Backbends of Dancers in Ancient Egypt

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

Dancers in the tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara, Egypt. April 18, 2018.

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.

Other Posts About Ancient Egyptian Dance

See also my post about the image of men performing sacred dance at the Edfu Temple.

The Three Musicians and the Cat (Tomb of Nakht Near Luxor, 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.

Andrea Deagon has theorized (in an article you can find on my web site) that the woman in the middle might be dancing.

Here’s the image on a papyrus one I bought in Cairo in 1999:

Papyrus purchased in Cairo with the image of the Three Musicians.

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.

Honoring Motherhood in Ancient Egypt (Nile Cruise)

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.

Luxor

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.

Birth Room in Luxor Temple
This scene in the birth room of the Luxor temple shows Queen Mutemwia giving birth to her son, Amenhotep III. The top row shows her seated on a stool, as the deities Khnum and Isis rub her hands.

Edfu

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.

This scene of Hathor nursing her baby appears on a wall of the temple at Edfu, Egypt.

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.

For another of my blog posts about Edfu Temple, see Dance Like an Egyptian!

Kom Ombo

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.

These scenes of women in labor and surgical tools appear on a wall of the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt.

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

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.

Isis nurses Horus in this scene at the temple on Philae Island at Aswan, Egypt. Photo by Jewel, copyright 2015, all rights reserved.

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Beverages to Enjoy in Egypt

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.

Mango Juice

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.

Juice drinks made from fresh fruit offer a highlight of Egyptian cuisine. This photo taken in February 2017 shows a glass of strawberry juice and a glass of mango juice. Photo copyright by Jewel, 2017, all rights reserved.

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.

The dom fruits grow on palm trees such as this one in Kom Ombo, Egypt. Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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

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!

Erk Sous

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.

Legendary Egyptian dancer/choreographer Mahmoud Reda wears a costume of an erk sous (licorice syrup) vendor.

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.

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, 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.

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.