B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The B.C. Archaeology Ramesses Tour of Egypt for 2011 left Australia on the 11th November and ran till the 2nd December. The flight over to Cairo was on Singapore Airlines which as always was very pleasant. The tour group consisted of the following participants: Richard and Sally Millington, Grahame Crookham and Kim Tiffen, Sandra Bardsley, Sandra Gorringe, and Elizabeth King. The tour was led by me, Michael Birrell, with the assistance of our local Egyptian guide Mohamed Aziz.

There was a sense of trepidation as we arrived in Egypt since the revolution in January-February had caused the overthrow of the Mubarek regime and there were many questions about security and whether we would see any trouble. Ongoing protests in Tahrir Square, the main square in the centre of Cairo, had meant that we stayed outside the city centre, using the very comfortable and well appointed Safir Hotel in the suburb of Dokki. Away from the heart of the city, life seemed to be going on as usual, although discussion with our guide Aziz quickly revealed how badly the tourist industry has been affected by the civil disturbances - many hotels are down to 15% occupancy, many of the cruise boats are not running, and the travel companies are having a very hard time, laying off staff in great numbers.

We got settled into the hotel and then headed off to Giza for the rest of the afternoon. In comparison to the usual crowds, the place was empty, our first taste of the current situation in Egypt. We explored the area around the Great Pyramid and then went over to the Pyramid of Menkaure which is currently open to the public. The area around the sphinx was quieter than I have ever seen it! We headed to the roof terrace of Pizza Hut for the best views over the plateau - the sunset was superb. We then headed to the Khan el Kahlilli Markets where we explored the shops and had some dinner.

The following morning we packed our bags and headed north to Alexandria. The weather was unseasonably gloomy (like the Egyptian economy) and when we got to Alexandria we discovered that the centre of town was flooded by heavy rains from the night before! However as the day progressed the sun came out and we saw the harbor in all its beauty. We went to the Fort of the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbey, built on the ancient site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria and re-using many of its stones. This medieval castle guards the entrance into the harbor and was designed by the Mamluks to keep the Ottoman Turks from occupying the city in the early 16th Century. We had a pleasant lunch at the 'Fish Market' restaurant with views over the city, and then saw the impressive Roman catacombs at Kom es-Shuqqafa - these rock-cut tombs contain fascinating scenes of Anubis and traditional Egyptian gods but from a Roman perspective. In the late afternoon we saw the nearby Serapeion, home of the Ptolemaic god of the Underworld. Our hotel was the beautiful Metropole Hotel which has pleasant views over the harbor.

Sunset at Giza - magical!
The November group at Luxor Temple

The following morning we returned to Cairo for a visit to the Cairo Museum. Located right in Tahrir Square we were grateful not to see any major protests but we could see the results of the January revolution in the form of the burnt out party headquarters nearby. The Museum was as empty as Iíve ever seen it, so we could take our time, and enjoy the galleries at leisure. The Museum has created a new restaurant alongside the main building where we had some lunch. In the afternoon we went to the airport for our flight to Luxor (Cairo traffic is worse than usual, since most of the traffic police are not working and no-one stops for the traffic lights - our usual half our trip to the airport took 2 hours!).

We stayed for a week in Luxor, this time using the Sussanah Hotel which overlooks the Avenue of Sphinx leading to Luxor Temple. The hotel is very centrally located, close to the antiquities and the main market with wonderful views across the river to the Theban Hills. On our first morning in Luxor, the 16th November, we went to Luxor temple. It was very quiet with very few tourists in comparison to normal numbers. A recently opened exhibition of inscribed relief scenes, giving an overview of Luxor Temple, is an excellent addition to the site. We had lunch at 'Snack Time' which has stunning views overlooking the temple - in the afternoon everyone had free time to explore the bookshops and market.

The following day we crossed the river and made our way to the antiquities of the West Bank. We stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon, remarkable monolithic sculptures showing King Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty. From here we went to Deir el Bahri, the complex of Queen Hatshepsut. The site was remarkably clear of other tourists. We saw the ruins of the Temple of Sety I, always little visited but containing beautiful reliefs. Our lunch was in the idyllic garden setting of the Amun Gezira Hotel where we were looked after by Ahmed Soliman and his staff.

In the afternoon we visited the recently opened Howard Carter Museum located in his original dig house. This is a wonderful place and really preserves a feel of a different era. Many of his original pieces of furniture are on display and of course the guardian did the usual 'I'll let you lie down on Carter's bed for a small fee' routine. Late in the afternoon we headed to the Valley of the Kings where we saw 3 royal tombs. This was actually quite busy since it was full of cheap (and I mean 'cheap and tacky') package tourists from Russia/Ukraine who are about the only people coming to Egypt at the moment.

View from our hotel across the river
Restored paintings in Hathor Temple at Deir el Medina

On the 17th November we went to the West Bank area again to see some more of the superb monuments in the area. We started with the fascinating ancient tombs and town at Dei el Medina, the location of the village of the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The tombs are beautiful and the recently completed restoration of the wall reliefs of the Temple of Hathor has really brought the scenes to life. We saw some more nobles tombs including those of Userhat, Kaemhat and Ramose. With so few tourists at the moment the local guardians were more than happy to let us take photos of the wall reliefs (for a small fee). In the afternoon we saw the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses II (Known in modern times as the Ramesseum). There was beautiful afternoon raking light which brought all the reliefs up for our photographs, including the famous scenes of the 'Battle of Qadesh'.

We then had a free day in the program. A few members of the group went to see antiquities (like Sandy and I) but most were happy to relax. Amongst the very Luxor things to do was afternoon tea at the Winter Palace - the setting is wonderful and the experience is definitely worth trying.

Every morning while staying in Luxor we saw the spectacle of the balloons rising in front of the Theban Hills - a stunning sight while we were having breakfast. On the 19th Nov we headed north of Luxor by bus to visit the temples at Abydos and Dendera. The trip to Abydos takes about 3 hours and takes one through scenic countryside, particularly where the cliffs come down to the riverís edge near Nag Hamadi. We found the Temple of Sety I very quiet and we could take as many photos as we liked. We also walked across the sands to visit the smaller temple of Ramesses II. On our way back to Luxor we stopped at Dendera. This temple was built by Ptolemy XII and his daughter Cleopatra in the late 1st Century BC. The cleaning work by the Egyptian conservators has really brought the colours up in a spectacular way - there is still much work to be done but the final results will be stunning!

The following morning we went to Karnak Temple - there were a few people around but as the morning progressed the temple halls cleared and we more or less had the place to ourselves. We walked over to the Khonsu Temple which is currently being cleaned and I could see major changes in the amount of colour in the first court. We walked through the main temple, exploring its many facets. The cafeteria which once stood near the 'Scared Lake' (so the sign said!) is now gone and we were required to visit the restaurant in the visitors centre outside and come back in again. That afternoon we had good sailing weather so we got a felucca on the Nile to watch the sunset - as one heads out of the town it becomes very rural and exotic.

Our last day in Luxor was spent at my favourite temple Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Here we explored the fascinating layers of history at the site including the Amun Temple, the palace of Ramesses III and the Tombs of the Godís Wives. We had morning tea in the little cafť nearby before visiting the Valley of the Queens. We had the site to ourselves and could take our time to look at the stunning painted reliefs, particularly those in the tomb of Prince Amen-hir-khopeshef.

On the 22nd November we headed south of Luxor to Aswan, stopping en route to see the Temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo. The trip is pleasant and frequently follows alongside the course of the river. At Edfu we encountered virtually no tourists at all (a group had just left, returning to their cruise boats) and it was pleasant to be able to walk through the columned halls without the usual crowds. We had a basic lunch and saw Kom Ombo Temple, built by the Ptolemies to the crocodile god Sobek. This time we had the whole place to ourselves. We then continued on our way, checking into our new hotel. This year we stayed at the Basma Hotel, which is a very pleasant hotel near the Nubian Museum with sweeping views of the Nile and the desert beyond.

The Nile at Aswan - beautiful!
Coffee and sheisha in the Aswan markets

In Aswan we arranged a felucca sailboat which took us around Elephantine Island to see the noble's tombs. It was a very pleasant windy day which was perfect for our sailing trip. We climbed the stairs to see the painted tombs, and some members of the group were more adventurous and climbed to the Dome of the Winds on the top of the hill to see the spectacular view over all Aswan. Our felucca sailboat then took us to Kitchener's Island, the Botanical Gardens of Aswan - here we saw some hoopoes (a type of woodpecker) amongst the palms, a sign of goodluck! We then had a late lunch on a small island near the Old Cataract Hotel - the late afternoon sunlight over the ruins of Elephantine was magnificent. We visited the Aswan markets in the evening and we shared a smoke of a sheisha pipe, something which everyone who visits Egypt should try at least once. The tobacco was flavoured with apple.

On the 24th November we went to Philae Temple. Relocated on a nearby island during the 1970's because of the construction of the Aswan Dam, the island preserves something of its original beauty. Unfortunately there was a hoard of Russian tourists in very inappropriate clothing but they all marched on quickly and we were left in relative peace to enjoy the serenity of the temple. The Ptolemaic era reliefs of the interior are particularly beautiful. We then visited the granite quarries to see the unfinished obelisk - it is remarkable how they extracted these great stones by chipping away at the granite using pieces of even harder dolerite! The afternoon was free to revisit the markets or go for a boat trip to Elephantine.

The following morning we were all up early to travel to Abu Simbel. The trip takes about three hours and we watched the sunrise over the desert en route. We checked into our boat, the very comfortable 'Nubian Sea' which was only about one third full. After a bite to eat we went up to the temples to find that most of the morning rush of tourists had gone - for a while we were alone in the Great Temple of Ramesses II and more or less had the Small Temple to ourselves as well. The reliefs and colours are stunning. That evening most of the group went to see the Sound and Light show which is well worth seeing.

In the morning the cruise boat left, pausing for photographs in front of Abu Simbel. We had the morning to relax, stopping briefly to see the ruins of Qasr Ibrim. In the afternoon, after lunch, the boat came to a rest and small launches took us to the shore where we explored the Temples of Amada and Derr and saw the tomb of Pennut. The painted reliefs from the early 18th Dynasty shrine at Amada are superb! That evening as the boat headed off again we had a splendid view of the Nubian Desert at sunset, made even more rosy as a result of a number of vodka cocktails.

On the 27th November we visited the wonderful Temple of Wadi es-Sebua. This was built by Ramesses II and like all these temples on Lake Nasser were moved after the construction of the Aswan Dam. It has a very exotic feel, and Cecil B de Mille would approve of all the sphinxes. Most members of the group caught camels to Dakka Temple across the desert. This is a grand shrine to the god Thoth mostly built in the Ptolemaic Period. For the rest of the afternoon we relaxed on board the boat and watched the landscape slide by. With so few tourists on board, we were treated like pharaohs by the staff.

The stunning Abu Simbel
Camel ride at Wadi es-Sebua

The following morning we made our last visit from the cruise boat - a trip to the Temple of Kalabsha, reconstructed not far south of the Aswan dam. It is from the Roman period and is suitably grand. The delicate painted reliefs of Ramesses II at Wadi es-Sebua are a highlight of the cruise. We then saw the High Dam, had some lunch and headed to the airport for our return flight to Cairo.

Our tour next took us to Saqqara, south of Cairo. This is famous as the location of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty. When we arrived there was only one other small minibus - otherwise we had the site to ourselves. We explored the complex of Djoser, and then saw the New Kingdom tombs at South Saqqara. These are now officially open after a long period of being closed for 'restoration'. We explored the tombs of Horemhab and Tia, but the real highlight was being able to go down into the burial chamber of the Treasurer Maya Ė the subterranean rooms have been reconstructed and are exquisite.

The final day of our tour was spent in Islamic Cairo. As a special treat we went and had a look at the recently re-opened Islamic Museum. The new arrangement of artefacts is a vast improvement on the previous jumble - there are some stunning artefacts. We then went to see the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of the great mediaeval buildings in the heart of Old Cairo and dating to the 9th Century. From here we went to the citadel where we saw the 19th Century mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha. A last minute visit to the Khan el Khalilli markets produced some bargains including a leather jacket for Grahame.

The Egyptian elections began while we were in Cairo and thankfully there were no major problems. The streets were full of election posters which were very interesting as the political parties used symbols to identify candidates for the many illiterate voters - we saw the cannon party, lantern, tennis racket, photocopier party etc. Letís hope that Egypt can find its way to a peaceful future.

Michael Birrell

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