18-20 October 2015. We have no idea what to expect. We have spent the night docked at the town of Edfu about one hundred kilometres south of Luxor. We leave the cruise boat very early in the morning. The first thing that draws my attention is a couple of men washing their horses in the river – a slice of daily life. Next we discover that we are to ride to a temple in a horse-drawn carriage. It sounds so regal, but the reality is of course much more prosaic. We all scramble to find a carriage and climb aboard. Our guide orchestrates it all and arranges payment so there is no fighting off over-enthusiastic chauffeurs. It is one of the advantages of being on a tour, especially in Egypt where hawkers are relentlessly pushy.
Our driver’s name is Abdullah. His horse, Samir, alternates between walking, trotting, and cantering. It’s a bouncy ride. And fun. Abdullah says several times very good English, very good English, though clearly this is not the case.
We pass through the quiet early morning streets of Edfu and once again I’m aware of how much Egypt reminds me of India. Only the costumes are different.
For several decades from around 237 BCE Egypt was ruled from Alexandria by Greco-Roman kings. The Greco-Roman kings presented themselves as pharaohs and imitated the traditions of Egypt. They were smart enough to allow the Egyptians to continue with their own spiritual practices, which happily included worshipping the pharaoh as a god.
The Horus Temple at Edfu was built during this period. It is the second largest of all Egypt’s ancient temples and is dedicated to the falcon god Horus, and his wife Hathor the cow goddess.
On the walls of the Temple of Horus are a total of 1811 hieroglyphic texts,
including one wall in a small room covered with instructions for making ancient perfumes. People are still making these perfumes today.
Horus was the divine son of the sibling gods Isis and Osiris. Their brother Seth, the evil one, killed Osiris. When Horus was grown he avenged his father’s murder by killing Seth and then took the throne in the pantheon of gods.
The texts in the Temple of Horus include the telling of a Mystery Play, which was performed as part of a religious ritual. In this ritual Seth appears as a hippopotamus lurking beneath his brother’s boat. At the end of the play, the priests cut up and eat a hippo-shaped cake. I am immensely amused by this. However when I was travelling through Africa thirty-five years ago I did learn how dangerous hippos can be. They wallow, almost hidden, in the rivers, and they can upturn a boat in second, so the hippo as a symbol of danger makes sense. But a hippo-shaped cake? Seriously? I suppose the symbolism of eating it is to destroy the evil one and gain power over the danger. I missed the hieroglyphics showing the hippo-shaped cake, though I don’t doubt their existence.
High on a hill near the temple I see the working day has begun,
and as we return to the boat from the temple we see a different Edfu – now more awake as people go about their daily activities.
There is no word for queen in the ancient Egyptian language so when Maatkare Hatshepsut claimed the throne in 1503 BCE, instead of passing it on to her stepson when he came of age, she simply called herself king. She styled herself as a king and had herself depicted with a pharaoh’s kilt and beard in order to legitimize her position.
She reigned for nearly twenty-two years and is possibly the earliest known ruling queen. In comparison Tutankhamun only reigned for ten years, and Ramses IV for only six. During her reign she reestablished trade routes and commissioned hundreds of construction projects. She is generally regarded as one of the more successful pharaohs. Clearly she was a force to be reckoned with.
The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, known as the Holy of Holies, is unlike any other Egyptian temple from antiquity. It is situated at Deir el Bahari, near the Valley of the Kings and is considered one of the premier monuments of ancient Egypt.
For visual impact from afar there is no comparison. The unique multi-tiered structure sits directly against the limestone cliffs, which form a natural amphitheatre around it, so the temple seems to emerge from the rock. From afar it draws you in.
There are statues of Hatshepsut as king along the pillars of the upper level,
and an uninterrupted view across the valley.
Inside, the paint has survived for three thousand years giving a hint of its original brilliance.
I longed to see Egypt’s ancient monuments as they would have looked when they were new and vividly coloured. My dream comes true in the Valley of the Kings.
On the western bank of the Nile, and beyond the cliffs behind the Temple of Hatshepsut is a valley that has been found to contain sixty-four subterranean tombs of kings and nobles from antiquity. Its official name was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes!
Walking down the tunnel into one of the tombs I start to get the same feeling I had at Abu Simbel. I can feel the welling of emotion. I can feel the history, and the connection to spirit and to other worlds. I feel as though I am standing in eternity. Noticing a painting of a boat I’m suddenly in tears because they cared enough to send this person on his journey with all he would need. Such devotion. Looking at the hieroglyphics has me in tears again. It’s as if I know what they say but I can’t remember. Once more I am undone by ancient Egypt. It’s a feeling of loss, of belonging, of homesickness, of understanding, of gratitude for the care and devotion from other worlds that was guiding it all. I think about why the ancient Egyptians went to so much trouble for their tombs, so much trouble and effort to try to ensure that the afterlife was easeful, so much trouble to create such elaborate tombs with walls and walls of hieroglyphic messages. It puzzles me. And then one reason arises almost instantly: to leave a reminder for people like you. It feels as if time is folding in on itself.
For nearly five hundred years, from 1500 to 1000 BCE, the tombs were constructed for pharaohs and powerful nobles. They were hidden away in this valley, far from Cairo and the Nile, with the hope that they wouldn’t be found and thus robbed. They were designed to resemble the underworld, each having a long sloping corridor down into the earth. Some have antechambers along the way, and the corridors end in the burial chamber. The walls are covered in symbolic images and are painted in vivid colours. Many of the hieroglyphics are thought to be magical spells to help the king in the afterlife.
A king’s tomb was begun the day he became king. On his death he was mummified, which took seventy days, and then he was placed in the tomb whether it was finished or not.
There was a village for the tomb creators and their families: those who dug down into the mountain, rubble removers, the stonemasons, the artists who covered the walls of the corridors and sarcophagus room with paintings and hieroglyphics. At any one time up to one hundred and twenty people dug and decorated the tombs. Most of the workers were illiterate artists, and the work was passed down through the same families for generations. They worked a rotating shift of ten days on and ten days off. The women were in charge of everything in the village, and the workers were carefully chosen for the job. Not carefully enough apparently since the original grave robbers were the workers who built the tombs.
Photographs are not allowed in the tombs. I discovered later, much later, that I could probably have bribed the guard to be allowed to take some, but I never think of such things. I highly recommend you visit Keep Calm and Wander for photographs of the breathtaking interior of the tomb of Ramses IV. The colours are rich and vibrant just as they would have been thousands of years ago. It was not crowded. Only our group was there, and we sat for some time in silence in this magnificent sacred space.
We visit three tombs: Ramses IV, Merenptah, Ramses V and VI, and Ramses III. They are without doubt collectively one of the most glorious things I saw in Egypt.
Photos from the Valley of the Kings in the Daily Mail
National Geographic article about the Valley of the Kings
Next post: Taken for a ride in Luxor
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.