February 21, 2003:
Driving to Minya today to see Beni Hassan, which
requires a security person in the car and a police
escort the rest of the way. Minya is in Middle Egypt,
and is considered a serious Muslim Fundamentalist
The Desert Road
It's four hours on the desert road to Minya. Everyone
still gets a little nervous about the presence of
tourists, and our guard in the car, Mohammed, (hereafter
referred to as "front-seat Mohammed") explains
that it is because snipers have been known to sit on
the banks and fire on the cruise ships. When I point
out that we are not on a cruise ship but in a small
van, he shrugs and smiles, tucking his MAC 10 on the
floor of the van between his feet. He is a nice guy,
who speaks reasonably good English (and wants to practice).
It must be boring going back and forth to Minya every
There are dozens of checkpoints along the highway, and
a few crashed cars and trucks are all the scenery we can watch. Some of the accidents
look very serious -- a big truck and a van collided,
with not much left of the van. Another truck off the
road. George says that 7000 people die in traffic
accidents each year in Cairo and the nearby desert
roads. Mr. Mohammed added that it was more dangerous on the desert roads, since people drive at night with no lights "to save the batteries".
At one point we are escorted by an enormous armored
car. Oh, no..don't draw attention to the American
tourists! Usually we just had to stop and wait while
they checked us out and cleared us for the next checkpoint.
A few times we had a car escort us for a awhile, or
a local police officer in the van with us. We picked
up another tourist policeman, also named Mohammed
-- we started calling him Back-Seat Mohammed. We now
have Driver-Mohammed, Front-seat Mohammed, and Back-Seat
Mohammed as well as Mr. Fateh. But wait, it gets better.
It was about this time that we realized that most of the tourist police at the checkpoints were referring to us as "two crazy americans." An officer would step up to the van, little notepad in hand, and peer inside, asking who we were. Mr. Mohammed would explain that we were Americans and where we were going (all of which was written down in the little book). Then, the officer would step aside to confer with his fellow soldiiers...who would then point and laugh uproariously. "Tneen [crazy] Amriki."
Look! There's an American!
We checked in at the Etap Mercure, the nicest hotel
in the city of Minya, before heading out. The room is pretty basic, and there
are armed guards wandering the walled compound. We
might have been the only ones at the hotel, and it was clear we were the only foreigners. Everyone was exceedingly
nice and very efficient--Within 10 minutes of checking
in, a nice you man had brought a bottle of water.
A few minutes later, another young man brought a fresh
fruit basket. A bit later, yet another young man came
to tell us that lunch would be served in the restaurant
when we were ready. It made us feel a bit like we
were on display -- everyone at the hotel had to
come see the crazy Americans!
Lunch -- beef filets and mushrooms --was very tasty,
and served by the manager of the restaurant. Then
we headed out to see the tombs of Beni Hassan. It's
a long drive through a number of very small villages
to get there, winding through the narrow dirt roads
between the flat facades of the mud brick houses with
bright doors. All along the main street of one village,
people have planted trees in large pots and surrounded
them with circles of concrete block -- i assume to
keep the animals from eating them.
It's Friday, so prayers are being broadcast on
a loudspeaker and the streets are deserted except for a few stray goats and a couple of young children.
It's the one place we have been that the voices didn't sound friendly,
and we begin to wonder if the security is warranted.
We picked up a few more guards along the way. Beni Hassan is on the Eastern shore -- odd for burials, which
are nearly always on the west. But, there aren't any
cliffs on the western side of the Nile, so the tombs are in the
90' escarpment overlooking the river on the east. It's a long haul up the hill. Everyone,
including the tourist police, stopped on the first
landing where there were benches and rested a bit.
I mean, I'm out of shape, I know that, but it was
pretty much a vertical climb.
Beni Hassan Tombs
These are interesting tombs, if a bit plain. Most
are just simple rooms with a few pairs of pillars,
decorated with crudely painted scenes that seem to feature wresting more than anything else. But the view
over the floodplain from the ridge is inspiring. At least two of the tombs Two of the tombs have huge collections of stick-figure-men demonstrating wrestling moves. Compared to some of the exquisite art in the tombs in Luxor, these seem rough and childish. We visited the mostly-ruined tombs of Amenemhet, Baqet III, Kheti, and Khnumhotep. These men were important administrative officials, which explains why they have such relatively elaborate tombs.
On the way down, a school group was climbing the stairs, with many greetings of "Hello! Hello! Glad
to see you!" and much handshaking. Most kids
speak English and will practice on us whenever we
meet them. They seem fascinated by Mark, who is the tallest person I've seen in Egypt, and topped with red hair, to boot.
"Hello! My name is..." they said, shaking
our hands gravely. Then, "And you-re naming is..."
Much better than our Arabic, which is limited to hello,
goodbye, yes, no, thank you, and counting. Sort of. "Isme Mark," my husband would respond, just as seriously, after being told by Front-Seat Mohammed how to say "my name is..." We
bought everyone sodas and water the rest house at the bottom
of the hill.
When we returned to the hotel, we were told very explicitly
that we were not to leave the hotel grounds. A small contingent of security police and regular army remained in the small courtyard. A pity,
really -- Minya seems to have a delightful park along
the Nile, and there was a fabulous wedding party just
outside the hotel that we could just see through our window.