A 12-Foot-Wide Home on the Nile
Kent Weeks and his wife, Susan Weeks, spend most of their waking hours in a 130-room tomb called KV 5 in the legendary Valley of the Kings, the site of many tombs. And at the end of the work day, they come home to a place only slightly less unusual.
The couple lives on a 25-meter-long (85-foot-long) dahabiya, a houseboat moored along the banks of the Nile in this southern Egyptian city of around 400,000, known in ancient times as Thebes. Their closest neighbors are the mummies in the Mummification Museum next door.
“Archaeologists often live on boats because the sites are near the river,” said Dr. Weeks, 67, an Egyptologist. He captured worldwide headlines in 1995 with the announcement that KV 5 had been the burial chamber for the sons of Rameses II and sprawled deeper into the desert hillside than anyone had suspected.
The couple, who have lived in Egypt for much of the last 43 years, first lived on a dahabiya in the 1960s while working with the Unesco team trying to save historic sites after the construction of the Aswan Dam.
The boats, which resemble traditional Arab sailing vessels, became popular more than a century ago when as many as 450 were used for the tourist trade. Only four or five remain from the period and “this handful survived because they had metal hulls,” Dr. Weeks said. “The rest were sunk to get rid of vermin.”
In 2001, after searching for 10 years, the couple found an iron-hulled boat in Helwan, a Nile town south of Cairo. It was built in 1898 or 1899, they learned.
“The boat was a total wreck,” said Mrs. Weeks, 65. The hull, wooden decking and walls were intact but they had to replace everything else, along with adding a kitchen and bathroom to the layout. “It is an imperfect reconstruction,” Dr. Weeks said. “In the 18th century you would go ashore to eat and to use the bathroom.”
By the time the work was finished, in 2003, the boat had about 84 square meters (900 square feet) of living space spread over two levels, as well as conveniences like a bathtub, a washing machine, a generator and water pump. The boat is called “Kingfisher,” in honor of the couple’s favorite bird.
The cost of buying and restoring the boat came to 250,000 Egyptian pounds ($50,000). The project was so unusual that there are no comparative prices readily available, although Dr. Weeks said he believes it could be sold now for about six times the sum they originally paid.
The couple spend about six months a year on the boat, dividing the rest of their time in London, Cairo and Old Lyme, Conn.
They often take their meals on the open deck, which is decorated with the wicker furniture and Oriental rugs common to colonial British décor.
Several steps lead down to the foredeck, where there are eight oar locks in the long open bow and a 30-meter-tall (98-foot-tall) mast that often supports two large triangular sails of linen — the boat has no motor. Two staff members, who help sail the vessel and act as guards, live on the boat year-round in an area below the foredeck.
The white-walled cabin contains four bedrooms as well as the kitchen and bathroom. All the plumbing uses filtered water from the Nile. “If you fill up the bathtub, the water is pretty brown,” Mrs. Weeks said.
At the end of the central corridor is the master bedroom, which has a raised platform for a bed, and storage space below. “Because the bed lies so far aft that the sides of the boat curve upwards, raising the bed makes more efficient use of space,” Dr. Weeks said.
The boat is only about 3.5 meters (12 feet) wide but “the narrower the boat, the faster it can go through the water,” Dr. Weeks said, as the boat sailed gently down the Nile in December.
The couple occasionally takes the boat out for special trips, especially to raise money for the Theban Mapping Project, an effort they began in 1978 to create a comprehensive archaeological database of the ancient city. Dr. Weeks is the project director; Mrs. Weeks, its artist.
“If we need to convince someone to donate money then we might take them for lunch down the Nile,” Dr. Weeks said. The couple also plays host to benefit tours operated by Seven Wonders Travel and Ancient World Tours.
The project’s most prominent achievement has been the KV 5 excavation; the tomb was discovered in 1825 but only after Dr. Weeks’s team cleared large areas did anyone realize its significance. “KV 5 is the largest tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, the oddest in plan and the only family mausoleum in which multiple sons of Egypt’s most powerful rulers were buried,” he said.
The couple reach the tomb by taking a colorful wooden boat across the river and then driving for 30 minutes along a dusty road, picking up some of the tomb workers en route. They usually are back onboard for lunch. “It is really very challenging putting a meal on the table when you have spent all day down a tomb,” Mrs. Weeks said.
Mr. and Mrs. Weeks say there are many advantages to living on the “Kingfisher,” including frequent bird-watching trips to remote islands. Still, there is a downside. “Sometimes there is a lot of tour-boat traffic,” Dr. Weeks said. “The captains toot their horns and it is just like being on a freeway in Southern California.”
But, he added, “We do interesting things — living on a boat, working in a tomb. Every day we see the sun come up and the sun go down. What more could you ask for?”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/15/greathomesanddestinations/15gh-egypt.html