Luxor, Egypt: A Parade with Its Roots in Antiquity

Once a year, the city of Luxor, Egypt throws a 3-day party celebrating the moulid (birth date) of the 13th century Sufi leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Haggag, who was also known as “Abu al-Haggag”, “father of the pilgrims”. Tourists from other parts of Egypt often come to Luxor to join the party. I’ve been to the moulid twice: once in 2018, and again in 2019.

Over the course of the event, people celebrate with tahtib (martial art) competitions for the men, carnival rides for the children, pilgrimages to the Abu al-Haggag Mosque, Sufi zikrs (rituals), horse racing, and more. The moulid’s final day culminates with the Dora, a parade. For purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on the Dora.  Perhaps in the future I’ll show some of the other facets of the festival.

The festival occurs in the middle of the Islamic month of Sha’aban, which is the month that immediately precedes Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so every year it shifts about 2 weeks compared to the 365-day solar calendar. In 2019 when I was there, the moulid’s Layla Kebira (big night) was on April 19, the night of the full moon. (In 2018, it was April 29.)

The day after the Abu Haggag’s moulid holds its Layla Kebira, the people of Luxor close the festival with the Dora. Although moulid celebrations occur throughout Egypt honoring various different saints, the only one to feature a Dora is Luxor’s Abu Haggag.

The Dora’s Origin

Historians believe the roots of the Dora lie in the Opet festival of ancient Egypt, which many archaeologists believe began during the reign of Hatshepsut 3,000 years ago.  This event, known as the Beautiful Feast, was celebrated at the time of the Nile’s annual inundation, and it was Luxor’s most important holiday. Egyptians would transport a statue of the god Amun-Ra in a boat traveling from the Karnak Temple to the Luxor Temple, where statues of his consort Mut and his son Khons awaited him.  In later years, after the canal silted up, the boats were carried along the route.  The statues would remain at the Luxor Temple for the 24 days of celebration, then return by boat to Karnak at the end.

The path of this procession was marked by the Avenue of the Sphinxes shown below, which still remains in Luxor today. Interestingly, at the Luxor end of the Avenue (shown in this photo), the sphinxes feature human heads.  At the opposite end, at the Karnak temple, the sphinxes feature rams’ heads.  The sculptures gradually change from human heads to rams’ heads along the route from the Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple.

Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

The modern-day Dora at the end of the Abu al-Haggag moulid is believed to be directly descended from this procession of ancient times. Just as the ancients conducted their procession with boats while the Nile River was in its annual flood stage, the modern-day Egyptians still refer to the vehicles in the Dora as “boats” and some are constructed to indeed look like boats.

However, today they move through the streets on wheels. Some look like actual boats mounted on carts just for the day. (It makes me wonder whether the “floats” we refer to in modern-day parades in North America are a holdover from this ancient tradition. Why do we call them “floats”?)

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The Morning of the Dora

The Dora itself does not begin until mid-day.  However, it is entertaining to head for downtown Luxor early in the morning to grab a window seat at an upstairs coffee shop where you can drink coffee, eat ice cream, and watch the preparations. It’s good to pick a place with a view of the Abu Haggag Mosque and Luxor Temple, because a large amount of moulid action takes place in front of them.

We could see a large amount of activity in the street below our coffee shop, such as donkey carts, camels dressed up for the parade, horse-drawn carriages, various automobiles going about their business, and more.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It’s great fun to see the many costume items people use to dress up their camels.  People drape them in colorful scarves, and sometimes even include some belly dance hip scarves jingling with coins. I laughed when I saw one with a British flag draped over his butt. We saw one camel wearing a Bob Marley hat!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Parade Time!

Watching the Dora in Luxor can be a bit of a challenge.  One issue is that it’s not easy for a foreigner to determine in advance which streets to go to for watching.   City officials don’t publicize the parade route in advance, for security reasons.  Another issue, which is true of almost any parade anywhere in the world, is that it can be difficult to work your way through the crowd to a spot where you can see.   I forgot to wear sunscreen, which left my face looking a bit pink after four hours in the sun!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The Dora isn’t nearly as structured as the parades I’m accustomed to in the United States, and that’s one of the things I like very much about it! I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think the participants necessarily adhere to a specific parade route and a specific lineup. I got the impression that some of the participants joined in wherever they felt like it, and also turned off of the main parade route when they wanted to, particularly the costumed camels.

The Dora very much feels like a mobile party, much more entertaining than my local college’s Homecoming parade.  There are no marching bands in the Dora, but there’s plenty of music in the form of large speakers booming out pre-recorded pop music.

In many cases, a large group of young men holding assayas (the sticks used for the ancient Egyptian martial art of tahtib) walks together in front of a boat, waving their sticks in time to the music coming from the speakers.  I feel so much joy and pride coming from them as they pass by, and I think they’re my favorite part of the experience of watching the Dora.  Even after they have passed by, I still find myself smiling. I took several photos of them, but found that I just couldn’t capture the energy and excitement.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Generally speaking, each of the boats represents a business, and features decorations that match with the type of work the business does. Several boats represent grocers, each with a beautiful display of fruit.  As these boats progress along the Dora route, the people on them pitch apples, oranges, mangoes, and other fruit out to the people watching.  People happily catch them and wave back to the people on the boat.

I saw one guy toss an orange up to a group of people watching from a balcony above him, but his aim was bad, and the fruit crashed through a nearby window!  Oops!  To my surprise, nobody acted angry or upset about it.  Someone emerged from behind the broken window, smiling and waving.  Of course, things can get quite entertaining if the boat passing by contains watermelons and its occupants decide to throw a few of those to the crowd….

Copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Sometimes things can go wrong.  One boat was a garbage truck.  As it approached where I was watching, it spouted several puffs of colored particles.  They were fun to see, but made it hard for me to watch due to some of the dust getting under my contact lenses.

As I was blinking and rubbing my eyes, someone inside the truck’s cab must have accidentally bumped the control that operates the dump function.  The back of the truck started to raise, and several moments of confusion arose as the men on top of it either tried to jump down into the surrounding crowd or clung to it trying to hang on.  For a few minutes, the parade halted as the people involved with the truck tried to work out what to do next.  Eventually, they figured out what to do and the truck started to move again.

The finale of the parade consists of camels carrying shrines on their backs. Each shrine looks like a small house made of fabric.  Seated inside each shrine is a child holding it steadily in position on the camel’s back. People along the parade route look to the shrines for blessings as they pass by.  When I saw the Dora in 2018, there were about five shrines, but in 2019 I counted eleven of them!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After the shrines have passed, there can be a few more boats, camels, and other parade participants following behind, but at this point the crowd starts to dissipate.  I was definitely ready to head back to the Nile to catch the ferry to my hotel, because I had been standing on my feet for about 4 hours at that point.  Although my back and feet were sore and my face pink from sunburn, I felt it was worth every minute I spent enjoying this unique Luxor experience!  The Abu el-Haggag moulid is a living example of why Luxor’s modern-day culture is every bit as fascinating as its archaeology.

Camels I Have Met

I grew up on a farm, and even though my life took me in a different direction, I still appreciate animals of all sizes.  Therefore, whenever I go to Egypt, I enjoy seeing the camels.  Here’s a gallery of my favorite photos that I have taken of camels over the years!

At Saqqara, Egypt

When I went to Saqqara, Egypt to tour the ancient tombs, I saw this playful rascal. At first, he looked bored, but when he realized I was looking at him, he started making faces for the camera.  It seemed to be fun for both of us!

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Later, when I came back, the camel was still there, but now he was lying down. Once again, he made faces for me.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It looks to me as though the camel is laughing in this photo.  So I created a meme from it to post on social media which said, “Jewel just stepped in a pile of my poop!”

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After I snapped the above photo, the camel continued to clown around for the camera, so I took another photo as well.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

At the Pyramids of Giza

It’s fun to go for a camel ride at the pyramids of Giza.  This camel enjoyed resting after carrying me to the pyramids, while I ran around with my camera taking photos.

Going for a camel ride is a half-day commitment.  It’s a good idea to allow about 2 hours for the ride itself, and then afterward you might want to take a shower to wash off the camel smell and rest a bit.  It can be very tiring to be out in the hot sun for that long.  I strongly recommend wearing sunscreen for the ride.

It isn’t easy getting on a camel.  The handlers make the camel kneel, but the hump is so high that you need to lift your leg high to swing it up and over.  Once you’re settled in the saddle, the camel gets to its feet.  The first time I experienced this, I nearly fell off!  First the camel raises its back legs, causing you to pitch forward, and then it raises its front legs.  Be prepared to squeeze the camel tightly with your thighs to stabilize yourself.

The last time I went for a camel ride, my camel’s saddle wasn’t cinched very well, and it kept slipping from side to side as the camel walked along.  The handlers noticed, so they had the camel kneel down so I could get off, and they then tightened the saddle straps.  That same day, there were several additional times that they had the camel kneel down, and then get back up, so by the end of the day I had gotten quite a bit of practice keeping my balance for all of that!

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

One time, after I had been to Egypt a few times, one of my brothers asked me whether I perhaps had a photo of camel poop I could send him.  I was surprised by his question – partly because I didn’t know why he would want a photo of camel poop, and partly because I didn’t know why he would think I would have taken one.  Therefore, the next time I went to Egypt, I remembered his request, and I took this photo for him:

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In Egypt, it is common for people to decorate their camels’ harnesses and saddle blankets with tassels. This camel’s halter is plain, but his saddle blanket is quite stylish.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The camels had an opportunity to rest a bit while all of us explored the pyramids and took photos of each other.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In parts of Giza (the part of the Cairo metropolitan area where the pyramids are), you can find cars parked on one side of the street and camels parked on the other side of the street.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In the Dora at Luxor

Once a year, the residents of Luxor, Egypt celebrate the moulid (festival) of Abu el-Haggag.  On the final day, the festival ends with a parade known as the Dora.  One aspect of the Dora is that people dress their camels up in brightly colored scarves, flags, and other pieces of fabric.  Here are two of the camels that caught my eye in the Dora on April 20, 2019.

This camel dressed up in a Bob Marley hat for the Dora in the Abu Haggag moulid on April 20, 2019.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This camel dressed up for the Dora at the Abu Haggag moulid in Luxor, Egypt on April 20, 2019.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Camels In Other Parts of Upper Egypt

On the west bank of the Nile at Aswan, one of the tourist attractions is the Valley of the Nobles.  Tourists who want to visit it have a choice – they can either go for a camel ride up to where the tombs are, or they can walk up the steep hillside for about 30 minutes.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

When riding via bus from Luxor to Aswan, the road runs parallel to the railroad tracks.  Somewhere between the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, I saw these camels traveling alongside the tracks.

 

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

 

Tannoura: The Whirling Dervishes of Egypt

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).

Photo copyright by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Another effect that tannoura performers create with their skirts is that of a whirling disk:

Photo copyright by Jewel, 2016. All rights reserved.

Cairo’s Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe

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.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

If you’d like to find this group on social media, click here for their Facebook page.

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.