Egyptian Music: Honoring the Legacy of Oum Kalthoum in Cairo

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.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

A second sculpture outside of the museum shows a musical staff with notes.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.
Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved. This crescent-shaped brooch is referenced on the abstract statue of Oum Kalthoum that stands outside the entrance to the museum.

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.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Statue near the Oum Kalthoum 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.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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!

Exploring Nilometers in 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.

Cairo

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.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

This is the interior of the dome of the Nilometer in Cairo on Rhoda Island, next to the Oum Kalthoum museum. This section was destroyed in 1825 and reconstructed.  Photo was taken from surface level looking up into the cupola on February 9, 2017.

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:

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Kom Ombo

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.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It has a tunnel at the bottom that reaches outside the temple walls to allow the flood water to come in.

PHoto copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Aswan

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.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Acknowledgements

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!