In Cairo, Egypt, a short walk from the historic Bab Zuwayla city gate, is Cairo’s last remaining tarboosh artisan shop. Tarboosh is the word Egyptians use for what people in North America might call a fez. This shop in the Khan al-Khalili market makes high-quality woolen tarbooshes by hand, in the traditional way. I visited it on April 23, 2018.
The tarboosh was fashionable among Egyptian men during the era of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottoman Empire itself fell in 1920, the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt declared himself king and continued to rule until Egypt’s revolution in 1952. Since 1952, the tarbooshes have declined in popularity, but the shop continues to generate enough business to continue making them. They export them to many other Muslim countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.
The hand-operated tools are used to shape the tarbooshes. Not only does the shop sell the hats, it also reshapes hats which have been crushed or rumpled through wear.
The photo below shows how the hats are shaped. The shop is equipped with several different sizes of brass molds. These molds come in pairs, with one being slightly larger than the other. First the artisan stretches a tarboosh over the smaller mold in the pair, as he is doing in the photo below. Then he presses over it the heated larger mold, so that the woolen fabric is held between the two.
The photo below shows the interior of a tarboosh. The red felt outer layer is made of wool. Inside it, the stiffening layer is made from palm. A lining around the inner edge protects the head from the scratchy texture of the palm.
Our guide had grown up as a boy near this shop. He told us that he always liked to run past the shop and use his fist to crush the tarbooshes that were on display. One day, the shop owner caught him, and recognized him, and complained to his father. His father was very angry, and beat him for it. However, the next day the mischievous boy did it again!
Today, he laughs as he tells the story. I don’t think he’s sorry at all!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The tarboosh shop is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
Rain is rare in Egypt, because of its location in the Sahara desert. In my previous visits to Egypt, the “rain” I experienced was similar to what we might call “sprinkling” in my home in the U.S., and it lasted only a short time. The average rainfall in Cairo for April is 1/4 inch (7 mm) in the entire month.
So, imagine my surprise when we experienced two days of genuine thunderstorms with heavy rain on April 24 and 25, 2018 while I was in Cairo! And then, a week later, a miniature thunderstorm came to Luxor on May 1!
Egypt receives rain so rarely that a major rainfall is a big event. Here are some of the consequences that happened in Cairo’s 2-day storm:
There are no storm drains, so streets quickly became flooded.
Cars stalled when the flood waters overwhelmed them.
People didn’t know how to drive on the rain-slick roads.
Building roofs leaked, because they normally don’t need to be watertight. I was eating supper at Felfela restaurant with rain dripping on my head! But it was okay, because I was enjoying the sound of the storm.
Events were canceled due to rain leaking through roofs. For example, the Balloon Theater canceled a performance by the Kowmiyya dance company one evening due to rain.
Parts of Cairo’s Ring Road were shut down for several hours due to flooding. Many people needed to sleep in their cars.
The road closure caused traffic snarls throughout Cairo as people tried to find other ways to get home.
Some buildings and bridges collapsed.
Trains were delayed.
In Luxor, the “thunderstorm” consisted of one flash of lightning and one brief rumble of thunder, followed by some sprinkling. Therefore, we didn’t have the above problems that come from heavy rain. However, the locals were so worried about the storm that they insisted that the members of our group who intended to walk somewhere take a bus instead.
I live in a part of the U.S. that experiences frequent thunderstorms, with heavy rains. My dad used to call these storms “toadstranglers”. Therefore, I have always taken storm drains, culverts, and watertight roofs for granted. It never occurred to me that other places would forego such infrastructure. It makes sense, of course. Why would you need to build watertight roofs and storm drains in the Sahara desert? I can understand why it might be viewed as an unnecessary expense in a place that gets thunderstorms so rarely.
The stereotype of “Pharaonic dance” with the bent elbow and wrist arm positions is deeply embedded in U.S. culture, and has been since about the 1920’s. Buster Keaton does those arm positions in the 1918 silent movie The Cook which also stars Fatty Arbuckle.
These arm positions have also shown up in cartoons, countless “Pharaonic” dance performances, and the music videos such as the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”. When Irena Lexova wrote Ancient Egyptian Dances in 1935, her initial objective was to examine whether this stereotype was indeed accurate.
For many years, I’ve been looking for evidence showing that “Pharaonic arms” actually were part of dance in ancient Egypt. On my many trips to Egypt, I have looked for images on temple and tomb walls demonstrating such a pose, without finding any. I have also dug through books and articles about ancient Egypt. I’ve discovered many other dance scenes with other postures, but not the right-angled joints. In her book Ancient Egyptian Dances, Irena Lexova stated her conclusion that this pose came from the Etruscan civilization (in what is now modern-day Italy), not Egypt.
So imagine my surprise in February 2017, on my 12th trip to Egypt, when I spotted one at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt! This was my 7th time visiting that temple. Why didn’t I see this on any of my previous 6 visits?
And once I found it, I discovered it appeared in more than one place. Here’s a column showing the dancer facing the opposite direction.
I asked the Egyptologist who was acting as our tour guide whether this was a “dance” or some other activity. (In Egypt, in order to become a licensed tour guide, an individual must obtain an advanced degree in Egyptology as well as meet some other qualifications.) He said yes, it was a liturgical dance being performed by a priest. The vertical lines coming down from the hands represent a stream of liquid being poured from the hands. So, what does this image suggest about the stereotype of the “Pharaonic” wrist and elbow posture?
This dance style is done by men. I have not yet found images of women doing it.
The “Pharaonic” arm position was used for religious ritualistic dance.
This dance was known to Egyptians as of 200 BCE, because construction on the temple building that stands at Edfu today was begun in 237 BCE. I haven’t yet found earlier images of it.
This scene was shown in a temple that was built during the era of the Greek Pharaohs. This makes me wonder whether this dance position was indigenous to the Egyptians, or whether it was introduced by Greek priests. I guess it’s a question for further research.
When I returned to the Edfu temple in 2019 for my 9th visit to it, I once again saw the images shown in the photos above, but then was astonished to discover there were more such images at this temple! My guide confirmed that yes, these are also images of sacred dance being performed by priests. This time, instead of appearing to pour liquid from their hands, they appear to be holding something, perhaps daggers or feathers. How could I have missed these on my first eight visits to this temple?
I still have never seen this type of arm position anywhere in Egypt other than the Edfu Temple. I realize it’s possible that it appears elsewhere, but so far I haven’t found it. I’ll keep looking.
I said for many years that I didn’t believe there was ever a bent wrist-and-elbow dance posture in ancient Egyptian dance because all of my prior research seemed to indicate there was not. It seems I was wrong. It’s time to update my thinking!
Cairo offers an opportunity for visitors to see Egypt’s remaining vestiges of an East African practice known as a zar ritual. It is no longer legal in Egypt to conduct zar rituals; however, it is still possible to see performances of the music used for them.
About the Zar Ritual
A zar is a spirit which is believed to inhabit people, especially women. When the woman’s life is in balance, she and the spirit can coexist in peace. However, sometimes the woman begins to suffer stress, become irritable, or fall ill. In those cases, in order for her to recover, it may be necessary to appease the zar spirit. The purpose of a zar ritual is to perform that appeasement.
In a traditional zar ritual in Egypt, a woman would surround herself with other women who are a meaningful part of her life: sisters, cousins, friends, etc. They would sacrifice a chicken, and engage a band of musicians capable of performing the specialty music required for the ritual.
According to tradition, there are many different zar spirits which can inhabit a person. Each such spirit responds to a different song and rhythm. The musicians would perform several different songs, aiming to find the music required to appease the particular spirit that has inhabited the woman. As the music progresses, the participants are drawn into a state of ecstatic dance.
The Mazaher Ensemble
The Mazaher ensemble are among the final zar practitioners in Egypt. Although the law no longer allows them to conduct full zar ceremonies, it is possible to hear them perform concerts of the music that accompanies the ceremonies. I have seen them perform several times at the Makan Theater in Cairo. It is a captivating show, and I always enjoy seeing it again whenever I return to Egypt.
The lead singer, standing in front, is Rayyisah Madiha, often known as Umm Sameh (“mother of Sameh”).
The show has varied a bit from one time I’ve seen it to another. The primary segment consists of Cairo zar music, with vocals by Umm Sameh, accompanied by the other women on drums. Another segment I have seen every time is described as a Nubian zar, which features different music and instruments in order to reach the different regional spirits associated with southern Egypt and Sudan.
Other details of the show have varied from one year to the next. For example, when I saw the show in 2016, Sameh performed a solo of Sufi music, but other times when I’ve seen the show he did not do so.
Nubia is the region spanning southern Egypt and the Sudan. The Nubian zar uses different instruments from those used for the Cairo-based zar, and the spirits it targets are different.
The tamboura, a type of lyre, is shown in the photo above. It is particularly typical of Nubian music; not only for Nubian zar rituals, but also for secular folk music.
For the Nubian section of the show, one of the musicians picks up the tamboura to play it, as shown by the man seated in the back, wearing the white gallabiya. The belt that the two other men strap around their hips is known as a mangour.
The mangour is a percussion instrument constructed from attaching many small goat hooves to a backing of fabric or leather. The men shake their hips in a rhythmic fashion, causing the goat hooves to strike each other, producing a rattling sound.
In the photo below, the men are not only shaking their hips to make noise with the mangour, they are also using handheld rattles.
Posing with the Star
When I saw the show in 2016, Madiha graciously agreed to pose for a photo with me after it was over. It can be difficult to get a photo with her, because of how many people swarm her after the show seeking photos as I did!
About the Makan Theater
The Makan Theater, which hosts the Mazaher Ensemble’s zar music shows, is at 1 Saad Zaghloul St. El Dawaween 11461 Cairo. Their telephone number is +202 2792 0878, and email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to presenting the Mazaher Ensemble shows, they have also offered other shows of traditional Egyptian music, including Sufi music, Nubian, and more.
To Learn More About Zar
There is a series of three music CD’s that I recommend if you’d like to listen to zar music in your home. Each of these CD’s comes with a different informative booklet with detailed information about zar traditions. If you search for them online, look for the artist name of Awlad Abou al-Gheit:
Zar: Trance Music for Women
Zar 2: Tumboura
Zar 3: Harim Masri
Also, I recommend the book Trance Dancing with the Jinn: The Ancient Art of Contacting Spirits Through Ecstatic Dance by Yasmin Henkesh. Yasmin is a meticulous researcher whom I respect highly.
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The Makan Theater is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
In 2016, I went with a group to El Dammah theater in Cairo to see a show featuring top Egyptian-Sudanese musicians playing Nubian music.
About El Dammah
El Dammah is a small black box theater with about 100 seats that features musicians playing authentic traditional music. The organization that operates it is El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music.
El Dammah presents a show every Thursday night. There are several different musical acts that it rotates through the lineup. So far in my trips to Egypt, I have seen 3 different bands there. One of them was Rango.
El Dammah is located at 30 A El Belaasa St, Abdeen, in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The phone number is +20 115 099 5354, and email address is email@example.com.
The photo at the top of this post shows Hassan Bergamon playing a musical instrument called a rango, which resembles a xylophone. The small version that was played in this show could be called a kamba. It’s a very traditional instrument from the southern part of Sudan. It nearly died out in the 1970’s, but the art has been kept alive. According to our contact at El Dammah, today there are only 7-8 people left in Africa who still know how to play one.
This photo shows up closeup view of the rango:
The musicians also played additional traditional instruments from Egypt and the Sudan. Below, one of the men is holding a rattle in each hand, which is known as the shukh-shaykh.
Below, we can see Hassan Bergamon playing another instrument, the simsimiyya. It is a type of lyre, which resembles a larger, similar instrument known as the tamboura.
The angle of the photo above makes it difficult to see what a simsimiyya looks like. The photo below provides a clearer view. In it, a member of the El Dammah staff holds up two examples of a simsimiyya.
The drummers served a vital role in the show. They were excellent, and worked very well together with the others as an ensemble. It was truly a memorable performance.
The show opened with a performance of songs while everyone listened, then the musicians started recruiting audience members to get up and dance with them. By the end, the event felt more like a party than it did a music performance, but that was part of what made it such an entertaining evening. The quality of the music was definitely world class!
I’m already looking forward to my next visit to El Dammah, to enjoy whatever music they offer the next time I’m in Cairo!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. El Dammah Theater is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
The Agriculture Museum in Cairo, Egypt is a treasure that most tourists visiting Egypt have never heard of, and never been to. It resides inside a former palace, so even the architecture is well worth taking a moment to enjoy. I think maybe the museum opened in the 1950’s, but I could be wrong about that. It’s very kitschy, in a way that I find very appealing! The museum is near the Giza zoo and the Cairo Opera House.
On the ground floor, there is a series of tableaux showing what a rural wedding was like as of the 1950’s. It provides insight into what people wore, and what their customs were surrounding weddings.
The above photo shows a fortuneteller casting the stones to view the omens for an upcoming wedding.
In Muslim tradition, weddings do not involve a religious ceremony the way traditional Christian weddings do. Instead, there is a legal contract, which is signed by the men of the two families with witnesses. The photo below shows the men conducting this business.
While the men of the bride and groom’s families complete the contract transaction, the women of the households prepare for the wedding party that will follow.
The tableau pictured below shows a woman bringing a tray of drinks from the kitchen to serve to the other women as they wait.
As the women wait, one of them goes to the roof to the pigeon hut, to select a pigeon to serve for the meal at the celebration.
The photo below shows a belly dancer and a drummer performing for the bride and the women of her family while they wait for the men to be ready for the procession. The dancer, of course, is the one with the most vibrant makeup!
One of the wedding-related exhibits shows thezeffa (bridal procession) in which the people of a village carry a bride in a litter to the wedding party.
The photo below shows the men leading the zeffa, playing musical instruments and doing balancing tricks. Behind them is a camel carrying a large decorated wooden box with the bride sitting inside.
This photo shows a closeup of the camel bearing the front part of the bride’s litter.
The next photo shows the bride inside her litter. This angle of the photo doesn’t show it, but inside the litter there is a little boy with her. His role would be to leave the litter and fetch anything she needs.
I have visited the Agricultural Museum several times, and it’s always fun to see it again. In addition to the scenes of rural life, the main building also houses many other exhibits, including farm animals, insects, and more. A separate building is dedicated to exhibits of Syria, referencing a period from 1958 to 1961 when Egypt and Syria banded together to create the United Arab Republic.
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. This Agricultural Museum is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
A Nilometer (Nile-o-meter) is a structure in Egypt for measuring how high the annual flood of the river Nile rises each year. Before the 20th century, each year the Nile River would flood in the spring, spreading silt across the land it covered. This inundation brought life to the region, because the silt it deposited enhanced the fertility of the soil.
The government used the Nilometer readings to determine the taxes for that year. If the flood level was measured as low, then taxes that year would be low, due to reduced rich silt deposits and possible drought. If the flood level was medium, taxes that year would be high, because medium was the ideal level. If flood level was high, there would be no taxes because the flood was destructive and people needed to recover.
In my travels to Egypt, I’ve seen 3 different Nilometers. There are others that I have not (yet) had the opportunity to see, but perhaps I’ll get to see them on a future trip! I’ve seen reports that as of today there are fewer than 24 known Nilometers which have been found by archaeologists.
The Nilometer in Cairo is on Rhoda Island, a short walk from the Oum Kalthoum Museum. If you visit Cairo, it’s worth a trip to the island to visit both.
This Nilometer is one of the oldest structures in Egypt built after the Arab conquest. The original building at this site was erected in 751 CE, though archaeologists believe there was probably an older Nilometer at this site in Pharaonic times. This initial structure was destroyed by a heavy flood in 861 CE, so the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil commissioned the current building to replace it.
Although the subterranean portion of the ancient building still stands, its dome was destroyed in 1825 by a nearby explosion. A restoration was created, using a painting by Fredrik Ludvig Nordenas to provide guidance on what the original looked like.
The instrument for measuring the water’s height is an octagonal column divided into cubits located in the middle of the square stone-lined shaft. This photo shows the central shaft, as you look down from the street-level entrance:
Today, the tunnels leading from the Nilometer to the Nile are blocked off, and therefore water no longer comes in.
It is possible to descend a flight of stairs into the shaft. There are no handrails along the stairs, so it requires an adventurous spirit to do it! The interior is beautiful.
This Nilometer is located at the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt, a town that lies between Luxor and Aswan. This is one of the temples that Nile cruises stop at, and it’s a very interesting one to tour because it’s dedicated to TWO gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek.
The Nilometer at Kom Ombo is a deep, cylindrical opening into the ground. At ground level, it doesn’t look like much, just a small circular wall.
It has a tunnel at the bottom that reaches outside the temple walls to allow the flood water to come in.
I have seen this Nilometer near Aswan from a boat on the river, as we floated past Elephantine Island where it resides. I haven’t yet set foot on the island to see its entrance from above. Archaeologists believe it is the oldest Nilometer in Egypt.
For most of ancient Egyptian history, Elephantine Island was the southern border of the Pharaonic kingdom. For that reason, the flood waters would reach this Nilometer first, before flowing downstream to the rest of the kingdom. It provided early insight into what growing conditions the country as a whole could expect.
This Nilometer at Elephantine Island was mentioned in the novel River God, by Wilbur Smith.
Ones I Haven’t Seen
Someday, I hope to see other Nilometers in Egypt. There’s one in the Nile delta at the ancient city Thmuis, which is near the modern city of El Mansoura. Archaeologists estimate it was build in the 3rd century BCE. I learned about this one from a National Geographic article about it.
The beautiful temple of Isis that resided on Philae Island had two Nilometers. However, in the 1960’s, because of Aswan Dam constructions, about 1/3 of the temple’s buildings became flooded year round. The Philae temple was dismantled and moved to Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO effort to save temples threatened by the completion of the Aswan High Dam. I don’t know yet whether Philae’s surface-level Nilometer structures were moved and reconstructed when the temple was moved. I have toured Philae about 5 times on my various trips to Egypt, and the guides didn’t point out any Nilometer remnants. Even if they did, it would be only surface level, without the deep hole down into the ground. I’ll ask about it the next time I go.
I’d like to thank Wael Mohamed Ali for assisting me with my questions about the Nilometers in the Aswan area. I’ve appreciated Wael’s services on some of my visits to Upper Egypt as a tour guide and a translator. He’s very knowledgeable, and a pleasure to do business with!
We usually don’t think about airports as being beautiful places. And, usually they’re not! But every once in a while, something gives me pause to smile, linger, and appreciate the moment. Here are some I have enjoyed.
Chicago O’Hare, March 16, 2016
When traveling to California on United Airlines in March, 2016, I stopped to enjoy listening to an airline crew member play the piano at one of the departure lounges. I no longer remember what he was playing, but I remember he was a good pianist, and he gave me a smile!
Chicago O’Hare, Polaris Lounge, October 5, 2017
I flew business class on United on my way to Senegal in October 2017. When I entered United’s new Polaris Lounge on the C Concourse of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, I took a moment to simply appreciate the beauty of the ceiling art. It consists of many twinkling lights, and was designed to give an impression of the night sky. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it’s the best my phone could produce.
Lisbon, Portugal, November 4, 2017
Arriving at the airport in Lisbon, Portugal was actually a very miserable experience for me on my way home from Senegal in November, 2017. I was already sad to leave my IBM colleagues and new Senegalese friends all behind.
When I deplaned in Lisbon, I had to stand in 2 different passport control lines and go through security before being allowed to go to the gate for my flight to the U.S. The whole process took well over an hour. It was a relief to finally arrive at my gate. The rainy weather outside echoed my miserable mood. When it was time to board, this rainbow came out, as if to say, “Things will get better from here!” And they did. The rest of my trip, though long, was reasonably comfortable and pleasant.
Chicago O’Hare at Christmas, 2017
When flying American Airlines on my way home from a business trip to Boston on December 12, 2017, I connected through O’Hare Airport. It was a delight to see that the concourse had been beautifully decorated for Christmas. Although I was tired from a very intense business trip, it made me smile to see it.
Chicago O’Hare, January 11, 2018
One of my favorite airport sites for many years has been the tunnel at Chicago’s O’Hare airport that connects the B concourse and the C concourse. These two concourses are used by United Airlines flights.
I always enjoy going through this tunnel when making connections. Sometimes, if I have a long layover and the tunnel isn’t too crowded, I’ll walk back and forth through it several times just to get some exercise. I enjoy both the cascading light show and the accompanying background music.
Because of Dakar, Senegal’s location on the western tip of Africa as shown on the map above, it served as one of many ports along West Africa used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1536 through 1848. Just off Dakar’s coast is Gorée Island, one of the locations where captured Africans were kept before loading them onto the ships. Its name in French is Île de Gorée. Academic sources differ in their views of how prominent Dakar and Gorée Island were in the slave trade as compared to other West African locations, but most agree that some level of trafficking did occur here. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site stands to remind us of the atrocities of the African Holocaust.
Barack and Michelle Obama visited Gorée Island with their family in 2013. Nelson Mandela visited it in 1991.
Getting to Gorée Island
I went to Gorée Island on a Saturday, and found that it wasn’t a optimal day of the week to go. Many tour groups go there on the weekends, and consequently the process of touring the island and its historical sites can be a bit chaotic. Some of my coworkers opted instead to go on a Wednesday, and they enjoyed much lower crowd levels.
A ferry boat runs several times a day to take visitors to Gorée Island. On a Saturday, it’s important to arrive at the ferry ticket counter at least 45 minutes before the ferry’s departure time, because the lines to purchase tickets are quite long. If you don’t allow enough time, the ferry might leave while you’re still standing in line waiting to buy your ticket.
Reflecting on History
When the ferry docked, one of the first sights we came to was the Statue of Liberation. France gave this sculpture to Senegal in 2006 as a gift to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.
The House of Slaves (La Maison des Esclaves)
The primary feature that people visit on Gorée Island is the House of Slaves. This is a museum that memorializes the African people who were imprisoned there awaiting their passage to the West. Although the first record of slave trading at Gorée Island dates from 1536, the building that is known as the “House of Slaves” was built in 1776. It is the last remaining such structure on the island.
Some academic sources challenge whether this building was ever actually used for the slave trade. There is also a debate over how many people were shipped out from Gorée Island as opposed to other West African ports. I am not qualified to judge who is correct. Therefore, for purposes of this blog which is about my travels to Senegal, I will describe what the Senegalese people believe about their own history, which is that the House of Slaves was indeed one of the places used as a place to keep prisoners until they could be loaded on ships bound for the Western Hemisphere.
The building is a two-story structure. Wealthy European slave dealers lived with their families on the upper floor, while the captives lived on the ground floor in misery.
According to the guides at Gorée Island, men were held in one cell, adult women in one, girls in one, and young children in a fourth. The photo below shows the room that was used for the men. Its dimensions are approximately 8 feet (2.6 meters) long by 8 feet wide, and up to 30 men would be crammed into it at once. The men would need to stand or crouch all the time, with not enough room to lie down or sit. The room contains no toilet facilities, and therefore its occupants were forced to live in their own filth.
Parents were separated from their children. Adult women were held in one room, and young children in a separate cell for children. Young girls were kept in a special room with slightly better conditions than the others. Men would come to that room to select a girl for an evening of sexual assault.
All of the captives were kept chained and shackled, and fed once a day. The unsanitary conditions led to many problems with disease. The narrow windows allowed in very little light.
When I later read claims by some historians that enslaved people were never kept in the Maison des Esclaves awaiting passage to the West, I remembered gazing at the thick walls and narrow windows, thinking at the time how perfectly constructed they were to prevent escape. The architecture definitely brought to mind some sort of dungeon. Historians may be correct that this site hosted less trafficking activity than others in West Africa, but I believe there was some.
Prisoners who attempted to escape or rebel were moved to the “room of the recalcitrants” as punishment. This was a small, damp, windowless room that lay beneath a stairwell. The tour guides said that few made it out alive.
Historians estimate that prisoners were typically kept at the House of Slaves about 3 months before being loaded onto ships.
The Door of No Return (La Porte Sans Retour)
Tour guides at Gorée Island state that this door led to a wooden wharf used for loading the captives onto the slave ships.
According to tour guides, as prisoners were led through this door and onto the walkway to the slave ships, they were shackled in pairs, each with a 3-pound iron ball attached to his or her leg irons. Prisoners who tried to leap off the walkway to escape would drag along the companions that were shackled to them.
A rocky beach (shown below) lies beneath the walkway. According to tour guides, if a prisoner managed to make it to the water, the iron ball would prevent them from swimming to freedom. Still, guides say some people did make the attempt, often choosing suicide as being preferable to the fate that awaited on distant shores.
There are many additional things to visit on Île de Gorée besides its House of Slaves museum. There are small beaches, picturesque colonial buildings, restaurants, and more. However, I did not visit any of these things.
While visiting the House of Slaves, I felt a strong sensation of oppression, of suffering. The last time I felt something like that was when I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. A feeling that great evil had happened there. I felt a very strong pull to get away, and return to the mainland. Was it lingering spiritual energy of those who suffered there in the past, or simply an overactive imagination? I can’t say. Whichever it was, it was strong enough to draw me to the ferry, without exploring the rest of the island.
Despite the debate by historians on this island’s history and role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I highly recommend it as a place to visit if you are visiting Senegal. I recommend walking through the House of Slaves, looking at the holding cells with their narrow slits for windows, listening to the tour guides, and gazing out through the Door of No Return. Doing these things brings a strong awareness to the history of the African diaspora that simply reading a textbook does not. It’s a place to reflect, and to honor the memory of those who suffered.
I hope someday to return to Senegal for another visit, and if I do perhaps I’ll return to Gorée Island to see the parts I didn’t visit on this trip.
Whenever I pack for one of my trips, I have help. Here are photos of my assistants. One moment I’ll be alone in the bedroom, placing the empty suitcase on my bed to pack. The next moment, I’ll have at least one assistant, and sometimes more than one.
I can always count on Blaze to help me pack. Once he settles into a suitcase, it’s hard to get him out. If I try to lift him out, he’ll simply plop right back into it.
Ashley often glares at me while I’m packing. I think she’s scheming about what kind of trouble she’ll make for my husband while I’m gone.
Blaze is especially fond of the small size of underseater bags. They’re just the right size for him to curl up. Though, perhaps they’re too small for his 14-inch tail.
Sometimes two of them try to help me at the same time. That’s always interesting.
Blaze seems to be telling me that he thinks I’m done packing, whether or not I agree.
Ashley is finding my brand-new suitcase interesting. She’s making sure I pack it with some cat hair.
I thought it was a suitcase. But he thought it was a bed or a bathtub!