Egypt – Why Have I Gone Back So Many Times?

I’ve been to Egypt 13 times since my first visit in 1999, and often when I tell people I’m planning another trip, they’re astonished!  Many of my friends and family are mystified by this. They ask me, somewhat disbelieving, “Why????  Haven’t you seen it all already?”

The short answer is, “I love Egypt!”

The longer answer is that Egypt offers much more to appreciate than  pyramids.  I do find ancient civilizations fascinating, and I always enjoy returning to my favorite Pharaonic temples, tombs, and monuments.  But, that’s just the beginning of what I love about Egypt.

Architecture

Many spectacular historic buildings remain as testimonial of bygone times.  I continue to discover beautiful architectural jewels, including mosques, houses, wikalas, cisterns, and more. This photo shows the interior of a historic Ottoman home known as Bayt Suhaymi, which was built in 1648:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

I also enjoy the modern-day vibrant neighborhoods of traditional cultures, such as beautifully decorated Nubian houses. The photo below shows an interior room of a Nubian house in Gharb Saheil, a neighborhood of Aswan.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Incredible History AFTER the Era of the Pharoahs

Egypt has long been an important centerpiece of Islamic culture, and actually remains so today.  From 1174 to 1517, the Fatimid Caliphate was centered in Egypt. The al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded in 970, and remains an important center of scholarship in the Koran.

In addition, Egypt was a prominent stop for trade caravans.  During the time of the Crusades, Saladin built a landmark called The Citadel to protect Cairo from the Crusaders if they should ever make it all the way to Egypt. (They didn’t.)

This photo shows the minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad rising above Bab Zuwayla, which is a gate to the city of Cairo dating back to the 11th century.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel.

Cairo is rich in museums that celebrate its history, such as the Citadel, the Islamic Art Museum, and the Oum Kalthoum museum.  In Aswan, the Nubian Museum pays tribute to the ancient, vibrant culture of the Nubian people that coexisted with the Pharaohs.

Everywhere I turn in Egypt, I find signs of bygone times.  I learn so much about history by simply learning the stories behind the places I visit.

Cultural Arts

Egypt has served as a crossroads for many ethnic groups throughout history, including the people of ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Bedouins, the Nubians, the Amazigh of the Western Desert, and more.  Each of these cultures enjoys its own distinct traditions of music, dance, textiles, and other expressive arts. I take great pleasure in attending traditional cultural shows at El Dammah Theater, the Mazaher Ensemble at Makan Theater, and the tannoura show at Wikala el-Ghouri.

Often, I’m introduced to cultural experiences that are new to me.  For example, in 2016, which was my 11th visit to Egypt, I saw a Nubian music concert at the El Dammah theater featuring an instrument known as a rango. In 2018, I saw a concert of Port Said music and dance for the first time. It was also my first time of sitting at a Sufi tent in Luxor listening to the music of a zikr and watching the participants.

The photo below shows a Saidi ensemble performing at El Dammah Theater in Cairo. The musician on the left is playing a mizmar, which is a reed instrument that resembles an oboe. The one on the right is playing an arghool, which is a type of flute.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In addition, Egypt has long been a center for performing arts: music, theater, dance, and cinema. It’s still possible to visit remnants of the entertainment district of the early 20th century, including Emad el-Din Street and Azbakeya Garden. Some of these historic night spots are still open today, such as the Shahrzade next to Alfi Bek restaurant.  Historically, Egypt attracted aspiring performers from throughout the Arabic-speaking world who sought fame and fortune.

Today’s vibrant night life in Cairo features some of the top performers in the Arabic-speaking world.  I always enjoy going out to enjoy music and dance shows.  Even though I have seen some of them before, Egypt’s top performing artists are so inspiring that I enjoy seeing them over and over. This photo from 2017 shows Dina, Egypt’s top belly dancer:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

No, I Haven’t Seen it All!

There are many parts of Egypt I have never seen, which I hope to visit someday.  My wish list includes the Siwa Oasis, the Fayoum Oasis, the Red Sea area, the town of Mersa Matrouh on the Mediterranean coast, the Amarna archaeological site at Minya, the Suez Canal, and the Hathor Temple at Dendera.

In addition, even when I visit sites I’ve seen before, I often notice things I didn’t previously notice.  For example, on my 8th visit to the Edfu Temple I noticed something I’d never seen there before: an image of a liturgical dancer holding his arms in the goofy bent-wrist-and-elbows pose that everybody thinks is representative of ancient Egyptian dance.  I’d been looking for evidence that such a dance posture actually existed in ancient Egypt for many years, but somehow never spotted it until my 2017 visit!

The People

Most importantly of all, I have come to feel a deep affection for the Egyptian people. I have come to appreciate their warmth, kindness, and hospitality.  Most of all, the Egyptian people are the reason I keep going back.

Related Blog Posts

These links lead to blog posts about some of my experiences mentioned in the above narrative:

 

Cairo’s Mazaher Ensemble: The Zar Musicians

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”).

Show Format

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.

Sameh
Sameh of the Mazaher Ensemble sings and plays a frame drum. February 10, 2016.

Nubian Zar

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.

Tamboura
This photo was taken February 11, 2015.

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.

Nubian Zar
I took this photo when watching the show at Makan Theater on February 10, 2016.

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.

I took this photo of one of the musicians wearing a mangour when watching the show at Makan Theater on February 10, 2016.

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.

Nubian Zar
I took this photo when watching the show at Makan Theater on February 10, 2016.

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!

This photo was taken February 10, 2016.

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 makan@egyptmusic.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 these musicians 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, you’ll see the artist name listed as 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.

Cairo’s El Dammah Theater: Rango Band

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 info@el-mastaba.org.

Rango

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.