One of the most popular images sold on papyrus at souvenir shops in Cairo is that of the Three Musicians. The original scene appears in the Tomb of Nakht. Most organized tours won’t take you there, because it lies in the Valley of the Nobles where the tombs are generally small and less impressive than the Valley of the Kings.
The tomb of Nakht is small, too small for most tour groups to cram everyone in. If a group of more than a handful of people goes, chances are they will need to take turns going in while the others wait outside. Because the tomb is small, there aren’t many scenes to view inside. Most tourists would rather see the spectacular tombs found in Valley of the Kings.
Nakht lived under the reign of Tuthmoses IV, around 1401-1391 BCE. He was a scribe and a temple star watcher.
However, I’m a different type of tourist. I enjoy seeing the things that the big tours don’t go to see. I have visited this tomb several times because I like this scene so much, I enjoy going back to see it again.
Here’s the image on a papyrus one I bought in Cairo in 1999:
I asked my guide to tell me about the overall scene. In particular, I asked him if this was a temple performance done by priestesses. He emphatically said NO. He pointed off to the right a section of the scene that doesn’t appear in this photograph which showed Nakht and his wife watching, and he said that this was merely entertainment for the pleasure of Nakht and his family.
Music and dance in ancient times were NOT always about religion. Sometimes they were, but not always.
Another part of the artwork inside this tomb features a cat, curled up in a ball. We hear so much about the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, but I find this image charming because it looks like a family pet snuggling up for a nap.
Egyptologists call this Theban Tomb TT52. They believe it’s from around 1400 BCE, which means it’s about 3,400 years old.
A Nile cruise provides opportunities to stop and tour several beautiful temples, including those at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae. Each of these contains scenes that honor women. Some temples from ancient Egypt feature scenes of the goddesses Hathor and Isis as madonna figures, an idea expressed in ancient Egyptian art long before Christianity existed.
The Edfu temple honors Horus the Elder and his wife, Hathor. Some of its walls feature scenes of Hathor nursing her infant, Horus the Younger. Some of these scenes were damaged by early Christians during the Roman era, in an attempt to obliterate the earlier Pagan beliefs.
The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, though it was built on the site of a much older temple. It was built after the conquest of Alexander the Great, when the Greek Pharoahs were ruling Egypt. The first stone of today’s temple was laid in 237 BCE, and it was consecrated in 142 BCE. This is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt due to having been buried for centuries under sand and river silt deposited by the Nile inundations.
The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt is unique because it honors two different gods – Sobek (with a crocodile head) and Horus the Elder (with a falcon head). It’s a fascinating temple to visit, with many interesting images on its walls.
A unique segment of wall that is popular with many of the tourists who visit Kom Ombo is the scene showing two women using birthing chairs to give birth. The wall to the right of them features images of surgical tools.
The throne-shaped object on the head of the lower woman is a nod to the goddess Isis and her role as a patron of fertility and motherhood.
One of the tour guides I’ve worked with, Abdul Aly, has proudly pointed out that ancient Egyptians have known about the benefits of delivering babies while sitting up in birthing chairs for at least 2,000 years. In contrast, modern Western medicine only started to embrace birthing chairs and the upright posture since about the 1980’s.
Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, on top of an older temple site. Construction lasted from 180 BCE to 47 BCE. In addition to the birthing chair scene, I was very fond of the on-site museum featuring crocodile mummies. Another of my blog posts shows the Nilometer at this temple.
Philae Island at Aswan hosts the beautiful Nubian temple of Isis. Construction began around 690 BCE, on a site that had hosted an older structure. In the 1960’s, the island was flooded by the rising waters of the Nile caused by the Aswan High Dam, and Philae was one of the temples moved to a new site on higher ground funded by UNESCO.
There are several images of Isis nursing the baby Horus in this temple. These resemble the madonna-style images of Hathor with Horus at Edfu. There is some overlap of the stories regarding Hathor (which were earlier) and Isis (who came later.) Unfortunately, many of the images of Isis with Horus at Philae were vandalized during the Roman era by early Christians who were trying to obliterate the earlier Pagan religion.
I’ve featured highlights of how ancient Egypt honored motherhood by selecting three 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.
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.
In 2015, I vacationed in Morocco with some friends. First, we spent a week in Marrakech, then we went on to Casablanca for a dance camp. On August 31, we took a day trip from Marrakech to Essaouira, a historic port city on the Atlantic Ocean.
The tour agency that organized the day tour from Marrakech promised a tour of the city, plus a stop en route to see goats in trees. Along the way, we came upon an argan tree that was growing close to the roadway. Our van pulled over, and we got out to see the goats. It was obvious that the tour company had made arrangements with the goats’ herders to drive them up into this particular tree just for us, to coincide with the time we would be arriving. But I didn’t care, I loved seeing the tree goats up close, and took several photographs. See my separate blog post about the tree goats.
The name of the city is pronounced “ess uh WEAR uh”. It is a French spelling, where the “ou” represents the same sound as the English “w”.
The historic fortress is what gave the city its modern name, which means “small fortress” in Moroccan Arabic. Today, part of the walls that once surrounded the old city are still standing.
It is possible to go up to the top of the fortress and enjoy the view.
In Roman times, Essaouira was known as a source of purple dye. The dye was manufactured from purpura shells. Today, some remnants of Phoenician and Roman civilizations remain in the area.
I enjoyed visiting Essaouira’s busy market, where people can purchase fresh produce, spices, clothing, and household goods. It was fun to wander through and admire the historic architecture.
Some of the buildings inside the market area feature murals on their walls. Of course, I felt compelled to take a photo of this mural of a cat!
When walking through a market area, it can be tempting to focus your attention on the merchandise. However, I recommend looking up, because there is much beautiful architecture to admire. If you don’t look up, you’ll miss it!
I returned to Essaouira for a visit in 2017, once again enjoying the coastal climate, the delicious seafood, and the vibrant market. The below photo shows sunset at Essaouira on September 10, 2017.
I have enjoyed both of my visits to Essaouira. Would I go back? Possibly. It’s a beautiful city, and there are a number of local sights I haven’t yet explored!
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!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
Tributes to the legendary singer Oum Kalthoum can be found throughout Cairo. My three favorites, which I’ll highlight in this post, are:
The Oum Kalthoum Museum
The Oum Kalthoum Café along Muez Street
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.
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.
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.
A second sculpture outside of the museum shows a musical staff with notes. I’m very fond of this one.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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).
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.
Another effect that tannoura performers create with their skirts is that of a whirling disk:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.