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. Buster Keaton does those arm positions in the 1918 silent movie The Cook which also stars Fatty Arbuckle.
These arm positions have also 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, her initial objective was to examine whether this stereotype was indeed 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 the Egyptologist who was acting as our tour guide whether this was a “dance” or some other activity. (In Egypt, in order to become a licensed tour guide, an individual must obtain an advanced degree in Egyptology as well as meet some other qualifications.) 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. 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 haven’t yet found earlier images of it.
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 said 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.