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:

 

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.

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.