Sesebi and Amara, by I.E.S. Edwards

Sesebi and Amara

One of the EES Dig Houses in Egypt.
(article & photographs courtesy of Dr. Chris Naunton, EES)

In contrast to the floating dig house, featured in Nellie Adams’ article, the two houses featured in this issue, used during the Society’s most southerly archaeological ventures into the Sudan, were on dry land.

Sesebi and Amara, by I.E.S. Edwards

On a damp and misty Saturday, early in November 1937, I hung up my house-key at the British Museum and began my first journey to Egypt by way of Paris, Turin and Athens. It was at the time when the Spanish Civil War was on, and almost my only fellow passenger on the cross-channel boat proved to be the captain of a Dutch vessel engaged in the non-intervention patrols off the Spanish coast, who was going to spend forty-eight hours’ leave in Paris.

I was leaving England before the other members of the Society’s expedition to Sesebi and Amara, in order to gain some experience in fieldwork, first with W.B. Emery at Saqqara and then at Armant with Oliver Myers.

By previous arrangement I was to meet at Luxor Professor A. M. Blackman (who had directed the Sesebi excavations in the previous season), H.W. Fairman and E.D. Bell, the surveyor and photographer, and to proceed with them to the Sudan. Professor Blackman had however decided at the last minute to stay in England so that he could accept an appointment as tutor to the Crown Prince of Abyssinia, who was living in exile in this country after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

The excavation staff at Sesebi and Amara, 1938 From left to right: Edwards, Fairman, Bell
The excavation staff at Sesebi and Amara, 1938 From left to right: Edwards, Fairman, Bell.

I reached Luxor on the dale agreed, but my plans to join Fairman and Bell were frustrated by dysentery, and Dr Dale, the doctor at the Winter Palace Hotel, sent me back by train to Cairo, where an ambulance took me to the Anglo-American Hospital.

Three weeks elapsed before I was able to resume my journey to Sesebi, first by train to Aswan, and then boat to Wadi Halfa – the latter lasting two days, with one scheduled stop at Abu Simbel. Passengers were asked if they wished to visit any of the temples en route: I chose the temple of Wadi es-Seuba, but, instead of reaching the temple after breakfast as I had expected, we arrived at six in the morning. Being early January, it was cold and dark at such an early hour, and the rather conventional reliefs on the temple walls, illuminated by hurricane lamp, failed to excite my interest. At the earliest opportunity I told the two sailors accompanying me that I was ready to be ferried back to the ship, and thankfully returned to bed.

At the turn of the century it would have been possible to travel by rail from Wadi Halfa to Delgo on the east bank of the Nile opposite Sesebi, but the railway ceased to operate in 1903, and I had to go by lorry, seated between the driver and his mate. We began the 180-mile drive at dusk, first over the desert and then through the long gorge known as the Batn el-Hagar (‘Belly of Stones’). From time to time I could see some remains of the derelict railway line on our left, and I knew that the Nile lay on our right, but it was a moonless night and my field of vision was confined to the range of the lorry’s headlamps. I did however see several herds of gazelle which scattered as we approached; sometimes a gazelle. dazzled by our lights, ran just ahead of the lorry for a short distance before darting sideways to rejoin the herd.

Soon after midnight we reached Akasha – about halfway – where there was a small government resthouse consisting of two rooms, one already occupied by the Assistant District Commissioner, Mr L. M. Buchanan, and his wife. I settled in a deck chair in the vacant room, and slept soundly until I was awakened by my co-tenants, who invited me to join them for breakfast.

By mid-morning we had passed the island of Saï and reached Soleb, at both of which the Society held concessions later surrendered in favour of Amara. Unfortunately the famous temple of Amenophis III at Soleb, though visible, lay on the opposite bank, and the risk of being stranded there seemed too great, so we pressed on to Delgo, arriving there in the early afternoon. I could see a cloud of dust rising from the excavations across the river, but the only figure in sight was an old man tilling his plot, a smoking wick on his forehead to keep the flies away. The only sound came from the creaking of a nearby saqiya (waterwheel). It would be difficult to imagine a more peaceful setting for our activities.

David Bell and assistant bathing eyes of basket-boys.
David Bell and assistant bathing eyes of basket-boys.

Soon the expedition boat (the only boat I saw in my time at Sesebi) came to meet me: a westerly breeze made the return-journey difficult, and twice we were stuck on sandbanks, but I finally arrived towards the end of the day’s excavations. The house, built in the previous year, was a three-sided, whitewashed brick building facing south, with a flat roof and open central court. The central portion comprised the office and living room, and each wing had two bedrooms; the kitchen led out of the east end of the living room. A sand-closet formed a separate block outside. There was no point in having a darkroom, since the sand in the water made it unsuitable for developing or priming photographs.

Our working day began at 8 a.m. The first hour was important, because it was generally the only time of day when the wind was not blowing and it was possible to make paper squeezes of temple reliefs. More than once the squeezes were blown away into the desert before they dried out, and we were never able to retrieve them. In February the winds were followed by tiny aphid-like flies which filled the air and got into everything, including our food. Work on the dig finished at 4 p.m., to be followed by a sick parade. Many of the local basket-boys were suffering from ophthalmia and head sores. Our only treatment was to dip their heads in a solution of permanganate of potash, and then apply boracic swabs to their eyes and sores; the results were not swift, but within a month we had discharged our last patient.

Our evening routine began at about 5.45, when each of us was brought a shallow hip bath and jerrycans of hot and cold water. At about 6.30 we assembled in the living room, wearing suits and ties, for a pre-dinner drink. Most of our food supplies had been ordered from the Army and Navy Stores, and been shipped to Port Sudan and taken by rail to Khartum; thence to Wadi Halfa, where they were collected by Fairman and Bell. Our boatman occasionally caught fish for us, and once or twice we shared a lamb with the Quftis (the dozen trained diggers who acted as foremen and skilled workers). The ‘king’ of our local tribe, the Mahas, gave us live turkey, which we kept for a dinner party when we were visited by the Acting Conservator of Antiquities, Mr G. W. Grabham. One of my duties was to arrange our menu for lunch and dinner each day with our resourceful cook. When I told him that we were going to have the turkey, he said that he would need a cup of brandy for the bird before killing it. How much the brandy contributed to the final result I cannot tell, but we all agreed that it was the best turkey we had ever tasted.

This feast night apart, when dinner was over, Fairman would write the diary for the day, and attend to matters of general administration, while Bell and I labeled and registered the day’s objects. Usually we completed the work; any arrears being cleared on our weekly rest day, when we wrote our letters. Sometimes I would go to the temple to check the weathered inscriptions on the walls of the crypt, using a torch to light them from different angles.

Our work at Sesebi finished in mid-February. It had been a most happy dig on all counts, for which much of the credit must go to Fairman for his faultless management; but our two servants, the sufragi Hussein and Ibrahim the cook, and the Quftis, by their

good humour and skill, all contributed greatly to our enjoyment The locally recruited workmen and basket-boys worked in small gangs supervised by Quftis, who were friendly: one invited us lo his wedding reception, the celebrations consisting of simple dances, and folk songs sung softly to the accompaniment of a lute. The morning after the bridal pair, mounted on camels, visited their friends (including ourselves) to receive presents. Our gift was some four-ounce packets of tea, suitably wrapped, which proved acceptable: they would certainly have provided more drinks than a bottle of champagne.

While Fairman and Bell were making the necessary preparations for our move to Amara, where the Society intended to excavate the following season if our initial exploration looked promising, I went to look for a house there. The 65-mile journey north was uneventful and the local Omdah (mayor) was fortunately at home when I arrived: he was a tall friendly man of about forty-five, wearing a fine silk kaftan and turban.

Before we discussed business matters, his servant brought in a tray with cups of coffee and a tin of Carr’s biscuits, which he unsealed in our presence. I was surprised to see a British product in so remote a place, but I thought someone must have brought it to him from Khartum.

The upshot of my talk was that he would arrange for us to have a house to meet our requirements, but it must be on the east side since there were no houses on the west where our excavations were to be conducted. He would provide a boat for daily crossings. Having completed my business sooner than expected, I returned to Sesebi before dark. A few days later we moved to Amara, where the Omdah had found a suitable house for us, but the nearest navigable river-crossing, he said, would be a short distance upstream; it proved to be a mile.

Moving from Sesebi to Amara.
Moving from Sesebi to Amara.

The Quftis were housed in tents near the dig. Next morning we rode on donkeys to the crossing and on other donkeys back along the west bank. By then the Quftis had located the sand-covered temple, and begun to remove the sand from the walls. Ten days work proved that it would repay excavation but the inconvenience of living so far away must be remedied: Since we could not return to base for lunch we used to picnic on top of an escarpment overlooking the river. The bank, a hundred feet below, was a favourite place for crocodiles to bask in the sun. Such was their quickness of sight that if we dropped a pebble they would see it and plunge in the river before it reached them.

During the following summer, while the Committee of the Society was considering how to overcome the difficulties at Amara, the main problem was being resolved in Khartum. The Omdah had been convicted of receiving stolen property from the stores of the Sudan Government Railways at Wadi Halfa (no doubt the source of the biscuits) and was in prison. There were no submerged rocks in the river near the house, and the alleged hazards were simply a ruse by the Omdah to make us hire his donkeys. We had been comprehensively hoodwinked, but in such a friendly and courteous way that none of us bore our landlord any in-will.

Status of historical research: Closed
Status of article: Finished