Our stereotypes of ancient Egyptian dance involve awkward-looking poses with right-angle positions of the elbow and wrist. People assume that such images appeared on temple and tomb walls. But, did they? Here’s a look at dance scenes appearing at two temples in Luxor, Egypt.
At the Luxor Temple
The dancers in the photo at the top of this page appear on the west wall of the Luxor temple. If you look left to right, you’ll see that each image is bending back a little further. Think of these as individual frames in a movie, showing the motion of doing a backbend into a yoga wheel pose, or maybe doing the first half of a back handspring. Off to the right [not shown in this picture] there is a group of women playing sistrums (a type of rattle).
This scene is part of a larger mural showing a joyous religious celebration, the Opet festival where the god and goddess are united for conjugal fun. This dance, though, is not considered a ritual religious dance (although those did exist in ancient Egypt). Instead, it’s more of an entertainment spectacle that was being performed for the pleasure of those who saw it.
The Luxor Temple was built around 1,400 BCE, which means these images of dancers are about 3,400 years old.
These dancers are not priestesses worshiping a goddess, but rather secular people who are participating joyously in the annual event. I kind of think of this as being like Christmas in our North America culture – there ARE sacred events related to celebrating Christmas such as church services and pageants, but there are also many secular celebratory activities such as children sitting on Santa Claus’s lap to pose for photos.
Ostracon from Deir el-Medina
This ostracon (piece of limestone painted with an image) was found at the Worker’s Village near Luxor, also known as Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists believe it was created between 1292 and 1076 BCE. Today, it resides in Italy, at the museum in Turin. It bears a strong resemblance to the dancers on the west wall of the Luxor temple. For more information about Deir el-Medina, the site where this was found, see my post about Deir el-Medina.
The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak Temple
Inside the grounds of the Karnak temple near Luxor, there is a chapel known as the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. It features images resembling those of the Luxor Temple’s west wall.
The top row shows the backbends. Off to the right is a harpist playing for them. The bottom row shows men dancing on the left, and women playing sistrums (a type of rattle) on the right.
Archaeologists estimate this chapel may have been built around 1,400 BCE.
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.
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.
April is the time of year when Egypt is most likely to experience khamaseen (sandstorms), but sandstorms can arrive during other parts of the year as well. I’ve personally experienced these storms on 3 different visits to Egypt over the years, and in 2018 I “enjoyed” the bonus of experiencing two sandstorms in a single visit! Lucky me! My sandstorm adventures occurred on:
April 14, 2009 in Cairo
February 11, 2015 in Cairo
April 30, 2018 in Luxor
May 7, 2018 in Aswan
What a Khamaseen Is
The word khamaseen is the Arabic word for the number 50. It is also used to refer to strong winds that blow sand, which are most likely to appear in a 50-day period in the spring between mid-March and mid-May.
Wind speed typically exceeds 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), and can be as high as 85 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour), which is about the same as the wind speeds in a Category 1 hurricane. The storm can last for several hours, or even a couple of days. The one I experienced in 2015 was a 2-day event, whereas the one I experienced in 2018 lasted only a couple of hours.
A khamaseen stirs up walls of dust and sand, filling the air with grit. It’s fascinating to watch one approach, because it looks like a wall of sand heading your way.
What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm
In many ways, a sandstorm reminds me of a blizzard, except that instead of being cold and snowy, it’s hot and sandy.
Both can snarl traffic due to problems with visibility.
Note the above photos I took of the pyramids and Sphinx. They show what the view from my hotel window looked like at two different times on February 11, 2015 – one before the sandstorm arrived, and the other during the storm.
Sometimes, rural roads close until visibility improves.
Both can create unsafe conditions that affect transportation.
When the khamaseen struck Luxor in April 2018, it stirred up choppy waters on the Nile river, causing ferries to suspend service until the water calmed.
Often, airlines will delay or cancel flights when a sandstorm arrives, due to the high winds and poor visibility.
Both cause businesses and schools to close early. Our original plan for February 11, 2015 was to tour two museums. Both museums hurried us through. They were eager to close so their employees could go home.
Both can produce howling high winds that last for several hours. The February 2015 sandstorm lasted 2 days, while the others I experienced lasted a few hours.
The strong winds can cause power outages. That happened at our hotel in Luxor in 2018, causing a 30-minute outage.
Coping with a Sandstorm
It’s a very bad idea to wear contact lenses during a sandstorm. The grit gets under the lenses and hurts. Glasses are much more comfortable, and they offer the bonus of protecting the eyes somewhat against the blowing sand. This is why it’s so important for people who wear contact lenses to take along a pair of prescription glasses when traveling to Egypt. People who don’t need prescription lenses can wear either goggles or sunglasses for this purpose.
The blowing sand irritates breathing passages, which can lead to allergies, asthma, or catching a cold. I think nearly every person in our group caught a cold after the 2015 sandstorm. Egyptians will typically wrap a scarf to cover the nose and mouth. Some even wear a mask over the nose and mouth for further protection. In this 2015 photo, I’m doing both, with the scarf hiding the mask.
If planning any kind of travel, it’s best to check whether the activities you want to do are still available, whether transportation is still running, and whether delays are expected.
After experiencing several sandstorms in Egypt, I have to admit they’re not particularly pleasant. However, I don’t worry about the possibility of being in one, and I’m willing to come to Egypt during the khamaseen season. It’s interesting to take a step back and notice how people who live with this weather deal with it. There’s always a story to tell if you look for it.
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.