Once a year, the people of Luxor, Egypt enjoy 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”.
Once a year, Cairo hosts the Moulid al-Hussein, which is a major Sufi religious festival. It’s a mixture of sacred religious observation and joyous celebration. Many Egyptians from throughout the country come to Cairo for it. A moulid observes a holy person’s birth date, and this particular one honors the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, whose name was Hussein.
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.
As of summer 2019, I have traveled to Egypt 14 times, so naturally I’ve had many opportunities over the years to photograph sunrises, sunsets, and moons there. Here are my favorites.
At the Pyramids of Giza Near Cairo, Egypt
Any post celebrating sunsets in Egypt clearly needs to start with the sun setting behind the Pyramids of Giza!
This sunset photo was taken in February, 2017 when I went to Egypt as part of Sahra Kent’s “Journey Through Egypt 3” tour. We stayed at the Sphinx Guest House, which is a bed & breakfast place in Giza, Egypt (near Cairo). This was the view from our window! If you look closely, you can see the Sphinx in front of the middle pyramid.
And because I love Egypt and its pyramids so much, here’s a sunset photo I took in February 2016. This year, too, I accompanied Sahra’s “Journey Through Egypt” tour, and I took this photo from my room at the Sphinx Guest House.
I caught the sunset at a different point in February, 2015. This year was the first time I accompanied Sahra on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour, but it wasn’t my first time in Egypt. This photo offers more light, and therefore a clearer view of the Sphinx.
One of my favorite photos that I have taken in my travels is one of the moon rising over the Great Pyramid. I sat with friends in the garden cafe at the Mena House hotel, and this was our view. I had accompanied my friend Morocco to the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, which was held at Mena House.
The Overnight Train from Cairo to Luxor
It’s about 400 miles from Cairo, Egypt to Luxor. An affordable way to make the trip is via an overnight train with sleeper cars. The train leaves Cairo late in the afternoon, which allows an opportunity to watch the sun rise as you approach Luxor in the morning. I took this photo in February, 2016.
Luxor by Night
When I go to Luxor, I really like staying at the Gezira Garden Hotel. It’s a beautiful setting on the West Bank, and it offers excellent customer service, and delicious meals.
Getting from the West Bank where the hotel is, over to the East Bank where the actual city of Luxor lies, is easiest and fastest via ferry. After dark, the reflection of Luxor’s lights on the Nile River creates a beautiful scene.
On a Nile Cruise Ship, Probably Between Edfu and Luxor
I think my Nile cruise ship was heading north from Edfu to Luxor at the time I captured these sunset photos in 2008. First this one, as the sun was sinking over the horizon:
As the sun lowered further, it created the beautiful pink and orange effects around it:
The Road to Aswan
There are many scenic views to enjoy along the drive south from Kom Ombo to Aswan. This sunset captured my attention on April 22, 2019.
The Basma Hotel features a terrace that looks out over the city and the Nile River below. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sun set. This photo was taken in April, 2019.
These photos were both taken in 2016, from the upper group of rooms on top of the hill at the Basma hotel in Aswan, Egypt, looking out in two different directions.
At Lake Nasser, at the Abu Simbel Temple in Southern Egypt
Twice a year, on February 22 and October 22, the rays of the rising sun pierce the inner chamber of the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel, Egypt. On this date, the light shines on Amun-Ra of Karnak, Ra-Horakhti of Heliopolis and Ramses II, but the fourth god in the sanctuary, Ptah of Memphis, remains always in shadow. I was there for this event on February 22, 2015, when I accompanied Sahra Kent on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour.
The Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria, Egypt
These photos are from my visit to Alexandria, Egypt in June, 2008. My friend Saqra and I went to a family-oriented beach one beautiful afternoon. Alexandria is a popular place for families from Cairo to spend vacation time during the summer, due to the fact that the sea air gives it cooler temperatures than Cairo. We stayed to watch the sun set, then went to the theater at the Alexandria Library to watch the show titled “The World Dances with Mahmoud Reda”.
Later in the sunset, as the light begins to fade, the sky remains beautiful and the sea takes on a range of colors.
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 thing I always try to make time for when I visit Egypt is a boat ride on the Nile at Aswan. Many Nile cruise itineraries either begin or end at Aswan, so I’d recommend arriving either a day early or staying a day late to allow time for this opportunity to enjoy a scenic, peaceful, beautiful experience.
My favorite boat captain to use for cruising the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim. He expertly guides the boat along the Nile, offering close-up views to the many sights along the way, and he speaks enough English to answer questions. If you ask, he’ll play a radio station with Nubian music.
There are many scenic views along the Nile River, and this is exactly why I have done this many times. After spending time in the urban, high-energy environment of Cairo, I look forward to coming closer to nature when I get to Aswan.
There are two different types of boating experiences you can use to experience the Nile scenery at Aswan. One is a ferry boat, which is what I was riding at the time I took these photos. The ferry has an engine which is silent enough that it doesn’t detract from the peaceful beauty of the ride. The other is a felucca, which is an Egyptian style of sailboat.
Sometimes young boys on a small raft will paddle out to meet your boat. These young buskers sing to you, hoping you will tip them for the entertainment they provide.
I personally enjoy the boys, so when I see them approach, I’m inclined to give them an Egyptian five-pound note. I used to give them just one pound, but Egypt’s economy has experienced significant inflation since 2011’s revolution, so I tip in higher amounts now than I did in 2010. You may be wondering what songs they use to serenade you. The ones I’ve heard the most are “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Frère Jacques”.
One of the landmarks you’ll see on the western bank of the Nile River at Aswan is the steep hill containing Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles. High on the top of that hill is a structure known as Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind, which marks the tomb of a long-ago Islamic sheikh named Aly Abu el-Hawa. I have also heard people refer to this structure as the watchtower because of the expansive view it offers of the Nile valley. The entire mountain is also sometimes referred to as Qubbet al-Hawa, encompassing the Pharaonic tombs in addition to el-Hawa’s tomb.
I have personally never climbed this mountain to explore its sights. There is no road that a taxi or tour bus could use to take you there. The only way to approach it is from docking the boat on the bank of the Nile River at the bottom of the hill. From there, you can either ride a camel up the hill, or you can hike up. If you want to use a camel, it’s best to prearrange for that, because there often are not any camels waiting at the bottom.
Another hillside on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan features the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, the 48th Imam of Nizari Ismailis. He was born in the city of Karachi, which lies in modern-day Pakistan, and he assumed his title of Aga Khan at age eight, after his father died. His tomb was built in the style of the historic Fatimid tombs that can be seen in Cairo today.
Although the Aga Khan was from Pakistan, Egypt held a special place in his heart because it was there that he met his French wife, Yvette Blanche Labrousse. She took on the name Begum Oum Habiba after they were married. Below the Mausoleum, behind the trees in this photo, is the villa where the Aga Khan and his family spent their time when they came to Egypt for visits.
Locals report that after he died, the Aga Khan’s fourth and final wife used to visit his tomb in the Mausoleum every day and lay a red rose on his grave. When she died in 2000, she was laid to rest next to him.
On another hillside, a historic monastery looks down on the Nile. This monastery, which dates back to the 7th century, was originally dedicated to a local saint named Anba Hedra who renounced the world on his wedding day. It has also been known as Deir Anba Sim’an. In the 10th century, it was dedicated to Saint Simeon. In the past, it housed about 300 monks. The troops of Salah ed-Din (Saladin) partially destroyed this facility in 1173.
There are no roads for vehicles leading to this monastery. If you want to visit it, you’ll need to ride a boat across the Nile. Once across, you can either walk up the hill yourself or hire a camel to carry you. If you plan to use a camel, I’d recommend prearranging it. This area does not always have camels sitting around waiting for something to do.
Before the Aswan High Dam was built, the west bank of the Nile River at Aswan was mostly uninhabited because of the annual inundation by the river. As a result of the dam being built, the inundations ended, while south of the dam Lake Nasser arose, flooding the homeland where thousands of Nubian people had lived since ancient times. Reports vary on how many Nubian people were displaced by the rising lake, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 100,000. With the inundations ending north of the dam, some of the Nubian people whose ancestral homes now lie under the waters of Lake Nasser have started to develop a community on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan.
A village named Gharb Sahel has arisen, with homes, hotels, shops, and more. The Nubians who live there have preserved their traditional architectural style, which is highly effective at encouraging ventilation and insulating against the heat.
It is possible to book a tour of one of the Nubian homes in the village. There are several who are willing to show visitors their architecture and talk about their lifestyles.
I have found these tours of Nubian homes to be a highlight of my time in Aswan because of the opportunity to learn more about the culture. The photo below shows the ornaments that dangle from the ceiling and the table with items for sale. The cool cat modeling the sunglasses is the ferry boat captain who transported us there, Captain Karim.
After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.
El Nabatat Island, also known as Kitchener’s Island, is a popular tourist destination because it hosts the Aswan Botanical Garden. Today, the island is owned by the Egyptian government and is used as a botanical research station. It is possible to arrange a boat ride to the island and walk through the garden. I have not personally done this, but it’s on my wish list for a future trip to Egypt.
Elephantine Island’s history dates back to Pharaonic times, when it was the southern outpost of Upper Egypt, on the border of Kush (Nubia). The book River God by Wilbur Smith sets some of its action on this island. One of the items on my wish list for a future visit to Aswan is to visit what’s left of this archaeology site today. A boat can take you close to its Nilometer for a closeup view, as shown in my photo below. See my article about Nilometers for more information about this and others.
Today, a hideous, soulless Movenpick Hotel crouches on Elephantine Island, a blight on the scenic landscape of the Nile. I hate the sight of this eyesore so much that I’m not including a photo in this blog post.
In ancient times, Aswan’s population included a large number of ethnic Nubians, and still does today. With the Kush empire (also Nubians) immediately to the south, it was important to the Egyptian Pharaohs who were based in Luxor to ensure that Aswan was governed by someone who was capable of maintaining the respect and loyalty of the Nubian locals. For that reason, many of the governors in Aswan over the centuries were ethnic Nubian. Queen Nefertari, who was honored by the temple at Abu Simbel and the spectacular tomb in Valley of the Queens at Luxor was a Nubian princess whose father governed Aswan.
Because of Aswan’s position on the southern border of Egypt’s Pharaonic empire, some boulders along the river feature cartouches that declare Egypt’s claim on this location, as shown in the photo below.
A popular Egyptian pop singer and actor named Mohamed Mounir has built a mansion on the banks of the Nile near Aswan, and it is possible to see it from a ferry boat or felucca. The mansion is the domed building in the foreground of the photo below. Many of Mounir’s fans refer to him as “The King”.
When we travel, it can be very tempting to cram our schedules full of every imaginable activity, every day. This can lead to burnout by the end of a vacation. I find that the ferry ride on the Nile helps me replenish my energy. It allows me to spend time in nature, on the river, and it allows me to forget for a while about the frantic schedule that tours often provide. There’s something fulfilling about being out on the water, simply enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Other Blog Posts About Aswan, Egypt
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these others posts I’ve made about Aswan, Egypt:
Our stereotypes of ancient Egyptian dance involve awkward-looking poses with right-angle positions of the elbow and wrist. People assume that such images appeared on temple and tomb walls. But, did they? Here’s a look at some of the dance scenes appearing in temples and tombs in Egypt.
At the Luxor Temple
The dancers in the photo at the top of this page appear on the west wall of the Luxor temple. If you look left to right, you’ll see that each image is bending back a little further. Think of these as individual frames in a movie, showing the motion of doing a backbend into a yoga wheel pose, or maybe doing the first half of a back handspring. Off to the right [not shown in this picture] there is a group of women playing sistrums (a type of rattle).
This scene is part of a larger mural showing a joyous religious celebration, the Opet festival where the god and goddess are united for conjugal fun. This dance, though, is not considered a ritual religious dance (although those did exist in ancient Egypt). Instead, it’s more of an entertainment spectacle that was being performed for the pleasure of those who saw it.
The Luxor Temple was built around 1,400 BCE, which means these images of dancers are about 3,400 years old.
These dancers are not priestesses worshiping a goddess, but rather secular people who are participating joyously in the annual event. I kind of think of this as being like Christmas in our North America culture – there ARE sacred events related to celebrating Christmas such as church services and pageants, but there are also many secular celebratory activities such as children sitting on Santa Claus’s lap to pose for photos.
Ostracon from Deir el-Medina
This ostracon (piece of limestone painted with an image) was found at the Worker’s Village near Luxor, also known as Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists believe it was created between 1292 and 1076 BCE. Today, it resides in Italy, at the museum in Turin. It bears a strong resemblance to the dancers on the west wall of the Luxor temple. For more information about Deir el-Medina, the site where this was found, see my post about Deir el-Medina.
The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak Temple
Inside the grounds of the Karnak temple near Luxor, there is a chapel known as the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. It features images resembling those of the Luxor Temple’s west wall.
The top row shows the backbends. Off to the right is a harpist playing for them. The bottom row shows men dancing on the left, and women playing sistrums (a type of rattle) on the right.
Archaeologists estimate this chapel may have been built around 1,400 BCE.
The Tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara
These dancers appear in the tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara, Egypt. It dates back to approximately 2300 BCE, and therefore is one of the oldest known images of dance found in Egypt.
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.
Temples and tombs from ancient Egypt offer many tributes to motherhood. As of 2019, I’ve found one tomb at Saqqara with a madonna scene, and several temples along the Nile cruise route with motherhood-related images, including Luxor Temple, Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, and Philae Temple. Here’s a look at the ones I’ve discovered in my travels so far.
Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (Tomb of the Brothers)
At Saqqara, which is just outside of Cairo, the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, often known as the “tomb of the hairdressers” or the “tomb of the brothers” features two beautiful scenes of motherhood near its entrance.
These are the oldest images from ancient Egypt that I have found so far celebrating motherhood. Although scholars have not determined the tomb’s exact age, the current theory is that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep served either Nyuserre Ini or Menkauhor Kaiu. Assuming that theory is correct, this tomb would thus have been built in the latter part of the 25th century BCE, making it over 4,000 years old.
One of the images at this tomb shows a small child playing around his mother while she does her daily housework.
The other shows the mother nursing the baby when it’s time to feed him. It’s really interesting to see this madonna-type image that was created about 2,500 years before the time of Christ.
The birth room of the Luxor Temple tells how Queen Mutemwia became the mother of Amenhotep III. It offers a fascinating story of immaculate conception, annunciation, and birth about 1,300 years before the story of Jesus Christ. The bottom row shows the ram-headed creator god Khnum molding two children, one to be the physical body, and the other to be his ka (spirit version). The story goes on to show the god Amun coming to her, the conception, the pregnancy, and the birth. The intent of the story is to justify Amenhotep III’s right to be revered as a god, just as the later story of Jesus used immaculate conception to justify his claim to be the Son of God.
In this segment of the wall, we see Queen Mutemwia (top right) sitting on the birth chair giving birth to her son s the deities Isis and Khnum rub her hands.
This birth scene would have been commissioned by Queen Mutemwia’s son, Amenhotep III, to support his divine claim to the throne of Egypt. Scholars estimate that his 37-year reign begin in 1386 BCE or 1388 BCE, which places the age of this scene as being more than 1,000 years before the temples of Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae (mentioned below) were constructed.
Interestingly, I had visited the Luxor Temple approximately 8 times without ever seeing this birth story. Finally, I visited the temple for about the 9th time in 2019, and this was the first time a guide showed me this scene. It’s not something that every tour of the Luxor Temple includes. If you want to see the birth room, you may need to insist that your guide include it in the tour.
The Edfu temple honors Horus the Elder and his wife, Hathor. Some of its walls feature scenes of Hathor nursing her infant, Horus the Younger. Some of these scenes were damaged by early Christians during the Roman era, in an attempt to obliterate the earlier Pagan beliefs.
Near the entrance to the Edfu temple is a special room known as the mammisi, or “birth room”. This is a small chapel located just outside and in front of the main pylons, and it celebrates the birth of “Horus, the Unifier of Two Lands”. The mammisi features several images of Hathor playing musical instruments, including sistrum (rattle), frame drum, and lyre.
The Edfu temple that stands today is relatively young, but resides on the site of a much older shrine. The structure that stands today was built after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, leading to the era of Greek Pharaohs that ended with Cleopatra. The first stone of today’s temple was laid in 237 BCE, and it was consecrated in 142 BCE. This is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt due to having been buried for centuries under sand and river silt deposited by the Nile inundations.
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). It’s a fascinating temple to visit, with many interesting images on its walls.
A unique segment of wall that is popular with many of the tourists who visit Kom Ombo is the scene showing two women using birthing chairs to give birth. The wall to the right of them features images of surgical tools.
The throne-shaped object on the head of the lower woman is a nod to the goddess Isis and her role as a patron of fertility and motherhood.
One of the tour guides I’ve worked with, Abdul Aly, has proudly pointed out that ancient Egyptians have known about the benefits of delivering babies while sitting up in birthing chairs for at least 2,000 years. In contrast, modern Western medicine only started to embrace birthing chairs and the upright posture since about the 1980’s.
Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, on top of an older temple site dating from the New Kingdom. Construction lasted from 180 BCE to 47 BCE. In addition to the birthing chair scene, I was very fond of the on-site museum featuring crocodile mummies. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum at the temple does not allow visitors to take photos. Another of my blog posts shows the Nilometer at this temple.
Philae Island at Aswan hosts the beautiful Nubian temple of Isis. Construction began around 690 BCE, on a site that had hosted an older structure, with most of the temple that remains today being built during the reign of Nectanebo I, ranging from 380-362. In the 1960’s, the island was flooded by the rising waters of the Nile caused by the Aswan High Dam, and Philae was one of the temples moved to a new site on higher ground funded by UNESCO.
There are several images of Isis nursing the baby Horus in this temple. These resemble the madonna-style images of Hathor with Horus at Edfu. There is some overlap of the stories regarding Hathor (which were earlier) and Isis (who came later.) Unfortunately, many of the images of Isis with Horus at Philae were vandalized during the Roman era by early Christians who were trying to obliterate the earlier Pagan religion.
I’ve featured highlights of how ancient Egypt honored motherhood by selecting several must-see images to watch for that are easy to find if taking a Nile cruise or a Luxor-to-Aswan tour or touring Saqqara near Cairo. These are ones I’ve personally noticed so far on my travels to Egypt, but I’m sure there are many I have not yet found. I’ll keep looking, and if I find more, I’ll add them to this blog post.
I encourage you, too, to keep looking on your own. You’re sure to discover more of these images in statues (in museums), tombs, and other temples.