The main attractions around Minya are the rock tombs of Beni Hassan, roughly midway between Minya and Mallawi and containing the finest surviving murals from the Middle Kingdom. Nearer to Mallawi on the west bank are the ruins of Hermopolis and its partially subterranean necropolis, Tuna al-Gabel, while the rock-cut temples of Tihna el-Jebel and the Coptic Monastery of the Virgin (Deir al-Adhra) lie across the river to the north of Minya, whose bridge provides easy access to the east bank.

The Frazer Tombs

Across the Nile to the northeast of Minya, farming is constrained by the cliffs of the Eastern Desert, where fallen rocks as big as houses mark the start of a path to the Frazer Tombs. Named after their excavator, Gary Frazer, these V and VI Dynasty rock-cut tombs are reached by sunken passageways. The two that are open to visitors once belonged to two dignitaries both named Nika-Ankh. The first contains damaged statues of Nika-Ankh, his wife, their children and grandson, interspersed by hieroglyphs. The effigies in the second tomb are better preserved; note the finely carved pleats on the kilt of Nika-Ankh’s statue.

Tihna el-Jebel

Further north, a cleavage in the massif harbours the village of TIHNA EL-JEBEL which sits next to the mud-brick ruins of the pharaonic town of Dehenet (Forehead), known to the Greeks as Acoris. A long stairway once flanked by altars and statues leads to a craggy massif with two unfinished rock-cut temples dedicated to Amun and Suchos (the Greek name for the crocodile-god Sobek). In the penultimate chamber of the first temple are two niches that once held mummified crocodiles: if you carefully circumvent a deep shaft right outside, you can see a remaining croc in a chamber beyond the second temple. Further round the cliff-face, a chapel to the goddess Hathor is carved so high up it seems unbelievable that it was ever used for offerings.

Deir al-Adhra: the Monastery of the Virgin

Beyond Tihna el-Jebel the road hugs the base of the cliffs, where men cut limestone boulders into kerb-stones. A flight of 166 steps ascends to the cliff-top village of GABEL ET-TEIR (Bird Mountain), nowadays also accessible by road. The mountain is so-named after a legend that all the birds in Egypt gathered there during its monastery’s annual feast day.

The Monastery of the Virgin (Deir al-Adhra) was once known as the Monastery of the Pulley, after a hoist that was formerly the only means of access before steps were cut into the cliff. A simple nineteenth-century edifice encloses a rock-hewn church, reputedly founded in 328 by Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine. Its sanctity derives from a tiny cave where the Holy Family is believed to have hidden for three days and which now contains an icon of the Virgin credited with miraculous powers. Similar tales surround a baptismal font carved into one of the church’s Greco-Roman columns.

Usually only visited by local villagers, the church receives nearly two million pilgrims during the week-long Feast of the Assumption, forty days after the Coptic Easter. Minibuses run here directly from Minya during the festival.

The Church of Aba Hur

The east bank road to Beni Hassan runs past the predominantly Coptic village of AL-SAWADAH where a sign in English welcomes visitors to the Church of Aba Hur (Deir Abu Hor) – you can’t miss the modern church that stands in front of a tunnel leading to its subterranean rock-hewn namesake. A blacksmith’s son who was born in 310 AD, Aba Hur became a hermit at the age of 20 and took up residence in a disused Ptolemaic temple; his faith under torture converted the Roman governor of Pelusium to Christianity.

Every year on July 6 over one hundred thousand Coptic pilgrims attend the Moulid of Aba Hur, camping out in the cemetery beyond Al-Sawadah.

Zawiyet el-Sultan

This vast cemetery, called Zawiyet el-Sultan (after the next village) or Zawiyet el-Mayyiteen (Corner of the Dead), resembles a field of giant egg-boxes. Thousands of domed mausolea are grouped in confessional enclaves, the Coptic ones topped by a forest of crosses. The Muslim section harbours the tomb of Hoda Shaarawi (1879–1947), an early twentieth-century feminist who led demonstrations against British rule and was the first Egyptian woman to publicly remove her veil (in Cairo’s Ramses station), inspiring others to do likewise.

Kom al-Ahmar

Beyond Zawiyet el-Sultan the road passes Kom al-Ahmar (Red Mound), the site of ancient Hebenu, capital of the Oryx nome, or province. The name Hebenu comes from the Ancient Egyptian word hbn, meaning to kill with a knife, and refers to the revenge of the god Horus on his father’s murderer, Seth. The site’s most interesting feature is a small ruined III Dynasty pyramid whose symbolic tomb was never used as such, unlike another tomb dating from the New Kingdom, containing the defaced funerary statue of a local nomarch, Nefer-Skheru.

Beni Hassan

The barren cliffs on the east bank to the south of Minya harbour the famous rock tombs of Beni Hassan, named after an Arab tribe that once settled hereabouts. The vivid murals in this necropolis shed light on the Middle Kingdom (c.2050–1650 BC), a period when provincial dignitaries showed their greater independence by having grand burials locally, rather than at Saqqara.

Though most of its 39 tombs are unfinished, the four shown to visitors evince a stylistic evolution during the XI–XII Dynasties. Their variously shaped chambers represent a transitional stage between the lateral mastaba tombs of the Old Kingdom and the deep shafts in the Valley of the Kings, gradually acquiring vestibules and sunken corridors to heighten the impact of the funerary effigies at the back. The actual mummies were secreted at the bottom of shafts, accompanied by funerary texts derived from the royal burials of the Old Kingdom.

Pharaonic iconography and contemporary reportage are blended in the murals, whose innovative wrestling scenes presaged the battle vistas of the New Kingdom. Though battered and faded in parts, their details reward careful study.

Tomb of Kheti (#17)
Of the many chambers hewn into the cliff-side, the first you’ll come to is the Tomb of Kheti, which retains two of its papyrus-bud columns, painted in places – the colours are quite fresh. As in most tombs of Ancient Egyptian dignitaries, its images are arranged in “registers” (rows) whose height above floor level reflects their spatial relationship. Thus, Nile scenes go below those involving the Valley, above which come desert vistas, the highest ones most distant.

In the murals, hippopotamuses watch the papyrus harvest, as desert creatures are hunted above registers of weavers, dancers, artists and senet players (senet was a bit like draughts or checkers) observed by Kheti and his wife, to whom minions bring offerings of gazelles and birds.

The rear (east) wall features a compendium of wrestling positions, thought to emphasize efforts to defend Egypt against invaders from the east; a now-vanished scene of warriors storming a fortress once explicitly made the point. Don’t miss the man standing on his head and in other yoga positions, between the scenes of wine-making and herding cattle. Ploughing is another task overseen by Kheti in his role as nomarch, attended by his dwarf and fan-bearers. Notice Kheti’s boats, and bulls locking horns, in the corner.

Tomb of Baqet III (#15)
Kheti inherited the governorship of the Oryx nome from his father, buried in the Tomb of Baqet III. Its imagery is similar to that in Kheti’s tomb, with some scenes better preserved, others not. While the mural of papyrus-gathering in the marshes is quite faded, the desert hunt is rich in details: notice the copulating gazelles near the left-hand corner. Ball players, women spinning and fullers beating cloth appear below. Nearly two hundred wrestling positions are shown on the rear wall, with a lovely pair of birds above the funerary niche. The south wall is covered with episodes from the life of this XI Dynasty nomarch. In the second register from the top, his underlings count cattle and beat tax defaulters with sticks.

Tomb of Khnumhotep (#3)
Columned porticos and a niche for statues (which replaced the Old Kingdom serdab or secret chamber) are hallmarks of the XII Dynasty tombs, 150m north. The Tomb of Khnumhotep is framed by proto-Doric columns and hieroglyphs praising this nomarch, who was also governor of the Eastern Desert. His funeral cortege appears inside the entrance. Servants weigh grain and scribes record its storage in granaries, while beneath the desert hunt, Semitic Amu tribesmen from Syria in striped tunics pay their respects, their alien costumes, flocks and tribute all minutely detailed – the governor is shown accepting eye paint.

In the niche, images of Khnumhotep’s children are visible on the walls but only the plinth of his statue remains. Elsewhere are vivid scenes of Khnumhotep netting birds, hunting with a throwing stick and spearing fish from a punt in the marshes. After the usual offerings, he inspects boat-building timber from a litter and then sails to Abydos. Higher and lower registers portray bare-breasted laundrywomen, weavers and other artisans. The hieroglyphic text beneath these scenes has yielded clues about the political relationship between the nomarchs and pharaohs of the XII Dynasty.

Tomb of Amenemhet (#2)
The Tomb of Amenemhet belongs to Khnumhotep’s predecessor, whose campaign honours are listed beside the door near a text relating the death of Senusret I. Proto-Doric columns uphold a vaulted ceiling painted with checkered reed-mat patterns. A mural of armourers, leatherworkers (at the top) and weavers precedes the customary hunting scene, beneath which Amenemhet collects tribute from his estates. Note the scribes berating defaulters on the second register from the bottom. Below the wrestling and siege tableaux, boats escort him towards Abydos. The niche contains mutilated effigies of Amenemhet, his mother and his wife Heptet, who sits at her own table to receive offerings. Fish are netted and spit-roasted above a painted false door flanked by scenes of music making, cattle fording and baking.

Hermopolis

According to one ancient tradition, Creation began on a primordial mound near the city that the Ancient Greeks called Hermopolis Magna, whose pulverized ruins spread beyond the village of ASHMUNEIN. Turning right off the main street you’ll come to an outdoor museum (daily 8am–5pm; free) of antique stone-carvings, fronted by two giant sandstone baboons that once sported erect phalluses (hacked off by early Christians) and upheld the ceiling of the Temple of Thoth. Built by Ramses II using masonry from Tell el-Amarna, the temple stood within an enclosure covering 640 square metres, the spiritual heart of the city of the moon-god.

Hermopolis was a cult centre from early Dynastic times, venerated as the site of the primeval mound where the sun-god emerged from a cosmic egg. Like Heliopolis (which made similar claims) its priesthood evolved an elaborate cosmogony, known as the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. Though Ancient Egyptians called the city Khmunu, history remembers it as Hermopolis Magna; its Ptolemaic title reflects the Greek association of Thoth with their own god Hermes. However, there’s little to see except 24 slender columns further south, which were re-erected by archeologists who mistook the ruins for a Greek agora. The columns previously supported a fifth-century Coptic basilica, but originally belonged to a Ptolemaic temple.

Tuna al-Gabel

From Ashmunein, a tarmac road continues to the village of TUNA AL-GABEL, which takes its name from the ancient necropolis 5km further on into the desert, famous for its extensive catacombs, where thousands of sacred baboons and ibises were buried in ancient times. The name “Tuna” may derive from the Ancient Egyptian ta-wnt (the hare) or ta-hnt (a place where many ibis birds gather).

Along the way, notice the boundary stele on a distant cliff, marking the edge of the agricultural land that was claimed by Tell el-Amarna, across the river.

The necropolis
For millennia, the necropolis at Tuna al-Gabel was a cult-centre where pilgrims gave homage to Thoth by paying the priests to embalm ibises – over two million were sacrificed, mostly bred for the chop.

Today, it’s awash with sand, wind-rippled drifts casting its angular mausolea into high relief, but obscuring other features. Past the resthouse at the entrance (which sells drinks and has toilets), a path to the right leads to the catacombs, which some believe stretch as far as Hermopolis. The accessible portion consists of rough-hewn corridors with blocked-off side passages, where the mummified baboons, which were sacred to Thoth, and ibises were stacked (a few bandages remain). A shrine near the ladder contains a baboon fetish and a pathetic-looking baboon mummy. You can also see the limestone sarcophagus of a high priest of mummification.

Tomb of Petosiris
Further along the main track from the necropolis are several mausolea excavated by Gustav Lefebvre in 1920. The finest is the Tomb of Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth (whose coffin is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), dating from 350 BC. Its vestibule walls depict traditional activities such as brick-making, sewing and reaping, milking, husbandry and wine-making – with all the figures wearing Greek costume. Inside the tomb are colourful scenes from the Book of Gates and the Book of the Dead. The most vivid scene (on the right-hand wall near the back) shows nine baboons, twelve women and a dozen cobras, each set representing a temporal cycle. Notice the Nubians at the bottom of the opposite wall.

The Well
In the desert off to the right you’ll spot some columns from the Temple of Thoth that once dominated the site. More impressive, however, is the ancient well that used to supply the necropolis and its sacred aviary with fresh water, drawn up from 70m below the desert by a huge waterwheel which still exists, though it no longer works. A spiral staircase gives access to the well-head.

Mallawi

The town of MALLAWI has gone to the dogs ever since Minya supplanted it as the regional capital in the 1960s. Many streets are still unpaved, and hovels are more prevalent than villas. Known to Egyptians as the birthplace of President Sadat’s assassin, Khalid al-Islambouli (whose mother remains proud of his deed), it bore the brunt of the state’s counter-insurgency campaign in the 1990s.

The police want foreigners to pass through as quickly as possible, but will tolerate a visit to the small museum on Sharia Banque Misr, exhibiting artefacts from Hermopolis and Tuna al-Gabel, and maybe a quick look at the derelict Hindu-Gothic-style feudal palace a few blocks away.

  • Thoth and the Hermopolitan Ogdoad