Journal: Monday 13 January 2003
We’ve done the east bank and early this morning we were heading across the Nile bridge to the west bank opposite Minya, stopping first at Zawyet el-Maiyitin.
Also known variously as Kom el-Ahmar, Zawyet Sultan, or Zawyet el-Amwat, Zawyet el-Maiyitin was the ancient pharaonic town of Henenw, the one-time capital of the 16th Upper Egyptian Nome of the Oryx. A very large town site still exists here, though the low and scattered mudbrick walls are generally in poor condition, apart from one very big chunk of enclosure wall. The site is most well-known for the remains of a small Dynasty III step pyramid, one of a series of seven similar structures throughout Egypt. There was a German team working at the pyramid today, so we kept our distance, but the remains were much more substantial than I had been led to believe from the books which mostly say it’s destroyed. It is thought that these small pyramids were never intended as burial places but were perhaps placed to mark the ancient Nome capitals. We wandered around the ancient town and looked at the very scant stone remains of a temple on the northern side of the site, dated to Amenhotep III and dedicated to Horus of Hebenw. Amenhotep’s temple seems to have been dismantled and rebuilt by Seti I during Dynasty XIX and there are a few remaining blocks showing Seti’s cartouche near a wooden ramp over the quay area. Stone steps leading into the temple were built in the pharaonic and Roman periods, but little else now remains. I thought that one of the most impressive things about Zawyet el-Maiyitin is the adjacent Muslim cemetery. This area has been in use as a necropolis since Predynastic times, with additions right through to the Ptolemaic and Roman eras and until recently served as a cemetery for the whole population of el-Minya governorate. The tomb area is vast, its little blue and cream domes stretching almost from the river up into the gebel and we were told that it is one of the largest Muslim cemeteries in Egypt. We are finding more and more that if we’re looking for an ancient necropolis and we find a modern one, chances are it has been built on top of or next to an earlier site. In the distant gebel behind the site about 1km away we could see the rock-cut tombs that served as the burial places of local officials of the Old and New Kingdoms. We were told that only one of them, that of the Royal Scribe Nefersekheru, is open and photographs were not allowed, so we didn’t spare the time to walk up to the mountain.
We drove a few kilometres to our next stop at Beni Hasan, a small village to the south of Minya, where an important group of rock-cut tombs are carved into the high limestone cliffs on the east bank of the Nile. We got out of the taxi and were faced with a long steep flight of stone steps winding its way up the mountain. Sam was still annoyed at not being able to take photographs and as she’s been here before she didn’t come with Jane and I up to the tombs, preferring to wait in the smart modern cafeteria where good coffee and newly-built toilets seemed more appealing to her than a hard hot climb. Jane and I puffed our way up the steps to the terrace, only to be asked if we wanted to buy camera tickets. The guards seemed not to know about the new photography ban and we didn’t enlighten them. Egypt! I had half a fast film in one camera and a very slow film in the other, but I tried my best to get as many pictures as I could while the going was good. These important tombs of the Middle Kingdom provincial rulers date mostly to Dynasties XI and XII and are spectacular, as was the view from the terrace right up and down the river valley. Out of 39 tombs here, only four are currently open, so Jane and I spent quite a long time in the tomb chapels of Baqet III, Khety, Amenemhet and Khnumhotep. The tombs offer a rare chance to see the distinctive style of mortuary art characteristic of the early Middle Kingdom with their colourfully painted scenes of daily life, recreation and military activities and some of them have been cleaned, the wall paintings restored to their original bright colours. When we got back down to the cafeteria and told Sam that we had taken photographs, she was even less amused and while Jane and I enjoyed a quick cup of coffee she kicked herself for not having bothered to make the climb.
From Beni Hasan, we followed the road along the river for a few kilometres and after going through a village and along a track that turns eastwards into the desert, we came to the rock shrine known as Speos Artemidos, or Istabl Antar. The speos is a small temple hewn completely out of the rock, in an area where there are many ancient quarries. Although the origins of the structure may go back as far as the Middle Kingdom, it was first decorated in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut and dedicated to the goddess Pakhet (or Pasht), a local lion-headed goddess of the desert and an aspect of Hathor, who was given the title ‘She Who Scratches’. Later the Greeks identified Pakhet with Bastet, a feline deity who they associated with their own huntress Artemis, and the temple became known as the ‘Cave of Artemis’.
The modern name for the speos, Istabl Antar, comes from Antar, who was a local pre-Islamic poet. The shrine has a wide facade with four square pillars cut from the rock, two on each side of the entrance, intended for decoration with Hathor-headed capitals on the outer face and Osiride capitals on the inner face. They remained unfinished, except for texts and cartouches of Tuthmose III and Seti I. Inside the transverse hall there are more hieroglyphs and reliefs which are now very worn and difficult to read in some parts. The most important of these was inscribed by Hatshepsut on the architrave over the entrance and denounces the ‘Asiatics of Avaris’ (the Hyksos) who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. The walls contain many other painted scenes of Hatshepsut and Seti I and the goddess Pakhet. Inside the dark sanctuary, next to a high niche on the rear wall that would once have contained a cult statue, a rock-carved sculpture of Pakhet emerges from the rock, very mysterious and beautiful. Outside in the wadi, there are many quarries and tombs in the hillsides and also caves which were inhabited by early Christians during the first millennium AD. Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure are credited with the construction of another smaller rock-temple nearby. All around are the plundered burials of cats in a Late Period cemetery where animals were buried in honour of the goddess Pakhet.
We headed back north along the Nile as far as the Minya bridge where, even though we had Police Captain Ezza in the car with us, we still had to wait for an hour until the next troop truck arrived to escort us further north to el-Siririya. This was a pretty drive through small villages with the high limestone gebel reaching right down to the road. We saw many small limestone industries along the sides of the road – the quarries here are one of the major sources of limestone blocks for building in the country – a fact which is obvious from the dazzling white dust which covers the land and everything on it for miles around. When we came to a cement factory that was belching out clouds of thick white dust, we knew we were in the right area. There are many galleries of quarries at el-Siririya where the cutting technique can be seen, some with ancient builders marks still on the faces of the rock. What we had come to see here was a rock-cut speos (rock-shrine), decorated by Merenptah during Dynasty XIX and dedicated to Hathor ‘Lady of the Two Infernos’ – a fiery aspect of the goddess well suited to this parched site. But first we had to find it. Nobody local seemed to have heard of it and Captain Ezza and two young policemen spent about half an hour wandering the area with Sam, Jane and I looking for it. We eventually found the Hathor chapel just as we were about to give up. It was located on a steep rise, which may have been at one time, cut from a cliff face, but now stands alone. The shrine has a single doorway with a badly worn hieroglyphic text incised on the jambs. Inside is a single chamber with a vaulted ceiling, once carved and painted but now poorly preserved, although remains of the paint can still be seen. At the rear of the chapel, three statues are carved from the rock in high relief, including one of the goddess Hathor on the right-hand side. Below the speos on the western side, a stela is carved into the rock, now quite worn and with the lower part completely gone. The stela depicts a king named in two cartouches of (probably) Rameses II, offering to a god who is difficult to identify, but could be Sobek. Hathor stands behind the king with a hand on his shoulder. How I love these expeditions to places nobody in their right mind would bother with! Then it was back to the car, parked by an ‘Entry Forbidden’ sign near a helicopter pad.
Our final stop today was at Tihna el-Gebel, half-way back towards Minya and another little-visited but important site. Here were the Old Kingdom rock-cut tombs known as the ‘Fraser Tombs’ and the later Graeco-Roman Period town site of Akoris. It was already getting late. The police were becoming impatient with us and we knew we wouldn’t have time to visit the tombs a couple of kilometres further up the wadi, but the two youngest policemen agreed to take another hike with us and we trudged up the steep hillside to the town site. This is the most amazing place, built up the side of a high outcrop of rock that was once the pharaonic town of Dehenet, attested from the Old Kingdom when there was a Temple of Hathor here. Another temple, built during the reigns of Rameses II and Merenptah has four dark chambers cut into the rock and originally had a pronaos or portico with four columns at either side of the entrance. The temple is poorly preserved, but damaged remains of Hathor-headed columns could still be seen in the dark interior. In front of the Temple of Hathor there are wide plain columns still standing and nearby there are Roman and Coptic inscriptions in ink on scattered blocks. A ramp was added during the Roman Period by the Emperor Nero and there are two more small Roman temples that have only single chambers with statue niches at the rear. I climbed around the precarious edge of the cliff to see the Greek and Roman tombs that were cut into the rocks high above the temples, some elaborately decorated on their facades with life-sized reliefs of their owners. Everywhere there were deep open shafts of graves and if we’d put a foot wrong we would have hurtled off the edge of the cliff or down a shaft, but the setting is certainly very dramatic. Our two young policemen (they looked about 16) seemed to be really enjoying themselves even though we all knew we would be in trouble as we’d stayed much longer than the time we had been allotted here.
Later, back in Minya, we ate dinner at the newly-opened KFC on the Corniche, where for some reason we were allowed to go without our police escort. Maybe they’d just had enough of us for one day. In my opinion Minya is one of the nicest towns in Egypt. It’s just a shame we had so little freedom to explore, but I consider myself so fortunate to have seen as much as we have of this wonderful area. I am very grateful to my friend Sam and to Abdul who between them have done all the organizing here. Tomorrow we head back to Cairo.
For more pictures from Middle Egypt see: Flickr