Thursday, December 31, 2009

Egypt Day 7 Fishing on the Nile

Four of us went fishing by taking a boat a kilometre upstream, morning on an island and fishing off the side and back of the boat. After a slow start, we finally got the hand of pulling on the bites and In an hour or so we each caught over 20 Nile perch, and that is not a fishy tale – absolutely true. It was slaughter out there – although we returned all the fish. It was a beautiful calm day, the Nile as flat as a mirror.

Then our last game of tennis, a final lunch and back to an icy and frozen England. Will be back next year, Inshallah.

Egypt Day 6 Hieroglyphics

Tennis, then getting to grips with hieroglyphics. Trips to temples and tombs are always more interesting when you can read the cartouches and spot some simple word and features. Hieroglypics means ‘writing of the gods’ and was written on papyrus and stone for four thousand years, finally coming to and end with a late Roman inscription on the temple at Philae. The Rosetta stone, discovered in 1799, then deciphered by Champillon in 1827, has unleashed a wealth of knowledge about ancient Egypt.

Start with identifying the direction of writing, usually right to left into the faces of the animal signs. then cartouches, with the names of the Pharaohs. You soon get to spot the Rameses and Amenhoteps, even Cleopatra and Alexander. The numbers are straightforward, and easy to spot at Karnac and Medinet Habu. Then the determinatives next as they unlock the general meaning of the words, such as those for Gods, officials, town, land, writing etc.. Plurals with their three vertical lines and so on. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Mark Collier, is a pretty good introduction. It’s a fantastic feeling to understand just a name or number as even in ancient times less than one percent could read this language and you’ll know more than anyone did for almost twomthousand years before 1827!

Our last night so we went into town by boat, had a beer by the side of the Nile, saw Sammy, the gay waiter, then off into town for some shopping. There are several good book shops and plenty of scarfs, spices and te usual stuff in the souks. Viagra seems to be on sale in every pharmacy – that’s new. The over on the local ferry for another excellent meal at Tutankamuns.

Egypt Day 5 Mons Cluadianus

Arranged our trip into the Eatern Desert with our local fixer Ahmed Balal, who arranged a taxi for all seven of us to a meeting point on the Qena Safaga road, where we had a 4X4 waiting with a Beduoin driver to take us to Mons Claudianus, source of the famous Granito del Foro.

We followed the wadi that the Romans used as the transport road from the quarry to the Nile, some 200 kilometres away to the west. The Roman road can still be seen in places, simply marked by the row of cleared stones on either side. Cart ruts have given useful information about the way the pillars and stones were transported.

First stop was a Roman way station with rectangular walls, a watch tower and a 45m deep well.These roads have stations and watchtowers along their entire route. On the other side of the road were the graves of the people who manned the outpost.

Several kilometres later, through some lovely desert scenery, we came to Mons Claudianus, stopping in front of a huge broken pillar. To the left was the rectangular garrison and to the right a ramp, which we climbed to the first quarry, where we saw the wedge marks in the rock (dampened to expand and split the rock).

Looking down one can see the garrison or town, a walled rectangular structure, half fort, half town. You could see the classic rectangular Roman street structure and some of the houses were still intact. Beyond it was another rectangular structure, which were stables.

Following the roman road round the hill we came across a huge quarry and walked down to a loading ramp, with square holes for timber pulley frames. An enormous 200-250 ton pillar, 60 feet long, lay parallel to the loading ramp, perhaps it had slipped or rolled out of control. At either end are bossed wheels for rolling the pillar and bosses on its side for lifting. All around were faces of the back/white diorite, where unfinished pillars, blocks and wedge holes were visible. It was as if the quarry had been abandoned yesterday. Our guide told us that only two or three people a year come here a year, and we didn’t see any footprints. It was only discovered in the 19thcentury and was a restricted military zone for decades.

All around were stone towers, usually in pairs, either watchtowers, fire pyres (form working at night) or to support lifting gear. My guess is the last of these three hypotheses, as the workers were not slaves, but reasonably well paid labour. Josephus and others suggest that Roman quarries were worked with convict and slave labour but evidence has come from ostrica showing that they were paid a reasonable 47 drachmas a month, about half a soldiers pay but far more than workers in the Nile valley. There were about 1000 people working here. I also doubt that they would have had enough wood to fuel fires for hours of night work. Their position on ramps and around the areas where worked rocks lay, suggest supports for lifting gear. Every time we climbed up the side of a quarry another appeared on the other side. There are a total of 130 quarries at this site.

We descended and went up to the house complex that lay above the garrison, where a four columned portico structure (four bases and a capital lying around), an altar, with small courtyard and chapel off to the right. The chapel has an apse and two side apses, with some original plaster in place.

We then climbed down to the garrison stopping first at the bath complex, with its hypocaust and small bath rooms. Then into the main street, exploring the side alleys and one house that had its original roof in place (granite slabs). Then off to the stables and gymnasium. To the south of the garrison is a large Roman rubbish dump with thousands of amphora and pot shards. I presume this was where the ostrica evidence came from.

This quarry was in operation for over two centuries and is a testament to Imperial power and ambition. To scour the empire for just one stone, then transport 250 ton pillars across hundreds of kilometers of desert to the Nile on four and twelve wheeled carts, then down the Nile hundreds of more kilometres on boats, then loaded onto sea faring vessels for the trip to Rome, is truly mind boggling. It would appear that donkeys and oxen were used to pull huge wooden carts across the desert, but the logistics of the entire journey are almost beyond the imagination.

What this shows is the importance Roman Emperors attached to the pillars that adorned their temples. It was a statement of power and taste, that the resources of the entire empire were at their disposal. It would appear that the quarries were Imperial property and run by the Roman Army. Pillars fronted all temples, supported their buildings and even round structures like the Colliseum had pilasters.

A truly astonishing site and to visit the place where the pillars that adorn the Pantheon, Temple of Venus, Trajan’s Basilaica Ulpia, Hadrian’s Villa and other Roman temples, was a long standing ambition. The burnt pillar and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul also have pillars from this site. We had tea on the site before setting off further into the desert.

Mons Porphyrites lies 50 kilometers north of here, the source of the empire’s purple porphyry. There was lots of porphyry lying around the Mons Claudianus site.

Bedouin dinner

Another long desert drive took us up a long and wide wadi towards the largest mountain in the Eastern desert. There’s around 100,000 Bedouin in Egypt in the Eastern, Western and Sinai deserts. Those in the Eastern Desert stay put, while the others remain nomadic. The kids were feisty wearing bright clothes, whule the one woman we saw, was baking flat bread (just flour, water and salt) by rolling into a foot and a half diameter then baking it on an concave iron sheet of metal, heated by burning camel dung. She was dressed from head to toe in black. A few of us went off on a camel ride, while we walked to the mosque, the only stone structure in the village and the well, some three hundred meters from the village (as they attract snakes and scorpions).

We ate shish kebabs, potatoes and salad with the flat bread, then sat about watching the sun fall behind the mountains. Then off again to the Red Sea coast in the longest drive across sand and rocky desert to rendevous with our taxi and back to Luxor.

About an hour into our trip on the road to Qena was topped to look at the stars, a sight you never see at home, a sky teeming with thousands of stars and the occasional shooting star. Through binoculars, the milky way was a dense mass of white dots.

Egypt Day 4 Lazy day

Lazy day after a game of tennis ,with Gil, in the heat. Just chatting, practising my French with Jackie and idling away the hours, as we have a very long day, up at five, tomorrow.

Egypt Day 3 Tombs of the Nobles

Up early to get bus into town, then local ferry to West Bank, where we hired bikes (£1 per day) and headed off to the tombs –ten in all, including Userhat, Khaemhet, Ramose, Userhet, Nakht,Bennia, and Menna.


The premier tomb, without doubt, was Ramose, where a chamber with a dozen columns held unfinished work on the far right hand side of the tomb. This was because Akenaten had come to power and moved everyone to Armara, leaving the tomb, almost finished. There are literally hieroglyphics that are fully carved, then painted templates then nothing. This huge funerary effort had simply been abandoned, forever unfinished. It has proved useful as a guide techniques in painting and wall relief. You can see (Amenhotep IV - Akenaten and Nefrititi images chipped out by later pharaohs. The work on the wall to one’s immediate left is immaculate. The room is testament to a revolution.

In general these tombs were for high ranking civil servants, the people who ran the show. In this sense they were free from the imperatives that Royal tombs had, concerning ceremony and images of the afterlife. They had a more naturalistic approach with scenes from everyday life – farming, fishing, fowling with bent sticks, music, dancing, waiting on a haircut.

Menna, the scribe of the granary, has scenes from his work, ploughing, sowing, measuring fields of corn, cutting, threshing, storing, even girls fighting in the fields. It’s all about measurement and writing. Nakht was a vintner and his tomb is full of images of grapes and wine – picking, pressing, poring into amphora.

We had a picnic in the shade of a Tomb’s entrance alongside 20 or so Egyptian students who were keen to practice their English. They were absolutely delightful.

We hired a boat for the three mile journey south on the Nile to the Jolie Ville just before sunset then had a snooze before heading off to a lecture on Tomb 33 in Luxor

Evening lecture

All seven of us attended the evening lecture on Tomb TT33, which turned out to be in French. Some of us got the gist of it, others had to rely on the fact that one of our group is French, so he filled out the details in El Hussein’s restaurant, down past Karnac.

On the Englishman, Pococke in 1737, the French in 1798, then the German Deumichen in 1881. It would appear that the tomb was sealed as it had been full of bats and ammonia gas, then the front rooms used for storage. So when he took on the job, the first task was to catalogue the stored contents, including Carter’s boxes from the Tutankhamen tomb.

What makes this tomb so fascinating, is the fact that it’s bigger than most royal tombs, with 22 rooms, on three levels. It’s an enigma. His theory was that Padiamenope was doing something quite extraordinary in terms of architecture and writing. He saw this man as someone who deliberately designed a tomb to include a history of Egyptian Royal architecture, as well as a full library of texts, and a message to future visitors to see and respect the tomb. He amasses a wealth of evidence to support this theory, architectural as well as literary. He was, in effect, an ancient Egyptologist. On this reading, this could be the most interesting tomb in Egypt.

Later we sealed the deal to take us all on a huge trip to the Roman Quarry, Mons Claudianus, in the Eastern Desert. It involves a long road trip, then 4x4s into the desert. Our fixer, had never heard of the place and I had to show him on Google Earth (he had never seen Google Earth either!). We’re on our way on Monday.

Egypt Day 2 Birdwatching

Even warmer today, so we took a long walk around the island, one of Egypt’s best birdwatching sites. Within minutes we had seen several kingfishers hovering then diving into the Nile and egrets galore. Round the north end to the east side we saw Squacco Herons and a Black Kite fight off a Kestrel. There are lots of kites on this side of the island. Every 200 yards we’d spot a pair of green bee-eaters. They are a magnificent emerald green with a black horizontal stripe across their eyes. A wagtail was eating ants as they crossed the dirt road in a line,also Grey Herons, Spur-winged Plovers, more Black-shouldered Kites, Swifts, Swallows, Doves, Hoopes, Moorhens, Cootes and Purple gallinules. Now that's a list! Later, while watching the sunset we saw hundreds of geese fly north, following the migratory route that is the Nile.

Egypt Day 1 Temple of Mut

Just got news that it’s snowing in England, but it’s heading towards 25 degrees here in the Jolie Ville in Luxor. After breakfast on the Nile terrace in the warm sunshine, we played two sets of tennis then lounged by the pool for lunch. The boys pulled me into the pool (as they do).

Temple of Mut

Then some of us (Jackie and Jaqui) take the boat up river, while the rest took a taxi into town. The two Jackies decided to explore the Temple of Luxor while we headed off by foot to the Temple of Mut, which lies between the Luxor Temple and Karnac. We had tried to get access last time we were here but the archaeologists insisted that there was no public access allowed. This time we thought we’d try a visit after they had gone home for the evening. We walked past the three churches (Catholic, Evangelical and Coptic) alongside the newly excavated avenue of the sphinxes to the right had turn and to the gate at dusk. We timed this, as it’s being excavated and is therefore closed to the public. Our guess was right, the policeman and two watchmen let us in through the huge locked gates for some backsheesh.

It was a superb sight; first a courtyard lined with black basalt statues of Sekmet. There must have been over sixty all looking inwards into the rectangular courtyard. Then through a gate with two relief carvings of Bes and to the real prize, the large10 foot statue of Sekmet holding an Ank in her left hand. This was in the Temple itself, then off to the right to see the sacred lake, which surrounds the site on three sides. It was a magical sight, being completely alone in the semi-dark with bats and birds feeding off insects on the surface of the lake. We were hurried out, as the boss was coming.

Eating out on West Bank

We walked back, through the backstreets to meet our companions at the local ferry gate and headed off on one of the three new ferries, to the West Bank and Tutankamun’s Restaurant. Once again we feasted on real Egyptian food – spicy Courgette soup with Egyptian bread, spiced spinach, spicy green beans, meatballs, chicken and banana curry, cauliflour, rice, mint tea and fruit, all for £5 per head. Our table was on a balcony overlooking the Nile and while we were waiting a red lantern flew over our heads towards the East bank.

Crazy Taxi

We bought some water (25p per litre) and took the ferry back, hailed an old Peugot taxi that takes seven, and headed back with a lively driver who had a MP3 palyer stuck into the cigar lighter, with a remote control! The fumes were unbearable but he honked his horn all the way back, where we sat on the edge of the Nile in the darkness for a final chat.