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Egypt: Is It Safe to Go There?

Whenever I tell friends and family that I’m planning another trip to Egypt, one of the first questions they ask is, “Is it safe to go there?”  I’d like to share my thoughts on that.

Many years ago, in the U.S., there was a series of attacks on European tourists in Florida.  Around that time, my employer was organizing a business meeting in California. My European colleagues told me that they were afraid to come to the meeting because the U.S. was unsafe for European visitors. I was shocked by this comment. Florida was 3,000 miles (4,900 km) away from California where we were planning to hold our meeting.  I couldn’t understand why Europeans would think events in Florida would have any relation at all to California.

But now, I see that these fears are very common.  That’s exactly the same thought process people in North America use when they say they’re afraid to go to Egypt.

When bad things happen somewhere, news media will report on them. The more dramatic or painful the story, the more likely it will be reported in news media around the world.  We see the stories about the exceptions, not the normal everyday situation.  Headlines such as “Another Peaceful Day in Cairo” don’t draw readers, whereas news of a violent incident does.

The Gallup Global Law and Order poll in 2018 showed that the people it surveyed ranked Egypt as the 16th safest country in the world, compared to the USA, which was ranked at 35. The poll asked whether people felt safe walking at night, and whether they had been victims of crime.

Whenever I go anywhere as a tourist, I tend to exercise more caution than I do at home. At home, I am very familiar with what level of safety precautions are typically needed. When I travel, I’m less familiar with the area, so it seems sensible to take extra care. This is true regardless of whether I’m going to Cairo, San Francisco, or any other place.

 

 

Goats in Trees: A Tale of Argan Oil in Morocco

One of my favorite memories of Morocco comes from seeing goats standing on the branches of argan trees, munching happily away. The argan trees grow in southwestern Morocco. In 2013, I saw them along the route from the coastal city of Agadir to Marrakesh. In 2015, I saw them along the road from Marrakesh to Essaouira.

The goats have developed the ability to climb up into the argan trees in order to eat the fruit. These trees can grow up to 30 feet (about 10 meters) tall, and the goats will climb as high as it takes in their quest for a tasty morsel. According to an article published in Small Ruminant Research in July 2007, the goats spend over 6 hours per day on an average up in the trees.

The fruits of the argan tree consist of a fleshy pulp that contains a hard seed at the core. The goats eat the entire fruit, but are not able to digest the central nut. The nuts pass through their digestive tracts, coming out in the poop. People recover the nuts from the goat droppings, and process the kernels to produce the argan oil that is so popular in hair care products and cooking.

Goats pass time in an argan tree along the road from Marrakech to Essaouira. Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In 2013, a tour bus taking us from Agadir to Marrakech drove through some countryside with argan forests, and the driver pointed out the goats as we passed by. However, to my disappointment he didn’t stop for us to linger, look at them, and take photos.

When I was enjoying Marrakech with 3 friends in 2015, we were looking at options for tours, and found one offering a day trip to the coastal town of Essaouira.  The tour’s description promised not only the sights to see in Essaouira itself, but also an opportunity to see goats in trees along the route there.

The van picked us up at the meeting place, and we were on our way. It was a long drive in a cramped vehicle, so it was a welcome relief when it pulled over to the side of the road to let us out and see the goats.  I realized that the tour organizers had arranged in advance with local farmers to herd their goats up into the tree just so we’d be sure of having some to see. Of course, it was suggested that we tip the herders….  I was happy to tip them.  I was excited to finally be up close and personal with the goats!

Would I Go Back to Senegal?

Because of spending a month in Senegal in October 2017, I came to feel a real appreciation for the country and its people.  Once I start to feel that level of connection, I find myself wanting to go back, and I do feel that pull to return to Senegal for a visit.

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

What would I do if I went back for a visit?  This is my wish list. I really don’t think it would be feasible to do all of these things in a single visit, but I would enjoy doing what I can!

  1. Visit the local people that I had an opportunity to get to know during my month there. Reconnect, get an update on their lives.
  2. Return to Pink Lake with a swimsuit, and go for a swim in the salt water.
  3. Return to Terrou-Bi, which was the original hotel that we stayed at for our first two weeks in Senegal, before we had to change hotels.  Go for walks at sunset along its stretch of beach.
  4. Dine at the seafront restaurants in the Almadies part of Dakar. That was something I was really fond of doing when I was there the first time!
  5. Go inside the African Renaissance Monument, and climb to the top to look out of the windows in the man’s crown.
  6. Seek out opportunities to see performances of sabar music and dance. Perhaps even take lessons in sabar dancing myself.
  7. Seek out a ndeup ceremony.
  8. Go back to Gorée Island, and this time allow a full day to explore the entire island.

Will I actually go?  It’s hard to say.  I’d like to have at least one travel companion that I can dine with, plan with, and share the experience with.  I also would need to figure out how it fits into everything else going on in my life. For now, it’s on the back burner.  But life can take interesting directions, and if the right opportunity were to present itself, I’d be happy to return.

Pink Lake in Senegal
Mauricio Andrade, one of my IBM Corporate Service colleagues from Brazil, enjoys a swim in the salty water of Senegal’s Pink Lake.

Finding My Voice as a Travel Blogger

When I originally decided to start this site, I visited some other travel blogs to see what they were like.   I needed to create some kind of online journal as part of my job responsibility for the month I spent in Senegal with the IBM Corporate Service Corps. IBM lets participants decide what specific approach to take, so long as we create something.  I chose to use this as a starting point for a more general travel blog that would talk about not only my month in Senegal, but also other places I visit.

Observations

I noticed that most of the blogs I looked at fell into one of these categories:

  • “Here’s what I did on my vacation” stories accompanied by selfies and anecdotes.
  • Showcase for hobbyist or professional photographers’ travel photos.
  • Guidebook approach:  suggesting things to do and providing a little background information about the place, along with logistical information such as address, how to get there, cost to get in, hours open, etc.
  • Monetized blogs that promote mediocre products which will generate payouts to the blog owner via affiliate programs.

I gave some thought to where I wanted to fit in, and proceeded accordingly.

African Renaissance Monument
The African Renaissance Monument stands at Dakar, Senegal.

First Steps

I started by posting photos of things I had seen with some narrative about the content of the photos. It was a good place to start, but it felt a bit superficial to me. I wanted to offer more of a back story that would show why I thought the topic of the photo was interesting enough to write about.

I experimented with adding my personal impressions and experiences to tell a story, but didn’t want to go too far down the path of centering myself in a story about somebody else’s homeland. Also, I want to be respectful in how I talk about the people I meet and their culture, so I think carefully before writing about my personal reactions to things.  I try to imagine how one of the people I’m writing about would feel if they were to read it.  Something that looks like a funny story to me might look insulting to people whose homeland I’m writing about.

At this point in time, I have not monetized my blog and I don’t have any plans to.  I suppose it could happen in the future, it’s just not where my priorities lie today.  I do know this – if I do monetize the blog, I will include only affiliate links for products I have personally tried and liked.

My Current Thinking

Now that I have been doing this for 8 months, I’m feeling comfortable that I have found my voice as a travel blogger.

Wedding Procession
Performers lead a wedding procession in this tableau at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

I like taking photos and sharing them, so I’ll keep doing that.  I like exploring only one topic per blog entry, featuring multiple photos related to that topic. For example, I created a post about the Agricultural Museum in Cairo specifically centered around the diorama showing a rural wedding celebration. There are many other exhibits in the museum, but I wanted to keep that post focused on the topic of the wedding.  I may decide to post other photos of other exhibits from that museum in the future.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved. Performers in a tannoura show in Cairo, Egypt.

I have decided I want to try to include background about the subject of the photo that will go a little deeper than what a typical guidebook might tell you, especially with respect to history and culture.  For example, when I posted my blog entry about the tannoura whirling shows in Cairo, I offered a bit of background about the history behind Sufi whirling and the form it takes in Egypt.

Fellaha: The Peasant Woman in Egyptian Art

Egyptians often refer to their homeland as Masr Om el Dunia, which means “Egypt, Mother of the World”.   Because of this, even since ancient times a fellaha (peasant woman) has been used in Egyptian art as a symbol of fertility and giving life. In my travels to Egypt, I have seen a number of beautiful fellaha statues in public places.

Nahdet el Masr (Awakening of Egypt)

The most famous of the fellaha statues in Egypt is the one at the top of this post, which is known as Nahdet el Masr (Awakening of Egypt).  It stands in front of Cairo University, near the Giza Zoo. The statue, made from rose granite, was unveiled in 1928. It symbolized Egypt’s struggle for independence from Britain following World War I and the 1919 revolution.

This statue uses both a Sphinx and a fellaha to represent Egypt. The woman unveiling her face represents Egypt’s post-revolution revival, while her companion the Sphinx recalls the greatness of Egypt’s history. (In Arabic, the Sphinx is called Abu el-Hool, which an Egyptian taxi driver told me means something similar to “father of all”.) The statue was erected facing east so that each day the sunrise would strike it as if to reawaken Egypt.

Google Doodle which appeared May 10, 2012 to honor sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar.

The sculptor who created this statue was Mahmoud Mukhtar, a highly respected Egyptian artist of the early 20th century.  On May 10, 2012, Mukhtar was honored with a Google Doodle which features Nahdet el Masr  to commemorate his birth date.

The Agricultural Museum

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.  The museum is near the Giza zoo and the Cairo Opera House.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are two beautiful fellaha statues outdoors on the grounds of the museum.  Both celebrate the role of women in the agricultural lifestyle.

Basma Hotel in Aswan

When I go to Aswan, I enjoy staying at the Basma Hotel.  Its beautiful courtyard features a large swimming pool, adorned with a statue of a fellaha carrying a balas (water jug). A walkway leads from the edge of the pool out to the statue, so it is possible to pose for a photo with her.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

The Fellaha Statue that Never Was

Today, we know the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi as the artist who created the Statue of Liberty.  What many of us don’t realize is that in 1867 he had approached Ismael Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, with the idea of creating a massive statue of a fellaha holding aloft a torch which would be placed at the entrance of the Suez Canal.  The statue would be called “Egypt – Carrying the Light to Asia”, and it would also serve as a lighthouse.

Bartholdi’s watercolor concept painting showing his vision for the fellaha statue.

Bartholdi submitted several sketches in 1869 for his proposed statue, hoping to receive a commission in time to complete it for the Suez Canal’s opening. Unfortunately, the project never went forward due to a lack of funds to pay for it.

I hope someday to visit the Suez Canal, and when I do, I’ll take a moment to fantasize about the fellaha statue that Bartholdi had dreamed of creating for it.

About My Egypt Travels

For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program.  I discovered the fellaha statues shown in this post through traveling with her.  I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.

Camels I Have Met

I grew up on a farm, and even though my life took me in a different direction, I still appreciate animals of all sizes.  Therefore, whenever I go to Egypt, I enjoy seeing the camels.  Here’s a gallery of my favorite photos that I have taken of camels over the years!

At Saqqara, Egypt

When I went to Saqqara, Egypt to tour the ancient tombs, I saw this playful rascal. At first, he looked bored, but when he realized I was looking at him, he started making faces for the camera.  It seemed to be fun for both of us!

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Later, when I came back, the camel was still there, but now he was lying down. Once again, he made faces for me.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It looks to me as though the camel is laughing in this photo.  So I created a meme from it to post on social media which said, “Jewel just stepped in a pile of my poop!”

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After I snapped the above photo, the camel continued to clown around for the camera, so I took another photo as well.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

At the Pyramids of Giza

It’s fun to go for a camel ride at the pyramids of Giza.  This camel enjoyed resting after carrying me to the pyramids, while I ran around with my camera taking photos.

Going for a camel ride is a half-day commitment.  It’s a good idea to allow about 2 hours for the ride itself, and then afterward you might want to take a shower to wash off the camel smell and rest a bit.  It can be very tiring to be out in the hot sun for that long.  I strongly recommend wearing sunscreen for the ride.

It isn’t easy getting on a camel.  The handlers make the camel kneel, but the hump is so high that you need to lift your leg high to swing it up and over.  Once you’re settled in the saddle, the camel gets to its feet.  The first time I experienced this, I nearly fell off!  First the camel raises its back legs, causing you to pitch forward, and then it raises its front legs.  Be prepared to squeeze the camel tightly with your thighs to stabilize yourself.

The last time I went for a camel ride, my camel’s saddle wasn’t cinched very well, and it kept slipping from side to side as the camel walked along.  The handlers noticed, so they had the camel kneel down so I could get off, and they then tightened the saddle straps.  That same day, there were several additional times that they had the camel kneel down, and then get back up, so by the end of the day I had gotten quite a bit of practice keeping my balance for all of that!

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

One time, after I had been to Egypt a few times, one of my brothers asked me whether I perhaps had a photo of camel poop I could send him.  I was surprised by his question – partly because I didn’t know why he would want a photo of camel poop, and partly because I didn’t know why he would think I would have taken one.  Therefore, the next time I went to Egypt, I remembered his request, and I took this photo for him:

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In Egypt, it is common for people to decorate their camels’ harnesses and saddle blankets with tassels. This camel’s halter is plain, but his saddle blanket is quite stylish.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The camels had an opportunity to rest a bit while all of us explored the pyramids and took photos of each other.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In parts of Giza (the part of the Cairo metropolitan area where the pyramids are), you can find cars parked on one side of the street and camels parked on the other side of the street.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Camels In Upper Egypt

On the west bank of the Nile at Aswan, one of the tourist attractions is the Valley of the Nobles.  Tourists who want to visit it have a choice – they can either go for a camel ride up to where the tombs are, or they can walk up the steep hillside for about 30 minutes.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

When riding via bus from Luxor to Aswan, the road runs parallel to the railroad tracks.  Somewhere between the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, I saw these camels traveling alongside the tracks.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Egyptian Music: Honoring the Legacy of Oum Kalthoum in Cairo

Tributes to the legendary singer Oum Kalthoum can be found throughout Cairo.  My three favorites, which I’ll highlight in this post, are:

  1. The Oum Kalthoum Museum
  2. The Oum Kalthoum Café along Muez Street
  3. The Oum Kalthoum Hotel

Who Was Oum Kalthoum and Why Does She Matter?

Oum Kalthoum was a beloved singer who became known as “The Voice of Egypt”, “The Lady”, the “Star of the East”, and “The Fourth Pyramid”. When she died in 1975, over 4 million Egyptians lined the streets for her funeral cortege. Today, Oum Kalthoum’s music continues to be part of the soundtrack of modern Egyptian life, with radio and satellite television stations who play solely her music.

Oum Kalthoum continues to inspire listeners all over the world. Belly dancers around the world use her music for their performances. In 1978, three years after she passed, Bob Dylan told Playboy Magazine in an interview, “She’s dead now but not forgotten. She’s great. She really is. Really great.”  My local Egyptian restaurant in Coralville, Iowa  plays her music via satellite television for ambience. Many taxi drivers in Egypt tune their radios to stations that play her music. She was truly a great talent, and remains an important voice in world music.

Visiting the Oum Kalthoum Museum

The Oum Kalthoum Museum on Rhoda Island offers a glimpse into the life of this great artist.

As you enter the museum, it’s possible to purchase a permit for using a camera to take photos. However, flash is forbidden.  Photos must use available light. Fortunately, my 35mm camera and my cell phone camera both work very well with available light.

There is a 15-minute documentary video that visitors to the museum can watch to learn a bit about Oum Kalthoum, her music, and why she was so beloved by the Egyptian people.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, because it really helps put her life in perspective.

The first exhibit inside the entry showcases some of the dresses that Oum Kalthoum wore during her performances.

Oum Kalthoum’s iconic diamond-encrusted crescent brooch is displayed in the museum.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Several photo collages show scenes from Oum Kalthoum’s life.  Each one shows photos from certain eras. My favorite is the collage of her later years, which centers around a photo of Oum Kalthoum with Badia Masabni, a legendary nightclub owner. Oum Kalthoum is the one wearing the dark glasses. In her later years, she always wore dark glasses because a thyroid condition caused her to develop bulging eyes.  This condition can always cause dryness and sensitivity to light.

Several photos of Oum Kalthoum’s family life appear in the museum.  This one shows her with her brother.

A variety of Oum Kalthoum’s personal possessions are on display.  For example, one display cabinet shows some of her shoes and handbags.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Several pairs of her diamond-studded glasses are displayed:

The museum also features original vinyl records, sheet music, awards that Oum Kalthoum received in her lifetime, and many more mementos of her life.  It’s an inspirational way to spend an hour or two, soaking up the nostalgia.

When I visit, I also enjoy walking around the grounds a bit.  Rhoda Island’s landscaping is very inviting, and the island offers beautiful views of the Nile River.

Just outside the museum, an abstract statue of Oum Kalthoum captures just enough of her iconic imagery to be recognizable. On her chest is the crescent-shaped diamond brooch whose photo appeared above, and in her hand she holds a handkerchief.  She always held a handkerchief when performing.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

A second sculpture outside of the museum shows a musical staff with notes. I’m very fond of this one.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The museum lies within easy walking distance of the historic Nilometer, which is also worth visiting while there.

Sipping Tea at the Oum Kalthoum Café

Just off of Moez Street, near Khan al-Khalili and Bab al-Futuh, the Oum Kalthoum Café offers an opportunity to sit for a while and enjoy the ambience of Cairo.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

A statue of Oum Kalthoum posing with mushrooms greets you at the entrance of the cafe.  Inside, you can listen to her music continuously as you sip your tea and watch the the world go by.

Staying at the Oum Kalthoum Hotel

When Oum Kalthoum was alive, she lived in a villa along the Nile on Zamalek Island. After her death, her property was sold, the villa razed, and a hotel built on the land.  The beautiful hotel that stands there today is designed to honor her life’s work.

A statue of Oum Kalthoum greeted our tour bus as we approached the hotel.

Statue near the Oum Kalthoum Hotel.

Throughout the lobby, photos of Oum Kalthoum evoke memories of the singer as the sound system continuously plays her music.  I enjoy sitting in the lobby and simply listening.  The furniture consists of historic pieces from the mid 20th century, aligning with the period when Oum Kalthoum rose to fame.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The hallways of the first two floors feature furniture that once belonged to Oum Kalthoum, including mirrors in elaborate wood frames, elegant upholstered chairs, and tables.

When I stayed at the hotel in April 2018, I was fortunate to receive a room with a Nile view on the second floor, where I could walk past these mementos every day. Each room of the hotel, in addition to having a room number, also bears the name of one of her songs. I hope to be assigned the room Leylet Hob the next time I stay there!

Egypt – Why Have I Gone Back So Many Times?

I’ve been to Egypt 13 times since my first visit in 1999, and often when I tell people I’m planning another trip, they’re astonished!  Many of my friends and family are mystified by this. They ask me, somewhat disbelieving, “Why????  Haven’t you seen it all already?”

The short answer is, “I love Egypt!”

The longer answer is that Egypt offers much more to appreciate than  pyramids.  I do find ancient civilizations fascinating, and I always enjoy returning to my favorite Pharaonic temples, tombs, and monuments.  But, that’s just the beginning of what I love about Egypt.

Architecture

Many spectacular historic buildings remain as testimonial of bygone times.  I continue to discover beautiful architectural jewels, including mosques, houses, wikalas, cisterns, and more. This photo shows the interior of a historic Ottoman home known as Bayt Suhaymi, which was built in 1648:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

I also enjoy the modern-day vibrant neighborhoods of traditional cultures, such as beautifully decorated Nubian houses. The photo below shows an interior room of a Nubian house in Gharb Saheil, a neighborhood of Aswan.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Incredible History AFTER the Era of the Pharoahs

Egypt has long been an important centerpiece of Islamic culture, and actually remains so today.  From 1174 to 1517, the Fatimid Caliphate was centered in Egypt. The al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded in 970, and remains an important center of scholarship in the Koran.

In addition, Egypt was a prominent stop for trade caravans.  During the time of the Crusades, Saladin built a landmark called The Citadel to protect Cairo from the Crusaders if they should ever make it all the way to Egypt. (They didn’t.)

This photo shows the minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad rising above Bab Zuwayla, which is a gate to the city of Cairo dating back to the 11th century.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel.

Cairo is rich in museums that celebrate its history, such as the Citadel, the Islamic Art Museum, and the Oum Kalthoum museum.  In Aswan, the Nubian Museum pays tribute to the ancient, vibrant culture of the Nubian people that coexisted with the Pharaohs.

Everywhere I turn in Egypt, I find signs of bygone times.  I learn so much about history by simply learning the stories behind the places I visit.

Cultural Arts

Egypt has served as a crossroads for many ethnic groups throughout history, including the people of ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Bedouins, the Nubians, the Amazigh of the Western Desert, and more.  Each of these cultures enjoys its own distinct traditions of music, dance, textiles, and other expressive arts. I take great pleasure in attending traditional cultural shows at El Dammah Theater, the Mazaher Ensemble at Makan Theater, and the tannoura show at Wikala el-Ghouri.

Often, I’m introduced to cultural experiences that are new to me.  For example, in 2016, which was my 11th visit to Egypt, I saw a Nubian music concert at the El Dammah theater featuring an instrument known as a rango. In 2018, I saw a concert of Port Said music and dance for the first time. It was also my first time of sitting at a Sufi tent in Luxor listening to the music of a zikr and watching the participants.

The photo below shows a Saidi ensemble performing at El Dammah Theater in Cairo. The musician on the left is playing a mizmar, which is a reed instrument that resembles an oboe. The one on the right is playing an arghool, which is a type of flute.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In addition, Egypt has long been a center for performing arts: music, theater, dance, and cinema. It’s still possible to visit remnants of the entertainment district of the early 20th century, including Emad el-Din Street and Azbakeya Garden. Some of these historic night spots are still open today, such as the Shahrzade next to Alfi Bek restaurant.  Historically, Egypt attracted aspiring performers from throughout the Arabic-speaking world who sought fame and fortune.

Today’s vibrant night life in Cairo features some of the top performers in the Arabic-speaking world.  I always enjoy going out to enjoy music and dance shows.  Even though I have seen some of them before, Egypt’s top performing artists are so inspiring that I enjoy seeing them over and over. This photo from 2017 shows Dina, Egypt’s top belly dancer:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

No, I Haven’t Seen it All!

There are many parts of Egypt I have never seen, which I hope to visit someday.  My wish list includes the Siwa Oasis, the Fayoum Oasis, the Red Sea area, the town of Mersa Matrouh on the Mediterranean coast, the Amarna archaeological site at Minya, the Suez Canal, and the Hathor Temple at Dendera.

In addition, even when I visit sites I’ve seen before, I often notice things I didn’t previously notice.  For example, on my 8th visit to the Edfu Temple I noticed something I’d never seen there before: an image of a liturgical dancer holding his arms in the goofy bent-wrist-and-elbows pose that everybody thinks is representative of ancient Egyptian dance.  I’d been looking for evidence that such a dance posture actually existed in ancient Egypt for many years, but somehow never spotted it until my 2017 visit!

The People

Most importantly of all, I have come to feel a deep affection for the Egyptian people. I have come to appreciate their warmth, kindness, and hospitality.  Most of all, the Egyptian people are the reason I keep going back.

Related Blog Posts

These links lead to blog posts about some of my experiences mentioned in the above narrative:

 

Tannoura: The Whirling Dervishes of Egypt

In Egypt, one of the forms of entertainment you may encounter in tourist shows is the tannoura. This consists of whirling to music, which originated as a Sufi ritual, and today in Egypt has become an elaborate artistic performance.

How Whirling Started

During the 13th century, the legendary poet Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi made his way to the town of Konya, Turkey, where he settled.  Rumi was a practitioner of Sufism, which is an implementation of Islam that embraces mysticism. He believed in music, poetry, and dance as being paths for connecting with God.

Under Rumi’s leadership, the Mevlevi sect of Sufism arose in Konya, Turkey. Its participants used whirling as their way to let go of their ego and connect with God. The photo below shows the garb that Turkish dervishes wear for their semas (whirling rituals).

Photo copyright by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, Turkish cultural influence began to make its way south to Egypt, and that included the Mevlevi whirling dervish sect.

The Egyptian Side of Whirling

Egypt’s tannoura performing art owes its origin to the Mevlevi practice sarted by Rumi, but modern-day performances of tannoura are designed to serve as entertainment, and therefore they incorporate showmanship techniques. Some retain the Sufi music and spiritual tone, while others have moved into a more secular direction.

The word “tannoura” means “skirt” in Arabic, and in this context refers to the skirts worn by the men. “Tannoura” has also come to refer to overall performance, and also the men wearing the skirts.  The Egyptian tannoura garb is very colorful, to enhance the spectacle.

Although Sufism exists in Egypt, the whirling tradition of the Turkish Mevlevi sect is not strong there. Instead, Egyptian Sufis prefer other movement formats.

In an Egyptian tannoura show, the whirlers manipulate the skirts to produce a variety of visual effects. Typically, the performer wears more than one skirt, which allows for the outer layers to be removed and used in the dancing. One level of skirt is sewn together at the outer edges, creating a cone effect when the top layer is raised above the head.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Another effect that tannoura performers create with their skirts is that of a whirling disk:

Photo copyright by Jewel, 2016. All rights reserved.

Cairo’s Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe

The Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe show at Wikala al-Ghouri is sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.  It begins with a performance of spiritual Sufi music, featuring in turn different musical instruments, including the mizmar (shown below), the nai (a type of flute), the percussion, and the singers.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After the musical introduction to the show, the Sufi dancers take the stage. These men wear white gallabiyat (robes) with a vest over them.  Their movement is choreographed for the stage; however, it is based on authentic Sufi ritual movement.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The dance performed by these men in the white gallabiyat is typical of traditional Egyptian Sufi movement such as could be seen at a zikr (ritual) during an Egyptian moulid (saint’s day celebration). As they complete their featured segment, the tannoura enters the stage wearing a more colorful ensemble of multiple skirts over trousers.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The focus turns to the tannoura, as the Egyptian-style Sufi dancers to perform in formations of a line behind him, or a circle moving around him.  Often, the tannoura will begin the performance with a group of brightly-painted frame drums in his hands, holding them in a variety of formations while continuously whirling.  Eventually, he hands these drums off to one of the other men while still continuing to turn.

He then loosens the ties holding one of his skirts in place, and raises it up off of the ones below.  At this point, he may hold it in various formations such as those shown earlier in this article, always while continuing to turn in place.

Eventually, this performance draws to a close, and the tannoura leaves the stage.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Next, a group of three other tannouras enters the stage.  They too use their skirts to create a variety of visual effects as they whirl. For example, these two are rotating their skirts around their necks as they turn.

If you’d like to find this group on social media, click here for their Facebook page.

Other Tannoura Performers

Tannoura performers appear in a variety of shows throughout Egypt, including Nile dinner cruise boats, nightclubs, and other entertainment environments.  These shows often create a more secular feeling than those of the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe.

The tannoura performers in these other environments often use secular music instead of the traditional spiritual Sufi music.  They typically appear as soloists, and may use pre-recorded music instead of live musicians.

It has become trendy for many of these performers to have an assistant dim the stage lights part of the way through their shows, at which point they turn on LED lights which have been sewn into their costumes.

I have also seen tannoura dancers pull an Egyptian flag out of their vests and hold it high as they whirl.

Closing Thoughts

I have gone to see the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe perform about 15 times since the first time I saw them in 1999. Sometimes I’ll go twice during the same trip to Egypt. I have never grown tired of it.  I find the spiritual Sufi music to be uplifting, and the dance performances to be mesmerizing.  Often, after attending a show, I find myself feeling calmer, less stressed, and peaceful.

I also enjoy the individual tannoura performers that I have seen in Nile dinner cruise shows and “Egyptian party” shows at hotels.  The flavor is different because of the more secular tone, but it’s always fun to see the showmanship ideas that the performers add to their whirling.

Aswan, Egypt: The Mystery of the Ostrich Egg

Today’s archaeology profession estimates the Pyramids of Giza to be about 4,600 years old. However, because the pyramids are made of stone, traditional dating methods using carbon-14 can’t be used to estimate their age. There really aren’t any good ways to determine when stone structures were built by examining the structures themselves – it is necessary to rely on organic material such as human remains found inside or near the structures.

In the case of the three major Giza pyramids, bodies were not found inside, and therefore the carbon-14 dating has relied on artifacts found on the surrounding plateau, such as remains of bread in a fire pit.  It’s a reasonable methodology, but it relies on the assumption that the pyramids were built at the same time as the village that surrounded them. However, what if the three large pyramids were built before the village? What if the village was built on top of something older which hasn’t been excavated yet?

Photo copyright by Jewel, 2017. All rights reserved.

What if the Pyramids of Giza are Older Than Believed?

However, perhaps a clue lies elsewhere to the age of the pyramids?

An ostrich egg was found in a tomb near Aswan that shows 3 triangular structures side by side. According to carbon dating methods, the human remains found in that same tomb were 7,000 years old. Therefore it is reasonable to think objects found in that tomb, including the egg, were equally old. Could the triangles etched on that presumably 7,000-year-old egg represent the pyramids of Giza? Some people think so, while others are skeptics. Alongside the triangles, there’s a marking that some people think could represent the Nile river and the Fayoum Oasis. But again, others are skeptics.

I haven’t seen any debate questioning that the egg itself is 7,000 years old. That seems to be accepted. The debate I’ve seen centers around what the drawing represents. Ie, does it represent the Giza pyramids, Nile River, and Fayoum Oasis as the theorists claim? Or does it represent something else?

The Meroitic Pyramids Theory and Why It Doesn’t Fit

Some skeptics have suggested that the 3 triangles might represent the Nubian pyramids of Sudan in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush. However, the Sudanese pyramids marked tombs, and were built much more recently (4,600 years ago) than the tomb the ostrich egg was found in (7,000 years ago).

The Nubian pyramids are also much farther south than where the egg was found, in what (during ancient times) would have been a different kingdom from the one governing the Aswan area where the egg was found.

Seeing the Egg for Yourself

Today, the ostrich egg resides in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt. I had the pleasure of seeing it firsthand myself on May 6, 2018 while I was in Aswan. It’s fascinating to look at this 7,000-year-old object and try to come up with alternate theories for what the image is showing.  So far, I keep coming back to the conclusion that maybe it does prove that the Pyramids of Giza are older than what mainstream archaeologists currently believe.

I look forward to seeing how future discoveries enhance our insight into the past.