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, 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.
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.
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. Continue reading “Backbends of Dancers in Ancient 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.
Nearly everybody has heard of the 3 great Pyramids of Giza. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Giza was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Many have also heard about the pyramids just south of Giza: the Bent Pyramid, the Step Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. But comparatively few have heard of the pyramids in Deir el-Medina, the Valley of the Workers. There are 3 there, each marking a tomb. In the past, there were more such pyramids, but they have not survived through the ages.
Deir el-Medina is near Luxor, on the West Bank near the Valley of the Kings. Some people call it the Workers Village, the Valley of the Workers, or the Valley of the Artisans. Archaeologists estimate that this community was active between 1550 and 1080 BCE.
After seeing the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings and the temples, Deir el-Medina offers an entirely different perspective on life in Pharaonic times because of the insight it gives into how regular people lived, as opposed to the kings and nobles. It is unique in that there is no other archaeological site that provides such extensive information to scholars about the daily life of ancient society, including living conditions, social interactions, and community life.
Deir el-Medina was a village where the people who built the famous tombs and temples on Luxor’s West Bank lived. These were the people who carved the great columns out of rock, created the bas-relief art work on temple walls, painted the tomb ceilings and walls, carved the alabaster canopic jars and other treasures for the tombs, and more. Many historians believe that Deir el-Medina was founded by the Pharaoh Amenhotep I and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari. Today, the village has been awarded status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, it is possible to visit the site and see what remains of the homes. An experienced guide can point out which room was probably the kitchen (based on remains of cooking fires and food found there), which was probably the toilet, etc.
These pyramids are small, maybe about 10 feet tall, at most. It is possible to walk up close to them, but not to go inside.
How I Learned About Valley of the Workers
I originally discovered the Valley of the Workers in 2004. Our tour guide, Mohamed, had just taken us through the Valley of the Kings, and we had been impressed with the magnificence of the tombs there. He then gave us a choice: whether to see Valley of the Queens (which was the activity that had been pre-planned for us), or whether to make a change and visit Valley of the Workers.
Mohamed explained that the only tomb at Valley of the Queens which approached the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings we’d already seen was that of Nefertari, and that one was closed to the public due to its fragile condition. He said that the tombs at Valley of the Queens that were open to the public were all smaller, less elaborate versions of what we had seen at Valley of the Kings.
Our group decided to make the change he suggested, and go to Valley of the Workers. I’m glad we did, because it was entirely different from Valley of the Kings, and gave us fascinating insight into the lives of the people who built the temples and tombs.
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!
Later, when I came back, the camel was still there, but now he was lying down. Once again, he made faces for me.
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!”
After I snapped the above photo, the camel continued to clown around for the camera, so I took another photo as well.
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!
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:
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.
The camels had an opportunity to rest a bit while all of us explored the pyramids and took photos of each other.
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.
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.
This camel dressed up for the Dora at the Abu Haggag moulid in Luxor, Egypt on April 20, 2019.
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.
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.
April is the time of year when Egypt is most likely to experience khamaseen (sandstorms), but sandstorms can arrive during other parts of the year as well. I’ve personally experienced these storms on 3 different visits to Egypt over the years, and in 2018 I “enjoyed” the bonus of experiencing two sandstorms in a single visit! Lucky me! My sandstorm adventures occurred on:
April 14, 2009 in Cairo
February 11, 2015 in Cairo
April 30, 2018 in Luxor
May 7, 2018 in Aswan
What a Khamaseen Is
The word khamaseen is the Arabic word for the number 50. It is also used to refer to strong winds that blow sand, which are most likely to appear in a 50-day period in the spring between mid-March and mid-May.
Wind speed typically exceeds 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), and can be as high as 85 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour), which is about the same as the wind speeds in a Category 1 hurricane. The storm can last for several hours, or even a couple of days. The one I experienced in 2015 was a 2-day event, whereas the one I experienced in 2018 lasted only a couple of hours.
A khamaseen stirs up walls of dust and sand, filling the air with grit. It’s fascinating to watch one approach, because it looks like a wall of sand heading your way.
What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm
In many ways, a sandstorm reminds me of a blizzard, except that instead of being cold and snowy, it’s hot and sandy.
Both can snarl traffic due to problems with visibility.
Note the above photos I took of the pyramids and Sphinx. They show what the view from my hotel window looked like at two different times on February 11, 2015 – one before the sandstorm arrived, and the other during the storm.
Sometimes, rural roads close until visibility improves.
Both can create unsafe conditions that affect transportation.
When the khamaseen struck Luxor in April 2018, it stirred up choppy waters on the Nile river, causing ferries to suspend service until the water calmed.
Often, airlines will delay or cancel flights when a sandstorm arrives, due to the high winds and poor visibility.
Both cause businesses and schools to close early. Our original plan for February 11, 2015 was to tour two museums. Both museums hurried us through. They were eager to close so their employees could go home.
Both can produce howling high winds that last for several hours. The February 2015 sandstorm lasted 2 days, while the others I experienced lasted a few hours.
The strong winds can cause power outages. That happened at our hotel in Luxor in 2018, causing a 30-minute outage.
Coping with a Sandstorm
It’s a very bad idea to wear contact lenses during a sandstorm. The grit gets under the lenses and hurts. Glasses are much more comfortable, and they offer the bonus of protecting the eyes somewhat against the blowing sand. This is why it’s so important for people who wear contact lenses to take along a pair of prescription glasses when traveling to Egypt. People who don’t need prescription lenses can wear either goggles or sunglasses for this purpose.
The blowing sand irritates breathing passages, which can lead to allergies, asthma, or catching a cold. I think nearly every person in our group caught a cold after the 2015 sandstorm. Egyptians will typically wrap a scarf to cover the nose and mouth. Some even wear a mask over the nose and mouth for further protection. In this 2015 photo, I’m doing both, with the scarf hiding the mask.
If planning any kind of travel, it’s best to check whether the activities you want to do are still available, whether transportation is still running, and whether delays are expected.
After experiencing several sandstorms in Egypt, I have to admit they’re not particularly pleasant. However, I don’t worry about the possibility of being in one, and I’m willing to come to Egypt during the khamaseen season. It’s interesting to take a step back and notice how people who live with this weather deal with it. There’s always a story to tell if you look for it.