Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Tombs of the Artisans

Visionary art in Pashedu's vault
Monday 7 January: The now ruined village of Deir al-Medina is where the families of the craftsmen and artists who dug and decorated the royal tombs were housed. Their own small but exquisitely decorated tombs are right next to the village and clearly, here in their own tombs, the painters also excelled.
Sennedjem's Tomb (# 1)
A royal tomb artist, his own tiny vault showcases his talent. There are images of Sennedjem and his wife Lyneferti worshiping gods of the afterlife together with scenes from the book of the dead including a black-and-white calf, representing rebirth, carrying Sennedjem on his back. A 19th dynasty artist, Sennedjem's tomb was created around 3,300 years ago.
Irinufer's Tomb (# 290)
Most of the images here are well preserved and in the style of the royal tombs. However, little is known about the 19th dynasty tomb builder.
Monday 14: Now back in Luxor town I've decided to take a trip back to the West Bank to see one tomb, not enthusiastically described in my guide book, that I missed earlier. So, I take the ferry across and a bus up to the ticket office. I'm glad I did, it's a stunner.
Pashedu's Tomb (# 3)
The mural on the back wall of the burial chamber depicts Osiris with the Mountains of the West behind him and the eye of Horus, the avenger of Osiris, looking out from the mountains. There's an image of Pashedu drinking from a pool beneath a palm tree together with numerous images of the black jackal-headed god, Anubis, god of mummification and tomb guardian.
Slideshow of the Tombs of the Artisans.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Tombs of the Nobles

Girl band grace Nakht's tomb wall
Sunday 6 January: Following a light lunch at the Ramesseum Rest House I cross the road and, avoiding a handful of touts, climb up the hillside towards the beckoning tomb guards. Tour buses don't stop here and it's late afternoon so I have the tombs, and their guardians, all to myself.
Royal tomb art tends to depict scenes of gods and journeys to the afterlife whereas art in the tombs of ordinary folk tends to focus on more down-to-earth subject matter. 
Nakht's Tomb (# 69)
A scribe and astrologer during the reign of 18th dynasty ruler Tuthmosis IV (the pharaoh most famous for clearing the Great Sphinx of Giza of sand) Nakht's tiny tomb is one the West Bank's beauties. Among other scenes, the figures of a trio of female musicians playing the harp, lyre and pipes is one of the most elegant, seductive and endearing of all Egyptian art. Girl power preserved in painted plaster 4,500 years ago, don't you just love it.
Ramose's Tomb (# 55)
In contrast to Nakht's, Ramose's tomb is large, plain and incomplete. What it does have are surviving reliefs (most were desecrated by later rulers) relating to the rule of 18th dynasty rebel pharaoh Akhenaten who, during his short 17-year reign, changed Egypt's multi-god religion to the worship of just one god, the sun god Aten. He also moved Egypt's centre of worship to Tel Al-Marna, several days sailing to the north. Ramose, a local visor at that time, followed the court to Tel Al-Marna abandoning his unfinished tomb here in Thebes.
Sennofer's Tomb (# 96)
Sennofer was clearly a man after my own heart because when you duck under a low beam to emerge in the inner sanctuary of his tomb you find paintings of grape vines heavy with fruit growing up the walls and covering the whole ceiling. Absolutely fantastic but, sadly, just one photo and no flowing wine.
Wednesday 9:
Khonsu's Tomb (# 31)
Khonsu lived during the reign of 19th dynasty king Ramses II (the Great), around 3,250 years ago. There's many colourful scenes of Khonsu, the shaven-headed priest, making offerings to the gods, but more remarkable is the beautiful ceiling adorned with pastel-shaded birds swooping down from the sky.
Ushrhet's Tomb (# 51)
Much of the decoration here was chiseled out by tomb robbers in 1941 but the celestial ceiling remains. Ushrhet overlapped the reigns of 19th dynasty kings Ramses I and Seti I.
Benia's Tomb (# 343)
A golden false door in the first chamber was intended to lead Benia to the afterlife, wonder if it worked?
Thursday 10:
Roy's Tomb (# 255)
I was going to miss out Roy's tomb but as I'm cycling past it to Howard Carter's house today I've decided to drop in, and I'm glad I did. Only recently opened to the public, Roy's tiny tomb is beautifully decorated. There is a vibrant scene of Roy and his wife, Tawy, being introduced, by falcon-headed god Horus, to the seated god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. Next to it the couple make offerings to Hathor and Reharkhty. Roy was a steward to 18th dynasty warrior king Horemheb who ruled around 3,330 years ago.
Slideshow of the Tombs of the Nobles.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Ramesseum

Ramses II's great funerary temple
Saturday 6 January: Constructed 3,250 or so years ago by Ramses III's father, Ramses the Great, the monument is dedicated to, you guessed it, himself - Ramses the Great. From a distance you can appreciate the whole of the site and the sharp contrast between the barren 'red land' of the desert and the cultivated 'black land' earth of the Nile flood plain. As his funerary temple, Ramses II intended the Ramesseum to last until eternity but the columns and statues lie in ruins. Even the great power of Ramses was no match for an earthquake.
Owned by the son of a friend of Howard Carter, the friendly fair-priced Ramesseum Rest House is my lunchtime stop of choice.
Slideshow of The Ramesseum.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Habu Temple

Relief, Ramses smiting Libyan foes
Saturday 5 January: Leaving the Valley of the Queens, I walk back and down to Medinet Habu for lunch. Opposite the restaurant is Habu Temple, the mortuary temple of 20th dynasty king Ramses III, constructed around 3,180 years ago.
Although part-built, altered and extended by many rulers, the most spectacular works were created Ramses III. The twin towers of the first pylon has huge reliefs depicting Ramses victory over his Libyan foes. There's a lot of smiting going on but one gruesome scene shows a scribe counting the severed right-hands of the enemy to get a tally of the dead. Perhaps unhappy with the total, or maybe there was a left-hand or a woman's hand in the pile, Ramses ordered a recount. In the next scene the process is repeated but this time the mound in front of the scribe is a pile of severed Libyan penises. Well, I guess that's one way to do it.
Slideshow of Habu Temple.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Valley of the Queens

 Afterlife journey depicted in pastel
Saturday 5 January: A short morning stroll northwest of my hotel is the Valley of the Queens. Surprisingly, all three of the tombs that are open to the public here were built to contained the mummies of the sons of 20th dynasty king Ramses III, who ruled around 3,180 years ago. None of the Queen's tombs, including that of Nefertari which is regarded as the Thebe's finest, are open.
Prince Amunherkhepshef's Tomb (# 55)
Scenes show Amunherkhepshef, with a boy's side-locks of hair, being presented to various gods by his father, Ramses III. He was probably a young teenager when he died and was entombed here in the Valley of the Queens where his sarcophagus remains.
Prince Khaemwaset's Tomb (# 44)
Another of several of Ramses III's sons who died young, Khaemwaset's tomb is similar to that of his brother's tomb nearby. His sarcophagus and mummy are in the Ezegio Museum in Turin.
Prince Sethherkhepshef's Tomb (# 43)
Originally built for yet another of Ramses III's sons, Sethherkhepshef, the tomb was never finished and the prince was buried elsewhere. 
Slideshow of the Valley of the Queens.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Queen Hatshepsut's Temple

Hatshepsut's futuristic monument
Friday 4 January: Hiking back from the Valley of the Kings I traverse the high cliff-top path above Hatshepsut's grand mortuary temple. Not for the faint-hearted, there's no fence so you can creep close to the edge for superb birds-eye views of both Hatshepsut's Temple and the adjacent ruinous Temple of Montuhotep II below. Based in Thebes and founder of the Middle Kingdom, the 11th dynasty ruler, Montuhotep was the first Egyptian king to be buried in the West Bank, about 4,020 years ago.
Taking the steeper of several paths down I find myself inside the ticket office precinct, for free, but it's well past lunchtime so I exit to the Ramesseum Rest House for a bite to eat before heading home.
Tuesday 8: This morning, en-route to the Valley of the Kings, I buy a ticket and take time to look around Hapshepsut's magnificent colonnaded three-tier temple. The lush gardens and avenue of sphinxes have gone but the wide approach ramp remains leading to the upper terraces where a few images of Hatshepsut are still in place, complete with false-beard, most having been erased by her successors.
It remains an awesome place especially considering it was built around 3,480 years ago during the powerful queen's 21-year long, 18th dynasty New Kingdom, reign.
From here I continue up over the mountain again for my second visit to the Valley of the Kings.
Slideshow of Queen Hatshepsut's Temple.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Valley of the Kings

Nut's ceiling in Ramses VI's tomb
Friday 4 January: By road it's a long way around the mountains to the Valley of the Kings so my best approach is to hike over the mountains, from Deir al-Medina (the workers' village), taking the same path that the gangs of tomb builders would have used in ancient times. An hour or so later I drop down into the Valley of the Kings but I'm on the wrong side of the ticket barrier and have to walk down to the car park to buy tickets. Photos are not allowed in the tombs but you can take one surreptitiously or wait for a tomb guard to say "shhh . . . take photo" . . . "baksheesh". I visit the open tombs in chronological order.
Tutankhamun's Tomb (# 62)  
Though small and underwhelming the boy king's tomb is Egypt's most famous due to the relatively recent discovery of it's almost intact treasures by British treasure hunter Howard Carter, while in the employ of Lord Carnarvon, in 1922. The 'wonderful things' he saw here have long since been shipped to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and nothing now remains except the hastily completed artwork and stone sarcophagus. I manage to sneak a photo of an image of goddess Nut greeting the king but, even so, the expensive extra ticket required to visit Tut's tomb makes it pretty poor value.
Tutankhamun died, aged 19, after a short, 18th dynasty New Kingdom reign, 3,330 years ago.
Merneptah's Tomb (# 8)
It's a steep climb down to Merneptah's large pillared burial-chamber and the decoration is badly flood damaged but his huge granite outer sarcophagus and the lid of his inner sarcophagus remain in-situ. His mummy, originally encased in four sarcophagi, is now in the Egyptian Museum.
The 13th son of 19th dynasty ruler Ramses the Great, his older brothers died before their father so Merneptah eventually became pharaoh in his 60s, around 3,220 years ago. 
Siptah's Tomb (# 47)
Another steep climb down along musty corridors this time with fantastic flying vultures adorning the ceiling.
The 2nd son of 19th dynasty king Seti II, the club-footed Siptah probably ruled briefly around 3,210 years ago.
Queen Tawosert & Setnakht's Tomb (# 14)
Yet another steep shaft-corridor, typical of 19th dynasty tomb construction, leads down to the large and unusual double burial-chamber with well preserved decorations. The tomb was originally built for Seti II's wife, Queen Tawosert, but after her deceased husband's successor, Siptah, died she took power herself and enlarged the vault to match her new status. However the tomb was usurped, by 20th dynasty king Setnakht around 3,200 years ago, and used as his own. In the burial chamber a depiction of the final scene from the Book of Caverns shows a magnificent ram-headed bird as the soul of sun god Ra guarding over the reappearance of the sun at dawn.
I've seen enough tombs for one day so I walk back over the mountain, down to Hapshetsup's temple, and along the road, past the Ramesseum and home to the Marsam Hotel.
Tuesday 8: Returning to the Valley of the Kings, this time I take the steep mountain path from Hatshepsut's temple and, once again, drop down into the tomb area.
Ramses IV's Tomb (# 2)
A shallow descent along white corridors decorated with tomb texts and with a starry ceiling leads down to a sarcophagus chamber decorated with scenes from the Book of Gates. Surviving the 20th dynasty 'Harem Conspiricy', Ramses IV, son of Ramses III, ascended to the throne around 3,160 years ago.
Ramses V & VI's Tomb (# 9) 
The tomb was started by 20th dynasty ruler Ramses V, around 3,150 years ago, but it was later extended and also used by Ramses VI. Magnificent double-figures of the lithe yellow star and sun-disk spangled body of beautiful sky goddess Nut encompasses the dark blue ceiling, one of her heads about so swallow a sun disk. Fantastic.
Ramses IX Tomb (# 6)
Another magnificent, though unfinished, chamber ceiling with a double-image of sky goddess Nut swallowing and releasing the sun disk. Ramses IX, who ruled 3,120 or so years ago, was the last of the 20th dynasty kings.
Slideshow of the Valley of the Kings.

Friday, 8 February 2013

West Bank Thebes

Colossi of Memnon's lonely vigil
Thursday 3 January 2013: I've booked a room in the splendid Marsam Hotel. Constructed in traditional mud-brick style it's cool during the day but warm at night without the need for air-conditioning. It was originally built to house visiting American archaeologists but the appeal for me is that it's in the heart of ancient Thebes, right in among all the tombs and temples and away from the hassle of the west bank, where all the Nile cruise ships dock. Every hawker in Luxor tells me that their boat is 'the ferry' to the 'other side' but I ignore them and board the real local ferry, a beige double-decker with a turned-back winkle-picker style bow (95th mode of transport). It's E£1 (about 10p) to cross and the same for a local minibus to 'ticket office', where advance purchases are made for the smaller sites.
Just before the ticket office I shout "OK, henna" (okay, here) and jump off at the fabulous Colossi of Memnon. For most this is just a fleeting photo stop on their tour itinerary, but I stay a while. A pair of self-portrait statues they were erected by 18th dynasty king Amonhotep III 3,400 years ago and are all that remains of his mortuary temple. For me they are the gateway to the West Bank and I walk to my hotel, just behind them.
Most people think that when Egypt's Middle and New Kingdom power base moved south to Luxor (Thebes) the practise of concealing royal tombs beneath pyramids ended. Not so, every tomb in the west bank is in the shadow of 'The Horn', a pyramid-shaped mountain at the head of the Valley of the Kings. From the comfort of the Marsam (half-board, E£125) I am within hiking distance of the whole of the ancient Thebes necropolis and I'm here for a week. Great.
Thursday 10: I end my last day on the West Bank by cycling to Howard Carter's House, a picture in time. Carter was the British draughtsman turned archaeologists made famous by his discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. He himself is buried in London's Lambeth cemetery not far from where I live. So, if some time in the future you hear that some midnight-drunk has dug up Carter's grave, you'll know who it is. Poetic justice.
Slideshow of West Bank Thebes.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Karnak: Temple of Amun-Ra

Ramses II guards Karnak's court
The mummy of all Egyptian temples (sorry, I couldn't resist it), Karnak is the the largest temple in the world and ancient Egypt's most sacred. Part-built by many pharaohs, it was completed by that 19th dynasty master builder and warrior king, Ramses the Great, during his long 67-year reign, around 3,250 years ago.
Sunday 30 December: Walking a couple of miles along the Corniche to Karnak is a delight in itself, but soon the massive bulk of Karnak's twin pylons, twice the size of those at Luxor temple, come into view. From the riverside a short avenue of ram-headed sphinxes line the route to the temple gateway between the two mighty pylons. Everything here is on a grand scale, it's a great place to wander. Guarded by a pair of Ramses the Great's statues the expanse of the Great Court leads to the Great Hypostyle Hall enclosure where a huge regiment of 134 sturdy papyrus-shaped columns tower above. Once brightly painted and supporting a vented roof it must have been a dizzying spectacle to ancient visitors. Looking up, it's pretty spectacular today. Emerging into the sunlight, two tall obelisks and a single standing column tower above, reaching for the heavens. They were erected by the female pharaoh Hatshetsup, here in the oldest surviving part of the temple, around 3,450 years ago. At 96 feet, the larger of the two obelisks is the tallest in all Egypt and would have been brightly painted and capped with a sun-catching veneer of electrum, a glistening alloy of gold and silver.
A mud brick wall surrounds the whole temple complex and I walk to the southwest corner to climb it and take some photos. There are great views back over the sacred lake, where Pied Kingfishers hover and dive for fish, to the multiple columns beyond. Returning to the entrance I take a wide loop to the western gateway. It's missed by most visitors but I'm so impressed that I skirt the outside perimeter of the temple to view it from the southern, recently excavated, sphinx lined approach. Following the remains of the sacred sphinx-flanked avenue leads me right back into Luxor town.
Slideshow of Karnak Temple.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Luxor Temple

Avenue of lion-headed sphinxes
Saturday 29 December: I just love Luxor Temple. In the centre of town adjacent to the river it's a heaven of serenity away from the hassle and bustle of the local traders.
It was mostly built by 18th dynasty king Amonhotep III around 4,600 years ago and dedicated to the trio of local gods, Amun, Mut and Khons. A short row of sphinxes are all that remain of those that once lined a grand avenue, much of which has now been excavated, leading all the way to Karnak Temple two miles to the north. Decorated with scenes from the Battle of Kadesh the bulky twin pylons are impressive too, as are the twin statues of Ramses II who completed them. A single 80-foot high pink granite needle is now all that remains of the pair of symetrical obelisks raised by Ramses II here, the other now stands in the  Place de la Concorde in Paris (I bet Ramses is not amused).
Beyond the court of Ramses II, 14 papyrus-shaped columns form the colonnade of Amenhotep II which, in turn, leads to his own great court and hypostyle hall with four impressive rows of eight columns each. Great stuff.
Slideshow of Luxor Temple.

Monday, 4 February 2013


Luxor, chocolate box temple town
To say that Luxor is a tourist attraction is an understatement, Luxor has been a tourist destination since before tourism was invented and the hawkers here have been squeezing money out of visitors for 5,000 years or more, and they're expert at it. "You like . . . motorboat . . . caleche . . . horse-carriage . . . taxi . . . guide . . . 'friend' . . . felucca . . . trip Banana island . . . tee shirt . . .  papyrus . . . my banana up your arse?" or "Hello, you remember me . . . from your hotel?"
Along the otherwise pleasant Cornice the hassle is constant, relentless and sometimes offensive. Say "No" and the reply is "Why not?" - now you've stopped walking and are engaged in conversation. Say "No" again and the reply is "Maybe later?", "No", "Maybe tomorrow?" . . . The first rule is to keep walking, DO NOT under any circumstances stop, even if they stand in front of you, and they will. The second rule is to smile and repeat "la" and "shokran" (no and thank you). "La, la. la" . . ."Why la?" . . . it still seems endless. I try to remember that most of these guys are just trying to feed their families.
Saturday 29 December: Away from the Corniche the town proper has most of the amenities you would expect, shops, licensed restaurants, a range of hotels and bars, even liquor stores. So I've decided to stay here for the New Year and have a very comfortable double-aspect twin-balcony room (205) with a small TV and free wifi in the spotlessly clean Boomerang Hotel. B&B with private, if detached, bathroom is an extraordinarily good deal (E£65) and there is a relaxing rooftop bar serving the cheapest Stella beer (E£10) in town. The buffet breakfast too (E£15) is hard to beat: Omelet or pancakes cooked to order, orange squash, yogurts, cereal, fresh fruit, boiled eggs, a selection of white and yellow cheeses, various cold meats, tomatoes, cucumber, white and wholemeal toast, an array of jams, honey and, a selection of teas and coffee. This is probably the best value hotel I have stayed in, high praise indeed.
Luxor Museum
Monday 31: Braving the hassle of the Corniche, it's a reasonably pleasant downstream stroll to Luxor's small but fascinating museum. A new hall to the right of the entrance displays a cashe of treasures unearthed in Luxor Temple in 1989: a pristine statue of muscular pharaoh Amenhotep III, builder of Luxor Temple and creator of the Colossi of Memnon on the West Bank; a double-statue of goddess Mut and her partner, local god Amun; an alabaster sphinx of 17th dynasty king, Tutankhamen; a bas-relief of Thutmose III; and a sublime double-figure statue in calcite of crocodile-headed god Sobek protecting 18th dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III. Upstairs there's a well preserved mummy of Ramses I, and beyond a huge torso of the large-lipped heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, amongst other exhibits (no photos allowed).
I'm in Luxor for New Year's eve and the very English King's Head pub looks like a good place to spend it but unfortunately I'm suffering a heavy cold, so following a pleasant meal in Zofra, one of Luxor's better Arab restaurants, in the same street as my hotel, I end-up staying in my room, drinking lashings of fresh strawberry juice and watching TV, happy New Year.
Saturday 2 February 2013: I've been back in Luxor for a week or so to buy clothes, shoes, replenish my first-aid kit, update my blog etc and catch the Six-Nations Rugby in the King's Head today, the three opening matches are all entertaining. The Boomerang Hotel has cut their rates for me to an unbeatable E£60 (£6) a night including breakfast. Hotels are fighting for the few tourists that are here this season.
Slideshow of Luxor

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Kom Ombo: Temple of Sobek

Fierce protector god, Sobek
Thursday 24 January: Today I queue for a 1st class train ticket (E£13) to the small town of Kom Ombo, 25 miles north of Aswan. From the sleepy station a private taxi (E£20) drops me off at the small but unique Nileside temple, 3 miles east of town, the driver is happy. 
Of similar age to the Temple of Isis at Philae, many of the reliefs were completed by Ptolemy XII (Cleopatra VII's father) during the Ptolemaic (33rd) Dynasty, about 2,300 years ago. However, the fierce crocodile-headed god, Sobek, had been worshipped here at his cult centre since predynastic times when sacred crocodiles would have basked in the sun on the riverbank.
What makes the temple architecturally unique is that it was actually two temples, one each side of central axis. Falcon-headed sky god, Haroeris, was worshipped on the left side and Sobek on the right. Behind the temple a new museum showcases thirty mummified crocodiles, a few of many exhumed from sacred tombs in this area.
Negotiating a taxi back to the station (E£10) I jump on the next, 3rd class (94th mode of transport), train south and, as tourists aren't allowed on some trains, I pay on the train. It's E£2 (about 20p) for the for the reasonably comfortable, but slow, one-hour journey back to Aswan. Good day out.
Slideshow of Kom Ombo Temple.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Abu Simbel

Giant builder, Ramses the Great
Monday 21 January: I'm back in Aswan primarily to visit Ramses the Great's two magnificent temples at Abu Simbel. As a legacy of the turbulent 1990's vehicles heading to the site, 175 miles south of Aswan, must travel in convoy. This gives me two options, either to take the 7:00am local bus, arriving at midday, or opting for a minibus tour, departing at 3:00am. I choose the latter as it will give me more time at the monuments, but I will have to suffer the company of a multitude of package-tourists from the coach convoy (94th mode of transport).
Temple of Ramses II
Arriving at 7:00am I rush ahead of the disorganised tourist hordes and for a while have the colossal rock-sculptured temple frontage all to myself. Awesome is a word often inappropriately used nowadays but the four giant statues of Ramses II are just that. The facial features of each statue are slightly different, ageing slowly from left to right to emphasise the great king's long,19th Dynasty, 67-year reign. The greatest of all the New Kingdom pharaohs, Ramses II built Abu Simbel around 3,250 years ago as a show of strength to any Nubian boatmen approaching from the south. The numerous inner chambers are a delight with colourful reliefs depicting everything from scenes from daily life to warfare scenes showing Ramses II smiting and trampling his northern Hittite enemies at the Battle of Kadesh (no photos allowed).
Temple of Hathor
Ramses II dedicated the nearby Temple of Hathor to his favourite wife, Nefertari, and, unusually at the time, her statues are carved in equal proportion to his own. During his long 96 year life Ramses the Great had 200 wives and legitimate consorts who, between them, bore him as many as 90 sons and 60 daughters, probably more.
Originally carved out of a mountain on the west bank of the Nile, both temples were sliced into manageable blocks and relocated here to avoid being submerged by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Returning to Aswan we stop briefly to look at the High Dam, four hours drive to the north.
Slideshow of Abu Simbel.