Cairo, Egypt: The Street of the Khayamiya (Tentmakers)

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:

  1. Geometric designs similar to those typical of Islamic art
  2. Images inspired by Pharaonic art from tombs and temple walls, especially birds
  3. 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.
  4. Words written in Arabic calligraphy. Most of these that I’ve seen translate into Allah’s name, or praises to him.
These two khayamiya pieces show Saidi musicians playing traditional Egyptian musical instruments. The image on the left shows men playing a mizmar (similar to an oboe), a rebaba (stringed instrument), and a deff (frame drum). The one on the right shows two mizmar players and a deff player.

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.

There is an article on the Aramco World web site that provides a large amount of interesting detail about this historic Cairo neighborhood.

Buying Khayamiya Pieces

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Luxor, Egypt: The Pyramids of Deir el-Medina (Valley of the Workers)

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.

Deir el-Medina, an ancient village  near Luxor, Egypt, offers an opportunity to explore a unique archaeological site – a place that teaches us what everyday life was like  in Pharaonic times.  Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

A pyramid marks a tomb at Deir el-Medina near Luxor, Egypt. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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 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.

He 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.  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.

A pyramid marks a tomb at Deir el-Medina near Luxor, Egypt. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

 

Images of Birds in the Tombs at Saqqara, Egypt

Many of my friends love birds, so I thought it might be fun to share photos I took of bird artwork on the walls inside the tombs at Saqqara near Cairo, Egypt.

When visiting these tombs, it is possible for tourists to purchase a camera permit allowing them to take photos inside. However, even with a camera permit, flash photography is prohibited, so it’s necessary to take either a camera that excels in low-light conditions, or a flashlight to illuminate the images while taking the pictures.

Inside the Tomb of Irukaptah

The tomb of Irukaptah dates back to approximately 2400 BCE, making this tomb over 4,400 years old.  It is also known as the Tomb of the Butchers because Irukaptah was the head of the butchers at the royal palace, and therefore his tomb contains some scenes on the walls inside that depict cattle being butchered.  Just inside the entrance, there is a row of statues set into the wall.  So far as I know, Irukaptah’s tomb is the only one at Saqqara that contains such statues.  A row of birds sits on a panel just above the heads of the statues.

Below is a closeup of the birds on the panel above the statues’ heads:

Inside the Tomb of Ty

Archaeologists estimate that the tomb of Ty was build circa 2494-2345 BCE, which would make it over 4,000 years old.  An entire wall inside the tomb of Ty is covered with images of birds.  This is a wide angle view of the wall.  If bird lovers have time to visit only one of the tombs at Saqqara, this one could be a good choice.

Here is a close-up showing the scene of the wading birds in the tomb of Ty in more detail.

This closeup from the tomb of Ty shows the geese in more detail:

Inside the Tomb of Ka-Gemni

Ka-Gemni was the Pharaoh’s son-in-law, and therefore was able to afford an elaborate tomb. The sign on the entrance to the tomb says that it was built approximately 2340, making it over 4,000 years old.  It is one of my favorites because it contains a scene on one of its walls showing a chorus line of dancers.  But there is other art on its walls that’s also worth seeing.  This beautiful marsh scene inside the tomb of Ka-Gemni shows several different types of birds.

Inside the Tomb of Ptahhotep

A scene inside the tomb of Ptahhotep shows several kinds of birds together.  It was built approximately 2350 BCE, over 4,000 years ago.  I hope to take another photo of this that’s better quality the next time I go to Egypt.

These are the only photos I’ve taken so far of birds on the tomb walls of Saqqara, but I hope to return in the future and take more!

Closing Thoughts

I have visited the necropolis at Saqqara about 5 times.  It’s always a pleasure to go back, because every time I go, I see something new.  Even when I return to tombs I’ve seen before, I’ll often notice something that I missed on previous visits.

Also, only some of the tombs at Saqqara are open for the public to go inside. On my trips to Egypt in February 2017 and April 2018, I engaged a guide to take me inside every tomb that was open at the time.  However, occasionally, Egypt will open another to attract tourists, so there’s often something new to see.  For example, in September 2018 Egypt announced it would open the tomb of Mehu to the public for the first time, and I look forward to visiting it and seeing its magnificent art for the first time!  I’ve heard there are images of dancers inside!

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.

I live in a somewhat small city in the U.S., a metropolitan area of only 171,000 people.  In 1991, we had an incident in which a shooter killed 5 people before killing himself.  In 2018, a man kidnapped and killed Mollie Tibbetts at Brooklyn, Iowa, a town whose population is under 2,000.  Clearly, staying home is no guarantee of safety.

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.

Even though I tend to stay alert to personal safety issues and avoid taking unnecessary risks when I travel, I do feel safe when I go to Egypt.  If I stayed home, there’d still be some risk of car accidents, violence, tornadoes, an unexpected health problem, and other dangers. Safety is not guaranteed anywhere.  Therefore, I choose to embrace travel to Egypt, a country I have come to love.

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”.) With these images together, the statue celebrates Egypt’s glorious past while looking ahead to the future. 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.