Sometimes I go back and update old blog posts. This can happen if I get new information, new photos, or need to correct old information.
In my April 2019 visit to Egypt, I took more photos and learned new stuff. While doing all the photo sorting from that trip, I also went back into the not-yet-sorted directories of photos I had taken on previous trips to delete duplicates, sort and rename the ones I decided to keep, etc. This yielded additional photos I could add to some of my blog entries.
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.
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”?)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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….
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!
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.
In my travels to Egypt, I’ve come to know Nubian people in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. Although they are certainly Egyptians (and identify as such), they are a distinct ethnic group, different from the Bedouins, Amazigh, and other ethnic groups that together create the rich cultural heritage that makes up modern Egypt.
I’ve heard a Nubian acquaintance named Karim say several times, “Every Nubian home has a crocodile.” What he means by this is that it is traditional for Nubians to display preserved (dried) crocodiles both inside and outside of their homes.
Why Nubians Display Mummufied Crocodiles
I asked my Nubian friend Gamal Latif, the artist who painted the image at the top of this blog post, about this custom. His house in Luxor, Egypt doesn’t display a crocodile. He said he used to have one that his family obtained in 1933, but over the years it fell apart. He said that although he could probably purchase one, the point is to catch the crocodile yourself as a sign of your courage and strength.
According to Gamal, there are several reasons for the Nubian practice of crocodile hunting, mummification, and suspension above the door. It is thought to protect the home from the evil eye (envy), and it provides evidence of the strength and courage of the owner of the house. Also, there’s a belief it will frighten away crocodiles from approaching the house.
In Nubia, crocodiles are not the only animals displayed on houses. Ravens are killed and suspended on the roof of the house to scare other crows and ravens away. Ravens can harm small chickens, chicken eggs, and pigeons, which is why people don’t want them near their homes. Nubians also kill scorpions and hung them on the wall, also as a way to deter scorpions from coming near their homes.
On the Outside of Houses
Tourists can visit the Nubian community named Gharb Soheil, which is across the Nile River from Aswan, Egypt. There are two ways to approach it, either by bus or by a boat. If approaching via bus, it’s likely you’ll see a building with the words “Crocodile House” painted on the outside, and a preserved crocodile mounted on the exterior wall above one of the doors (on the left of this photo).
This isn’t the only building I’ve seen with a crocodile mounted in front of an entrance. Here’s another I saw as we drove past:
On the Inside
It is also common to find crocodiles mounted on the walls indoors, such as this Nubian home.
Below is another view of a Nubian home with a crocodile over a door:
One of the Nubian homes I have visited at Gharb Soheil also displays three crocodile skulls outdoors in the yard. Can you find them all?
There are a number of Nubian homes in Gharb Soheil who make part of their income by allowing tour groups to visit and look around. They will often spend some time talking about Nubian culture, and answering questions. Some of these keep live crocodiles on hand in a terrarium to show the tourists:
Once a crocodile outgrows the terrarium, the family takes it back to the Nile to release it into the wild. They need to take it to the south side of the Aswan Dam, because it’s illegal to release crocodiles into the northern part.
One time I asked Karim to tell me how they go about transporting a full-grown crocodile and releasing it without getting attacked in the process. He told me they wrap a scarf around its jaws, to hold them shut, and they wrap a second scarf to secure the tail next to the body. (An adult crocodile’s powerful tail can easily sweep a person off his feet.) Next, several of them lift the crocodile into the back of a truck, and drive it to the shore of the Nile. Upon arrival, they remove the crocodile from the truck. Then comes the delicate process of removing the scarves. He said typically the crocodiles don’t stay around to attack. They’re happy to head straight for the water and swim away.
The Nubian homes who feature these tours generally acquire their crocodiles by collecting crocodile eggs. They hatch the eggs, then raise the baby crocodiles to adulthood. It is possible for tourists to pose for photos with the babies, as I am doing here. I have noticed that the Nubians handle the baby crocodiles carefully, to avoid harming them.
Other Places Crocodiles Turn Up
Sometimes you’ll encounter preserved crocodiles in other interesting places. For example, Karim displays this crocodile head on his boat. It has a plastic fish in its mouth:
Although the strongest crocodile influence I’ve seen in Egypt has been among the Nubian people, ancient Egyptians have honored crocodiles for thousands of years, going back to the Old Kingdom. Here are some crocodiles I have seen outside of a Nubian context.
Temple of Kom Ombo
The ancient Egyptian god Sobek was often depicted in Egyptian art as either a crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile. The oldest mentions of him appear in the Pyramid Texts of Saqqara, from 4,000 years ago.
This pillar resides in the temple at the town of Kom Ombo, Egypt. The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt is unique because it honors two different gods – Sobek (with a crocodile head) and Horus the Elder (with a falcon head).
Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, from 180 BCE to 47 BCE. It includes a fabulous on-site Crocodile Museum featuring crocodile mummies. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum does not allow visitors to take photos.
Agricultural Museum in Cairo
In 2016, I visited the Agricultural Museum in Cairo and saw these preserved crocodiles on display as one of the exhibits. This museum began a renovation project in 2017, so at this point I don’t know whether it will still feature this exhibit when it reopens.
Other Posts Mentioning Aswan on this Site
On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt A photographic tour of the sights that you’re likely to see if you take a ferry or felucca boat for a ride on the Nile at Aswan.
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.
There’s an historic street in Cairo’s Khan al Khalili district known as the Sharia al-Khayamiya (Tentmaker’s Street). Along this street, vendors sell a uniquely Egyptian handcrafted textile known as khayamiya. You might also see it spelled as “khayamia”, “khyamiya”, “khayameya”, and other variations of that. The word is derived from Khayma, which is the Arabic word for “tent”. You may have heard of Omar Khayyam, whose name means “Omar the Tent Maker”.
Although it’s possible to purchase khayamiya in parts of Cairo other than this street, you’ll find the best selection here. I find it captivating to explore the shops and admire the many tapestries available there. I’ve always found the vendors to be very welcoming and willing to talk about their art.
What Is Khayamiya?
Khayamiya artisans create the pieces using applique techniques to make designs. The fabric is a type of canvas. Historically in the Middle East, such appliques were used to decorate the interior of tents. As the photo at the top of this article shows, some khayamiya pieces are small enough to be used as a cover for a throw pillow, while others are large enough to cover a large section of a wall, similar to the sizes often used in the U.S. for quilted wall hangings. As a textile artist myself, I’m very fond of the khayamiya technique, and it’s always a treat when I go to Cairo to visit the Sharia al-Khayamiya.
In 2012, the quilt shows presented by the American Quilter’s Society featured a khayamiya artist from Egypt touring throughout the U.S.
Types of Designs
The majority of khayamiya designs that I’ve seen fit into these categories:
Geometric designs similar to those typical of Islamic art
Images inspired by Pharaonic art from tombs and temple walls, especially birds
Scenes depicting Egyptian life, such as Saidi musicians or men playing the tahtib martial art. See the photo below showing two different views of Saidi musicians, one in which the musicians wear burgundy galabeyat, and the other in which the musicians wear navy blue.
Words written in Arabic calligraphy. Most of these that I’ve seen translate into Allah’s name, or praises to him.
Playful designs intended to appeal to tourists, such as the Mickey Mouse photo shown below.
The photo below shows several khayamiya pieces displayed on the wall of one of the shops on Sharia el-Khayamiya. The owners of the shops I visited gave me permission to take the photos in this blog post.
Egypt’s Red Sea area is world-renowned for its beautiful underwater scenery, and enjoys a reputation as one of the best places in the world to go scuba diving and snorkeling. This khayameya design is reminiscent of the underwater view:
As I mentioned above, some of the designs are fun and playful, intended to appeal to tourists who may be looking for gifts to take home to their families. In this khayameya piece, a mouse wears a traditional red tarboosh (hat) on his head, and a blue men’s gallabiya (long floor-length shirt). He’s playing a rebaba, which is a traditional Egyptian musical instrument.
About the Khayamiya Street
Sharia el-Khayamiya is one of the last Medieval covered streets remaining in Cairo, and is worth a visit just to take in the history it represents. The street lies immediately south of the historic city gate known as Bab Zuweyla. It was built in the 1600’s.
Historically, when Egypt was the hub of the Islamic world, every year the artisans of the Tentmakers’ Street would craft a massive tapestry to cover the kaaba stone in Mecca for the annual hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). When the time came to transport the tapestry to Mecca, it would be carried through the Bab Zuweyla and placed on the camel caravan that would transport it there. The departure of the caravan to Mecca was occasion for the people of Cairo to celebrate.
In recent decades, since the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula, the Saudis purchase their tapestry for the annual hajj from other sources. Egypt no longer provides it.
If you stand outside a shop in Sharia el-Khayamiya, you may need to dodge cars and motorcycles, since it still is a functional street. I find it best to quickly move inside a shop displaying designs that appeal to me, rather than linger out in the street area.
The khayamiya textiles come in many sizes. Prices vary according to the size of the piece and the intricacy of the design. Sometimes when I visit these shops, I sit down on a bench, pick up a large pile of textiles, and start looking through it in search of something to catch my eye. For me, it is a pleasure even just to look through them. The vendors are always very willing to help me find specific pieces if I tell them what sort of design or size I’m looking for.
Although some of the vendors don’t speak much English, they can typically recruit someone nearby to translate. I’ve never had a communication problem, and I enjoy seeing their faces show their pride in their work as they answer my questions about certain items.
I have purchased many khayamiya pieces to use as gifts for friends and family members.
It can be a challenge figuring out what gifts to buy when visiting Egypt. I have given several pieces to people in my life who appreciate handcrafted textiles. The diverse selection of color combinations and designs offers options that could appeal to a variety of tastes.
I also have several pieces for my own home, and when I look at them, they bring back memories of my visits to Egypt.
Because of spending a month in Senegal in October 2017, I came to feel a real appreciation for the country and its people. Once I start to feel that level of connection, I find myself wanting to go back, and I do feel that pull to return to Senegal for a visit.
What would I do if I went back for a visit? This is my wish list. I really don’t think it would be feasible to do all of these things in a single visit, but I would enjoy doing what I can!
Visit the local people that I had an opportunity to get to know during my month there. Reconnect, get an update on their lives.
Return to Pink Lake with a swimsuit, and go for a swim in the salt water.
Return to Terrou-Bi, which was the original hotel that we stayed at for our first two weeks in Senegal, before we had to change hotels. Go for walks at sunset along its stretch of beach.
Dine at the seafront restaurants in the Almadies part of Dakar. That was something I was really fond of doing when I was there the first time!
Go inside the African Renaissance Monument, and climb to the top to look out of the windows in the man’s crown.
Seek out opportunities to see performances of sabar music and dance. Perhaps even take lessons in sabar dancing myself.
Seek out a ndeup ceremony.
Go back to Gorée Island, and this time allow a full day to explore the entire island.
Will I actually go? It’s hard to say. I’d like to have at least one travel companion that I can dine with, plan with, and share the experience with. I also would need to figure out how it fits into everything else going on in my life. For now, it’s on the back burner. But life can take interesting directions, and if the right opportunity were to present itself, I’d be happy to return.
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.
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
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.
There are two beautiful fellaha statues outdoors on the grounds of the museum. Both celebrate the role of women in the agricultural lifestyle.
There’s a street in Cairo known as sharia el khayamiya, which means “the street of the tentmakers”. Tent work is a textile art that consists of using applique to create designs on a sturdy fabric backing. I was delighted to see this khayamiya artisan’s piece with an image of a fellaha on it.
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.
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 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.
Tributes to the legendary singer Oum Kalthoum can be found throughout Cairo. My three favorites, which I’ll highlight in this post, are:
The Oum Kalthoum Museum
The Oum Kalthoum Café along Muez Street
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.
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.
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.
A second sculpture outside of the museum shows a musical staff with notes. I’m very fond of this one.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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).
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.
Another effect that tannoura performers create with their skirts is that of a whirling disk:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.