Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Astrid!

Tried to send Astrid a message, but not sure it got through. Did not get a reply. Of course it would have been just after midnight, so that was not a big surprise! May she will get it later.

Packed and ready to go by 7:30. Take our one suitcase and two cabin cases down to the hotel restaurant where we have a substantial breakfast (included with the room), with Ful Mendanes, a very basic Egyptian food like refried beans, a boiled egg, cheese and Egyptian bread.

We found it curious that there was a Christmas tree in front of the hotel in El Minya, but Dalia explains that Christmas is widely celebrated in Egypt, and we did see Christmas decorations still displayed in a number of places, including little Santas hanging from mirrors in cabs!

When Dalia comes to pick us up, we find we have a different driver (no explanation, but we surmised either Dalia or Samir had fired him). We easily found the Beni Hasan site and found it well worth the trouble. Dalia explains these are tombs of high officials, governors and military men rather than kings and so they feature scenes of everyday life. They date to the Middle Kingdom, 11th and 12th dynasties, about 2000 to 1780 BC.

In contrast to most places, the city of El Minya is on the west bank and the tombs are on the east side of the river, cut into high limestone cliffs across from the city. The reason is that only the east bank cliffs were suitable for tombs – the limestone on the west side of Nile here is just too fragile.

The tombs are high up on the East Bank cliffs, cut straight into living rock, part of the mountain. Typical is a big doorway with a courtyard, a door surrounded with text telling the story of the man’s life.

Next generally is one large room, about 40 by 40 feet, with 12 foot high ceilings and columns. Walls and ceilings all painted after being plastered to smooth them. Scenes are of ordinary life, offering tables (so that survivors know what the deceased wants - things like bread, meat, wine, fruit), places for sarcophagus. Several of the tombs had a separate room with niche in back for statues of owner and possibly wife and children, and to side, deep grave shafts, 50 or 60 feet down. No mummies or coffins were found in any of these tombs. All valuables were removed in antiquity - cedar doors covered with gold leaf were probably the first to go. Today, only the paintings, many of which are still brilliant, remain.

The tombs were later used by Coptic Christians, to hide from would-be persecutors. Over the centuries, the tombs were also used as stables (holes have been cut into floors to allow tethering of animals) and for storage.

There are a total of 39 tombs here but only a handful are open to the public and in good condition.

This site is especially interesting because it gives us a peek into the daily lives of these people who lived as much as 4,000 years ago. Because these are for ordinary people rather than kings and queens, the paintings are of daily life, rather than the affairs of gods. The wall murals in Beni Hasan are decorated with paint only, rather than the older painted-relief.

The earliest tomb we visit is that of Baqet, who was apparently enthusiastic about wrestling. One entire wall of his tomb depicts almost 200 wrestling positions. (Sadly you are not permitted to take pictures in any of these tombs, but there are some professional pictures so that you can get an idea what they look like.)

Son of Baqet was Kheti, like his father a local governor, and he shows many agricultural enterprises, including wonderful depictions of winemaking, harvesting of various recognizable crops, and other activities of rural life. Below is the main room of his tomb.

Below is the interior of Khnumhotep's tomb. Like many of the tombs here, and all the features - beams, columns, etc., have no structural function, but are works of sculpture. In this picture below you can see the base of one of the columns. The paintings are idealized representations of the life of a gentleman farmer, showing how Khnumhotep envisioned his afterlife. A statue of Khnumhotep would originally have stood in the niche in the wall.

It is important to remember that the ancient Egyptians were not so much focused on death as the effort they put into their tombs might suggest. It may be more accurate to see them as cherishing their lives so much that they wanted to continue the activities they had enjoyed in this life in the next one!
From El Minya, we drive to Amarna, the city of Akhenaten, the heretic king. He was originally crowned Amenhotep IV but a few years into his reign, he changed his name and began to promote a single god, the Aten. When the priests of the other gods, especially Amon Ra, apparently sought to undermine his authority, he chose to move the entire capital to a new site, in Western Desert, choosing his site where a clef in the rocks perfectly framed the sun.

He was building in haste, but he still created an impressive city. Because the basic construction material was mud bricks for most of the buildings, including his palace, little remains save the foundations.

Today we have a police escort- a pickup truck with a policeman driving and three more in the back under a truck cap. It is still chilly and they are huddling under blankets, armed with military submachine guns.

There are armed guards with AK 47s or similar at the archaeological sites too.

To reach Amarna, we drive parallel to the west bank through agricultural land and take a small ferry across the Nile, together with our escorts, and local people doing their day to day business. We see very few tourists.

The most important thing to see at Amarna is the location, isolated and, at least today, desolate. Boundaries and layout of a good sized city that came and went in two decades. It may have been the first planned community on the planet. The cliffs also on the east side of the Nile above the city site are where the tombs were built and from that vantage point you can get an idea of the extent of the city, called Akhetaten in ancient times

We visit three tombs of nobles. Ahmose was 'Fanbearer on the King's Right Hand', 'Steward of the Estate of Akhenaten' and 'Royal Scribe." Mery-ra's tomb included an image of Akhenaten presenting him with the collar as high priest of the Aten. This tomb also contains the best representation of what the city must have looked like at its height. Penthu's tomb includes scenes of a visit from the royal family to the temple and the royal family giving a reward to Penthu at the temple.

What makes these tombs so different from those of Beni Hasan is not just the centuries that separate them or even the difference in artistic style. At Amarna non royal tombs do not show activities of daily life but rather show the owner paying homage to the Pharaoh and his beautiful wife Nefertiti. And of course the Aten is prominently featured everywhere.

Most tombs here were never finished and never occupied by their builders.

In most places at Amarna, the faces of the King and his Queen have been obliterated, and the king's cartouche has been erased has been defaced in most places.

Akhenaten's temple was of course, built of stone, but successors who wanted to erase all history of the heretic carted away most of the stone, often reusing it in their own construction. Unlike all other Egyptian temples, the Great Temple of Aten was never roofed, because worship of the Aten required that the temple be open to the rays of the sun.
He was building in haste, but he still created an impressive city. Because the basic construction material was mud bricks for most of the buildings, including his palace, little remains save the foundations. Another innovation was using smaller, uniform sized stone blocks to build his temple to the Aten, so it could could be quickly built. It turned out, this also allowed the temple to be quickly torn down, and the materials used elsewhere.Thousands of these blocks were used as fill in a Rameses II Pylon at Karnak Temple. Twentieth Century Archaeologists found these, recorded the carvings on each of hundreds of pieces, and were able to piece them together like a puzzle. These are now some of the best images of the art of Akhenaten's time, though the priests and his successors tried to erase him and his religion from history.

Dalia and Eloise on the site of the the great temple

Later rulers however made sure that the Aten – solar disk – symbol, was effaced in many locations.

We also visit the ruins of the royal palace, which is today mostly just piles of rubble from the disintegrated mud brick.

Our last visit of the day is to Tuna El-Gebel and the famous catacombs where thousands of mummies of baboons and ibises have been found, each in its own little niche carved our of the stone. This was a place sacred to the god Thoth and these animals were offerings to associated deities.
Mausoleum of Isadora

There are a number of late tombs here, some in very poor shape, but we did visit those of Petrosirius and Isadora, a Roman princess. She was placed a mausoleum here by her father after she died while trying to swim the Nile to meet her lover. She appears well preserved but is not as true mummy. She is simply desiccated by the extremely dry climate. We see distinctly Roman column on the chapels.

We stayed here until almost the 4 pm closing time and on the road out we visited what may be the most interesting thing here. With only minutes to spare, we scampered up several hundred steps to the cliff s to see the boundary stella of Akhenaten’s city.

This monument escaped destruction after Akhenaten’s reign and is the only known stella marking the boarders of Akhenaten's great city that was not defaced. It is a 1 ½ times life-size relief showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their four daughters. And Queen Tye, Akhenaten’s mother as well, adoring the Aten symbol. This is very dramatic art and differs greatly from other traditional stylized Egyptian relief’s it is well protected behind Plexiglas and is very impressive. The only reason we got to see this place is because all of our work on fitness is paying off!

Dalia gets a phone call from the guards demanding that we hurry up and leave – it’s past closing time. A van full of German tourists is complaining because we went up there and they were not allowed to do likewise. We leave at 4:10 pushing the rules and drive for 5 hours, at night with a police escort, to Abydos.

During the course of this day, we have seen so much that is wonderful. But now we have a very long drive. We have paused at a rest stop for a quick bathroom break, and see one more wonder - the beautiful little bee-eater bird.

These long drives in Middle Egypt are scary. At night, big trucks driving two ways on a one way, supposedly limited access, highway – drive with - at most - only their running lights, and then flash their high beams continuously when they approach you. Past 9 pm on the outskirts of Abydos, the escort leaves us.

We are driving slowly on a small road in a settled area. There are pedestrians everywhere along with donkeys, tup-tups (odd-looking three-wheeled vehicles imported from India), buffalos, carts of all kinds (pulled by donkeys, horses and people), big loads on small vehicles, no lights, dark clothing. Somehow we do get to our destination without incident. At the Abydos House – a private home sort of like a bed and breakfast - our dinner is the best meal so far in Egypt: pyramid bread (baked in the sun without an oven), vegetable soup, grilled chicken, and rice pilaf - all absolutely delicious.

By the way the rest of the left-over chicken from Day 2 plus Dalia’s contributions of cheese, jam, tinned chicken, tomatoes, Egyptian bread, cucumbers, instant tea mixed with bottled water, chocolate cake, oranges and an apple made good road food – we never stopped for lunch. We were on a purposeful expedition and did not want to waste time to stop to eat – assuming there was such a place.

We had had a 16-hour day, we ate like kings and slept like babies and up early the next day for Abydos.

Other pictures from the day are here:

1 comment:

  1. I did not get the message, but I figured you were busy... ;)