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!
Cairo offers an opportunity for visitors to see Egypt’s remaining vestiges of an East African practice known as a zar ritual. It is no longer legal in Egypt to conduct zar rituals; however, it is still possible to see performances of the music used for them.
About the Zar Ritual
A zar is a spirit which is believed to inhabit people, especially women. When the woman’s life is in balance, she and the spirit can coexist in peace. However, sometimes the woman begins to suffer stress, become irritable, or fall ill. In those cases, in order for her to recover, it may be necessary to appease the zar spirit. The purpose of a zar ritual is to perform that appeasement.
In a traditional zar ritual in Egypt, a woman would surround herself with other women who are a meaningful part of her life: sisters, cousins, friends, etc. They would sacrifice a chicken, and engage a band of musicians capable of performing the specialty music required for the ritual.
According to tradition, there are many different zar spirits which can inhabit a person. Each such spirit responds to a different song and rhythm. The musicians would perform several different songs, aiming to find the music required to appease the particular spirit that has inhabited the woman. As the music progresses, the participants are drawn into a state of ecstatic dance.
The Mazaher Ensemble
The Mazaher ensemble are among the final zar practitioners in Egypt. Although the law no longer allows them to conduct full zar ceremonies, it is possible to hear them perform concerts of the music that accompanies the ceremonies. I have seen them perform several times at the Makan Theater in Cairo. It is a captivating show, and I always enjoy seeing it again whenever I return to Egypt.
The lead singer, standing in front, is Rayyisah Madiha, often known as Umm Sameh (“mother of Sameh”).
The show has varied a bit from one time I’ve seen it to another. The primary segment consists of Cairo zar music, with vocals by Umm Sameh, accompanied by the other women on drums. Another segment I have seen every time is described as a Nubian zar, which features different music and instruments in order to reach the different regional spirits associated with southern Egypt and Sudan.
Other details of the show have varied from one year to the next. For example, when I saw the show in 2016, Sameh performed a solo of Sufi music, but other times when I’ve seen the show he did not do so.
Nubia is the region spanning southern Egypt and the Sudan. The Nubian zar uses different instruments from those used for the Cairo-based zar, and the spirits it targets are different.
The tamboura, a type of lyre, is shown in the photo above. It is particularly typical of Nubian music; not only for Nubian zar rituals, but also for secular folk music.
For the Nubian section of the show, one of the musicians picks up the tamboura to play it, as shown by the man seated in the back, wearing the white gallabiya. The belt that the two other men strap around their hips is known as a mangour.
The mangour is a percussion instrument constructed from attaching many small goat hooves to a backing of fabric or leather. The men shake their hips in a rhythmic fashion, causing the goat hooves to strike each other, producing a rattling sound.
In the photo below, the men are not only shaking their hips to make noise with the mangour, they are also using handheld rattles.
Posing with the Star
When I saw the show in 2016, Madiha graciously agreed to pose for a photo with me after it was over. It can be difficult to get a photo with her, because of how many people swarm her after the show seeking photos as I did!
About the Makan Theater
The Makan Theater, which hosts the Mazaher Ensemble’s zar music shows, is at 1 Saad Zaghloul St. El Dawaween 11461 Cairo. Their telephone number is +202 2792 0878, and email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to presenting the Mazaher Ensemble shows, they have also offered other shows of traditional Egyptian music, including Sufi music, Nubian, and more.
To Learn More About Zar
There is a series of three music CD’s that I recommend if you’d like to listen to zar music in your home. Each of these CD’s comes with a different informative booklet with detailed information about zar traditions. If you search for them online, look for the artist name of Awlad Abou al-Gheit:
Zar: Trance Music for Women
Zar 2: Tumboura
Zar 3: Harim Masri
Also, I recommend the book Trance Dancing with the Jinn: The Ancient Art of Contacting Spirits Through Ecstatic Dance by Yasmin Henkesh. Yasmin is a meticulous researcher whom I respect highly.
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. The Makan Theater 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.
In 2016, I went with a group to El Dammah theater in Cairo to see a show featuring top Egyptian-Sudanese musicians playing Nubian music.
About El Dammah
El Dammah is a small black box theater with about 100 seats that features musicians playing authentic traditional music. The organization that operates it is El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music.
El Dammah presents a show every Thursday night. There are several different musical acts that it rotates through the lineup. So far in my trips to Egypt, I have seen 3 different bands there. One of them was Rango.
El Dammah is located at 30 A El Belaasa St, Abdeen, in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The phone number is +20 115 099 5354, and email address is email@example.com.
The photo at the top of this post shows Hassan Bergamon playing a musical instrument called a rango, which resembles a xylophone. The small version that was played in this show could be called a kamba. It’s a very traditional instrument from the southern part of Sudan. It nearly died out in the 1970’s, but the art has been kept alive. According to our contact at El Dammah, today there are only 7-8 people left in Africa who still know how to play one.
This photo shows up closeup view of the rango:
The musicians also played additional traditional instruments from Egypt and the Sudan. Below, one of the men is holding a rattle in each hand, which is known as the shukh-shaykh.
Below, we can see Hassan Bergamon playing another instrument, the simsimiyya. It is a type of lyre, which resembles a larger, similar instrument known as the tamboura.
The angle of the photo above makes it difficult to see what a simsimiyya looks like. The photo below provides a clearer view. In it, a member of the El Dammah staff holds up two examples of a simsimiyya.
The drummers served a vital role in the show. They were excellent, and worked very well together with the others as an ensemble. It was truly a memorable performance.
The show opened with a performance of songs while everyone listened, then the musicians started recruiting audience members to get up and dance with them. By the end, the event felt more like a party than it did a music performance, but that was part of what made it such an entertaining evening. The quality of the music was definitely world class!
I’m already looking forward to my next visit to El Dammah, to enjoy whatever music they offer the next time I’m in Cairo!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. El Dammah Theater 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 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!
Traveling offers many opportunities to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets. In this blog post, I’d like to share my photos taken in Egypt, Morocco, and Senegal. These are all my original photos, and my property. Please do not steal them.
Sunrises and Sunsets in Egypt
I have traveled to Egypt 12 times, so naturally I’ve had many opportunities over the years to photograph sunrises and sunsets there. Here are my favorites.
At the Pyramids of Giza Near Cairo, Egypt
Any post celebrating sunsets in Egypt clearly needs to start with the sun setting behind the Pyramids of Giza!
This sunset photo was taken in February, 2017 when I went to Egypt as part of Sahra Kent’s “Journey Through Egypt 3” tour. We stayed at the Sphinx Guest House, which is a bed & breakfast place in Giza, Egypt (near Cairo). This was the view from our window! If you look closely, you can see the Sphinx in front of the middle pyramid.
And because I love Egypt and its pyramids so much, here’s a sunset photo I took in February 2016. This year, too, I accompanied Sahra’s “Journey Through Egypt” tour, and I took this photo from my room at the Sphinx Guest House.
I caught the sunset at a different point in February, 2015. This year was the first time I accompanied Sahra on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour, but it wasn’t my first time in Egypt. This photo offers more light, and therefore a clearer view of the Sphinx.
One of my favorite photos that I have taken in my travels is one of the moon rising over the Great Pyramid. I sat with friends in the garden cafe at the Mena House hotel, and this was our view. I had accompanied my friend Morocco to the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, which was held at Mena House.
The Overnight Train from Cairo to Luxor
It’s about 400 miles from Cairo, Egypt to Luxor. An affordable way to make the trip is via an overnight train with sleeper cars. The train leaves Cairo late in the afternoon, which allows an opportunity to watch the sun set while you’re making the journey. I took this photo in February, 2016.
At Lake Nasser, at the Abu Simbel Temple in Southern Egypt
Twice a year, on February 22 and October 22, the rays of the rising sun pierce the inner chamber of the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel, Egypt. On this date, the light shines on Amun-Ra of Karnak, Ra-Horakhti of Heliopolis and Ramses II, but the fourth god in the sanctuary, Ptah of Memphis, remains always in shadow. I was there for this event on February 22, 2015, when I accompanied Sahra Kent on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour.
The Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria, Egypt
These photos are from my visit to Alexandria, Egypt in June, 2008. My friend Saqra and I went to a family-oriented beach one beautiful afternoon. Alexandria is a popular place for families from Cairo to spend vacation time during the summer, due to the fact that the sea air gives it cooler temperatures than Cairo. We stayed to watch the sun set, then went to the theater at the Alexandria Library to watch the show titled “The World Dances with Mahmoud Reda”.
Later in the sunset, as the light begins to fade, the sky remains beautiful and the sea takes on a range of colors.
Sunset in Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira is a seaside community in Morocco, facing onto the Atlantic Ocean. It offers beautiful views of the ocean, and also of sunsets. I was there for Funoon Dance Camp, which was organized by my friend Nawarra.
Sunrises in Dakar, Senegal
These two photos were both taken at sunrise (approximately 7:30 a.m.) in November, 2017, from the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal.
Although the primary theme of this post is African sunrises and sunsets, I can’t resist sharing some beautiful sunsets from my own neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa. After all, it’s my blog, and I can include non-African sunsets if I want to!
I don’t have to travel far to see beautiful sunsets. These two photos were taken from my front door, looking across the street at my neighbors’ houses.
And this photo was taken about a half hour’s drive from our house, at Coralville Lake.