Off the Beaten Track:  Zawiyet al Maiyitin, Beni Hasan & Tuna el Gebel

One fine morning, I got a mail from Abdel Naby. He expressed his interest to guide us to Zawiyet al Maiyitin, Beni Hasan & Tuna el Gebel, places lied in between Cairo and Luxor. For time being, the area was restricted for foreign tourists as the consequence of a massive revolt in 1990. Now, the things have calmed down, notwithstanding, the area remained out of bound for tourists. We found the area a bit of unsafe for independent travel, therefore asked several tour operators and guides of Cairo to arrange a day trip for us, but got no reply. Their utter silence made us almost lose our hope of venturing that lesser known fairyland. Finally, we got him!  As a tourist-guide, it would be one of the milestones in the career of Abdel Naby, as we came to know later, it was his first trip too in this area; but he did his homework so minutely and managed everything so professionally that not for a single moment we felt like he was a rookie when comes to guiding these bizarre places!!

It was still dark, when we were picked up from Cairo. As we started to make up our unfinished sleep, we missed sunrise and had no idea when the car left the city and took the way through the western desert. At last a coffee-break in a road-side cafe helped us to wake up.

The sites of our interest are located surrounding el Minya, a city on the western bank of Nile. It is 245 kms away from Cairo if the road alongside Nile is taken, but our driver opted for a longer road through the desert, far away from the locality because of better road & traffic condition. From half of the way a police car started to escort our car for our safety as well as to keep close track on us. Abdel had already made all necessary paper works regarding our tourist-permits. We bypassed the city el Minya, as we had nothing to do there, crossed the bridge over Nile and proceeded for 10kms more until we arrived at our first stop Zawiyet al Maiyitin.

 

Zawiyet al Maiyitin

This is one of the largest burial sites of the world. We climbed up a hillock and felt like standing on an island surrounded by a sea of tombs spread over miles and miles. Wherever I turned my head, thousands of dome-shaped clay tombs gleaming under the morning sun mesmerized me! I have never seen anything like this before!

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Tombs of Zawiyet el Maiyitin

Their soft pinkish color seemed getting paler and paler with distance and was found mingled with the bright morning sky unless other hillocks on horizon break their limitless vastness, though tombs were seen rising even up the hillside.

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Zawiyet el Maiyitin : The City of Dead

All the tombs were erected close together. They looked almost similar to each other in size and color but by detailed observation we found that some of them have holes on their top, while others have not. Some were built by limestone bricks and plastered by layer of clay thereafter, while others were entirely made out of smooth clay. Very few of them were painted with bright colors.

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Tombs of Zawiyet el Maiyitin

Today, this city of the dead even provides shelter to many families dwelling happily inside or beside the tombs. We saw their homes and/cum tombs are encircled by walls and doors for protection and privacy.

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Zawiyet el Maiyitin : Where Life & Death Co-exist

I was thinking about the Great Pyramid of Giza. This is Egypt, home for the greatest tomb of the world, as well the greatest assemble of tombs, but the later one is quite unexplored, a hidden gem in deed. But the ultimate surprise was yet to come! Abdel indicated to a board placed beside a pile of stones that we were going to overlook as hundreds of such ruins are found everywhere in Egypt.

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Step pyramid!!! As far as I knew that the step pyramid of Djoser, which we had visited in Saqqara was the earliest pyramid of human civilization. But this mound of stone, however smaller in size be was built before that, therefore should be considered as a primitive predecessor of all kind of pyramids of the world!

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The Step Pyramid of Zawiyet al Maiyitin ; Ruins of Ancient City Wall and Tombs behind

We found the ruin of earlier than the earliest pyramid at the foot of that particular hillock, from the top of which we got to have a wonderful view of the entire area, as I have said earlier. Apart from this, our local guide, whom Abdel was interpreting for, was keen to show us other ruins spread over there. This area was of highly mythical importance in ancient Egypt, as Horus, the main God of this region stabbed Set, the God of evil to take revenge for his father Osiris. That was why this place was called Hebenu, which means kill with knife. Remains of an ancient city wall and a temple were still there along with the rock-cut tombs of different eras, from old kingdom to Roman period. The tomb of Nefersekheru, a royal official of the new kingdom was opened for us. We found three broken shrines of the deceased inside the burial chamber. The inscriptions, being almost distorted was difficult to perceive.

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Bas Relief : Preparation before Mummification

What I really admire about this place is the installation of boards, though hand-written, but with proper mention of historical facts related to the sites. I did not see this kind of board much in Egypt, even in the popular historical sites of Cairo, Luxor or Aswan. In nowhere else in Egypt, I had noticed such spark of happiness and pride in the eyes of local people in time of explaining their history to foreign travelers, without any hope of monetary benefit. Tourists are rare here. They don’t know how to make money from tourists. Nobody asked for baksheesh (tips); well, actually the local guide refused to accept baksheesh when offered!!!!  For the first time, we started to feel that there exists an Egypt beyond baksheesh; beyond all kind of tourist scams and hypes. Though we were guarded by men with big rifles all the time, even during walk, but never felt uncanny; rather felt like home.

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The homely charm continued as we left Zawiyet al Maiyitin and took the road through the fertile land alongside the river Nile towards our next destination at Beni Hasan. It seemed like traveling through the countryside of India, my homeland. Everything was so similar! The farmers on the field, green crops, glimpses of the river behind trees and hamlets, roadside markets, hawkers selling household goods, children waving hands to the passing cars and so on!

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After spending first three days of our trip in and around Cairo, it was time to get close to absolutely unadulterated and non-touristy village-life of Egypt. I took my face out of the window of the car, though hot outside, felt the fresh air, inhaled the smell of earth and was greeted by the smile of cheery farmers returning home on their donkey-carts loaded with crops. Unlike Cairo, here almost every man we saw, wore Galabaya, their traditional attire. We were surprised to see the transportation of some rectangular milky-white blocks, but later identified them as bricks made of white limestone collected from the nearby desert and found most of the houses built by these bricks.

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We were proceeding towards south; Nile was on our right and small flat-top hills were seen on left hand side. Our discussion on the probable existence of secret tombs on those rock cliffs were suddenly stopped along with the car, as Abdel pointed to the top of a hill and announced “Here are the tombs of Beni Hasan.”

 

Beni Hasan

We kept Beni Hasan in our wish-list for the astonishingly colorful frescos painted on the inner walls of a group of ancient tombs, carved into the high limestone cliffs. The pleasant sight of Nile and the adjacent valley from the top of the hill was an additional reward for us after a panting climb by a stone-made staircase along the hillside under the scorching mid-day sun.

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Egypt : The Gift of Nile

We are here at the eastern bank of Nile. This is anyhow an exception! Unlike these tombs of Beni Hasan, all other tombs of Egypt, which we visited during our trip are located at the western bank of Nile, as in ancient belief, the direction of setting sun was associated with death, because the journey of life was symbolized by the journey of Sun.

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Towards the Tombs of Beni Hasan

Out of 39 tombs, visitors are allowed only inside 4 tombs, located side by side. The tombs are kept usually closed because nobody comes here. As the tomb-guard was unlocking them for us, one after another, each time I felt like opening a new chapter of a colorful comics-book, containing numerous stories! The colors, especially the reddish brown and the aqua green are still so vivid that it is hard to believe that these tomb-decors were made almost 4000 years ago!

Ancient Egyptian mortuary art, found in the tombs of noble persons like high officials, priests or provincial rulers usually featured various interesting and contemporary aspects of the life of common men, while only gods and goddesses were painted in royal tombs. Khety, Baqet III, Khnumhotep II and Amenemhat, the personalities to whom these four tombs were dedicated, along with the owners of all other tombs of Beni Hasan were provincial governors during the era of middle kingdom. Therefore, meticulously painted daily life scenes like agriculture, desert hunting, fishing, boat riding, animal husbandry, local industries like weaving, spinning, goldsmiths and sculptors, papyrus gathering, wine making, military activities, funeral rituals et cetera took us to that ancient period, where we could see even after immense hard work, how these commoners used to entertain themselves by taking part in dance, music, different sports like wrestling and indoor games like Senet (a board game of ancient Egypt). The most striking frescos of these tombs are more than 200 wrestling pairs, painted on the eastern wall of each of the last three tombs. The movement of each pair is different from one other and their anatomical perfection made us awestruck.

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A Rough Pencil Sketch of the Wrestling Pairs (Photography was prohibited inside)

These commoners’ scenes reminded me the Middle kingdom gallery of Egyptian Museum, Cairo where dioramas depicting similar stories were displayed. In Saqqara, we had noticed almost same content engraved in the tombs of Old Kingdom. Therefore, it is clear that representing commoners in noble man’s tomb in any form, whether it is engraving, fresco painting or model-making, was a tradition carried forward from Old to Middle kingdom era. But what truly makes these tombs unique is the inclusiveness of laymen’s life and the life of the nobles. That’s why unlike old kingdom tombs, here depiction of recreational activities of laymen took the centre stage. Here, even the noble persons are portrayed taking part in or observing different daily life activities and recreations alone or accompanied by their family members. But of course, they were painted larger than the common people because of their higher social position.

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A Rough Pencil Sketch of Daily-life Scenes (Photography was prohibited inside)

The pictorial proof of the entry of Asiatic people in Egypt during the beginning of middle kingdom is found on the north wall of Khnumhotep II’s tomb, where we got to see a caravan of Asiatics in their striped robes bringing gazelles and other items to trade.

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A Rough Pencil Sketch of the Asiatic Traders (Photography was prohibited inside)

The roof of each rectangular tomb was supported by 2-6 columns. The mummies were kept in secret underground passages. Even after sealing the doors to those passages, more than one false door, sealed thoroughly were made to befool the thieves.

Visiting the historical sites of Egypt is like time traveling through the ancient era and in this journey the tombs of Beni Hasan play roles of immense importance, because this was the only place where we were introduced to the tombs of Middle Kingdom, politically distinct from Old and New kingdom, as in this era the provincial rulers were probably powerful enough to show the audacity of making their necropolis far away from the capital, unlike the other noble persons of Old and Middle kingdom who were buried close to the pyramids or tombs of their contemporary pharaohs. What was the source of their power? Is it wealth? Or their people, those mighty wrestlers on the walls? Who knows!

Tuna el Gebel

Our freakish idea of taking the least conventional path of this country was getting rewarded by one after another special sites, unparallel in entire Egypt. Same thing continued till last. After crossing the bridge over Nile, we left the fertile land of western bank and our final stop Tuna el Gebel, located in the lap of western desert was not far away.

Tomb of Petosiris : Two small temples with the background of sand-dunes, our first sand-dunes in Egypt grabbed our attention towards them.

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Temple of Tuna el Gebel

Though later we found one of them not as a temple, rather a tomb; Tomb of Petosiris, a royal priest of Ptolemic period and our confusion is one of the key features of this monument. It looked like a miniature version of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, which we visited later. In our entire Egypt trip I had seen no other tomb, completely resembled to any temple!

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Tomb of Petosiris

While the bas relief engraved on the walls of the facade and the burial chamber depicts scenes related to ancient deities, but the portico tells the story of common men, just like what we found inside the tombs of Beni Hasan, built almost 1500 years earlier. Their struggle, their joy and sorrow flow alike irrespective of ages.

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Relief of Tuna el Gebel : How to make grape-wine

The rulers of Ptolemic period were from Greek origin, but they did not let the Greek art win over the Egyptian art form, therefore, in all the temples erected during that era, like the temples of Phillae, Kom Ombo, Edfu or Dendera, we noticed a deliberate attempt of following traditional Egyptian art form, probably to earn trust of Egyptian priests and other countrymen. But to my utter surprise, here, in a tomb of an Egyptian priest I found immense Greek influence that is quite rare to see. Those characteristic human figures of Egyptian art, almost identical to each other and having features like wide shoulder, thin waist, fat-free torso were replaced by some thin to bulky, short to tall, bald-headed to long-haired, better to say more human-like figures. And all of tthem were dressed very much Greek!

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Relief of Farmers : Tomb of Petosiris
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Relief of Technicians : Tomb of Petosiris

Tomb of Isodora : Like Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Isodora, daughter of an wealthy man is another person in Egypt whose mummy was kept inside her own tomb. As I had already undergone the thrill of being with mummies in Egyptian Museum of Cairo, therefore there was nothing to explore! The skinny dark mummy was too distracting to assume the tender beauty of a teen-age girl, who tried to elope with Antinopolis, a young soldier, but unfortunately drowned while crossing the Nile. Her love made her legend, even today their stories are told. She, who left her father’s mansion for the sake of love, deserves this down-to-earth honor to be remained in her own place, unlike the royal mummies, for whom air conditioned room of museum is designated .

Animal CatacombAnimals played starring roles in ancient Egyptian art and religion. People used to observe that animals could predict natural phenomena and behave accordingly; therefore they figured it out as animal’s special power to communicate with the God and to know what the God was going to do. Therefore, apart from human bodies there was a popular practice of animal mummification. While the Greek people snatched the ruling power, ancient Egyptians somehow started to feel insecure and emphasized on all kind of old practices, especially making animal mummies to hold their identity.

Mummies of Falcons in the Catacomb ( photographed from outside)

Just opposite to the tomb of Isodora, there was a catacomb, where hundreds of mummified baboons, ibises and falcons were stored in small cubic holes engraved on the walls. I was given to take the mummy of a baboon in my lap, though my wish to take a selfie with it was not at all encouraged, as photography was strictly forbidden inside.

Stelae of Akhenaten : An erected stone slab with the relief depicting the scene of Pharaoh Akhenaten, along with his family offering to Aten was found far away from the road.  Akhenaten who rebelled against the polytheistic religious belief of his era and considered Aten, the sun god as the one and only supreme power left Thebes and established his new capital in Amarna. This area of Tuna el Gebel was under Amarna. While all other remnants related to that rebel king was diminished by his successors, this boundary stelae seemed standing alone for Akhenaten, the king who fought alone!

 

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Stelae of Akhenaten at Tuna el Gebel

 

Bright red sun was setting on the eastern desert when finally  police men from our pilot car waved us good bye and parted away on our way back to Cairo. May be they were monitoring unknown foreigners’ whereabouts in a troubled part of Egypt but I will always like to think that they were protecting us, complete nobodies, from some unknown threats of these areas and spent the whole day with us without causing least amount of hindrance to our free roaming!! In terms of tourism Egypt is full of superstars like pyramids but this day trip with its essence of raw Egyptian soil, innocent smiles of villagers and mostly unimaginable protection provided by our smiling police guardians will always be very close to my heart.

 

 Useful Tips

  • Name of our guide: Abdel Naby Helmy. Feel free to contact us for further information.
  • If you are planning for a day trip from Cairo, then you are advised to start around 4 am.
  • Carry some dry food and plenty of water. Restaurants & cafes are not easily available in this route.

 

 

 

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