Sunday, November 12, 2017

Abydos Field Trip

Friday dawned at the unusually early hour of 4:30am, earlier than even the call to prayer and the morning balloons. Will and JJ were picked up at 5:30 by Hazem and the large mini-bus he had organized for the trip, and the process began for retrieving each of the students from locations that Hazem had specified the night before. The students living on the east were collected initially, with the bus travelling in a very efficient manner to near enough their various homes so that we never had to turn round. Yaser was our last stop before making our way to the bridge leading across the river, which meant we could collect all the west bank students again closer to where they lived, picking up Abu el-Hagag last before setting off into the desert, only an hour later from when JJ and Will were initially collected. 

Our destination, as the students now knew, was to be ABYDOS. There are strong connections between the field school and Abydos in that many of the staff and students are from Sohag, the inspectorate within which Abydos is located – Yaser, Sayed, and Abu el-Yazid are all originally Sohagis, and there is a sense of shared identity among them. So it was as if the field trip was commandeered by the men from Sohag, with Abu el-Yazid giving a greeting and welcome to the non-Sohagi students immediately upon entering the bus, and Yaser, once he’d discovered how the microphone worked, providing a running commentary of the sites and sounds of Sohag as we approached Abydos. Thanks to the fact that we were travelling with our Egyptian colleagues we were able to make our way on the western desert road, which easily took an hour off of the length of the journey had we travelled on the Nile road. By the time any civilized person would have been getting up for the day, we had reached Abydos, just in time for a traditional breakfast at 8:30 outside the temple at Yaser and Abu el-Yazid’s preferred place. A long trestle table was set up, and we were packed in boulevard style as if it were Paris (without paying extra for the view!). Food began to appear almost immediately, including individual aluminum bowls with portions of fuul with oil, salad, gibna abyad, aish balady, and even omelettes sizzling in their blackened earthenware terrines, and crowning it all was the much heralded arrival of “old cheese,” meaning mish – we just can’t escape it! Hassan sent his fuul back, requesting it be prepared with zibda (butter) and not zeit (oil). We were all rolling our eyes, but once we tasted the result, suddenly the regular portions of fuul were abandoned and poor Hassan was serving his share of “fuul wa zibna” with everyone, because it was distinctly better – smoother, creamier, richer than what was originally served. So much so that he had to order another bowl for himself. The food vanished so quickly, the bread supply could not keep up with the necessity of dipping, and cries of “aish, aish!” rang from each end of the table, as the server scrambled to find enough, eventually just bringing it direct from the bakery so that it was still warm from the oven. Several of our greedy students burnt their fingers and lips on the bread.

Breakfast finished, chaos ensued as we gathered inspectors and escorts to make our way into the desert to the Shunet el-Zebib, the 2nd Dynasty funerary enclosure of Khasekhemwy, deciding to undertake the bulk of our desert hiking in the early part of the day rather than at high noon. Yaser led the way, with explanation provided by the local inspector, and Will’s former student, Hazem Salah, and Abu el-Yazid gave an excellent overview in English and Arabic with Hazem Salah providing more detail about the actual excavations. Marco was amazed when he realized that this hulking structure of mudbrick was in fact over 5000 years old, and the oldest surviving mudbrick structure in the world! Suddenly he was looking at the bricks with far more interest and respect.

The group meandered in and around the Shunet, taking multiple photos, before heading east and re-grouping in the ruins of the Osiris Temple dating to Ramesses III, but called locally the “monkey temple” because of the carved images of the baboons paying homage to the setting sun and the god Osiris. As JJ and Will explored, looking at the remains of the Osiride statues we realized that the mudbrick remains behind the temple were in fact the Middle Kingdom “terrace” of chapels lining the processional route of the god Osiris and one of the most significant aspects of the archaeology and history of Abydos, evidence of how the original landscape was tailored around the god and the needs of his worship with individual structures being constructed for dedicatory stelae in the Middle Kingdom. Suddenly, like Marco, we were far more impressed with the nature of the temple which we had initially dismissed as more Late Ramesside kitsch.

Piling back into the bus and driving along the edge of the village, we stopped at another Ramesside Temple, that of the better known, and much more well-preserved, Ramesses II, which Hassan Ramadan had helped prepare as a digital epigraphy publication for Sameh Iskander and Ogden Goelet at NYU. This temple has both the advantage and disadvantage of having lost its upper walls and roofs, which though leaving the architecture somewhat denuded provided wonderful light for viewing the Ramesside relief, much of which still contains its original paint. The students spread out only to be gathered by Hassan as he gave an excellent explanation of his work in Arabic on one of the best preserved interior walls. Leaving Hassan to his task, JJ, Will, and Marco explored the temple, looking at a variety of different aspects of ancient Egyptian iconography, especially that pertaining to kingship, the Two Lands, and the cult of Osiris. Marco photographed the monumental grano-diorite door-jamb and lintel as an experiment for 3D modeling. Seeing as the temple was complete at ground level, at least from the front pylon all the way to the shrines at the back with columns and partial walls, he could see it was an ideal structure for 3D modeling, a positive indication that such similar structures in Egypt held a great deal of potential for his PhD research.

The sounds of the mullahs reminded us of the call to prayer, and all of our male students adjourned to the nearby mosque with the understanding that they would rejoin us at the Seti I temple once their prayers had finished. What we hadn’t realized was that thanks to the fact that we had been gifted one of the inspectors from the temple of Seti, he could provide us with access into the normally closed Osireion. So before actually entering the temple, we (Will, JJ, Marco, Shaimaa, Nadia, and Peter) made our way down the perilous wooden steps to the subterranean reaches of the ancient Osireion, explaining all the while to Marco that we were actually entering the Underworld, as conceived in architectural form by the ancient Egyptians. By the time we had reached the bottom, we could see the advanced guard of our students appearing on the edge of the cliff-like surface above the Osirieon. Once they had made their way down the stairs, the combined group entered into the covered crypt-like chamber to the east of the Osirieon, the haunt of many bats leaving a distinctly slimy and squishy floor, in order to view the astronomical ceiling carved onto the triangular vault. Despite the ripe atmosphere underground, most of the group perservered and continued to explore the chamber, with the reward being glimpses of the more-than-lifesize figure of the sky goddess Nut on the ceiling and images of the sun’s travel across the sky. Eventually the fumes drove all and sundry back up to the surface and we staggered to the rear of the temple to enjoy the cool shade and fresh air while awaiting the remainder of our group to join us. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Shaimaa organized a very thorough group photo utilizing the sloping staircase at the back entrance to the Seti temple to place the students one-by-one as they staggered forth from the Osireion. 

Yaser joined us, just in time to be included in the photo, as well as to take some extra shots (Yaser took the one above), utterly disbelieving that we had only just arrived at the Seti temple and were not about to exit it. Lunch originally being scheduled for 1pm, and seeing as it was now 12:45, lunch was put back to 2pm to allow the students to explore the extraordinary chambers, chapels, and hypostyle halls of the Seti temple, one of the architectural masterpieces of ancient Egypt. We also took a moment to examine the famous “king list,” a list of royal names starting with first, King Menes, all the way to Seti I – 76 in total, leaving out some of those later considered anathema, like Hatshepsut and Akhenaten. It also provided the opportunity for a photo of the FS teachers, kindly taken by Marco. For the next hour the students wandered happily, marveling at the detailed carving, painted scenes, and cool, inviting interior of the temple. Marco continued utilizing the opportunity at Abydos to take additional shots from which to create 3d models to facilitate his research, as well as receiving an introduction into Egyptian architectural principles from Will and JJ.

Field School Crew in front of the King List

Gathered by Hazem and Yaser we were directed back to to the rear of the temple, retracing our steps to the Ramesses II temple, which was the shortest route to the adjacent house across the road where we were to have lunch. Upon passing through the door into the front room of the house, all was laid in readiness along two lengthy tables, a testament to Hazem’s organizational skills, As the students piled in and washed off the dust, the food, as if by magic, begin to appear from the kitchens, and all could sit down to a welcoming, traditional Egyptian meal of lentil soup, roasted chicken, rice, potato and aubergine tagine, and boiled potatoes in tomato sauce. Just what the doctor ordered after a long, hot, and dusty, though wonderful, morning of exploring Abydos. Only slightly behind schedule, we were able to relax over the meal and finish it off with tea, coffee, and soda, with a dessert of fresh fruit – according to Abu el-Yazid, the special “small, but effective,” Abydos bananas, which, we must say, were particularly delectable!

Our impatient bus driver, honking noisily from outside the door, reminded us that the day was coming to an end and we had to make our way back upon the road towards Luxor. Not being able to immediately take the desert road, we were provided with a military escort to the main river road. But fortunately, thanks to the opportune intervention of Yaser and the bus driver, we were able to back-track at first opportunity to the desert road and resume our journey south, only adding about 45 minutes to the trip. The return journey was raucous, to say the least, driving the girls out from the back to the front to get farther away from the noise, until eventually the batteries in the boys in the back of the bus ran down and an exhausted quietude took over for the rest of journey. Finally we recognized the Qurn looming over the desert and we realized we were home, though not yet back. The students were dropped off one-by-one in reverse order from how we had begun the day, until eventually, crossing the Nile to the east, JJ and Will were the last to be left on their stoop and Hazem retreated into the distance with the massive minibus. Although only 6:30pm and 11 hours since we had been picked up, it felt more like midnight, and while exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe it, we were also happy, well-fed, and pleased that the students had enjoyed such a wonderful day thanks to Hazem, Yaser, and Abu el-Yazid, as well as the inspectors at Abydos who had taken time on their day off to welcome us all with such generosity and kindness.

Bidding farewell to the west