In my travels to Egypt, I’ve come to know Nubian people in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. Although they are certainly Egyptians (and identify as such), they are a distinct ethnic group, different from the Bedouins, Amazigh, and other ethnic groups that together create the rich cultural heritage that makes up modern Egypt.
I’ve heard a Nubian acquaintance named Karim say several times, “Every Nubian home has a crocodile.” What he means by this is that it is traditional for Nubians to display preserved (dried) crocodiles both inside and outside of their homes. One of these days, I need to ask why this tradition exists.
On the Outside
Tourists can visit the Nubian community named Gharb Soheil, which is across the Nile River from Aswan, Egypt. There are two ways to approach it, either by bus or by a boat. If approaching via bus, it’s likely you’ll see a building with the words “Crocodile House” painted on the outside, and a preserved crocodile mounted on the exterior wall above one of the doors (on the left of this photo).
This isn’t the only building I’ve seen with a crocodile mounted in front of an entrance. Here’s another I saw as we drove past:
On the Inside
It is also common to find crocodiles mounted on the walls indoors, such as this Nubian home.
Below is another view of a Nubian home with a crocodile over a door:
One of the Nubian homes I have visited at Gharb Soheil also displays three crocodile skulls outdoors in the yard. Can you find them all?
There are a number of Nubian homes in Gharb Soheil who make part of their income by allowing tour groups to visit and look around. They will often spend some time talking about Nubian culture, and answering questions. Some of these keep live crocodiles on hand in a terrarium to show the tourists:
Once a crocodile outgrows the terrarium, the family takes it back to the Nile to release it into the wild. They need to take it to the south side of the Aswan Dam, because it’s illegal to release crocodiles into the northern part.
One time I asked Karim to tell me how they go about transporting a full-grown crocodile and releasing it without getting attacked in the process. He told me they wrap a scarf around its jaws, to hold them shut, and they wrap a second scarf to secure the tail next to the body. (An adult crocodile’s powerful tail can easily sweep a person off his feet.) Next, several of them lift the crocodile into the back of a truck, and drive it to the shore of the Nile. Upon arrival, they remove the crocodile from the truck. Then comes the delicate process of removing the scarves. He said typically the crocodiles don’t stay around to attack. They’re happy to head straight for the water and swim away.
The Nubian homes who feature these tours generally acquire their crocodiles by collecting crocodile eggs. They hatch the eggs, then raise the baby crocodiles to adulthood. It is possible for tourists to pose for photos with the babies, as I am doing here. I have noticed that the Nubians handle the baby crocodiles carefully, to avoid harming them.
Other Places Crocodiles Turn Up
Sometimes you’ll encounter preserved crocodiles in other interesting places. For example, Karim displays this crocodile head on his boat. It has a plastic fish in its mouth:
About the Photo at the Top of this Page
The photo at the top of this page shows the ancient Egyptian god Sobek, who was often depicted in Egyptian art as either a crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile.
This pillar resides in the temple at the town of Kom Ombo, Egypt. 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).
Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, from 180 BCE to 47 BCE. It includes a fabulous on-site Crocodile Museum featuring crocodile mummies. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum does not allow visitors to take photos.
Other Posts Mentioning Aswan on this Site
On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt A photographic tour of the sights that you’re likely to see if you take a ferry or felucca boat for a ride on the Nile at Aswan.
One thing I always try to make time for when I visit Egypt is a boat ride on the Nile at Aswan. Many Nile cruise itineraries either begin or end at Aswan, so I’d recommend arriving either a day early or staying a day late to allow time for this opportunity to enjoy a scenic, peaceful, beautiful experience.
My favorite boat captain to use for cruising the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim. He expertly guides the boat along the Nile, offering close-up views to the many sights along the way, and he speaks enough English to answer questions. If you ask, he’ll play a radio station with Nubian music.
There are many scenic views along the Nile River, and this is exactly why I have done this many times. After spending time in the urban, high-energy environment of Cairo, I look forward to coming closer to nature when I get to Aswan.
There are two different types of boating experiences you can use to experience the Nile scenery at Aswan. One is a ferry boat, which is what I was riding at the time I took these photos. The ferry has an engine which is silent enough that it doesn’t detract from the peaceful beauty of the ride. The other is a felucca, which is an Egyptian style of sailboat.
Sometimes young boys on a small raft will paddle out to meet your boat. These young buskers sing to you, hoping you will tip them for the entertainment they provide.
I personally enjoy the boys, so when I see them approach, I’m inclined to give them an Egyptian five-pound note. I used to give them just one pound, but Egypt’s economy has experienced significant inflation since 2011’s revolution, so I tip in higher amounts now than I did in 2010. You may be wondering what songs they use to serenade you. The ones I’ve heard the most are “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Frère Jacques”.
One of the landmarks you’ll see on the western bank of the Nile River at Aswan is the steep hill containing Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles. High on the top of that hill is a structure known as Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind, which marks the tomb of a long-ago Islamic sheikh named Aly Abu el-Hawa. I have also heard people refer to this structure as the watchtower because of the expansive view it offers of the Nile valley. The entire mountain is also sometimes referred to as Qubbet al-Hawa, encompassing the Pharaonic tombs in addition to el-Hawa’s tomb.
I have personally never climbed this mountain to explore its sights. There is no road that a taxi or tour bus could use to take you there. The only way to approach it is from docking the boat on the bank of the Nile River at the bottom of the hill. From there, you can either ride a camel up the hill, or you can hike up. If you want to use a camel, it’s best to prearrange for that, because there often are not any camels waiting at the bottom.
Another hillside on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan features the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, the 48th Imam of Nizari Ismailis. He was born in the city of Karachi, which lies in modern-day Pakistan, and he assumed his title of Aga Khan at age eight, after his father died. His tomb was built in the style of the historic Fatimid tombs that can be seen in Cairo today.
Although the Aga Khan was from Pakistan, Egypt held a special place in his heart because it was there that he met his French wife, Yvette Blanche Labrousse. She took on the name Begum Oum Habiba after they were married. Below the Mausoleum, behind the trees in this photo, is the villa where the Aga Khan and his family spent their time when they came to Egypt for visits.
Locals report that after he died, the Aga Khan’s fourth and final wife used to visit his tomb in the Mausoleum every day and lay a red rose on his grave. When she died in 2000, she was laid to rest next to him.
On another hillside, a historic monastery looks down on the Nile. This monastery, which dates back to the 7th century, was originally dedicated to a local saint named Anba Hedra who renounced the world on his wedding day. It has also been known as Deir Anba Sim’an. In the 10th century, it was dedicated to Saint Simeon. In the past, it housed about 300 monks. The troops of Salah ed-Din (Saladin) partially destroyed this facility in 1173.
There are no roads for vehicles leading to this monastery. If you want to visit it, you’ll need to ride a boat across the Nile. Once across, you can either walk up the hill yourself or hire a camel to carry you. If you plan to use a camel, I’d recommend prearranging it. This area does not always have camels sitting around waiting for something to do.
Before the Aswan High Dam was built, the west bank of the Nile River at Aswan was mostly uninhabited because of the annual inundation by the river. As a result of the dam being built, the inundations ended, while south of the dam Lake Nasser arose, flooding the homeland where thousands of Nubian people had lived since ancient times. Reports vary on how many Nubian people were displaced by the rising lake, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 100,000. With the inundations ending north of the dam, some of the Nubian people whose ancestral homes now lie under the waters of Lake Nasser have started to develop a community on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan.
A village named Gharb Sahel has arisen, with homes, hotels, shops, and more. The Nubians who live there have preserved their traditional architectural style, which is highly effective at encouraging ventilation and insulating against the heat.
It is possible to book a tour of one of the Nubian homes in the village. There are several who are willing to show visitors their architecture and talk about their lifestyles.
I have found these tours of Nubian homes to be a highlight of my time in Aswan because of the opportunity to learn more about the culture. The photo below shows the ornaments that dangle from the ceiling and the table with items for sale. The cool cat modeling the sunglasses is the ferry boat captain who transported us there, Captain Karim.
After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.
El Nabatat Island, also known as Kitchener’s Island, is a popular tourist destination because it hosts the Aswan Botanical Garden. Today, the island is owned by the Egyptian government and is used as a botanical research station. It is possible to arrange a boat ride to the island and walk through the garden. I have not personally done this, but it’s on my wish list for a future trip to Egypt.
Elephantine Island’s history dates back to Pharaonic times, when it was the southern outpost of Upper Egypt, on the border of Kush (Nubia). The book River God by Wilbur Smith sets some of its action on this island. One of the items on my wish list for a future visit to Aswan is to visit what’s left of this archaeology site today. A boat can take you close to its Nilometer for a closeup view, as shown in my photo below. See my article about Nilometers for more information about this and others.
Today, a hideous, soulless Movenpick Hotel crouches on Elephantine Island, a blight on the scenic landscape of the Nile. I hate the sight of this eyesore so much that I’m not including a photo in this blog post.
In ancient times, Aswan’s population included a large number of ethnic Nubians, and still does today. With the Kush empire (also Nubians) immediately to the south, it was important to the Egyptian Pharaohs who were based in Luxor to ensure that Aswan was governed by someone who was capable of maintaining the respect and loyalty of the Nubian locals. For that reason, many of the governors in Aswan over the centuries were ethnic Nubian. Queen Nefertari, who was honored by the temple at Abu Simbel and the spectacular tomb in Valley of the Queens at Luxor was a Nubian princess whose father governed Aswan.
Because of Aswan’s position on the southern border of Egypt’s Pharaonic empire, some boulders along the river feature cartouches that declare Egypt’s claim on this location, as shown in the photo below.
A popular Egyptian pop singer and actor named Mohamed Mounir has built a mansion on the banks of the Nile near Aswan, and it is possible to see it from a ferry boat or felucca. The mansion is the domed building in the foreground of the photo below. Many of Mounir’s fans refer to him as “The King”.
When we travel, it can be very tempting to cram our schedules full of every imaginable activity, every day. This can lead to burnout by the end of a vacation. I find that the ferry ride on the Nile helps me replenish my energy. It allows me to spend time in nature, on the river, and it allows me to forget for a while about the frantic schedule that tours often provide. There’s something fulfilling about being out on the water, simply enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Other Blog Posts About Aswan, Egypt
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these others posts I’ve made about Aswan, 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
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.
Temples and tombs from ancient Egypt offer many tributes to motherhood. As of 2019, I’ve found one tomb at Saqqara with a madonna scene, and several temples along the Nile cruise route with motherhood-related images, including Luxor Temple, Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, and Philae Temple. Here’s a look at the ones I’ve discovered in my travels so far.
Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (Tomb of the Brothers)
At Saqqara, which is just outside of Cairo, the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, often known as the “tomb of the hairdressers” or the “tomb of the brothers” features two beautiful scenes of motherhood near its entrance.
These are the oldest images from ancient Egypt that I have found so far celebrating motherhood. Although scholars have not determined the tomb’s exact age, the current theory is that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep served either Nyuserre Ini or Menkauhor Kaiu. Assuming that theory is correct, this tomb would thus have been built in the latter part of the 25th century BCE, making it over 4,000 years old.
One of the images at this tomb shows a small child playing around his mother while she does her daily housework.
The other shows the mother nursing the baby when it’s time to feed him. It’s really interesting to see this madonna-type image that was created about 2,500 years before the time of Christ.
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 intent of the story is to justify Amenhotep III’s right to be revered as a god, just as the later story of Jesus used immaculate conception to justify his claim to be the Son of God.
In this segment of the wall, we see Queen Mutemwia (top right) sitting on the birth chair giving birth to her son s the deities Isis and Khnum rub her hands.
This birth scene would have been commissioned by Queen Mutemwia’s son, Amenhotep III, to support his divine claim to the throne of Egypt. Scholars estimate that his 37-year reign begin in 1386 BCE or 1388 BCE, which places the age of this scene as being more than 1,000 years before the temples of Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae (mentioned below) were constructed.
Interestingly, I had visited the Luxor Temple approximately 8 times without ever seeing this birth story. Finally, I visited the temple for about the 9th time in 2019, and this was the first time a guide showed me this scene. It’s not something that every tour of the Luxor Temple includes. If you want to see the birth room, you may need to insist that your guide include it in the tour.
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.
Near the entrance to the Edfu temple is a special room known as the mammisi, or “birth room”. This is a small chapel located just outside and in front of the main pylons, and it celebrates the birth of “Horus, the Unifier of Two Lands”. The mammisi features several images of Hathor playing musical instruments, including sistrum (rattle), frame drum, and lyre.
The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, but resides on the site of a much older shrine. 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 dating from the New Kingdom. 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. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum at the temple does not allow visitors to take photos. 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, with most of the temple that remains today being built during the reign of Nectanebo I, ranging from 380-362. 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 several must-see images to watch for that are easy to find if taking a Nile cruise or a Luxor-to-Aswan tour or touring Saqqara near Cairo. These are ones I’ve personally noticed so far on my travels to Egypt, but I’m sure there are many I have not yet found. I’ll keep looking, and if I find more, I’ll add them to this blog post.
I encourage you, too, to keep looking on your own. You’re sure to discover more of these images 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, as shown in the photo. Both are refreshing.
Many restaurants in Egypt don’t serve alcoholic beverages, which makes sense when you consider the fact that it’s a Muslim country. In Egypt, the craft of brewing beer dates back to Pharaonic times. The religious prohibition came later, with the Arab conquest and conversion to Islam.
If you’re a connoisseur of craft beers, leave your beer-tasting mind set at home when you visit Egypt. It’s not the place to explore IPA’s, porters, stouts, red ales, bocks, or other malty brews. That said, places that do a large amount of business with foreigners often offer alcoholic beverages, and there are some local beers you can try.
Today, the two dominant brands of beer you’re likely to find in Egypt are Stella (no relationship to Stella Artois) and Sakara Gold. Both are lagers, and both are manufactured by Al Ahram Beverages Company. Other brand names exist in Egypt, but they don’t have the market share that these two do.
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.
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.
Idut’s tomb dates from the 5th dynasty, approximately 2360 BCE. These bas-reliefs still show some of the original color. Something that makes this scene different from many others is the fact each bird is a different type, and there is a butterfly in the middle!
I saw the tomb of Mehu for the first time in April 2019. Before that, it had been closed to the public, finally opening in September 2018, 80 years after archaeologists discovered it.
Mehu lived around 2300 BCE, during the time of the sixth dynasty. His title was Chief Justice and Vizier, and was married to the king’s daughter, Iku.
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!
I have visited the necropolis at Saqqara about 6 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, April 2018, and March 2019, 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.
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.