Once again I return to the blog after a long absence. I made a January resolution to get back to it, but here it is already the end of March. Well. Let’s pick up right where we are, and if I feel inspired, maybe later I can fill in some of the big blank of the last two years. I’ve been busy and there is lots to tell.
Last weekend I went on an overnight trip with some colleagues. We wanted to see a collection of ancient sites located along the Nile about halfway between Cairo and Luxor. The stops on our itinerary – Beni Hassan, Hermopolis (Tuna al-Gebel), and Tell El-Amarna – were high on my list of want-to-visits, not only because of the wonderful Amarna art and artifacts I’d seen in the National Museum but also because these places figure prominently in the most excellent Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters.
We left after work on Thursday in a van that took us to the modern city of El Minyah, about a four hour drive to the south. One of the Egyptian teachers at our school, Mohamed, organized the trip and acted as our guide.
The van was full, but on the outskirts of Cairo we had to stop and rearrange our luggage to make room for an additional rider: the tourist police guard. In addition to the armed guard in the van, we were also compelled to follow a police escort the whole time we were in the Minya area.
This is a thing that happens in Egypt when tourists travel in large groups. There are a few places, like the Sinai, where foreigners always have to move in a convoy, but for the most part if two or three of us hire a car and driver we can travel wherever we want without guards. Many of us who live here like to travel independently and feel over-protected when we are told we need guards in bigger groups, maybe even getting a bit annoyed by the nannying (hm, do I sound annoyed?). The Egyptian government doesn’t like to take chances; after all, the country’s number one industry depends on the safety of tourists. Seems to me nothing draws attention like a bunch of people surrounded by people carrying automatic weapons, but whatever.
In El Minyah, police at the hotel directed the driver down an alley to a side entrance – the alley blocked off on both ends with armed sentries for our benefit – where we quickly checked in. Then back into the van and off to a restaurant for a very nice grilled dinner.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast in our rooms we loaded up the van ready for a day’s sightseeing.
First stop, the tomb of Akhenaten, the heretic king. This fellow only ruled for 17 years (he died around 1336 BC), but he is famous for introducing a new monotheistic religion and for establishing a new capital city which he named Akhetaten. Long after the pharaoh’s death, when the city was abandoned, the place became known as Amarna.
The style of the paintings and sculptures from the Amarna period is distinctive and beautiful. These examples are in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin (images from Wikipedia). On the left that’s a carving of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, with a couple of the kids. On the right is a painting of birds and lotus flowers.
Akhenaten is also famous as the husband of Nefertiti and father of the future King Tut.
Akhenaten’s tomb isn’t spectacular – it probably was once, but it’s been badly damaged by floods and there is little left of the original colorful decoration. Unfortunately I can’t show you because the guards wouldn’t let me take photos. I have never really understood the point of this rule. I get that flash damages the colors but why no available light photos? In other places I have heard guides say it’s because they can’t stop tourists from using their flash, so they don’t allow any pictures at all. It just takes a few to spoil it for everyone I guess.
Our next stop was the series of tombs overlooking Amarna, which are from the time when Akhenaten was pharaoh. For the Amelia Peabody fans out there (those people of excellent taste), this is where Amelia caught up with her future husband in Crocodile on the Sandbank. The Emerson brothers camped out in one of the cliffside tombs while overseeing the excavation of the city below. I can easily picture Amelia scrambling down the rocky hillside in pursuit of the mysterious perambulating mummy. These tombs were beautifully decorated but again no photos.
Our next stop represents a big jump forward in time. Hermopolis was an older city that gained a lot of power during the New Kingdom era. We visited the ancient catacombs which go on for miles underground. These once housed thousands of ibis and baboon mummies (very cool, but again no photos). Then we went into a couple of Greco-Roman/Egyptian tombs from the Ptolemaic dynasty (think Cleopatra and family). One of these was the tomb of Petosiris, where five generations of writers are buried. Here I was able to take a few photos in exchange for a little baksheesh (tip) to the guard. We won’t call it a bribe because that doesn’t sound nice.
Our last stop was Beni Hasan, a cliff above the Nile where there are many tombs from the Middle Kingdom (21st-17th C BC).
We went into three tombs here. Again I couldn’t take pictures inside, but I am going to post a couple of images of them from the internet because the decoration was so impressive. The paintings featured scenes from everyday life; apparently the deceased in one of the tombs was a big sports fan because there were many detailed pictures of wrestling and other kinds of games and contests. Also there were pictures of visitors from foreign lands with their costumes shown in detail.
After another tasty grilled chicken dinner, we returned tired and happy to Cairo.