Journal: Monday 17 January 2011
I woke up this morning and the sky was once more full of clouds that got steadily worse throughout the day. We even had a few spots of rain later. The Pioneer Hotel does a quite a good breakfast on the days when there are tourists to feed, as there were this morning and we all feasted ourselves from the buffet to fortify us for a day’s sightseeing. Outside on the lawn we found some recycling containers – never before seen in Egypt! They were empty however.
When we went outside to the minibus we were told that we had to have a policeman in the car with us as well as an accompanying police car – this ‘security’ was new in Kharga, and a bit of a nuisance because we had to pack ourselves in more tightly to accommodate him. Sam, who has been to Kharga many times, declared that she would spend the morning in the museum while Abdul took Fiona, Malcolm and I to our first port of call, Nadura.
Nadura is another of the Roman fortresses here in Kharga and just a couple of kilometres outside the centre of the city. Perched atop a high sandy hill like many of the others, it was probably used as a lookout post. Surrounded by the crumbling remains of the mudbrick walls of the fortress is a sandstone temple, at least what is left of it, built during the reigns of the emperors Hadrian and Antnius Pius. We saw a courtyard which once contained three rooms and part of a pronaos on the western side, but it was all very damaged. The remaining worn but still visible reliefs are a little confusing and appear to depict the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, though the most recent research by Yale University who have been documenting the reliefs, suggest that the temple may have been dedicated to Khonsu who dominates the reliefs. A Coptic church once stood within the space outside the temple and the whole structure was later reused as a Turkish fortress during the Mamaluk and Ottoman Periods. The great thing about Nadura were the spectacular views over the oasis and we could see the Temple of Hibis and the cemetery of Bagawat far below, nestled among the blue-green sea of date palms.
Back in the minibus we drove another couple of kilometres to Bagawat. This is a main tourist site and we stopped at the entrance to buy tickets costing LE30 each. A guide took us across to the tombs and silently showed us around. A huge site, el-Bagawat is one of the oldest major Christian cemeteries in the world and was in constant use until the 11th century. The area is made up of ‘streets’ containing tomb chapels and mausoleums with burials pits below ground, just like in ancient Egyptian tombs. Many are finely decorated with painted biblical scenes and ornate architecture, and domed roofs. We were shown two of the most famous and best preserved of the decorated chapels. The ‘Chapel of the Exodus’, one of the earliest structures, is decorated in two bands illustrating scenes from the Old Testament; Adam and Eve, Moses leading the Israelites through the Sinai desert in the Exodus, Pharaoh and his armies, Noah’s ark, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale and several other biblical episodes. In the second important tomb, the ‘Chapel of Peace’, themes depicted on the domed ceiling include the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and other biblical motifs, each identified in Greek. The interior walls are also painted with many Byzantine frescoes of grape vines, peacocks, allegorical figures and inscriptions. There are a total of 263 tomb chapels here, but we saw only a few of the decorated ones. There is also a roofless mudbrick church with niches for lamps and icons on the rear wall.
What was to have been the highpoint of our morning was a planned visit to Hibis Temple, which I had recently read was now open to visitors. Indeed, I had been to Hibis on two occasions since the ‘Grand Opening’ and it has always been closed. Well today was no different and although I felt disappointed, I should have expected as much. This is Egypt. At least today we could actually see a team of restorers at work there. No amount of Abdul talking to the gafir could get us inside.
Back in the centre of Kharga we stopped at the museum to collect Sam. We went inside and found that she had spent most of the morning talking with the director, an old friend. We were all invited into the office and given cups of tea, while he telephoned various people to try and get permission for us to visit Hibis, but to no avail. Afterwards we spent a couple of hours looking at the wonderful exhibits in the museum, most of which come from the Kharga and Dakhla area. There are some beautiful artefacts, including some very early wooden books from Kellis and several stelae and statues from different periods. The large modern museum is laid out on two floors with Pharaonic exhibits on the ground floor and Islamic artefacts on the upper floor.
When we finished in the museum we drove into Old Kharga and had a walk through the suq. I have never been in this part of the city before and it was interesting to see some of the buildings that still contained parts of their original medieval architecture. Of course we were tailed by two plain-clothed policemen, but they kept at a distance behind so we didn’t mind. The stalls in the suq were mostly filled with the fresh produce of the fertile oasis fields, potatoes, aubergines, oranges and tomatoes – all bigger and fresher than I’d seen anywhere else. And of course there were several stalls and shops selling the dates for which Kharga is famous. I expected to feel a little out of place in the suq because tourists must be a rare sight, but the stallholders were quite friendly and didn’t seem to mind us staring at their goods or taking the odd picture.
We ate at the hotel in the evening, not from choice but because the police would not allow us to go out into the town. Sam and I have a habit of sitting in a coffee shop after dinner and watching the world go by and this could not be done here. But the evening was very cold, so it was probably just as well.