In everyone’s mad rush to get to the valley of Luxor from Cairo, few realize how much they are missing along the Nile in between the two places. While those short on time can be forgiven for these actions, those that can afford a more leisurely pace will be rewarded by making a few stops along the way to the Valley of Kings. The first stop worth noting is the Beni Hassan necropolis situated 275 km (170 miles) south of Cairo.
What is Beni Hasan?
After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, ancient Egypt underwent a dark period of instability, conflict, and grabs for power by the country’s elite which marked the end of absolute rule by Egyptian Pharaohs. Eventually Egypt would be reunified by Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II in 2134 BCE which would mark the beginning of the Middle Kingdom period. Unification brought growth and prosperity to Egypt once again but Pharaohs would no longer wield the power they once possessed. The time of pyramid building was over and future Pharaohs would have to settle for more simple (yet beautifully decorated tombs). While Pharaoh’s tombs returned to earthly proportions, the new distribution of power and wealth allowed those under the Pharaoh to build themselves tombs that would not have been possible during the Old Kingdom Period.
This brings us to Beni Hassan, an ancient burial ground for government officials and elite sitting high on a hill overlooking the Nile from the eastern bank. The complex was used primarily between 2200 BCE to 1600 BCE. The most notable tombs today were those built for the local nomarchs, who served a governor like role in the provinces. These tombs offer visitors a beautiful glimpse into daily life during the Middle Kingdom, full of depictions of harvests, war, welcoming foreigners from abroad, and even wrestlers.
What to See at Beni Hassan
Only four of the tombs are currently open to the public but each is very different from the other. Here we point out what to pay attention to in each tomb during your visit.
You will want to try to start your visit from the tomb farthest north so that you can visit the tombs in chronological order.
Tomb of Baqet (Number 15)
Baqet was an 11th dynasty governor, whose tomb is the oldest that is open to visitors. When you first enter the tomb you will notice a sequence of wrestlers in different movements on the back wall.
On the left wall, be on the lookout for a depiction of Baqet and his wife forever observing the acrobats and weavers nearby.
Also on the wall is a scene of animals being counted along with a hunting scene.
The wall to your right mostly contains scenes of everyday life with depictions of metalworkers, potters and farmers.
Tomb of Kheti (Number 17)
Kheti, who was the son of Baqet, held the same role as his father after his passing. One of the most prominent features of this tomb is the two papyrus columns that retain some of their original color. Papyrus was the symbol of Lower Egypt (Northern Egypt) while Lotus was the symbol of Upper Egypt (Southern Egypt).
The tomb, like his father’s, contains many scenes from daily life including scenes depicting hunting, dancing, linen production, wine making, and herding.
Tomb of Amenemhat (Number 2)
Amenemhat was governor of the same region as Kheti and Baqet but during the 12th dynasty. This tomb is one of the highlights of visiting here due to its vividly colorful and detailed scenes.
The tomb contains scenes of daily life that are more elaborate than the ones found in the other tombs in the area. Amenemhat can be spotted with his dogs.
Tomb of Khnumhotep (Number 3)
Khnumhotep’s tomb was our favorite due to its bright colors and natural scenes.
On the left hand wall, you can spot a delegation of foreigners in their elaborate clothing being greeted and offering gifts.
Our favorite scene however, is along the back wall.
How Much Does it Cost?
Here were the following entrance fees for the Beni Hassan Necropolis as of 2018
Entrance Ticket…………………………………………………………………………………….60 EGP ($3.35)
Photography Permit…………………………………………………………………………….300 EGP ($16.77)
Baksheesh for Guards………………………………………………………………………….10-30 EGP
If you really want to take photographs inside the tombs, there is a pretty good chance you can arrange with the guard or two that are with you to allow you to snap away for some extra baksheesh. As they know the price of the photography permit, don’t expect this to come cheaply however. Expect to pay out 100-200 EGP in order to let the guard give you permission for photography.
How to Get There?
As there is no accommodation near the site, you will need to figure out transportation on your own. While Beni Hassan is only 26km from the nearest major town, Al-Minya, the road passes through many villages and has loads of speed bumps, stretching out the trip to over 40 minutes each way by car. You have two options:
Option 1: Hire a Driver
Either enquirer at your hotel or ask a few taxis that you see crawling the streets of Al-Minya. Expect to pay up to 350 EGP for round trip plus waiting time. This is the most convenient option (even though will still got car sick!)
Option 2: Microbus
Once you get yourself to the eastern bank of the Nile, you should be able to flag down any microbus heading south and slowly make your way to Beni Hassan. Expect this route to take several hours.
The largest and nicest town to stay in the area is by far Al-Minya. From our experience, this was the friendliest town in all of Egypt and felt very much off the beaten path. Locals are eager to strike up a conversation with you as you go about the town and the place seems to give off a more chill and happy vibe than most other places in Egypt, despite all the dust and hectic traffic. While there is not much to see here other than the tombs at Beni Hassan (the others are worth skipping if you plan to visit elsewhere in Egypt), just spending a few days here chilling is a great way to interact with locals and get a feel for Egyptian life outside of the main tourist area.
Where to Stay and Eat?
Al-Minya’s hotel options are pretty slim and not cheap. As this was the case, we decided to stay at Omar El Khayam Al Minya Hotel. It ended up costing us 550 EGP ($30.75) a night, but you get a lot of value for what you pay for from this place. Rooms were recently renovated and looked brand new. It provided us with space to stretch out, relax, and re energize after several busy days in Cairo. Staff is friendly but speak no english.
Like elsewhere in town, you have to sign a document saying that you have arranged your own security or that are willing to take the risk traveling independently in the area and do not need a police escort. Don’t get too scared by this as it is just police procedure since this once was a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold during the revolution. Today, it is deemed safe to travel here and in our opinion, this place was one of the friendlier areas we stayed in while in Egypt.
Food options are limited in town but after spending a few days here, we located the best joints to grab a bite to eat.
For quick bites, the oval square in the middle of town (on the same road that runs between the train station and the Nile) is full of fast food options from falafel to delicious ground meat sandwiches with spicy tomatoes. The two best places are the two that are right next to each other on Midan Al Tahrir Street.
There is also a good Kosahry place along Al-Gumhureya street near the train station. The rice pudding here is to die for! (and cheap!)
Your best deal and most delicious meal in town is the BBQ fish restaurant called Al Koptan Restaurant located on Abd El Aal El Garhey street, close to where it intersects with Mustafa Fahmy street. If you have trouble finding the place, show the picture below to your hotel or someone on the street and they should be able to point you in the right direction. This was by far our favorite meal while in Egypt. For 35 EGP ($1.96) you get a whole grilled Nile fish, salad, humus, bread, and soup.
When leaving Al-Minya, do not be surprised if a security guard escorts you until your train arrives. This is just standard procedure and there is no real security threat that you need to be aware of. The are doesn’t receive many foreigners so they are just extra precautions when you are around. Finding the train can be difficult so having the guard there are helps you find your train. A little baksheesh for the guard is appreciated.
Beni Hassan: Worth the Time if you got it
Nowhere else in Egypt offers visitors better firsthand insight into what life was like during the Middle Kingdom and the tombs you see here will be very different from those that you see in Saqqara and Luxor. In addition to the tombs, Al-Minya was a pleasent surprise and one of the most memorable towns we stayed in while in Egypt despite there not being a whole to do. It was a great place to interact with locals and get to know Egypt a little better than we did before.