Despite what some may think, tourism and travel to the Middle East is up - way up, and this year, tour operators in Egypt are celebrating one of their best years. All this in spite of fuel hikes, security alerts and the general economic climate. This new optimism was reflected in a near record level of travellers who joined our annual tour to the Middle East. Although we try and keep our groups small, we do respond to people's requests when they say, "I have to go this year" or "I have long service leave due now!" Since our buses seat up to 52 people, we can always squeeze in one more!
As it turned out, 39 travellers from Australia, New Zealand and - for the first time - the USA, joined us for three and a half weeks of exciting touring in Egypt, Jordan and Israel. We left Australia on 25 April and arrived in Cairo early the following day.
This report will not give a detailed description of everything we visited - if you want a copy of our itinerary, please visit our tour page. Rather we will focus on just the highlights and especially the archaeological news from each site.
The Temple of Karnak
Work continues at the temple of Karnak restoring some of the columns in the chapel of Thutmosis III just inside the Sixth Pylon and adjacent to the granite chapel at the heart of the complex. While we were there our explanation about the role of Hatshepsut whose large stone statue is nearby, was constantly interrupted by the loud noises of a crane and shouting workers as they lifted a huge lintel stone onto two columns. All a far cry from the way it was done in ancient times! Then, earth ramps probably covered parts of the temple in order to drag stones into position before the earth was dug away. Part of one such ramp, made of mudbricks, can still be seen just inside the first pylon - it was never removed after the pylon was completed.
We also saw the deep hole dug in front of the Fifth Pylon beside the obelisk of Hatshepsut. This was where archaeologists found the new double statue of Khasekhemre Neferhotep I, the 13th Dynasty pharaoh who is the pharaoh of the Exodus according to some versions of the Revised Chronology. The statue has not been dug out because to do so would require dismantling (and presumably then rebuilding) a large portion of a wall and chapel above. However plans are being made to try and retrieve the statue in the future.
The Temple of Luxor
Nothing much has changed at the other great temple site, except that the exit from the temple has been moved and now involves a long, hot walk the entire length of the avenue of sphinxes from the first pylon back to the car park in front of the Luxor police station. At least now tourists get to admire the avenue of sphinxes, whereas before, most tourists skipped the walk and exited to one side of the complex!
Opening new entrances seems to be the rage in Egypt at the moment - on arrival at the Ramesseum, the funerary temple of Rameses II on the west bank at Luxor, we were greeted by a new ticket office. A new stone-paved path led us, not into the Hypostyle Hall of the funerary temple of Rameses II as formerly, but down to the left of the car park to the first courtyard. Actually, this is a much better idea because it gives visitors a clearer picture of the layout of the whole temple, starting, logically, at the entrance rather than halfway up. There were plans to route the entrance through fields further to the left, around the front of the first pylon, but experts claimed that the long-closed doorway through the pylon could not be opened for safety concerns. It still remains blocked up with mud-bricks, placed there in antiquity. The Ramesseum is famous for the huge statue of Rameses that stood here - it originally towered 57' 6" high and consisted of one piece of stone weighing about 1000 tons. The statue was smashed when the temple was destroyed, possibly at the time of the Persian conquest.
Valley of the Kings
Our visit to the Valley of the Kings is always a highlight and the entrance ticket includes visiting three royal tombs. A total of 62 tombs have been excavated, though not all are royal. Most of these are closed to the public, and the few that are accessible open in rotation. This year we visited the tombs of Rameses VI, Rameses IX and Merneptah, all noted for the quality of the decorations and reliefs. We also visited the tomb of Tutankhamun, and although there are few decorations and the tomb is tiny by comparison, the burial chamber does contain the mummy of the boy-king within its golden coffin.
The newly discovered tomb, KV63, has generated much excitement in the last few months. The entrance to the tomb is barely 50 feet away from the tomb of Tutankhamun and no tourist can miss it - indeed the path up to the higher part of the valley is partially blocked by the excavations and a large fence around it prevents people from approaching too closely. Work was continuing there on the day of our visit and more information is continuing to emerge.
Did I mention that new entrances were the rage this year? Well, on arrival at the Ptotemaic temple of Dendera, about an hour's drive north of Luxor, again we found a grand new bus parking area, and a very long walk over unfinished paths and sand to the ticket office and entrance. Given that we usually only have an hour at the temple, it does seem a waste to spend almost a quarter of that time merely walking in 40°C heat to the entrance! However, the visit is always worthwhile, since the temple is very well preserved.
Apart from the fact that the famous "Zodiac ceiling" is a poor and blackened replica, (the original is in an unused storeroom in the Louvre museum, Paris, and not on view to the public), the temple itself is remarkable for its reliefs and especially the Hathor-topped columns in the hypostyle hall.
The granite quarries that contain the "unfinished obelisk" of Hatshepsut also have a new entrance, but the walk isn't quite as far. However a very nice boardwalk over the granite quarries is much more comfortable than scrambling over the sometimes slippery granite. That afternoon, many members of the group joined me on a motorboat ride to Sahel Island near the First Cataract of the Nile. The tour was not included on the itinerary but is very interesting for those who know Biblical history. A famous inscription on the island records a period of seven years when the Nile River did not flood, an echo of the seven year famine recorded in the Bible during the era of loseph.
For those who have visited the Cairo Museum, let me assure you that nothing has changed! The only work in progress appears to be the construction of a second Royal Mummy Room on the upper floor, opposite the existing Mummy Room. However, no opening date has been announced nor is there any word as to which mummies may go on display. Of course, a new museum for Egypt is planned to be built out near the pyramids, and we understand that the design has gone to tender.
The Pyramids of Gizeh
After our visit to Memphis and Saqqara, where a new entrance was again the feature, we travelled in our bus to Gizeh The famous pyramids never fail to awe visitors and this year was no exception. The only change however is that tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid now are on sale from about 12:20 onwards and remain on sale until the maximum number of 150 have been sold. Fortunately our group was already in the queue and we were able to enter the pyramid of Khufu when it opened at 1.00 pm. We were grateful to the authorities for this concession - in previous years, standing in the hot sun for up to 45 minutes before we could buy the tickets was very trying.
Work continues at Petra, Jordan, on excavating the courtyard and altar in front of the Kasr el-Bint, the huge temple to the two main gods of Petra, al-Uzza and Dusares. The temple was constructed, probably during the reign of the Nabatean king Obodas 111 (30-8 BC) and consists of a pronaos fronted by four columns, an internal cella and the main chamber for the statue of the gods. Two side chambers flank the main chamber.
The archaeological work at the temple has been going on over several years. Archaeologists are excavating the courtyard where worshippers brought sacrifices. So far, the base of a large altar and parts of the surrounding wall have been unearthed. The area is still fenced off as a result.
Excavations and restorations continue at Caesarea, on the seacoast in northern Israel. The redevelopment of the tourist area along the harbour side, including shops, cafes and even a scuba diving business, has now been completed and looks very attractive. Restoration of recent excavations in the Byzantine area of Caesarea (3rd-6th cent AD) has resulted in the opening up for tourists of the Roman bathhouse and also a palatial mansion. Although only the floors of these buildings have survived, the antiquities authority has erected steel roofs over the remains to protect them.
Restoration work on the water tunnel, which meant the tunnel was closed to visitors last year, has now been completed. Our group was able to walk through the 300 foot long tunnel to the cave where the ancient inhabitants drew their water without having to go outside the city walls.
Major restoration and conservation works at Hazor have seen the opening of the Middle Bronze Age palace for visitors since our last visit. The walls of the palace are made up of stone in the lower course, and then mud bricks in the upper courses. The palace walls still stand up to three feet high - and in some places even higher. Restoration (read "rebuilding"!) of the famous six-chambered gate was going on during our visit, with huge stones being reerected on the foundations of the gate to make the whole thing look much more impressive. Evidence of other recent excavations could be seen at scattered sites all around the acropolis of the vast tel which constitutes ancient Hazor.
Not strictly archaeological but interesting nevertheless was our visit to the "Nazareth Village." This is a faithful recreation of houses, farms and even a synagogue, as they may have looked 2,000 years ago. People in costume were actually working the farms, caring for sheep, spinning wool and weaving cloth in buildings that could well have been built and used in the 1st century AD. The carpenter demonstrated his tools and ancient methods of making furniture, while our visit to a typical home included sampling bread and olives. At the olive press, members of our group took turns pushing the pole that turned the large stone to crush the olives to obtain oil. As we left, everyone received a free replica oil lamp as a souvenir of their visit.
Huge new areas of excavation have been opened up in the City of David. Several hundred metres of wall have been excavated since my last visit. These walls run along the bottom of the Kidron Valley and parallel the ridge on which the ancient city was built. New pathways have been constructed and park areas incorporated into the tourist area. Of interest was the fact that the path now includes the long-neglected royal tombs area, where two huge tunnels, believed to be the tombs of David and Solomon, are located. For years this area was not only neglected, but also off-limits to visitors.
The walk through Hezekiah's water tunnel is consistently voted as one of the major highlights of our annual tour. Whether it is the adventure of walking through knee deep cold water, or exploring the dark tunnel with nothing but torches, everyone enjoys the 45 minute experience. This year, even those who normally get claustrophobic overcame their qualms and joined the group. The tunnel, constructed about 700 BC, brought water from the Gihon Spring, through a 1,600 foot conduit and into the Pool of Siloam inside the walls of the ancient city.
Afterwards we briefly explored the new excavations near the Pool of Siloam After descending some rickety wooden stairs we reached the paved level of what appeared to be a street, presumably dating from Roman times, then ducked our beads under scaffolding and out into the area where the Biblical Pool of Siloam is being excavated. Although discovered early last year, more work has been done since our visit 12 months ago, with the steps at one end, plus the two corners being exposed. The steps descend in groups of five to the bottom of the pool. Evidently pilgrims used the pool for ritual purification before they ascended to the temple.
The next day, our group divided; approximately half returned to Australia, the remainder transferred to the kibbutz at Beit Guvrin where we stayed while working at the nearby archaeological site of Tel Maresha.