Akhetaten, the city of Akhenaten. I can see why Egyptologists call it Amarna or Tel Al Amarna instead of Akhetaten. I can never keep the name of the King and the name of the city straight and I’m betting neither can most people.
This is the reason for my trip. The reason I can on this tour and not another. To visit Middle Egypt. To see the land where Akhenaten and Nefertifi set up their new city. To be honest, there isn’t much to see. A crescent of desert bounded by the Nile and high rocky cliffs But the very air is infused with the romance of the period and I am excited beyond imagining.
We drive to what I can only describe as a landing area, where we park the bus and Fadel points up the side of the high cliffs where little dark blotches appear—the royal tombs. That is our first destination.
There are stairs, many many many stairs, leading up the side of the cliff, but fortunately there is also a trail alongside them. It’s much easier to trudge up a trail in blinding sun and broiling heat than it is to do a stairmaster in the same condition. I have a couple of bottles of water in my pack, but I’m really wishing I had gotten a camelback pack so I could just drink and pant. The climb may not be all that tough in reality, but it is hard for me. Not only because I’m out of condition, but because every step grates on my knees, but I am absolutely determined that I will finish the climb, no matter what. I trail behind the rest of the group, but in some ways that’s a relief because I know I’m not obstructing anyone. I’m panting. No, I’m gasping. Fadel’s assistant who has accompanied us on this part of the trip, a beautiful young woman who works as a professor of architecture most of the time tells me to breathe through my nose instead of my mouth. I would if I could, I think. Right now I’m just focused on breathing period.
Our armed guard, who rides on the bus, notices me and waits at one of the slightly more level spots, his eyes questioning. “I’m okay,” I say. Well, that’s probably a lie. I’m probably near heat stroke, but if I have to die, Amarna is as good a place as any. I stop, red-faced and puffing, about 15 steps from the top and the guard takes me by the arm and pulls me the rest of the way.
I am standing on the rim of train far above the valley floor. My God, I’ve made it. I’ve made it to the Royal Tombs of the Heretic King.
Now I’m not sure if my heart is pounding because of the climb or because of excitement or some of both. There are 25 tombs in this area, but we are visiting only three of them. (Thank God. Walking a narrow ledge on the side of cliff in the desert isn’t on my list of things I want to do very often.) The tombs themselves aren’t awesome in the same way that the Temple of Karnack is said to be awesome, but what makes them so incredible to me is that I know members of the royal court stood here, on the same ground I’m standing on. It’s a bit like standing in the agora at Athens and realizing that St. Paul debated the philosophers in that very place. A tangible connection with history in way that erases the centuries. My mind is swirling and I’m almost dizzy. Not from heat stroke, but from the realization that I am actually here.
As Fadel guides out of the tomb of Ahmose, “Fan-bearer on the King’s right hand,” I linger a bit, standing in front of an image of the King and Queen on their way to the Aten Temple. The curtain of time parts for just a moment and I feel as if I am actually witnessing the moment in reality, the first recorded worship of a single god by a monarch. I wonder where the belief in monotheism came from? Did Akhenaton get the idea from the Hebrews? Some people suggest that Moses might have been raised with him or been his tutor and he developed his idea of a singular powerful god from that influence. I’m not sure the time frame of the Exodus has ever been clearly established so without access to some current data, I can’t say if that’s plausible or not. The similarity of Ahkenaten’s hymn to the Aten with the Psalm is striking however. It simply can’t be coincidence that two prayers, from the same part of the world, would be almost word for word identical. I remain in front of the painting as long as I can, in an act of homage and reverence. It is a holy moment for me, a moment suffused with grace and gratitude, a moment to be tucked away in my soul forever.
We walk slowly, walking quickly in this heat and ledge edge would be very unwise, to two more tombs, including the tomb of either Pentu, the royal physician, or Panehsy, a priest. I honestly can’t remember which is which. Now if their names didn’t both begin with “P,” I might have had more luck.
The bus is very very far below us and with an unpleasant jolt, I realize we do have to walk back down there.
Fortunately, we do not retrace our steps, but the trail down is steep enough to cause an ache in the thighs. I stumble once and the guard catches my arm. I’m not panting nearly as much on the way down as the way up so I don’t think he fears for my life. He hands me a spring of mint that he found god knows where. Surprisingly, the crisp fresh aroma is invigorating and I crush the leaves to release their scent.
Once we are back at the bus, we proceed along flat nothingness to what was the Northern Palace. I hadn’t realized just how large Amarna was. It’s about nine miles from side to side and three to four from the Nile to the rock cliffs, a massive undertaking for a city that would exist only 30 or so years and become a highpoint in artistic design. The Northern Palace was Nefertiti’s home near the end of the period. Her mother in law came for a visit and shortly afterwards, Nefertiti and the children moved out of Ahkenaten’s palace to this place on the northern edge of the city. I wonder what the mother in law said or did that created such a rift in what had been a happy family? One of the little human dramas lost literally in the sands of time.
The traces of the palace can be seen in low walls and flooring. It doesn’t look like much now, but once upon a time it was the epitome of modernity with bedrooms, bathrooms, public rooms, reception rooms, gardens, pools, and servants’ quarters, complete with structural details that caught the northern breeze and created a sort of natural air conditioning. Even though the area is guarded by barbed wire and I couldn’t actually walk on the palace floor, just knowing that I was within feet of where Nefertiti and Tut, Meretaten and Ankhesenpaaten, Horemheb and Ay lived, loved and plotted takes my breath away. (And I have recovered my breath since the cliff trek!)
From the Northern Palace, we drive a surprisingly long way to the ruins of the Temple of the Aten which consists on one rather phallic looking column and the broken remains of the main altar. It’s difficult to mentally reconstruct what this must have looked like, even with the evidence of paintings and murals which are now in places like the Cairo museum. I try to imagine how the area would have been laid out, but one pillar just isn’t enough to give a clear idea. I’ll have to find a recreation somewhere. As I stand next to the column, it reminds me of the single pillar that remains of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, a lonely reminder of what was once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In its own way, this temple too, was one of the marvels of the ancient world and now it has been reduced to a solitary sentinel.
We retrace our route out of the desert back to the fertile land bordering the Nile to the ferry that will return us to the other side. This time, we share our space with a donkey cart and a truck.
Our fashionista is not called on to drive the ferry this time; maybe it’s a different captain or perhaps it’s nearing the end of the day and there is no time for frivolity. Just get over the river and back to home. We reboard our big bus (we had taken a smaller, almost van-like bus to the actual site), I look out over the land, seeing what King Akhenaton saw for the land cannot be all that much different than it was when he first decided to build here. The sweeping scope of the flat plain, the soaring cliffs, the broad Nile with its rich fertile banks. No modern structures, no cell phone towers or electrical wires mar the vista. It possesses a certain timelessness that I can only hope will last another thousand years.
Our hotel for the night is, well, interesting. It is apparently a private hotel for employees of a cement company, sort of like a corporate residence. The rooms are enormous. You almost need a breadcrumb trail to get from the bed to the bath, but the sheets are threadbare and slightly stained, the shower sprays everywhere but down and in place of a washcloth, we have a sponge mat. I wash the dirt of the day off my face and hands and go down to the dining room for dinner, where we are served kushari, a traditional Egyptian meal, consisting of rice, lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, and caramelized onions. It sounds like it might be a heavy pasta sort of meal, but it’s actually very light and flavorful. I guzzle water, wondering where I put my Advil, listening to my fellow travelers chat about the day. My mind is no longer here. It is somewhere back on a rock cliff, overlooking a gleaming city rising out of the yellow sand, returning to vibrant life after millennia of sleep.
I have fulfilled my dream. I have seen Amarna. Everything from now on will be lagniappe.