Tell el-Amarna
Tell el-Amarna

Go off the beaten track with Expert Guide Lecturer, Lucia Gahlin

I am thrilled that Andante Travels has agreed to add a new Egypt tour in 2021, taking travellers off the beaten track to some of the less visited sites (but still making sure we visit the must-sees (the Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple, plus optional visits to Giza and Philae).

This itinerary means a lot to me because it takes us to the rarely visited archaeological site where I have spent my happiest times as an archaeological draughtsman and small finds registrar – Tell el-Amarna. I have spent two seasons here recording finds excavated in temples dedicated to the god Aten by Akhenaten. This 18th dynasty pharaoh ruled Egypt c1352 – 1336 BC from his new capital at Tell el-Amarna, roughly midway between Cairo and Luxor. It was a city built on a virgin site, and although preservation of the mudbrick buildings is limited, it still survives better than any other ancient city in Egypt. Walking through the ancient temple and palace remains in our sturdy shoes, Andante travellers are treading where Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun once trod in their fine sandals. Exploring the site, our heads teem with images from my lecture the evening before, images of richly painted plaster and vibrant faience tiles and inlay, which once adorned these palace walls; of elaborately carved stone blocks, which once cased these mudbrick temple walls. Exploration of the tombs of Akhenaten’s civil servants, set high in the limestone desert cliffs, help us understand the ancient city further, as temples and palaces are represented in detail on their carved walls. The art we see on the walls of these tombs is a highlight of the day, typical of the intriguing ‘Amarna style’. Our travels elsewhere in Egypt inform us that traditionally the pharaoh was represented in a hyper-masculine way - strong, mighty and virile –forever young, muscles rippling, expressing an ideology not a true portrait.

Akhenaten chose to be depicted in a style that is in marked contrast to the traditional strong athletic bodies and usually somewhat beatific faces of the rulers of Egypt. He is portrayed instead all hips, tum, bum and thighs, with a long face and neck, spindly limbs, and unusual facial features. The style of art is quite different during Akhenaten’s reign but very few people get to experience this extraordinary art in situ, because very few people get to visit Tell el-Amarna.

This unusual mode of representation for this one and only pharaoh in some 3000 years of remarkably consistent kingship iconography has led to much theorising, including claims that Akhenaten must have been suffering from Frohlich’s Syndrome or Marfan’s Syndrome. I think it extremely unlikely he actually looked as we see him in the tombs at Amarna, much more likely he chose to have himself and indeed his family represented in an exceptional manner to reflect their divine status as the focus of a ruler cult. While Akhenaten’s one god, Aten, is the only deity in the ancient Egyptian pantheon given the kingly attribute of names written in cartouches. Standing in the tombs, gazing up at this complex iconography, we are able to discuss various interpretations. The joy of an Andante tour in Egypt is the discussion that takes place between the travellers, the knowledgeable local guide and the accompanying Egyptologist.

Akhenaten’s seeming attempt at monotheism c1350 BC tends to fascinate. Exploring not only the tombs of contemporary high officials and priests, but of Akhenaten himself, we look out for depictions of Aten - a sun disc with a uraeus; hands at the end of its rays extending the ankh to the nostrils of the royal family.  Was this really monotheism before its time? Another fascinating discussion to be had.

Not long after Akhenaten’s death there was a return to the polytheistic religion and Tell el-Amarna, or Akhetaten (‘Horizon of Aten’) as it was then called, was abandoned, pillaged, and left to fall into rack and ruin. The site wasn’t occupied again for nearly 2000 years when a Christian community flourished here, 5th - 7th Centuries AD, bringing monotheism once more to this out-of-the-way place. Visiting the tomb of Akhenaten’s priest Panehsy on this tour we find that it was converted into a church at this time; early Christian art, including a unique six-winged bird, overlays imagery of the Amarna royal family and Aten.

A visit to the ancient monuments gives us a feel for life at Amarna today. Criss-crossing this huge site, we drive through the modern village of El Till, located in the heart of the ancient city; stopping for our picnic lunch at the resthouse gives us the opportunity to chat with some of the villagers. They can give us yet another perspective on this archaeological site. If our tour coincides with an excavation season, the archaeologists are always happy to talk to our Andante Travels group. Andante Travels regularly support the work of the Amarna Project, and in return the dig directors, Professor Barry Kemp and Dr Anna Stevens, are keen to talk to Andante groups at the site if they can.

The seasons I spent living and working in the dighouse on the Amarna desert plain, in what would have been the southern suburb of the ancient city, were very special times for me. The foundations of the dighouse are those of an 18th dynasty house, so the dimensions of the rooms in the dighouse are those of an élite family in ancient Egyptian society at the time, while the additional bedrooms are individual and domed, reflecting the local architecture of the modern cemetery nearby. The showers were cold, the food monotonous, and the creepy crawlies unnerving, but imagine the joy of registering object after object, each nearly 3500 years old, from amethyst amulets to mud sealings - drawing, measuring, identifying, describing, numbering, and storing them in small plastic bags in cardboard boxes in the dighouse magazine (only to return the next season to find termites had been feasting on the boxes, leaving piles of objects in plastic bags on the shelves!). Connecting with ancient man by holding an object manufactured and used by someone thousands of years ago is a very special experience. The pottery moulds used to produce faience items such as ring bezels give me a particular thrill, as it is often possible to see the finger and palm prints of the ancient artisan on the hardened clay. But handling ancient artefacts doesn't have to be restricted to archaeologists and museum curators, I teach a study day in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology for Andante Travels during which all participants can enjoy the thrill of handling ancient Egyptian objects (and I always make sure some of them are from Tell el-Amarna).

Most tour companies fly groups from Cairo to Luxor, but by driving through Middle Egypt, an Andante Travels group gets to visit the rarely-visited but extremely important sites of Beni Hasan, Tuna el-Gebel, Abydos, and of course Tell el-Amarna.  There are many treats in store on this new Egypt Off the Beaten Track itinerary, I hope you can join us, and enjoy them too.

Click here to find out more about Tell el-Amarna. It is the website of the archaeologists who have been working at this site since 1977, under the direction of Professor Barry Kemp.

To enjoy a virtual tour of the tomb of Kheti at Beni Hasan, you can do so by clicking here. It is a rarely-visited site, but we will be visiting this tomb on our tour.

Lucia Gahlin

Temple of Seti I, Abydos

Temple of Seti I, Abydos

Ancient pillars at Tuna el-Gebel

Ancient pillars at Tuna el-Gebel

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Go off the beaten track with Expert Guide Lecturer, Lucia Gahlin was published on 23 April 2020