Fellaha: The Peasant Woman in Egyptian Art

Egyptians often refer to their homeland as Masr Om el Dunia, which means “Egypt, Mother of the World”.   Because of this, even since ancient times a fellaha (peasant woman) has been used in Egyptian art as a symbol of fertility and giving life. In my travels to Egypt, I have seen a number of beautiful fellaha statues in public places.

Nahdet el Masr (Awakening of Egypt)

The most famous of the fellaha statues in Egypt is the one at the top of this post, which is known as Nahdet el Masr (Awakening of Egypt).  It stands in front of Cairo University, near the Giza Zoo. The statue, made from rose granite, was unveiled in 1928. It symbolized Egypt’s struggle for independence from Britain following World War I and the 1919 revolution.

This statue uses both a Sphinx and a fellaha to represent Egypt. The woman unveiling her face represents Egypt’s post-revolution revival, while her companion the Sphinx recalls the greatness of Egypt’s history. (In Arabic, the Sphinx is called Abu el-Hool, which an Egyptian taxi driver told me means something similar to “father of all”.) With these images together, the statue celebrates Egypt’s glorious past while looking ahead to the future. The statue was erected facing east so that each day the sunrise would strike it as if to reawaken Egypt.

Google Doodle which appeared May 10, 2012 to honor sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar.

The sculptor who created this statue was Mahmoud Mukhtar, a highly respected Egyptian artist of the early 20th century.  On May 10, 2012, Mukhtar was honored with a Google Doodle which features Nahdet el Masr  to commemorate his birth date.

The Agricultural Museum

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.  The museum is near the Giza zoo and the Cairo Opera House.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are two beautiful fellaha statues outdoors on the grounds of the museum.  Both celebrate the role of women in the agricultural lifestyle.

Basma Hotel in Aswan

When I go to Aswan, I enjoy staying at the Basma Hotel.  Its beautiful courtyard features a large swimming pool, adorned with a statue of a fellaha carrying a balas (water jug). A walkway leads from the edge of the pool out to the statue, so it is possible to pose for a photo with her.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

The Fellaha Statue that Never Was

Today, we know the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi as the artist who created the Statue of Liberty.  What many of us don’t realize is that in 1867 he had approached Ismael Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, with the idea of creating a massive statue of a fellaha holding aloft a torch which would be placed at the entrance of the Suez Canal.  The statue would be called “Egypt – Carrying the Light to Asia”, and it would also serve as a lighthouse.

Bartholdi’s watercolor concept painting showing his vision for the fellaha statue.

Bartholdi submitted several sketches in 1869 for his proposed statue, hoping to receive a commission in time to complete it for the Suez Canal’s opening. Unfortunately, the project never went forward due to a lack of funds to pay for it.

I hope someday to visit the Suez Canal, and when I do, I’ll take a moment to fantasize about the fellaha statue that Bartholdi had dreamed of creating for it.

About My Egypt Travels

For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program.  I discovered the fellaha statues shown in this post through traveling with her.  I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.

Egyptian Music: Honoring the Legacy of Oum Kalthoum in Cairo

Tributes to the legendary singer Oum Kalthoum can be found throughout Cairo.  My three favorites, which I’ll highlight in this post, are:

  1. The Oum Kalthoum Museum
  2. The Oum Kalthoum Café along Muez Street
  3. The Oum Kalthoum Hotel

Who Was Oum Kalthoum and Why Does She Matter?

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.

Oum Kalthoum continues to inspire listeners all over the world. Belly dancers around the world use her music for their performances. 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  plays her music via satellite television for ambience. Many taxi drivers in Egypt tune their radios to stations that play her music. She was truly a great talent, and remains an important voice in world music.

Visiting the Oum Kalthoum Museum

The Oum Kalthoum Museum on Rhoda Island offers a glimpse into the life of this great artist.

As you enter the museum, it’s possible to purchase a permit for using a camera to take photos. However, flash is forbidden.  Photos must use available light. Fortunately, my 35mm camera and my cell phone camera both work very well with available light.

There is a 15-minute documentary video that visitors to the museum can watch to learn a bit about Oum Kalthoum, her music, and why she was so beloved by the Egyptian people.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, because it really helps put her life in perspective.

The first exhibit inside the entry showcases some of the dresses that Oum Kalthoum wore during her performances.

Oum Kalthoum’s iconic diamond-encrusted crescent brooch is displayed in the museum.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Several photo collages show scenes from Oum Kalthoum’s life.  Each one shows photos from certain eras. My favorite is the collage of her later years, which centers around a photo of Oum Kalthoum with Badia Masabni, a legendary nightclub owner. Oum Kalthoum is the one wearing the dark glasses. In her later years, she always wore dark glasses because a thyroid condition caused her to develop bulging eyes.  This condition can always cause dryness and sensitivity to light.

Several photos of Oum Kalthoum’s family life appear in the museum.  This one shows her with her brother.

A variety of Oum Kalthoum’s personal possessions are on display.  For example, one display cabinet shows some of her shoes and handbags.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Several pairs of her diamond-studded glasses are displayed:

The museum also features original vinyl records, sheet music, awards that Oum Kalthoum received in her lifetime, and many more mementos of her life.  It’s an inspirational way to spend an hour or two, soaking up the nostalgia.

When I visit, I also enjoy walking around the grounds a bit.  Rhoda Island’s landscaping is very inviting, and the island offers beautiful views of the Nile River.

Just outside the museum, an abstract statue of Oum Kalthoum captures just enough of her iconic imagery to be recognizable. On her chest is the crescent-shaped diamond brooch whose photo appeared above, 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. I’m very fond of this one.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The museum lies within easy walking distance of the historic Nilometer, which is also worth visiting while there.

Sipping Tea at the Oum Kalthoum Café

Just off of Moez Street, near Khan al-Khalili and 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.

Staying at the 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 that stands there today is designed to honor her life’s work.

A statue of Oum Kalthoum greeted our tour bus as we approached 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.  I enjoy sitting in the lobby and simply listening.  The furniture 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 Oum Kalthoum, 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 with a Nile view 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 there!

Aswan, Egypt: The Mystery of the Ostrich Egg

Today’s archaeology profession estimates the Pyramids of Giza to be about 4,600 years old. However, because the pyramids are made of stone, traditional dating methods using carbon-14 can’t be used to estimate their age. There really aren’t any good ways to determine when stone structures were built by examining the structures themselves – it is necessary to rely on organic material such as human remains found inside or near the structures.

In the case of the three major Giza pyramids, bodies were not found inside, and therefore the carbon-14 dating has relied on artifacts found on the surrounding plateau, such as remains of bread in a fire pit.  It’s a reasonable methodology, but it relies on the assumption that the pyramids were built at the same time as the village that surrounded them. However, what if the three large pyramids were built before the village? What if the village was built on top of something older which hasn’t been excavated yet?

Photo copyright by Jewel, 2017. All rights reserved.

What if the Pyramids of Giza are Older Than Believed?

However, perhaps a clue lies elsewhere to the age of the pyramids?

An ostrich egg was found in a tomb near Aswan that shows 3 triangular structures side by side. According to carbon dating methods, the human remains found in that same tomb were 7,000 years old. Therefore it is reasonable to think objects found in that tomb, including the egg, were equally old. Could the triangles etched on that presumably 7,000-year-old egg represent the pyramids of Giza? Some people think so, while others are skeptics. Alongside the triangles, there’s a marking that some people think could represent the Nile river and the Fayoum Oasis. But again, others are skeptics.

I haven’t seen any debate questioning that the egg itself is 7,000 years old. That seems to be accepted. The debate I’ve seen centers around what the drawing represents. Ie, does it represent the Giza pyramids, Nile River, and Fayoum Oasis as the theorists claim? Or does it represent something else?

The Meroitic Pyramids Theory and Why It Doesn’t Fit

Some skeptics have suggested that the 3 triangles might represent the Nubian pyramids of Sudan in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush. However, the Sudanese pyramids marked tombs, and were built much more recently (4,600 years ago) than the tomb the ostrich egg was found in (7,000 years ago).

The Nubian pyramids are also much farther south than where the egg was found, in what (during ancient times) would have been a different kingdom from the one governing the Aswan area where the egg was found.

Seeing the Egg for Yourself

Today, the ostrich egg resides in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt. I had the pleasure of seeing it firsthand myself on May 6, 2018 while I was in Aswan. It’s fascinating to look at this 7,000-year-old object and try to come up with alternate theories for what the image is showing.  So far, I keep coming back to the conclusion that maybe it does prove that the Pyramids of Giza are older than what mainstream archaeologists currently believe.

I look forward to seeing how future discoveries enhance our insight into the past.