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Week 3: 22–28 January

The third week of the Cairo semester began extremely early as we met at the NVIC at 8am to begin the long drive to Sohag. The eight-hour journey began full of enthusiasm, which was quickly replaced by sleeping and staring at the endless sea of sand, as we drove along the desert highway. We had plenty of time to find out why exactly we were going to Sohag, many of us having never heard of it before. Arriving there it was quickly apparent that it was not heavily frequented by tourists. After the long day of travel, it was a relief to settle in at the hotel and find a place to eat. 

The next morning we were treated to an Egyptian breakfast: an offering of ful (cooked fava beans), hard-boiled eggs, cheese and flatbread was not what we were used to, but was gladly eaten in anticipation of a full day of adventure. The first stop was el-Hawawish, an Old Kingdom, mountainside necropolis from the 5th-8th Dynasties. The climb up had us in awe of the landscape, taking off our jackets and wondering how anyone could have the motivation to haul sarcophagi up there. There are over 800 rock-cut tombs in the necropolis, about 60 of which are decorated. We had the opportunity to enter five and were astonished by what we saw. The tombs contained beautifully decorated scenes in various states of preservation. Soot from later habitation severely blackened the walls of the tomb of Kheni (H24) and the tomb of Hesymin (M22) had been quarried for stone. Nevertheless, it was possible to see some unique features of tomb decoration such as rock-cut statues and daily life scenes (fishing, carpentry, music/dance and metal smelting). The ‘shortcut’ down the mountain added an extra bit of adventure to the morning. 

Fig. 1. The necropolis at el-Hawawish

The ancient city of Akhmim is buried predominantly under modern Sohag. Still visible, however, are the remains of a temple of Ramesses II, including colossi of himself and Meritamun. It exists as a sunken open-air museum in the middle of town, about 4m below the present street level, which gave us a bit of the feeling of being in a zoo as people peered down at us. We also visited the National Museum of Sohag, where we saw a collection of objects from the local area. 

Fig. 2. The colossal statues of Meritamun and Ramesses II, with our group for scale
Fig. 3. The National Museum of Sohag

The final activity of the day was the Temple of Athribis/Wannina, a structure built by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos. We were surprised by the quality of preservation and benefited from the digital tour created by the University of Tübingen. There are even some large pottery vessels from the Roman period to be seen in situ. The day was wrapped up by a nice dinner, including a birthday cake for Christel and singing in three different languages. 

The following day we said farewell to Sohag and headed to Beit Khallaf. The journey that was meant to be half an hour turned into a two-hour scenic tour of the Egyptian countryside. We eventually made it and saw the massive mastaba structure imposing on the landscape. To our astonishment we were allowed to climb to the top of the 3rd Dynasty Netjeri-khet (K1) mastaba and look down into the complex shaft construction. 

Fig. 4. Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf

We then drove on towards Abydos, this time with a more direct route, to meet Sameh Iskander and visit his excavations at the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. He gave us a detailed tour of the site, walking us through his team’s discoveries and work. It was our first exposure to an Egyptian archaeological site and we were fascinated by how the site and team was organised. We were then set free in the Temple of Seti I to wander in awe through the imposing structure and its beautiful decoration. It was a nice end to an eventful day as we boarded the bus to travel further on to Luxor.  

Fig. 5. With Sameh Iskander at the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos

Our first day in Luxor started with a visit to Medinet Habu and an introduction into the epigraphic mission of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Brett McClain, director of the mission, greeted us warmly and explained the work the team does with the help of his colleagues. We learned about traditional epigraphic methods, foil pressings to document hidden reliefs, and conservation and reconstruction work.  

Our next stop was Deir el-Medina, where we climbed up to the dig house which has a spectacular view of the whole site. There we were met by the director of the mission, Cédric Larcher, and shown around the various work sites by Elizabeth Bettles. We were able to see work on human remains, animal remains, tomb conservation, the reconstruction of pottery and the hieroglyphic studies of Elizabeth herself. We also had a chance to visit the Great Pit, the failed-well-turned-ancient-rubbish-dump, and see the immense amount of pottery sherds. A visit to Deir el-Medina is of course not complete without visiting the beautifully decorated tombs. 

The following day saw us start at Deir el-Bahari where we learned about the variety of structures, the largest of which is the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. We looked closer at the famous divine birth scenes and the depictions of the expedition to Punt.  At the Valley of the Kings Lauren gave a great site presentation about the valley and two tombs specifically (KV 6 and KV 2), despite being interrupted by the arrival of the president’s wife. We learned about the various underworld texts present in the tombs and explored the lesser known features that Lauren had shared with us, for example, an enigmatic text in KV 6. We also took a visit to the tomb of Seti I, where it was fascinating to see several rooms with the decoration still in draft form.  

Fig. 6. In the Valley of the Kings

We took a well-earned break at an idyllic restaurant overlooking the colossi of Memnon before heading to the German House for an evening of lectures. Nine speakers from the Deir el-Medina mission presented their work and we were given a great insight into the breadth and depth of the work that occurs there, building on what we had seen the day before. It was also a good opportunity to talk with Egyptologists from different backgrounds and affiliations.  

The next day was a free day, which most of us seized to visit more sights. The temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum were the attractions of choice. The day also had enough time to allow some relaxing by the pool and exploration of the nearby area. 

Saturday was back to the program and we set sail across the Nile to visit Luxor temple on the east bank. There we met Krisztián Vértes, also from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who introduced us to his epigraphic work on the king’s chamber. He has worked on the Roman frescoes and is now working to document the inscriptions from the time of Amenhotep III underneath. He showed us a variety of examples where traces can be seen, implying destruction and later re-carving of figures. We were also shown the methods of photography used and what work is being done to conserve the thousands of stone fragments from the temple.  Stefano gave us an informative site presentation about the Roman features of Luxor temple. In the evening we crossed over the river again to behold the temple by night and visit the Luxor Museum. We were pleased to find a great exhibition of objects from the Luxor area with informative labels!  

Fig. 7. Humans and felines pay attention to Krisztián Vértes at Luxor Temple
Fig. 8. Crossing the Nile!

The intense program continues tomorrow, but we are sure that everyone agrees that the first week of Luxor has been amazing in so many different ways.  

Christel Birkmann-Little & Stefano Marangoni 

Fig. 9. Christel and Stefano at al-Hawawish
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