Saturday 22 January 2011
It’s just typical – the morning we are due to leave the New Valley to drive back to Luxor, the weather has really brightened up, the sun already hot by 9.00am. We were planning to see a few more sites on the way out of Kharga, which would make the day ahead a lot more interesting. We still had the company of Basim, our constant police companion and there were mutterings about him asking for a lift back to Luxor with us, but we also had a police truck to escort us today too.
Our first stop was at Qasr el-Ghueita, one of the Kharga chain of hilltop fortresses which may once have housed a garrison of Roman troops, but which also contains a temple dated to Persian Dynasty XXVII and XXVIII, during the reigns of Amasis and Darius. The Arabic name of the mudbrick Roman fortress means ‘fortress of the small garden’, evidence that it was once part of a thriving agricultural community. It is perched on a high hill and a long sandy path leads up the slope to the temple entrance. Though dated to the Persian rulers the temple itself may have existed here from as early as the Middle Kingdom and it is thought that pictures of grape harvests in many Theban tombs may have described the gardens. Oasis wine was also a favourite during the New Kingdom. Within the high walls of the fortress, the sandstone temple occupied about one fifth of the space and was dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons. Much of the remaining decoration is Ptolemaic, with well-preserved screen walls and several floral columns.
Gheuita is probably the most well-decorated temple I’ve seen in the New Valley and the reliefs are superbly intricate. In typical Ptolemaic style, there are three sanctuaries in the back of the temple which still contain many remnants of coloured paint. We climbed up an adjacent staircase to the roof, from where we had a lovely view into the temple as well as across the surrounding countryside. The sandstone temple is surrounded by remains of the mudbrick structures of the fortress which are also scattered down the slopes of the hill. The temple is currently under the auspices of Yale University’s Theban Desert Roads Project.
Further west we stopped at another fortress and temple, the ruins of Qasr el-Zayyan, one of the largest and most important ancient settlements in Kharga Oasis. This time situated on a flat plain, Qasr el-Zayyan was also a Ptolemaic and Roman monument which was famous for its large well, an important source of water that gave the town the name of Takhoneourit, or Tchonemyris in Greek. The deep well can still be seen inside the massive enclosure wall of the temple.
The small sandstone temple within the fortress was dedicated to the god ‘Amun of Hibis’, who was known to the Romans as Amenibis and who we had met in other sites in the Oasis. The entrance gate in the southern side of the wall and has a lintel with a dedicatory inscription in Greek: ‘To Amenibis the great god of Tchonemyris and to the other gods of the temple, for the eternal preservation of Antoninus Caesar, our Lord and his whole house . . .’ and goes on to name the governor and officials involved in the restoration. The inscription is dated 11 August AD140. Though the temple is not so prolifically decorated as Qasr el-Ghueita, or as well preserved, it is a nice little monument. There are also a great many mudbrick structures in the surrounding area within the fortress walls.
Time was moving on and we also had to get a move on if we were to get to Luxor today. But first we were hoping to stop for coffee. I was beginning to despair as we drove further and further out of Kharga Oasis, until we eventually pulled up at a roadside coffee shop right on the edge of the Oasis. We stayed here for around an hour and had several cups of delicious coffee while Abdul and Basim drank tea and played dominoes with some of the locals. When we were asked if we needed a toilet before the next long leg of the drive, Sam and I accepted, thinking they must have one around the back of the café. We followed a man down a village street wondering where he was taking us and eventually were shown into the courtyard of a house where the owner had recently installed a new European-style toilet. A galabeya-clad lady proudly showed us the bright pink facilities and left us to it. The necessities of life have always been a problem while travelling around out-of-the-way places in Egypt. It’s a little embarrassing the way tourists are specially treated but Egyptian hospitality will prevail. Personally I’d rather go behind a rock in the desert, so as not to cause any trouble to people, but they are all so kind and eager to please. It’s also a source of baksheesh of course.
When we arrived at the little village of Bagdad and the last police checkpoint of the New Valley, Basim finally left us to travel back to Kharga City with the police truck. A fair bit of baksheesh had been handed over for his ‘services’, which has become an expensive part of tourist police protection on this trip – whether we wanted it or not, we were not given the choice. Waving the police goodbye we turned onto the Luxor road for the long four hour drive over the plateau. We passed the railway line that goes from Kharga all the way to Toshka, far out in the southern Sahara, now all sanded up and I wondered who cleans up the tracks when a train is coming.
Today there were many road works and long stretches of resurfacing work that was difficult to drive over and by the time we reached Luxor the sun had set and darkness had arrived.
Abdul drove over the bridge and dropped us at our apartment in Ramla. Fiona, Malcolm and I decided to go down the road to the Mersala hotel for dinner and who should we meet there but my old travelling companion Robin, now a Luxor resident. It was lovely to see her and we stayed and chatted for a while before walking home and collapsing into bed.