An Archeology-related Tour 2003

Aug 31, 2022 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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Most of this year’s tour group of 12 people left Sydney on Wednesday 24 September bound for Cairo, via Kuala Lumpur. Once in Cairo we met up with other members who had arrived in Cairo earlier – they met us in the hotel foyer, fresh after a night’s sleep, while our party arrived feeling tired, but too excited to sleep as we commenced our first sightseeing.

Our first morning in Cairo was spent at the popular Pharaonic Village where ancient Egypt comes to life with hundreds of costumed actors playing the part of farmers and villagers, nobles and priests as we travelled through the theme park. The real highlight of the village however is the replica of Tutankhamen’s tomb where we could take pictures of the treasures as they were found in 1922. That afternoon, our correspondent in Egypt, Magda, showed us around the real treasures in the Cairo Museum. Nothing has changed there, although there have been plans to move some of the objects to a new museum on the outskirts of Cairo.

We flew south to Luxor where we explored the huge temple of Karnak with its pylons and gateways, obelisks and statues. I explained to the group the significance of a 15 metre long wall relief not usually noticed by the regular tour groups. Carved by order of Thutmosis III, it documents his invasion of the city of “Qodesh”, possibly another name for Jerusalem. The relief shows the vast quantities of gold, bonze and alabaster objects he looted and brought back to Egypt. Dr Immanuel Velikovsky has identified many of the objects as coming from the temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. The Bible identifies this Egyptian king as “Shishak” and the looting of the temple in Jerusalem is recorded in 1 Kings 14:25 – 26.

Three kilometres south of the temple of Karnak is the temple of Luxor. In ancient times, an avenue of sphinxes connected the two temples, and this year I took the time to trace that route. Although most of the sphinxes have either been removed or destroyed, excavations have exposed a few remaining sphinxes, or at least the stone plinths on which they stood. The route of the avenue is well known and the antiquities department plans to once again expose this road and restore many of the sphinxes.

Our group was delighted to spend a relaxing day in Luxor. Some explored the two excellent museums – one is intriguingly named “the Museum of Mummification”. Others crossed the Nile River on a ferry, emulating the journey the kings and priests made towards the ancient burial grounds on the west of the city. The village opposite Luxor is called Gezeerah and here life seems to be much slower and quieter than in bustling Luxor.

This year our tour group was able to spend two whole days on the west bank of the Nile, in the so – called “city of the dead” where the pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties built their funerary temples and constructed their tombs. After photographing the Colossi of Memnon, the huge statues of Amenhotep III that guard the place where a vast temple once stood, we travelled to the city of the workmen at Deir el Medina. For Terry, one of our tour members, to stand in the centre of the village was a life-long dream fulfilled. She had read about the discoveries made here, which included not just the houses in which the workmen lived while carving the kings’ tombs, but also their own exquisitely decorated tombs. Archaeologists have found many household items and even inscriptions on broken pieces of pottery and slabs of rock. Written by the workmen, the inscriptions name the people who lived here, along with their wives and children. There are lists of their food rations, their occupations, how much they were paid, and even documents when they went on strike for better wages and conditions.

Near the village we visited two tombs, including the famous tomb of Sennedjem showing him and his wife working in the fields of the afterlife. The ruined temple of Rameses II is nearby and here our group posed for a photograph underneath huge statues of the king, formed in the image of the god Osiris, king of the underworld. Nearby is an even larger statue, broken into pieces.

On a whim we decided to visit the Valley of the Queens. It is so called on account of a number of tombs cut into the cliffs for some of the royal queens, including the recently restored tomb of Nefertari, wife of Rameses II. Her tomb is currently closed for further restoration, so our group visited the tomb of Queen Titi nearby. Not far away is the tomb of Prince Amen-her-khopshef, a son of Rameses III, whose walls are covered with some of the most colourful paintings.

From the valley we travelled to the village of Qurna and saw two tombs belonging to the noblemen who were buried here, Ramose and Userhet. A recent regulation made by Egypt’s antiquities department now forbids all photography inside the tombs on the west bank, so I was glad that I had photographed all the tombs last year – those pictures are available on the Egypt CD advertised on page 28.

On our second day exploring the city of the dead, we visited the exceptionally well-preserved temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu where I explained the problem of the so-called Philistines who are supposedly depicted there. Then we were off to the temple of Hatshepsut cut into the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri. On the walls of her temple are the famous reliefs of her expedition to Punt, probably the land of Israel during the rule of King Solomon. The angle of the early morning sun made many of the coloured reliefs clearly visible and they could be photographed.

The two lower terraces of Hatshepsut’s temple have always been open to visitors, but this was the first time I was able to explore the previously closed upper terrace. Recently restored after many years work and now also opened to the public, the courtyard at the top of the temple has been virtually rebuilt by the team of Polish archaeologists who have worked here for many years. The terrace consists of an open courtyard surrounded by a colonnade. Reliefs cover the walls, though these are not well preserved. On the side of the courtyard nearest the mountain is a small chapel, partly cut into the cliffs, where priests were supposed to pray for the queen’s welfare after her death. Brightly coloured paintings showed Queen Hatshepsut seated, or standing, among the gods.

We travelled in our air-conditioned bus to the famous Valley of the Kings where our group saw the tombs of Rameses III, Rameses IX, Merneptah and Tutankhamen. Since all interior photography and even talking is now forbidden inside the tombs, I saw little point in revisiting tombs I had already seen, so left the group to wander at leisure. In oven-like heat, I took a brisk run around the whole valley and deliberately photographed the entrance to every tomb exploring all the branches and wadis on each side to cover the 62 tombs found so far in the valley.

From Luxor, we made a day trip north to the temple of Seti I at Abydos, where the famous “king list” is inscribed on the wall, and the underground cenotaph or burial monument Seti built for himself behind the temple. The reliefs inside the temple are among the best – preserved anywhere in Egypt and show the high quality workmanship that is characteristic of this period. That afternoon we visited the Ptolemaic temple of Hathor at Denderra with its famous “zodiac ceiling” in a room on the roof.

Our journey to Aswan was by road, stopping at two more Ptolemaic temples along the way – the impressive temple of Horus at Edfu where a gigantic statue of the god guards the gate, and the double temple of Kom Ombo covered with reliefs of the crocodile god Sobek. There are even mummified crocodiles in a little museum next to the entrance!

After checking into the New Cataract Hotel in Aswan, and pausing to admire the stunning view over the Nile River and Elephantine Island that so inspired Agatha Christie, we hired a felucca for the afternoon. Driven by a brisk northerly breeze, we soon reached Sahel Island where there are many ancient inscriptions cut into the rocks. One of them, cut into a granite monolith near the top of a high hill, is known as “Hungry Rock” because it describes a period of 7 years when the Nile River failed to flood its banks during the annual inundation. As a result, Egypt was gripped by a disastrous famine. The inscription seems to describe the famous seven-year famine that took place during the rule of Joseph as described in the Bible.

Our itinerary the following day had to be changed slightly. Due to the lack of tourists in Egypt, a fact for which we were thankful, several EgyptAir flights had been cancelled, including our flight to Abu Simbel. The passengers were all combined into one flight, but the departure time was later than we had planned. Instead of flying to Abu Simbel in the cool of the morning, we spent much of the morning sightseeing around Aswan. We stopped first at the quarries from which many of the pharaohs obtained their supplies of granite. Dr Zahi Hawass, head of the antiquities department in Egypt, has recently identified places in the quarry where seven huge obelisks were quarried out of the granite, using balls of even harder diorite to crush the granite surrounding the monoliths and release them. We saw the obelisk of Hatshepsut still lying unfinished in its bed after it was rejected when a fault developed halfway along its 42 metres. If it had been completed, it would have been the tallest obelisk in Egypt.

After crossing the Aswan High Dam, we arrived at the airport for our flight to Abu Simbel. Our group spent several hours exploring the two temples of Rameses II, one built for himself and one for his wife. These temples were removed from their original locations, now under the waters of Lake Nasser created by the dam. Also moved was the beautiful temple of the goddess Isis at Philae, near Aswan, now rebuilt on an island that was literally reshaped to recreate the original location, now also flooded.

From Aswan we flew north to Cairo again where the next two days were more relaxed and included a tour of the old Citadel overlooking Cairo, followed by a shopping expedition into the bustling el-Khalili bazaar. Some of the group visited the old Coptic churches located within the Roman fortress known as “Babylon.”

Sunday was the day most of the group had been waiting for. We began by touring the site of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt. Little remains of the once great city except for the colossal statue of Rameses II lying on the ground under a specially constructed museum. From Memphis it is only a short bus ride through the village of Mit Rahina up onto the desert plateau to the step pyramid of Saqqara. We walked around the pyramid to see the place where a statue of Zoser, the builder of the pyramid, was originally placed inside a tiny chapel.

After exploring the labyrinthine maze inside the mastaba tombs of Mereruka and Kagemni, our tour group entered their first pyramid, built by Teti, first king of the 6th Dynasty. A short sloping tunnel leads down below ground level to a low horizontal passage that ends at the burial chamber. Inside is the empty sarcophagus while overhead, painted stars on the ceiling emulated the night sky.

Leaving Saqqara, our happy travellers ate their picnic lunches on the bus in order for us arrive at Giza in time to buy tickets to the next pyramid – the big one! Built by Khufu, of the 4th Dynasty, the pyramid is an impressive 137 metres high. Because only limited numbers of tickets are sold in two separate sessions each day, our group chose to stand in the queue under the hot sun for 45 minutes in order to get inside the monument. We were fortunate to be 4th in line. The wait was rewarded with the precious tickets, and while others were turned away, our group quickly climbed up the lower courses to enter the pyramid. Braving heat and claustrophobia, we walked up the ascending passage, then the grand ascending gallery, to the burial chamber of Khufu where an empty stone sarcophagus is all that is left.

Next door to the pyramid is the museum housing the famous “solar boat” that Khufu had buried with him ready for the afterlife. This year, for the first time that I can remember, photography was permitted inside the museum, and I was able to get some excellent pictures of the ancient wooden boat.

Many of the group wandered up the several hundred metres to the second pyramid at Giza, built by Khafre, while the rest walked down the hill, through the dozens of mastaba tombs of the nobility and lesser royalty, towards the Sphinx where they took those photographs that will convince everyone back home that they really were in Egypt.

Early next morning we left Cairo in our bus to follow the Israelite’s route across the Sinai desert. We travelled first through a shallow valley as we headed east. The modern highway follows the ancient road where a series of oases and springs made this the natural route through this part of Egypt. To the south a long mountain range ends abruptly at the Red Sea, blocking any travel in that direction. This is probably where Pharaoh cut off the fleeing Israelites, trapping them between the mountains and the sea. The only way forward was through the sea. At this point, debris washed down from the wadi forms a broad, undersea ridge, only 3 – 5 metres below the water level. It is possible that this is where the waters, blown back by supernatural forces, parted to allow the Israelites to cross the Red Sea.

We crossed by more conventional means, through a tunnel under the Suez Canal. We then spent the remainder of the day journeying down to Santa Katarina, the small town that has grown up at the base of the traditional Mt Sinai. This has been revered since the 4th century AD as the site of the giving of the Ten Commandments, on a mountain now called “Jebel Musa”, Mount Moses. In spite of the tradition, however, the site does not conform to the Biblical information regarding location or topography.

But there is something about the desert calm, the dramatic mountain backdrop, the cool evening breeze, the aroma of exotic plants and the dazzling stars overhead that makes the place feel sacred. Certainly our group found it a memorable experience, especially for the three brave souls who climbed from St Catherine’s Monastery (elevation 1,500 m or 4,925 ft) up to the summit of the mountain (2,285 m or 7,497 ft).

From Mt Sinai we travelled to Petra for our last day together. Leaving our hotel at Wadi Musa, we walked about a kilometre to the beginning of the Siq, the narrow gorge that was the entrance to Petra in ancient times. This winding passage in the rocks, 1.2 km long, was carved out of the soft sandstone by earthquakes and water that flowed through here after infrequent rainstorms. In fact, we saw the ancient tunnel cut by the Nabateans who lived here to divert the water away from the Siq in order to protect the entrance. The tunnel has been restored and together with a modern dam serves the same purpose today.

As the Siq reached its deepest and darkest point, we caught our first glimpse of el-Khazneh, the Treasury, glowing in the morning light, framed by the mouth of the Siq. The Treasury is thought to be a mausoleum for a Nabatean king, perhaps the 1st cent AD king Aretas IV who is mentioned in the New Testament. To my astonishment, excavations are proceeding right in front of the Treasury, under its very entrance door. A 3 metre deep trench had been cut into the rocky soil and looking down we could see two more carved doorways at the bottom. Recently discovered, the doors lead into even more ancient tombs, several metres below the present ground level. Either the ground level was much lower in ancient times, before the Treasury was carved, or there are some underground tombs in the basement of the iconic temple.

Our tour of Petra included all the major sites – the royal tombs, the temple (or tomb) of the Urn, the Silk tomb (so named on account of its multi-coloured facade), the Roman theatre and the paved street known as the Cardo in Roman times. At the end was the three-arched triumphal gate that gave access to the Forum. After all that, some of our group still insisted on climbing to the top of a nearby mountain to see the place of sacrifice, the infamous “high place.”

Brown University, in the USA, is continuing its work of excavation and restoration (and it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins) at the “Great Temple,” a project that has been continuing for some years. The Jordanian Dept of Antiquities is also working on conserving and restoring some of the facades of the tombs – one of the tombs, after many years work, has been completed, and work has started on another one next to it. At this rate, it will take millennia to conserve all the tombs that need this kind of care.

After a day walking in Petra we were grateful to sit in the bus as we travelled the 3 hours north to Amman where our group celebrated the end of the tour at dinner together. While still in Egypt, two tour members with a sense of humour, Brian, and his wife Barbara, had bought Turkish style red fez hats for everybody. After the group members all autographed each other’s hats, we posed for a final photograph before wishing each other farewell. The next day some of the group flew out to European destinations, while others returned to Australia. Just six of us were left to continue our adventures.

November 2003

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