Thursday, 7 March 2013


Journey to the afterlife
Wednesday 13 February: Back in Luxor, only two Cairo bound trains a day stop at the small station of El-Balyna and as a foreigner I'm not really supposed to board these slow stopper trains. But I buy a 2nd class ticket anyway (E£26) for the three hour journey north. I'm guessing that El-Balyna station won't have have a sign in Roman script so I try and memorise the Arabic version. It looks like an elongated "W" followed by a tall squashed "w," followed by a separate "I" which I know means "El" (Arabic reads right to left), plus a few dots scattered around for good measure. Three hours later as the train slows I spot an El-Balyna sign, jump off the train and flag a tuk-tuk (E£25) for the half-hour ride to Abydos. Good, I've avoided a police escort.
I'm staying in the House of Life, a quirky mostly half-built spa style hotel, where later I talk to a young French couple who arrived with a full police escort. They've had police in tow since leaving Dendera, forced to take a taxi with the officers to Qena station, accompanied by them on the train to El-Balyna and then brought here by taxi. I guess the pair are considered potentially at risk due to the French government's intervention in Mali. This is a strong Muslim fundamentalist area of Egypt and until fairly recently it was off limits to tourists. Ever prepared, I have a stash of Stella beers in my rucksack.
Thursday 14: Abydos is the mythical burial site of the god Osiris who became ruler of the netherworld and symbol of eternal life. The cult centre for the worship of Osiris, it has been an important burial site ever since and contains the mastaba tombs of several of Egypt's 1st dynasty pharaohs from around 5,000 years ago.
From the rooftop of my hotel, the original Old House of Life, the temple's row of chunky square limestone columns almost make it look new but the surviving structure was built by Seti I and completed by his son Ramses II (the Great) around 3,300 years ago. Once inside the two hypostyle halls the reliefs are vibrant and colourful, amazing. More important to Egyptologists is the Gallery of Kings which is carved with the cartouches of all the pharaohs from the 1st to the 19th dynasties making it a vital historical document. However, the 18th dynasty cartouches of the unpopular female pharaoh Hatshepsut and heretic pharaoh Akhenaten have been mysteriously omitted. Behind the temple is another mystery, The Osireion, a submerged columned chamber constructed of great blocks of granite.
A local taxi takes me to the station at El-Balyna where I board the train to El Minya, four-hours north. It's full so I end up standing most of the way until a kind young Muslim guy offers me his seat which I reluctantly accept, I'm a guest in his country.
Slideshow of Abydos.

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