The advent of large-scale foreign tourism to see the monuments of ancient Egypt is often dated to the efforts of Thomas Cook and Son who, by 1898, were conducting 50,000 visitors down the Nile. Since then the flow of ordinary visitors – not including savants, scholars or archaeologists – wishing to see these ancient marvels has continued to expand so that, in 2008, over 12 million foreign tourists visited Egypt.

However, even by 1898, the viewing of ancient Egyptian monuments by foreign visitors had already had an illustrious history: Greek and Roman tourists marvelled at these great and strange works of antiquity. In some cases – most notably Herodotus – these visitors left written accounts of what they saw, which was often much more complete and varied than the remains that have survived to the 21st century, making these travellers’ tales of real archaeological value.

More remarkable still is what might be called ancient domestic tourism – the visiting of already-venerable monuments by individuals who lived during the dynastic period, most notably the New Kingdom. The places where this tourism is most obvious are the royal cemeteries close to Memphis. Here the combination of the most populous city of New Kingdom Egypt existing in close proximity with the most spectacular of ancient monuments – the royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom, already by the 18th dynasty over a thousand years old – provided an environment where an appreciation of the physical remains of the distant past could flourish. For a literate Egyptian living during the reign of Ramesses II, though the greatest of the royal pyramids at Giza had been built a millennium earlier, they were part of a culture that could readily be understood. For this literate elite, Old Kingdom pyramids could be easily visited, their owners identified and their relevance to contemporary cultural life easily recognized.

The full extent of this ancient tourism is unknown, but it seems to have been a significant feature of cultural life, at least in the Memphite area, during the New Kingdom. Our knowledge of these visits comes from something that we would today consider essentially destructive – graffiti scrawled upon the monuments themselves. That these ancient notes are usually in black ink suggests that the graffiti-writers went prepared. Clusters of these graffiti are known from around major Old Kingdom monuments at Saqqara, Abusir, Abu Ghurob and Meidum. Giza is distinctly and oddly lacking in these graffiti, although the pattern of the commemoration of ancient visits may have been rather different there. The major themes referred to in the graffiti are the wonder and respect due to these magnificent monuments of great kings of the past, but also the wish that the reverence shown by these tourists will itself be rewarded by gaining the favour of the dead king and gods.

Graffiti – the informal texts put on monuments and the natural landscape by non-royal Egyptians – come in different forms, including these elaborately carved inscriptions from the Late Old Kingdom on a sandstone outcrop at el-Kab. Steven Snape

Ancient Visitors at Ancient Sites

Tourists at Giza?

In 1936–37 the Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan carried out a major clearance around the Great Sphinx at Giza. His work uncovered a group of over 50 stelae, dating to the New Kingdom, which had as their subject private individuals’ homages to the Sphinx as embodiment of the god Horemakhet. Among these stelae one is especially striking: it depicts two New Kingdom officials who seem to be identified by the accompanying inscriptions as the scribes Montuher and Kamutnakht. The stela has a typical Ramesside format, showing worshippers in the bottom half of the stela and the object of worship in the top half. The two scribes have their arms raised in devotion, though Kamutnakht’s right hand holds a writing palette – perhaps in readiness for an opportunity to write an appropriate graffito – and he balances a bag over his right shoulder, which it is tempting to think of as a picnic lunch for the pair’s visit to the Giza plateau. Most striking of all is the depiction of the sphinx and two pyramids (shown overlapping in an unusual attempt at perspective), which, apart from the unrealistically steep angle of the Khufu and Khafre pyramids, is a view not dissimilar to one which a visitor standing on the roof of Khafre’s valley temple can enjoy today.

The scribe Aakheperkaresonb visits the mortuary temple of the pyramid of Sneferu at Meidum

Year 41, under the Majesty of Horus-king [Thutmose III]. The scribe Aakheperkaresonb, son of Amenmensu, the scribe and lector-priest of [Thutmose I]), true of voice, came here to see the beautiful temple of the Horus-king Sneferu.

He found it like heaven within when the sun-god is rising in it and he exclaimed, ‘Heaven rains with fresh frankincense and drops incense upon the roof of the temple of the Horus king Sneferu’.

The rest of the text continues with Aakheperkaresonb urging future visitors to say the offering-prayer for the benefit of Sneferu.

View of the pyramids of Giza from the New Kingdom stela of Montuher and Kamutnakht. Julian Heath.

View of the pyramids of Giza as they appear to modern visitors. Heidi Grassley © Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.

Although ownership of the pyramid at Meidum is still disputed, graffiti from the New Kingdom make it clear that visitors of that period considered it to be the work of King Snefru. Danita Delimont/Alamy.

The scribe Nashuyu visits the pyramids at Saqqara

Nashuyu’s visit is recorded by a graffito at the pyramid of Khendjer at Saqqara. His trip – which seems to have been combined with a festival celebrating the emergence of the god Ptah from his temple – was partly to seek the favour of the Old Kingdom kings Teti and Djoser:

Do good, do good O Teti-beloved-of-Ptah, do good to the scribe Nashuyu, the servant of your servant, Nedjemmerut. Do good, do good O Djoser-discoverer-of-stoneworking. Do good, do good to the scribe Nashuyu….

Year 34, 4th month of Summer, Day 24. The Day of the festival of Ptah, Lord of Memphis, when he appears outside the temple in the evening….

The scribe Hednakht visits the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser

As well as the practical benefits that Hednakht sought from the gods, the theme of a jolly family day out among the pyramids is also mentioned:

Year 47, 2nd month of Winter, Day 25. The treasury-scribe Hednakht, son of Tjenro and Twosret, came to take a stroll and enjoy himself in the West of Memphis, along with his brother Panakht, scribe of the vizier.

He said, ‘O [all] you gods of the West of Memphis and glorified dead, may you grant a full lifetime in serving your good pleasure, with a goodly burial after a happy old age, like yourself.’

The Old Kingdom royal tombs at Saqqara seem to have been the most visited ancient sites during the New Kingdom, especially the Step Pyramid complex of King Djoser. Images of Africa Photobank/Alamy.

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