40 for 40: Day 16 – Abydos and Dendera

Unless I’m missing something, today will have been our last day seeing Ancient Egyptian temples. That said, we sure picked two strong ones to end off with.

It was an early start, as we were on the road at 5:30 am, with our first stop, Abydos, being three hours away. It might have been a shorter ride had it not been for multiple speed bumps and, of course, ubiquitous police checkpoints.

See, up until recently, the area between Cairo and Luxor has been considered a “No-Go” for tourists, or at least a “Go With An Escort” type situation – what we allegedly had on the way to Abu Simbel, though I saw all of two cop cars on the actual road with us for that one. This was the area where the Muslim Brotherhood had its strongest uprising in 2012, after Mohammed Morsi was deposed. Today, there were multiple police checkpoints along the way, including one long one about an hour outside of the Abydos temple. A long one that resulted in us being escorted to the site by a police truck with three armed young men in camp inside.

Ahmed, our driver, explained all of this as “political”, and seemed more annoyed than anything else at the delays. It did seem all unnecessary, and a little counterintuitive, as if anybody was going to ambush a set of tourists, the highway would seem like a more obvious place. Still, we arrived at the site safe as expected and we were good to go.

Abydos is one of the oldest cities in Egypt, the then-capital of Upper Egypt, and home to the Temple of Seti I. Egyptians have been worshiping and burying there since the first dynasty, and the temple is purported to be resting place of the head of Osiris, who was torn apart by his brother Set after Isis rescued his body from the river, resulting in multiple places in Egypt where parts of him are supposed to be buried. Seti added several chapels to other Gods in the building, many of which still have well-preserved carvings and paintings. It’s also one of the few places in Egypt where you can find a cartouche list of nearly all the pharaohs. Wandering the columned halls and ducking in and out of the different chapels was definitely one of the more photo worthy moments and, due to not a lot of people being there, it was one of our more peaceful ones, minus the obligatory “tour” by a guard for some baksheesh.

Once we were done, it was time to hit the road again, and this is where the police escort got… interesting. There was a plainclothes cop by our van, who had a walkie-talkie, who called ahead to the truck that brought us here. Within about ten seconds of approaching that truck, we noticed that they were all placing their semi-automatics on their laps, and then donning black balaclavas. I asked Ahmed what that was all about, and he said “uniform”.

It was at this point that friends of mine may have read a “Hey, LOL, police escort just taking us out of Abydos with masks on, OMG” type post on my Facebook, because even though I was pretty sure nothing was happening, I wanted there to be some kind of digital record.

Of course, nothing did happen, and within minutes, our truck was replaced by a lone uniformed officer on a CHiPs-style motorbike, who took us back out to the highway after nearly getting smoked by a tuk-tuk. From there, another couple of hours on the road to our next stop, Dendera.

Dendera is a newer temple, mostly from Ptolemaic times, dedicated to one of Egypt’s most important Goddesses, Hathor, who is usually portrayed as a cow, a woman with a cow’s head, or a woman with cow horns and a sun above her head (she’s a daughter of Ra, you see). Hathor was the de facto mother goddess before Isis gained in popularity and her story rewrote some lineages (Horus, Hathor’s husband, was later decided to be Isis’ son) and you see many a carving of a pharaoh or queen sucking at her teat in cow form as a way of receiving blessings. This may have been the most beautiful temple we’ve seen, with vibrant colours still attached to the ceilings, multiple columns topped with Hathor’s head (with the face taken off due to early defacement), and several representations of Nut on the ceiling. There’s also a replica of the Zodiac of Dendera (original in the Louvre) and a carving on the back of the temple which, while nothing spectacular, is actually one of the few temple carvings of Cleopatra. You can get up to the roof of the temple to look around (on your own, but of course guards will happily lead you up yadda yadda yadda baksheesh) to see sed Zodiac and another set of columns, these ones smaller and not defaced. If we were going to end our trip to Egypt off with any particular temple, I think this was certainly a good one.

From there, we attempted to get home quickly, but the police were, apparently, trying to keep tourists off the highway for some reason, which would have added an extra hour to our trip as we would have to take backroads. So our driver, after navigating the city streets of Qena a bit, said whatever the Arabic equivalent of “F it” was, asked us to close the blinds on the side of the van, and took several backroads to get to the highway, only getting lost once and requiring help from a guy on a motorbike. Not going to lie, my brain still had the balaclavas on the mind, so I had my phone ready for… something. Random InstaStory or Facebook Live or… something.

But, of course, nothing happened, we were back on the highway, and then soon at Aladdin for lunch and our pool for a swim.

Tomorrow, we are hitting a resort in Hurghada, where I am expecting no culture other than some drinks and swimming, before heading north to Cairo and Alexandria, at which point we’ll be winding down the trip. Some people have said you can get “templed out” in this area of Egypt, and while I can kind of get that, I don’t think it applies to us. Considering that we were leaving Dendera arguing whether it or Abydos was the more beautiful one we’ve seen, I think we did okay.

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