Our stereotypes of ancient Egyptian dance involve awkward-looking poses with right-angle positions of the elbow and wrist. People assume that such images appeared on temple and tomb walls. But, did they? Here’s a look at some of the dance scenes appearing in temples and tombs in Egypt.
At the Luxor Temple
The dancers in the photo at the top of this page appear on the west wall of the Luxor temple. If you look left to right, you’ll see that each image is bending back a little further. Think of these as individual frames in a movie, showing the motion of doing a backbend into a yoga wheel pose, or maybe doing the first half of a back handspring. Off to the right [not shown in this picture] there is a group of women playing sistrums (a type of rattle).
This scene is part of a larger mural showing a joyous religious celebration, the Opet festival where the god and goddess are united for conjugal fun. This dance, though, is not considered a ritual religious dance (although those did exist in ancient Egypt). Instead, it’s more of an entertainment spectacle that was being performed for the pleasure of those who saw it.
The Luxor Temple was built around 1,400 BCE, which means these images of dancers are about 3,400 years old.
These dancers are not priestesses worshiping a goddess, but rather secular people who are participating joyously in the annual event. I kind of think of this as being like Christmas in our North America culture – there ARE sacred events related to celebrating Christmas such as church services and pageants, but there are also many secular celebratory activities such as children sitting on Santa Claus’s lap to pose for photos.
Ostracon from Deir el-Medina
This ostracon (piece of limestone painted with an image) was found at the Worker’s Village near Luxor, also known as Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists believe it was created between 1292 and 1076 BCE. Today, it resides in Italy, at the museum in Turin. It bears a strong resemblance to the dancers on the west wall of the Luxor temple. For more information about Deir el-Medina, the site where this was found, see my post about Deir el-Medina.
The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak Temple
Inside the grounds of the Karnak temple near Luxor, there is a chapel known as the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. It features images resembling those of the Luxor Temple’s west wall.
The top row shows the backbends. Off to the right is a harpist playing for them. The bottom row shows men dancing on the left, and women playing sistrums (a type of rattle) on the right.
Archaeologists estimate this chapel may have been built around 1,400 BCE.
The Tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara
These dancers appear in the tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara, Egypt. It dates back to approximately 2300 BCE, and therefore is one of the oldest known images of dance found in Egypt.
One of the most popular images sold on papyrus at souvenir shops in Cairo is that of the Three Musicians. The original scene appears in the Tomb of Nakht. Most organized tours won’t take you there, because it lies in the Valley of the Nobles where the tombs are generally small and less impressive than the Valley of the Kings.
The tomb of Nakht is small, too small for most tour groups to cram everyone in. If a group of more than a handful of people goes, chances are they will need to take turns going in while the others wait outside. Because the tomb is small, there aren’t many scenes to view inside. Most tourists would rather see the spectacular tombs found in Valley of the Kings.
Nakht lived under the reign of Tuthmoses IV, around 1401-1391 BCE. He was a scribe and a temple star watcher.
However, I’m a different type of tourist. I enjoy seeing the things that the big tours don’t go to see. I have visited this tomb several times because I like this scene so much, I enjoy going back to see it again.
Here’s the image on a papyrus one I bought in Cairo in 1999:
I asked my guide to tell me about the overall scene. In particular, I asked him if this was a temple performance done by priestesses. He emphatically said NO. He pointed off to the right a section of the scene that doesn’t appear in this photograph which showed Nakht and his wife watching, and he said that this was merely entertainment for the pleasure of Nakht and his family.
Music and dance in ancient times were NOT always about religion. Sometimes they were, but not always.
Another part of the artwork inside this tomb features a cat, curled up in a ball. We hear so much about the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, but I find this image charming because it looks like a family pet snuggling up for a nap.
Egyptologists call this Theban Tomb TT52. They believe it’s from around 1400 BCE, which means it’s about 3,400 years old.
A Nile cruise provides opportunities to stop and tour several beautiful temples, including those at Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae. Each of these contains scenes that honor women. Some temples from ancient Egypt feature scenes of the goddesses Hathor and Isis as madonna figures, an idea expressed in ancient Egyptian art long before Christianity existed.
The birth room of the Luxor Temple tells how Queen Mutemwia became the mother of Amenhotep III. It offers a fascinating story of immaculate conception, annunciation, and birth about 1,300 years before the story of Jesus Christ. The bottom row shows the ram-headed creator god Khnum molding two children, one to be the physical body, and the other to be his ka (spirit version). The story goes on to show the god Amun coming to her, the conception, the pregnancy, and the birth.
The Edfu temple honors Horus the Elder and his wife, Hathor. Some of its walls feature scenes of Hathor nursing her infant, Horus the Younger. Some of these scenes were damaged by early Christians during the Roman era, in an attempt to obliterate the earlier Pagan beliefs.
The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, but resides on the site of a much older temple. The structure that stands today was built after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, leading to the era of Greek Pharaohs that ended with Cleopatra. The first stone of today’s temple was laid in 237 BCE, and it was consecrated in 142 BCE. This is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt due to having been buried for centuries under sand and river silt deposited by the Nile inundations.
The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt is unique because it honors two different gods – Sobek (with a crocodile head) and Horus the Elder (with a falcon head). It’s a fascinating temple to visit, with many interesting images on its walls.
A unique segment of wall that is popular with many of the tourists who visit Kom Ombo is the scene showing two women using birthing chairs to give birth. The wall to the right of them features images of surgical tools.
The throne-shaped object on the head of the lower woman is a nod to the goddess Isis and her role as a patron of fertility and motherhood.
One of the tour guides I’ve worked with, Abdul Aly, has proudly pointed out that ancient Egyptians have known about the benefits of delivering babies while sitting up in birthing chairs for at least 2,000 years. In contrast, modern Western medicine only started to embrace birthing chairs and the upright posture since about the 1980’s.
Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, on top of an older temple site. Construction lasted from 180 BCE to 47 BCE. In addition to the birthing chair scene, I was very fond of the on-site museum featuring crocodile mummies. Another of my blog posts shows the Nilometer at this temple.
Philae Island at Aswan hosts the beautiful Nubian temple of Isis. Construction began around 690 BCE, on a site that had hosted an older structure. In the 1960’s, the island was flooded by the rising waters of the Nile caused by the Aswan High Dam, and Philae was one of the temples moved to a new site on higher ground funded by UNESCO.
There are several images of Isis nursing the baby Horus in this temple. These resemble the madonna-style images of Hathor with Horus at Edfu. There is some overlap of the stories regarding Hathor (which were earlier) and Isis (who came later.) Unfortunately, many of the images of Isis with Horus at Philae were vandalized during the Roman era by early Christians who were trying to obliterate the earlier Pagan religion.
I’ve featured highlights of how ancient Egypt honored motherhood by selecting four must-see images to watch for that are easy to find if taking a Nile cruise or a Luxor-to-Aswan tour. But these are just a few examples. Keep looking on your own, and you’re sure to discover more of them in statues (in museums), tombs, and other temples.
When traveling, I enjoy sampling local food and drink. Egypt has a few beverages that I always try to make a point of enjoying during my visits. Some of these are available in the United States, but many people aren’t aware of them.
Yansoun (Anise Tea)
Yansoun (pronounced yan-SOON) is a tea made from anise seeds, served hot. I never eat anise-flavored food when I’m home in the U.S., but when I go to Egypt I frequently order yansoun with my meals. The higher-end hotels and restaurants don’t offer it, because they associate it with the lower classes. But it should be easy to find in cafes, koshary restaurants, and other Egyptian “comfort food” places.
My Egyptian friends have told me that it’s common for singers to sip yansoun before performing, and even to keep a cup on stage with them, because it soothes the throat and eases any hoarseness. I find that I like drinking it in the evening, because it helps me sleep.
Restaurants typically serve yansoun with a bit of sugar on the side, but I find I like the flavor of the tea just fine even without the sugar.
Karkaday (Hibiscus Tea)
Karkaday is made from the dried petals of hibiscus flowers, and is rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron. On a hot day, I enjoy drinking it as an iced tea, but near bedtime I like to drink it hot. Most cafes and restaurants that I’ve been to in Egypt offer karkaday both hot and as an iced tea. It’s a beautiful red color. Restaurants often serve it with sugar to add, but I personally like drinking it without.
In North America, it’s possible to order mango juice at Indian restaurants, but in Egypt it’s available at almost every place that offers beverages. Mango juice is reasonably safe to drink because mangos are a fruit that requires peeling. The vivid orange color looks very appetizing, and mangos are rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, folate, and vitamin B. I always ask for mine to be served without ice, since ice is normally made from tap water and may contain bacteria.
Asir Farola (Strawberry Juice)
This consists of pureed strawberries, perhaps with a small amount of water added. The vibrant red color looks beautiful in the glass! I always try to drink some while in Egypt, but I recommend exercising some caution – some restaurants don’t adequately wash the strawberries before making the beverage. Even those that wash the strawberries may use tap water to do it, so there is some risk of bacteria. I enjoy strawberry juice very much, and am happy to drink it despite the risks. The vitamin C content will give your immune system a boost.
Dom (Sometimes Spelled Doum)
The dom palm tree grows primarily in southern Egypt and Sudan. Its botanical name is hyphaene thebaica. Dom fruits have been found in some tombs from ancient Egypt.
I think of this fruit and the beverage made from it particularly as being associated with Nubian culture. The fist-sized brown nuts are soaked, then pureed with sugar and water to make a delicious beverage. I’ve also seen dom nuts used on strings of beads for decorating doorways in homes. The leaves of the palm tree are often used in making baskets.
This photo shows a dom tree whose fruit hasn’t ripened yet. The fruit will turn brown when ripe.
I usually drink dom when I go to Aswan. It’s a little sweet, but not too much. Some places in Luxor and Kom Ombo will also serve it, but I don’t think I’ve ever found it in Cairo.
Sahlab is a thickened sweet drink, served hot. Historically, sahlab was made from orchid roots, but today you’re more likely to find it made with cornstarch, arrowroot, or other thickener. The ingredients include milk, the thickener, and sugar. It is served garnished with chopped pistachios and cinnamon. I like to use it as a dessert drink.
Sugar Cane Juice
Sugar cane is one of the crops that many Egyptian farmers grow. If riding in a bus or train from Luxor to Aswan, you’re likely to see many fields of sugar cane along the way. So it’s only natural that sugar cane juice would be readily available throughout Egypt. There are small storefronts in many neighborhoods of Cairo where you can watch the vendor squeeze the sap out of the sugar cane for you, while you wait.
The juice is a light green color, and of course it tastes very sweet. It is usually served at room temperature. I always try to enjoy at least one glass of it when I’m visiting Egypt.
One time when a friend and I were riding in a taxi in Cairo, the driver pulled off to the side of the street before arriving at our destination. He got out of the car, and went up to one of these sugar cane storefronts in a residential neighborhood. It seemed odd at first that a taxi would stop en route to its destination while the passengers were still inside. When I realized the driver was heading for the sugar cane juice vendor, I thought, “Well, I suppose it’s only fair that taxi drivers might get thirsty while working.” We waited what seemed like a much longer time than I would have expected for him to get his glass of asir (juice). To our surprise, when he returned to the cab, he had not only a paper cup of it for himself, but also a cup for each of us! We so much appreciated his kindness!
I’m kind of amazed that in all my trips to Egypt, I haven’t yet tried erk sous. Maybe I’ll have to try some next time. It is a sweet licorice syrup made from anise.
Erk sous is typically sold by street vendors carrying an urn on their backs, similar to the one in this photo. The photo shows legendary dancer/choreographer Mahmoud Reda wearing an erk sous vendor costume for one of the skits performed by Reda Troupe. The very first Reda Troupe show in 1959 featured such a character in one of its skits.
Lemon Juice, With or Without Mint
In Egypt, the lemon juice is delicious, made from fully ripened lemons, with some water and sugar added. I like ordering a variation of it, which is lemon juice with mint.
You might be wondering why I haven’t posted any new blog entries lately. It’s because I broke my wrist on November 16, 2018. Ice was involved.
I had to cancel the trip to Egypt I had planned for December 1-17. It’s disappointing, I’d planned to include some adventures in that trip that would have been new to me, such as visiting the Siwa Oasis.
It hasn’t been easy to type in my current condition, therefore I haven’t been creating new blog entries. Expect something new from me soon, once I have healed a little more.
In October 2018, I did something I’d wanted to do my whole life: I went on a Caribbean cruise! One of my friends invited me to join her and share a stateroom with her, and I jumped at the chance!
We booked our trip through Susan Strong of Sanborn’s Travel in Corpus Christie. Susan was a pleasure to do business with, and I would gladly recommend her to others. She also came with us on this cruise, and I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her a bit.
This was a one-week adventure, with three stops and shore excursions. Our cruise ship held about 6,000 people: 4,000 were passengers, and 2,000 were staff. It’s amazing to think of the ship as holding more than 4 times as many people as there were in the rural community where I grew up!
On this trip, I was able to do the following things that have been on my bucket list for most of my life:
Go on a Caribbean cruise
Swim with dolphins
Visit Mayan ruins
Before the cruise, I was very frustrated with Royal Caribbean because of the many struggles I had dealing with their buggy web site. Royal Caribbean’s telephone support people were polite, but would put me on hold for 20 minutes at a time, only to come back saying they were unable to solve the problem. Fortunately, once I boarded the cruise, things went smoothly, and I was able to have a great time with my friends!
Exploring Liberty of the Seas
Our ship for this cruise was called Liberty of the Seas, and it was operated by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
This floating city featured a large informal dining room with buffet that was open all day, several sit-down dining rooms, bars, shops, swimming pools, hot tubs, a fitness center, a spa, and more. It featured a variety of entertainment on board, including bands playing music for dancing, movies, game shows, and other acts.
Each day, the carpets on the floors of the elevators on the ship told us what day of the week it was. I found it somewhat fascinating to think there are people whose job it was to change the elevator sign every day.
On the top deck, there were two swimming pools: one for children, and one for adults. The children’s pool also featured a water slide. I kept intending to try it out, but somehow my time filled up with other activities and I didn’t get to it.
Near the children’s pool is a dispenser of soft serve ice cream (shown above) called Sprinkles. The ice cream cones are free, and I enjoyed several of them during the cruise!
The promenade deck was the level that featured many shops, bars, and restaurants. During the week of the cruise, a number of events were held there, including a Halloween party for adults. I particularly enjoyed the jellyfish sculpture that hung from the ceiling!
I enjoyed several treatments at the spa on board the ship, including three massages, a salt scrub, and a facial. Word soon got out in our group that I was doing this, and the final night of the cruise our organizer Susan gave me a certificate proclaiming me “the Spa Queen”!
There were many gorgeous views to enjoy while on board the ship. I found it very peaceful to stand at the side and look out over the intense blue of water and sky.
Our first two days of cruising, we were out in the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.
We saw several beautiful sunsets during the cruise. This photo shows the one that greeted us our first evening on board.
The Shore Excursions
The ship made 3 stops during the week: Roatan, Honduras; Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico. We had the option of either purchasing an excursion package, going into town to shop and explore, or staying on the ship and enjoying the many facilities it offered.
The number of options for each stop was amazing. It was so hard to choose what to do!
I enjoyed the cruise very much, and would going on another in the future, especially if I had a friend to go with. Although Royal Caribbean’s online check-in process was extremely cumbersome due to a poorly designed web site, once I was on board the ship I was able to relax and enjoy the cruise. I took over 500 pictures throughout the week.
As I make additional posts about the cruise, you’ll be able to find them at this link:
I was excited when I saw that one of the shore excursions that our cruise ship offered on my 2018 Caribbean cruise was “Dolphin Encounter and Snorkeling”. Swimming with dolphins has been on my wish list for many, many years, and I was so happy to see there was finally an opportunity! For $154 U.S. dollars, the tour offered:
“Experience what it would be like to be a part of the pod in the wild as you interact with curious and friendly dolphins on this unique dolphin swim and snorkel tour.”
When we got off the cruise ship, we were met by a representative from Anthony’s Key Resort, which was the local tour operator that was offering this excursion. They took us via bus to the cove where the dolphins lived. There were changing rooms for us to change into our swimsuits, and lockers we could use to store our belongings until we were done. We each received a set of swim fins and snorkel mask, and then they led us down to the water. They said we could bring cameras and phones to take photos.
The trainers separated us into two groups. Each group would work with one trainer and one dolphin. Our trainer instructed us to wade into waist-level water, standing side-by-side. He called over a dolphin named Callie. He used whistles and hand signals to give requests to Callie. After she performed each task, he rewarded her with fish. Some of the things Callie did for us included:
Swimming past our line so we could pet her as she passed. Her skin was very soft.
Swimming with her belly pointing up to the sky.
Jumping up out of the water.
Going to look for objects buried in the sand, then bringing them back to us. The trainer told us that dolphins have excellent built-in sonar, and they can use it to identify where items are buried.
Flapping her tail on the water to make a big splash.
Going for a “tail walk”, which meant rearing up vertically out of the water, and then “walking” across the surface of the water with her tail. This was my favorite part!
Posing for photos with each of us in turn.
The following video shows Callie going for her “tail walk”.
For part of the above activities, we had an opportunity to use our phones and cameras to take photos. For the photos where we posed with Callie, a professional photographer snapped photos of each of us, and naturally we were given an opportunity to purchase those at the end of the tour. As an individual (i.e., not part of a couple or family), I was able to purchase a package with all of the photos with me in them for $45.
The above “dolphin encounter” activity took about 30 minutes.
After the “dolphin encounter” part of our tour, we set our phones and cameras aside and put on the snorkeling gear. We swam out into the cove. As we swam, the dolphins would come along to swim with us. They often chased each other, passing underneath us close enough to touch. Sometimes they surfaced and swam next to us.
This video shows Callie and Allie leaping together during the initial 30-minute dolphin encounter:
The bottom of the cove was not as spectacular as what I saw when snorkeling at Maui. The fish were not brightly colored, they were simply a silvery color. There were some coral formations, rocks, and seaweed to look at, but the colors tended to be neutrals. I was happy with it, though, because the dolphins were so much fun!
This too lasted about 30 minutes. It felt like the right length of time. At the end, the staff called us to the shore, collected our snorkeling equipment from us, loaded us onto the bus, and took us back to our cruise ship. I went to bed that night happy, dreaming of dolphins!
About the Dolphins’ Lifestyle
Some people have asked me whether the dolphins seemed to be captives or abused. Based on watching them, I got the impression the dolphins are comfortable in their habitat, and staying there by choice.
According to the trainer we worked with, the dolphins who live in the cove were born there. They consider it their home, just as your pet dog would consider your house his/her home. The dolphin behavior I witnessed seemed consistent with that. The dolphins were not restrained, and had enough freedom in a large area that they could have opted to swim away from us and stay away.
The cove at Anthony’s Key is fenced off from the open Gulf of Mexico. At times, the trainers will open the gate to allow the dolphins to play freely in the open water. The dolphins voluntarily return to their home afterward. A dog might run joyously around when taken to a dog park, but will choose to return home where his food and his social group live afterward, and the same is true of dolphins.
If I Were Going to Do It Again…
I would take:
Dry clothes to change into after snorkeling.
Swimsuit. (I’d wait until I get there to put it 0n.)
Something to photograph the dolphins underneath me while snorkeling. This could include:
Either a zip-top bag on a neck lanyard to put my cell phone inside, or
A waterproof camera.
Sunscreen, maybe also a hat.
I’m glad I removed my contact lenses before leaving my room. It’s all too easy for water to get into the snorkel mask and wash a contact lens out of the eye.
I did take my prescription eyeglasses, and I wish I would have left them in my locker with my dry clothes when I changed clothes at the cove. I took the sunglasses off when we got into the water, and they became an extra thing to remember to grab and take with me when it was over.
There’s an historic street in Cairo’s Khan al Khalili district known as the Sharia al-Khayamiya (Tentmaker’s Street). Along this street, vendors sell a uniquely Egyptian handcrafted textile known as khayamiya. You might also see it spelled as “khayamia”, “khyamiya”, “khayameya”, and other variations of that. The word is derived from Khayma, which is the Arabic word for “tent”. You may have heard of Omar Khayyam, whose name means “Omar the Tent Maker”.
Although it’s possible to purchase khayamiya in places other than this street, you’ll find the best selection here. I find it captivating to explore the shops and admire the many tapestries available there.
What Is Khayamiya?
Khayamiya artisans create the pieces using applique techniques to make designs. The fabric is a type of canvas. Historically in the Middle East, such appliques were used to decorate the interior of tents. As the photo at the top of this article shows, some khayamiya pieces are small enough to be used as a cover for a throw pillow, while others are large enough to cover a large section of a wall, similar to the sizes often used in the U.S. for quilted wall hangings. As a textile artist myself, I’m very fond of the khayamiya technique, and it’s always a treat when I go to Cairo to visit the Sharia al-Khayamiya.
In 2012, the quilt shows presented by the American Quilter’s Society featured a khayamiya artist from Egypt touring throughout the U.S.
Types of Designs
The majority of khayamiya designs that I’ve seen fit into these categories:
Geometric designs similar to those typical of Islamic art
Images inspired by Pharaonic art from tombs and temple walls, especially birds
Scenes depicting Egyptian life, such as Saidi musicians or men playing the tahtib martial art. See the photo below showing two different views of Saidi musicians, one in which the musicians wear burgundy galabeyat, and the other in which the musicians wear navy blue.
Words written in Arabic calligraphy. Most of these that I’ve seen translate into Allah’s name, or praises to him.
The photo below shows several khayamiya pieces displayed on the wall of one of the shops on Sharia el-Khayamiya. The owner of this shop gave me permission to take this photo, as well as the others shown in this blog post.
About the Khayamiya Street
Sharia el-Khayamiya is one of the last Medieval covered streets remaining in Cairo, and is worth a visit just to take in the history it represents. The street lies immediately south of the historic city gate known as Bab Zuweyla. It was built in the 1600’s.
Historically, when Egypt was the hub of the Islamic world, every year the artisans of the Tentmakers’ Street would craft a massive tapestry to cover the kaaba stone in Mecca for the annual hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). When the time came to transport the tapestry to Mecca, it would be carried through the Bab Zuweyla and placed on the camel caravan that would transport it there. The departure of the caravan to Mecca was occasion for the people of Cairo to celebrate.
In recent decades, since the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula, the Saudis purchase their tapestry for the annual hajj from other sources. Egypt no longer provides it.
If you stand outside a shop in Sharia el-Khayamiya, you may need to dodge cars and motorcycles, since it still is a functional street. I find it best to quickly move inside a shop displaying designs that appeal to me, rather than linger out in the street area.
The khayamiya textiles come in many sizes. Prices vary according to the size of the piece and the intricacy of the design. Sometimes when I visit these shops, I sit down on a bench, pick up a large pile of textiles, and start looking through it in search of something to catch my eye. For me, it is a pleasure even just to look through them. The vendors are always very willing to help me find specific pieces if I tell them what sort of design or size I’m looking for.
Although some of the vendors don’t speak much English, they can typically recruit someone nearby to translate. I’ve never had a communication problem, and I enjoy seeing their faces show their pride in their work as they answer my questions about certain items.
I have purchased many khayamiya pieces to use as gifts for friends and family members.
It can be a challenge figuring out what gifts to buy when visiting Egypt. I have given several pieces to people in my life who appreciate handcrafted textiles. The diverse selection of color combinations and designs offers options that could appeal to a variety of tastes.
I also have several pieces for my own home, and when I look at them, they bring back memories of my visits to Egypt.
Nearly everybody has heard of the 3 great Pyramids of Giza. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Giza was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Many have also heard about the pyramids just south of Giza: the Bent Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. But comparatively few have heard of the pyramids in Deir el-Medina, the Valley of the Workers. There are 3 there, each marking a tomb. In the past, there were more such pyramids, but they have not survived through the ages.
Deir el-Medina is near Luxor, on the West Bank near the Valley of the Kings. Some people call it the Workers Village, the Valley of the Workers, or the Valley of the Artisans. Archaeologists estimate that this community was active between 1550 and 1080 BCE.
After seeing the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings and the temples, Deir el-Medina offers an entirely different perspective on life in Pharaonic times because of the insight it gives into how regular people lived, as opposed to the kings and nobles. It is unique in that there is no other archaeological site that provides such extensive information to scholars about the daily life of ancient society, including living conditions, social interactions, and community life.
Deir el-Medina was a village where the people who built the famous tombs and temples on Luxor’s West Bank lived. These were the people who carved the great columns out of rock, created the bas-relief art work on temple walls, painted the tomb ceilings and walls, carved the alabaster canopic jars and other treasures for the tombs, and more. Many historians believe that Deir el-Medina was founded by the Pharaoh Amenhotep I and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari. Today, the village has been awarded status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, it is possible to visit the site and see what remains of the homes. An experienced guide can point out which room was probably the kitchen (based on remains of cooking fires and food found there), which was probably the toilet, etc.
These pyramids are small, maybe about 10 feet tall, at most. It is possible to walk up close to them, but not to go inside.
How I Learned About Valley of the Workers
I originally discovered the Valley of the Workers in 2004. Our tour guide, Mohamed, had just taken us through the Valley of the Kings, and we had been impressed with the magnificence of the tombs there. He then gave us a choice: whether to see Valley of the Queens (which was the activity that had been pre-planned for us), or whether to make a change and visit Valley of the Workers.
Mohamed explained that the only tomb at Valley of the Queens which approached the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings we’d already seen was that of Nefertari, and that one was closed to the public due to its fragile condition. He said that the tombs at Valley of the Queens that were open to the public were all smaller, less elaborate versions of what we had seen at Valley of the Kings.
Our group decided to make the change he suggested, and go to Valley of the Workers. I’m glad we did, because it was entirely different from Valley of the Kings, and gave us fascinating insight into the lives of the people who built the temples and tombs.