In early October members of the Petrie Museum Friends (and others) went on a trip to Egypt organised and led by Lucia Gahlin which visited several less visited sites as well as some very thorough looks at more well known places. There were thirteen of us on the tour, and we were accompanied by Lucia, Youssef Ramsis (our guide) and Galal Alsenusy (from Egypt Archaeological Tours which was the company the tour was organised through). The holiday was in two parts, firstly based around Cairo and then travelling south to Middle Egypt where we stayed at the New Hermopolis retreat. Each day Youssef would start his introductory remarks with “and today is the highlight of our tour!”, which was both entertaining and true – it was very much a selection of cool and interesting places to see. Lucia had also arranged talks from several guest speakers – as well herself giving us introductions to the major sites we were going to see.
Day 1: Egyptian Museum in Cairo
We started with a full day in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – a highlight in two ways: not only did we get to go back after lunch to look at more things, but also they now sell photography permits so we could take photos! And a third highlight (Youssef was right) was that Lucia had invited Salima Ikram to talk to us about both animal mummies in general and the animal mummy room in the museum in particular as she had been the curator who set up the room in its current incarnation (some time ago when she was a PhD student).
After Salima’s talk we had a choice of a tour given by Youssef or to go off on our own to photograph. The tour was focussing on objects from the sites we were going to visit later in the holiday, most people (perhaps sensibly!) picked that option – but I went off on my own to photograph things that caught my eye and things I remembered from previous visits but couldn’t photograph before. Before lunch I concentrated on the ground floor of the museum, working my way round chronologically (including quite a bit of time looking at the pre-historic artifacts including some early examples of writing which I particularly like to see. The unexpected highlight of the morning was something Youssef showed us before we met Salima Ikram – a large piece of pavement from Amarna with scenes of nature, which was fantastic to see and I hadn’t known was there.
Lunch was at a nearby restaurant called Felfela, which serves traditional Egyptian food – we had a selection of mezes followed by grilled meats. We then returned to the museum for another hour or so of looking around. No tour this time – free time for everyone to take photos and explore as they wished. I mostly looked upstairs, visiting amongst other things the Tutankhamun treasures (including the mask and coffins which are so awe-inspiring to see), and also looking at the ostraca and papyrii rooms which I hadn’t looked in before. It’s the sort of museum where you could keep going back for days on end and still find something you hadn’t seen before.
That evening, before our welcome dinner in the hotel, Lucia gave a talk introducing the site of Saqqara where we were about to spend the next two days.
Days 2 & 3: Saqqara
The next two days were spent seeing everything we possibly could in (north) Saqqara. This included four pyramids (two of which we went inside), 12 Old Kingdom (non-pyramid) tombs, 6 New Kingdom tombs, a museum, a Valley Temple, a causeway, an ongoing excavation of Late Period tombs and the Serapeum!
We began with a brief look at the site of the Valley Temple of Unas – just looking from the outside while we waited for the tickets to be bought. Then our visit properly started with the Imhotep Museum, which has a lot of key items related to Saqqara – including part of a statue of Djoser with the name of Imhotep on it, a reconstruction of part of a wall of blue faience tiles such as was discovered in chambers in the Step Pyramid complex, and the famous famine stela. There were also other unusual objects, like a 3rd Dynasty wooden harpoon found buried in the Step Pyramid complex and presumably of ritual significance.
The pyramids we visited were split across the two days, and it was well organised in that we saw the less (but still) impressive ones on the first day and then the more exciting ones on the second day. First we had the chance to go inside Teti’s Pyramid, from the Sixth Dynasty. I was quite surprised by this, as it looks like a heap of rubble from the outside, having slumped once the casing blocks were removed for reuse in antiquity. Inside it looks much more structurally intact! It’s the second pyramid (chronologically) to have the Pyramid Texts carved on the internal walls. The other pyramid that we saw that day was Userkhaf’s Pyramid, which we couldn’t go into. It’s a Fifth Dynasty pyramid, and the key feature here was the basalt floor of the associated temple which still partly exists. Our third pyramid was the big one: the Step Pyramid complex. And of course we didn’t get to go in this one, it’s not entirely structurally sound although they are currently doing restoration and stabilising work on it (and have been for a few years). There’s still plenty to see in the complex, however, including some parts of buildings and walls that have been reconstructed. This is the first stone monument ever constructed, and you can see how the architect & builders were still figuring out how to work with this new material. I particularly like that they have carved the stonework to look like the organic material it was representing – wooden ceiling beams, columns made of papyrus bundles. My other favourite part was the hieratic graffiti from the New Kingdom – this site has been a tourist attraction for millennia. The last pyramid we saw was Unas’s Pyramid, another Fifth Dynasty one, which was the other one that we got to go inside. It’s the first pyramid to have the Pyramid Texts carved in the walls and it’s much finer work than that in Teti’s Pyramid. The walls are alabaster, and you can still see the blue colouring in some of the hieroglyphs and other colours in the decoration too.
And as I said, we went into a lot of tombs. The Old Kingdom ones dated to both the Fifth & Sixth Dynasty periods, and included children of Unas as well as court officials and staff (like the Chief Manicurists). There were lots of similar scenes in these – primarily of nature and fertility motifs, including a repeated motif of a hippopotamus giving birth (often towards the waiting jaws of a crocodile). The New Kingdom tombs fell into two categories – the temple tombs (including that of Horemheb that he was building before he became Pharaoh), and two more recently discovered tombs. These last two had been full of animal mummies so the paintwork on the walls hadn’t been exposed to the elements, and so it was in really good condition. One of them was the tomb of Tutankhamun’s wetnurse Maia, and the decoration was quite “royal” in nature which fits with speculation that she was one of the royal family. The temple tombs are quite different from all the other tombs – instead of being built into a rockface or the ground they look like temple, and the burial chamber is underneath the rear area where temple sanctuaries are. The Horemheb tomb was full of replica reliefs, each neatly labelled with which European museum the original piece was in.
The Serapeum was really impressive to see – this is where the Apis bulls were buried, and the sheer scale of the sarcophagi and thus the corridors is incredible in itself. And then when you consider how many were buried there, and how much effort that meant they had to go to it gets even more impressive.
As well as visiting all these fascinating places we also managed to fit in four talks – one impromptu informal one, and three more formal ones. The first was that by chance as we walked between Khaemwaset’s stela (commemorating his restoration work during his father Ramesses II’s reign) and Unas’s Causeway we walked past an ongoing excavation by a German-Egyptian team. The leader of the team, Ramadan Hussein, talked to us about the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty tombs they are excavating. The three formal talks in the evenings were all quite different. Firstly Ahmed M. Mekawey Ouda told us about the life and writings of Ahmed Lufti el-Sayed Pasha (1872-1963), who was an Egyptian activist against the colonial regime and the first director of Cairo University. He was followed by Anna Stevens, who told us about her work at Amarna on the two general cemeteries and what that tells us about the life of the common people of the city (hard work and low life expectancy!). And the following evening Dan Jones told us about his and his Egyptian colleagues work in setting up some new tourist sites at Memphis – his plan is that there will be eight sites that you can walk between to get much more of a flavour of the ancient site than the current arrangement.
Day 4: Travelling from Giza to New Hermopolis; Beni Hasan and Speos Artemidos
This is the day we bid farewell to the Le Méridien Pyramids hotel in Giza and travelled down to the New Hermopolis retreat which was to be our base while we were in Middle Egypt. As a result most of the morning was spent in the minibus watching the scenery go by (once we were out of the Cairo traffic anyway!). Along the way we picked up our police escort, a standard precaution for tourist groups visiting Middle Egypt – the Colonel in charge introduced himself, and turned out over the week to be almost as interested in the antiquities as we were 🙂
By lunchtime we had arrived at Beni Hasan, where we had our packed lunches in the rest house before heading up the hillside to look at the Middle Kingdom tombs here. These set the pattern for tombs in Middle Egypt – halfway up the desert cliffs, accessible via a steep path (or modern steps) with wonderful views from the top. The decoration in these Eleventh & Twelfth Dynasty tombs isn’t carved into the walls, it’s just painted on, which is different from most of the tombs we saw. Howard Carter worked at this site early in his career, so some parts of the decoration were recognisable from his well known watercolours. Key scenes in these tombs include scenes of wrestling where many of the moves are still known in the sport today.
We also visited a temple which is nowadays called the Speos Artemidos (Grotto of Artemis), but was originally a temple to the goddess Pakhet (a lioness deity) built by Hatshepsut and later usurped by Seti I. One of the inscriptions makes a big deal about how Hatshepsut was restoring the temples of Middle Egypt after their neglect by the Hyksos kings – who had actually not ruled for a century by this stage, so rather than being a true representation of her actions it was part of the standard Pharaonic propaganda about bringing order after a time of chaos.
We arrived at New Hermopolis in the early evening and were welcomed by the owner, Dr Mervat Nasser. She was a presence throughout our visit – in particular explaining the menu each evening (it was generally traditional food of the local region). She also gave us two talks during the evenings we spent there, one about the cultural and spiritual goals of the retreat and one about the production of a particular local foodstuff. The retreat itself was very peaceful as it was in the desert and away from the local villages or towns.
Before our dinner that evening Lucia gave us a “catchup” talk, where she showed us a selection of slides which answered questions that had come up over the last few days. Things like more information about a particular relief in Horemheb’s temple tomb at Saqqara and whether or not the hairstyles meant that particular figures were girls (the answer was no, that was a masculine fashion at the time as can be seen in other statues & reliefs). After dinner we had a short musical performance from the other residents at the retreat – an group of actors there to work on a play who were also skilled musicians. They played a mix of Egyptian music (both Muslim & Christian traditions) and an Irish folk song, and were really very good 🙂
Day 5: Meir, el-Ashmunein and Tuna el-Gebel
On this day we visited sites covering a vast sweep of Egyptian history – Old & Middle Kingdom tombs at Meir, a boundary stela for Amarna, plus a Ramesside Temple to cover the New Kingdom, Ptolemaic and Roman tombs and animal catacombs, as well as a Christian basilica.
We started with Meir, our second collection of tombs set in the desert cliffs and unusually for a tomb site photography was permitted (after purchasing a ticket). The tombs are the burial places of the Nomarchs of the 14th Upper Egyptian Nome, and we visited four dating to the Twelfth Dynasty and two dating to the Sixth Dynasty. Lucia’s notes for the site say that these are rarely visited, which seems a shame. The scenes in these tombs are again scenes of daily life, of hunting and farming, and of nature and fertility motifs. One of the key scenes in the Middle Kingdom tombs was that of some emaciated herdsmen which are interpreted not as famine stricken Egyptians, but as nomadic herdsmen bringing their cattle to the fertile Nile valley at the peak of their lean season.
Next we visited el-Ashmunein – ancient Khemnw or Hermopolis. We began here with the opposite end of ancient Egyptian history – looking at a Coptic basilica, which has been partly restored. Next to that was a Ptolemaic inscription from a temple, referencing Ptolemy II & Ptolemy III. There are also Pharaonic remains here, including a Ramesses II era temple with talatat blocks from Amarna used as filler material. This last was very close to the modern village, so all the local children came out to see what was going on!
After returning to New Hermopolis for lunch (as we were close enough to not need packed lunches) we headed back out to Tuna el Gebel. This site was the burial ground for the city at Hermopolis during the Late Period and afterwards. We visited two tombs here, not on a cliff side this time, one of a Roman woman called Isadora who drowned and whose tomb became something of a cult centre. The other tomb was the family tomb of Petosiris, a priest of Thoth during Ptolemaic times. His tomb was particularly fascinating as it contained very similar scenes to those we’d been seeing in many other tombs, but all carved in a much more Greek style. There are not just tombs for people at Tuna el Gebel – ancient Hermopolis was the city of Thoth and so there are ibis and baboon catacombs which we got to go into and explore. As well as the many spaces for animal mummies there was also a priest’s tomb, a chamber under the corridor only big enough for his sarcophagus.
The last stop of this day was Boundary Stela A of Amarna, marking the north-west corner of the city (which was across the Nile from Tuna el-Gebel). It’s set halfway up the desert cliffs, which creates the feeling of it being the edge of a space. As well as the stela itself there are statues, now headless supporting offering tables. At some point (in modern times) it had been enclosed in a case with a glass front, but that had broken and so we could see it as it was in the past.
Day 6: Deir el-Bersha, Antinoopolis and the Mallawi Museum
The main theme of this day was special openings – neither Deir el-Bersha nor Antinoopolis is generally open to the public, so this was a real treat (or highlight, as Youssef said). We were accompanied at both of those sites by Hamada Kellawy, an Inspector for the Ministry of Antiquities and an archaeologist, and he also joined us again when we visited Amarna.
We started at Deir el Bersha, which was another site where the tombs are situated part way up the desert cliffs. This was the steepest of the slopes we had to climb, and there were no man made steps to help us. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not good with heights, nor is my sense of balance great, and I found this scramble up the hillside rather daunting (and back down even more so!) but I did make it up and it was well worth it 🙂 And not just for the views, which were spectacular (even the police were posing for photos against the backdrop of the cliffs & desert!). The main place we visited up there was the tomb of Djehutihotep, Governor of the 15th Nome of Upper Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty reigns of Amenemhat II and Senwosret II & III. The key scene inside this tomb is of a colossal statue being moved by a team of 172 men – it’s thought that the statue was 6.5m tall and probably weighed 60 tonnes. It would seem impossible to move by muscle power alone but this relief shows us how they did it. We also visited the tomb of Djehutinakht, and two small single chamber tombs which were right near the cliff edge. Then we went a little further up the hillside to look at an ancient limestone quarry. When I think of quarries I tend to think of them as open at the top, but this was cut into the hillside to form a cave. At some point it had also been inhabited by Coptic Christians, who had painted crosses on the walls.
After scrambling back down the hillside our next stop this day was Antinoopolis, which was a city that reached its peak in the Roman period. It was named after Hadrian’s lover Antinous, and (re-)founded by Hadrian in his memory after he drowned (perhaps deliberately) in the Nile not far from the site. My first impression of the site was of the vast heaps of broken pottery – we climbed up one of them to get a feel for the layout of the site, but I must confess it was not at all clear to me. After looking at the Roman remains for a bit we moved on to a Ramesside temple that was part of the small town that had been here before Hadrian turned it into a city and then we were back on familiar (Pharaonic) ground.
We had our lunch in the nearby village – in the mayor’s house, which had an area where the people of the village could come and sit and drink tea (and presumably served official functions as well as social). After that we headed off for a surprise extra visit – the Mallawi Museum, which had been looted and vandalised during unrest in the summer of 2013 and had reopened only a few weeks before our trip. This is a small museum, but it had several fine pieces and they had done a good job of redisplaying and repairing their collection – I was particularly fond of the collection of Thoth as an Ibis statues/mummy cases.
That evening Lucia gave us the first half of a talk about the site that was to occupy the next two days – Amarna. The second half of the talk was on the following evening, between the two visits.
Day 7 & 8: Amarna
This trip was actually the fourth time I’ve booked on a holiday to go to see Amarna – the previous three had either been cancelled or had the site removed from the itinerary due to restrictions on travel to Middle Egypt. It was great to finally see it although I didn’t quite believe we would till we actually got there!
As with Saqqara we spent two full days visiting the site, and we saw everything that it was possible to see. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Saqqara, actually. A first comparison is that Saqqara is primarily a city of the dead – pyramid complexes and tombs were the things to see there – whereas Amarna was a city of the living (albeit with tombs nearby). They also cover very different spans of time. In Saqqara we saw places covering a vast sweep of Egyptian history – from the entrances to Second Dynasty royal burials through to the Serapeum where the Apis Bulls were still being buried at the end of Ptolemaic times. But Amarna is a snapshot: Akhenaten founded the city for his god, the Aten, and after his death it was abandoned fairly quickly. Everything there can be dated to a known time – a span of around 20 years (give or take a little bit of ongoing occupation for a generation after his death). And that’s part of what I find fascinating about the city, the rare opportunity it affords to really narrow in on a specific historical time point within the millennia of human civilisation.
We started with the Visitor Centre, which is relatively new. It had replicas and models of key parts of the site, the replicas often amplified from what is known from other examples or older records of the object – like a replica of the Hymn to the Aten from Ay’s tomb which filled in pieces that are damaged now using 19th Century records. As well as miniature models (of the entire city, of temples, of tombs) there was also a full size replica of a house which really helped to visualise what the mudbrick ruins we saw later would’ve looked like.
The thing that struck me most about the city was the sheer scale of it. Mostly we were driven from place to place, but on the second day we were there we walked through a part of it from the Small Aten Temple to the house of Thutmose the sculptor (where the famous bust of Nefertiti was found) which helped to hammer home the size of the place. And the essentially inhospitable nature of the surroundings – not just desert, we also had a close encounter with a snake in the house of Thutmose! Thankfully it only caused us to beat a hasty & slightly panicky retreat and no-one got bitten. In the city we also saw where the Great Aten Temple had stood (which is enormous, only a small part of it was marked out on the ground but Hamada Kellawy pointed out to us how far it had originally extended off into the distance), the house of records where the Amarna letters had been found and two of the palaces.
We also visited all the open tombs – the Royal tomb, and several nobles tombs in both the north and south parts of the site. These stood out from the many other tombs we saw during this trip (and on other trips) – normally a non-royal tomb has an emphasis on scenes of the noble in question receiving offerings of food and on scenes of everyday life. But the decoration scheme in these tombs was firmly focussed on the Royal family – the tomb owner generally only showed up in scenes of him receiving gifts & rewards from Akhenaten. The city also featured prominently in the decoration, which has been useful for archaeologists because the schematic idealised representations of palaces or temples actually help to make sense of the foundations that are all that remain.
We ate our packed lunch on both days at the Amarna Rest House, which was run by a friendly woman and her family – she kept the place impeccably clean and also had a selection of souvenirs to sell. I came away with two scarves and a handmade basket, and I wasn’t the only person to pick something up there!
The second day we spent at Amarna was our last full day in Middle Egypt, so we had a farewell party at New Hermopolis. Dr Nasser had organised for a troupe of stick dancers from Mallawi to come and give a performance – this is a traditional artform, and this particular troupe have been given UNESCO intangible heritage status. As well as the choreographed dance by the performers there was also some audience participation, and some purely musical sections (including the actors who had given us a performance the day we arrived). It was a very enjoyable evening 🙂
Day 9: Frazer Tombs, Gebel el-Teir Monastery and the journey back to Cairo
This was the last full day of the holiday and our site visits covered both early and more modern Egyptian history. We started with the Frazer Tombs, which are a set of Old Kingdom tombs cut into the desert cliffs (less scrambling to get to these than most!). The tombs themselves might not’ve had as spectacular decoration as other we’d seen, but there was a sense of peace to the site and it made for a good capstone to the ancient Egyptian portion of our trip.
The final site before heading back to Cairo was a Coptic Monastery at Gebel el-Teir, founded in the 4th Century CE by the Empress Helena (Constantine the Great’s mother) on a site which is said to be a place where the Holy Family rested while they fled from Herod. This was the most modern site we visited as the church is still in use, and it continued the feeling of peacefully winding down after a busy several days.
After eating our packed lunches in a cafe near the Monastery we got back in the minibus for the long trip back to Cairo – inevitably getting stuck in the traffic once we finally arrived! That evening we stayed near the airport to be convenient for our flights the next day. We had another farewell evening – this time a feast of fish in the hotel restaurant and afterwards some of us went for a drink or two in the bar despite needing an excruciatingly early start the next morning.
It was a fantastic holiday. We saw so many interesting places, in the company of people who were all keenly interested and knowledgeable about what we were seeing. And easy to get along with, too! Thanks to Lucia and Galal for their work organising it, and to Youssef (and Lucia!) for guiding us round the sites.
This article was originally written for the Petrie Museum Friends newsletter. A note on photos: there will be more to come at some future date, this is just a tiny subset in this post.