September 2000

A Second Chance for Cairo

September. Jenny and I are once more in Egypt, this time flying into Cairo airport instead of Luxor, my usual destination. On my first visit to Cairo in 1995 I had hated the bustling monster of Cairo city with its teeming population and ochre-coloured smog hanging over the buildings. It took me three days to get used to it, but after a week of peaceful tranquillity cruising on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, Cairo just couldn’t compete, it was too much of a culture shock. Since then I have based myself in Upper Egypt, sometimes travelling as far north as Abydos and as far south as Aswan, but almost always staying either on the East or the West Bank at Luxor. The town has become like a second home for me and I have been comfortable in the knowledge that I know many people there and can find my way around easily.

Jenny wanted to see the Pyramids and I agreed that we should give Cairo another chance. Maybe I will get to like the city if I know it better. There are so many wonderful things to see, not to mention the Egyptian Museum, so we decided to spend a week here and afterwards travel by train to Luxor, flying back home from there in three weeks time.

Our flight landed at 9.00pm and after the scurry for visas, passport control and baggage, we eventually found a taxi to take us into the city. The airport is quite a long way out of Cairo towards Heliopolis, a journey by road of about 45 minutes, so it was quite late when we arrived at the hotel. I had telephoned the Ciao Hotel from England and made reservations for us on the recommendation of my friend Sam, who stays here when she is in Cairo. The main attraction of the Ciao is that it is just across the road from Rameses Station, from where we will get a train to Luxor.

It was unfortunate that when we arrived the reception staff had no booking for us – the manager who I had spoken to had forgotten to write it down! Hey, this is Egypt, what else should I expect but the unexpected. The hotel was full and the only room available was a suite, which we were given for the same price as a double room, so it all turned out in our favour. The Ciao is an Egyptian-owned hotel and fairly basic, but our suite on the top floor is spacious and clean and we have everything we need for LE35 each a night (£3.50). By midnight we were settling into our room when there was a knock on the door and we were asked if we would join the manager in the rooftop restaurant for a welcome drink.

Sunrise over a Cairo skyline

From the roof, Cairo was laid out before us and just over the road, the railway station and dozens of tracks containing lines of train carriages. Beyond this, there were cars, cars and more cars in an endless stream along Sharia Rameses (Ramsis), a multi-lane raised road that crosses the city. The manager, Mohammed and his assistant, Mustapha, could not have been more welcoming if we were English royalty. They tried to ply us both with food and drinks (that we really didn’t want) and were very apologetic about the booking mix-up. I think it is probably the fact that Sam has stayed here many times that has something to do with the welcome we were given. Sometime in the small hours we were allowed to go to bed, though the restaurant was still quite full. The saying is true then, Cairo never sleeps!

Frustrating Cairo

Even though we had such a late night, I saw the sun rise this morning from the tiny balcony of our hotel room. I hadn’t slept for long, being unused to the noise of a vast city in the early morning and the shunting and forlorn hooting of trains in the railway station that seemed to have carried on throughout the night. The wide road beneath our window was already alive with hurrying people, vendors setting out their stalls at the back of Rameses Station and the ever-present cars speeding noisily by. As I listened to the last haunting notes of the of the morning call to prayer coming from a nearby minaret, the sun rose in the east, a deep orange fiery ball, then quickly vanished into a high bank of smog. Unmistakably Cairo.

Bridges over the NIle at Cairo

My plan this morning was to go to Abbassiya. I had applied for a student antiquities permit and had to visit the SCA offices in east Cairo to meet with someone to get the permit. I agreed with Jenny that I would go to Abbassiya while she went to the Egyptian Museum, both of us taking taxis in opposite directions and we would meet later. Then I found that getting a taxi on the outskirts of Cairo is no easy task. To begin with, none of the drivers spoke any English and they couldn’t understand where I wanted to go, first confusing my destination with Abusir on the other side of the Nile. My Saidi-learned dialect of Arabic was useless here. Eventually I found a driver who seemed to vaguely understand and off we lurched in his very battered black and white taxi to the district of Abbassiya. Then I realised that I didn’t have the full address, stupidly thinking that everyone would know where the main offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities was. Nobody did. When we arrived in Abbassiya the taxi driver asked several people in the street if they knew where the building was and even tried the telephone number I had for the office, which for some reason was unobtainable. Not a soul spoke English and after an hour or so of going round in circles, we were forced to give up the search. Driving back towards central Cairo, I asked to be taken to the Egyptian Museum and after failing in English, searching my limited vocabulary for words such as mathaf (museum), ‘asaar (antiquities), even beit mummiya (house of mummies?). It seemed so obvious to me. What I hadn’t realised was that local taxis in Cairo are only allowed to drive in certain areas. The taxis found outside the main tourist hotels have a licence for the whole city, but many others don’t. The driver tried to explain this but I didn’t understand him and I thought he was just being difficult. I’m sure he thought the same thing of me.

The Egyptian MuseumEventually I did find another taxi to take me to the Museum. This was my second visit there and knowing how vast the galleries are I wondered if I would ever be able to find Jenny. Even the building itself, a pink Victorian monstrosity designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon and inaugurated in 1902, is impressive, set in a garden presided over by the statue of its first Director, Auguste-Edouard Mariette. Inside its high-ceilinged halls is the world’s greatest repository of more than 120,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts. It has actually been calculated that if you spend one minute at each exhibit it will take nine months to see the whole collection! As luck would have it I found Jenny in the Tutankhamun gallery, my first port of call. I couldn’t resist re-visiting the fabulous golden treasures of the boy-king, housed in a newly renovated temperature-controlled room. This is a great contrast to many of the other galleries with their original wooden cases covered with glass that looked like it had never been cleaned since the museum opened. To our great frustration, many objects were unlabeled, but every one was a real treasure. On the ground floor is the statue gallery and the atrium which displays the largest of the exhibits, including a colossal statue of Rameses II and a massive statue pair of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye as its focus and we took our time marvelling at these and many other beautiful works of art, spending the rest of the day in the museum.

When we were thrown out of the museum at closing time we found a taxi to take us across the river to the island of el-Manyal, where there is a student office which issues ISIC cards and in case I never got my antiquities permit, I decided to renew my student card which had run out. This time we had no problem with finding the place, as we had taken a taxi outside the museum and the driver spoke good English. I did have a little trouble with the office staff who at first refused to believe I was a student, saying that I was too old (i.e. over 25), even though I had an English student card. They obviously don’t have mature students in Egypt. Our taxi waited for us and after we had arranged with the driver to take us to Saqqara tomorrow, he dropped us off in the Khan el-Khalili.

Khan el-KalilliThe Khan el-Khalili is an ancient labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, sometimes covered over, where many craftsmen work in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones. This is said to be one of the biggest bazaars in the world where you can buy absolutely anything. We wandered the streets for a while, resisting the temptation to buy everything we saw, though some of the traders were very persistent. It was quite dark by this time and the alleyways were lit by strings of bare light bulbs, giving the area a festive appearance. We ate dinner at ‘Egyptian Pancakes’ near al-Azhar, followed by strong turkish coffee in a little coffee-shop in a side street and enjoyed the scene as the crowds of tourists and Cairene families paraded up and down. I feel like I have been here a week already!

Saqqara…. Eventually

Early this morning Jenny and I were waiting outside the hotel for the taxi that we had arranged for a trip to Saqqara. We had asked the driver if he could take us first to Abbassiya so that I could get my antiquities pass and then on to Saqqara afterwards. Yesterday he had seemed keen for us to have the taxi for the day and said he would collect us from the Ciao Hotel at 8.30am. When by 10.00 the taxi still had not turned up, we were getting worried about wasting a precious day, so I decided to abandon the idea of getting to Abbassiya and we set about finding another taxi. At first none of the local drivers were willing to take us to Saqqara, but eventually we found one who said he would take us there. The old taxi looked reasonably roadworthy so we climbed into the back, settling back into the cracked red leather seat for the long drive. The driver, who said his name was Ahmed, turned around several times to grin at us, nodding his head and saying ‘Pyramids?’, to which we replied, ‘Yes, Saqqara pyramids!’. I didn’t take a lot of notice of the route, it was just too scary to watch the road as we weaved in and out of the fast-moving traffic, narrowly missing several other vehicles and pedestrians. To cut a long story short, we ended up at Giza, where the taxi pulled up and the driver again grinned and proudly said ‘Pyramids!!’ as though he had discovered them himself. This was not turning out to be a good day. It would seem that Ahmed had never heard of Saqqara and had certainly never driven there. By this time Jenny and I were determined to get to Saqqara today and after a lot of argument, persuasion and renegotiation of price, Ahmed reluctantly agreed to take us if I could tell him how to get there. I pulled out my trusty map and together we traced the route. How difficult could it be? As I remembered from my last visit there in 1995, it was a straight road south and turn off the road shortly after the Memphis (Mit Rehina) turn. At least we were now on the right side of the river.

Saqqara dummy buildingsEventually we arrived at Saqqara without further mishap. Leaving Ahmed in the taxi with a spare bottle of our water, Jenny and I bought tickets and set out to see the site. We first walked around the Step-Pyramid complex, going in through the entrance which is the only doorway in a 10m high limestone wall, originally decorated with niches and false doors. Some archaeologists believe that the enclosure wall may have represented the earthly residence of the King and so the term ‘palace façade’ became used for this type of decoration and it is thought that the design imitates the wooden framework covered by woven reed mats which would have been used in earlier structures. The corridor of the entrance colonnade is lined with 20 pairs of engaged columns resembling bundles of reeds or palm ribs. This is one of the places where the challenging experiment of copying natural materials in stone is most evident. The columns were not yet trusted to support the roof without being attached to the side walls and the small size of the stone blocks used in the construction reflects the fact that previous structures were built from mudbricks.

Then we were in the open court before the Step Pyramid which rises magnificently above the plateau in a series of six stepped ‘mastabas’ and is surrounded by a complex of dummy buildings. Saqqara was the principal necropolis for the ancient city of Memphis where, from Dynasty I onwards, the Egyptian elite built their tombs. The area is best known today as being the site of the Step Pyramid, the first stone pyramid, built for a king of Dynasty III whose Horus name was Netjerikhet. The pyramid has been attributed to a King Djoser since the New Kingdom, but only the name Netjerikhet has been found on the monument. Several statue fragments were found in the entrance colonnade but the most important was a statue base (now in Cairo Museum) inscribed with the Horus name and titles of Netjerikhet and also with the name of a High Priest of Heliopolis and royal architect, Imhotep, to whom the construction of the complex is attributed. Imhotep, who may have been a son of Netjerikhet, was deified at a later date as a god of wisdom and worshipped as Asklepios, god of medicine, by the Greeks.

The Pyramid of UnasWe investigated the dummy buildings, with their naturalistic-styled carvings that surely must be ranked among the finest ancient architecture in Egypt. We walked right around the pyramid to the mortuary temple and looked into the serdab, a tiny sealed chamber where a life-sized replica of Djoser’s statue can be see through a peephole. The King rests here on his throne, forever gazing out towards the northern stars and the land of Osiris. Climbing up over the southern enclosure wall, we arrived at the Pyramid of Unas, where the first Pyramid Texts were found, but unfortunately this was closed to the public, so we continued on down the Unas causeway.

At the end of the causeway we found the Old Kingdom tombs of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (the Royal Hairdressers), Irukaptah (the Butcher’s Tomb) and Neferherenptah (the Birds’ Tomb) and visited all three. Back in the car park we found Ahmed fast asleep in the taxi, so leaving him to rest after his ordeal of driving us there we walked up to the pyramid of Teti, quite a distance away. Belonging to the first king of Dynasty VI, this is the most northerly pyramid at Saqqara and the only one open to the public. We went down the steep staircase leading into the subterranean chambers, where the walls are inscribed with columns of hieroglyphs, known as the Pyramid Texts. Following the example of Unas, they describe the King’s journey from the land of the living to the Netherworld, guiding the pharaoh successfully towards his eternal life with the gods. We found that Teti’s cartouche was easy to read among the beautiful rows of golden-coloured hierogyphs. Beneath a ceiling painted with stars, the base of Teti’s massive grey basalt sarcophagus still remains in the burial chamber but its lid was broken by robbers who plundered the tomb. The lower part, which is well-preserved, was originally decorated with gilded inscriptions (a single band of Pyramid Texts) and although unfinished, was the first sarcophagus known to be decorated.

The time went by far too fast, though we couldn’t leave without a quick look into the tombs of Mereruka and Kagemni. I could have spent hours there, but we really didn’t have time to do these large tombs justice. While I had seen them before, this was Jenny’s first visit to Saqqara and I was only sorry that we had to leave as the site was closing for the day. Poor Ahmed must have thought we had abandoned him and was quite agitated when we got back to the taxi. On the journey back to Cairo I realised why he had been so worried when we hit the rush-hour. We seemed to have been queued up for hours in the slow-moving traffic, breathing in the disgusting exhaust fumes from the surrounding vehicles. By the time he dropped us off at our hotel our driver was white-faced and looked exhausted and I’m sure he was telling himself that he would never give rides to tourists again. He didn’t ask us if we needed a taxi for tomorrow, but I didn’t think he had had such a poor deal, earning LE150 for five hours’ sleep.

Sharing a pizza later in a local cafe, Jenny and I decided that the trip to Saqqara, despite the day’s delayed start, had been well worth the hassle and all in all, Cairo was given a reprieve.

And Then… A Scam at Giza

Trees in CairoI am not a city person and neither is Jenny. We’re both sick of the hassle of taxis and just beginning to regret staying in a cheap hotel on the wrong edge of Cairo, so we decided to walk towards the Egyptian Museum where it should be easier to find a taxi whose driver would be more likely to understand where we wanted to go. Consulting my Cairo map, it was a straight road, down Sharia Rameses from the Railway Station to Midan Tahrir. A very very long straight road. Sharia Rameses is one of the main arteries of Cairo and crammed with traffic at all times of the day. It felt like every one of Cairo’s population of over fifteen million was on this road today, zig-zagging between lanes in cars, clinging to the back of overfull busses or weaving in and out on bicycles, often with large objects balanced on their heads. The noise was deafening. The buildings on either side of the wide street are an example of urban development gone mad, where beautiful but neglected colonial-style architecture is often overshadowed by modern concrete high-rise office blocks and banks. Walking down the high cracked and crowded pavements of the city is a very different experience to speeding by in a taxi and we were able to take in the sights and sounds in a much more intimate way. As is our custom, we were dressed respectably in long skirts and long-sleeved tops and we were very hot, the temperature was already soaring by 9.00am. As we walked, we were largely ignored by passers-by, for which I felt grateful. We must have been obvious as foreigners, but we tried not to appear lost or have that glazed look that many tourists seem to have. I wondered what these city people felt about the massive influx of foreign visitors each year, many looking like they belonged on a beach with their skimpy clothes revealing large portions of lobster-coloured flesh. The closer we got to the river, the more we were noticed. I had long-ago found that most Egyptians, and especially a certain sort of latter-day dragoman, can spot a tourist, name their nationality, wealth and sexual preferences from a great distance, zoom in on them and stick like glue. We kept our eyes down and forged ahead.

After many scary moments attempting to outwit traffic by crossing several main roads, Jenny and I reached the Corniche without being run over. The trick is to find a large Egyptian, move into their shadow and cross when they do (making sure that they are on the side of the oncoming traffic). After only a couple of minutes we hailed a taxi, the driver spoke good English and agreed to take us to the Giza pyramids. Well, that was easy!

The SphinxWe crossed the river via the 26th July Bridge, the driver pointing out landmarks along the way. On the West Bank we stopped at a junction and a young man jumped into the front seat of the taxi, the driver explaining that this was his sister’s son, Mohammed, a university student. He seemed polite, even charming and spoke very good English. A rapid conversation in Arabic followed between the driver and his nephew, before the boy turned to us and told us that the main entrance to the pyramids was closed today because of work on the sound and light show and cars were being directed to another entrance much further away. Mohamed, however, offered to show us a shortcut onto the Plateau by the horse stables. Our taxi dropped us off at the stables and Mohammed guided us through a Muslim cemetery onto the Giza Plateau. By this time we were certain that this was not an official entrance. We thanked him anyway and gave him baksheesh (LE20) for his trouble but it soon became obvious that he expected much more money from us. After a lot of argument he left us and we began the long trudge across the hot desert sand towards the pyramids in the distance. We eventually arrived at the Sphinx temple, only to be told we could not buy tickets there but had to go to the main entrance. By this time we realised that this was a scam – we had been conned and the young man had expected to make a lot of money from us by showing us a free way onto the Plateau. The main entrance was open today as usual and I felt very foolish for being taken in.

The Great Pyramid of KhufuGiza is tiring, even more so because we had walked all the way from the eastern side to the western side in the blazing sun. We bought tickets and looked around the area of the Great Pyramid, went to see Khufu’s solar boat in it’s specially-built museum, and around the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure. We visited several tombs, including the newly-opened Dynasty IV tombs of Debhen and Yun-min in the Southern Cemetery. We walked down Khafre’s causeway to the sphinx but by the time we reached there it was 5.00pm and we were both exhausted.

One of today’s better times was when we easily found a taxi to take us all the way back into Cairo and to our hotel, without any further mishap. We had both enjoyed our day at Giza but I was still feeling foolish for being just as gullible as all the other tourists, even though this is my tenth visit to Egypt. We live and learn.


Sitting quietly in the rooftop restaurant of the Ciao Hotel at breakfast this morning, by an open window enjoying the relatively clean air, high enough up for the petrol fumes not to reach us, Jenny and I were in a subdued mood. I knew that she was feeling the same about Cairo as I was and we had both had enough of the city. We had had our share of transport problems; the metro didn’t go anywhere we really wanted to visit and the thought of trying to take a bus to the monuments on the other side of the Nile was not an option we wanted to consider. By the third cup of coffee I had decided to make a telephone call to Luxor to see if the apartment we had arranged for next week was available early. We were in luck – the owner said we could have it tomorrow if we wanted and so our first port of call today was to the railway station to buy tickets on the earliest possible night train to Luxor. The concept of queuing does not seem to be understood in Egypt and the ticket office at Rameses station was a free-for-all, with whole families pushing and shoving their way to the front, but after asserting ourselves with our elbows we finally arrived at the front and managed to secure tickets for tonight. With the tickets in my hand, my spirits instantly lifted.

Cairo Riverscape

Walking out to the front of the railway station we went to visit Rameses the Great, whose colossal statue, twin to the reclining statue I had seen at Memphis, stands in the centre of Midan Rameses, surrounded by scaffolding and waiting taxis, looking very neglected and forlorn. It is rumoured that he is to be moved to a better environment away from the damaging pollution of the city traffic. Next we went down into the Metro station to have a look at the map and found that we could travel on the Metro almost to Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum. It was only three stations away. It took us a while to find the right platform, taking many wrong turns down long stiflingly hot tunnels that all looked the same, hindered by the fact that all the signs were only in Arabic. Jenny and I bought our tickets and had only a few minutes wait for the train. The crowded carriage was full of men, who watched us with interest and it wasn’t until later I realised that there are separate carriages reserved for women only. The journey lasted 15 minutes and getting off the train at Sadat Metro station, we found our way back to ground level and walked the short distance to Midan Tahrir and the Egyptian Museum. The Cairo Metro was a new experience for me, having only travelled on the Paris Metro before many years ago, and I was very impressed by the cleanliness of the stations here. It certainly felt easier than dealing with the taxi drivers again.

Egyptian MuseumSpending several hours in the museum we saw many more of the galleries than we had had time for on Monday. It was very crowded this morning with tour groups whose guides were shouting above the noise of other tour guides and competing for space around the most of the major exhibits. The noise was deafening, echoing off the high roof of the atrium, but by lunchtime the museum had become less chaotic and there was even an hour or so in the early afternoon when it became quite empty and I was able to take photographs. The time passed very quickly for us, lost as we were in the wonderful works of art there, especially in the Amarna gallery, with its fabulous colossal statue of Akhenaten. Coming out into the dazzling late afternoon sun, we wandered for a while around the garden, where there are many interesting pieces of statuary scattered along its paths, before risking a taxi back to our hotel to pack and get something to eat.

We had plenty of time and had dinner in the hotel restaurant that was beginning to fill up for the evening. The restaurant seems to be a popular place for Cairenes to spend the evening. We didn’t need to be at the railway station until Midnight, so Jenny and I took a little stroll around the local streets, noisy and vibrant with city night-life, to say goodbye to Cairo. I’ll be back one day, but for now I was looking forward to being in Luxor again, my second home.

Cairo to Luxor Night Train

Cairo-Luxor night trainWe took our seats on the Aswan train leaving Cairo at 12.30am. We had bought first class tickets which cost an incredible LE60 (LE40 for me with my International Student Card discount). That’s only about £6.00 in English for a ten hour journey of 660km! The spotlessly clean carriage was occupied mostly by Western tourists, but there were also one or two Egyptian businessmen, while most of the Egyptian families were travelling in the second or third class coaches. I was very impressed by the train. The seats were wide, comfortable and spacious, with reclining backs and they could even be swivelled around to face the opposite direction. It felt like business class on an aircraft. There were overhead video screens for entertainment, but I was thankful that nothing was playing as we hoped to get some sleep during the long journey south through the Nile Valley. Jenny and I both managed to doze after a while but the train was regularly speeding up then slowing down or stopping at stations along the route. There were plain clothes security men in our carriage, rather obvious in their grey suits with gun holsters bulging beneath their jackets. About once an hour a trolley containing food was pushed by and we could buy drinks and snacks or even airline-style meals on trays. After a few hours I visited the toilet at the end of the carriage, which made me decide it was not a good idea to eat or drink too much, as the floor was already swimming under about 15cm of dirty-looking water. However, this is my only criticism of my first long-distance train journey in Egypt.

It’s a pity it was dark because the journey by day would have been much more interesting. The train speeded past a variety of countryside and through towns I had never visited, but by 6.00am the sun was already rising and we were able to look out of the windows and watch people going out into the fields with their animals to start their morning’s work. When we got to el-Balyana I recognised where we were because I have done this part of the journey by train before to Abydos and the terrain became more familiar. At Sohag a young man called Moutaz got on the train. He is a tour guide who Jenny had met before in Luxor and we passed the final few hours in interesting conversation with him, arriving at Luxor railway station at 10.30am.

Our arrival time was actually 9.30am because the clocks had gone back an hour overnight from EST (which we hadn’t realised) but luckily the taxi we had arranged to take us to our West Bank apartment was waiting for us. Jenny and I both felt very tired but happy to be back in Luxor at last – a much more familiar place where I feel comfortable because I know how things work here.

Apartment at Kom LollaWe crossed over the bridge to the West Bank and to the apartment at Kom Lolla which would be our home for the next 17 days. The owner was waiting for us with the key and showed us around. It’s very basic but large and airy and we both felt that we would be happy here. The double front door leads into a huge, high-ceilinged, open hall, with a table and chairs, a refrigerator and an old-fashioned boiler for washing clothes. There is a small kitchen with an ancient dubious-looking bottle-gas cooker and deep sink and a bathroom with shower that looked, well… adequate. Jenny and I chose our bedrooms from the three available, flung open the windows that looked out over a canal and agricultural fields towards the distant river and decided to get a few hours sleep. It seems so quiet and peaceful here after the chaotic city-life of Cairo.

I woke up mid-afternoon to find that the apartment was full of mosquitoes. It hadn’t been such a good idea to leave the windows open, because the protective mesh screens that cover them are full of holes and the canal is obviously a breeding-ground for insects. We unpacked and showered and decided to get the ferry over to Luxor to change money and pick up some supplies. One of my priorities was a can of mosquito-killer and the other, a new pillow from the government shop because I hate the rock-hard bolster that is provided. I imagine it’s like sleeping on an ancient Egyptian head-rest. Even Luxor town seemed quiet and we didn’t see many tourists around, but maybe that was just because we’d come from the bustling metropolis. We had dinner at the Amoun restaurant and lingered with coffee into the evening over my favourite occupation – people-watching. It’s great to be ‘home’ in Luxor and before long all the problems of Cairo were fading into distant memory.

A Walk in the Mountains

Jenny and I had intended to get up early this morning, but we must have still been ‘train-lagged’ as it was 9.00am before we left the apartment and the temperature by then was rising rapidly. Even so, we decided to walk along the road to Deir el-Bahri and turn off up the little track before the temple, that goes straight up the mountain. A little way up we were spotted by two security guards who waved their guns and shouted at us that we were not allowed to walk on the mountain (news to me!) and we must come down immediately. For some reason both Jenny and I seemed to be a little hard of hearing today and eventually the guards gave up on us. They obviously couldn’t be bothered to come after us as we scrambled extremely quickly up the path of loose rubble and shale, slipping and sliding on the uneven surface all the way to the top where they could no longer see us.

There are the most wonderful views from the top of the Theban Mountain that always take my breath away, though it was a little hazy already this morning. We took the path around the hill looking down over Deir el-Bahri. It’s a bit scary at places standing on the very edge of the precipice but that is the only way to see right down onto terraces of the Temple of Hatshepsut. It’s also a great view of the Temple platform of Mentuhotep to the right, which can’t be clearly seen from any other angle. Following the track towards the Valley of the Kings, we stopped to have a look at the remains of the workmen’s huts. The artisans who carved and painted the royal tombs would have taken this track from their village at Deir el-Medina and about half-way to the Valley there are a few small stone structures believed to be stop-over huts, temporary accommodation where the workmen would sleep during their ten-day shift.

Fossil-hunting below el-QurnFor a while it was peaceful up on the mountain and we spent an hour or so looking for fossils. I was amazed by the number of fossilised sea shells we found. How would sea shells get on top of a mountain in the desert? I’m sure there is a credible explanation, but I am no geologist and I don’t have an answer. After a while we were joined by a young man who tried to sell us ‘antiquas‘ from a rusty tin he furtively pulled out of a pocket in his galabeya. He tried very hard to interest us in his little collection of ‘genuine’ shabtis and bits of pottery. Even up there we couldn’t escape the souvenir sellers. But he was OK and when we didn’t show any interest in his antiquities he gave up and joined our fossil hunt. Eventually the young man got bored and wandered off to look for other more lucrative tourists and Jenny and I carried on walking the path to Deir el-Medina.

The sanctuary of Ptah and MeretsegerAs we passed the large hut for the tourist police which is now installed above the workmen’s village, the guards waved at us and offered us a glass of tea. We stopped to chat for a moment but didn’t stay long because it was really getting to hot in the noonday sun. I felt very sorry for the police who must stay up in that shelter, often for days at a time, as a result of the Deir el-Bahri ‘incident’ of 1997. It must be incredibly hot during the day, cold at night and very very boring. But they were really friendly – quite different from the guards who shouted at us only a couple of kilometres down the road. Soon we were descending the hill past the little sanctuary of Ptah and Meretseger and down into the Valley of the Queens, where we turned off on the tarmac road back towards Medinet Habu. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so hot in Egypt. The temperature surely must have been about 40 degrees C.

We stopped for a cold drink in the Rameses Cafe, intending to say hello to our friends who work there, but the restaurant was very crowded with a large party of Japanese tourists and the staff were all rushing around madly. By mid-afternoon we were back in the apartment and I was ready for a siesta. Jenny however, declared that she would go to visit Medinet Habu Temple for a couple of hours. I was tempted, but just too tired.

Morning in the King’s Valley

Luck was with us this morning when we left our apartment and immediately an empty service taxi stopped to ask if we wanted to go somewhere. We had planned to visit the Valley of the Kings, but hadn’t decided how to get there as ordinary arabeyas don’t travel that route, so we thankfully climbed into the front of the rickety old Peugeot pick-up next to the driver and set off along the bumpy road on the edge of the cultivation, turning off towards the Valley. Getting out in the car park and paying our driver the LE5 fare, we set off up the road to buy tickets.

ARTP excavations October 2000

I especially wanted to see the excavations of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project (ARTP) that I had been following for the past few seasons and I knew that excavations were due to begin about the same time as we arrived in Egypt. Already the scene has changed a lot since I was here in March. While some areas have been backfilled, the new excavations now extend to both sides of the tourist path to include the area in front of KV10, the tomb of Amenemesse. Another lucky break – my friend Nubi is working for Dr Otto Schaden at KV10 and he came over as soon as he saw us to tell us what had been happening on the ARTP dig…. apparently not a lot so far, apart from a great deal of clearance and the creation of mountains of rubble. I immediately picked up on the feeling of excitement and hope that archaeologists must have at the beginning of a new season and wondered what amazing new discoveries might be made. Would they at last find an Amarna Period tomb? The excavation trench has also extended further east towards the tomb of Tutankhamun and a team of workmen were very busy there, so after a quick peek Jenny and I left to visit the tombs of Amenhotep I and Merenptah.

By late morning the high cliffs on either side of the road were funnelling the heat down into the bottom of the valley and it felt like being in a furnace. I really don’t know how the workmen manage to carry on in these temperatures, shovelling up the rocky sand and running up and down slopes or ladders laden with heavy baskets of rubble. I guess they’re used to the heat. There were a lot of tourists about this morning and I remembered that I have always tried to avoid being there in the early morning for that reason, preferring to brave the afternoon heat rather than the morning crowds. The day was still going well when we got back to the car park and met my friend Tayib, a taxi-driver who had just dropped off some tourists and he offered us a lift back to Kom Lolla.

Later in the afternoon Jenny and I walked to Malqata, past Habu Temple and through a scrubby area of long grass where a little track winds its way to the next village. I thought the tourist police might try to stop us from taking this route which is not officially allowed, but there was only one policeman on duty near the temple and he was taking his siesta. We sat on a sandy bank on the edge of the site of the palace of Amenhotep III and watched the sun slide down behind the hills sending darkness into the corners between the low walls of the palace. This place is so evocative and mysterious at sunset and I love it. One of the gafirs I know came out to say hello and sat with us in silence for a while until we all began to get chilled by the wind that had blown up with the setting sun.

Malqata at sunset

We were going to stop at the Rameses Cafeteria for dinner, but there was a large tourist group there and it looked very crowded. Our friend Salah was due to finish his day’s work at the cafe soon and he suggested that we all went to the Kofta House at el-Tarif to eat. Salah’s friend Ramadan who owns a taxi, drove us to el-Tarif and shared the meal with us. I hadn’t been there before and the tiny restaurant was obviously a place where only the locals eat (i.e. the local men). We sat outside at a rickety table covered by a worn plastic cloth, beneath strings of bare light bulbs. Food was cooked over charcoal on a spit at the front by the road and as well as being a restaurant it also seemed to have a high proportion of take-away customers. Always a good sign. While the others enjoyed mountainous portions of freshly grilled chicken or Kofta (a kind of sausage made into little balls), I had rice and vegetables as the only vegetarian option, but the meal was delicious and cost only a few Egyptian pounds for all of us. Jenny and I took advantage of having a captive taxi-driver and stocked up on basic supplies from a little grocery store on the way home and we drove back to Kom Lolla with two boxes of bottled water on the roof of the car. Forty eight large bottles of Baraka should keep us going for a while and we wouldn’t need to go out and buy it each day.

A Day at the Monuments

Feeling well-rested (after another night with my nice new soft pillow) I woke early this morning and looked out of my bedroom window over the green cultivated fields of the West Bank, towards the river. It was a beautiful morning, still cool and with clear skies of the sort of palest powder blue of a summer’s day when the heat hasn’t yet begun to create a haze. I made coffee and went to wake Jenny. By 8.00am we had walked along the road to the Ramesseum, for once managing to avoid the little herd of children who usually come running down from the village at the first sight of foreigners on foot.

Columns in the RamesseumWe spent the morning looking at the reliefs carved onto the walls of the Temple of Rameses ‘The Great’, at first still gold-washed in the early morning light. He certainly liked to promote himself, favoured by numerous deities and always victorious in his battle exploits. Well, I suppose no king is going to go to the trouble of carving his less fortunate moments on the walls of his ‘Temple of Millions of Years’. Today I was looking mostly at the various offering scenes in the hypostyle hall and surrounding chambers and especially at the different types of offering pots, of which there is quite a variety. I really do appreciate being here with a good friend who shares the same level of interest in the ancient monuments as I have. Jenny and I toured the temple together, discussing hieroglyphs and scenes, taking turns at looking up new words in the mountain of books we each carried with us. We were lucky this morning to have the temple more or less to ourselves, with only a few small tour groups arriving and leaving again after half an hour or so, with little time for more than a cursory glimpse of the temple’s wonders.

By mid-day the sun was burning down from directly above and as soon as we moved out of the shade of the temple the temperature was unbearable. Sayed, the mudir of the workmen at the Ramesseum, a kind man who I have met a couple of times before, invited us into his little tent in the palace area for tea. He has a little English and a little French and with my bit of Arabic we managed to cobble together an interesting conversation while he busied himself boiling water on a camp stove. While the water was heating he rinsed out a couple of glasses in a dubious looking bucket and added powdered tea and masses of sugar to his brew, which he then boiled together for about five minutes. This Egyptian tea bears little resemblance to an English cup of tea. It’s a strong syrupy beverage but very welcome on a hot day and much more refreshing than a cold drink. When the other workmen began to arrive for their lunch break Jenny and I thanked Sayed for the tea and left the Ramesseum.

On the way back to our apartment at Kom Lolla we bought some bread and falafel for lunch and enjoyed the delicious make-shift meal. Later in the afternoon a taxi driver friend took us to the Temple The Temple of Isis at Deir el-Shelwitof Deir el-Shelwit, which is right at the southern end of the monument area, four kilometres along the desert track past Habu and Malqata towards Armant. The little temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis, dates from the Roman Period and has a propylon gateway decorated with deeply carved reliefs by the Emperors Galba, Otho and Vespasian, who appear before various deities. A large court was once surrounded by walls which no longer exist, but there were remains of a doorway bearing a cartouche of Caesar at the centre of the court. The main temple structure is usually kept locked and we had hoped that there would be a gafir with a key, but he was not around and we had to be content with peering through a grill covering the doorway into the dark interior. Consulting ‘Porter and Moss’ we read that the temple has a narrow hall and a sanctuary, decorated by Emperors Hadrian and Antonius Pius, surrounded by six small chambers and a staircase to the roof. The decoration includes interesting reliefs and inscriptions concerning rituals of the deities acknowledged during the Roman Period, at a time when many of the old rituals were becoming difficult to understand. But as we strained our eyes looking into the blackened interior, we could make out little of the decoration.

As the sun began to drop behind the Theban Mountain, Jenny and I once more set out for a walk, this time taking a picnic over the fields to Malqata. As the shadows lengthened and the desert turned gold we sat in the courtyard of the French dig house at Malqata and shared our little meal of bread, cheese and bananas with my old friend the gafir, who in return made us a cup of his delicious shai bi nana (mint tea). For some reason the mint tea here always tastes much nicer than anywhere else.

The evening was still very warm and we stopped at the Rameses Cafeteria on the way back, staying for several hours discussing Egyptology with Nubi and Salah. The Temple of Medinet Habu was as usual floodlit and looked glorious. Tonight there was something going on in the temple and a large group of people arrived in coaches. Soon there were camels parading up and down and music coming from inside – all very entertaining to watch!

Master of All The Lands

The Temple of Rameses IIISince the first time I visited Luxor I have had a special affinity with the Temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu. Usually one of my first ports of call when I’m here, it is my favourite temple in the whole of Egypt and I’ve seen quite a few. Yesterday I suddenly realised that I have been here for four days, staying in an apartment only five minutes away from the temple and though I’ve walked past it several times I have still not been inside. Today when the temple opened at 7.00am – I was waiting at the gate.

For several years I have wanted to have a good look at the battle reliefs of Rameses on the north outer wall of the temple. I’ve looked at the wall before of course, but many of these very detailed carvings are only really visible when lit by the early morning sun and by 9.00am they are already dimmed by shadow. This morning with Jenny I walked through the tall Migdol gateway, past the little Dynasty XVIII Temple built by Hatshepsut and around to the right of the First Pylon. I knew that the battles were more or less in sequence and began on the rear wall, though they quite damaged there. The north wall reliefs, however, stood out beautifully in the bright low sunshine – the light was perfect.

Together Jenny and I worked our way down the wall from the top, looking at each register and we tried, with the help of a few books, to work out which battles are which. The history of Rameses’ campaigns is richly depicted here along with detailed lists of his enemies, including the Western Desert tribes of Libu, Seped and Meshwesh and the enigmatic ‘Sea Peoples’. The story begins (after one or two skirmishes with Nubians) with Rameses leaving the temple in the company of the war-god, Montu and several priests carrying standards. The king is seen in his chariot, his lion (a symbol of his strength) alongside, while a trumpeter calls the soldiers to follow and they all set off for the Libyan War in Year 5 of the reign. The King wears the blue ‘war’ crown and is shown, as is the custom, larger than everyone else. Rameses had been warned of the Libyan unrest. These were a people who had been defeated by the Egyptians decades before and now, once again determined to settle in Egypt in search of fertile land, had formed a strong alliance with other westerly tribes in an attempted uprising. There are many of the usual sort of battle scenes, charging horses, falling bodies and the taking of enemy captives. A little further on, Rameses is depicted standing on a balcony near a fort, facing his army with piles of spoils before him. The heaps of severed hands and phalli are counted by scribes, presumably in a tally of the dead and for which the soldiers were rewarded with gold. This scene is similar to those in the First Court.

Rameses III hunts lions in his chariot

The next battle shown here takes place in Year 8 of the King’s reign when an unidentified group of people who we only know as the ‘Sea Peoples’, invaded the Nile Valley from the north. There are seven scenes, beginning again with the King in his chariot setting out for battle with his well-armed troops. One scene shows scribes recording the distribution of weapons to the Egyptian army. The warriors of the ‘Sea Peoples’ can be identified by their wide helmets and striped kilts. Some of the reliefs are very realistic, showing hand-to hand combat and there are even women and children cowering near their ox-carts, while the battle raged around them. Though this group of people were totally defeated on land, the sea battle was yet to begin off the Delta shore. The Egyptian ships are identified by a lion-head on the prow. I found these scenes even more graphic with boats capsizing and surviving swimmers being shot at by Egyptian archers from the shore as they fought for their lives, only to be captured. During the campaign Rameses can be see taking time off to go hunting lions, which is probably another symbolic reminder of his strength and prowess.

Naval Battles with the Sea Peoples

Meanwhile the tribes were once more on the move and in Year 11 of his reign Rameses again must chase the enemy out of the Delta where they have tried to settle. The Libyans had been filtering in from the west, more or less with the permission of the Egyptian authorities, but when their allies the Meshwesh began a mass movement towards the Delta, Rameses determined to put a halt to the immigration. Their leader Meshesher was captured and the tribes were chased back into the desert to a fort with the romantic name of ‘Castle in the Sand’. With his victories complete, the King is shown presenting his Libyan and Asian captives to Amun, Mut and Khons, the Theban Triad, amid much celebration.

Many cameos of these battles are depicted in the reliefs of the First Court, but this morning it was good to see the whole story highlighted by the slanting sun on the north wall.

The Funfair at Kom

Luxor National Pharmacy

The pharaoh has got his revenge at last! I woke up feeling rotten this morning. I’ve been tired and lethargic for several days but today it all came to a head in a full-blown sickness. I’ve never been really sick in Egypt before and after ten visits I thought I was immune to ‘The Bug’. No such luck. By this afternoon I thought I was feeling a little better so Jenny and I went over to Luxor to change money and buy food. Not that I felt like eating anything. My main destination in the town was to the pharmacy to get some medicine for my rebelling stomach. Loaded up with pills and potions I went back to the flat to sleep.

In the late afternoon our friend Ramadan stopped by with his two young children and invited us to go with them to the fair at Kom, another small village nearby. It was a local sheikh’s anniversary and there would be horse races and a funfair for the children. By this time I wasn’t feeling too bad and Jenny was keen to go, so we all piled into the taxi for the short journey to the village. Parking among the houses, we walked through narrow winding alleys to the edge of the village, where a field had been recently cut and a long straight race track was etched out in the stubble. There were a lot of horses milling about, white, black and every colour in between, some with riders and others tied loosely to a fence. When the next race started with a pistol shot there was a mad galloping of fairly reckless riders – it would seem that the object of the race was to ride the horses from start to finish by any means possible. It was great to watch the men in the hitched-up galabeyas tearing down the track while performing as many dare-devil stunts as they could for the entertainment of the crowd, while spectators shouted encouragement and cheered the fastest. It was very noisy.

Funfair at Kom

By the time a couple of races had taken place the children, Aman and Mahmoud, aged two and five, were eager to get to the fairground. Many sideshows and stalls were laid out along the road. There were sweets of every description; strange-shaped towers of sticky nutty things bound together with honey or syrup as well as brightly coloured dolls made from sugar like those I had seen before at the Festival of Abu’l Haggag in Luxor. Candyfloss stalls vied with other vendors selling little paper cones of nuts and seeds and there were toys galore. I’m sure the children would have liked some of everything but their father allowed them only one or two treats and they accepted these with gratitude. They were as good as gold among all the temptations and never once did I hear the usual childrens’ lament ‘I want…’

When we reached the fairground there was another cacophony of noise as a selection of loud scratchy pop music blasted out from many different loudspeakers. There were fairground rides for all ages, but the two children liked the ride-on horses best, sitting on top of the wooden painted ponies going round and round until I felt quite dizzy watching them. I had to admit that the various rides looked very precarious and I was sure that none of them would have passed any kind of health and safety checks in the UK, with planks loosely roped to wooden scaffolding and bits of metal wedged into spaces propping things up. It soon became obvious that foreigners and especially women, were a rare sight at these events and Jenny and I attracted quite a crowd of boisterous teenage boys who decided to follow us everywhere, shouting questions and improper suggestions. Still feeling under the weather I was definitely not in the mood for this. After a couple of hours we all left. By this time it was quite dark and the stalls were lit up with kerosene lamps and there were strings of bare light bulbs powered by a generator and threaded zig-zag fashion across the road. As we walked back to the car Aman and Mahmoud were both tired but happy and it had been a treat to see the fair through their excited eyes.

Medinet Habu Ghost Story

I am determined not to give in to this sickness, though I dare not venture very far away from our apartment at Kom Lolla. I hate to waste a minute of my time in Egypt and I’m beginning to feel cheated by having to stay indoors while the whole monument area just outside my window beckons to me. This morning, after a few false starts, I decided I could make it around the corner to Medinet Habu Temple, which is close enough for me to dash back home if I felt unwell.

Around mid-day, Jenny and I were in the rear of the temple looking at the rooms around the sanctuary area at the back of the Hypostyle Halls when we heard faint singing voices. Intrigued, we walked back out to the First Court at the front of the temple and found a group of tourists complete with hymnbooks, singing Christian hymns in English. What….?? Well, I suppose the temple had been used as a Coptic church once during its long history, so why not?

Medinet Habu Hypostyle Hall

Escaping back into the deserted furthest recesses we carried on looking at the rear chambers, which it is thought, may once have contained the crypts to house the temple implements used for the most sacred rituals. The floors of these back rooms are now smooth and there is no evidence of entrances to underground vaults, but most of the temples had crypts for storage so they may have been there at one time. The chambers to the north and south behind the barque chapel of Amun are long, silent and very dark, certainly not light enough to take photographs after a few feet in from the entrance. Jenny was in the northern room and I was to the south of the sanctuary, quite a long way apart when I heard her shout my name, so I walked over to the other side of the hall and stood behind her wondering why she was peering into the blackness into a tiny low recess. When she turned her head and saw me she jumped in shock. Apparently she had seen someone she thought was me disappear into the gloom at the back of the room and she was very startled then to see me behind her. I was dressed today in a long white top and white cotton trousers and she swore that someone all in white had darted into the chamber but when she followed there was nobody there. We investigated the chamber thoroughly right to the end wall but there was no other exit except where Jenny had been standing when she saw ‘me’. I decided Jenny must have been too long in the sun. We left the chamber together to go into the room behind which buts up against the rear wall of the temple and it was then that we both saw it. A ghostly figure dressed in white walked right through the solid wall in the dark chamber in front of us and disappeared!

Sitting rather shocked on a low wall discussing what we had both just seen, we could find no rational explanation. Perhaps an ancient Egyptian priest had been disturbed by the incongruous hymn-singing at the front of the temple which was just ending. Then we went back into the room on the southern side of the Sanctuary and heard a strange noise inside the room, like a hammer loudly and regularly tapping on stone. One of the temple guards who we knew quite well came along looking for us and together we all listened to the noise. This was very strange as it couldn’t be heard at all outside the chamber. The guard even climbed up onto the high back wall to see if anybody was working nearby but he could see no explanation for the noise, which he said he had never heard before. We all kept going in and out of the room, but the noise could only be heard inside. What a spooky day.

A View from my Window

For the past couple of days I’ve been feeling so bad that I haven’t been outside our apartment. I have not been short of company though. When I’m ill I just want to curl up in bed and sleep, not talk to anyone and generally feel sorry for myself, by myself. In Egypt however, it would seem that the whole village likes to turn out and sit around the sickbed to gossip – it’s a custom, I’m told, a perverse form of entertainment like reading the obituaries and going to funerals. To be fair, all of these well-meaning people stop by with alarming regularity to see how I am and if I need anything. I don’t – but when they are gone I can be grateful for their kind thoughtfulness.

View from my window

Sometimes I’ve been woken by the steady thump and drone of the distant irrigation pump that invades my restless sleep, or the stifling heat in the apartment and the incessant irritation of flies landing on my skin looking for moisture. When I haven’t been sleeping I’ve been alternately bored and furious at not being able to go out. My bedroom contains a large double bed with a firm mattress, cotton sheets and a couple of rock-hard pillows as well as my new soft pillow that thankfully I bought when I first arrived here. On my bedside table there is a pile of books and notes that I don’t have the energy to read and a large bottle of water which I should drink continuously but can’t. I stare at the white walls and flaky ceiling that could do with a fresh coat of paint. Outside the sun is shining and I’ve spent hours looking out through the ragged mesh covering my bedroom window. There isn’t really much of a view from the window, which overlooks the tarmac road by the canal leading to Medinet Habu. Every now and then a service taxi goes by or someone on a bicycle cycles past whistling. On the other side of the road a grey donkey is tethered to a tree and brays loudly and often while next to it in the shade of the branches, a small pen made from palm fronds contains a couple of baby goats. They have thick curly black coats and as they practice teetering on their thin spindly legs I wonder why they have been separated from their mother so young. A little further along is the jamoosa, the large brown buffalo that I stop to say hello to whenever I pass. Beyond the trees, the cultivated fields of the West Bank stretch down towards the river, but I can’t see that far from my window.

My friend Gecko

As evening comes to cool the air and the sun casts long blue shadows over the road, a thick cloud of mosquitoes rise as one evil being from the murky green water of the canal and make a beeline for the holes in my window mesh. Consequently I am plagued all night, scratching and itching until I eventually have to get up and spray the room with the hated can of mosquito killer. I do have one constant friend however, who lives on my bedroom ceiling and tries his hardest to catch the mosquitoes. He is a lovely gecko who scurries up the wall and clings above me to the high ceiling with his tiny pink suckered toes, regularly flicking out his long tongue.

Jenny has been in Karnak Temple all day today. She came in with boxes of pills for me after going to the Luxor pharmacy and talking to a doctor there. He told her that it sounds as though I have amoebic dysentery and he prescribed a course of two different antibiotics. As far as I know I have never taken antibiotics before in my life so I just hope I’m not allergic to them. Right now I would chop off my head if I was told it would make me feel better.

Divine Birth at Luxor Temple

Another day indoors, but at least today I’ve felt well enough to work on my notes and do some studying, so it wasn’t such a waste of time. More importantly I have been able to drink litres of water with no ill effects. The magic pills seem to be doing their job!

Jenny has been out horse riding in the desert for most of the day and came back with hilarious stories of being attacked by packs of wild dogs and accosted by gangs of wild children from the villages. We had a good laugh about it but I’m sure the dogs at least couldn’t have been very pleasant at the time, snapping and yowling at the heels of her horse. By late afternoon I was actually feeling hungry so Jenny and I went to the Rameses Cafe for an early dinner. Lentil soup for me – one of my favourite Egyptian dishes at any time and with plenty of lemon juice squeezed into it, it should be good for my stomach. Still feeling OK an hour later I decided I would risk venturing over the river with Jenny to Luxor Temple.

Obelisk of Rameses II at Luxor TempleLuxor Temple is one of my favourite places to go in the evening as it stays open until 9.00pm and is floodlit. There are reliefs that will show up under the lights that are sometimes almost invisible by day and the whole atmosphere is very different. In Egypt, darkness comes around 6.00pm most of the year round, so there is plenty of time for a stroll around the temple. With a tripod and fast film in my camera I headed for the ‘Birth Room’ where, on the west wall, there are scenes of the birth of Amenhotep III. The reliefs show the gods Amun-re and Hathor with Amenhotep’s mother Queen Mutemwiya as she embraces her husband Tuthmose IV. Then she is held aloft by the goddesses Selket and Nieth – this is one of the scenes that is badly damaged and almost invisible in daylight. The story unfolds along the wall with the Queen being led to the birth chamber by Khnum and Hathor, where she delivers the baby while seated on a block throne. Khnum has fashioned the ka of the future Amenhotep III on his potter’s wheel and the baby with his ka are then presented to Amun-re by the mother goddesses Hathor and Mut. The baby’s mother Mutemwiya watches while the young prince is suckled by thirteen goddesses, two of which are in the form of cows. He is then presented to many other deities. This relief was carved as proof of the King’s divine birth and his legitimate claim to the throne of Egypt, much the same as Queen Hatshepsut before him, laid claim to the throne in her reliefs at Deir el-Bahri.

Walking back through the temple to the Court of Rameses II, I paused to admire the colossal statues of the King and the one remaining obelisk outside the First Pylon, beautifully lit against the dark blue starry sky.

Seti I at Qurna

The ‘Qurna Temple’, constructed by Seti I, is among the earliest of the extant New Kingdom temples on the West Bank and is not often visited by tourists. This morning Jenny and I found it as deserted as usual. The German Archaeological Institute have spent many years reconstructing the monument and each time I have visited I can see that more work has been carried out. The pylons and forecourt are no longer standing and much of the front area of the temple is buried beneath the modern houses of Qurna, but the main part of the monument is surprisingly well-preserved and contains some beautiful and colourful reliefs. It was built by Seti I partly as a memorial chapel for his father Rameses I who doesn’t have his own temple here at Thebes, but was unfinished at the king’s death and like many other monuments of this period it was completed by his son Rameses II.

Qurna Temple of Seti I

Jenny and I entered through a gate on the northern side and walked down the processional route to the portico which leads to the hypostyle hall. The first view of the temple facade is reminiscent of Seti’s Abydos Temple, maybe just because what we see is the portico and the top cornice of the facade is missing, like it is at Abydos. There the similarity ends, but some of the workmanship of reliefs is almost as exquisite as it is at Abydos. The hypostyle hall is small, with only six columns, but still roofed over to give a sense of what the temple must have been like when it was in use. Decorated by Seti and his son Rameses it contains scenes of offerings and heb-sed texts. There are four cult chapels on each side of the hypostyle which are dedicated mostly to the Theban Triad, the Osirian cycle of gods and to the deified Seti I. In one of the chapels an iunmutef priest purifies the king who is followed by a female personification of the temple. Another contains a very unusual relief of Osiris as Anjety. At the rear of the hypostyle are the barque shrines of Mut, Khons and Amun (which still contains the pedestal on which his barque rested) and it is here that the finest and most delicate reliefs can be found. Behind Amun’s chapel is the Holy of Holies where there is a very worn depiction of a rite called ‘Bringing the Foot’. Unfortunately the Holy of Holies is now in a ruinous condition.

I was intrigued by the name of this ritual ‘Bringing the Foot’ so much that I had previously set about trying to find out more about it. It is actually part of the extremely vital daily rite in cult temples of feeding and clothing the god. Each day the King, or more likely his appointed deputy the High Priest, presented offerings to the cult statue of the god in the temple sanctuary. Here the god was Amun. Offerings of food from a varied menu were made, which were consumed afterwards by the priesthood and temple staff when the god had finished with them. Each morning the god statue was washed, purified with water and incense and then dressed in fresh clothing. Four different colours of cloth were used; white, green, red and blue, each colour with their symbolic attributes such as protection and health. The statue was then anointed with a special fragrant oil and the doors to the naos once more closed and sealed. The king or High Priest would then retreat backwards sweeping away his footprints with a broom made from a special plant – this was known as ‘Bringing the Foot’. After the daily rituals had taken place the cult statue was ready to receive the earthly presence of the spirit of the God once more. The daily rituals can be better seen in detail on the walls of the chapels at Seti’s Abydos Temple.

View from the portico to the Solar CourtIn the Qurna Temple there is also a sanctuary area off to the south of the hypostyle hall, entered through a vestibule, which is dedicated to Seti’s father, the deceased Rameses I. This cult chapel still has a lot of colourful reliefs. At the back of the central sanctuary there is a superb false door with cartouches of Rameses Menpehtyre. A double scene shows Rameses I sitting facing outwards in a kiosk with a hawk on top and dedication texts on each side. On the opposite, northern side of the hypostyle hall, is a solar court built by Rameses II. This is decorated with dedication texts to his father, the now-deceased Seti I, and contains offerings to various deities, including the deified Queen Ahmose-Nefertari. The court is open to the sky and in its centre is a decorated altar, now broken.

CamelThis afternoon I had a couple of hours rest back at our apartment. I’m feeling so much better but don’t want to overdo things as I still feel very tired, but the air in the apartment felt very hot and stale and was full of mosquitoes again. Jenny had arranged to go for a camel ride along the riverbank this evening so I went down to el-Gezira with her, thinking I could sit quietly by the river and wait while she went riding. Somehow I let myself be talked into going for a ride too – I just hoped that Mohammed the little boy who was in charge of my camel knew what he was doing. Our camels were already sitting down waiting for us to mount, an undignified activity that involves throwing a leg over the camel’s hump and settling into the saddle in one easy ?? movement. Camels are said to be emotional and intelligent animals, though the dull look in my camel’s eye suggested otherwise, while his enigmatic grin looked positively wicked. At this point I remembered my favourite Terry Pratchett book ‘Pyramids’, featuring a camel called You Bastard who was the greatest mathematician on the Disc. Once I was in the saddle with my legs crossed in front of me I found that it was a much more comfortable position than riding a donkey. Then with a shouted command in Camelese from Mohammed, the camel lurched forward and pushed its rump into the air, almost catapulting me over its long neck, then went into reverse thrust throwing me backwards as we launched together into the air. We were off. When walking, camels sway from side to side as a result of lifting both feet from one side off the ground at the same time and I can never work out how they don’t fall over.

Sitting comfortably and relaxing into the camel’s strange gait I began to enjoy the slow gently swaying movement and it was a nice half hour’s walk along the bank of the Nile, with Mohammed chattering happily to me, the camel and himself. As the sun began to set we turned around homewards and Jenny suggested a gentle canter. Not so relaxing this, because trotting on a camel, unlike walking, involves being thrown from side to side and backwards and forwards at the same time. A different ride completely! Eventually we all arrived back in one piece and I could tick this off my list of ‘Egyptian experiences’.

The Tomb of Ramose

Although it was still quite early the sun was already hot when we walked up the road to the ticket office this morning. Jenny and I bought tickets for the tombs of Ramose, Userhet and Khaemhet before catching an arabeya to el-Gezira. I needed to go to the pharmacy to buy more antibiotics to complete my course, though I’m already feeling so much better from my bout of amoebic dysentery. In Gezira, Jenny and I caught an arabeya back up to the monument area at Qurna, getting off near the old village houses, where Ramose’s tomb (TT55) can be found a little way up the slope behind a modern enclosing wall.

Ramose was ‘Governor of the Town’ of Thebes and Vizier during the Dynasty XVIII transition of the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV. His tomb in the village area of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna reflects his important position in the royal court and it is interesting because it represents the change in style towards Amarna art. It is uncertain whether Ramose was ever buried in this tomb, or whether he followed Akhenaten to his new capital, Akhetaten, but no tomb has been found for Ramose there. His Qurna tomb chapel is one of my favourites, both for the truly exquisite traditional New Kingdom reliefs and for the contrasting Amarna reliefs from the reign of Amenhotep IV.

The Tomb of Ramose

The courtyard leads straight into an unusually large transverse hall. This tomb-chapel originally had 32 large papyrus-bundle columns which once supported the roof but they are mostly ruined now though some have been replaced with replicas. Many factors have caused damage to Ramose’s tomb, which was left unfinished and at some point suffered the collapse of the rock-cut ceiling – which luckily served to preserve the beautiful reliefs we can now see there. Ramose began his prominent career during the reign of Amenhotep III, but after the king died many of the reliefs were defaced with the persecution of Amun during Amenhotep IV’s rulership, though they were restored afterwards and the Akhenaten reliefs were in turn vandalized. The tomb was later usurped by another individual, who constructed a mudbrick tomb in the centre of the hall, leaving the older walls untouched.

On the walls to the left and right of the entrance, Ramose can be seen presenting offerings to the gods, wearing the long robe with shoulder straps common in that period to the Vizier, the highest official of the land after the king. Offering stands are heaped with produce; bread, meat and poultry are surrounded by tongues of flame to show that they were intended as burnt offerings, while papyrus blossoms are artistically laid across other vessels of food and ointments like a garnish. There is an Iun-mutef priest dressed in a panther skin with a comprehensive list of offerings for the soul of the deceased. Many family members are shown on this wall and a statue of Ramose dressed in his long vizier’s robe with a heart amulet around his neck, is being purified by two priests. Next to the entrance Ramose and his wife are depicted with offering bringers burning incense.

Keshy and another guest at the banquetMy favourite reliefs are on the south of the east wall to the left of the entrance and are probably the most beautiful and best known scenes in this tomb. Carved with very fine detail on limestone and left uncoloured except for the eyes of the figures, each guest at the banquet, some of them the relatives of the deceased, is named in the accompanying texts. Ramose’s mother was called Ipuya and his father was Nebi, whose titles suggest that he may probably came from the Memphis region. His wife was Meryt-Ptah, which means ‘Beloved of Ptah’ (a Memphite god) and she was also his brother’s daughter. Ramose and Meryt-Ptah appear not to have had any children of their own. Other guests sit in pairs, dressed in their finest clothes and dazzling wigs, holding bouquets or blossoms in their hands. One couple is named as May, ‘Overseer of the Horses of the Lord of the Two Lands’ and his wife, ‘Mistress of Isheru’, Werel. These two must have been important guests as May is wearing two gold collars. Another male guest is Keshy, ‘Overseer of the Hunters of Amun’. I noticed that Ramose’s deceased parents Ipuya and Nebi, are depicted with slightly shorter wigs, probably an earlier fashion or perhaps the fashion of the Memphite region in their time. Nebi’s titles include ‘Overseer of Cattle’ and ‘Overseer of the double-granary of Amun’ and ‘Scribe’. Ramose’s brother Amenhotep, ‘Confident of the Good God’, Overseer of the King’s Craftsmen and Great Overseer of the Royal domains in Memphis’ (Royal steward), was also a scribe. He sits with his wife, May, who was a ‘Chantress of Amun and Royal Ornament’ and they are also given the epithet ‘justified’, meaning deceased. Their daughter, Ramose’s wife Meryt-Ptah, was also a ‘Chantress of Amun’ and also deceased.

The end wall on the south side of the chapel portrays the funeral procession in two long registers. The floor at this wall slopes steeply down into the burial shaft below, which is sometimes accessible, though we didn’t go down there today, remembering the long steep rock-slide on my bottom from a previous occasion. This wall was not carved but its paintings show very well-preserved colour and detail of the funerary goods being transported to the tomb with the procession of mourners moving towards the Western Goddess. The canopic jars in their shrine are taken with the sarcophagus to the tomb on sleds.

The tekenuBefore them is an unusual scene of the ‘tekenu’ – a mysterious and fascinating part of the funerary ritual. There are many opinions about what the ‘tekenu’ was: one idea is that it was a priest wrapped in skins and transported on a sled in some kind of ritual of rebirth, while others suggest it was the wrapped internal organs of the deceased which were not placed in canopic jars. The tekenu in this scene can be seen clearly to be the shape of a man crouching, with his feet showing. Some authorities claim that the tekenu predates the general use of coffins and may have originally been the body of the deceased in foetal position, wrapped in a shroud or animal skin.

Female mournersThe second register shows more of the procession with the tomb furnishings and burial goods being carried to the tomb. A group of mourning women dressed in diaphanous white robes with their hair loose, are shown in a well-known scene at the centre of the procession. Further on, nine kneeling women wail and cover their heads with ashes and bare-chested women dressed in yellow and red beat their breasts, as mourning tradition dictated. Sometimes women were hired purely for this purpose. Unfortunately the captions for these scenes are incomplete. At the end of the wall the two registers are linked together ending before the Western Goddess where the deceased is before his tomb entrance.

The west wall opposite the entrance, is damaged and difficult to recognise, but has four unfinished figures of Ramose, the last offering a bouquet to a king in a kiosk with the traditional nine enemies on its base. The cartouche is that of Amenhotep and the damaged epithet ‘Great in his Time’, suggests that the ruler was Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) portrayed in his earlier years in the formal style of his father Amenhotep III. Behind him sits the goddess Ma’at in the classic style. In the centre of the west wall is the entrance to the unfinished inner chamber where Ramose is portrayed entering the tomb, with an autobiographical text appealing to the gods to recognise his good character.

Egyptian epigrapherThe scenes to the right of the entrance to the inner chamber are a complete change of style, presumably done during the sole reign of Akenaten and reflecting the great change in the art and religion of Egypt. Ramose can be seen with his wife, kneeling prostrated before Amenhotep IV and his queen Nefertiti, who are shown in the ‘Window of Appearances’ with the rays of the Aten showering down on them. This relief is executed in the new style of Amarna art and was defaced, presumably after Akhenaten’s reign ended. Ramose, in the now ’deformed’ style of Amarna art is shown receiving the ‘Gold of Honour’ one of the highest awards in the land, suggesting that Akenaten not only employed previously unknown individuals but also well-established officials from Thebes. Many courtiers and nobles are depicted bowing low before the royal couple. The royal palace is indicated by a little cameo scene with palm-leaf columns. Beyond this scene the wall is unfinished and drawings have been sketched in but were left uncarved. These show foreign delegates (four Nubians, three Asiatics and a Libyan) coming to pay homage and offer tribute to the king. I love these scenes but it’s sad that they are damaged. They are a rare treat in the Theban tombs.

Jenny and I spent hours in the tomb of Ramose. An Egyptian epigrapher was sitting on a stool during the morning, sketching the reliefs, but after she left at lunchtime we had the tomb to ourselves. Ahmed, the tomb guardian was very helpful and chatted happily to us in his good English for much of the time and then we were joined by the guard from Sennefer’s tomb, further up the hill, who is a real comedian and kept us all entertained. Afterwards, we didn’t have the energy for another two tombs today, so we went to visit another Ahmed, a very talented stone-carver who has his workshop nearby and we sat for a long time over cups of tea and conversation.

Seti I at Karnak

After being confined to our West Bank apartment for several days, followed only by one or two local forays to the monument area, today I felt more than ready for a day out. Jenny had gone for an early morning ride so I went to meet her at 9.00am at the Gezira horse stables and together we crossed the river on the local ferry to Luxor. The sun was warm and the River Nile as still as a millpond. As I sat on the ferry’s upper deck my heightened senses took in all the vivid colours of the riverbanks that were of such an intensity that only the clear light of Upper Egypt can produce. As often happens after recovering from sickness, I felt extraordinarily well and glad to be alive and here in Egypt. I was also desperate to make up for my lost time.

Our destination this morning was Karnak Temple, the Ipet -Isut of ancient Egypt. Having visited the Qurna Temple of Seti I a couple of days ago, I wanted to re-visit his hypostyle hall at Karnak, to have a detailed look at the reliefs there. The artists of Seti I produced, in my opinion some of the finest art in the land. At his memorial temple at Abydos, the reliefs are unsurpassable. There they are carved onto limestone, a fine-grained stone which allows the artist to produce an incredible amount of intricate detail. At Qurna and Karnak, the stone is sandstone which has a coarser surface, but nevertheless the Seti reliefs at Karnak are unmistakable from his reign.

Karnak Hypostyle Hall

The hypostyle at Karnak is the largest pillared hall in Egyptian architecture and one of the biggest in the world, covering 5500 sq metres. Its three ‘naves’ contain a dense forest of columns, all intricately carved. Two rows of six central columns, each 21m high, are the tallest and have open papyrus capitals which support the huge stone lintels for the ceiling. At the sides, a further 122 shorter, smooth-sided columns have closed papyrus capitals and the light from the high clerestory windows cut into the central walls barely penetrates the deep shadows cast by them. It is usually understood that construction of Karnak’s hypostyle was begun during Seti’s reign but the decoration was completed after his death, like many of his monuments, by his son Rameses II. The raised reliefs of Seti are in the northern half of the hall and contrast greatly with the more crudely-worked sunk reliefs of Rameses in the southern half. Even though today the hypostyle is still dark and shady and full of atmosphere, it is hard to imagine a time when brightly coloured paint covered the magnificent images on the walls and the raking sunlight from the high windows would cast deep pools of shadow around the hundreds of private statues which once populated the hall.

Seti I under the Ished TreeMany of the scenes in the northern half of the hall depict offerings to various deities, by Seti I, some in memory of his father Rameses I and some usurped by Rameses II. One of my favourite reliefs, in which the detail is breathtaking, is Seti I kneeling before the Ished tree, with tiny cartouches containing his name inscribed on the leaves of the tree. Seti can be seen wearing many different forms of crowns and wigs, all carved with elaborate attention to detail. Shaven-headed priests in long pleated robes carry the divine barques of the gods around the hall in representations of some of the main festivals. Temple ritual is enacted by the King and again, as at Qurna, I saw the ‘Bringing the Foot’ ritual where Seti is sweeping away his footprints from the temple sanctuary. Another of my favourite offering scenes shows the King presenting an image of a baboon to the goddess Mut. Consulting my ‘bible’, the ‘Topographical Bibliography…’, by Porter and Moss, I found this little device is a water-clock, or clepsydra, which was used for measuring time in ancient Egypt.

One aspect of the reliefs I noticed today, that were different from many other royal New Kingdom ritual scenes, was that Seti is very often shown kneeling in front of deities, bowing in a pose of devotion rather than standing upright as an equal before the gods. Thinking about this, I realised that the king is also shown in this position in his Qurna temple, suggesting that Seti must have wanted to be remembered as a pious king. After a couple of hours in the northern side of the hall I walked around the southern part, decorated by Rameses, taking note especially of the order of the temple foundation ritual. Although still superb, these reliefs are not a match for those of Seti. Standards were already slipping!

Barque station of Rameses IIINext I went to look at the way-stations in the First Court, in which rested the divine barques of the Theban Triad for the rituals of their arrival or departure during the festivals. In the north-western corner, the shrine of Seti II has three chambers, one for each of the barques, with niches set into the walls for statues. At the other end of the court is the barque-station of Rameses III, guarded by two royal colossi. This structure is not just a barque-station, but a complete temple in miniature, with a court lined by large pillars with mummiform statues of the King. It reminded me of the courts at Medinet Habu, with texts and scenes of festivals deeply carved onto the walls. Behind the court is a portico, a miniature hypostyle hall and three very dark barque shrines for the Theban Triad. Around the back of this little temple on the exterior wall there is an important scene depicting the procession by river to Luxor Temple for the Opet Festival.

The day passed all too quickly. At lunchtime I met up with Jenny for a drink at the cafeteria, but it was extremely crowded, so we didn’t stay long. We had gone our separate ways today to look at different things, and before I knew it the time was already 5.30pm and time to leave Karnak. Taking a taxi back into Luxor we shared a pizza at the Amun restaurant. This was my first proper food for a week and it tasted wonderful!

Another Day, Another Temple

As we strolled quietly along the road and around the corner to Medinet Habu this morning I was caught up in my own thoughts of bright glowing moments in my life. Suddenly, there in front of me was the Temple of Rameses III, its carved stones sunlit against a backdrop of pink mountains, gods and kings forever striking a pose capturing a moment in time. A breeze was rustling through the Acacia trees in the garden of the Habu Hotel as we passed by and I wished I could capture this ephemeral moment of absolute happiness. I never get tired of this wonderful view.

The House of ButehamunWe spent our morning in the palace area on the south side of the temple. Medinet Habu is like a little city, all enclosed by a massive outer mudbrick wall. Within this space was an inner enclosure wall which contained the magazines and workshops that were intimately associated with the temple, with the main temple buildings in its centre. The area outside was once filled with neat rows of offices and houses for the temple staff although little but mounds of rubble now remain and the semi-wild pale yellow dogs are free to roam this lonely silent place. During Dynasty XX in the reign of Rameses XI, the workmen and their families from Deir el-Medina were relocated inside the temple enclosure for protection against marauding Libyans and parts of one rather large house from this period remains at the north-west of the town area, the house of Butehamun. His private apartments are now gone and all that remains is a vestibule with slender columns, which led into the main room of the house where Butehamun would conduct his business. He was a Necropolis Scribe, a secretary and administrative officer who worked with the royal tomb-builders during Dynasties XX and XXI. Butehamun’s name is recorded on many graffiti on the rocks of the Theban hills and documents from his family archive, known as the ‘later Ramesside letters’, also survive to tell us of his considerable power in Western Thebes. One of the projects he was involved with was the re-burial of the cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri during the reign of Pinudjem I, around 1050 BC. Sometime later the temple and town was besieged and captured and the western gate totally destroyed. In the dark thick mudbrick walls of the outer enclosure, the crumbling and haunting private dwellings of an even later Coptic town of Djeme, abandoned in the 9th century AD, can still be seen. It was these same Christians who painted over the reliefs in the second court that was used as a church, which fortunately preserved the magnificent colour we can see there today.

Rameses III and the Bull-huntOn the southern exterior wall of the temple is the Medinet Habu calendar, giving details of the various daily rituals and annual feasts celebrated in the temple. Each rite is named, with the offerings that must be given and on the bottom register, rows of offering bearers laden with bread, meat and poultry, beer and wine are shown delivering the fare to the temple. This is a virtual copy of a calendar that was found at the Ramesseum. On the rear of the first pylon is a very famous large hunting scene depicting Rameses III. In the bull-hunt, the King is seen in his chariot charging into the marshes, spear poised, after his prey. His military escort equipped with bows and arrows, march along below. While Rameses goes after the bigger game, his escort catch birds and fish in a lake. These grand reliefs are yet another symbol emphasising the King’s might and his mastery over all the forces of the cosmos.

The Palace of Rameses IIIAlmost nothing actually remains of the original palace, but the ground plan has been recreated with restored low walls so that we can see how the building was laid out. This is a second palace which was built to replace an earlier, simpler structure. Constructed from mudbrick with stone doorways, this two-storied palace abutted the south wall of the first court, where a ‘Window of Appearances’ can still be seen. Similar in plan to other palaces known from temples, the chambers were small and probably would have only been used for brief flying visits by the King and his entourage, perhaps during the times of major festivals. Some authorities refer to the palace as a ‘dummy’ or mock-building, constructed not only for the King’s personal use, but mainly for his spirit throughout eternity, as a false door in the throne-room suggests. Three gracious apartments, with tall columns and high vaulted ceilings, would have been where the King conducted his business, giving audience to his petitioners while seated on a throne on a central dais, still in situ. In a private suite behind the main hall, a passage gives onto an antechamber and bathroom where a bath consisting of stone slabs can be seen, like a shower-tray, which drained into a stone basin below. I found this idea of the King having a shower right here three thousand years ago fascinating.

el-Marsam Hotel gardenBy 2.00pm Jenny and I were very hot as there is no shade out in the palace area, so we decided to walk along to the el-Marsam Hotel, next to the Temple of Merenptah, for a drink. In the 1920s this low simple structure was the original site of the ‘Chicago House’ dig-house but since the 1930s has been locally known as ‘Sheikh Ali’s’ Hotel’. Sheikh Ali Abd er-Rasoul established the small hotel as a place where artists, writers and archaeologists could meet and stay, and many still do today. El-Marsam, means in Arabic, ‘a place where artists meet’. The Abd er-Rasoul family name is notoriously connected to the Egyptian antiquities industry; it was Ahmed Abd er-Rasoul, who in 1881, discovered the Deir el-Bahri cache of mummies that Butehamun helped to hide, two thousand years before. Ahmed and his brothers managed to keep the cache a secret for many years until the quantity of antiquities appearing on the market alerted the authorities. Ahmed’s descendent Sheikh Ali, like many of his family had long worked with archaeological missions and himself had been present as a young boy who witnessed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. As an art-lover he wanted to create a special place where people from all over the world could meet and talk in peaceful surroundings. One of the early regular guests was Hassan Fathy and sitting in the shady garden we could see his architectural influence all around us in many of the low buildings with thick walls of butter-coloured mudbrick, small windows and domed ceilings. Jenny and I were shown around by Natasha, the Czech-Australian lady who now manages the hotel. Little has apparently changed over the past half a century and although now owned by Sayed Ali since the death of his father, the eight small rooms and garden still retain the simplicity and natural colours of Sheikh Ali’s vision. We stayed for a long time sitting beneath the fig trees, surrounded by vibrant shades of bougainvillea in the garden at a traditional table and cushioned wooden benches, where the sound of twittering birds was the only thing to break the silence. We eventually left after getting contact details for a possible future stay here, it was such a lovely lazy afternoon that we never did return to Habu Temple.

Qurna Nobles Tombs

I had forgotten it was Friday and not only that, but Friday the thirteenth! However, I’ve always considered thirteen to be a lucky number. Nigel and Helen Strudwick are currently in Luxor excavating the Qurna tomb of Senneferi (TT99) and we wanted to go and meet them as I am always on the lookout for lecturers for our Egyptian Society, so after buying tickets for a couple of the nobles tombs, Jenny and I set off to walk to Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna.

The tomb of Senneferi high on the Qurna hillside

We realised it was Friday, the Islamic day of rest, when we got to Qurna and found the tomb area to be very quiet so we expected that the Strudwicks would not be working today. We climbed up to the tomb at the top of the hill above the village and all was quiet. But luck was with us as they had just arrived at the tomb to check on something before going off to look at some of the other tombs, just like tourists. Jenny and I introduced ourselves and Nigel and Helen could not have been more friendly. We found them sitting in the shade of a tent in the tomb courtyard, surrounded by very young puppies. Their resident yellow dog had had several babies and the team were caring for them. We chatted for a while. The Strudwicks apologised for not being able to show us around the tomb because of insurance clauses, but it was really good to meet and talk with them. They told us a little about the history of the tomb and some of the objects they had found. We were also talking about the ‘teknu’ we had seen in Ramose’s tomb and Nigel told us that John Taylor, another team member was about to publish a book on the Theban tombs in which he discussed the ‘teknu’ – something to look out for. The tomb of Senneferi has been part of a Cambridge University project since 1992 and the clearance work is now coming to an end, with probably only one more season to go. Before we left, not wanting to take up too much time on their day off, the Strudwicks readily agreed to come to Cornwall to do a day school sometime in the next year or so.

Near the tomb of Sennefri in the upper enclosure of the Qurna tombs, is the early Dynasty XVIII tomb of Sennefer (TT96), one of my favourite tombs for its wonderful paintings. Sennefer was ‘Mayor of the Southern City’ (Thebes), an important official during the reign of Amenhotep II. His tomb, called by nineteenth century travellers the ‘Tomb of the Vineyards’, has the most beautiful painted ceiling depicting a grape arbour which gives the impression of being in a painted tent. The walls are brightly painted with funerary scenes of Sennefer and his wife, but in recent years the paintings have been covered with glass, which makes photography more difficult.

Outside the tomb of Rekhmire with my friends!A little down the slope is the tomb of Rekhmire (TT100) who was ‘Governor of the Town’ (Thebes) and ‘Vizier’ during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II of Dynasty XVIII. His tomb chapel is a T-shape shape, though unusual in having a long corridor with a very high ceiling sloping towards the back of the tomb. The spectacular paintings in the long hall are very important as they depict details of daily life in the New Kingdom, making this perhaps the most interesting tomb in the Theban necropolis. Although they were both Viziers in Dynasty XVIII, Rekmire’s earlier tomb is a great contrast with that of Ramose we had seen earlier in the week. Photography here was not easy either as the painted walls of the long hall are very high and not well-lit. However, with a lot of help and hilarious gyrations from the guardians I had met several times before, who used a clever system of manipulating mirrors to reflect patches of sunlight onto the walls, I did manage to get a few pictures.

View over Qurna from a windowComing out of Rekmire’s tomb we bumped into a friend, Azam, who lives in a large blue house high on the hillside above Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna, and he insisted we go to his house for tea. There we met his family and looked out through the windows at the West Bank vista down over the village towards the Ramesseum. What a lovely view to wake up to every day. Azam’s little brothers and sisters played on the terrace while we sat in the shade and were served several drinks of karkade and tea by an older sister and interpreted by Azam, his grandfather told us tales of life in the village. Back down the hill I called in to see Ahmed the stone carver to collect a carved limestone plaque he had made for me, a lovely copy of a scene from the tomb of Ramose that I had ordered from him earlier in the week.

After a rest back at the apartment in the heat of the afternoon, we had dinner at the Rameses cafe with the wonderful view of Medinet Habu Temple floodlit in front of us. The cafe was quiet and empty of tourists, though several Egyptian friends called in throughout the evening and we spent long hours chatting to various people. I hadn’t seen much of my friend Nubi on this visit because he’s been very busy working in the King’s Valley, so it was good to catch up on all his news.

Deir el-Bahri

Restoration work at Medinet HabuEvery morning when we leave our apartment it’s difficult to ignore the lure of Medinet Habu just around the corner. Today we felt he strong pull towards the temple so we walked the long way around to the ticket office to get a glimpse of the carvings on the facade….. and ended up spending an hour inside the temple, so inviting in the quiet of the early morning. Jenny and I have been in the temple several times over the past few days and have never again encountered the ghost that we both saw a week ago, but we thought we’d come and check the rear chambers again just in case, but no luck. I had an interesting conversation with a man called Nubi, who was grinding rock to match the colours in the restoration work he was doing in the second court. It was fascinating to watch him work as he explained the different types of natural pigments he used.

Beekeeping in Pabasa'a tombA little later we caught an arabeya to the turn-off for Deir el-Bahri and walked up the road through Asasif leading to the Temple of Hatshepsut. By 10.00am the car park was already packed with coaches and we decided to avoid the crowds of tourists by first visiting the nearby tomb of Pabasa (TT279), as Jenny hadn’t seen it. Just outside the entrance to Deir el-Bahri, Pabasa’s tomb still has a large mudbrick superstructure and a steep flight of stairs leads down to the entrance to the subterranean levels. Pabasa held the title of ‘Chief Steward of the God’s Wife Nitocris’ (Neitiqert) during the reign of king Psamtek I of the Saite Dynasty XXV. On the lintel above the tomb entrance is a fine relief of a barque, adored by the souls of Pe and Nekhen, by the God’s Wife, Nitocris and by the deceased, her steward. The tomb is similar to that of Ankh-Hor, who inherited the title of Chief Steward after Pabasa’s death and like Ankh-Hor’s tomb the most interesting feature is the Solar Court which is open to the sky. Many important scenes decorate the large square pillars, giving us a great deal of detail about the daily activities in the estate of the Divine Adoratrice. Most famous of these are rare scenes of beekeeping and viticulture, as well as scenes showing a bedroom being prepared, men spinning, netting and cleaning fish and catching birds with a throwstick. Around the walls of the court, Pabasa is shown in many offering scenes with long texts, finely carved and beautifully painted with hieroglyphs. Beyond the sun court is a hall containing eight pillars, part of which was decorated but is now very damaged. At the rear of the hall a decorated niche contains Pabasa’s burial shaft. His granite sarcophagus is now in Glasgow Museum.

By lunchtime most of the tourists had left Deir el-Bahri. The afternoon is generally quiet here on the West Bank as most people consider it too hot to be out and about but for Jenny and I this is the best time to have the monuments to ourselves. Today was no exception, though quite unusual at Deir el-Bahri, which is the one place that tends to be busy throughout the day. However, today was very hot and before long, even the guards and tourist police had retired into the shade for a siesta. The Temple of Hatshepsut was built on three terraced levels, with a causeway leading down to her Valley Temple (now lost) which would have been connected to the River Nile by a canal. Gardens with trees were planted in front of the lower courtyard and we stopped to have a look at the remaining tree-pits.

The Temple of Hatshepsut

Approaching the first court we went first to look at the reliefs in the southern lower portico which are very shallow and often difficult to see, but if the light is right they are very interesting. They show the transportation by ship of two obelisks with their escort from the granite quarries at Aswan, bound for Karnak Temple and further along is the dedication ceremony performed by Queen Hatshepsut to the god Amun at Karnak. Unfortunately when the light is right, early in the morning, is when the temple is at its most crowded and by the time we were there the reliefs were in shadow and did not show up well. Walking up the steps to the second terrace, past the crouching lions carved on the bottom of the ramp, we next looked around the Hathor Chapel with its beautiful Hathor-Head pillars and fine reliefs.

In the southern colonnade of the second terrace are the famous scenes of Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt. The exact location of Punt is unknown, though it is thought to have probably been south of Egypt on the east coast of Africa and several Middle Kingdom kings had already sent expeditions there, involving a long journey by sea. Hatshepsut’s reliefs of Punt at Deir el-Bahri are very finely carved in great detail and were once beautifully painted, though now much of the colour has gone. Here the rich rewards of Hatshepsut’s expedition are listed on the walls of her temple. Ebony, ivory and cattle, precious resins and minerals Counting heaps of incense from Punt(including gold), were traded by Parahu, the Chief of Punt, with the Egyptians and I wondered what the Egyptians had to offer in exchange. Animals and skins and treasured incense trees and perfumes were brought back for Hatshepsut, whose sylph-like figure is shown rather differently to Parahu’s obese wife. The famous relief of this lady called Ity, the ‘Queen of Punt’, is now in Cairo Museum and the block has been replaced by a reproduction. But the land of Punt is shown as an idyllic place, its dome-shaped houses on stilts with ladders to access them, surrounded by exotic trees with wonderful birds flying above. On the western wall elaborately-rigged sailing boats get ready to bring the tribute back to Egypt, including incense trees with their roots contained in baskets, and animals such as giraffes, not native to Egypt. Further along there are scenes of the transplanted incense trees having arrived at their final destination in the gardens at Karnak and the produce from the expedition is weighed and counted by scribes before being presented to Hatshepsut as an offering to her ‘father’ Amun. These superb scenes are my favourite reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. By 4.00pm the crowds were beginning to filter back into the temple as the day cooled and we decided it was time to leave.

Time is Running

Rababa PlayerWe were sitting in a corner of the Rameses Cafe at lunchtime with a small group of Egyptian friends. One of Ramadan’s favourite sayings is ‘Time is running…’, his version of ‘time flies’. Time was certainly running for us as this was our last day in Egypt. Jenny and I had quite a lazy morning, reluctantly doing some packing before spending a last couple of hours in Medinet Habu temple to say our goodbyes. The cafe was packed with Japanese tourists today, who had arrived on a coach to spend the requisite twenty minutes in the temple. I thought it was a bit of a cheek that they come in with their hotel packed lunch boxes to eat at the cafe, but apparently the cafe get a commission from the tour company for this, and they can sell drinks and books and scarves to the tourists at the same time. In the busy season there is an old man who plays a rababa at the cafe who has been there for years. He never looks any different and seems to always play the same tune over and over, from what I can tell. I felt sorry for him today, doing his stuff for the tourists, who were mostly ignoring him and making too much noise to hear him anyway.

After lunch we crossed the river on the ferry to Luxor because Jenny wanted to do some last minute shopping. As we walked slowly up through the local bazaar, stopping occasionally to chat and drink tea with the friendly shopkeepers who were doing their best to relieve us of any left-over cash, we bumped into our friend Ibrahim, who in the past has taught me Arabic. He told us that he had heard that we were here (nothing is a secret in Luxor) and had phoned around all the Luxor hotels to try to find us. I really felt bad that we hadn’t looked him up on this trip, but we had hardly spent any time on the East Bank. To make amends, we agreed to go and have a drink with him at the Anubis cafe on the Corniche, and we all sat and watched the feluccas chasing the evening breeze on the river, flying into the sunset. As I watched the colours change from gold to orange to deep blue with darkness finally creeping over the water, I felt sad that this time tomorrow we would be in the cold grey dusk of England.

Colossus of Amenhotep IIIWhen Jenny went to reconfirm our Egyptair return flight a couple of days ago she was told that the flight time had been brought forward by two and a half hours, leaving at 6.55am and stopping first at Cairo. As this means leaving our apartment by a very uncivilized 4.30am, we finished packing and tried to get an early night. The air in the apartment was very hot and stuffy and neither of us could sleep, so we decided to go out for a walk and found ourselves at midnight taking pictures of the floodlit Colossi of Memnon. This was a great source of amusement and entertainment for the tourist police in their truck in the car park.

The Trolls on the Bridge

After our midnight ramblings last night Jenny and I eventually managed a couple of brief hours sleep before Ramadan was banging on the door at 4.00am, the engine of his blue and white taxi still running for a quick getaway to the airport. All was dark and silent at Kom Lolla, even the locals, usually very early risers, were still asleep. Trying not to make too much noise loading our bags into the back of the car we were soon speeding off down the empty road towards the bridge.

I’ve never returned home from Egypt yet without some sort of problem and today the problem started when we arrived at the checkpoint on the bridge. Neither we nor Ramadan had known that the police would not allow any foreigners across the bridge before 6.00am. Our flight was due to leave at 6.55am and it was at least a half hour’s drive to the airport from where we were. Ramadan tried to reason with the police. Jenny and I both tried to reason with the police. Ramadan got extremely angry with the police and even tried to bribe them. They would not relent. We all sat quietly fuming in the taxi while the police sat in their little hut smoking and drinking tea and smirking at us. We passed the time by telling Ramadan the children’s story of the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ and the troll who lives under the bridge, refusing to let the billy goats cross over. We made a game of thinking up silly questions we were supposed to answer so that we could go over the bridge. Ramadan, whose English is very basic, didn’t get the joke.

By 5.30am, we were all becoming anxious and wondered whether we should try for the ferry, which only runs about every half hour at this time of the morning. We didn’t relish the idea of getting all our heavy bags and belongings on and off the rickety boat and up the steps at the Luxor dock and would we find a taxi on the other side? Just then one of the policemen sauntered over to us and said ‘OK, you can cross now…’ It was still before the designated time, so why now and not an hour ago? They were obviously playing with us, it’s a dull life being a policeman in Egypt and they have to find entertainment where they can.

This trip has had its ups and downs. Our first few days in Cairo, which for us seems like months ago, was not a total success, though we can now look back and laugh at our mistakes and frustrations and chalk it up to experience. I’m not sure whether the West Bank apartment was such a great idea either but it did enable us to live cheaply even though I was ill for almost a week and felt cheated out of my time here. But most importantly, we were staying right in the middle of the monument area with all of those fantastic tombs and temples within walking distance and many good Egyptian friends both old and new who looked after us. What more could I ask?

Felucca on the River Nile

It was the fastest trip through Luxor to the airport I have ever made and though we were last to check in (nothing unusual there), we still had a short wait before boarding. For the first time ever, the flight left on time! The sun was just waking up as we flew out over the Valley of the Kings, the hills and wadis bathed in their soft golden mantle of light and shadow. We were both damp-eyed at having to leave it all behind. An hour later we were changing aircraft in Cairo (for some undisclosed reason) but all went smoothly and before long we were flying over the north coast. It can be frustrating, funny, sad and wonderful and I’m missing Egypt already!

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