INTERNATIONAL KNOWLEDGE UNLIMITED
A GUIDED TOUR ALONG THE NILE
The father of all rivers
In mid February 1988, my publisher gave me an interesting assignment. Emily, my present partner, joined me in Florence and a few days later we left for Egypt.
My assignment was to journey along the Nile and throughout its Valley, from Cairo to Abu Symbel, and produce a guide book for my publisher with the auspices of the British Museum, whose experts were to read my text for eventual misinterpretations. This experience added a number of realisations to my knowledge concerning cultural developments in the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Too many books, guides or otherwise called, paint a rose-tinted optimistic picture of Egypt, framed with clichés and rhetoric, together with outdated information on the present situation of the people, cities, food, transport and even archaeology. Our book was the first, to outer knowledge, to present a realistic picture. We thought the best way to see Egypt would be by road, either with our own vehicle or, even better, by hired taxi. One has the opportunity to enjoy the scenery, or be horrified by it, while on the move, and be free from the strain of having to deal with the problem of bad roads, chaotic traffic and confusing road signs. Driving one’s own vehicle apart from being difficult, due to the numerous police road blocks, and a times as dangerous as driving in Italy or in Portugal, will hinder your enjoyment and appreciation of natural sites, monuments, and town and village life, or persons and animals, as well as those simple objects or situations that are continually attracting one’s own attention when trading on new ground.
Cruising along the Nile is good for those who look inward, not to those who want to enjoy the scenery, largely invisible due to the low level of the water which seldom enables one to see over the river banks. Few archaeological sites are visible from a river vessel, since they are generally situated on the edge of the desert, if not in it. Most of the older settlements are also found on the edge of cultivated land or along the side canals running parallel to the Nile, rarely are they found on the river banks. In addition, from Cairo to as far south as El Miniya, the Nile has suffered hugely from its use as a general rubbish dump, and it is now so polluted as to present the observant visitor with an extremely depressed and desolate spectacle.
Cairo, the urban centre of Islam
Probably nobody knows how many people live in Cairo today. The city sprawls along the banks of the Nile and out into the desert with such a varied texture that from the air it looks like the pattern of a Persian carpet gone haywire.
Nobody has ever attempted to draw a complete city plan. Beyond the main streets, which have completely lost their old David Roberts character, lies a maze of medieval lanes where the bewildered tourist seldom dare to venture. These alleys are often no more than rubbish tips, from which unknown odours emanate and drift toward the modern shops of the main streets. Small children, as filthy as a living thing can be, scrump and scrounge among the debris and piles of garbage which are obviously too much for the donkey-drawn rubbish carts to clear away.
Burst water mains flood the otherwise dusty roundabouts where aged cars ands ageless donkey carts, as well as buses and army trucks, scramble about the chaotic roads, becoming almost blurred in the process. Everything in Cairo has assumed the colour of its fine age-old dust; at night the multicoloured lights, camouflaging a sad reality, are reflected in the shrunken waters of the old Nile, now polluted to death.
At least 12 to 15 million people lived in Cairo 25 years ago, and since there is nowhere else to go, rarely get out of it. More that 96% of Egypt’s population live on 5% of the national territory, where the density reaches 727/kmw2. The inhabitants of Cairo live in the most polluted city environment in the world, with the most chaotic traffic of any urban area and one of the most serious housing situations.
Everywhere people are busy at something or other. There are no vagabonds in Cairo, tinkers, cobblers, carpenters and blacksmiths are all noisily intent on their work. Car mechanics work miracles restoring wrecks of cars which have been dumped by European countries. Bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers and a bewildering variety of all kinds of street-vendor, are continually calling out to passers-by.
The foreigner is immediately recognized and warmly welcomed by total strangers, papyrus artists, scarab carvers and improvised tourist guides. Someone, in attempt to be familiar and win your trust, will tell you he has a brother or cousin who lives in your home town in Europe or America; he will tell you that , since the museum you were intending to visit is closed for the next hour or so due to some official visit, you have enough time to see his papyrus artist friend at work. Realizing now that you have been taken for a ride, you will be taken to a papyrus “factory” whose products are as awful as any replica for tourist consumption can be.
Carriages as well as taxis will pull up and urge you to make use of them: Giza? Saqqara?, the Citadel?, or perhaps, why not?, a long journey down the Nile? You will have to bargain hard to establish a fair price before jumping aboard.
The five-star hotels, whether in Garden City or somewhere along the Corniche, offer air conditioning and splendid surrounds; there is always a sense of cleanliness and efficiency. But beware; the ubiquitous bacteria may be lurking in your coffee milk or green salad bowl. Dissentry can strike even in the most luxurious restaurants; everyone who has spent any time in Cairo knows this.
The cynic will find all this rather amusing, while the more serious person will feel he has to do something to help the country; both, however, will feel the urge to return to Cairo.
The city of Cairo is the largest in this quarter of the world – that which goes from New York to New Delhi – and may be considered as the centre of the Mediterranean spirit and culture. What happens in Cairo is destined to affect its sphere of influence. From the Alps to the pyramids, from the Middle East to Gibraltair, every city, be it Milan or Marrakesh, has something of Cairo in it. Here cars are constantly hooting to make their presence known. There are no traffic lights, no zebra crossings, no parking restrictions; in short, Cairo is a paradise for the motorist and a hell for the poor pedestrian. In practice, what is becoming a reality in many Mediterranean cities in Cairo is already a matter of fact. The illegal dumping of rubbish in some remote corner of rural Lombardy has its cultural model in Cairo, not in the nearer city of Vienna.
Cairo is a city of contrasts, as is any Mediterranean city; hotels are full of smart, wealthy entrepreneurs or oil-rich (usually white skinned) Arab sheiks, while the streets are full of darker-skinned poor and workers.
Every state-owned building is guarded by shabby and bewildered soldiers, carrying guns, which are dangerous only in the sense that they might go off in the shooter’s hands. If you hang around too long they will tell you to move on. All government buildings are surrounded by a curtain of iron, with score of child-soldiers who , if you happen to be a white-skinned female, are likely to drop saucy remarks.
In 1988 Islamic fundamentalism was manifest as much in men’s clothes as in women’s; increasingly women are moving away from European fashion and reverting to head scarves and long black skirts. The progressive wave of the 1960s has shown itself to be just another period in the history of fashion, here as in the West.
The city’s name:
Cairo grew up at the ancient Nile crossing, at a point where an island served as a stepping stone for the first fording of the river, south of the Delta. London, Paris, and Rome all developed in similar circumstances. During the late Pharaonic period there was a small fortress on the site, from which during the Greek period, a small settlement was established called Babylon (a name that probably derived from this being a colony of the celebrated Mesopotamian city. The small city retained a certain importance throughout the Roman period when two massive towers, still visible on the site, were built.
Egypt was known by several different names by its inhabitants; the most common in ancient tomes was probably KEMET, “The Black Land”. The peoples of the Middle East, including Arabs, called Egypt MSR, or MISR.
When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, they called the city which they built immediately north of Babylon, MISR, thus giving it the same name as the country of which it was to become the capital.
The name Cairo is European, and derives from the name of one of the city’s quarters: El-Qahirah. Only in recent years have the Egyptians adopted this name for their capital city.
The best way to get about in the city was then, once again, by taxi. A “Budget Car” was our best option. For the most daring there is a network of underground train lines, recently built by the French.
If one chooses to walk, one should take the main streets and not be put off when constantly approached by people’s invitations to purchase something or with offers of unrequested advice on what direction to take. For a “baksheesh”, some people will try all sort of ingenious tricks, much as in olden times Naples. However, the risk of being seriously harassed is minimal. Punishments of offenders by the police can be harsh, and in any case, people in Cairo tend to be rather more honest and ingenuous that in Europe.
We were staying at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, in splendid bedroom around the 20th floor with a breathtaking view from many sides, but best towards Giza.
The personnel was polite and superbly trained. We enjoyed our 5 days’ stay, before departure for the south and the further five days after returning from the Sudan border.
The day we decided to visit the Egyptian Museum we had the best of our Cairo experience.
The attractions of the city are many ands varied. The most obvious one being the Egyptian Museum, crammed with gold treasures and splendours of the Pharaoninc world. Gold glittered everywhere in the dingy atmosphere; if a boy soldier beckons to you from behind a column, it will be to invite you to see something particularly interesting in a half-hidden display case in a dark corner. It may, of course, turn out to be a set of the commonest vases, an excuse on the part of the soldier to ensure a“baksheesh”. Obviously you will have no problem finding your own way to the great treasures, like Tutankhamun’s coffin or the arts of Akhenaten.
It is said in Egypt that Egypt possesses 70% of all the world’s historical heritage, alas I have heard the same in Greece, in Florence, and in Rome. This dispute underlines the fact that what is “heritage”, is largely a matter of opinion and not at all an objective fact.
Nowadays the percentage claimed by all these historical sites is on the decrease since the heritage is regarded as a problem by the ministries of culture in every country, needing as it does much expensive conservation work. One wonders for how long any country will afford to preserve such objects, including buildings…
Another attraction is Old Cairo. The Babylon mentioned above, otherwise called Misr e-Qadimah, which occupies the southern part of Cairo, on the right bank. Here are the Coptic Museum, the Roman Gateway and the remarkable church of el-Moallaqah, then the synagogue, the Convent of St George and more churches.
Next come the Citadel, situated on a plateau east of the centre, built in 1176 by Salah el-Din in the architectural style of “the Franks” (meaning the Crusaders). However, the most striking monument of the Citadel is the comparatively modern Mosque of Muhammad Ali, built in the 19th C. in the Turkish Byzantine style.
The Bazaar of Khan e - Khalili, the most important in Cairo, is also situated to the east of the centre. To the south of the centre there is that extraordinary City of the Dead, or the Tombs of the Caliphs, where the Cairo homeless can find lodging in side the tombs of their ancestors. Whole families live inside the mausoleums, which in many cases are more comfortable than the mud huts along the canal-drain.
The venerable city of Heliopolis lies near the modern quarter of Cairo and near the international airport, still known as Heliopolis but also called with it Arab name of el-Matariyah. The Sun City was the most important religious centre during the Old Kingdom. When the Greek geographer Strabo visited Heliopolis in 24 BC it was an abandoned desolate site, having been superseded by Thebes. The obelisk is all that remains to mark the site today, it was re erected on its original site in recent times by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.
The Qasbah, or medieval Cairo’s main street may still be followed although it shows nothing of the features illustrated by Edward William Lane, and later British Cairo lovers like David Roberts or Walter Tyndale. Cairo is simply an architectural bedlam. The street links many districts of the city on a north to south axis. In the Middle Ages it was 10 miles long. The only old buildings left here and there are mosques and fountain schools, such as Salib Kuttab, of 1830, restored in 1984. Fountain schools were set up by wealthy pious people in response to the “two mercies” commanded by the Prophet: water and religious teaching. In the upper part was the school and below was the distribution of water. Near this establishment are the two colleges built by Amir Shayku, under Sultan Hassan, (1334-61), his madrasa is on the left and his khanqah on the right, two examples of Cairene architecture as introduced by Salah-el-Din, or Saladin for short, in the 12th C.
The madrasah is the building devoted by all Muslims to religious teaching and propaganda, whereas the khanqah is a monastery with mosque, including dwelling quarters for mystics (Sufi) residents. It accommodated 700 Sufi, in its 150 rooms.
Next to the Citadel are the madrasah of Sultan Hassan (1356-63), and the Rifa’I mosque (1896-1912), the latter contains the tombs of illustrious muslims such as the Shah of Iran, the khedive Ismail, Husain Kamil and King Fuad, his son.
The best preserved part of Cairo begins from the north gate of the Citadel , called Bab el-Gedid, along the street Darb el-Ahmar running all the way to the south gate of Al-Qahirah, Bab –Zuwailah. The street is lined with palaces, mosques apartment blocks dating from the 13th to the 19th C.
The Citadel, built as a stronghold by Saladin in the 12th C. was the seat of the government until the middle of the 19th C.
The first Muslim settlement of Misr was El-Fustat, founded by Amr ibn el-As during the Conquest. Archaeological excavations of the site have been very fruitful. Besides the foundations of buildings, thousands of objects have been found enabling a thorough reconstruction of life in those days. Here stood the first mosque ever built in Africa: Ibn Tulun. In 872, Ibn Tulun a thirty-eight year old Turkish governor, declared the independence of Egypt and in the space of ten years he had built up an empire stretching from Turkey to the Sudan, from Cyrenaica to the Euphrates. When the Abassids reconquered Misr, in 905, the mosque of Ibn Tulun was the only building left standing in his splendid city of El-Qatai. Thje courtyard covers an area of 2,5 hectares; there is a sycamore wood frieze of Koranic verses which surrounds the courtyard, measuring more than 1800m in lenfth.
Babylon of Egypt was one of the places visited by the Holy Family during their “escape”, and St Mark also preached here. Many of the ancient churches and synagogues of Misr were, and still are, found here, albeit Cairo was not an important place of Early Christianity, as was Alexandria, where everything seems to have happened.
On the bastions of the Roman gate stands the church of el-Moallaqah (the suspended), probably erected in the 4th C. the former seat of numerous Patriarchs.
Other churches of what has now become The Coptic Museum, are St. Sergius, St. Bacchus, St. Barbara, St. John and Cyril. There is also the convent of St. George, and another church dedicated to the Virgin. All Egyptian churches follow the basilican plan. The use of pews was introduced by the British Anglicans. The use of cymbals and triangles in Coptic rituals goes back to Pharaonic times. All works of art one in the churches are now found in the museum showrooms, only the mural paintings are still in place. The Sassanian influence is overwhelming in Coptic Egypt and one wonders why this is not remarked. Probably because few know what Sassanian means.
The temple of Ben Ezra (Abraham ibn Ezra, 1092-1167, one of the great Jewish poets, mathematicians and scholars of 12th century Spain. He wrote on grammar, astronomy, the astrolabe, etc.) is one of Cairo’s 29 synagogues, is situated within the same walls.
Originally dedicated to St. Michael, it was closed by the Fatimids (996-1021) who sold it to the Saphardic Jews, since Egypt tolerated the Saphardic Rabbinical tradition, as well as the Karaite Jews and the Ashkenazi. In the Jewish cemetery, 5 km sounth of el-Maadi, older than the synagogue, one finds the graves of Ya-Kub Ibn Killis (930-991) and of Rabbi Chaim Kapusi (1540-1631) which still attract pilgrims.
The time spent in Cairo enabled us to observe the Egyptians and to make several reflections on the country and also learn many things about ourselves. Thinking ahead of Bruce Chatwin we asked the same question years before him: What the hell am I doing here?
Something the present day tourist always forgets - and especially good at forgetting this are the pervasive Italian tourists – is that when visiting a foreign country, it is important, and safer, to remember that one is a guest; as such, it is as well to behave accordingly at all times.
For Western people, visiting an Islamic country for the first time may prove more shocking than it is for a Muslim visiting a western country for the first time. The Muslim will almost certainly know more about the West than the western visitor knows about the Islamic world, this being partly due to cinema and television, which even in Muslim countries are dominated by Anglo-American programmes. In the Islamic world religion goes hand in hand with politics, economics and the law; it is, more obviously than in the West, inseparable from other expressions of culture. Those who regard religion generally on the level of prejudice and superstition, will find that Islamic culture is as imbued with prejudice and superstition as Christianity is. This consideration helps us to comprehend the roots of the misunderstanding between the Islamic world and that of the often agnostic/materialistic and hedonistic West.
Nonetheless, we might ask: who is without prejudice? Do we not judge the world around us according to the image we receive through the prism of our collective culture? No one is an impartial judge of other people’s cultures; to think otherwise is a prejudice of the individualistic societies of the West. We show ourselves, therefore, to be as prejudiced as anyone else when we fail to appreciate the ways of our neighbours of the Islamic faith. Having accepted this basic concept – without which one might be better off by staying at home – the attitude to adopt in an Islamic country is that of endeavouring not to offend the dignity (or susceptibility) of its people.
In the Muslim world, or in that world where we were guests, dress is, as it always was, a means of expressing one’s position as regards ethics, religion, politics, etc. It would be as well, therefore, in a Muslim country, not to dress in a silly or shabby way. The “stupid hats and silly shirts brigade”, descending upon the suk from their Nile cruise boat, give as much offence to the inhabitants of El Minya as they undoubtedly would to the people of London or Paris, had they alighted in their cities in the same attire.
So, why dress in a way that would shame us in our own country? Leaving aside any consideration about the climate – heat might affect our sense of good taste only though the head, as a result of sunstroke!- women should avoid wearing excessively light or revealing clothes that leave arms and legs too exposed. If they do not they should resign themselves to being considered easy prey and treated accordingly. Away from built-up areas women should wear head scarf (which will also be a useful protection from the sun.)
Hugging and kissing between persons of opposite sex in public is offensive to Muslims; in some countries it is punishable by law.
“Pointing your camera at the face of women or poor people, or photographing, while seen, shabby and dilapidated buildings. All this is regarded as offensive to human dignity and to the country in which you are a guest.
Laughing at the muezzin’s call to prayer and at the people prostrating themselves in the act of prayer. Eating, drinking and smoking in public during the yearly fast of Ramadan. Refusing invitations, when it has been established that there is no tourist catch involved. It would be considered offensive not to accept the invitation to enter someone’s house, or refuse a small gift. Calling a Muslim a “Mohammadan”, an offensive term coined in the West. The word Islam means “submission to God’s Law”.
We also learned long before going to Egypt that Muslims do not eat pork. Other animals are slaughtered in such a way that before the cooking process their blood is completely drained off. The reasons for this are in a superstition concerning the nature of blood, which also exist in other faiths.
What about polygamy? We asked ourselves, and we discovered by reading books provided by the American University of Cairo a number of interesting things, some of which we were able to test and witness. Poligamy is allowed for those who have sufficient means to support more than one wife. Even in our days, owing to what the Koran sets forth, women are considered – by more progressive individuals too – inferior to men and, more often than not, men’s own private chattels.
In some areas of Egypt clitorectomy is practised, even though the government has officially prohibited it. The idea of a woman having an orgasm is intolerable. The man has absolute authority over women and the family. Often when even an educated woman marries she must leave her job and stay at home.
After a short-lived period of agnosticism and liberalism, one noticed, already in 1988, a marked return to the Koran. More and more young people could be seen wearing traditional dress to assert their faith. We sat for a few hours one day by the Cairo Tower, then by the University, and observed a whole array of people of different classes and ages, and we could confirm this trend. The 2011 revolution in Egypt may just be able to revert the trend, but it is unlikely that cultural traits so engrained in the country’s ethnos, will be eradicated within a few years or even within a generation.
At the University of Cairo there was a conflict between students: the fundamentalists wanted to impose separate classes for men and women, the veil for all women and the abolition of the teaching of modern biology. At the University of Asyut these rules were already in force. In conclusion, what is happening in Europe and America is also happening in Egypt, as we imagined.
Looking at dress, we observed how the Egyptians dressed in 1988 and observed that the dress of a rich and elaborate tradition blended the new with the old, the indigenous with the foreign. Being situated at a geographical crossroad between north and south , east and west, Egypt has not yet undergone processes of homogenization which in other countries (Lebanon , Syria, Jordan) has blurred differences in class or social standing. It is important to view costume as a part of culture and not see it as a mere expression of current fashion, as is often the case in the West.
It is through an observation of what seemed permanent and what was obviously fleeting in modes of dress that we were able to develop a deeper understanding of whet Egyptians viewed as socially significant in their daily lives. Patterns of dress, no less meaningful than language, provide a means of understanding the social order and principles which lie behind them. There appeared to be a kind of hidden grammar whose rules convey meaning and provide a key to discerning their implications. In its symbolic expression, dress reveals the conscious and unconscious priorities of the wearer. It is, furthermore, the outcome of a collective thinking, a versatile and continually re-elaborated medium manipulated by people in order to protect the type of image they want others to know them by.
On one level dress reveals clues to the observer as to what is meaningful in Egyptian society; on another it conceals everything that is inviolable in the private and family life and procreation. At the community level dress symbolizes the pride of sustaining the moral values and honour of the ethnic group, while concealing the mundane, everyday details that might interfere with the expression of that pride.
On an individual level, complicated inventories of dress items and modes of artfully displaying them give plenty of opportunity either to conceal or reveal the physical and psychological dimensions of the self. In many countries, and since the most remote prehistory, dress has departed considerably from what is useful in terms of climate. However, in many countries, and Egypt is among them, dress is reasonably well suited to environmental conditions. Ample skirts provide decent covering for women when squatting (a position that is often adopted for a range of domestic activities). Skirts and modest garments are also useful as vehicles for market purchases, fodder for animals, and sometimes babies. Dark outer garments and head scarves protect inner clothes from dirt and dust: and streak-side slits allow women to breast-feed comfortably.
We observed numerous variations of all garments in Egyptian dress, and to enter into details would obviously necessitate more space than is reasonable in this narrative. However, we were able to learn to recognize many clothes and their purpose, from Cairo to the Faiyum, to Nubia, through our own intuition and careful observation.
The male dress consists of a basic robe, the “galabiya”, and some form of head covering. In Egypt today – with the exception of religious sheikhs who wear costumes similar to those used in the 19th C. – male peasants dress has dropped many of the features that once distinguished one region of the Nile Valley from another. To religious, ethnic or geographical distinctions, various differences which identify the individual as rural, urban, educated, uneducated, native or sophisticated are overlaid.
The working-class male today wears the simple, flowing galabiya with its low, scooped neckline and a V-shaped slit at the front, which reveals an often striped “sidari” vest underneath. Sometimes the slit is buttoned. The sleeves flare out at the wrist and hem line. Wool is worn in winter and cotton in summer. The turban, now not so common as in earlier times, may be a scarf wrapped simply round the head, or a larger scarf wrapped around a cap of crocheted cotton.
Nubians, as we saw very many in Aswan, wear a very large white turban which varies in dimensions according to social status. Sometimes peasants are seen wearing a felt or woollen cap only. The “fez” of the Egyptians of North Africa in general, which is ancient Greek in origin, has been increasingly uncommon since the Khedive days.
The regional varieties are so subtle and so numerous, but also less and less common, that it is unnecessary to know them in detail. It is interesting however to observe that , for example, a “galabiya” with an European-style collar, and stripes or colours similar to those of a European shirt, worn over jeans and not accompanied by a cap or turban, is indicative of a person open to the outside world. This fashion, invariably adopted by more educated young men, is called “scadarani” (sophisticated), a word that refers to the collar. The biologist who was also out taxi driver in Luxor and Thebes West, was dressed practically like myself and this was his powerful message, constantly underlined by his remarks about hard to die traditions not very conducive to good health such as that of drinking directly Nile water where it is blatantly clear that the river is also the village sewer. But “since it is Nile water it cannot harm”, in the popular idea, as the biologist stressed ironically.
The same “galabiya”, with a V shaped slit is called “frangi”, if worn by a mature, educated man; accompanied by a small brown or white cap. This case we found applying very much to guides to archaeological sites. This is called “frangi sophisticated”. It indicates a person of knowledge and status, a Muslim not especially open to the outside world, but understanding towards “the infidel”.
The costume of women we found comprising three major elements: a basic dress, an outer garment which meets requirements of decency, and a head covering. The dress covers the whole body, leaving only the head hands and feet exposed. Considerable skill is needed to be able to drape the cloth in a way that gives a pleasing shape to the figure. The average peasant or working-class woman, in both town and country, may have no more than two or three under-dresses a year, while still using old ones as second best for work. Dresses are not usually acquired for special occasions; they serve all purposes, and only differ insofar as they are older or newer.
Folk dress tends to remain more lasting over long periods than the dress of members of the more well-to-do classes, who seek variety, novelty, garments for special occasions, the office or going out, etc. The most common sophisticated dress is the “moda” overdress, which is widely adopted by the lower classes in Cairo. The overdress is gathered in folds toward the upper part of the chest, rather like a “granny style” dress; it is invariably a black-coloured material, in shiny satin, jersey, silk or cotton. The sleeves are ample to allow other layers of clothing underneath. The basic undergarment may be gathered at the waist, fitted, or “granny style”, like the overdress. An increasing number of women in the 1980s wore the overdress as a uniform to put on in public from the age of about fourteen. This style has appeared during the late 1960s in Cairo and from here it has spread elsewhere.
The “melaya lift”, particularly common in Cairo, is a kind of cloak that is wrapped around the upper part of the body. It is worn by young women in particular, who are continually occupied with keeping its slippery and voluminous folds in place. It is worn all over the head or draped across the shoulders and falls to the level of the ankles.
We could observe and appreciate what we saw thanks also to Andrea B. Rug’s book “Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt”; American University of Cairo Press, 1987.
When we went to the Gezira quarter of Cairo to the Travel Agent who was expected to give us details of our bookings of hotels all along our carefully planned journey, we discovered that no booking had been made contrary to what our agency in Florence has assured us. Without hesitation we decided to take our chances and go on from place to place with a taxi hired at each hotel, and stay at whatever accommodation we would find available. We were very lucky to find that this method worked very well.
We arrived at Giza between two gigantic heaps of rottin garbage issuing such smell that I would have though impossible for any organic or inorganic matter to produce; the turned over heaps of refuse were crawling with giant worms, but there in the background was one of the most déjà vue sceneries in the world, the three pyramids of Giza. In the haze of the morning. Since there were only a few small groups of tourists, we were spotted a mile away, and Emily attracted special attention with her artist’s portfolio, blue and white stripy shirt and white scarf and trousers. Swiftly a guide approached us: “Need a guide?” “where are you from? Germany, England?”, the answer was “England, but we don’t need a guide, I am writing a book and know my way around. No guide, thank you!” The man grabbed Emily’s portfolio and walked ahead of us towards the Sphynx. We had no choice but chase him as fast as possible. We were shown around the Themple of the Sphynx, and the Sphynx itself – presently undergoing conspicuous and perhaps questionable restoration work which will give her a brand new tail. With a few dollars we were able to regain property of the portfolio and walk freely toward the valley temple of Chephern. Looking south, we were taken by the view of the modern cemetery of Nazlet el-Simman, at the foot of a huge rocky cliff, displaying a way of burying the dead unchanged since pre-pyramid times. Sadly, not many writers have noticed this detail, taken as they always are by grander attractions. We went on through an array of baksheesh beggars and camel ride offerers repelling them all, to the funerary temple of Mycerinus, which originally was connected with his pyramid valley temple by a ramp, then we walked around the smaller pyramid.
We rested for a snack in a shaded clearing surrounded by gigantic masonry blocks, thinking we would have a snack in peace, out of sight. Not so, presently the dangling necks of two camels came down upon us from over the masonry blocks, then two human heads with turbans appeared saying: “A camel ride Sir?” “A guide to the Museum of the Solar Boat?” We ran away chased by the camels and took refuge in the Rest House and Museum.
The necropolis of Giza was built by the rulers of the Fourth Dynasty (2600-2500 BC) and has been regarded as a marvel since the Persian invasion of Egypt by Cambyses II in 525 BC, so much indeed that the Greeks included the Great Pyramid among the Seven Wonders of the World. Of the Pyramid of Cheophs or Khufu, Herodotus said that one hundred thousand men, working three months every year, laboured on its construction. Originally the length of the pyramid’s base was 230.38m, its height 146.5m, and its volume 2.500.000m3. Today, with the loss of its lining stones and summit, it stands 137.20m high. As everyone knows, it is possible to climb to the top, but it is somewhat hazardous, and permissions are give only in exceptional circumstances. The interesting interior is not worth the candle it takes to see it, since visibility is practically nil.
The solar boat of Cheophs is one of five such boats which were completely dismantled each into around 1.000 pieces and accommodated within the great pit next to the pyramid.
After visiting the sites up to Dashur we went back to Cairo and the next day on to Memphis, near the village of Mit Rahina 21 km south of Cairo. The village largely covers the site and scanty ruins of Memphus, situated on an area of ground raised slightly above the surrounding terrain. The present name of the village derives from the fact that a Mithraeum was built here by the Roman army. Here as in Europe the cult of Mythras was introduced by auxiliaries from the East, from the Persian sphere of influence.
New mud brick housing spring up amid the palm groves, which are enveloped within the usual cobweb of telegraph wires and electricity cables, while heaps of rubble and refuse dumps complete a very desolate scene. And yet Memphis was the great capital of the Old Kingdom, but little of it remains. We arrived by taxi at the modern structure enclosing the colossal statue of Ramesses II which with its companion (now standing in front of Cairo railway station) stood outside the entrance of the temple. Herodotus, who saw the statues, said that they were 16m high (he exaggerated, as he always did in correcting the facts that weren’t quite right)- Outside the building stands the alabaster sphinx: 80 tonnes, 8 metres long, discovered in 1912 in from of what had been the temple of Ptah, the god on Memphis who declared that: God was the Word and the Word was God, giving food for thought to philosophers for millennia to come.
We presently took a detour and crossed a bridge over the Nile, opposite the Dashur Pyramid to join the road of the right bank leading back to Cairo via Helwan and El-Ma’adi. Helwan was a smart Spa or health resort of colonial times, famous for its hot water springs, for its casino and a Japanese garden. Unfortunately Helwan is now a run-down industrial town, but Egyptians flock here to see ac wax museum recreating from the glorious past of Ancient Egypt, and through thick and thin to the new Golden Age of Rais Abdul Nasser. In spite of the depressing spectacle it offers, Helwan is worth seeing to understand a little more about the country today, rather than yesterday.
Following the canal road on the left bank of the Nile amid datre palm groves where buffaloes gather lazily to shelter from the midday sun, we reached the junction for pyramids of Mazghuna, situated west of the village of the same name. These pyramids, built with unbaked brick like Hawara have lost their stone casing and are thus exposed to the weather which reduces them gradually back to dust. South to El Lisht the Pyramids have already been reduced to huge plies of dust.
Continuing our journey we arrived at the “false Pyramid” of Meidum at 84 km from Cairo. This was called the false pyramid since it resembles a two storey-tower, with a slanting walled base. This is due to a collapse of the external casing. We came to Beni Suef, where the deserty recedes to the west, while the Eastern Desert closes in near the Nile. On the east side stands a monastery with its dome topped by a cross, the Deir Mar Antonios. In the 4th C. this was St. Anthony’s hermitage. From here a desert track in a wadi, leads to the Red Sea. Here on the West bank is the irrigation basin of Qosheisha, said to be as old as Egypt itself; it receives water from the Bahr Yusuf, the Nile’s companion river which irrigates the Faiyum by way of the Abu Kadiga dam. WE proceeded westward and after El Maimun we came to Ishmant. Not far to the north-west is the village of Abu Sir el-Malaq, the Abydos of Lower Egypt, with large cemeteries dating from prehistory, belonging to the Naqada II culture. Here we found the Christian village of Bush, and then we came to Bei Suef a thriving town of 150.000 inhabitants at 124 km from Cairo. We came here to this industrial town since it is the gate to the Faiyum.
The name Faiyum probably derives from the Egyptian word “Payoum” (lake) from the Coptic expression Phiom (pron. Fiom). This famous large oasis very clearly visible on any map of Egypt, connected to the Nile as by an umbilical cord, lies 44m below sea level, it is 65 km wide from east to west. As I said it is fed by the Bahr Yusuf, which resembles a river but it is in fact an artificial run-off of the Nile, departing from it just north of el-Qusiya and, after several hundred kilometres running parallel to the great river, floods into the large Lake Qarun in the north of the oasis.
In prehistory the depression of the Faiyum was flooded seasonally by the natural overflowing of the Nile. During the Old and Middle Kingdom it was a marshy area, an ideal ground for hunting and fishing. The Pharaoh Amenemhet I (Twelfth Dynasty - 1991-1963 BC) decided to reclaim this land to make it agriculturally productive; he had a regulating cataract built at El-Lahun, where the floods breached the banks seasonally. Some scholars say that the El Lahun barrage in an Islamic work, but the Faiyum was prosperous both in Pharaonic and in Greek times as we shall see. From that time a permanent reservoir was formed in the northern region of the depression, which the Greeks called Lake Moeris and the modern Egyptians have named Lake Qarun.
During the Hellenistic period life in the oasis flourished and land reclamation progressed as far as it could go. New towns were built and Greek technology was introduced for lifting water and irrigating the fertile land. Among the devices was a type of ox-drawn water-wheel which one can still see being used today. The lake was confined to the north of the oasis and the swampy areas that remained uncovered by water were soon turned into fertile agricultural ground.
Lake Qarun today is 40km across from east to west and a maximum of 9km from north to south; its waters are salty and muddy, the misty sky merges with the colour of the water and one can never discern the sky line.
We drove in and booked a splendid room in the Auberge Faiyum, one of the hedonist’s paradises in Egypt. The hotel was built in 1937 and King Farouk had a hunting lodge within the compound of the hotel and there he met Winston Churchill, so they will tell you. The hotel was chiefly frequented by Italian hunters and it was empty outside the hunting season. The highly courteous waiters and all personnel were devoted to us and watched over us to ensure that we were happy, and happy we were indeed for the days spent there.
The city of Faiyum - called El-Faiyum – does not stand up against the Hotel, it is no more than a squalid Third World industrial slum, sharply contrasting with the beautiful countryside that surrounds it, certainly the most beautiful that one is likely to encounter in Egypt. The 120 km road connecting Faiyum with Cairo may be fast but it is dangerous, we saw the results of awful accidents on returning to Cairo.
A great deal of the land in the Faiyum is given over to the winter cultivation of a type of clover called barseem. This grass crop is a staple foodstuff of the farmer’s animals; he will produce it for his livestock and any surplus may be sold locally for a good price. The growing of this fodder can yield up to five cuttings a season. Other products of the Faiyum include beans, maize, rice, melons, water-melons, cucumbers, peppers, onions, courgettes, egg-plants, cauliflower and cabbage. Sugar cane, produced in abundance in other areas of the Nile Valley, is not produced here in any great quantity. Dates are of course produced all over the Nile Valley. The fruit orchards of the Faiyum account for 70km2 (oranges, lemons, mandarins, guavas, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, figs and apricots). There are also some vineyards, banana plantations and prickly pear. But the main crop is cotton, whose production is rigorously controlled by the government. Grown mainly in the central region of the Faiyum, it is sown in April and harvested in September.
One of the most interesting and pleasing cultivation is herbs, these include: chamomile, absinth, mint, marigold, sunflower, fenugreek, and the profitable sesame.
The cultivation and treatment of cotton are processes that entail an appreciable amount of environmental pollution. We saw enormous black clouds obscuring the sun in several cotton treatment plants along the Nile Valley. Because of this, in the United States cotton cultivation is no longer carried out on the scale it once was, being relegated instead to countries of the Third World, which have neither the time, nor interest to deal with such issues. Only when these countries realize that eliminating famine and pollution at one time is a precarious business, will certain consumers be forced to produce these goods in their own countries, with all the hazards which that involves.
The date-palm, in all its varieties, is dying out in the Nile Valley and throughout North Africa, suffering the same fate as other vegetable and animal species that have fallen victims of cars, roads, and the general paraphernalia of modernization. The palm-tree, cultivated in the Faiyum as it is elsewhere in Egypt, is the “northern“variety, stockier and denser than those in the south.
One might say that the palm is the “pig” of the vegetable world; every part of it is used! Dates are picked every other year, parts of the fronds are used in basketry, while the spines are utilized for making crates and covering roofs. The whole frond may be placed on tombs by mourners, but it is also used to build the fencing that is characteristic of the Faiyum (inserted vertically over mud and dried brick enclosure walls). The fibres of the palm are used to make ropes and brushes, while the trunk may be split and used for roof beams or foot-bridges.
Birket (lake) Qarun was known in the 18th century as Birket es-Sed (the Fishing Lake). Alas, one day at the beginning of the 19th C. a cold wind blew and cooled the waters of the lake to such a degree that all the fish in it died. If this story is true, it would explain why until recently there had been no fish in the lake.
The salinity of the lake had reached the same level as that of the Mediterranean, and sea fish were now being gradually introduced. This is good and bad news at the same time, since the increased salinity here is a good example of the dramatic increase in the salinity of water throughout the Nile Valley caused by the “Aswan disaster”, or rather the notorious High Dam which interrupted the annual replenishing floods of the Nile and replaced them with a controlled flow, which lacking lime, allows an increase in the salinity of the soil to the point of making it totally sterile (Salt is currently being extracted from the lake at Abuksah). The waters of the lake are the home of bolti fish (fairly common and seen in Egyptian art), mullet, eel, sole and shrimps.
From April to mid June, over 500 fishing boats have access to the lake: the fruits of their labour may be tasted in a somewhat unreal and ascetic atmosphere, in the restaurant of the Auberge Faiyum by the lake side. We were the only people in the restaurant, then two Italian hunters seated at a faraway table. There was only some gabble by the Italians, but the atmosphere was of total relaxation and stillness. The waiter exceedingly courteous, moved about as if in levitation. Every now and then a kitchen hand, probably one of the cooks, an old skinny man with a brown cap peeped from the doorway at us nodding and smiling, as if convinced of having delivered to us the best Egyptian Cordon Bleu could produce. I think it would be very difficult for such an experience to be repeated elsewhere, thus, we must go back there one day.
The proverbial chickens of the Faiyum are the best in Egypt and, I presume, not only in Egypt. Eating chicken in the Faiyum will bring back vivid childhood memories, when chicken was something else…
The numerous pigeons which fly about in the pearly skies of the oasis have been an integral part of the Egyptian diet since time immemorial, while the guano they produce in the many spectacular dove-cotes, looking like castles or minarets round about is used as farming manure.
Among the guests of the Auberge Faiyum there always are groups of Italian hunters, as I said earlier, we saw some ourselves, these, having exterminated a large part of the wildlife of Italy, now seek satisfaction elsewhere, in Egypt, in Bosnia, in Rumania etc.
Bee-keeping represents another source of income for the poor Egyptian farmer. There is also a perfume industry based on the geranium, which proliferates here.
Many species of wild animals still populate the Faiyum. Although the crocodile, once a sacred animal, is only seen as a mummy hanging on walls or gateways, has long since disappeared, at the edge of the desert though, there are foxes, wolves, ichneumon and wild cats. The little egret is very common, as is the grey heron. There are also storks, curlews, ducks, skylarks, wagtails, swallows, bee-eaters, shrikes, wild doves, plovers, crows, kestrels, kites, little owls and Senegal coucals. The trained eye may actually spot most of these birds while travelling around.
In Greek times El-Faiyum city was called Petsuchos, (Crocodilopolis) the city of the crocodile god Sobek, who had a temple here from the 12th dynasty onwards. The Gods Petsuchos and Pnepheros had a temple in Kom Aushim, ancient Greek Karanis, now a vast expanse of ruins in the middle of which rises the skeleton of the temple on a plinth.
The local “guide” of the time was a great joker, a tiny shrivelled up little man, lost in his galabiya, wearing the cap of the intellectual, he skipped over the millstones and the collapsed masonry, inviting the visitor to “Look at this!” “Look at that!”. The child soldier observed the desolate scene visibly bored to tiers, passing his worn out polished gun, form one shoulder to the other.
There are scores of minor sites in the Faiyum, like for example the Greek town by the inspiring names of Dionysias, Theadelphia, Narmouthis. But the most important archaeological site in the area is definitely Hawara. Following the road along the Bahr Yusef, one comes to the village of Hawara el-Maqta, north of which stands the pyramid of Hawara, the tomb of Amenemhet III, in front of which are the ruins of large funerary temple known as “the Labyrinth” a maze of huge walls. The buildings are made of sun dried brick and mud mixed with straw, the outer casing and wall lining stones have all gone to make up more recent buildings, leaving behind the very weathered cores of what were once stunning buildings. The blond boy at the edge of Hawara village stared at us in astonishment. There are indeed blond Egyptians, possibly wandering genes from Hellenistic times or, more likely, genes carried here from southern Russia by Circassian slaves.
Continuing toward Beni Suef, we came to the beautiful scenery of the outskirts of El Lahun: women carrying burden to the market reflected with their picturesque garments in the canal water, along with ducks and geese. A picturesque, timeless scene.
A dusty ancient causeway leads to the mud brick pyramids of Lahun, called “the shining pyramid” of Senwosret II of the 12th Dynasty, which was built on a low hill providing the base for a solid core. Sections of the inner radiating stone walls may be seen in places, emerging from the brick structure which has partly collapsed into a spectacular heap of rubble (the stone casing vanished long ago) The nearby ancient settlement of El Lahun, a sizeable walled town with separate quarters for the king, high priests and dignitaries, as well as ordinary citizens, with an extensive cemetery with mastabas next to the pyramid. The sites here were excavated by one of my heroes: the great archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who filled up the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford with the artefacts of every-day life. The many finds brought to light cover almost all periods of Egyptian history. The site is particularly famous for the numerous finds of texts on papyrus.
Following the road which runs along the edge of the desert we come to the town of Ihnasya el-Medina, at 15 km from Beny Suef, with good reasons named “the Hill of Potsherds” (Ahnasiya Umm e-Kiman). Here you may watch camels loaded with freshly cut sugar cane plodding through mounds or hills of debris which on closer examination turn out to be potsherds. A true Paradise for any archaeologist, and especially for one like myself, who had to search field after field in the Chianti hills for a whole day only to collect a handful of tiny fragments of Etruscan pottery. These shards belonged to vessels broken a thousand years before the Etruscan civilization emerged. What was once Herakleopolis Magna of the Greeks and the Romans, today retains only four limestone columns with Corinthian capitals, which belonged to a Byzantine church. On the path nearby, which winds through the hills of potsherds to disappear into dense palm groves several hundred metres to the west, stands a much venerated sheikh mausoleum. Our taxi driver made friends with an attendant, a chirpy boy who wanted a picture taken while standing in front of the mausoleum with his instant friend.
The “Great City of Herakles” was the capital city of the 20th nome of Upper Egypt, in the Greek and Roman period, the centre of the cult of a ram-god called Herishef (identified with Herakles by the Greeks). From the times of the Old Kingdom its Egyptian name Haten-nesut, which accounts for its Coptic name Hnes, and the Arabic Ahnas. During the First Intermediate Period it was ruled by the princess of Herakleopolis, who extended her power as far as Abydos. Its necropolis lies on the opposite bank of the Bahr Yusuf, at Sidmant el-Gebel.
The taxi man was waiting for us, still talking to his new friend- next to his wrecked car in the shade of the mausoleum. “What’s next then” asked Emily “Biba”, “What?”, “I said Biba is next”-
138 km from Cairo, Biba is the next district capital after Beni Suef. The inhabitants appeared to be mostly Christian, and they did not fail to let know to the presumably Christian stranger. An important Coptic church served the needs of a large community. Due west, about 22 km, beyond the Bahr Yusuf, there is the necropolis of Dishasha, where the tombs of Iuti and Shedu are found, decorated with magnificent reliefs depicting a battle scenes and sieges. The necropolis of Dishasha extends 800m and boasts 159 tombs and mastabas, underground chambers and wells from the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It is in the tomb of Iteti (Mid Fifth Dynasty) that you may see the famous battle scene, now seriously damaged, showing the siege of a Syrian town.
My next goal was to visit the ruins of Ankyronopolis near el-Hiba, on the eastern desert. The way to get there is to get a felucca from el-Fashn and cross the Nile in a south-east direction. El Fashn was the next town, 141 km from Cairo, another district capital, but a place one would not go unless one needs a ferry to el-Hiba. I have no evidence of archaeologists having described Ankyronpolis or even having been there. As the taxi driver poulled aside at the top of the slope leading down to the water where road ended and a couple of feluccas were awaiting customers, a man dressed in European clothes started waiving at us showing some excitement: “Who is tat?” asked Emily “You ask me?”- “Watch it this is another con trick”. The man was soon within a few metres from us when he said. “Hello! Welcome to el-Fashn!”. After asking whether we were British American or German, he said showing his wrist with a tattooed Maltese cross: “Look here! I am a Christian!”. We nodded but didn’t comment since the taxi driver was very likely a Muslim. We said we wanted to go to el-Hiba to see the ruins of Ankyronpolis, and the three of us were led to the felucca moored nearby with other passengers waiting to embark. We were consigned to a man wearing a blue galabiya and holding a shopping bag. He seemed agreeable at the request by the Christian, acting on our behalf, to lead us to Ankyronpolis. The Christian and the taxi driver had now become “mates” and had resolved, between them, to ask me if I could take a picture of them with Emily. I took two pictures and they were chaffed. The felucca sailed away with us waving, reciprocated by a rather excessive amount of waving in return. After about 15 minutes of sailing south, without any sign from the part of our skipper of intending to cross the river, I started getting nervous. Our instant guide was reassuringly smiling at us, but that did not reassure me very much. Eventually after a good half hour we came ashore at what I believe must have been the landing place of el-Hiba. As soon as the felucca moored by the bank we were immediately surrounded by small groups of young children dressed in rags who had come to the river’s edge with their cattle and donkeys to fetch water and let the animals drink. Worryingly we could not see any town or village, but tall palm groves and berzim and broad beans fields. “Follow me!” said with sign language our instant guide. The irrigation canals, clear and dotted with white egrettes, run geometrically through lush fields of broad beans, right to the end of the dark earth where tall palm trees mark the beginning of the desert. After a long zig-zag walk behind him, the blue galabiya man turned left and pointed his finger right as meaning: “I go this way – you go that way”. After climbing over a steep dune we prceived beyond a vast area of ruins, mostly broken up brick walls and the ground consisting of fragmented pottery of various hues of red buff, black and grey, with pieces of stone, bones and fragments of smelting slag. Obviously the site had not been explored by archaeologists, or may be it had but not where we were. We took pictures of the area and returned shortly after to the landing point of the feluccas. The scene was ageless: young women fetched water from the Nile, young boys on donkeys also carried water to el-Hiba which we newer saw since it probably was somewhere behind the dunes.
We returned downstream to el-Fashn and from a great distance we saw our two friends waving at us. The Christian must have discussed his plan with the taxi driver, since he adamantly said we were going to have tea at his house while the taxi driver nodded and crossed his arms leaning against the car ready to wait for a while. We didn’t really want to waste any more time, but we were unable to turn a Christian down and went along with him. He said his wife was working in a bank and she would by now be at home, so, we will meet her. We walked some way along dusty streets fronted by very dusty old housing until we came to a weathred door where we were asked in. The modest apartment was rather bare, only the essentials furniture was there, and some icons on the walls.
We sat down while he made tea. The wife was seated in silence minding her own business, with an air of deja vue. The man stated looking at us and then with all the courage he could master he asked me whether he could have Emily to stay for a night as their guest, I would have gone to a hotel. The wife had obviously already gone through that before. I said politely to the Christian that we were on a mission, we were writing a guide book and we had a precise schedule, we must get on with it. With some difficulty we were able to get out of the house and walk to the taxi leaving our Christian friend dismayed.
As we were leaving I noticed sugar cane in the fields and Greek style vineyards, or vines grown as bushes in shallow pits in the fields: besides pergolas, this is the way vines were planted in Biblical times. In Italy, from Naples to Lombardy, excluding Umbria and the Adriatic coast, vines are trained on poles or reeds frames or, like in Tuscany on a living tree, usually a field maple trained as a chandelier.
Thinking about Ankyronpolis and the Greeks in Egypt one comes to think of the Macedonian boy, Alexander, and what the right man in the right place at the right time may accomplish. In 332 BC, this blond boy conquered Egypt without a struggle. Having established the cult of the god Ammon, after consulting his oracle in the oasis of Siwa in the Libyan Desert, he founded the city of Alexandria. The cult of Ammon (not the Egyptian Amun) at one time widespread throughout North Africa, was part of a tradition connected with the worship of the ram-god of water sources. Following Alexander’s premature death, after he had conquered all the known world east of Greece, the vast empire was divided among his generals; one of these, Ptolemy took over Egypt and proclaimed himself a king in 305 BC.
The Greeks, or rather the family of the Ptolemies, ruled over Egypt and a vast “business empire” for 250 years. Their power was as oppressive as that of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and generated the same discontent among the people. But the real interest of this capitalist family was to improve the conditions of the country, for the sake of making more money. They expanded Egypt’s territory to include Palestine, Nubia, and as far south as to include the Kingdom of Meroe in the Sudan. They also held sway over Cyrene, Cyprus, parts of Asia Minor and some Aegean islands; all this with the aim of becoming richer and ensuring many generations of absolute rule.
The Hellenization of Egypt, however, brought about numerous improvements in trade, agriculture and education. In many areas farmers obtained two harvests a year; and when lands were given over to army veterans to cultivate, many settlements sprang up. In spite of the fact that the Greek colonists seldom mixed with the native population, there was a general rise in living standards throughout the country. The economically prosperous city of Alexandria, became a great centre of culture, science and learning.
On the eve of the 3rd century BC, Greek dissent and native rebellions produced a crisis; popular revolts became a serious problem under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-205 BC) and remained so until the beginning of the 1st century BC when the most formidable insurrection was suppressed (85 BC). During the course of this century there was a decline until the power of Rome extended to incoporate the Middle East. During Greek and Roman rule many temples were built in the Egyptian tradition. Rulers, both Greek and Roman appeared dressed in Egyptian costume and were represented on monuments in the same way as Egyptian Pharaohs. Egyptian remained the language of the people whereas Greek was the language of government. In the long run Greek and Egyptian cultures mingled; this is particularly evident in the arts of sculpture and portraiture. In 30 BC, with Roan rule, the country’s prosperity increased, but the riches were now destined for Rome. The Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) showed a special interest in Egypt, but even he was not impartial in favouring the Roman colonists to the detriment of both Egyptians and Greeks. The laws of capitalism were already at play.
After a 20 km drive we were at Maghagha, yet another run-down, dusty district capital south of el-Fashn. This town curiously contains interesting vestiges of its colonial past in some of its dilapidated buildings. The main local sugar factory, though providing work for hundreds of people, threw out an enormous plume of black smoke which filled the blue sky and was blown by a northerly breeze south along the Nile for a great distance. Opposite Maghagha is a hill, Gebel Qarara, on whose western side lies the village of the same name. This was the site of the ancient city of Phylace Hipponos, not far from which is an 18th century Coptic cemetery, and 2,5km north of it is the village of Walad el-Sheikh, with another cemetery of the Archaic period (3000 BC), and 24 km to the east on the Wadi el-Sheikh, there is a site with prehistoric flint mines. Flint mines were the business of the Stone Age, flint not being available everywhere, generated the earliest forms of export trade and capitalism. Contrary to what the naiive thinks or assumes, capitalism is the natural state of affairs of mankind, not another contrived “system”. Capitalism and freedom are inseparable, the one collapses along with the other. If it were not so, then social justice might be a possibility.
At around 200 km from Cairo we came to the village of el-Qais, the ancient Kais, whose divinity was Anubis, the jackal, the Greeks called the town Cynopolis (Dog city), the capital of a district. Its necropolis at el- Sheikh Fadi (on the opposite bank of the Nile) contains numerous tombs with mummies of dogs. Further south we come to el-Bahnasa, bordering on a hill of rubble, which is all that remains today of the city whose god was, in this case, a fish: the Oxyrhynchus, the Greek name of a Nile fish which the Greeks gave to the city, since the local worshipped it. The Egyptians called the city Permedjed, the Copts Pemje. Not highly important in Pharaonic times but the capital of the 19th nome and a very important city in Greek and Roman times.
There is a funny story told by Plutarch concerning these two cities, the “city of the dog” and the “city of the fish”. The Greek historian tells of a bloody war fought between Oxyrhynchus and Cynopolis, which broke out because the people of the latter had a barbecue with the sacred fish and the people of the former had eaten the sacred dog Chinese style. In the Christian era Oxyrhynchus became more famous as a monastic centre; it had twelve churches and many monasteries and convents, and the diocese was inhabited by ten thousand monks and twelve thousand nuns. The city thrived during trhe Mameluke period, but has declined ever since. Excavations in progress since 1897, have brought to light precious Greek, Coptic and Arab papyrus manuscripts, and the remains of a theatre and colonnades dating to the Roman period. Further on we reached (at 280 km from Cairo) the sprawling urban area incorporating the towns of Matal, Nazlet Tabit and Nazlet Abu Shihata, and 9 km beyond, Qulushna. Here a large island in the middle of the Nile gets its name from el-Siririya, on the east bank. To the north and south o this village are ancient quarries, and minor Pharaonic ruins.
Our interest was drawn to the Copts who, contrary to what given by official figures, seemed to us to be a great deal more numerous than expected.
After Salamut, 223 km from Cairo, the desert closes in on the eastern bank, leaving only a narrow strip of land for cultivation: The desert plateau falls away abruptly into the valley from “Bird’s Mountain”, Gebel el-Teir in Arabic, and like an eagle, the Coptic village of Deir Gebel el-Teir, overlooks the lush fields below, and the Nile, from a marvellous vantage point.
Also called Deir el-Adra, or Monastery (Deir) of the Virgin (Adra), can be reached from the fields by means of a long flight of steps hewn out of the precipitous rock face, or otherwise by means of a modern road that runs through the Eastern Desert, known to our latest taxi driver, a nifty young fellow dressed in western clothes, whom we hired at El Minya at the pleasant Hotel with a view on the Nile. Having crossed the bridge at El-Minya the road enters a gap formed by a “wadi” and pushes on into the rocky desert.
After 25km of rock, dust, heat, rubbish dumps and all kinds of quarrying works in progress, we arrived near the white hill, where Coptic houses bearing the sign of the cross are haphazardly scattered around a large church, with a lofty bell tower. Deir el Adra, is a coptic orthodox Monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Gebel el-Teir, an important Christian pilgrimage site in Samalut city (Minya Governorate, Egypt). Its church was built by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in 328 A.D., on one of the sites where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed during her flight into Egypt. Once a year it hosts an enormous moulid, or festival attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The monastery is surrounded by a wall, part of which at least dates to the Roman period. Observing the many houses that surround the ancient church, it seems as if one has been transported back in time to a typical village of the early Christians in Palestine. To the north is a cemetery and traces of a Neolithic settlement, with caves, and hollows cut into the living rock.
Emily took many beautiful pictures of the pink-faced children with matted hair and filthy looks, bearing witness to a harassed minority community of undesirables. We were invited into the dark, dingy houses and offered bread, stored under the kitchen carpet. We were shown around the mastabas of the cemetery and the church. It was a sadly moving experience.
Copt is an Arabic word “Gibt” or “Gypt” which simply means “Egyptian”. In 641, during the conquest, the Arabs thus called the people of Egypt distorting or misunderstanding the Greek “Egyptos”. In its trurn the Greek word was a misapprehension of the ancient Egyptian word “Hutkaptah”, one of the names of Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. Today the term “Coptic” refers to Egyptian Christians, who seem to number 15% of the population which is not ethnically distinct from the Muslim. There are settlements where Egyptians of Arab descent are more numerous, but this is only a genetic matter, since Egyptian culture has absorbed the Arab. The whole population of Egypt, with the exception of the foreign communities of Alexandria and Cairo, are ethnically indistinct.
The census of 1992 gave over nine million Copts out of a population of 57 million Egyptians. They worship in thousands of Churches scattered throughout Egypt. A further 1.2 million immigrant Copts exist in the US, Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Brazil and in other countries of Africa and Asia.
The current Coptic Church is a direct evolution of the first Christian communities of Egypt, which in Egypt were established Jewish communities since Moses. Historically, or traditionally, depending on faith, it was Saint Mark the Evangelist the founder of the Church in Egypt. He preached and died a martyr in Alexandria at the time of Nero, in 68 AD.
When St Mark died, his body was buried in a chapel at Beucalis. In 828, his remains were stolen by the Bizantine colonists of Venice and put in the new Cathedral to consacrate it. In 1970, when the largest Christian church in Africa was built in Cairo, it was dedicated to St Mark and Pope Paul VI returned to Egypt the body of St Mark with a great ceremony.
The earliest Christians of Egypt suffered considerably at the hands of the Romans, but it seems that the pagans suffered even more from fanatical Christian persecutions around the year 400, when St. Cyril was Bishop of Alexandria and had Hypatia, a woman scientist, was skinned alive by fervent followers of St Cyril.
To give an idea of the Copts, I have made recourse, here as elsewhere – to a now classic work by the English anthropologist E. W. Lane who, in 1833-35, provided a detailed and even today surprisingly accurate account of their ways and traditions. The quotations which follow are taken from Lane’s book.
“The Copts at present, compose less than one fourteenth part of the population of Egypt; their number being no more than about one hundred and fifty thousand. About ten thousand of them reside in the metropolis. In some parts of Upper Egypt, are villages exclusively inhabited by persons of this race; and the district called Faiyum particularly abounds with them. The vast number of ruined convents and churches existing in various parts of Egypt shows that the Copts were numerous a few centuries ago; but every year many of them have embraced the faith of el-Islam, and become intermixed by marriage with Muslims: The Copts are undoubtedly descendants of the ancient Egyptians, but not an unmixed race; their ancestors having intermarried with Greeks, Nubians, Abyssinians, and other foreigners.”
Their name is correctly pronounced either “Kubt” or “Kibt”, but more commonly “Gubt” or “Gibt” and (in Cairo and its neighbourhood, and some other parts of Egypt), “Ubt” or “ibt”. All of these sounds bear a great resemblance to the ancient Greek name of Egypt (Aigiptos). But it is generally believed that the name of “Kubt” is derived from “Coptos” (once a great city in Upper Egypt), now called “Kuft”, or more commonly “Guft”, on account of its vast numbers of Christian Egyptians retired during the persecutions with which they were visited under several of the Roman Emperors. The Copts have not altogether lost their ancient language; their liturgy and several of their religious books being written in it; but the Coptic has become a dead language, understood by very few persons; and the Arabic has been adopted in its stead… The Coptic language gradually fell into disuse after the Arab conquest… before the tenth century of our era, most of the inhabitants of Lower Egypt had ceased to speak and understand it”.
“The religious hyerarchy of the Coptic Church consists of a Patriarch, a Metropolitan of the Abyssinians, Bishops, Archipriests, Priests, Deacons, and Monks. The Patriarch (el-Batrak) is the supreme head of the church; and occupies the chair of Saint Mark. He generally resides in Cairo but he is styled “Patriarch of Alexandria”. He is chosen from among the order of monks, with whose regulations he continues to comply; and it is a point of these regulations that he remains unmarried. He is obliged to wear woollen garments next to his body; but these are of the finest and softest quality, and are concealed by habits of rich silk and cloth. So rigid are the rules with which he is obliged to conform, that whenever he sleeps, he is waked after every quarter of an hour: (Compare the accounts of Herodotus of the habits of the priests of ancient Egypt: Book II, Chap. 37. A patriarch may be appointed by his predecessors; but generally he is chosen by lot; and always from among the monks of the Convent of Saint Anthony (Deyr Antoniyos) in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, near the western Gulf of the Red Sea.”
“The Copts observe long and arduous fasts. A week before their Great Fast, or Lent, commences a fast of three days, kept in commemoration of that of Nineveh, which was occasioned by the preaching of Jonah. Some of the Copts observe this fast by total abstinence during the whole period of three days and three nights; others keepit in the same manner as the other fasts, of which an account here follows:
Their principal fast called “es-Som el-kebir” (or the Great Fast) was originally limited to forty days; but it has been gradually extended, by different patriarchs, to fifty five days. During this period, except on two days of festival, they abstain from every kind of animal food, such as flesh-meat, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese; and eat only bread and vegetables (chiefly beans), with sweet oil, or the oil of sesame, and dukka.
They observe, however, with almost equal stricktness, three other fasts: the “Som el-Milad” (Fast of the Nativity); the Some er Rusul (Fast of the Apostles); and Som el-Adra (Fast of the Virgin)
The Copts also fast every Wednesday and Friday in every other period of the year, except during the fifth days immediately following their Great Fast.
…”The funeral-ceremonies of the Copts resemble, in many respects, those of the Muslims. The corpse is carried in a bier, followed by women, wailing in the same manner as the Muslimens do on such an occasion; but it is not preceded by hired chanters. Hired wailing women are employed to lament in the house of the deceased for three days after the death (though this custom is disapproved by the clergy and many others, being only a relic of ancient heathen usages). The Copts, both men and women, pay regular visits to the tombs of their relations three times in the year; on the eve of each of these “eeds”, and there pass the night; having houses belonging to them in the cemeteries, for their reception on these occasions: the women spend the nights in the upper apartments; and the men below. In the morning following, they kill a buffalo, or a sheep, if they can afford either, and give its flesh, with bread, to the poor who assemble there, or they give bread alone.” (E. W. Lane “An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835”. Alexander Gardner, Publisher to Her Majesty the Queen. London 1895.)
No art historian and not even David and Tamara Talbot Rice seem to have remarked forcefully enough the extraordinary fact that Coptic art does not derive at all from the Egyptian or Greek art, but from the Sassanian. We shall go back on this later.
Continuing our journey up the Nile presently we came to the village of Tihna el-Gabal (the hill of Tihna) where stood the Pharaonic city of Tehmi, or Akoris in Greek. There are rock tombs to the south excavated by Gary Frazer, and the remains of a Roman temple half hewn in the rock, where a bald headed Roman is seen kneeling before an Egyptian god in a relief. There is also a colossal figure of Ramesses III making offerings to Sobek and Amun.
Finally we booked in a colonial hotel at El Minya, a regional capital and a university centre. At 247 km from Cairo, with a population of 150.000, el Minya is situated on the Nile and the Ibrahima Canal. In ancient time the city was called Menat Khufu and had its cemetery at Beni Hasan which I was longing to visit.
We found the large hotel Etap Nefertiti a very good point to stay while visiting the central area of the Nile Valley. We noticed that the modern people ferry their dead across the river much as they would have done in ancient times. This area is full of archaeological sites, but the most interesting and important of all is Beni Hasan.
On the opposite shore of the Nile, 1200m inland is Beni Hasan one of the most celebrated necropolis in Egypt, with many rock tombs of the kings of the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties, remarkable for their architecture, paintings and historical significance.
The place gets its name from a tribe of nomads who settled in the village of el-Shurug. In the 18th century an Arab tribe called Beni Hasan established itself in the region opposite Abu Qurqas, on the east bank of the Nile, and gave their name to the entire district, which was divided into various villages, some of which still exist.
South of the necropolis, on the slope at the edge of the cultivated land, are the ruins of an ancient city, whose only visible remains are the stumps of mud-brick walls. North, in the same position, is the village of Nazlet el-Diyaba, with Christian and Muslim cemeteries, one next to the other, well visible north-west of the necropolis.
Two kilometres south of Beni Hasan’s necropolis stands a temple called the “Cave of Artemis” (Speos Artemidos). It was built during the reign of Hatchepsut and dedicated to the cat-headed goddess Pakhet, the divinity of this region. Upstream, from Speos Artemidos, called by the locals Istabl Antar (Stables of Antar) we come to the cemetery of cats, the feline sacred to Pakhet. The curious thing that attracted our imagination is another cave to the right of Speos, at whose entrance is a name carved in the rock: Alexander II, this was the son of Alexander the Great and Roxane the Sogdian princess from what is today Samarkand. Six small scenes show the king with a number of gods.
The tombs of Beni Hasan are hewn out of the limestone rock face of the cliff or scarp at the edge of the Eastern Desert. The personalities buried here were the nomarchs (the feudal lords of the “nome” or district), princes who exercised their power under the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. The tombs are aligned along a road cut into the rock half way up the scarp. There are 39 tombs in all, placed next to each other and fashioned in a variety of styles. Only four of them, however, are of interest to the layman, these are N° 3 – 3 – 15 – 17. There are wall paintings, and painted low reliefs showing activities such as hunting scenes, the carrying of a mummy to the tomb of Osiris at Abydos, battle scenes, the Pharaoh seated at a table full of offerings, farming scenes, craftsmen at work, dancers, and every-day life scenes and finally a famous scene: a caravan of Aiatric nomads crossing the desert. Scholars say these are 37 Bedouins bringing a gift of eye make up to the King. Many of these scenes the visitor will remember seeing them in the history book. Much of what we can envisage of Egyptian life and work derives from the scenes in these tombs.
Continuing in our southward journey with our fourth taxi driver we came to Mallawi at 295 km from Cairo. This is another busy, dusty and smoky district capital situated in a densely populated area, between the Bahr Yusuf and the Nile, an intensely cultivated district. We are near the Greek city dedicated to the god Hermes: Hermopolis Magna, called by the Arabs el-Ashmunein. Other important nearby sites are Tuna el-Gebel, and Meir. For this reason Mallawi has its own archaeological museum, containing coffins and mummies, figurines of ibises and baboons. Thoth, the local god was the god of learning, writing and healing, one of the oldest deities in Egypt, created at Khmun, by the eight principal gods of the world who generated the egg from which the sun was born. Khmun was the capital city of the 15th nome of Upper Egypt. The princes of the nome were buried on the opposite bank of the Nile, at a place called Deir el-Barsha. Pharaohnic Khnum having declined for unknown reasons, it flourished again under the Ptolemies as a cult centre and place of pilgrimage, where Hermes Trismegistus (three times great) was venerated. Under the new Greek name of Hermopolis (the Roman Hermopolis Magna), the city enjoyed a period of great prosperity, only to decline again after the Roman era, and became a quarry for building materials and for “sebbakh”, the fertile soil of ancient sites used as fertilizer by modern Egyptian farmers.
On the site of the Greek city the columns of the Agora have been re-erected, while the Christian Basilica was presently being restored, with its numerous standing columns and decorative architectural friezes. The “scholar” with a white galabiya and brown skull cap, would not leave us alone and showed us the precinct of the temple of Thoth built by Alexander’s brother Philip Arrhidaeus, who doesn’t bear thinking about. Imagine being the dumb brother of such a man?
Still visible are the plan of the hypostyle hall and pylon of the temple of Amun, decorated with reliefs of the time of Seti II. Other ruins date to the times of Ramesses II.
On the east bank of the Nile, in the village of Deir el-Barsha there is a Coptic monastery and church.
Seven kilometres west of El-Ashmunein, at the end of a spectacular stretch of desert road is the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel (5th C. BC), the cemetery of Khnum and Hermopolis. The area is scattered with prehistoric stone tools which tourist collect and take away at leisure. There are burials of ibises and baboons, paced in an intricate system of catacombs where a series of papyri written in Aramaic language, dating from the Persian invasion, were found. The official language of the Parsian Empire was Aramiac, the language of Syria which was spoken from North Africa to the whole of the Indian subcontinent, to the Pamirs and Central Asia, a homogeneous cultural area which will in time be conducive to swift the Islamic conquest of it. But this is a matter not yet fully grasped by historians. Yet, this lingua franca spoken or understood all over this vast area, from the Atlantic to Western China and Southern India was instrumental to the Arab conquest.
Nearby the vast Muslim burial area of el-Ashmunein begins, which offers a splendid view of domes and enclosures as far as the eye can see. Brick makers and brick layers are continually at work here, mixing soil with water, desert sand and straw to make the grey bricks and building domes with them applying the same techniques that were used in Pharaonic times.
Here tourists are led to view the Funerary temple of Petosiris, built for the high priest of the temple of Thoth and for his family in 300 BC. The building consists of a vestibule and a square chapel. Both chambers were decorated in Graeco- Egyptian style by skilled Egyptian artists, and in parts their fine colouring is preserved. The scenes are many and complex, fascinating to explore.
Among the tombs of the Graeco-Roman period is the Tomb of Isidora, who died drowned in 120 BC; her mummified body is displayed in the first chamber. The so-called tomb of Oedipus, with scenes illustrating the Theban cycle is also in the cemetery.
From Deir Mawas a ferry takes the visitor across the river to the site of Tell el-Amarna, via the village of Hasayba. The site may be reached in one hour by truck from the landing place. The experience is that of a punishment. We travelled in the truck’s cabin with a smiling prosperous fellow who kept staring at us in turns, then eventually burst out asking me “How old are you?”, “Forty nine”, I replied. Turning to Emily “And you, how old are you?”, “Twenty five” said Emily quietly and slightly embarrassed. The man, unperturbed, carried on with his questions: “How many children do you have?”, “One, a boy”- I lied- “Give me your wife and she will have eight children!” He replied laughing and giggling.
Here was another display of the Egyptian man’s character, which we took well into account.
We reached the scorching hot frying-pan plain where once stood Tell el-Amarna, the ancient Akhetaten (the Horizon of the Solar Disc). The pharaoh Amenhotep IV of the Eighteenth Dynasty abjured all gods of Egypt and became devoted to the worship of the Sun Aten, changing his own name into that of Akhenaten “he who is useful to Aten”. He abandoned the ancient capital of Thebes and founded a city in the Hermopolitan nome, on a site which comprises both banks of the Nile. The chosen area, now a barren desert, is still marked by 14 boundary stones and carvings on rock faces at El-Hawara near the northern and southern cemeteries of el-Amarna, at Sheikh Said on the eastern bank, and at Tuna el-Gebel, Dirwa and Gilda on the western bank.
The Royal palace was erected on the east bank of the Nile and was soon surrounded by the residences of dignitaries and of craftsmen. The cemeteries, consisting of magnificent rock tombs were hew out of the cliffs enclosing the broad plain which looked like an amphitheatre.
This monotheistic religion – the first in history – did not however survive its prophet, and his successor, his teenager son, who succeeded him, changed his original name of Tutankhaten, reverting to the tradition of Amun and calling himself Tutankhamun. He returned to Thebes, re-established the old religion and Akhetaten rapidly fell into decline and was never rebuilt, its short existence having only lasted thirty years. This rather particular situation has provided an excellent opportunity to archaeologists to understand and reconstruct the entire plan of the city and its palaces, even if little more than the foundations have survived. The city in ruins was pillaged for its construction materials by generations of Pharaohs, who built palaces and temples in Thebes and throughout Egypt with its masonry.
Many works of art and written documents have been recovered from the ruins of Akhetaten, these provide information for an extremely interesting insight –especially the Pharaoh’s correspondence - into the personal and public life of the Royal family.
If the attraction of the site today hardly repays the journey of almost an hour from el-Tell (el-Hagg Qandilk and el-Hawafa) across the dusty plain that reaches to the rocky scarp marking the edge of the Eastern Desert. The amphitheatre of El-Amarna is interrupted only by the openings of the wadis coming from the east. The city was situated where the villages are today, near the river. In the central area was the temple of “Aten at Akhetaten”, or “Great Temple”, the Small Temple” and the State Buildings, or “Great Palace”. The latter was made up of the “State Apartments”, identified by a series of courts surrounded by colonnades, the harem, with adjoining servant quarters, and the Coronation Hall. All of these buildings are widely represented in the art of Amarna. The private residence of Akhenaten, which remained on the other side of the road, was connected to the Great Palace by means of a bridge. In the vicinity were the Archives, the famous archives where the correspondence between Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun with the governors and subjects of Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor was found. We shall go back on this correspondence. The State Buildings were surrounded to the north and south by numerous workshops, artist’s ateliers and private houses.
Near the modern village of El-Hawata, to the south, was the Maru-Aten, a complex of buildings within which was an artificial lake with an island adorned with a kiosk and gardens. To the extreme north, 20 km from the Maru-Aten, was the Northern Palace, another royal residence. The dignitaries of Akhetaten had their tombs built in the cliffs surrounding the plain. There were two main groups of tombs, the Northern Necropolis and the Southern, having a common ground-plan similar to that of the tombs of Thebes of the same period: a vestibule, a wide hall and a narrow hall; sometimes they both have columns and a niche for the statue of the dead. The decoration is in low relief, unlike the Beni Hasan where they are only painted. The family tomb of Akhenaten is situated in a gorge next to the Wadi Abu Hasan el-Bahri, 6 km from here.
We reach El-Qusiya (Ancient Egyptian Qis or Kis) at 325 km from Cairo. This was the site of Roman Cussae, whose deity was the cow goddess Hator; the Greeks associated her with Aphrodite Uronia. A road leading west takes us to Mir, the ancient Meir, not far from the cemetery of Cussae, on the desert plateau.
The canal road, which we followed skirts the desert and leads to the monastery of Deir el-Maharraq, built in what was believed to be the southernmost point reached by the Holy family in Egypt. The monastic complex is enclosed within an impressive wall with watchtowers and guarded gates. The monastery accommodates 70 students aspiring to become Coptic priests. We are very kindly received by an extremely polite small monk, obviously flattered by our interest in Coptic Egypt. He explained that the present monastery is a reconstruction of the original, sited in the nearby village of el-Minshat el-Kubra, where some of its walls remain visible.
At Manfalut, with its lofty minarets, we are half way from Cairo to Luxor. Proceeding along the left bank of the Nile we come to El-Ma’abda, in whose neighbourhood there is a cave where many crocodile mummies have been found. Only a dried up crocodile we saw hanged on a housing compound gate one day. They say there are no more crocodiles in the Egyptian section of the Nile.
Manfalut accupies the site of an ancient town destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt in Muslim times. Today Manfalut is the seat of a Coptic Bishopric and one of the principal markets of its district.
Opposite Manfalut is Gebel Qurna was a quarry of Seti II. There are more abcient quarries at Arab el-Atiyat, not far to theeastNear the Coptic monastery of Deir e-Gabrawy a Greek dedication to Zeus Herakles and Nike was found. The whole area is srewn with relics from prehistory to the Ancient Kingdom and later, We are approaching Asyut, 378 km from Cairo, the seat of a governatorate and an important university city with 200.000 inhabitants. This is the lagest city in Upper Egypt, a busy, fast-growing centre with apartment blocks spreading all along the Nile and the canals. The local crafts are highly prized all over Egypt. Tulle shawls with silver and gold emnbroidery, woven fabrics, woollen blankets, leather goods, ivory, marquatry and pottery are among the many products of Asyut, which is also one of the main centres of Coptic culture and religioinSyut or Sauty, as it was known in ancient times, was a centre of some importance, situated as it was at the terminal of the “Road of 40 days”. This is the important caravan route leading to the oases of the Western Desert and Sudan.
During the First Intermediate period, Syut the capital of the “sycamore district”, took part in the conflict between Thebes and Hearkleopolis. It was the centre of the culkt of the war god Wepwawet (the Desert Wolf), from which fact derives its Greek name of Lycopolis (City of the Wolf). Plotinus, the celebrated neo-Platonic philosopher was born here in AD 205. Christianity here arrived at the beginning of the 4th century when anacoretes started occupying caves and tombs in the necropolis to lead a life of asceticism and repentance in imitation of the Buddhis anacoretes of Kushana. It was the fame of John of Lycopolis, regarded as a saint and a prophet, who caused emulation in other parts of the West. During the Middle Ages Asyut was a crucial point for the slave trade. Now fundamentalism thrives here, and since 40% of the population are Christians, it is easy to imagine the tensions and conflicts which torment the population of the city.
North of the city is a dam and a bridge spanning 833m and standing 12.5m high above the Nile. The dam raises the level of the Nile by 3.5m feeding the Ibrahimiya Canal which irrigates over 400.000 hectares of land. West oif the railway (reached by way of a shady avenue from the bridge) is the old town, with its huge bazaar. The Archaeological Museum , founded between 1910 and 1914 by a wealthy citizen Said Pasha Khashaba, grew on the strength of finds from near Asyut and Mir. The most interesting objects being miniature domestic and agricultural implements.
The Station Road runs west through the old town, then south-west to the scarp of the desert plateau, on whose slopes are the rock tombs of ancient Syut. The path leads up to the tomb of Hapidjefa I (12th Dynasty), prince of the nome under Senwosret I. The tomb, of royal proportions has a longitudinal barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with the stars. A doorway leads to the treasure chamber with a long inscription reproducing the text of ten contracts stipulated by the deceased with the priests of the town toi secure proper sacrificial rituals and ceremonies. The world never seems to change!
There is a grand view from outside the tomb: to the left is the picturesque Islamic cemetery, beyond which the citysprawls out over the fertile deep green plain, with its minarets dotted along the Ibrahimiya Canal busy with smoldering and noisy motor-boats; in the distance is the sahel, the desert edge, or the beginning of nowhere.
The vast Islamic cemetery with its numerous domed tombs extends into the plain amidst berzeen fields and palm groves. The bricklayers covered in mud smiled while shaping thir bricks, ad waved at the strangers staring at them, hundreds of metres away.
The Coptic cemetery lies 6 km sount of Asyut at Deir Rifa, or simply el-Deir. At the foothill of the plateau is the monastery of Deir Durunka, a large building, clearly visible against the cliff, still a centre of devotion and pilgrimage. The nearby caves were the dwellings of many ancient Anacoretes.
Abu Tig is a predominantly Coptic town whose name seems to have derived from “Apoothiki”, or “granary”. Today there is an important market and a cotton manufacturing industry.
Strange “castles” turn out to be typical local dovecotes at Sidfa, 400 km freom Cairo. Near the district capital of el-Badary, in 1924-25, archaeologists discovered important prehistoric tombs which identify the so-called “Badarian culture”, of which this is the “type-site”. The village of Tasa , also a centre of the Badarian Culture where the Neolithic and Chalcolithic Culture of Upper Egypt has its type-sites, is also a cemetery of the Aphroditopolitan district of Greek times.
The city of Aphrodite
Opposite the town of Mishta lie the extensive necropolis of the city of Antaeopolis, the To-Kow of ancient Egypt, now called Qaw. The Greeks called it Antaeopolis, after the neame of Antaeus, king of the Libyans, associated with the local god Nemty. Diodorus of Sicily wrote that this was the mythological site of the battle between Horus and Seth. Before the flood of 1821 there were still visible the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy Philometor and then rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in AD 164, now nothing of it survives.
We arrived at Kom Isqaw with expectations. This was the ancient city of Tebu, sacred to Hator (half woman and half cow) who became the Aphroditopolis of the Greeks conquerors whose rtuins I knew to lie under the age old foundations of the village of Kom Ishqaw, not far from the town of Mishta, amid lush fields and palm groves.
As we arrived in the taxi a festive air immediately materialised in the busy village: craftsmen, stable labourers, housewives left their chores and rushed out to see what the disturbance was about. The smith still holding his shiny hammer, the carpenter his hack saw, the stable boy with his pitchfork, amid a horde of lively children who scampered about with their cry of “baksheesh”! . They all invited us with disarming enthusiasm, to visit their cemetery, situated on rised ground – the ruins of Aphroditopolis?- in the middle of the town. Visitors are evidently an uncommon sight at Kom Ishqaw, when any stranger arrives it is usually because he has lost his way to somewhere more important.
Taken unawares, the would be guides, which include the males of the village, men and boys, improvise a tour programme for the newly arrived, and this will inevitably start at the Holy cemetery.
The muslim cemetery was full of ancient sepulchres, mausoleums and humble tombs, dating from the earliest times of the Arab conquest right up to the present day. The mausoleums of the Holy Sheikhs are built in prominent positions and are quite distinct from other burial-places; they reproduce the shape of a Greek altar with the addition of a dome in the middle. E.W. Lane described an example of a Muslim tomb as followos. I am not sure of how aware he was that the tomb described was a Turkish one, not an Egyptian:
“It is an oblong vault, having an arched roof, and is generally constructed of brick, and plastered: It is made hollow, in order that the person or persons buried in it may be able with ease when visited and examined by the two angels, “Munkar” (vulgarly “Nakir”) and “Neker”. One side faces the direction of Mekkeh (Mecca); that is ‘, the south east. At the foot, which is to the northeast, is the entrance; before which is constructed a small square cell, roofed with stomnes extending from side to side, to prevent the earth from entering the vault. The vault is generally made large enough to contain four or more bodies: If males and females be buried in the same vault, which is not commonly the case, a partition is built to separate the corpses of one sex from those of the other. Over the vault is constructed an oblong monument (called “tarkeebeh”) of stone or brick, with a stela, or upright stone (called “shahid”), at the head and the foot. The stelae are almost plain, but some of them are ornamented; and that at the head is inscribed with a text from the Ku-ran (Koran) and the name of the deceased, with the date of his death. A turban cap or other head dress is also sometimes carved on the top of the head stone, shewing the rank or class of the person or persons buried in the tomb. Over the grave of an eminent Sheykh, or other person of note, a small square building, crowned with a cupola, is generally erected. Many of the tombs of Turkish and Mamelook grandees have marble tarkeebehs, which are canopied by cupolas supported by four columns of marble; and have inscriptions in gilt letters upon a ground of azure on the headstone” (XXXVIII, 527)
Presently we had been benevolently seized and kept captive, prisoners as we were of sheer enthusiasm and overwhelmed by a display of instant brotherly affection. This was well-intentioned abuse, prompted by an incontrollable urge to keep us there as long as possible. How to get away without offending our over possessive hosts? Suddenly a brilliant idea came to my mind. I had equipped myself with a paper bag full of sweeties, I suddenly and very theatrically threw the lot in the air above the densest point of the crowd; a battle instantly ensued, and a cloud of dust abscured the scene, we rushed into the taxi and drove away, leaving a pitch battle for tofees behind us in which everyone was involved: the young and the old, the male and the female.
The word Sheikh literally means “an elder”, or “an aged person”; but it is often used as an appellation of “Mister”; though more particularly applied to a learned man, or a reputed saint (Lane, V, 135) Men, saints or benefactors, called sheikhs, have mausoleums built for them like the one described, either with their own resources, or by the people who benefited from their good deeds. These tombs are frequently seen in cemeteriues throughout Egypt. Some are the goal of pilgrims, of peopler who seek grace or healing or the chance to pray. Ofetrn women dressed in black are to be seen sitting silently beside the mausoleum of the local holy man. (E.W. Lane op.cit.)
We see the desert drawing closer and closer to the Nile as we approach Tahta, 438 km from Cairo. Yet another district capital in ancient Egyptian times, and now the venue of a large cattle-market. We find here some interesting mosques and also the churches of a considerable Coptic community, “in consequence of which, probably, the town is kept clean” states the Thomas Cook Guide to the Nile, 1912 ed. P.613). On the slopes of Gebel el-Haridi, on the opposite bank of the Nile there are rock tombs and quarries. The hill was once believed to be the home of a mythical serpent who healed and performed miracles for the benefit of the local inhabitants. Still today the hill is a place of muslim pilgrimage on holy days.
North east of Sohag passed the village of Idfa, we came to Deir el- Ahmar or “the Red Monastery”, today known as Abu Bshoi. Now surrounded by modern buildings, the monastery was erected in the 5th century in the shape of a basilica. Further south on the edge of the desert, stands another monastery Deir el-Ablad, or “the White Monastery”, called Amba Shmuda, built in 440, surrounded by a high wall of limestone blocks. The gate looks much like the entrance to a Pharaonic temple.
Christianity came here early and at Akhmin, a small district capital growen on the site of ancient Chemmis, capital of the 9th “nome” of Upper Egypt. This was known to the Greeks as Panopolis, where the gods Anisu and Menu were worshipped. We found little remains of ancient Panopolis but we learened that in 1981 archgaeologists had uncovered two colossal statues of an Egyptian queen.
El-Manshah, at 485 km from Cairo we came to the city that stands on a hill made up of the debris of the city of Ptolemais Hermiou, which Strabo described as the largest city in the territory of Thebes, it was larger that Memphis.
Near Girga, at Nag el Deir stands the Deir el-Malak, a Coptic monastery with cemetery that the Christians of Girga have used since the earliest times. In the near village of Nag el-Mashaiykh, on the site of Greek Lepidontopolis are the ruins of a temple of Ramesses II.
After Bardis 521 km from Cairo, we reach el-Balyana. From here a road which runs due west reaches Abydos after 12 km. Egyptian Abdon has the largestr and most famous necropolis of the city of Teni (Girga), one of the oldest cemeteries in Egypt. The site occupies a narrow strip of land between the villages of El-Kirba and El-Araba el-Madfunba. The Abydos cemetery was the place where envery Egyptian wished to be present at death. Since it was the home of Osiris. In fact the cemetery was used from the remotest antiquity of Pre-Dynastic times to the end of paganism.
Abydos was the burial place of kings and dignitaries, a plasce where the Egyptians celebrated the entombment of the dead king and the accession of his successor. The city and its cemetery were dedicated to the god of death: Khontamenti, the first inhabitant of the Western Kingdom, represented in the shape of a dog. Later Osiris took his place and was considered the equal of Khontamenti.
The city of Abydos was overshadowed in importance by its extensive necropolis, which is divided into four separate areas: the area near el-Araba, with the New Kongdom tombs, the temple of Ramesses II and Seti I, and the Osireion; the hill to the north, has the Old Kingdom necropolis; the area of Shunet el-Zebib (between the Osireion and the ruins of the ancient walls) has the Middle Kingdom tombs: the hill of Umm el-Qaab (to the west), has the tombs of the early dynasties and the tomb of Osiris.
What Strabo, the Greek geographer, called “memnonium”, is the largest and the most prominent of all the monuments of Abydos. Its construction was started under Seti I and completed under his son and successor, Ramesses II. The white limestone masonry in which it wass built is decorated with the finest vreliefs ever produced by Egyptian art; most of the original colouring can still be seen.
The Osireion of Serti I
Immediately behind the temple of Seti I is the so-called Osireion, a cenotaph built by Seti for himself and completed by his grandson Mernepthah, seventy years later.
This structure deliberately imitates the New Kingdom tombs of the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. A long passage is decorated with offering scenes from The Book of Gates. Inside the two halls are decorated with mythological and astrological scenes and illustrations from The Book of the Dead. In the Hall of Granite the mock burial chamber, the coffin and the “canopic chest” were placed on a pedesatal in the middle of the room, wehich was surrounded by a small moat always full of water. The roof has collapsed and the floor is entirely flooded. The most interesting thing remaining among the reeds and water is the end transverse hall, which contains highly interesting astronomical reliefs, including a representation of the sky goddess Nut supported by the god of the air Shu.
About 300 metres north of the Osireion stands the temple of Ramesses II. Smaller than the previous building was dedicated to Osiris and to the cult of the Pharaoh.
We walked some 500 m north-west of the temple where we found a structure called Shunet el-Zebib, surrounded by two tiers of mud-brick walls. The function of this complex, which measures 133m in length is a mystery. A few hundred metres to the north east, near el-Kirba are the remains of the city and the sanctuary of Osiris, among the oldest buildings ioEgypt. Only the mud-brick enclosure walls of the Middle Kingdom are visible, the remains of the temple having crumbled to almost nothing.
To the west there is yet another Coptic monastery: Deir el-Sitt Damiano (or Aba Musa), dating from 1590.
The Mother of Pots and the Fathers of Archaeology
South west of the temple of Ramesses II is one of hundreds of hills of potsherds of Egypt. This one is very appropriately called Umm el-Qaab (Mother of Pots). Here, one of my heroes, the great Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (Charlton, 3rd June 1853 – Jerusalem, 28th July 1942) with his friend Émile Amélineau (1850 – 12 January 1915 at Châteaudun) a French Coptologist, archaeologist and Egyptologist. Found cenotaphs of early kings, including that of Djer (First Dynasty); nothing now remains of the excavations, or of the memory of one of the most active British archaeologists of the Nile Valley.
Sir William Marhew Flinders Petrie is one of my heroes. Sometimes called “the father of pots” he should have been more appropriately called the first true archaeologist. At the age of 24 he wrote a semilal essay called “Inductive metrology, or the Recovery of Ancient Measures from the Monuments”, explaining how yo determine the units of measurements for the construction of anchent monuments. In 1880 he began the survey and excavation of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which was the start of a 40 year exploration adventures in the Near East. He excavated in the Delta, in the Fayum, at Hawara, at Tell El Amarna, Naqada, and in the Sinai Peninsula, and finally in Palestine when he was 85. Although Flinders Petrie was essentially self-taught in that he had no formal schooling, he was made Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College, London in 1892. His booklet “Some sources of Human History”, 1919, made a fundamental impression on my research method for years to come, and I am grateful to him for that.
We passed through Abu Shusha, and more hills of potsherds until we reached Nag Hammadi at 556km from Cairo, where the air is blackened by the smoke issuing from a large sugar factory. Here, in 1945 important Coptic manuscripts on papyrus were excavated. Among these was a Gospel by St Thomas dating to the 2nd Century, containing sayings attributed to Christ himself. Further south is Qasr el-Salyad (the Hunter’s Castle), which marks the site of Khenoboskion (the Goose’s Pen), where in ancient times geese were raised and fattened for the market.
In the surrounding hills are the tombs of the city of Kenoboskion, which belonged to the princes of the 6th Dynasty. Several of these tombs became the house of early Christian monks and were defaced.
Continuing our southward journey along the left bank we reached the town of Hiw, situated on a broad bend of the Nile. Here was once the city Hut-Sekhem, the Diospolis Parva of the Greeks. A short distance from the town we were shown the tomb of Sheikh Selim who died in 1891, and who spent many years - we were told- sitting naked on this spot, becoming the saint patron of all the Nile boatmen.
The road along the east bank reaches Faw Qibli, at 575km from Cairo. This was the Coptic Phbow, the site of the large monastery founded by Pachomius, in which all the monks of Egypt used to meet twice a year. Nearby is the site of Tabennese, where Pachomius founded the coenobite monastery in 320. The Rule of Pachomius is the earliest in the history of Christian monasticism, and it is clearly based on Buddhist rules, although may devoted would deny any such influence on Christianity.
From Dishna, we began to see a glimpse of Dendera, from as far away as Aulad Amr, where the environment becomes more arid and the vegetation scarcer.
We were on that broad bend of the Nile – a kink which everyone who looks at a map of Egypt will not fail to notice, half way up the Nile. Quena, 612 km from Cairo, is the thriving capital town of a province and governatorate with 60.000 inhabitants. It is noted for its ancient potteries which we did not forget to visit. The local amphoras are clearly distinctive, the Kulal (sing. Kulla), whose porosity keeps the liquid inside at a temperature of 6° below the outside. Whoever may wish to spend some time in hand may stay in Qena from where a road crosses the Eastern Desert reaching the Red Sea at Bur Safaga.
At el-Ballas the large jars called “balalis” (sing. Ballas) are made, they are used by peasants to carry water; they are often seen being transported across the Nile on sailed feluccas.
At el-Taramsa, near Dendera, there is one such traditional pottery works, which continue to adopt ancient techniques for the manufacture of all sorts of containers (particularly noteworthy are its honey jars, used as beehives).
From Qena, either by taxi or horse and carriage, the visitor may reach the temple of Dedera (Tanteret of the Pharaohs and Tentyris of the Greeks), which the Cops call Tentore. The capital of the 6th “nome” of Aati, in Upper Egypt, is one of the oldest and most famous cities in Egypt. The Greek and Arab name derives from Yunet Tantere (“Yunet of the goddess Hathor”). Despite of the transfer of the population to the right bank in ancient times, the site remained the centre of the cult of Hathor, the cow-goddess of love and joy, equated by the Greek to Aphrodite. The temple of Hathor, built as late as the 1st Century AD, at the time oc Cleopatra, under the last Ptolemies and the Emperor Augustus, still stands almost intact today, as one of the main wonders of Egypt.
An impressive wall of unbaked bricks (10-12m thick by 10m in height), encloses the vast temple complex of 290 x 280 m. The road coming from the Nile, once flanked by columns, leads to the northern entrance of the precinct, by the rest house. The grand entrance gateway was built under the Emperor Domitian in the 1st Century. Inside four rows of reliefs show the emperors Augustus, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, in the guise of Pharaohs, in the act of offering to the goddess and other deities.
Most of the reliefs on the screens between the columns have been defaced by fanatical Copts. The decorations, the reiefs are amazing, a cultural mixed pot of Ehyptian, Greek and Roman, but the most extraordinary decoration is found on the ceiling of the second room of the shrine, this is the famous Zodiac of Dendera, the only circular representation of the heavens found in Egypt where all such representations are rectangular. Other Zodiacs in the temple’s poronaos are square. The one seen there today is a replica of the original which is now at the Louvre, Paris. This Zodiac lends itself to interpretation and many have been made over the centuries, but it seems to represent the Egyptian Lunar calendar with a mixture of Greek and Roman elements.
The original relief was moved in 1821 to Paris and by 1822 it was installed in the Royal Library by Louis XVIII. Only in 1964 was the Zodiac moved from the Bibliotheque Nationale to the Louvre. There is a notorious controversy concerning the Zodiac called “the Dendera Affair”. Josep Fourier dated the work at 2500 BC, whereas Thomas Young, Jean Françoise Champollion, and Jean Baptiste Corabouef , Karl Burkhardt and others guessed that the Ancient Egyptians knew the precession of the Equinoxes. Champollion reading the names of Roman Emperors guessed that the Zodiac was made under Roman rule. Georges Cuvier dated the artefact between 123 and 147 AD.
Another curios structure of the temple is the “Mammisi”, the so-called “birth house”. This is a small temple for the worship of the sons of the two deities to which the main temple is dedicated: Harsomtus, the son of Isis and Horus of Edfu. On the abaci are figures of the hideous god Bes, the god of women in labour, of Sudanese or Ethiopian origin. All of this was built under Trajan and Hadrian.
The temple presents intriguing decorations all over the place. For example, the large relief on the south wall depicts Ptolemy XV Caesar, nicknamed “Caesarion” (little Caesar) the son of Julius and Cleopatra. Although the representations were not intended to be portraits, this is an interesting curiosity.
Continuing our journey south we end up at Qift, the ancient Coptos an important trading town from the earliest times of Egyptian history. Here there was a temple dedicated to the “ithyphallic” god Min (a god with a permanent stiff erection). Beyond we came to Qus, the Greek Apollinopolis Parva, the Gesi of the Ancient Egyptians, the centre of the worship of Haroeris.
We are near the famous Nagada, famous for the Neolithic culture known to every archaeologist as “the Nagada culture”.
At Khuzam, 669 km from Cairo we were only 12 km away from Luxor , and we began to discern the rich sandstone colour of the hills of Thebes West, and the dull colour of the massive ruins at Karnak. At the village of el-Medamud, which precedes them, are the ruins of an interesting Graeco-Roman temple consecrated to the war god Montu. The monumental gate was, however, built under Tiberius.
The ruins of el-Medamud include a 35m long avenue, west of the temple entrance. In ancient times the avenue was connected to the temple by an Avenue of Sphinxes (with human heads), at the end of which two obelisks marked the limit of cultivated land and the realm of the god Montu. Here the canal from el-Medamud and Karnak also arrived. The avenue of Sphinxes, which runs parallel to the canal, once conveyed the worhippers to and from the precinct to Montu at Karnak.
On coming to Luxor, 694km from Cairo, what the modern traveller comes to think of is Agatha Christie’s Poirot rather than Ramesses II. Yet this was the capital city of the 12th and 18th dynasties, or, in other words, the Golden Age of Egypt. Thebes was the centre of the Estate of Amun. Here was clerical corporation which, at the height of its power, owned land all over Egypt.
The city of the living was on the east bank and it is now completely obliterated by modern Luxor, except for the temples and, recently, the long avenue of sphinxes which connects the two temple sites. The avenue once conveyed the worshippers to and from the precincts of Montu at Karnak.
The city of the dead was, and still is, situated on the west bank, with a mere sprinkling of small villages over this vast area.
Modern Luxor is a lively and pleasant town of about 60.000 inhabitants. The name being a distortion of el-Oqsur (from el-Qasr: the Palaces) and not el-Uqsur : the Camp, as it is often said in the guides. Nothing of what is visible today gives a fair idea of its ancient splendour. The modern city, full of hotels, tourists, people posing as Indiana Jones but failing to impress, horses and carriages, souvenir stands, occupies only the south west corner of ancient Thebes.
The ancients called the city Weset, or Uast (a name which meant both the city and its province) sometimes it is called Newt or “the City”. Under the Ptolemies it became Diospolis he Megale (Great city of God).
Thebes had three protective deities: Amun, Mut and Khonsu. At the height of its splendour, its fame as the capital of Egypt reached the Orient, and Homer called it Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Thebai, in spite of its being given to several towns in the Greek world, has obscure origins. The later Greek name Diospolis he Megale (Diospolis Magna in Latin) as opposed to Hiw: Diospolis parva (small).
Weset was the capital of a “nome” ruled by its own aristocracy. The west bank, known since antiquity as “West of Weset”, was the burial-place, during the Sixth Dynasty the cemetery was at Dra Abu-el-Naga. The princes of Thebes assumed the role of kings during the Middle Kingdom, when the city, just like the god Amun at Karnak, began to gain a greater importance. At the beginning of the New Kingdom the city acquired an even greater weight and significance by virtue of its leadership in the fight against the mysterious invading Hyksos and the unification of the country.
From this time on Thebes became the home of the Pharaohs. Immense treasures and the entire wealth of the country started flowing into Thebes; the bank of these riches was the temple of Amun at Karnak.
The temple of Epet Esowet, still in Karnak, was extended, and the new temple of Apet-resyet was built at Luxor. The prophet Nahum could then say of Thebes that “Ethiopia and Egypt were her strength, and that such strength was infinite” (Nahum 3:9)
The temporary transfer of the capital to Tell el-Amarna by Amenhotep IV, who was hostile to Amun, did not affect the fame and splendour of Thebes. The Pharaohs Horemheb, Seti I and Ramesses II restored images and inscriptions which had been defaced or destroyed, and increased the riches that had accumulated in the temples. The priests of Amun, guardians of this great wealth of the country, became the actual rulers of the State and on occasions rose to the throne itself.
Finally, during the Twenty-first Dynasty, when the centre of power was transferred to the north, the city lost its importance, though the priests of Amun continued ruling over Upper Egypt as a separate entity.
The city was sacked by Assyrian invaders in the 7th century BC. Subsequently the Ethiopian Pharaohs brought the capital back to Thebes, until the Twenty-sixth Dynasty rulers again transferred the capital to Sais in the Delta, on the Rosetta branch of the Nile.
Then came the Persian invasion of Egypt (525 BC). Led by Cambyses, they advanced into Upper Egypt, but without inflicting serious damage. Under the Ptolemies the city finally declined, losing ground in fact to Ptolemais Hermiou, the new capital founded by Ptolemy I. Revolts against high taxation and repressive measures consequent upon them reduced Thebes to the status of provincial town.
There were years of siege under Ptolemy IX Soter II (until 88 BC); finally, in 29 BC, while suppressing yet another insurrection Cornelius Gallus, the first Roman governor, destroyed the city. When Strabo visited Thebes in 24-20 BC, a few scattered mud-brick villages among the dust and ruins were all that remained of the once splendid city.
“After Apollinospolis one comes to Thebes (Now called Diospolis), ‘Thebes of the hundred gates’, whence sally forth two hundred men through each with horses and chariots “(Iliad 9.383). So Homer; and he speaks also of its wealth, even the revenue of Aegyptian Thebes, where lies in treasure-houses the greatest wealth. And others also say things of this kind, making this city the metropolis of Aegypt. Even now traces of its magnitude are pointed out, extending as they do for a distance of eighty stadia in length; and there are several temples, but most of these, too, were mutilated by Cambyses; and now it is only a collection of villages, a part of it being in Arabia, where was the city, and a part on the far side of the river, where was the Memnonium. Here are two colossi, which are near one another and are each made of a single stone; one of them is preserved, but the upper parts of the other, from the seat up, fell when an earthquake took place, so it is said. It is believed that once each day a noise, as of a slight blow, emanates from the part of the latter that remains on the throne and its base; and it too, when I was present at the place with Aelius Gallus and his crowd of associates, both friends and soldiers, heard the noise at about the first hour (from sunrise) but whether it came from the base or from the colossus, or whether the noise was made on purpose by one of the men who were standing all round and near to the base, I am unable positively to assert, for on account of the uncertainty of the cause, I am inclined to believe anything rather than the sound issued from stones thus fixed” (Strabo, Geography; 17, I, 46).
The Great Temple of Luxor
Luxor occupies the south-west corner of ancient Thebes, which extended into the plain far beyond Karnak. There it is, below us, the massive structure of the temple of Luxor, which has been engulfed by the modern town, surrounded by hideous souvenir stands, international-style hotels, like ours, , and noisy hordes of horse-carriages obstinately offering their services. Along the Nile Corniche, near the ruins of the temple, you will be approached incessantly by all kinds of people, offering to be your guide and to take you across to Thebes West, or Karnak on a felucca trip. The temple is lit at night with multicoloured lights for the benefit of the tourist who stop briefly here as part of their Nile cruise; or otherwise for the pride of Egyptians (as in Cairo, the multicoloured night lights are simply a carpet which the rubbish is swept under).
Within the structure of the temple of Luxor is the small mosque of Abu el-Haggag (north-east side), an important cult building, whose absurd situation makes it appear like some parasitic growth clinging to the great temple. Amenhotep III had the temple built on the site of an earlier one. It soon became known to the Egyptians as Apet Amun resyet (Southern Harem of Amun); it was in fact dedicated to Amun, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu, the moon god.
The temple was, and still is, a large structure measuring 190m by 55m. The original main entrance was marked by the large pylon built under Ramesses II, with six colossal statues erected in front of it: two of them with the Pharaoh seated, and four of them with him standing (only three still survive on their original site). On the occasion of the Royal Jubilee, two obelisks were added. The eastern one still stands where it was erected; the western (and smallest) was taken away by the French in 1836 and can now be seen in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Inscriptions on the obelisk refer to the greatest builder in history and the founder of the temple.
Not all the temple, as we see it today was built under Ramesses II. The colonnade, after the Great Court, was built under Amenhotep III and its decorations were made under Tutankhamun and Horemheb.
Seti I and Seti II also claimed the works as theirs by having their names engraved on the temple structures.
There are seven pairs of the huge columns capped with calyx capitals which always impress the visitor, dwarfed already at his approach to the manufactured “sandstone mountain”. The decorations on the walls behind the columns represent the ”Opet Festival”, the famous procession of Amun’s boats from Karnak to Luxor, which took place during the second month of the flood season when the inundations were at their highest level; the celebrations lasted for twenty four days, after which the boats returned to Karnak. In the Court of Amenhotep III the huge columns, sixty four in all, have “papyrus bud” capitals. The colonnade was once covered to form a portico all round the open court.
The Roman sanctuary, opposite the entrance in the hypostyle hall, with four rows of eight columns is followed immediately by the Roman sanctuary or shrine, later converted into a church. To obtain it the Roman builders removed some columns and walled the doorway to the shrine into a recess; the reliefs were plastered and painted over with images of various emperors.
After the Roman sanctuary there is an antechamber, to the left of which is the so-called ‘Birth Room’ with reliefs showing the birth of Amenhotep III who claimed to descend by miraculous birth from Amun-Re (he made such a claim since he himself was not of royal descent) and he has not been the only ruler in history to do that.
Still well within the urban area of ancient Thebes, only 3km north-east of Luxor, stands the truly impressive temple complex of Death on the Nile, the complex of Karnak, one of the wonders of Egypt only second to the pyramids of Giza as a most widely known archaeological wonder in the world. The processional avenue which in ancient times connected Karnak with Luxor is being now reopened by demolishing the whole heritage of mud brick houses in between. If one approached the temple complex, as we did, through the village of Karnak, following the direction of the avenue of sphinxes, one would have been struck, as we did, by the conditions of poverty, dilapidation and pollution that afflicted this famous locality visited by millions every year.
Obviously all the money goes to the Rais and to the Army who, before the 2011 Revolution, run the roost of Egypt. It is amazing how blindfolded and insensitive tourists can be, to have ignored this, to have turned the other way, to have not reported or written about such scandalous situation. Most tourist guides, even the most acclaimed, do not even mention the existence of a village called Karnak, giving the impression that this name refers exclusively to the tourist attraction seen in Death on the Nile. But the two idiots walking in front of us, dressed up as if they were on the set of an Indiana Jones’ film, epitomise the typical tourist, insensitive to anything not mentioned in the giudebook.
When we arrived, in tears, we found a rubbish dump marking the beginning of what was left of the Avenue of sphinxes, which leads to the Ptolemaic gate in front of the temple of Khonsu.
This avenue – in 2011 being restored by whipping out the old villages – which terminates in front of the temple of Khonsu, connected the temple of Luxor with the complex at Karnak. It was once a paved processional way built under Amenhotep III (his image can be seen between the paws of each sphinx along the avenue).
Skirting the enclosure wall of the complex, you will find this point after disembarking at the landing stage on the bank of the Nile (two obelisks erected by Seti II still stand there). After descending a flight of stairs, one enters an avenue flanked by ram-headed sphinxes (between the paws of each are statues of Ramesses II)
Inside the large precinct are the Great Temple of Amun, the Temple of Ramesses, the Festival Temple of Thutmose III, the Temple of Khonsu, and other buildings of lesser resonance. All this will take a good few hours to satisfactorily inspect.
Dating from the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1785 BC), temple of Amun has a complex structure grown under several successive Pharaohs, each of whom, in competition with their respective predecessors, and in celebration of the god Amun, added to and converted what already existed. By way of the first Pylon, the visitor enters the Great Court, which covers 8919 square metres. A vast area scattered with the monuments of the various rulers. Of the ten columns capped with lotus capitals raised by the Ethiopian Pharaoh Taharka (688-663 BC) only one remains.
On the left of the Court is the temple of Seti II with three chapels dedicated to the gods Mut, Amun and Khonsu. On the right, nearer the pylon, is the temple of Ramesses III oriented on a north-south axis. A classic example of its kind, the building, erected during the reign of this Pharaoh, is typical of the New Kingdom. After the court with colonnades we enter the hypostyle hall and then the vestibule, both of them covered: the ceiling of the hypostyle hall is supported by eight columns, that of the vestibule by four. Beyond is the sanctum, comprising three chapels, as usual dedicated to Mut, Amun and Khonsu.
Entering the temple’s interior the visitor -not the one dressed up as Indiana Jones-, will notice a gradual diminishing of light and space; the floors become higher, and the ceilings lower. Progress towards the mysterious and holy is made quite apparent by the clever devices of the architects. Only the king and priests were allowed to enter the holy of holies and cast their eyes upon the golden statue of the God.
While the inner walls of the temple are decorated with reliefs, illustrating religious rituals, offerings to the gods and celebrations of festivals, the outer walls of the temple show the military prowess of the Pharaoh and display his heroic attributes. Returning to the Great Court, passing what was the kiosk of Taharka, we made our way toward the second pylon. To the left of the central doorway is the red granite (porphyry) statue of Ramesses II which was found in the Court together with other broken statues and numerous blocks from dismantled Sun Temples. The doorway leads into the Hypostyle hall. This contains no less than 134 columns in 16 rows; with its 4983 square metres it is the largest covered chamber ever built for any temple. The central double row of columns leading to the sanctuary, are higher than the others.
The smooth columns rise to a height of 21 metres and are capped with open calyx capitals. Like the architraves, these preserve much of their original colouring. The side columns have closed calyx (or bud) capitals, surmounted by square pillars which formed the windows and constituted the light source when the roof was on.
The inner walls of the hall are covered with reliefs and inscriptions, mostly depicting scenes relative to the cult of Amun-Re; the north half of the wall was decorated under Seti I, the south half under Ramesses II. On the outer walls of the hall (outside the temple) are reliefs depicting important historical scenes.
On the North Wall: the deeds of Seti I in Phoenicia, Palestine and Syria are illustrated. At the top, the Pharaoh shoots arrows at the enemy in flight from his chariot. To the right, three scenes: the Pharaoh ties up the prisoners, marches behind his chariot while dragging the captives, and leads groups of enemy prisoners to Amun, Mut and Khonsu.
Below, the Pharaoh marches triumphant through Palestine while the princes of that land honour him with raised arms. Further along, still in Palestine, is a battle against the Beduins, and the victorious Pharaoh returning from Syria with prisoners. A canal marks the boundary between Asia and Egypt: on the Egyptian side priests and officials welcome the successful Pharaoh, who brings captives and the spoils of war to Amun-Re.
On the doorway wall, right side, top row, we see the scene of one of the most famous battles of Egyptian history: the storming of Kadesh. In the middle row is the war against the Libyans; in the bottom row, the war against the Hittites. On either side of the doorway are large reliefs of Amun-Re while presenting Seti I with the sword of victory.
On the south wall the most famous scene of the battle of Khadesh, that of Ramesses II, with the text of the treaty with the Hittites.
Coming to the third pylon, this was once the entrance to the temple: recently, during works preceding the construction of the pylon, hundreds of blocks from other, earlier buildings were found buried in its core. The building was the pavilion of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret I.
Immediately behind the third pylon the obelisk of Thutmose I stands in a narrow court. Hatshepsut, the daughter of Thutmose I, and builder of the famous funerary temple of Deir-el-Bahari had two other obelisks erected between the fourth and fifth pylon.
Of those of Hatshepsut, the only obelisk left standing is 29.5 metres high and made of a single block of pink granite; the Queen had it erected during the sixteenth year of her reign. The companion of this obelisk, the tallest standing today, can be seen in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. Inscriptions on it record that the block of granite came from Aswan and the work was completed in seven months. The base of the second obelisk is still on its site, while the top part is near the Sacred Lake: fragments are dispersed in several museums throughout the world.
Beyond, through the doorway of the fifth pylon we are confronted with the grand colonnade of Thutmose I, today in a very bad state of repair. Next comes the smaller sixth pylon, by Thutmose III and Seti I. Beyond the latter pylon is the Archive, the hall where the priests kept records of the war booty and the sources of gifts offered to the Pharaos.
Reaching the Sanctuary which is built of pink granite and decorated with reliefs of a very fine quality, wee may notice the ceiling which is a dark sky with shining stars. Curiously, here Philip Arrhidaeus, half brother and successor of Alexander the Great (who built the sanctuary over a chapel of the time of Thutmose III) is portrayed while being crowned, seated in front of the offerings table.
The corridor running around the sanctuary is decorated with fine reliefs.
A labyrinth, formed by fifty halls and rooms, surrounded the sanctuary. The last section of the structure is the Great Festival Temple of Thutmose III. The greatest warrior among all Pharaohs of Egypt. He fought no less that seventeen battles during the years of his rule (the French called him the Napoleon of Egypt) he dedicated the temple to Amun-Re protector of the empire he created.
Another court is known as the “Karnak Cachette”, since the ground inside it was used by the priests to bury the votive objects when the sanctuaries were excessively full of them. As in Greece and Rome, votive objects accumulated in temples had, at some point, to be disposed of and thus they were buried on sacred ground in order to make room for future offerings. In 1904 thousands of such objects were excavated in the court, among then were statues of animals, sphinxes, metal pieces (nearly 50.000 bronze pieces). A doorway between the seventh and eighth pylons leads to the Sacred Lake, where the priests purified themselves. Beyond the tenth pylon the avenue of Ram-headed Sphinxes begins, leading to the temple of Mut, the wife of a Ahmose. The temple is constantly being excavated and restored, or reconstructed, by archaeologists. Today, 2011, the temple has been completely restored and it has regained its stunning beauty.
Thebes West was introduced to us by our taxi driver, a biologist who took us to his house and lamented that he was unable to convince his countrymen and women to not drinking the water of the Nile for hygienic reasons. “If the Nile is good how can its water be bad or harmful?” – was the objection. He had no valid argument against that view.
The magnificent city of Thebes (Diospolis he Megale/Magna), the religious centre of Egypt, extended to the opposite bank of the Nile and as far as the arid valleys of the Libyan Desert, with its sumptuous palaces, splendid temples and cemeteries. The taxi of our friend Alì took us to the Colossi of Memnon and from there we walked all day round the sites and most of all the villages until exhaustion.
Thebes West was the City of the Dead, but the living kings also settled there in splendid palaces to watch over the progress of the works at their temples and tombs. Their palaces and pavilions have been excavated at Qurna, at the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu.
The modern Thebans live in small, miserable villages of unbaked brick houses, such as Qurna, occasionally colourfully painted with illustrations of the owner’s pilgrimage to Mecca. The houses are scattered here and there among the tombs and along the canal road, in much the same way as their ancestors whom Strabo described two thousand years ago. Almost every house, at Qurnet Murai, Sheikh abd el-Qurna or Medinet Habu, has a “luxury cellar”, a Pharaonic one, you might say, which in some cases will extend some 50 metres underground. Mud-brick houses are being built, in the same techniques that were used thousands of years ago. Portable clay bread ovens smoulder away amid heaps of rubble, piles of mud bricks drying in the sun, water jars, dried up cow dung loaves and firewood as fuels.
Refreshment kiosks, alabaster factories and every possible tourist trap are present here along the main paths, though the size of the area of Thebes West gives you more than enough space to breathe. Of course, if you stray from the tourist’s beaten track you will be spotted at once, and hounded mercilessly by children and adults alike, who will do everything they can to persuade you into their houses, to sell you fragments of a freshly broken obelisk, scarabs and other precious finds that have surfaced “just now, right here!”. You will be pestered to the limit of your patience by the incessant request for “baksheesh”. A young man shouted from the top of a hill:- “Hei! Come and see my cellar!”. I replied :- “No thank you, I am not a tourist!” – He retorted:- “Not a tourist? What are you then?”- “I am here to write a book” – “To write a book?” And he started throwing stones at me. I had to duck a few rocks and lost my glasses in a pit in the process. Generally speaking the people were, however, respectful and cordial.
The next site we visited was the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, better known to the tourist as “Queen hot-chicken-soup” a pun told by every guide to every English or American tourist. The spectacular temple set at the foot of a magnificently golden cliff was inspired by the adjacent construction of Mentuhotep I which was built half a millennium earlier. Here however, the architect surpassed himself. Admirable for its grace and beauty, this building also contains superb low-relief carvings which are among the finest products in Egyptian art. Structured on three levels, the temple of Hatshepsut represents one of the most skilfully planned monuments in the history of architecture. It is indeed “modern”, almost the architecture of another planet! It is a grandiose complex which, by virtue of the architect’s design, it appears smaller than it actually is. The visitor will notice that the Queen’s image has been chiselled away almost everywhere; this was the work of her nephew Thutmose III. In places her cartouches have also been erased and replaced by those of the schemping nephew, or his male predecessors. This was part of a plan to cancel the Queen’s name from history and incorporate the years of her reign into those of Thutmose I or II. The figure of the Queen may still be seen on the south end wall where, in the guise of a sphinx, she tramples her enemies underfoot.
Senenmut, the architect who designed the temple, was originally the tutor of the Queen’s daughter. This privileged position allowed him to acquire considerable power and influence, so much indeed that he succeeded in having his own tomb built below the funerary temple of the Queen.
Coming up from the Lower Court the visitor passes through the lower colonnade. In the reliefs, there are famous scenes, seen even in our old school books, of the transport of obelisks from Aswan by means of river barges. In the central court the Queen planted the incense trees she had imported from the Land of Punt, as represented in the famous reliefs. At the end of the colonnade, we come, in fact, to two more colonnades: the “Punt Colonnade” (left) which takes its name from the reliefs just mentioned, which narrate the journey in that land; and the “birth Colonnade” (right), with the representation of the story and rituals associated with the birth of Hatshepsut; the reliefs aim at demonstrating the Pharaoh’s right to the throne. The shrine of Anubis at the end of the colonnade consists of three vaulted chambers. The wall paintings showing portraits of Hatshepsut have been obliterated, but for the rest the colours are well preserved.
When we visited the site the upper court of the temple was undergoing restorations, or rather, rebuilding work, and it was close to the public. The sanctuary, hewn into the rock of the majestic cliffs, includes three chambers, one beyond the other; the inner chamber was built by the Ptolemies and dedicated, curiously, to Imhotep, the architect of the step pyramid of Saqqara, and to Amenhotep, the architect who worked for the Pharaoh of the same name: Imhotep and Amenhotep were both worshipped as gods of healing in Ptolemaic tomes, when Queen Hatshepsut had been long forgotten. Deir el-Bahri (or Bahari) then became a place of healing, and in the Christian era a monastery was built on the upper terrace, the Deir el-Bahri means the Northern Monastery.
The Valley of the Kings
From Deir el-Bahri we continued on foot due north-west through the desolate and arid depression known as The Valley of the Kings. Those who can cope with yet more searing sun, dust and rocky paths, such as we did, may take the track which runs over the cliff behind the funerary temples and from here gain a spectacular view of the monuments and the entire area of Thebes West.
In the Valle of the Kings are, as every one knows, the tombs of all the Pharaohs from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasty. Thutmose I was the first to build his tomb in the remote and inhospitable valley, sealing off the entrance and obscuring it in such a way as to render his final resting-place inaccessible to grave robbers or to any other intruders. His successor followed his example, but alas, all the tombs of the Valley of the Kings – with the sole exception of Tutankhamun’s – were ransacked after only a short time from their closure.
The priests of the Twenty-first Dynasty, in a desperate attempt to salvage something of what remained, buried the mummies that had been spared in a 12m deep shaft near the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri. Between 1881 and 1898 about forty mummies were discovered and taken safely to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
The other side of the grave
Many tombs are literally covered with Hyeroglyphic texts from the famous Book of the Dead, a sacred text containing prayers, hymns, formulas and resurrection rites that draws on a religious tradition thousands of years old. Along the corridors are representations of the various stages of the soul’s journey toward the next world. The Pharaoh was considered by the ancient Egyptians as the “Son of the Sun”. It was believed that at his death he would rejoin his father as he set in the west, travelling through the twelve regions of the underworld – represented by the twelve hours of the night – with the solar boat. At dawn the following day, the King would be reborn in the afterlife
The Tombs of the Valley of the Kings
The tombs in the Valley are all based on a common design, and are distinguished only by their length and number of rooms. Usually the tomb is set deep into the rock and approached in stages by means of three corridors. At the end of the first corridor is a deep well, sometimes 6-7 m deep, possibly a device to discourage intruders, or otherwise a means of draining the tomb. At the end of the third corridor is a door leading to an antechamber, and then to the tomb itself. Here the roof is usually supported by pillars and the coffin placed either in the middle or at the rear of the tomb chamber. The first corridor of a typical Theban tomb has depictions of various aspects of the sun-god, followed by representations of the hourly division of the river journey to the underworld; every single stage is shown by a gate guarded by snakes. On the river banks guardian demons and spirits watch over the journeying soul, warding off all enemies that might obstruct the journey of the Solar Boat. Finally, in the innermost chambers, are spirits and monsters whom the travelling soul must address in the appropriate way to gain access to the Underworld. There are two fantastic books by an old British Museum Egyptologist: Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (1857 – 1934) illustrating and accurately describing The Book of the Dead and The Egyptian Heaven and Hell. Well worth obtaining in cheap paperback editions.
Osiris, judge of the soul
The Underworld was a reflection of the real world. Osiris was the lord and final judge of the soul. Together with him were his wife Isis, her sister Nephthys, the god of wisdom Thoth, and the forty-two judges. Osiris is represented mummified, seated under a canopy in the guise of a legendary ancestor. His green colour symbolizes spring. He wears the white crown and holds the crook and flail.
The tomb of Tutankhamun N°62
The son of Akhenaten, this Pharaoh died at the age of eighteen or nineteen in unknown circumstances. The dramatic discovery of this tomb in 1922 by the English archaeological artist Howard Carter became a cause célèbre in the history of treasure hunting… an event, however, that had little to do with archaeology as it is carried out today. Although robbers had succeeded in penetrating the tomb soon after it had been sealed, it remained intact with its vast wealth of furnishings. The famous “Treasure of Tutankhamun” is now one of the main attractions in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
A flight of steps leads to a passage and then to antechamber, the largest room in the tomb. This was packed with all kinds of furniture and precious objects. Opposite the entrance, on the left, is a side-chamber, in which two life-size statues of the Pharaoh were found. On the right is the tomb chamber, in the middle of which stands the yellow sandstone sarcophagus (the sides covered with religious inscriptions and scenes). The mummy of the King was enclosed within the sarcophagus inside three coffins – in a Russian doll fashion- richly decorated with gold and precious stones; these are now on display in the Cairo Museum, while the mummy is preserved in its sarcophagus. To the right of the funerary chamber is a store-room whose walls bear painted ritual scenes relating to the King’s funeral.
The Curse of the Mummy
After the burial chamber had been opened in February 1923, Howadr Carter and Lord Carnarvon took rest from their excavations. Soon, Carnarvon fell ill. A mosquito bit on his cheek had become infected. Then he developed pneumonia, from which he died on 5 April.
His sudden death gave rise to a morbid legend about “the curse of the mummy”. Journalists reported that a writer called Marie Corelli had predicted that anyone intruding into a sealed tomb would receive “dire punishment”. There were other mysteruious stories: for example, that Carnarvon’s dog had howeled inconsolably through the night of his death and then died himself; that on the same night an unexplained power cut had plunged Cairo into darkness; and that on the day the tomb had been opened, Cater’s canary had been eaten by “the pharaoh’s cobra”.
For some 20 years, the death of anyone connected with the discovery of the tomb or with Lord Carnarvon was said be caused by “the mummy’s Curse”. On the other hand, it was pointed out that many of those people who had most closely involved with the excavation suffered no harm. Howard Carter himself died of a heart attackin 1939 – just before his 65the birthday. In his later years Carter was often in Egypt, supervising work at the tomb. It is said that while there he discovered the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great and stated that “this secret will die with me”. This is probably also a legend. Carter was buried at Putney Vale cemetery. His headstone reads:
Archaeologist and Egyptologist
Born May 9, 1874 – died March 2, 1939.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the legend of “the mummy’s curse”, caused “Egyptomania”, the fashion of alkl things Egyptian, to spread through 1920s Europe and America. The same had happened at other times since Napoleon’s day, whenever an important new find was made.
More recently, various exhibitions around the world, showing the treasures from the famous tomb, have kept the interest alive, and in 1970s New York there was even a fashion called “Tutmania”.
The tomb of Seti I (N° 17)
Discovered in 1817 by the Italian circus showman Giovan Battista Belzoni, the tomb is about 100m long and contains some of the finest reliefs in Egyptian art, only rivalled by those in the temple of Abydos. A flight of steps leads to the first, and then the second corridor. The walls are lavishly decorated with scenes praising the sun god and representations of the Underworld. From a small antechamber we descend into the first pillared chamber, where reliefs, besides more visions of the Underworld, show interesting representations of Asiatic people, negroes and Libyans, the human races most familiar to the Egyptians. Another flight of steps leads to the second pillared chamber, where the reliefs (again scenes of the Underworld) are only sketched out. Returning to the first pillared chamber, a flight of steps on the left leads down by way of two more corridors to the third pillared chamber, from which a ramp with steps leads down to the funerary shaft. In the rear section of the mummy shaft stood the sarcophagus, which Belzoni carried off (now in the Soane Museum in London). The mummy, discovered at Deir el-Bahri, is now at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. From the mummy shaft we reach three small side rooms and an offering chamber containing reliefs of great interest illustrating the mythology of the Underworld.
The temple of Seti I
From the Valley of the Kings we proceeded to the Temple of Seti I at Qurna. Built by the King in memory of his father Ramesses I (who reigned only for a short period) and for his own cult, the temple was then completed by his son Ramesses II. Only the rear section of the temple, containing fine reliefs, survives.
The first court in completely destroyed, while a row of columns is all that is left of the second court. The hypostyle hall is flanked by four small chambers to the left and right, with fine reliefs representing Seti I’s accession to the throne.
The sanctuary, with four pillars, has the pedestal for the sacred boat. On the pylon, now destroyed, were reliefs depicting the battles of Seti I against the Libyans, the Hittites and the Syrians.
Turning back now to Qurnet Myrai, we came to the Ramesseum, the funerary temple of Ramesses II. This famous Pharaoh ruled 67 years and built more monuments than any other ruler in history. He was also a successful army commander, his most famous victory being that over the Hittites at Kadesh in Syria. The Pharaoh ensured that everyone would know about the event by having scenes of his glorious triumph carved on all his monuments. Ramesses II also suppressed Nubian revolts and carried out campaigns against Libya. The fight against the mysterious invaders known as the “Sea People” was started by him, and brought to a victorious conclusion by his successor Ramesses III. Unfortunately, the various bloody feats and achievements of Ramesses II have served as an unfortunate example to tyrants and dictators of later ages.
The temple: inside the two towers of the main pylon (badly damaged) are represented scenes relating to the battle of Kadesh: the Egyptian camp (north tower) and the battle (south tower).
The statue of the King lies in pieces in the south east corner of the first court. This is one of the largest statues ever erected to a ruler, perhaps second only to the statue of Kim il Sun, the first absolute monarch of the first dynasty (and probably the last) of North Korea (ca 20 metres high). The total height of the statue of Ramesses II probably exceeded 17m and must have weighed 1000 tons. The gigantic granite block was transported from the quarries at Aswan on a huge river barge.
The second court was originally surrounded by colonnades on all four sides, with monolithic statues of the king on each side of the central stairway which led to the terrace. Other statues backed by pillars, faced the court. The hypostyle hall is based on the model at Karnak, all the reliefs on the columns represent the sovereign in battle. Beyond the hall are two smaller rooms, the firstr decorated with astrological scenes on the ceiling and ritual scenes on the walls, and the second (badly damaged) with sacrificial scenes. The temple was surrounded by chambers and storage rooms for the priests. The King’s palace was situated south of the Ramesseum.
The Great Complex of Medinet Habu: a War Bulletin
Beyond the rest house – or inspectorate – comes the impressive temple complex of Medinet Habu, situated near the village of the same name. Started during the Eighteenth Dynasty, and building went on here until the end of Roman rule.
The funerary temple is that of Pharaoh Ramesses III (Twentieth Dynasty, 1184 – 1153 BC), the last real sovereign. After his reign, power was seized by the priests of Amun, who had the Pharaoh assassinated and overthrew the Dynasty.
Ramesses III fought victoriously in Asia and Nubia achieving his greatest triumph against the “Sea Peoples”. If interpretations are correct, but personally I doubt it, the Sea People included Libyans, Schrden (Sardinians?), Teresch (Etruscans?), Schekeresch (?), Perset (Persians?), Zeker (?) and Denyen (Danes?), who had attacked Egypt from the sea. The great temple of Medinet Habu is a monument to this war and a glorious celebration of the triumphant King.
The temple, which has the same plan as the Ramesseum, was built and decorated while the Pharaoh was engaged in war. The events of the campaigns were therefore illustrated as they were taking place, making this temple a kind of continually updated war bulletin.
The towers of the first pylon, in which the military triumph of Ramesses III is glorified, are both provided with recesses for the Pharaoh’s flagstaffs.
The first court had a colonnade with calyx capitals (on the left) and figures of Osiris (on the right), the latter disfigured by religious fanatics. The most interesting representations (back of the first pylon, to the left), show the King’s Libyan campaign; mercenary soldiers wearing horned helmets, and the king on his chariot attacking the enemy.
On the opposite side of the court, is the Pharaoh together with various deities.
On both sides of the hall are side chambers; the rooms on the left (treasure chambers) were used to store jewellery, vessels, precious metals and musical instruments.
Further on there are two vestibules, one after the other, each with eight columns; these lead to the sanctuary, which has four columns. In the last vestibule are statues of Ramesses with a god.
On the outer walls of the temple there are important reliefs, in which Ramesses III is depicted during his war campaigns.
The Valley of the Queens
After Medinet Habu our itinerary continued due west, toward the Valley of the Queens. The burial ground of various Queens and royal children of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties.
Of the more than eighty tombs here, many are unfinished or devoid of any decoration. Unfortunately, the most interesting and beautiful tomb that belonged to Ramesses II’s wife, Nefertari, was at time of our visit, closed to the public. Even if you pushed for time it is worth seeing at least one of the tombs here.
Modern Egyptians call the Valley of the Queens – a name coined by archaeologists – Biban el-Harim (Place of Beauty) Most of the tombs were excavated by Italian archaeologists between 1903 and 1905.
After a long, pleasant, sojourn in Luxor, in a good hotel with a spectacular view of the temples, we continued our long journey south. The heat was now becoming harder to adapt to, but we did eventually adapt, since the waters of the river looked to us increasingly cleaner, bluer and fresher, the air was also clearer. And there was an occasional breeze on the River.
After 20 km’s drive our Luxor biologist-taxi driver took us to the village of Tod 694 km from Cairo. This humble little town, the ancient Egyptian Djerti, and the Graeco-Roman Tuphium, has interesting ruins of a large temple begun under the Ptolemies and completed by the Romans. There had been earlier temples on the site dating to the time of King Userkaf (Fifth Dynasty). The temple was later adapted for habitation and then converted into a Coptic church. During excavation, in the layer dating to the Twelfth Dynasty, archaeologists found the “treasure of Amenemhet II”: a series of gold and silver objects contained in four copper chests (probably votive objects from Mesopotamia) now in the Cairo Museum, and at the Louvre in Paris.
On the opposite bank of the Nile (north of Tod) on the site of yet another ancient city, stand today Armant (On of the South, to distinguish it from On of the North, otherwise known as Heliopolis: the Greaco-Roman Hermontis (centre of the cult of Montu. Two km north east of here are the remains of a temple erected by the rulers of the Eleventh Dynasty, which was later altered by Nectanebo II and Cleopatra VII and her son Ptolemy XV. Near Armant, on the edge of the desert, archaeologists uncovered the Buccheum, the burial place of the Bucchis bulls, the sacred bulls of Montu.
El-Rizeiqat St. George
Continuing our journey with an eye for spotting bell-towers and Coptic communities, on the west bank of the river we came to the village of El-Rizeiqat, the site of another ancient Egyptian city and of a Greaco-Roman settlement. North east of El-Mahamid, this too an ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman settlement, we found the large monastery of El-Rizeiqat, or St. George’s.
Here, between the 10th and the 16th of November, an important gathering of Copts takes place. Up to 250.000 Copts, from all over Egypt, converge here to celebrate the monastery’s Holy Day and hope to see the healer. All those who can afford it, bring animals for slaughter: one quarter of the meat will be the owner’s, the rest is distributed among those who come empty handed.
We knocked on a door and gathered some information: we were told that St George’s is to Christians what Mecca is for Muslims. In spite of the importance of this holy site, there is hardly anything written about it. ; all the information about the monastery and its significance was gathered by us locally. Built in the 4th century, the monastery was razed to the ground by Arabs in the 13th C; the present structure is the result of its rebuilding in the 16th C. Several monks ad priests live here: there are six fathers and twenty students aspiring to become monks.
There is an air of “business” pervading thie site, this inevitably derives from the donations of pilgrims, which presumably constitutes one of the Coptic Church’s main sources of revenue. One doubts whether the State supports such institution.
El-Gebelein – The Mausoleum of Sheikh Musa
Continuing south, at 704 km from Cairo, we arrived at the “Twin Hills” of El Gebelein. Cut off from the desert plateau, near the Nile, in the middle of fertile fields, is a hill with two summits, separated by a saddle.
On top of the east hill is the mausoleum of Sheikh Musa, much venerated by the many pilgrims who flock here and take shelter for the night in the adjoining shed.
Crocodilopolis or Aphroditopolis
West of the twin hills is the site of another ancient city by the curious name of Crocodilopolis, where archaeologists have unearthed large crocodile cemeteries. Other cemeteries have been found on the northern and eastern slopes of the west hill; these date back to the period from the predynastic Naqada culture to the end of the Middle Kingdom. In this area once stood the ancient Greek city of Aphroditopolis (Pathiris of the ancient Egyptians, or Per-Hator= House of Hator, the Egyptian Aphrodites).
El-Mo’alla, Asfun el-Matana
On the opposite bank of the Nile (east of El-Gebelein) is the village of El-Moalla, which is believed to be standing on the site of ancient Egyptian Hefat. The rock tombs withy lively paintings date to the First Intermediate Period. Here too archaeologists have found papyri with detailed descriptions of Egypt’s southern nomes after the end of the Old Kingdom.
The plain of El-Matana (720km from Cairo), is a widening of the green strip which runs along the west bank of the Nule north of Esna. This broad, fertile area attracted settlement from the earliest times. By the village of Asfun el-Matana are the remains of the city of Hesfnu, the Graeco-Roman Asphunis.
From here, the road continues to the town of Esna, with 30.000 inhabitants with a bridge and dam over the Nile, and a bazaar. The bridge allows easy access to the town of El-Deir (east bank). The dam was built by the British at the beginning of the 20th century (1906-08), to irrigate 71,500 hectares of land in the Qena province. In ancient times Esna was capital of its nome, after E- Kab and Kom el-Ahmar. Here a fish was venerated as god, it was the “Latus niloticus”, which gave its name to the Greek city of Latopolis. The latter was the end of the line for caravans arriving from the Sudan after their 40-day journey.
Esna was the Tesnet of the ancient Egyptians, the Greek Latopolis and the Coptic Sne. Esna is another important centre of Coptic faith. In the middle of this busy town, 9m below the present street level, is the excavated temple of the ram-headed god Khnum (worshipped locally) and his associate goddesses Neith and Satet. The building was founded by Thutmose III while the structure we see today is of later construction, begun with the Ptolemies and completed, with its reliefs and inscriptions, under the Romans. The name of the emperor Trajan Decius (249-251 AD) is the last to appear in the inscriptions.
The temple of Khnum
All that remains of the temple, whose entire rear section has been irreparably destroyed, is the hypostyle hall, which has a decorated roof supported by 24 columns in 6 rows. The first row is screened to form a front wall. On the architrave, above the entrance, is the solar disc, on either side of which are votive inscriptions mentioning the emperors Claudius (41-51 AD) and Vespasian (69-79 AD). The hall is approached by a flight of steps. The finely decorated capitals (two of them with bunches of grapes) are of the open calyx type. In the representations on the outer walls, Roman emperors in Egyptian costume are shown laying the foundations of the temple. The reliefs are generally of poor quality, as artistic taste and skills were in decline at the time they were executed.
Contra Latopolis El-Deir
At Esna we also went to see the remains of an ancient quay, dating from the time of Marcus Aurelius, and a Nilometer, this too from the imperial age. On the other bank of the Nile, where the village of El-Hilla now stands, is the site of the ancient Contra-Latopolis; nothing remains of the city or its temple.
In 1905 excavations of a Twelfth Dynasty cemetery at El-Deir brought to light various manufactures which indicated the high levels reached by local craftsmen. From other outlying sites important remains of the Hyksos period have been found.
In the neigbourhood are ruins of many Coptic monasteries and churches. The monastery of Saints Manaos and Sanutios (about 5 km south of Esna) was founded at the time of Empress Helena. Beside the old church, which has been whitewashed, there is a modern church; 10 Km north of Esna is the monastery of Amba Matteos; 1km west of it is a church hewn out of the rock containing interesting wall paintings.
Miniature monasteries at El-Adayma
Along the road south of Esna there existed many monasteries and hermitages (some of them underground). West of El-Adayma are three underground hermit’s retreats; in one of them furniture dating from the 6th-7th centuries was found intact; amphorae, water jars, plates and baskets. Another four such dwellings, discovered 12 km south on the slope of the desert plateau, have a courtyard (reached by a flight of steps) around which several rooms are arranged: bedroom, kitchen, oratory, storeroom etc. The furniture is often simply hewn from the rock. In their planning, these miniature monasteries show a remarkable adaptation to an inhospitable environment. In order to protect these sites, archaeologists have covered them over with sand.
Further South, at 742 k from Cairo, is the village of Kom Mir, in whose centre a temple dating from the Roman period has been excavated. On the rear of the building, which is still under study, archaeologists have found the name of Antoninus Pius as the dedicant of two hymns to Aukris and Nephthys.
Near the village of El-Mamariya are the remains of a small step pyramid built of mud bricks, only part of whose core remains visible; the pyramid of El-Kula is the southernmost pyramid site in Egypt. In the desert, not far from the village of El-Kula, are the remains of an anonymous Graeco-Roman settlement, whose ruins consist of a large precinct of sun dried brick and mounds of potsherds. The children of a nearby farm were glad to show us the place, which we reached after a pleasant walk through a stretch of desert.
On the opposite bank of the Nile, near the village of El-Mahamid, is the site of El Kab. Here the earliest ruins date from 6.000 BC, when Neolithic culture reached the Nile Valley, presumably from the Sudan rather than from the Fertile Crescent. This is the “type-site” of what archaeologists call ‘the Kabian culture’. The ancient cities of Nekheb and Nekhen (see Khom el-Ahmar) were important centres from the later prehistoric and proto-dynastic periods. Nekheb, capital of Upper Egypt in the pre-dynastic era and under the first dynasties, continued to be one of the major Egyptian cities in later times. During the rule of the Ptolemies it was the capital of the 3rd nome of Upper Egypt. The local deity, Nekhbet, was represented either as a vulture, or as a woman bearing the crown of Upper Egypt. The Greeks identified her with their own Eileithya and called the city Eileithyaspolis.
The temple of El-Kab
The ruins of this city lie close to the Nile and are surrounded by a massive mud brick wall (11.5 m thick) probably dating to the Middle Kingdom. On the south-west side the enclosure has been eroded by the waters of the Nile. The area contained within the walls, 540x750m, was reached through the gates approached by ramps on the north, south and east sides. On the north side the enclosure wall cyst across the ancient cemetery.
Within the town walls was another enclosure originally surrounded by double wall containing the temples: the temple of Hekhbet, with a birth house (a mammisi) and a sacred lake; the temple of Thoth (Eenhotep II) with pylon by Ramesses II. From the east gate it took a 30 minutes walk in the scorching sunshine to arrive at the chapel of Ramesses II, known as El-Hammam (the bath) built by the Nubian governor Setaw.
Proceeding east towards the temple of Amenhotep, we find two rocks on the bed of the wadi, where one is wary of the possibility of meeting a cobra or a viper of some sort. The rocks bear inscriptions and engravings of animals dating from the Sixth Dynasty. We then came to the small temple of Amenhotep III (16m long), dedicated to Nekhbet. All that survives is the main chamber whose reliefs were disfigured several times, lastly under the Ptolemies. Rejoining the road leading west towards the Nile, we noticed a rock temple on our right, approachable by way of a long flight of steps. Also dedicated to Nekhbet, it was built in the reign of Ptolemy VII Euergetes II; the decorations were added later.
Further on, near the ticket office, are numerous rock tombs. Among the most interesting: the tomb of Paheri, a nomarch of El-Kab, dating to the reign of Thutmose III, with well preserved colouring on the reliefs; the tomb of Ahmose Pennekhbet from the early New Kingdom, with reliefs destroyed; the tomb of Setau, high priest of Nekhbeth, dating from the Twentieth Dynasty: The tomb of Ahmose, the Admiral, with inscriptions describing his career and his role in the war against the Hyksos; the tomb of Renni, high priest and nomarch of the Eighteenth Dynasty. And one can go on a long way with minor tombs.
Returning toward the east bank we came to the site of ancient Nekhen, the Greek Hieraconpolis, known today by one of the most widespread place-names in Egypt: Kom el-Ahmar (The Red Hill), deriving from the fact that every site of an ancient city built essentially of sun dried bricks is identified by heaps of broken pottery up to several metres high, having the buildings dissolved e returned to sand.
Sometimes this was the capital of Upper Egypt jointly with Nekheb. The town’s protective deity was Horus, the falcon, which inspired the Greek name Hieraconpolis. The surviving ruins stretch for 3km along the edge of the desert, south and south-west of the village of Muissat. There is a mud brick structure (a fortress, possibly at the mouth of a wadi, dating from the Old Kingdom. A few ruins mark the site of the temple of Nekhen, excavated by Quibell between 1897 and 1899, where sculptures of the sixth Dynasty were found together the famous “palette of Narmer”.
West of the fortress of Hieraconpolis, tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdom have been found. 1km further on there are more rock tombs, noteworthy among them are those of Dhuti and Hamose. At the eastern end of the room, paintings that once decorated the walls are now in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
Nubia, past and present:
The road to Aswan now runs into the desert; the heat rises, and the sand takes over as the green strip peters out to a narrow ribbon and is finally overwhelmed by the dunes that close in on the Nile
Here we cannot help reflecting on Old Nubia, which now lies under the waters of Lake Nasser; it must have looked very similar to this region.
The words of Amelia Edwards may help more than our imagination to conjure up a picture of the Nubia which the English traveller visited over a century ago.
“Here, then, more than ever, one seems to see how entirely these lands which we call Egypt and Nubia are nothing but the banks of one solitary river in the midst of a world of desert. In Egypt, the valley is often so wide that one forgets the stony waste beyond the cornlands. But in Nubia the desert is ever present. We cannot forget it, if we would. The barren mountains press upon our path showering down avalanches of granite on the one side and torrents of yellow sands on the other. We know that those stones are always falling; that those sands are always drifting; that the river has hard work to hold its own; and that the desert is silently encroaching day by day” (A.Edwards, “A Thousand Miles up the Nile”, Longmans, London 1877, p.235)
Here we find the first Nubian villages of resettled people from Old Nubia.
The uprooting of the Nubians
Let us turen again to E.W.Lane for a picture of the people of Nubia as they were a century and a half ago: The people who bear the greatest resemblance to the ancient Egyptians are the Noobeh (or more genuine Nubians)… The Nubians and Abyssinians embraced Christianity soon after the Egyptians. The Nubians, however, have become Muslims, and boast that there is not a single Christian among their race, and that they will never allow one to live among them; for as they are more ignorant, so they are also more bigoted, than the generality of Musdlims”. (Lane, pp. 536-538).
The Nubians of our times are a humiliated nation: their lands have been swallowed up entirely by the desert-dam of Aswan, and they have been re-housed on poor land to the north or among other communities, at Kom Ombo and other districts, with dramatic consequences on the level of social conflict. Being black-skinned does not seem to count for much even in Egypt; extraordinary when you think that the very founders of Egypt’s civilisation, which “white” Egyptians are so proud about, were predominantly the dark-skinned people from the south.
The Egyptians’ African origins
Arguments in favour of the above theory are numerous, and are found throughout Egyptian tradition, history and literature. The Nubians are all of Egyptian origin; but although (together with similar peoples of the Sudan) they share the same beliefs and traditions as the Egyptians, they belong to a wholly African culture.
In ancient Egypt, the strong presence of African traditions is to be found in material culture. It may be discerned in single objects (a headrest for example), or in pottery designs, in footwear and furniture, which bear similarities with Upper Nilotic cultures and are markedly at variance with anything Mediterranean. The same can be said about religion and mythology. In short we may say that whereas some aspects of Egyptian urban civilization were based on previous models (those of Mesopotamia and the Near East) as well as on indigenous elements. The cultural background of the ancient Egyptians was purely African. The Libyans, on the other hand, belonged to a more distinctly Mediterranean culture, a culture that was bound up with the people who inhabited the islands of the Aegean Sea (which were probably colonized by the Libyans themselves at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC). The “darker” components of Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia, confer to these people a “negroid” appearance, a phenomenon which particularly struck the Greeks and the lighter-skinned people of the Middle East. Herodotus stressed the black colouring of the Egyptians on more than one occasion. Then as now, the peoples of the Mediterranean coast of Africa were of a colour that was identical to that of southern Europeans and Middle Eastern people, who lacked the upper Nilotic influence. The Libyans were, as indeed they still are, of a lighter pigmentation compared with the Egyptians.
According to Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the world’s leading anthropologists who dedicated a great deal of research towards redressing the balance after generations of misconceived ideas about the origins of the Egyptians, “all eye witnesses of the ancient Egyptian civilisation formally testify that the Egyptians were negroes”. (Nations Nègres et Culture, in Presence Africaine, Paris 1979.)
Nubia proper extends from the First Cataract at Aswan to beyond the Fifth, at 18° latitude. Lower Nubia (up to the Second Cataract at Wadi Halfa) lies within Egyptian territory, while Upper Nubia was Wenet; the remainder further south was known as the Land of Kush (as mentioned in the Old Testament), whose inhabitants the Romans called Ethiopians. The research promoted by UNESCO rescue programme has thrown much light on Nubia’s ancient past. Now we probably know much more about this defunct country than we would if it had survived.
Early links between Egypt and Nubia
Although Egypt and Nubia were populated by the same Mediterranean people, after 3.000 BC (with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt) the former developed a sophisticated civilization while the latter remained at a proto-historical level. All links with Egypt were severed, and this became clearly reflected in the realm of material culture. Nubia became a mere go-between in trading relations between Egypt and the Sudan; all African goods, such as leopard skins, Ivory, ebony, resins and scents etc. arrived in Egypt by way of Nubia.
Two cultures contrasted
Soon after 3000BC southern Nubia conquered northern Nubia and established a strong state which provoked a reaction from Egypt. The rulers of the Eleventh Dynasty sought to subdue Nubia, and during the following Dynasty the country was conquered. The Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty pushed the border of the empire further south as far as Napata, in the land of Kush, and the country became wholly Egyptian in culture. The Temples and palaces of Nubia could now compare with those of Egypt itself.
The Kushite Kingdom
Egyptian power declined during the Twenty-first Dynasty and Kushite kingdom was established in Nubia with its capital at Napata. This eventually led to the conquest of power in Egypt by Kushite rulers, who established the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, and continued to hold power until they were conquered themselves by the Assyrians, who extended their frontiers as far as Philae.
An independent civilisation: the Merotic Script.
Around 300 BC, the capital of the Kushites was transferred to Meroe and Egyptian culture began to decline in the south. Nubia began to develop its own distinctive culture. A Merotic script appeared, which by the beginning of the 1st century had become the official written form of the Nubian language.
Christianity arrived at Philae in the 4th century with the Jewish diaspora, and from here it spread to Nubia. But in 640 the Upper Nile Valley was overrun by the armies of Islam, and Nubia, together with Egypt, embraced the new faith with great enthusiasm.
At 779 km from Cairo the green strip of cultivated land grows wider on the west bank. The city of Edfu stands there with its 35.000 inhabitants, famous today as in antiquity thanks to its great temple. Otherwise, it is a typical market town, with the inevitable sugar factory blackening the sky with its awful smoke, and an old-established pottery industry. Edfu also has a bridge over the Nile which was opened in 1969.
This was the site of ancient Egyptian Tbot, or Teb, the Coptic Atbo (from which the name Edfu derives) The Greeks and Romans called it Apollinopolis Magna, identifying the locally worshipped Horus with Apollo. Edfu was then capital of the second nome of Upper Egypt. According to Egyptian mythology, it was here that Horus defeated his enemy, Seth.
El-Ridisiya Qibli, Gebel el-Sirag
South of Edfu, along the now very narrow strep of green on the opposite bank of the Nile, are the towns of El-Ridisiya Bahari and El-Ridisiya Qubli, 787 km from Cairo. Under the name of EL-Ridisiya, a temple of Seti I is identified, which we visited in the nearby Wadi Miah.
Continuing further south, on the hill of El-Sirag, one may admire some picturesque ruins, those of the late Byzantine fortified town with a church and a monastery, possibly the ancient town of Thumis. From here on, the geology of the Nile valley changes dramatically from limestone to sandstone. Huge slabs of it sometimes jut out over the villages set into the scarp, opposite the railway from the main road.
The Temple of Horus
The temple of Horus (the falcon god) is one of the best preserved monuments in the country. Built on the site of an earlier temple, it was also dedicated to Hator of Dendera (Horus’ wife) and to their offspring Harsomius. There is a description of the construction of the temple and of its structure outside the enclosure wall (north, west and east sides) Begun in 237 BC, under Ptolemy II Euergetes I the building was completed 180 years later after passing through many hands. Part of the high brick wall survives; there was a main gateway in the south and a smaller one on the west side. The structure itself comprises a great court, two hypostyle halls, a first antechamber (offering hall) a vestibule, the sanctuary, and around the sanctuary a corridor that gives access to thirteen smaller chambers. Around the back of the temple is another corridor accessible both from the outer court and the two hypostyle halls. The entire building is decorated with stone of the most beautiful and best preserved reliefs in Egypt.
Inscriptions and decorations, both inside and outside. In the reliefs, Ptolemy XIII faces his enemies in the presence of Horus and Hator.
Great Court: This is a large enclosure surrounded on three sides by a gallery with 32 fully decorated columns. The reliefs on the walls celebrate the union between Horus and Hator. Outside the vestibule, scenes depict Ptolemy IX making offerings to Horus and Hator.
First hypostyle hall: The corridor leads to the first hypostyle hall, whose roof is supported by twelve columns capped with floral capitals of various kinds. The ceiling is decorated with astrological symbols. In the scenes that decorate the walls, Ptolemy IX is shown together with Horus and Hator. To the sides of the entrance are two small chambers: the one on the left was for storing the golden vessel used for purification ceremonies; the one on the right was the library, where the papyrus rolls describing the temple’s rituals were kept. On the rear doorway of the hypostyle hall are more representations of Ptolemy IX together with Horus in the course of a ceremony. Above the door is a symbolic representation of the sun as the winged scarab (Kheper) and two hawk-headed figures.
Second hypostyle hall: This has 12 columns in 4 rows. The hall is lit by opening towards the top of the wall. On the wall are foundation scenes with Ptolemy IV.
Offering hall: This room has two stairways on either side, for access to the roof. On the walls of both stairways are representations of the New Year Festival.
Vestibule: Situated immediately after the offering hall, it gives access to the sanctuary and to the corridor encircling it; connecting with this corridor are 13 smaller chambers and open courts. The two rooms which give directly onto the antechamber have rtepresentations of Ptolemy IV and his wife Arsinoe (the figure on the right), Ptolemy III and his wife Berenice, and Hator etcv. The room on the left ans images of the fertility god Min, Hator and Horus.
Sanctuary: To the left is a beautiful shrine of black granite which once accommodated the holy statue. The sacred boat of Horus stood in the middle of a low platform (the present one is a reconstruction. On the walls there are images of Nectanebo II, the last Pharaoh of Egyptian descent. The outer corridor is accessible from the great court and hypostyle halls. Reliefs here represent the victory by forces of good (Horus) over the forces of evil (crocodile and hippopotamus). To the east of the outer corridor, a small door leads to the former site of a nilometer. There are marvellous reliefs all around the outside of the temple.
Birth House (Mammisi): Situated on the left, before entering the temple, this structure was built under Ptolemy IX Soter II (scenes relate to the birth of Horus)
The mounds of debris and potsherds to the west of the temple of Horus are in fact traces of the remains of an ancient city. 5km west, on the hills of the Libyan desert, extends the burial ground of the princes of Edfu, comprising approximately 60 tombs dating to different periods.
On the left bank, before reaching Silsila, we come to a rock chapel begun by Horemheb in the Eighteenth Dynasty. It has five openings on the outside formed by 4 columns of unequal thickness; there are many decorations and reliefs depicting Ramesses II, Merneptah, Sobek and Hator.
Silwa Bahari and the Valley of Khor Tangura
After having crossed the Nile near Edfu, we had to face a long stretch of road before reaching, having passed El-Ridisiya and Gebel el-Sirag, Silwa Bahari, at 809 km from Cairo.
On the west bank is a village called el-Hosh; nearby, on the Gebel Abu Shega, is a quarry where in AD 149 stone was procured for the building of the temple of Horus at Edfu. This is recorded on the site by an inscription in Greek. Proceeding upstream, we came to the valley of Khor Tangura, and 3 km up the valley we found a rock face with carvings of the prehistoric period depicting animals now extinct locally: elephants, antelope, giraffes, and a boat. Similar carvings have been found on the Nile south of this valley. Still, further south, below Silsila, on the river bank, on a rock called Shatt el-Rigal, is a strange relief representing a King Entef (Second Dynasty).
The Silsila quarries
From Kagug, a short detour allowed us to visit the quarries of Silsila, the most famous in Egypt. Here the valley narrows, restricting the course of the river, before widening out into the vast oasis of Kom Ombo.
The name Gebel el Silsila, “The Hill of the Chain”, refers to a legendary chain that once impeded the flow of the river at this point. This site was always a place of worship for the deities associated with the river. The extensive quarries (situated on the east bank, 6km below the narrowest point) were in use particularly during the New Kingdom. Under Ramesses II, the transportation to Thebes of the building material needed for the Ramesseum required the toil of 3.000 labourers.
At the north end of the gebel are the now scanty remains of the ancient town of Khenit. Both, prehistoric carvings and Pharaonic stelae are common sight on the rocks around. Following the hills to the south we came across a large cave supported by pillars; higher up was a huge unfinished Sphynx, then a large quarry. Stone quarried here – as recorded by an inscription- was used for the construction of the dam at Esna in 1906-09.
More interesting things we saw on the west bank. From the point where the ferry comes to shore, we turned north along a track (certainly well trodden since very ancient times) until we came to a rock chapel of the eighteenth Dynasty with fascinating later inscriptions and decorations. The road south passes old quarries with more inscriptions and niches. The southern group of monuments includes two large niches or chenotaphs of trhe eighteenth Dynasty, a stelas of Ramesses III and another niche of Seti I.
We presently entered the broad, fertile oasis of Kom Ombo, a vast plain 60 km long and 25 wide, in which thanks to the Aswan High Dam, 12.000 hectares of land have been reclaimed for agriculture, particularly for sugar cane.
After so many miles of dust, dryness, heat and sand, where the desert close in on the Nile, this expanse of greenness came to us as a pleasant and welcoming sight. This was the New Nubia. It may perhaps seem like a joke; but it is here that the poor Nubians, dispossessed of their natural land and culture by the Aswan High Dam have been resettled.
However green and fertile, Wadi Kom Ombo can hardly redress the balance. In the centre of the plain lies modern Kom Ombo, at 838 km from Cairo and 40 km from Aswan, an industrial and agricultural centre and also a busy market town, known for the Ptolemaic temple of Sobek, the Crocodile God and Haroeris, a combination of Horus and the local deity Weir. The settlement area has been divided into forty rural districts, with as many villages that repeat the names of the drowned villages of old Nubia. The new villages, laid out in a regular grid plan and equipped with social and cultural facilities, have encountered such considerable difficulties as arise in cases in which long established rural social structures are displaced and re-housed in a semi-industrial environment.
The Temple of Sobek and Haroeris
The temple complex –which stands 15m above the present level of the Nile at its maximum height – was enclosed within a mud-brick precinct wall with a monumental gate on the south side, built by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos. Only the right side of the gateway survives; the rest was swept away by the Nile at a time when the river flowed more abundantly.
The temple of Suchos (or Sobek) and Haroeris, lies 3 km from the town on a headland of the plateau adjacent to the Nile, called the Hill of Ombos. The monument owes its picturesque location to an eastward shift of the Nile’s course, which entailed the loss of a complex of other buildings next to those still existing. The river is now kept in check, but it is hardly the river it once was. Even the ruins and debris of the old town threaten to engulf the temple from the opposite side.
We enter the temple precinct through the ruined gateway in the south-east corner. To the right is a chapel of Hator (noe full of crocodile mummies, which for a“baksheesh” you will be encouraged to go and see). The scanty remains of the “birth house” (Mammisi), are visible to the left of the temple entrance. Fine reliefs may still be seen on the west-facing wall. A large well and pool (where crocodiles were said to be raised) are situated west of the building. We then enter a court surrounded on three sides by a colonnade forming a portico; this is Roman work. In the centre of the court is an altar base, with a granite basin, sunk into the pavement on either side.
Although constructed on a traditional plan, the temple of Sobek and Haroeris is distinguished by certain peculiarities of its own, for example, an invisible partition running down its middle. The two entrance doors lead directly into the two sanctuaries by way of two hypostyle halls and three vestibules: the sanctuary of Haroeris and the sanctuary of Sobek. The entrance faces south. On the right wall of the court is a procession of figures, with Hapoi led by Tiberius as a Pharaoh. The walls of the entrance show deities pouring libations over Ptolemy XII. On the right wall are Haroeris and Thoth, on the left Haroeris alone.
The outer hypostyle hall has ten columns and a ceiling painted with vultures and astrological symbols. The capitals show elegance and great variety in their accomplishment. Reliefs on the walls depict the Ptolemaic kings who decorated the temple: Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy IX and Ptolemy XII. The reliefs inside 8 Ptolemaic period) are of a finer quality than those outside (Roman period). The loveliest reliefs are to be found ofn the right side of the entrance in the great hypostyle hall: Ptolemy in the presence of Haroeris receives the symbol of life from Isis (in the form opf a cat) and the sky goddess Nut. On the left of the entrance, the king is crowned by vulture and snake goddesses of Upper and Lowere Egypt. On the back walls, opposite the entrance, are scenes of sacrifice and offerings: to the right, concerning Sobek; to the left Haroeris. A secret corridor that linked the two sanctuaries (Badly damaged) was used by the priests to hide in whjile speaking to believers consulting the oracle. The inner corridor of the temple leads to seven chambers at the rear, entirely covered by reliefs. In the vestibule, a stairway led to the upper levels.
The Tower of the Temple:
The tower on the left, badly damaged, contains reliefs showing Haroeris (The elder Horus) with his wife Isis and young Horus, son of Isis.
The tower on the right has scenes representing his counterpart: Sobek, with Hator and Khonsu, who appear here respectively as the mother and son of Sobek. On the right of this tower are 52 lines of Hyeroglyphic inscriptioms with praises to the gods. Further to the right the emperor Domitian, dressed as Pharaoh, is seen leading a procession. Above, Domitian leaves the palaces led by priests.
Daraw El Raqaba
Immediately south of Kom Ombo we come to the large village of Daraw (845km from Cairo), once a thriving camel market on the road to Sudan. Opposite, on the west bank, near the villahe of El-Raqaba, are the town of Contra Ombos; near it, by the village of El-Kubaniya is its cemetery. At Gebel el-Hammant (est bank) you will find the quarries which provided the building material for the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Kom Ombo, not a trace of which remains.
Now the Nile runs through a very narrow green strip. Sometimes the dunes of the Western Desert break through into the patchy areas of vegetation and overflow into the water. The heat increases as we travel south, and the desert wind blows a fine sand which sticks to the skin and clothes and (careful) can even make your cameras useless.
On the east bank the sandstone plateau breaks up into huge slabs which hang perilously over the railway line. Villages are, incredibly enough, as numerous as ever, though they are now reduced to a mere srinkling of dwellings, wedged in (and almost camouflaged) between the railway line and the cliffs.
At El-Kattara the sandstone formation goves way to Aswan granite, producing a noticeable change in the landscape. WE are now approaching natural surroundings typical of the First Cataract.
Along this stretch of the Nile there are some minor archaeological sites. The most important are el-Hammant (right bank). North El-Kubaniya, Hagar el-Gharb and South El-Kubaniya. However, the non-specialist will find nothing here worth stopping for,. Beyond the brief visit to modern villages free of tourists, remote and isolated from the world of passing visitors, who barely catch a glimpse of them from their air conditioned coach or train compartment.
The Land of Ivory
A Coca Cola sign, in Arabic and European letters greet visitors as they approach the end of a loong journey: 882km from Cairo, the massive Coca Cola factory marks the beginning of Aswan and the end of the Nile as we have known it and become become familiar with it up to this point. We are about to entere one of the most advanced, modern, and industrialized centres in Egypt, a town that is clean and welcoming.
Aswan is the capital of the southernmost governatorate of the country. Here the railway line ends, and with it many of the links with the now quite remote Mediterranean world.
The remains of ancient Syene, on the right bank of the Nile, are now minimal: a few stones, some inscriptions, fragments that may perhaps be seen incorporated into more recent buildings. Along the Nile “promenade” are the Governatorate offices, the Tourist information office, the offices of Egypt Air, and the best hotels, restaurants and bars.
Strabo and the boatmen of Aswan
“As for Syene and Elephantine, the former is a city on the border of Ethiopia and Aegypt, and the latter is an island in the Nile, being situated in front of Syene at a distance of half a stadium and a city therein which has a temple of Cnuphis and, like Memphis, a nilometer…
A little above Elephantine is the little cataract, on whichthe boatmen exhibit a a kind of spectacle for the praefects. For trhe cataract is at the middle of the river, and is a brown rock, as it were, which is flat on top, so that it receives the river, but ends in aq precipice down which the water clashes; whereas on either side towards the land there is a stream which can even be navigated upstream. Accoirdiungly, the boatmen, having first sailed upstream herem drift down to the cataract, one thrust along with the boat over the precipice, and escape unharmed, boat and all”.
(Strabo, Geography, 17, I, 48-50)
The Bazaar at Aswan
To the east of the railway station is a small unfinished and poorly preserved Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Isis, builtat the time of Ptolemy III Euergetes I (247-22 BC) and Ptolemy IV Philopator.
Within the town is the most interesting bazaar we have yet encountered on our journey. Strolling leisurely through it, without the incessant harassment of vendors so characteristic of similar places elsewhere, is a pleasant experience; a prolonged visit to this authentic market place for the local people is highly recommended.
The quarries and the Muslim cemetery
On the hills to the south of the town are several interesting sites and monuments. The ancient Muslim cemetery contains modest as well as lavish sheikh’s tombs, cenotaphs and mausoleums. South-east are the famopus granite quarries. Millions of modern Italian kitchen tops come from here, believe it or not! The main attraction here is the Unfinioshed Obelisk (northern quarries), it will be difficult to miss; this was intended to be the largest of its kind ever erected. Alas! The erection failed; having a height of 42 metres and weighing 1.168 tons.
The quarries of Yebu supplied the raw material for the greatest monuments and works of art from the beginning of civilization down to Roman times. Aswan granite, called “Syenite”, is still widely used owing to the richness of its colours and grain, containing as it does a mixture of quartz, yellow-red feldspar and black mica. Today it is used for smart bank counters and as I said above – kitchen working tops, thus presumably satisfying the dubious aesthetic predilections of the emerging new rich…
Sunt Yebu Syene
The town of Syene stood on the east bank of the Nile, opposite the site of Yebu; it grew up on the ancient Egyptian settlement of Sunt and later developed into an important city, not least, for strategic reasons. It commanded the Nile’sd First Cataract, and with it all traffic between Egypt and Nubia. Land routes, used for trade with camel caravans, and for the movements of conquering armies, also started here.
During the 6th and 5th centuries BC a Jewish military colony was established at Yebu, whose temple to Yaveh is mentioned in documents found here at the beginning of the 20th century and now preserved in the Egyptian Museums of Cairo and Berlin.
In the second century AD, the Roman poet Juvenal was sent here to command a garrison guarding this, one of the Empire’s remotest backwaters; it was a punishment for his offence to the Court.
Aswan in the modern age
Aswan has always been a place of considerable importance. Before the Muslim conquest it had a Christian bishop. Under the Muslim caliphs it must have had a large population, since documents tell of a plague that carried off 20.000 of its citizens. From the 13th century it suffered attacks by Beduins, but this ended in 1517 when the Turkish sultans, like the Romans before them, turned it into a garrison town. Here the Nile branches out into several fast-running streams that course among picturesque granite boulders, and among various islandis, such as Elephantine and Lord Kitchener’s, or the many lesser islets scattered foir miles upstream, as far as the large island of El-Heisa, near the famous Philae.
On the opposite bank one may see the hill top mausoleum of Qubbet el-Hawwa and, half way up the slope, rock tombs. Closer is the eyesore tower of the Oberoi Hotel, a lavish set up for the rich in striking contrast with the miserable Nubian villages which with the hotel share the island of Elephantine. South of here are the old and the New Catarct Hotels, in a splendid position, but wrechedly assaulted by armies of tourists with mountains of luggage constantly being shifted from boat to hotel and from hotel to boat during their whistle-stop tour up and down the Nile.
A short felucca trip took us to the island of Elephantine, 1500 m long and 500 m wide. This island manifested itself to us as a green oasis in the middle of the river. Now simply called Geziret Aswan (island of Aswan), Elephantine turned out to be one of the most pleasant places we visited in the wholòe of Egypt. The isaland’s two Nubian villages, with their flocks of sheep, herds of goats, and gangs of children enthusistically cheered us visitors. The villages of raw earth are surrounded by lush green orchards of heavily scented guava fruits and karkadé flowers, which overpower the effusions of the open sky drainage system. What a curious contrast with the fenced off and wall- enclosed world of luxury and wealth that is the Oberoi Hotel, where fat tourists lie baking under the eternal tropical sun in an attempt to acquire the kind of complexion they usually scorn in those who live on the other side of the fence!
In the southern most part of Elephantine are the ruins of the town of the same name. Excavations were then in progress, but our visit proved disappointing since little remains that is structurally recogniuzable to the non specialist.
Another drawback of this archaeological site were the self-styled guides, who took advantage of the visitor exacting “baksheesh” on the most untenable pretexts (a man who lifted a thread across two stones to “allow” access to the excavations demanded a 3EL tip). The southern Nubian village partly copvers the site of the ancient town, wehose ruins emerge all around it. Steps lead down to the ancient quay on the east side, presently this was the village’s rubbish tip.
The remains of the temple of Khnum, the ram god of the Cataract built by NectaneboII on the ruins of an earlier temple to the same god, are one of the most interesting things to see. Nearby are the tombs of the sacred rams, now empty.
Eratosthenes, and the circumference of the Earth.
Here at Syene, at the latitude of 23.5°N at midday in the summer sun strikes the water at the bottom of a well, no matter how deep, and there is not an obelisk around that will produce shade. The Greek scholar Earto sthenes of Alexandria (276-196BC) observed this phenomenon and devised a method for measuring the Earth’s circumference by comparing the shadows of obelisks in Alexandria and Syene at the same hour on the same day.
The Elephantine Nilometer
“The nilometer is a well on the bank of the Nile, constructed with close-fitting stones in which are marks showing the greatest, least and mean rises of the Nile… when watchers inspect these, they give out word to the rest of the people, so that they may know; for long beforehand they know from such signs and the days what the future rise will be, and reveal it beforehand. This is useful, not only to the farmers with regard to the water distribution, embankments, canals and other things of this kind, but also to the praefects, with regard to the revenues; for the greater rises indicate that the revenues also will be greater”(Strabo, Geography)
The Aswan Museum
Set in a delightful and well attended garden, at the top of the steps leading to the nilometer, is the Aswan Museum. The building was originally the private retreat of Sir William Willcocks, the designer of the old Aswan Dam. The museum was created in 1912 and contains an interesting collection of finds from Lower Nubia.
In February 1988, in the entrance hall there was the mummy of a sacred ram in a gilded coffin. Room 1 cointained objects from the Old Kingdom (3200-2100 BC) Room 3 exhibited material from the Middle and New Kingdoms (2100-1500 BC) room 4 covered the period from 1500 BC to AD 400.
(The Egyptian Government was then building the Nubian Museum on thje site, which was to house the findings recovered by the salvage operations that preceeded the obliteration of Nubia.)
Lord Kitchener’s Island
Near the southern Nubian village we met a couple of crafty looking boys, willing to take us on a boat trip to the nearby island dedicated to Lord Kitchener, known also as “Plantation Island” but locally called El-Atrun. Situated between Elephantine and the left bank of the Nile this island was at the start of the 20th centiry the property of Lord Kitchener, the British agent in Egypt, who retired to this remote desert oasis and planted a botanical garden, nowadays of great beauty. It is said that the soil of El-Atrun was so fertile that grapes could be grown all year round.
Since the building of the old damby the British, other foreigners, of greater or lesser fame, have also chosen the pleasant surroundings and climate of Aswan for their retirement.
The villa of the Aga Khan
On the barren west bank, opposite Elephantine and Atrun, is the Nur el-Salam villa, which belonged to the wealthy but presumably pious Aga Khan III (1887-1957), spiritual head of a Muslim sect called the Khojas (evidently a most rewarding occupation). Above the villa, with its magnificent gardens, is his mausoleum, one of the main tourist attractions in the area.
The Necropolis of Syene and Elephantine
Further north, and visible from the east bank, is the necropolis of the ancient city of Syene, set half way up the slope of the hill crowned by the mausoleum of Qubbet el-Hawwa (“Dome of the Wind”). Buried here were the princes and dignitaries of Elephantine and Syene between the end of the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom. The rock tombs are similar to those at Beni Hasan (dating to the same period) both in structure and decoration.
The Monstery of St Simeon
Directly to the west of Kitchener’s island, to the north of the Aga Khan mausoleum, are the ruins of the monastery of St. Simeon: Deir Amba Samaon for the Egyptians. It turned out to be a place worth visiting. A twenty minute walk from the water’s edge will take you to one of the largest monastic ruin in Egypt.
The monastery was founded in the 7th century and then abandoned for lack of water in the 13th century. The complex: 120m x130m, stands on two levels on a rock shelf and is surrounded by a wall nearly 7m high. The lower level, which includes the church, is partly hewn out of the rock and partly built of undressed stone and unbaked bricks.
The upper level includes the living quarters, stables, olive and Wine presses, and the water reservoir.
The Aswan Dams
Five km south of the town of Aswan is the Old Dam, or “El-Sadd”, with its reservoir, known locally as “El-Kassan”. Built by the British betweeen 1898 and 1912, it was then the largest dam ever constructed, and it remained so until the building of the High Dam, a little further south, in 10971. The aim of the first dam was to put an end to the natural flooding of the Nile and distribute the available water when and where it was required. This construction was very successful: it enabled Egypt to greatly extend its cultivated area and harvest cropos two or three times a year. The dam was built by John Aird & Co. on design by Sir William Willcocks (who was also responsible for the barrage of the Nule at Asyut.)
The Old Dam was built of local granite blocks extracted from local quarries; originally it constituted a barrier that ran straight across the Nile, 1960m in length and 40 in height. The dam was 30m thick at the base and 7m at the top. It was later enlarged (1907-12 and 1929-34) to reach 2140m in length by 51m in height. The level of the reservoir is regulated by 180 sluice gates; a canal by the western side of the dam, with a system of locks, allows the transit of boats.
The rapisd increase in the population of Egypt in the years that followed the dam’s construction, and subsequent development, soon rendered it insufficient to meet the country’s growing food and energy requirements. President Nasser, who came to power in 1952, decided to go ahead with a project to build a higher dam of monumental proportions further upstream, a measure that would inevitably enhance the personal prestige as well as help to fulfil the basic exigencies of a people constrained by tradition.
Several projects were presented to the Egyptian government by German construction companies. Financial assistasnce was offered by the British and Americans, but these proposals were withdrawn when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and established his policy of neutrality.
The Soviet Union was quick to fill the gap left by the British and Americans, and the Aswan Dam was built on a German design by 2000 Soviet engineers and technicians. Work began in 1960 and the inauguration took place on 15 January 1971. During construction work 451 men (of the total 35.000 workers) lost their lives in accidents. 60.000 Nubians were made homeless and a whole country, Loweer Nubia, was lost underwater.
Many Egyptian monuments were flooded and now lie submerged; some wewre saved by removing them from their original sites, part of a massive rerscue operation financed by western countries through the United Nations.
The High Dam, “el-Sadd el-Ali” (7km south of the Old Dam) was built of stonr, sand, clay and concrete, and is 17 times the volume of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is 3,600m long. 980m thick at the base, and 40m thick at the top; the reservoir, called (predictably enough) Lake Nasser, contains 157 billion cubic metres of water at its maximum capacity. Of its 84 billion cubic metres are used for irrigation, both in Egypt and in the Sudan. The hydro-electric power station produces 10 billion kwh yearly, making electricity available throughout the entire country, even in the remotest hamlets.
Thanks to the Dam, the amount of cultivated land in Egypt rose by 20-30% and yelds have also increased due to the regularity of irrigation.
Navigation along the Nile is now possible throughut the year, given the constant level of its waters and the fish in Lake Nasser now feeds large numbers of Egyptians.
The Dam also constitutes a top tourist attraction: by purchasing a ticket, visitors can drive or walk along it. Running along the rim is a wide road, flanked by memorials to the President, to the Soviet Union, now all dead, and to the people of Egypt. The access is traversed by a triumphal arch.
Lake Nasser, the reservoir crated by the dam, has an area of 5,250 square km, second only in size to the lake formed by the Kariba Dam on the Zambesi River. This massive stretch of water, one third of which is in the Sudan, extends for 510 km and is 35 km wide. Several towns are planned to be built on its rocky shores to rehouse the forcibly uprooted Nubians.
The “Aswan Disaster”
Although the British Museum experts who read this text in 1989, disagreed with the negative views here presented, time has proved that such massive manipulations of the natural environment has indeed produced negative long term effects everywhere.
The negative effect of the High Dam became soon manifest to everyone and were soon called “the Aswan Disater”. They were described by experts as “an example of mindless tampering with the environment by humans”, and it was not the Pope of Rome to make such statement, but P.Harb in his epocal book “Humankind”, London 1977.
What the planners failed to take into account was the intricate web of relationships that had long existed between the river, the valley lands, animal life and human population. The anticipated benefits have been largely annulled bu the disastrous side effects.
The silt deposits regularly carried by the Nile floods fertilized the flooded land since post-Boreal times, now the silt is trapped under the waters of the lake, which during the next 500 years would accumulate 30 billion cubic metres of this precious, but unforetunately made usewless, fertilizer. To make up for the lack of nutrients, which previously cost nothing, millions of tons of chemical ferilizers have since the Dam been distributed every year. Unlike natural silt, these do not neutralize the salinity of the soil, which must today be dealt with by a complex system of pumps and dams, which are costing the country as much as the profit deriving from the High Dam itself.
Numerous fertilizers-producing factories, consuming vast amounts of elecvtricity generated by the Dam, pollute both the air and the water table. The catastrophic affects on the fishing industry both along the Nile and over extensive areas of the Eastern Mediterranean are incalculable. The drop in the sardine catch over the three years following the dam’s completion was of the order of 97%; these figures speak for themselves.
The effects to the health of the Egyptiasn people have been severe. Egypt’s population lives by the waters of the Nile, with a maximum density of 727 persons/km2. There has been an alarming increase in the incidence of bilhariza (schistomiasis) a parasitic disease endemic in Egypt’s rural population. The parasite’s carrier is a small snail that lives in shallow water, namely the irrigation canals. Since the construction of the High Dam the canals have been constantly filled with water, instead of regularly drying up as they did before; the snail, therefore, no longer die out but multiply unchecked. It has been estimated that half the population of Egypt suffers from the disease produced by this parassite, which was restricted to a small section of the rural population.
At Luxor a local biologist told us that he had no succeeded in dissuading peasants from drinking the waters of the canal where sewage waste was discharged.
The increase in productivity which was the intended result of the High Dam’s existence has not materialized. Losses, according to statistics of the 1980s were estimated to amount to 550 million dollars.
Interference in the natural processes of the environment on a reginal scale, added to that operated on a global scale by advanced nations, has contributed to creating a by now intolerable situation. The increase in rainfall and atmospheric moisture along the Nile Valley – rainy days are now a normal occurrence in Luxor, for example – brought on by the existence of such a large lake and quite possibly aggravated by the so-called global “greenhgouse effect”, has substantially affected the climate; this has in turn affected Egypt’s hitorical monuments, which have survuved for so long partly as a result of the peculiar dryness of the natural environment. Todat, the stone of the monuments is exposed to the deleterious effects of air and soil, both of which considerably damper than they have ever been.
On the edge of the World
On top of all this, the obliteration of Nubia alone surely represents the most tragic aspect of the whole affair. An old tradition, which has survived in folklore since the remotest times, maintains that the cataract region was the edge of the world, and that the annual flooding of the life-giving water came from Nun, the primaeval Ocean, to make Egypt a Garden of Paradise. The floods were welcomed by Hapi, the river god, whose home was a cave on the island of Biga, between Philae and El-Hesa.
This task consisted of receiving the waters of the beneficial floods and directing them to the Great Ocean on the North: the Mediterranean Sea.
Hapi, the immortal god, is now dead, his cave-dwelling engulfed forever by the artificial lake between the two dams; no one is now regulating the flow of the Nile’s waters. Man, who has turned the Nile Valley into a dirty sewer, has been shown to possess neither the power nor vision of the god he dared replacing.
Philae, the “Pearl of Egypt”
In the reservoir between the two Aswan dams are a scattering of rocky islands ands islets of varying sizes, many of which were flooded by the lake formed by the old dam at the beginning of the century. One of these, the island of Philae (File), had a particular importance, having been inhabited and heavily built up with palaces and temples since the earliest times. Completely submerged by the regular flooding of the Nile, the island re-emerged high and dry for the rest of the year. The small island of Philae (450m long by 150m wide captivated the imagination of generations of people for thousands of years, and even in antiquity it became known as “the Pearl of Egypt”.
The first threat to Philae came with the construction of the first Aswan Dam. Many scholars and poets protested to the British and Egyptian authorities in an attempt to rescue the island from its unfortunaste fate. But nothing was achieved, and by August; the gardens of the island perished, all the fertile soil was swept away, and the monuments began to rot and crumble to pieces. Between 1929 and 1934 the dam was raised by 10m and the island became inundated for most of the year. Only the high pylons of the temple of Isis and the top of Trajan’s Kiosk could be seen above the waters.
The construction of the high dan stabilized the level of water in the basin, and the temples were completely submerged. Egypt launched an international appeal through UNESCO, and rescue projects and funding arrived.
One project provided with the dismantling of all monuments and their reassembly on the higher nearby island of Agilkia. In 1977 a coffer dam was built all round the island and the water pumped out; the monuments were cut into 47.000 blocks that were numbered cleared and stored. Thirty months were required to reassemble the monuments. New Philae-Agilkia was proudly and ceremoniously inaugurated and opened to the public in March 1980.
Our visit to Philae-Agilkia
After taking a taxi to the landing stage for Agilkia (6km from Aswan), we hired a motor boat and after a delightful ride through clear placid waters, entered this open-air museum that boasts some of the most beautiful monuments in Egypt, as glorified by David Roberts lithographs in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of their splendour as unexcavated ruins.
The entrance was built under Nectanebo, the first ruler of the last dynasty (378-361 BC) It originally had fourteen columns and two obelisks on the river front. The entrance was damaged by a flood soon after it was built, and was reconstructed under Ptolemy II.
The temple of Isis:
The outer court, triangular in plan, widens toward the first pylon of the temple of Isis and is flanked, on the east and west, by colonnades with beautiful capitals in various styles. To the right is the temple of Arensnuphis, a Nubian deity; further on is the chapel of Mandulis, another Nubian divinity. Still further ahead is the TEMPLE OF Imhotep (or Asclepius). To the left the 32 columns of the portico fringe the edge of the island.
The entrance pylon is 18m high and 45m wide. On the two towers are the figures of Neos Dionysos, alias Ptolemy XII wearing the double crown. The two granite lions guarding the entrance date to the late Roman period.
The great court has a colonnade on the right from which one gains access to the priest’s quartes.to the left is the birth house (mammisi): reliefs here relate to the theme of the birth of Horus and his growth to manhood.
Approaching the second pylon, smaller than the first and not alligned with it, you will notice an irregular granite block on the right bearing an inscription from the time of Taharqa, the Kushite Pharaoh (730BC), the oldest monument on the island. The inscription concerns the “Tithe” on fishermen, a contract according to which fishermen paid a one-tenth share of their catch to the Pharaoh.
The temple of Isis gegins with a small open court, then continues with a hypostyle hall, three vestibules and the sanctuary. The decorations are of the most conventional kind: Ptolemaic and Roman rulers making offerings to the gods. The hypostyle hall was converted into a church and the reliefs covered with plaster and painted over.
Some Greek inscriptions record the successful work carried out by the Christians in obliterating profane images. The “cleaning up” of the blasphemous scenes was performed by Bishop Theodorus at thew time of Justinian (5th century).
Thesanctuary is surrounded by the priest’s rooms and storerooms; in the middle of the sanctuary is the pedestal which formed the base for the sacred boat bearing the statue of Isis. By means of a stairway we reached the chapel of Osiris above the sanctuary, but found it closed to the public. The reliefs here illustrate the death and resurrection of Osiris a myth which did not die out with the end of paganism.
West of the templeof Isis stands the temple of Horus the avenger, son of isis; south of it is Hadrian’s arch, with a relief illustrating the sources of the Nile (on the right hand wall in the second row from the top)- East of the temple of Isis is the temple of Hator, with amusing reliefs in keeping with the nature of this deity.
South of here is the splendid construction known as Trajan’s kiosk, of The “Pharaoh’s bed”, a roofless, square plan structure surrounded by elegant and variously styled comuns, each supporting a plain square pillar below the architrave and cornice.
Inside the koisk the emperor is represented while offering and burning incense to Osiris.ì, Isis and Horus. The kiosk is perhaps the most beautiful monument on the island, and one of the most singular constructions in Egypt.
The island of Philae was not a bare granite rock like so many others. Palm trees and many varieties of plants grew on the rich soil deposited in its crevices by the seasonal floods. Many temples were builtr on the island, beginning with the reign og Ptolemy II (285-246BC), making it a place of mystery and secrets, an emchanted hidden paradise. During theGraeco-Roman period the island was the holiest place in Egypt, there were temples dedicated to all the most highly venerated gods of the country. The position of the island, south of the cataract, made it part of the territory of Nubia.
The first temple of Philae was dedicated to Isis, a deity worshipped both by Egyptians and Nubians, whose knowledge of secret spells had brought back to life her husband Osiris. The priests of Isis at Pjilae claimed knowledge of all her mysteries, and were summoned to all the main cities of the Roman Empire to erect temples and establish her cult.
The island was inhabited until after the Islamic conquest; subsequently it declined and was eventually abandoned altogether.
On to Abu Simbel
A six hundred km drive in a tin pot transit van took me from Aswan to Abu Simbel across the desert for short-cut. The only highlight of this unrepeatable journey, was the sight of an old fashioned camel caravan in transit among enormous boulders of sandstone. Then the sight of the great reservoir with miragfe effects: I was convinced of seeing boats with fishermen all oiver the lake, but the lake was in dìfact just a desolate basin of blue water witin rocky, inhospitable banks. Upon arrival the avenue leading to the temples was flanked by stalls selling souvenirs, actually pushing them so hard as to really annoy the vistor.
In the 1960s the United Nations organized a massive rescue operation consisdting of research and excavation, to save what could be saved of Nubia’s past. Inevitably, in the process much was learned about this land which would not otherwise have been known. Many archaeological finds were offered to museums of nations contributing to the operation, while vasrious monuments were spectacularly rescued in the same way as those of Philae, that is, by dismantlyng them and relocationg them higher up on the barren shores of the lake. (Today only the monuments nearest to Aswan and Abu Simbbel can be freely visited; however, the Egyptian authorities intended to make Nubia increasinglynaccessible to tourists in the future). The rescued monuments have been transferred to four main places. The temples of Klabsha, Qertassi and Beit el-Wali have been taken to an island near the Aswan High Dam and may be visited with special permission fromn the Dept. of Nubian Antiquities in Aswan.
The temple of Kalabsha, situated 40km south of Aswan, was built under Roman rule on a pre-existing structure dating to the Eighteen Dynasty. The deity worshippewd there was Merwel, a Nubian Sun God.The thjere is the small Roman kiosk of Qertassi, originally 30 km south of the Dam; the the temple of Beit el-Wali; originally near Kalabsha. The temple of Wadi es-Sebua, originally 2km to the south-east. Both these built under RamessesII, but later converted into Christian churches. The temple of Dakka, originally 40 km to the south had been built by the King of Meroe Arkamani in 220 BC. And several other minor temples, all rescueds and visible on this island.
In September 1968, with the official opening of the temples of Abu Simbel, the world acquired an 8th wonder. The two famous temples of Abu Simpbel, entirely carved out of the golden sandstone of the rocks dominating the Western bank of the Nile near the now vanished village of Abu Simbel, are among the most impressive of the seven Nubian temples constructed by Ramesses II the gratest builder in history, …or perhps the builder of the greatest buildings.
Included among the most famous monuments in the world, they were totally unheard of until J. L. Burckhardt reported of their existence to archaeologists in 1813.
The Great Temple was the partly freed from the accumulation of sand which covered two thirds of its front, and its interior, which was explored by the famous Italian plunderer of Egyptian antiquities, Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Since then many European travellers have left their graffiti on the faces, bodies and legs of the four colossi of Ramesses II.
Between January 1966 and September 1968 the two temples were removed by cutting them into blocks (some weighing up to 30 tons, and relocated on artificially built cliffs high on the desert plateau bordering the lake. Looking at the monuments today, it is impossible to identify the separation of the 807 blocks of the large temple and the 235 blocks of the smaller one. The inner walls of the temple wrre suspended from a supporting framework of concrete and metal, the connections betweeen the blocks being filled in with mortar mixed with desert sand and thereby rendered invisible. The temples were roofed by gigantic concrete domes( with spans of 50m and 24m respectively, and hrights of 19m and 7 m) masked with blocks of rock and stone. Various amenities were built within them (cinema, refreshment room, etyc.)
Unfortunately, in the act of re-positioning of the Great Temple experts committed a slight error. Every year, on the 20th of February and the 20th of October, the light of the sun at dawn penetrated the sanctuary and illuminated the divine figures (one of these dates may have been that of the Pharaoh’s coronation); as a result of the temple’s altered alignment, this splendid effect has been lost forever.
Entirely hewn out of the sandstone cliff, the halls and chambers of the temple extend for some 63m deep into the rock. The temple is alligned along an east-west axis. At the front are four gigantic figures seated on stools which rise to a height of 20m. All four figures are identical representations of the deified RamessesII. Symbolically, the two on the left are intende to represent the Pharaoh as Heka-tawi and Re-en-hakaw, while those on the right as Meri-Amun and Meri-Atum. The best preserved colossus is the first on the left; the second collapsed shortly after the last dynasty, either as a result of an earthquake or simply due to a flaw in the rock. On the left and right of each colossus, and between their legs, are smaller figures representing the members of the Pharaoh’s family.
The façade behind the figures constitutes the pylon and has a frieze at the top and a series of 22 baboons surmounted by a “cavetto” cornice. On the cornice are royal seals (cartouches) with serpents, Amun-Re and Re-Harakhti. Below is an inscription dedicated by the Pharaoh to the above deities. From this we gather that the left side of the temple was dedicated to Amun-Re and the right side to Re-Harakhti.
Above the doorway of the main entrance the name of the Pharaoh is represented in the form of a rebus; what we read is “User-Maat-Re”, the coronation name attributed to the Pharaoh. Originally, the entire façade was painted in vid colours, in the conventional way in which all Egyptian temples and sculptures were decorated.
Hypostyle hall: the hall measures 17.7m by 16.43m. It substitutes the usual great court with porticoes typical af free-standing temples. Against the columns, facing inwards, are large 10m-high standing figures of the Pharaoh represented as Osiris.
The mural reliefs, which in some places retain their original colours, repeat the themes (relevant to the history of Ramesses II’s rule) already observed at Abydos, Luxor and Thebes. To the right and left of the hypostyle hall are long narrow chambers, the storage and treasury rooms (the decorations here are somewhat crudely executed).
The vestibule (11m x 7,58m) is supported by four square pillars, on whose sides are carved figures of the Pharaoh and gods. On the south wall is the boat of Amun-Re; on the opposite wall is the boat of Ramesses, shown as deified. Three doorways lead from the vestibuler into the transverse chamber (figures of the offering king). Adjoining are three further rooms; in the middle of the sanctuary, which was accessible only to the sovereign, the only mortal equal to the gods. A brick wall enclosed the area in front of the temple.
A gate to the north of the Great Temple leads to the Small Temple, the Temple of Hator. This too was built by Ramesses II for his deified wife Nefertari, was oriented along north-west/south-east axis and has no forecourt. The façade, 28m long and 12m high, carved out of rock, is not alligned with the inner part of the temple. It is decorated with six colossal statues of trhe King ands Queen, 10m high. The two statues beside the door represent Ramesses II, the next Nefgertari, and the last on either side the King again. Between the figures false pillars bear inscriptions and frame the statues as if they were set into niches. The doorway is cut into the central pillar, which carries a rather large frieze with snakes.
The hypostyle hall is square and divided into isles by means of six columns set into two rows. Three doors at the back lead into the transverse chamber, with two smaller chambers on either side. Almost in line with the central door, on the back wall, is the ntrance to the sanctuary. This has a recess in the shape of a chapel, containing a high relef representation of the cow goddess Hator; the King is protected by her head.
In the shadow of the Eight Wonder of Abu Simbel, a thriving business-like community of Egyptians and Nubians was growing up in those days. There was a new Las Vegas atmosphere in the searing heat of the desertair: hotels, bars, offices and sports facilities were sprouting up like mushrooms, not to mention the souvenir stalls. Beyond this great ferment was trhe immense emptiness of the Nubian Desert, its monotony only occasionally interruipted by conical rock formations which may perhaps have inspired the Pharaohs to build the pyramids.
At the end of our journey to the edge of the Ancient World, a little Nubian boy came running towards us holding a bunch plastic necklaces. His opening gambit was to ask about the latest Italian football stars, a somewhat disarming question, yet one that struikes us as peculiarly emblematic of contemporary Egyptian culture. The incident brings us abruptly back to reality, and a passage from an Orwellian booklet on Egypt published by Ministry of Information came to mind: Ask an Egyptian about his favourite sport, and he or she will reply “football”. This form of football is sometimes called “soccer”. Children play it skilfully using their feet to move the ball as they run; sometimes bouncing the ball forward with a carefully aimed push with their head, before the ball tauches the ground…” Let us hope that Egypt strikes the ball…before it falls to the groud! As it turned out, 24 years later, Egypt missed the ball.
GOOD LUCK TO EGYPT