Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 September - 5 October 2005
Issue No. 762
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

It feels good

Minya might not be the most glamorous of travel destinations but after a closer look Pierre Loza found that it helped put Egyptian rural life past and present in perspective

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Minya's Zawyet Sultan, also known as Zawyet Al-Amwat, incorporates the ancient with the more recent past. Still used today as a cemetery, it is an area which exudes a crossroads of histories and civilisations that is so prevalent in Minya

Riding on the train from the Giza train station to Minya, the scenery is green and full of life. Mud brick homes sit quietly next to sky piercing palm trees that seem to outline the lush horizon. Despite much publicised development schemes in rural Egypt, the three-and-a-half hour trip to Minya gives one the impression that things haven't changed that much at all. Women are still doing their laundry in irrigation canals, as water wheels turn to quench the soil's thirst. Although the train chairs were a little wobbly, a cool AC, complemented by a periodic rattle, helped me descend into an effortless infantile sleep.

On arrival, I crossed the pedestrian bridge to find a gaggle of security men escorting a few Europeans to their taxis; they probably thought they were being deported. After terrorism attacks in the early 1990s around the Minya area, it has never quite been the same. The governorate's fortunes took a steep turn for the worse after long Nile cruises -- which usually made a stop in Minya -- stopped running. A thriving tourism industry was squashed overnight, making unemployment one of the most stringent problems facing the governorate and security all the more strict.

A tour guide from Minya told me a story that exemplifies the somewhat heavy-handed security presence which sometimes makes for some humorous occurrences. A Japanese gentleman who opted to take a bicycle trip to the ancient tombs of Beni Hassan was followed by one of the tourism police's mechanised vehicles for protection. As the poor guy pedaled away, the folks in the tank got bored of moving so slowly. So in a jiffy they took the guy with his bike inside the tank and went off to see some tombs together. Oddly enough, our Japanese friend was quite amused by the vehicle's interior, and continued to take in the scenery from its plastic windows.

A short taxi ride and I arrived at Le Mercure Hotel, which is locally known as Etab. A small swimming pool and an outdoor barbecue added some life to its benign surroundings. With a tacky interior reception area, the prettiest part of the hotel is probably the one-floor chalets studding the garden. Keys in hand but into the wrong room accidentally, I was dumfounded by the sight of someone in their underwear who thankfully didn't see me open the door. After the apologetic receptionist, who gave me the wrong keys, was given a brief lambasting, I took a brief nap in preparation for the day's endeavour, Zawyet Al-Amwat.

Also known as Zawyet Sultan, the spot combines three attractions which give the place a rugged sense of the past. The most prevalent is the cemetery whose domes cover the horizon, making for some striking visuals. A small crowd of villagers made their way into a maze of tombs where a loved one is about to be put to rest. Like the hunched backs of elephants lining the yellow sand, the domes and minarets of Zawyet Sultan instill a solemn sense of wonder, expressed by the place's natural surreal imagery. Walking up the hilly terrain is a worthwhile hike. Looking downwards you see the endless domes gradually turning into lush greenery split in half by the Nile. The second attraction is the base of a little pyramid, from the Third Dynasty, which still remains intact. An integral witness of early ancient Egyptian civilisation is this spot's significance.

South of the cemetery the ground is covered by burgundy pottery pieces, better known as "red mounds" or Al-Kom Al-Ahmar. An onlooker told me that she felt something deeply personal about the mounds of pottery. "When you make something with clay you kind of put part of yourself into it. So when you look at these thousands of pieces, many of which remain intact, you really get a glimpse of people's spirits thousands of years ago," she said. This site marks the ancient city of Hebnu, capital of the Oryx nome (ancient Egyptian principality) located between the Hare nome to the South and the Jackal nome to the north. The principality ruled by great princes' whose tombs are hewn into the mountains of Beni Hassan (a few kilometres further south) provide a rare look at Middle Kingdom art which brought to life numerous images of everyday Egyptian life.

After an effort to withstand the sweltering heat, I retired under the shade of a tree in the company of an elderly antiquities guard. After an authentic glass of dark Upper Egyptian tea complemented by mint leaves which were picked on the spot, I asked him why Upper Egyptians drink so much hot tea even though they live in a hot climate. "The hot tea raises your body temperature a little bit, so it helps you cope with the heat better," he replied with ease. So much for a frozen Pina Collada, but after a couple of sips of the potent potion, I really felt my body temperature neutralise considerably. After a few surprisingly graphic vendetta stories from which Egyptian soap operas are no stranger, I left my armed old friend for the more desperately needed company of a bed, and an air conditioner.

The following morning I headed to Beni Hassan, a half-hour ride on the Eastern bank of the Nile. The area is named after a Bedouin tribe which used to live there, probably a few centuries after it was part of the Middle Kingdom's Oryx nome. Climbing up the steps to the mountain tombs is quite a workout, especially if you go when the sun is on full blast. A hat and a few bottles of cool water are an utter necessity for this exhausting hike. When you reach the top of the cliff you realise that your efforts did not go in vain; the view is absolutely breathtaking. Presumably that is why the ancients chose this spot as their place of eternal rest. The sun's glimmer on the Nile's pristine blue surface, the green islands in the middle of the water, the seemingly ancient palm trees that sway with the breeze -- I was completely entranced. Just imagining this same view through the eyes of a provincial prince, as he carefully selects his tomb's location, was fascinating.

A series of 39 tombs are spread across the cliffs just opposite the small village of Sharara, the oldest of which are the most southerly and northerly groups of tombs. The 11th Dynasty's tombs of the Oryx nome's nomarchs are in good condition and are probably among the most attractive tombs in Beni Hassan.

In order to hew the series of tombs into the same stratum of limestone, architects used interesting methods that have kept the tombs standing to this day. After a heading was driven into the cliff's face, it was up to the architect to decide the thickness of the rock above the roof's arches. As the main door is being cut, a rough hew of the columns takes place. Blocks of stone which measure 60x20x22 inches are carried from the roof downwards. In order to decrease the pressure of the mountain's weight, our knowledgeable guide, Ahmed El-Leithi told us, "the ceilings were built at a slanted angle, therefore facilitating the distribution of the mountain's pressure." We know much about how these tombs were built because several of them were not completed, allowing the curious a look into this ancient process. Tomb number 19 actually collapsed due to a faulty design, a mistake we are not sure whether its ancient designer has lived to regret.

A chief of the Oryx nome during the reign of the 11th Dynasty, Baqet the III's tomb is more of a celebration of life rather than a commemoration of the deceased. A remarkable palette range depicts girls playing ball with great agility on the northern wall. Baqet made a point of covering his tomb with paintings which recorded the most jovial moments of his everyday life. This was done so that when he came back from the afterlife, he would enjoy a reminiscent wander over his personal good old times.

Everything from weaving, hunting, fishing, getting a haircut, to the army's wrestling practice is vividly brought to life on all four walls of this colourful tomb. There is even an image of Baqet monitoring his own funeral procession in all its pomp and grandeur. A scrumptious feast of Baqet's favoured cuisine is also depicted to remind relatives of what to bring on feast days. Baqet was believed to be from the early lines of an influential family who monopolised its power during the reign of Khnemhotpe II, a provincial lord who had a knack for marrying to expand his realm of power. By the time his children came to power, the family ruled over the Jackal, Hare and Oryx nomes and the countship of Menat Khufu.

The next tomb along the cliff belongs to Khety, father of Baqet I and ruler of the Oryx nome. Also reigning during the 11th Dynasty, Khety was responsible for the nome's military. Originally the tomb had six lotus bud columns carved into the sand stone; today only two still remain. On the Eastern wall, you see a powerful depiction of Khety shooting arrows at the fish resting in the papyrus marshes as hippopotami, pigs and crocodiles watched eagerly. An interesting image of the entertainment of the day shows slim girls going through a dance routine that looks more acrobatic than dance. Despite the morbid sense one may feel inside a tomb, the colourful images show that ancient Egyptian culture may have viewed death from a far less apprehensive perspective than our modern present.

An hour's road trip north from Beni Hassan on the eastern bank of the Nile, lies the Gebel Al-Teir Monastery (the monastery of birds) a spot which is said to have been a resting place for the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt. Built by Empress Helena during the fourth century, it lies 130 metres above the Nile providing its visitors with a spectacular view. The two oldest icons in the church date back to 1554. One depicts the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus and the second depicting St Demyana and her 40 virgin martyrs. As we entered the church, young girls were reciting biblical verses with the parish priest. Looking at us with curious eyes and translucent innocent giggles they seemed to exude the character of Egyptian rural communities with amazing freedom.

The following morning we were off to see some more tombs at Touna Al-Gebel. Also known as the East Hermopolis, the area offers a look into the interweaving of Egyptian and Greek art during the Ptolemaic era. This melting of civilisations is exemplified by the tomb of Petoziris, the high priest of the Jahuti, the god of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration to the scribes, often taking the form of a baboon or an Ibis. Discovered in 1919 the tomb was originally thought to be a temple because it resembled other temples in the area. Another attraction in Touna Al-Gebel is famous Egyptian author Taha Hussein's summer home. The cozy European bungalow allowed the famed author to study the tombs of the area during his lifetime.

The family tomb depicts Petoziris offering gifts to the gods and going through purification ceremonies. It is interesting to note that religious images were painted in a distinctly Egyptian style while scenes depicting everyday events such as mining looked very Greek. A family portrait of the high priest, his wife and two daughters shows the high priest's strong commitment to his family. On the north wall we see Petoziris playing a board game with a few ladies. The inscription describes the scene as "playing with his friends after lunch is a good opportunity to relieve his stress in the beer room".

As we headed back to the city we noticed a gaggle of children running with a dish full of water singing: "May God let you grow and be old like us". The children watered a tall palm tree with the bath water of a newborn in hopes that the baby will live long like the palm tree. A practice which I suspect may have its roots in the rituals of their ancestors from the ancient Oryx nome.

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