hair to show their status.
In Upper Egypt, most of the marriages are arranged, often between cousins or other members of the same family. The Saidi culture does not allow boys and girls to mix freely, so it is difficult for young people to meet prospective partners without the intervention of their families. There is often an elder woman in the villages known as el-Khatba, who knows all the village families and will arrange suitable marriages between them. In the past, it was not uncommon for the groom to have never even met his bride before the wedding ceremony. Also, girls as young as ten may have been already spoken for, although the legal marriage age is not before fifteen years of age. The dowry, known as el-Mahr, has always been required in Egypt and a father must be able to afford quite large sums of money for his daughter’s marriage as wealth and status are considered important. Recently even more money is required from the bride’s family for both the wedding party and the dowry (sometimes as much as LE2000 and much more in the cities) as well as all of the linen and furnishings for the home. The groom must provide the living accommodation (often in his parent’s home) and a certain quantity of gold jewellery must be bought for the bride. This is her insurance against divorce or widowhood. With rising prices and poorly paid work in the rural areas this has become difficult for young men, who simply can’t afford to be married and must often go away to work in the tourist industry or to Saudi Arabia as a means of earning more money.
One of the traditional Saidi wedding customs for the bride, consists of a ‘henna-day‘, when her hands and feet are decorated with the red dye and intricate ‘tattoos’ of henna and she is pampered, fussed over and prepared for her wedding by her women friends and family. The ceremony itself is merely a formality, the signing of forms, but the celebrations may carry on for several days. The marriage contract is signed and registered by the maazon, a man who has an official licence to do this, either at a mosque or the bride’s family home, with the couple and their families and friends in attendance.
The wedding I attended was a later part of these celebrations and everyone seemed to be having a good time. After a while two men got up to perform a stick-dance, known as Tahtib, which was very lively and earthy. The poles, each over a metre long, were swung through the air in graceful but wild figure-of-eight patterns and over each other’s heads at great speed. The dance is traditional custom, a way for the men to show their manliness and prowess and once used as a martial art. Indeed, I had seen depictions of the origins of this dance in the tomb of Kheruef at Asasif, where men fighting with long sticks appear to be using exactly the same movements. Afterwards it was the turn of the women to dance and several of the younger girls got up and began swaying to the music. Saidi women’s baladi dance is very special, the movements are not wild or gyrating but controlled and very graceful and I would imagine also symbolic. After a while they pulled me up into their circle and taught me some of the dance movements. It was great fun.
It was quite late when we left. Hassan walked me back to the ferry, about 5km, as there were no service cars to be seen and as we walked through the darkened deserted fields he explained many of the traditional Saidi wedding customs to me. This still remains in my memory as one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent in Egypt and a wonderful way to remember the last night of my holiday.
Heartache in Luxor
Once more it was with great sadness that I left Luxor on October 20th 1997 to travel back to England. Part of me had been left behind in Egypt, as it always was, in what had become my ‘home from home’. This wonderful country had got under my skin and I would miss so much all of the lovely people I had met during the past few weeks.
Almost a month later, on November 17th, I was at work when I heard a newsflash on the radio announcing that there had been shooting on the West Bank of Luxor and many people had been killed by unidentified gunmen in Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri Temple. Immediately I remembered my feeling of impending disaster and the heightened security when I was there and I was stunned and horrified by the news. I listened to the radio throughout the day but it seemed very confused and it was not until much later that the whole tragic event was clarified. The attack had happened early in the morning, the busiest time at Deir el-Bahri, when six gunmen from the Islamic terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, who were disguised as members of security, opened fire with automatic weapons and committed terrible atrocities on tourists in the temple, killing a total of 62 people. The terrorists escaped into the Theban hills, chased by tourist police and military forces and were eventually caught and killed. I later learned that many men from the West Bank had also taken to the hills in pursuit of the gunmen and many had been injured, including my friend Haga’s son Ahmed. The people of Luxor were both devastated and angry at what became known as the Deir el-Bahri ‘Incident’.
The Egyptian authorities had been certain that they had gained the upper hand in their five-year-old battle against Islamic extremists after a series of heavy crackdowns by the security forces. Tourist groups in Egypt were tightly guarded and it was thought that the problem had been contained. It was hard to see what more could have been done. But this attack was by far the worst Egypt had seen. I knew it would have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of many of the Luxor people as the tourists left and the reputation of one of the most popular holiday destinations was shattered. My heart went out to the families of the dead and to the Egyptian people.
Dr. W. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, wrote afterwards:
On the evening of December 10, 1997, a memorial service was held at the candle-lighted Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, to honor the fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians massacred during the terrorist attack there in November.. More than 2,000 persons were invited to the service and hundreds more marched to the Deir el Bahari site, carrying banners denouncing terrorism. Egyptian President Mubarek and numerous other government ministers were in attendence, and the program was highlighted by Egyptian actor Omar Sharif reading a state-sponsored message written by 86-year-old Nobel prize winning author Negib Mahfouz, which in part said that the massacre was “a stab inflicted on the body of all the people of egypt…[who] now wish to express to the world their deepest apologies and sincere condolences.” The Cairo Opera Orchestra played “Tears of Anger” from Verdi’s Requiem, and the Bulgarian National Choir sang. A Nubian troup, wearing white turbans and robes, beat drums in mourning.)
Soon afterwards, my friend Robin and I began to organise our next trip to Egypt, in an effort to show support for the country we loved. We would not be beaten by these madmen!
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