The Road Less Traveled…Tell el -Amarna and El Minya
by Joyce Carta
It’s hard for me to believe that in my many trips to Egypt I had never been to the El Minya area. But not for lack of desire, always for lack of time. The car trip south from Cairo takes about 3 hours – it’s about 150 miles – to get to this area, then it’s best to spend an overnight, see more sights the next morning, and head back in the afternoon. El Minya is one of the big agricultural centers and modern farming techniques peacefully co-exist with very traditional methods. Tractors, combines and donkeys…this can sum it up. It’s known as the “Bride of Upper Egypt” as it’s situated at about where Upper and Lower Egypt join…and, en route, you pass close by Beni Suef and the Fayyoum Oasis…and on a clear day the Meidum Pyramid is visible from the highway.
We were heading directly to Tell el-Amarna, further south, altogether a distance of about 200 miles from Cairo. Our destination was the remnants of the capital city “Akhetaten” (the Horizon of the Aten) founded by the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaton, in the late 18th dynasty. The city was built and thrived with maybe up to 50,000 inhabitants for no more than 20 years…then abandoned and left for the sands to reclaim. The story of Akhenaton and his institution of the monotheistic worship of only the Sun God, Aten, is part of Egypt’s fabled lore…with his beautiful queen Nefertiti and oddly representational style of art…this was his fabulous showplace NEW capital, untouched by the power and corruption of the priestly class in Thebes. This destination used to be on most itineraries 30 – 40 years ago but its popularity waned. Time now to rectify this.
The approach to Tell el-Amarna is aboard a tiny but serviceable car & people ferry for the trip across to the east bank of the Nile. The day that I was there, I was the only non-Egyptian, so our little group had the exclusive services of the Egyptologist professionals on site. Always lovely to be the center of such learned attention!
The royal city of Akhetaten occupied a vast plain ringed by protective cliffs. It was chosen for its distance from Thebes (Luxor), the former and afterwards future capital of the empire and it’s also speculated that the Royal Wadi has the shape of the hieroglyph that meant “horizon.” Another of the tantalizing mysteries to the place. To try and imagine the palaces, structures and temples open to the light of the sun with its enormous population of workers is truly not terribly difficult, although the strongest impression is that of regal silence. The site was essentially abandoned after Akhenaton’s rule, until the Romans came to grow wheat along the Nile here…the shards of their clay pottery are everywhere.
We had the best view from the lofty site of Akhenaton’s Royal Tomb in the Royal Wadi. This is the only one I visited and is the only decorated tomb (what remains of the artwork was extraordinary), but the walls have been corroded by flooding as well as royal cartouche names hacked away. What was particularly intriguing is the curved passageway off to the right of the main access corridor…possibly for use as the exclusive entrance by Nefertiti, the Pharaoh’s Great Royal Wife, so that she could visit in private. There are 3 other tombs and a cache but these are unfinished. The entire Tell el-Amarna site was well detailed and archaeologists do have a very good idea of the city plan. Work continues sporadically on the site, as in all places along the Nile…so much to do. Our final stop was the Northern Palace, possibly the home of Queen Kiya or one of the royal princesses. Hoda, my Egyptologist friend, & I speculated on the scope of the building and how it must have looked with its royal furnishings alive with brilliant colors.
As we spoke a young mother strolled up with her son, local farming people, and Hoda, a young mother herself, struck up an immediate acquaintance. This is an Egyptian character trait I find so endearing – these two women from such different backgrounds launched into an immediate lively, laugh-filled conversation.
Time to head back to El Minya for overnight. We stayed at the Aton Hotel, a very comfortable property on the Nile bank with a number of their bungalow-style rooms overlooking the river. Dinner was the “fish” table d’hote…and it was simply delicious. Excellent lightly fried perch filets with brown rice and mixed vegetables, a fantastic sea food gumbo-type soup and side dishes of creamy and sharply flavorful tahina and babaganoush. Dessert was a full plate of honey and nut filled crunchy pastries. We slept the very contented sleep of the well traveled and very well fed.
The next morning after breakfast we awoke to be able to really appreciate the beauty of El Minya. So green and fertile and a relaxed area…for the two Cairenes I was with El Minya prompted daydreams about how nice it would be to have a country house in this area. It is a wealthy agricultural part of Egypt that doesn’t now see much tourism…I was something of a curiosity.
We crossed the Nile a bit further south at the tiny village of Beni Hassan. Beni Hassan is an ancient city with more than one type of ancient tombs…the beehive shaped Muslim tombs border the back of the village to the limestone cliffs, where we were headed to see the even older dynastic tombs. There are 39 tombs altogether in these high limestone cliffs, all cut into the rock and placed high enough to escape incursions from destroying ground water. These tombs date to the Middle Kingdom, the 11th and 12th dynasties, where painting, not carving, was the chosen medium. They follow a similar floor plan: a huge open space with possibly a smaller room behind with burials below the floor. These were the resting places of the highest governing officials of the local area, and their walls are covered by panoramas of scenes from all walks and activities of daily life: farming, fishing, hunting, grape harvesting, building, singers & dancers, crafting life’s daily requirements like making glass, military training, one with 122 different athletics, plus wild and domestic animals (one of the few representations of bats in ancient Egypt is here)…life as it was lived in the Middle Kingdom in the middle of Egypt. And later on some tombs were used as Christian places of worship and their own religious representations co-habit with the dynastic scenes.
You can find excellent descriptions of all four tombs that are open: Amenemhet, Khnumhotep, Baqet and Kheti on many internet sites with excellent pictures. My camera automatically uses a flash in low light conditions so I didn’t take any interior shots…flash lighting is so terribly corrosive to ancient paintings. These four open tombs honestly look like they’ve been painted in the last year. And the quality of the artistry, the use of color and the vibrancy in the painted forms…these are masterpieces. Of particular interest to me (and maybe because honestly in Egypt I absolutely “travel on my stomach”) were the Offering “Menus” you found on the walls…a day by day listing of what was expected to be delivered to the tomb to keep the soul of the departed well fed. I can tell you that they intended to lack for little.
Before our departure back to Cairo we stopped in the tiny art gallery to see the work of some local artists and photographers, and of course I had to purchase a few very nicely done village scenes. A troop of school kids was also making the excursion up the cliff…it always delights me whenever I see local young people taking in some of the treasures of their shared past. Driving back, across the Nile on the car ferry, we stopped to see if we could buy some of the local produce…a kind of blackberry was in season and we’d also hoped to get some local cheese. We found both…and, in typically Egyptian fashion, WE also were found by a huge friendly family who presented us with who knows how many slices of round, crisp flat bread, excellent salty (Mozzarella-type) white cheese and raw onions. This was and is today the dietary mainstay of the Egyptian farmer. So between the onions, cheese, bread and berries we snacked and talked and giggled our way back to Cairo, as only old friends can do. But you know Egypt is the kind of place where recently made friends become old friends in minutes.
This last sentence was borne out in the lounge at Le Meridien Pyramids later that night as I wrote up the notes from this trip. The maitre d’ was just distributing votive table lights to every table…little carved globes of Egyptian alabaster holding a tiny candle. There was a German couple sitting at the next table who were much taken with the little translucent globe and asked the maitre d’ what this was. Putting down his tray of lights this gentleman fully explained the whole alabaster mining, production, forming and turning processes to take the raw alabaster and make it into something functional and beautiful…using English, of course, their common language. Hospitality to the nth degree…an answer for every question and a smile on every face. I was reminded of Hoda and the young mother…and reminded as well why I love this country so very much.