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.
Tributes to this great artist can be found throughout Cairo. My three favorites are the Oum Kalthoum Museum, the Oum Kalthoum Café, and the Oum Kalthoum Hotel.
Oum Kalthoum continues to inspire listeners all over the world. 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, USA plays her music via satellite television for ambience.
Oum Kalthoum Museum
The Oum Kalthoum Museum on Rhoda Island offers a glimpse into the life of this great artist. It lies within easy walking distance of the historic Nilometer, which is also worth visiting while there.
Just outside the museum, an abstract statue of Oum Kalthoum captures just enough of her iconic imagery to be recognizable. On her chest is a crescent-shaped diamond brooch, 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.
Oum Kalthoum Café
Just off of Moez Street, near 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.
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 is designed to honor her life’s work.
A statue of Oum Kalthoum stands in the median of the street that runs in front of the hotel.
Throughout the lobby, photos of Oum Kalthoum evoke memories of the singer as the sound system continuously plays her music. The furniture in the lobby 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 her, 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 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 at that hotel!
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.
Other Tannoura Performers
Tannoura performers appear in a variety of shows throughout Egypt, including Nile dinner cruise boats, nightclubs, and other entertainment environments. These shows often create a more secular feeling than those of the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe.
The tannoura performers in these other environments often use secular music instead of the traditional spiritual Sufi music. They typically appear as soloists, and may use pre-recorded music instead of live musicians.
It has become trendy for many of these performers to have an assistant dim the stage lights part of the way through their shows, at which point they turn on LED lights which have been sewn into their costumes.
I have also seen tannoura dancers pull an Egyptian flag out of their vests and hold it high as they whirl.
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.
Today’s archaeology profession estimates the Pyramids of Giza to be about 4,600 years old. However, because the pyramids are made of stone, traditional dating methods using carbon-14 can’t be used to estimate their age. There really aren’t any good ways to determine when stone structures were built by examining the structures themselves – it is necessary to rely on organic material such as human remains found inside or near the structures.
In the case of the three major Giza pyramids, bodies were not found inside, and therefore the carbon-14 dating has relied on artifacts found on the surrounding plateau, such as remains of bread in a fire pit. It’s a reasonable methodology, but it relies on the assumption that the pyramids were built at the same time as the village that surrounded them. However, what if the three large pyramids were built before the village? What if the village was built on top of something older which hasn’t been excavated yet?
What if the Pyramids of Giza are Older Than Believed?
However, perhaps a clue lies elsewhere to the age of the pyramids?
An ostrich egg was found in a tomb near Aswan that shows 3 triangular structures side by side. According to carbon dating methods, the human remains found in that same tomb were 7,000 years old. Therefore it is reasonable to think objects found in that tomb, including the egg, were equally old. Could the triangles etched on that presumably 7,000-year-old egg represent the pyramids of Giza? Some people think so, while others are skeptics. Alongside the triangles, there’s a marking that some people think could represent the Nile river and the Fayoum Oasis. But again, others are skeptics.
I haven’t seen any debate questioning that the egg itself is 7,000 years old. That seems to be accepted. The debate I’ve seen centers around what the drawing represents. Ie, does it represent the Giza pyramids, Nile River, and Fayoum Oasis as the theorists claim? Or does it represent something else?
The Meroitic Pyramids Theory and Why It Doesn’t Fit
Some skeptics have suggested that the 3 triangles might represent the Nubian pyramids of Sudan in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush. However, the Sudanese pyramids marked tombs, and were built much more recently (4,600 years ago) than the tomb the ostrich egg was found in (7,000 years ago).
The Nubian pyramids are also much farther south than where the egg was found, in what (during ancient times) would have been a different kingdom from the one governing the Aswan area where the egg was found.
Seeing the Egg for Yourself
Today, the ostrich egg resides in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt. I had the pleasure of seeing it firsthand myself on May 6, 2018 while I was in Aswan. It’s fascinating to look at this 7,000-year-old object and try to come up with alternate theories for what the image is showing. So far, I keep coming back to the conclusion that maybe it does prove that the Pyramids of Giza are older than what mainstream archaeologists currently believe.
I look forward to seeing how future discoveries enhance our insight into the past.
In Cairo, Egypt, a short walk from the historic Bab Zuwayla city gate, is Cairo’s last remaining tarboosh artisan shop. Tarboosh is the word Egyptians use for what people in North America might call a fez. This shop in the Khan al-Khalili market makes high-quality woolen tarbooshes by hand, in the traditional way. I visited it on April 23, 2018.
The tarboosh was fashionable among Egyptian men during the era of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottoman Empire itself fell in 1920, the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt declared himself king and continued to rule until Egypt’s revolution in 1952. Since 1952, the tarbooshes have declined in popularity, but the shop continues to generate enough business to continue making them. They export them to many other Muslim countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.
The hand-operated tools are used to shape the tarbooshes. Not only does the shop sell the hats, it also reshapes hats which have been crushed or rumpled through wear.
The photo below shows how the hats are shaped. The shop is equipped with several different sizes of brass molds. These molds come in pairs, with one being slightly larger than the other. First the artisan stretches a tarboosh over the smaller mold in the pair, as he is doing in the photo below. Then he presses over it the heated larger mold, so that the woolen fabric is held between the two.
The photo below shows the interior of a tarboosh. The red felt outer layer is made of wool. Inside it, the stiffening layer is made from palm. A lining around the inner edge protects the head from the scratchy texture of the palm.
Our guide had grown up as a boy near this shop. He told us that he always liked to run past the shop and use his fist to crush the tarbooshes that were on display. One day, the shop owner caught him, and recognized him, and complained to his father. His father was very angry, and beat him for it. However, the next day the mischievous boy did it again!
Today, he laughs as he tells the story. I don’t think he’s sorry at all!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The tarboosh shop is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
The stereotype of “Pharaonic dance” with the bent elbow and wrist arm positions is deeply embedded in U.S. culture, and has been since about the 1920’s or 1930’s. It has shown up in cartoons, countless “Pharaonic” dance performances, and the music videos such as the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”. When Irena Lexova wrote Ancient Egyptian Dances in 1935, the stereotype was already firmly established, and the idea that sparked her project was to examine whether that stereotype was accurate.
For many years, I’ve been looking for evidence showing that “Pharaonic arms” actually were part of dance in ancient Egypt. On my many trips to Egypt, I have looked for images on temple and tomb walls demonstrating such a pose, without finding any. I have also dug through books and articles about ancient Egypt. I’ve discovered many other dance scenes with other postures, but not the right-angled joints. In her book Ancient Egyptian Dances, Irena Lexova stated her conclusion that this pose came from the Etruscan civilization (in what is now modern-day Italy), not Egypt.
So imagine my surprise in February 2017, on my 12th trip to Egypt, when I spotted one at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt! This was my 7th time visiting that temple. Why didn’t I see this on any of my previous 6 visits?
I asked my guide whether this was a “dance” or some other activity. He said yes, it was a liturgical dance being performed by a priest. So, what does this image suggest about the stereotype of the “Pharaonic” wrist and elbow posture?
This dance is done by men, not by women. I have not yet found images of women doing it.
The “Pharaonic” arm position was used for religious ritualistic dance.
This dance was known to Egyptians as of 200 BCE, because construction on the temple building that stands at Edfu today was begun in 237 BCE.
I still have never seen this type of arm position anywhere in Egypt other than the Edfu Temple. I realize it’s possible that it appears elsewhere, but so far I haven’t found it. I’ll keep looking.
I’ve been saying for many years that I didn’t believe there was ever a bent wrist-and-elbow dance posture in ancient Egyptian dance because all of my prior research seemed to indicate there was not. It seems I was wrong. It’s time to update my thinking!
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. It’s very kitschy, in a way that I find very appealing! The museum is near the Giza zoo and the Cairo Opera House.
On the ground floor, there is a series of tableaux showing what a rural wedding was like as of the 1950’s. It provides insight into what people wore, and what their customs were surrounding weddings.
The above photo shows a fortuneteller casting the stones to view the omens for an upcoming wedding.
In Muslim tradition, weddings do not involve a religious ceremony the way traditional Christian weddings do. Instead, there is a legal contract, which is signed by the men of the two families with witnesses. The photo below shows the men conducting this business.
While the men of the bride and groom’s families complete the contract transaction, the women of the households prepare for the wedding party that will follow.
The tableau pictured below shows a woman bringing a tray of drinks from the kitchen to serve to the other women as they wait.
As the women wait, one of them goes to the roof to the pigeon hut, to select a pigeon to serve for the meal at the celebration.
The photo below shows a belly dancer and a drummer performing for the bride and the women of her family while they wait for the men to be ready for the procession. The dancer, of course, is the one with the most vibrant makeup!
One of the wedding-related exhibits shows thezeffa (bridal procession) in which the people of a village carry a bride in a litter to the wedding party.
The photo below shows the men leading the zeffa, playing musical instruments and doing balancing tricks. Behind them is a camel carrying a large decorated wooden box with the bride sitting inside.
This photo shows a closeup of the camel bearing the front part of the bride’s litter.
The next photo shows the bride inside her litter. This angle of the photo doesn’t show it, but inside the litter there is a little boy with her. His role would be to leave the litter and fetch anything she needs.
I have visited the Agricultural Museum several times, and it’s always fun to see it again. In addition to the scenes of rural life, the main building also houses many other exhibits, including farm animals, insects, and more. A separate building is dedicated to exhibits of Syria, referencing a period from 1958 to 1961 when Egypt and Syria banded together to create the United Arab Republic.
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. This Agricultural Museum is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.
A Nilometer (Nile-o-meter) is a structure in Egypt for measuring how high the annual flood of the river Nile rises each year. Before the 20th century, each year the Nile River would flood in the spring, spreading silt across the land it covered. This inundation brought life to the region, because the silt it deposited enhanced the fertility of the soil.
The government used the Nilometer readings to determine the taxes for that year. If the flood level was measured as low, then taxes that year would be low, due to reduced rich silt deposits and possible drought. If the flood level was medium, taxes that year would be high, because medium was the ideal level. If flood level was high, there would be no taxes because the flood was destructive and people needed to recover.
In my travels to Egypt, I’ve seen 3 different Nilometers. There are others that I have not (yet) had the opportunity to see, but perhaps I’ll get to see them on a future trip! I’ve seen reports that as of today there are fewer than 24 known Nilometers which have been found by archaeologists.
The Nilometer in Cairo is on Rhoda Island, a short walk from the Oum Kalthoum Museum. If you visit Cairo, it’s worth a trip to the island to visit both.
This Nilometer is one of the oldest structures in Egypt built after the Arab conquest. The original building at this site was erected in 751 CE, though archaeologists believe there was probably an older Nilometer at this site in Pharaonic times. This initial structure was destroyed by a heavy flood in 861 CE, so the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil commissioned the current building to replace it.
Although the subterranean portion of the ancient building still stands, its dome was destroyed in 1825 by a nearby explosion. A restoration was created, using a painting by Fredrik Ludvig Nordenas to provide guidance on what the original looked like.
The instrument for measuring the water’s height is an octagonal column divided into cubits located in the middle of the square stone-lined shaft. This photo shows the central shaft, as you look down from the street-level entrance:
Today, the tunnels leading from the Nilometer to the Nile are blocked off, and therefore water no longer comes in.
It is possible to descend a flight of stairs into the shaft. There are no handrails along the stairs, so it requires an adventurous spirit to do it! The interior is beautiful.
This Nilometer is located at the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt, a town that lies between Luxor and Aswan. This is one of the temples that Nile cruises stop at, and it’s a very interesting one to tour because it’s dedicated to TWO gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek.
The Nilometer at Kom Ombo is a deep, cylindrical opening into the ground. At ground level, it doesn’t look like much, just a small circular wall.
It has a tunnel at the bottom that reaches outside the temple walls to allow the flood water to come in.
I have seen this Nilometer near Aswan from a boat on the river, as we floated past Elephantine Island where it resides. I haven’t yet set foot on the island to see its entrance from above. Archaeologists believe it is the oldest Nilometer in Egypt.
For most of ancient Egyptian history, Elephantine Island was the southern border of the Pharaonic kingdom. For that reason, the flood waters would reach this Nilometer first, before flowing downstream to the rest of the kingdom. It provided early insight into what growing conditions the country as a whole could expect.
This Nilometer at Elephantine Island was mentioned in the novel River God, by Wilbur Smith.
Ones I Haven’t Seen
Someday, I hope to see other Nilometers in Egypt. There’s one in the Nile delta at the ancient city Thmuis, which is near the modern city of El Mansoura. Archaeologists estimate it was build in the 3rd century BCE. I learned about this one from a National Geographic article about it.
The beautiful temple of Isis that resided on Philae Island had two Nilometers. However, in the 1960’s, because of Aswan Dam constructions, about 1/3 of the temple’s buildings became flooded year round. The Philae temple was dismantled and moved to Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO effort to save temples threatened by the completion of the Aswan High Dam. I don’t know yet whether Philae’s surface-level Nilometer structures were moved and reconstructed when the temple was moved. I have toured Philae about 5 times on my various trips to Egypt, and the guides didn’t point out any Nilometer remnants. Even if they did, it would be only surface level, without the deep hole down into the ground. I’ll ask about it the next time I go.
I’d like to thank Wael Mohamed Ali for assisting me with my questions about the Nilometers in the Aswan area. I’ve appreciated Wael’s services on some of my visits to Upper Egypt as a tour guide and a translator. He’s very knowledgeable, and a pleasure to do business with!
Because of Dakar, Senegal’s location on the western tip of Africa as shown on the map above, it served as one of many ports along West Africa used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1536 through 1848. Just off Dakar’s coast is Gorée Island, one of the locations where captured Africans were kept before loading them onto the ships. Its name in French is Île de Gorée. Academic sources differ in their views of how prominent Dakar and Gorée Island were in the slave trade as compared to other West African locations, but most agree that some level of trafficking did occur here. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site stands to remind us of the atrocities of the African Holocaust.
Barack and Michelle Obama visited Gorée Island with their family in 2013. Nelson Mandela visited it in 1991.
Getting to Gorée Island
I went to Gorée Island on a Saturday, and found that it wasn’t a optimal day of the week to go. Many tour groups go there on the weekends, and consequently the process of touring the island and its historical sites can be a bit chaotic. Some of my coworkers opted instead to go on a Wednesday, and they enjoyed much lower crowd levels.
A ferry boat runs several times a day to take visitors to Gorée Island. On a Saturday, it’s important to arrive at the ferry ticket counter at least 45 minutes before the ferry’s departure time, because the lines to purchase tickets are quite long. If you don’t allow enough time, the ferry might leave while you’re still standing in line waiting to buy your ticket.
Reflecting on History
When the ferry docked, one of the first sights we came to was the Statue of Liberation. France gave this sculpture to Senegal in 2006 as a gift to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.
The House of Slaves (La Maison des Esclaves)
The primary feature that people visit on Gorée Island is the House of Slaves. This is a museum that memorializes the African people who were imprisoned there awaiting their passage to the West. Although the first record of slave trading at Gorée Island dates from 1536, the building that is known as the “House of Slaves” was built in 1776. It is the last remaining such structure on the island.
Some academic sources challenge whether this building was ever actually used for the slave trade. There is also a debate over how many people were shipped out from Gorée Island as opposed to other West African ports. I am not qualified to judge who is correct. Therefore, for purposes of this blog which is about my travels to Senegal, I will describe what the Senegalese people believe about their own history, which is that the House of Slaves was indeed one of the places used as a place to keep prisoners until they could be loaded on ships bound for the Western Hemisphere.
The building is a two-story structure. Wealthy European slave dealers lived with their families on the upper floor, while the captives lived on the ground floor in misery.
According to the guides at Gorée Island, men were held in one cell, adult women in one, girls in one, and young children in a fourth. The photo below shows the room that was used for the men. Its dimensions are approximately 8 feet (2.6 meters) long by 8 feet wide, and up to 30 men would be crammed into it at once. The men would need to stand or crouch all the time, with not enough room to lie down or sit. The room contains no toilet facilities, and therefore its occupants were forced to live in their own filth.
Parents were separated from their children. Adult women were held in one room, and young children in a separate cell for children. Young girls were kept in a special room with slightly better conditions than the others. Men would come to that room to select a girl for an evening of sexual assault.
All of the captives were kept chained and shackled, and fed once a day. The unsanitary conditions led to many problems with disease. The narrow windows allowed in very little light.
When I later read claims by some historians that enslaved people were never kept in the Maison des Esclaves awaiting passage to the West, I remembered gazing at the thick walls and narrow windows, thinking at the time how perfectly constructed they were to prevent escape. The architecture definitely brought to mind some sort of dungeon. Historians may be correct that this site hosted less trafficking activity than others in West Africa, but I believe there was some.
Prisoners who attempted to escape or rebel were moved to the “room of the recalcitrants” as punishment. This was a small, damp, windowless room that lay beneath a stairwell. The tour guides said that few made it out alive.
Historians estimate that prisoners were typically kept at the House of Slaves about 3 months before being loaded onto ships.
The Door of No Return (La Porte Sans Retour)
Tour guides at Gorée Island state that this door led to a wooden wharf used for loading the captives onto the slave ships.
According to tour guides, as prisoners were led through this door and onto the walkway to the slave ships, they were shackled in pairs, each with a 3-pound iron ball attached to his or her leg irons. Prisoners who tried to leap off the walkway to escape would drag along the companions that were shackled to them.
A rocky beach (shown below) lies beneath the walkway. According to tour guides, if a prisoner managed to make it to the water, the iron ball would prevent them from swimming to freedom. Still, guides say some people did make the attempt, often choosing suicide as being preferable to the fate that awaited on distant shores.
There are many additional things to visit on Île de Gorée besides its House of Slaves museum. There are small beaches, picturesque colonial buildings, restaurants, and more. However, I did not visit any of these things.
While visiting the House of Slaves, I felt a strong sensation of oppression, of suffering. The last time I felt something like that was when I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. A feeling that great evil had happened there. I felt a very strong pull to get away, and return to the mainland. Was it lingering spiritual energy of those who suffered there in the past, or simply an overactive imagination? I can’t say. Whichever it was, it was strong enough to draw me to the ferry, without exploring the rest of the island.
Despite the debate by historians on this island’s history and role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I highly recommend it as a place to visit if you are visiting Senegal. I recommend walking through the House of Slaves, looking at the holding cells with their narrow slits for windows, listening to the tour guides, and gazing out through the Door of No Return. Doing these things brings a strong awareness to the history of the African diaspora that simply reading a textbook does not. It’s a place to reflect, and to honor the memory of those who suffered.
I hope someday to return to Senegal for another visit, and if I do perhaps I’ll return to Gorée Island to see the parts I didn’t visit on this trip.
One of the more spectacular landmarks in Dakar, Senegal is the African Renaissance Monument, known in French as Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine. It shows a man, woman, and child emerging from a volcano. It sits high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. At 160 feet (45 meters) tall, it’s the tallest statue in Africa, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty.
At the time this status was unveiled in 2010, marking 50 years of independence from France, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade said, “It brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. The event featured hundreds of drummers and dancers. I would have loved to have seen that!
Many people in Senegal were not supportive of the statue, criticizing it for various reasons. For example:
Local Senegalese artists criticized the fact that the contract to design it was awarded to a Romanian architect and the contract to build it was awarded to a North Korean company. Why not use local talent?
Some have pointed out that the facial features don’t look particularly African.
It cost $27 million dollars, which was a big concern in a country where many live below the poverty line.
The skimpy clothing of the family does not represent the more modest preferences of the country’s Muslim majority. (95% of Senegalese people are Muslim.)
We had a chance to see this statue up close during our city tour on October 7, 2017, which is when I took this photo. At night, lighting effects give it a beautiful glow.
It’s possible to pay an entrance fee and go inside it. I did not do this during my visit. There are stairs you can take to the top, and look out of windows in the man’s crown.