Luxor, Egypt: A Parade with Its Roots in Antiquity

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.

Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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”?)

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Parade Time!

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!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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….

Copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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!

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt

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 for purposes of enjoying the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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”.

Sometimes young boys will paddle out to the boats on the Nile and sing to the passengers, in hopes of receiving tips. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

Aswan Valley of the Nobles and Qubbet el Hawa
High on a hillside above the Nile River near Aswan lies Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind. On the hillside below it lies Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

The Mausoleum of Aga Khan III looks down at the Nile River at Aswan. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

The Monastery of St. Simeon sits on a hillside above the Nile River at Aswan, Egypt. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

The village of Gharb Sahel on the West Bank of the Nile River at Aswan serves as an excellent example of Nubian architecture. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

Captain Karim poses with my sunglasses. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

The Aswan Botanical Garden on El Nabatat Island (also known as Kitchener Island) near Aswan, Egypt is popular with tourists. Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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.

Elephantine Island in the Nile River near Aswan, Egypt is home to a Nilometer which can be seen when riding past in a ferry boat or felucca (sailboat). Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

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.

These boulders along the Nile River near Aswan were carved with cartouches during ancient times to mark the southern end of the territory claimed by the Egyptian Pharoah.  Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

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”.

In Aswan, the home of Mohamed Mounir perches above the Nile River. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Closing Thoughts

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:

    1. Honoring Motherhood in Ancient Egypt’s Temples and Tombs. This one includes Philae as one of the temples it talks about.
    2. Aswan, Egypt: The Mystery of the Ostrich Egg.  An interesting item displayed in the Nubian Museum at Aswan.
    3. What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm in Egypt.  Includes a photo of a sandstorm I experienced in Aswan.
    4. Exploring Nilometers in Egypt.  Includes the one on Elephantine Island, which I included a photo of above.
    5. Fellaha: The Peasant Woman in Egyptian Art. Includes a statue of a fellaha at the Basma Hotel in Aswan.

 

Camels I Have Met

I grew up on a farm, and even though my life took me in a different direction, I still appreciate animals of all sizes.  Therefore, whenever I go to Egypt, I enjoy seeing the camels.  Here’s a gallery of my favorite photos that I have taken of camels over the years!

At Saqqara, Egypt

When I went to Saqqara, Egypt to tour the ancient tombs, I saw this playful rascal. At first, he looked bored, but when he realized I was looking at him, he started making faces for the camera.  It seemed to be fun for both of us!

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Later, when I came back, the camel was still there, but now he was lying down. Once again, he made faces for me.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It looks to me as though the camel is laughing in this photo.  So I created a meme from it to post on social media which said, “Jewel just stepped in a pile of my poop!”

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

After I snapped the above photo, the camel continued to clown around for the camera, so I took another photo as well.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

At the Pyramids of Giza

It’s fun to go for a camel ride at the pyramids of Giza.  This camel enjoyed resting after carrying me to the pyramids, while I ran around with my camera taking photos.

Going for a camel ride is a half-day commitment.  It’s a good idea to allow about 2 hours for the ride itself, and then afterward you might want to take a shower to wash off the camel smell and rest a bit.  It can be very tiring to be out in the hot sun for that long.  I strongly recommend wearing sunscreen for the ride.

It isn’t easy getting on a camel.  The handlers make the camel kneel, but the hump is so high that you need to lift your leg high to swing it up and over.  Once you’re settled in the saddle, the camel gets to its feet.  The first time I experienced this, I nearly fell off!  First the camel raises its back legs, causing you to pitch forward, and then it raises its front legs.  Be prepared to squeeze the camel tightly with your thighs to stabilize yourself.

The last time I went for a camel ride, my camel’s saddle wasn’t cinched very well, and it kept slipping from side to side as the camel walked along.  The handlers noticed, so they had the camel kneel down so I could get off, and they then tightened the saddle straps.  That same day, there were several additional times that they had the camel kneel down, and then get back up, so by the end of the day I had gotten quite a bit of practice keeping my balance for all of that!

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

One time, after I had been to Egypt a few times, one of my brothers asked me whether I perhaps had a photo of camel poop I could send him.  I was surprised by his question – partly because I didn’t know why he would want a photo of camel poop, and partly because I didn’t know why he would think I would have taken one.  Therefore, the next time I went to Egypt, I remembered his request, and I took this photo for him:

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In Egypt, it is common for people to decorate their camels’ harnesses and saddle blankets with tassels. This camel’s halter is plain, but his saddle blanket is quite stylish.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

The camels had an opportunity to rest a bit while all of us explored the pyramids and took photos of each other.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In parts of Giza (the part of the Cairo metropolitan area where the pyramids are), you can find cars parked on one side of the street and camels parked on the other side of the street.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In the Dora at Luxor

Once a year, the residents of Luxor, Egypt celebrate the moulid (festival) of Abu el-Haggag.  On the final day, the festival ends with a parade known as the Dora.  One aspect of the Dora is that people dress their camels up in brightly colored scarves, flags, and other pieces of fabric.  Here are two of the camels that caught my eye in the Dora on April 20, 2019.

This camel dressed up in a Bob Marley hat for the Dora in the Abu Haggag moulid on April 20, 2019.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This camel dressed up for the Dora at the Abu Haggag moulid in Luxor, Egypt on April 20, 2019.

Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Camels In Other Parts of Upper Egypt

On the west bank of the Nile at Aswan, one of the tourist attractions is the Valley of the Nobles.  Tourists who want to visit it have a choice – they can either go for a camel ride up to where the tombs are, or they can walk up the steep hillside for about 30 minutes.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

When riding via bus from Luxor to Aswan, the road runs parallel to the railroad tracks.  Somewhere between the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, I saw these camels traveling alongside the tracks.

 

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.