Reflections on the Nile: Lessons from Luxor
By Rachel "Rahil" Lee For most Westerners, the image conjured when one thinks of Egypt is ancient: pyramids, temples, technological and architectural mysteries, mummies, The Book of the Dead. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “ancient” Egypt exists so closely with modern Egypt. However, during my recent first trip to the country, I was struck not only by the physical proximity of ancient and modern, but by the cultural continuities that I witnessed. I was inspired and fascinated by the modern traditions that can be traced, although modified, through history.
In March, I had the pleasure of traveling to Egypt as part of Sahra Kent’s Journey through Egypt program. During the tour, we spent time in Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. Nowhere was there more feeling of connection between ancient and modern than in Luxor. Superficially, this may seem obvious when one considers the city’s historical and archaeological significance (and their impact on tourism and the local economy). Given the ability to observe and learn about the culture of everyday people, I began to understand that the connection with ancient culture was more profound.
The city of Luxor was an amazing experience for a history enthusiast. During the New Kingdom, the city served as the capital of Upper Egypt known as Thebes. It was exciting to see the Temple of Luxor (photo 1) almost immediately after arriving at the train station (the temple and the station are only about a half mile distant). Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple are about two miles apart, connected by the newly excavated Avenue of the Sphinxes (photo 2). When crossing to the west side of the Nile, it is only a short drive to the Colossi of Memnon (photo 3) and another 15-minute drive
to the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut (photo 4). Modern and ancient are inextricably linked spatially and geographically in Luxor. As with many ancient cities, new is built atop the old. While I've traveled to several ancient cities, I never fully grasped the reality of this until visiting Luxor. The Abu al-Haggag Mosque was literally built on the then mostly buried ruins of Luxor Temple (photo 5) and "represents a tradition of continuous worship at Luxor Temple for almost thirty-five centuries" spanning Pharaonic, Roman, Christian, and Muslim (Lost Egypt Photographic Catalog). One of our guides even shared that some of the stones from which his house is constructed were taken from the Temple of Karnak.
During my time in Luxor, the importance of the Nile in shaping history also became more than just words written in a textbook. From the Temple of Hatshepsut in the barren cliffs west of the Nile, one can look east toward the "green valley", that relatively narrow strip of land
along the river where crops can grow (photo 6). The very birth of ancient Egyptian civilization hinged on that strip of land, on the Nile's regular and predictable floods. Even now, the vast majority of Egypt's population lives within the Nile Valley and agriculture remains one of the country's major economic components. As with architectural structures, the Nile builds new atop the old. The ongoing importance of the Nile economically and culturally is also visible on every scale. Our hotel was on the west side of the river, so we used a ferry for each excursion into the city. Walking to the river almost every day, riding the boat across, watching feluccas sail at sunset (photo 7), and hearing local people talk about their stories and customs related to the Nile were experiences I'll never forget. While there are important variations and changes through time, some traditions of Luxor maintain strong Pharaonic roots.
The tour was scheduled to align with the Moulid of Abu al-Haggag (the namesake of the Mosque mentioned above). A moulid is a Saint’s-day celebration, a festival lasting several days in honor of the birthday of a holy person. While the moulid was officially “not” happening due to COVID concerns, we were able to witness several traditional events like parades, Sufi singing and dancing, and tahtib. Tahtib, the martial art done with a stick, is the inspiration for much of our Saiidi style assaya (stick) dance. The incredible part of witnessing the tahtib “tournaments” was the atmosphere. There were musicians playing drums and mizmar, men seated on dikka benches and carpets, children watching from second story windows, the sweetest of hot tea served in small glasses, and all of this happening on a blocked-off city street (Video clip). This experience alone was enough to spark my interest, and that interest only grew when we visited the tomb of Kheruef. The carvings in this tomb depict a New Kingdom festival scene and include images of men with what appear to be assaya (photo 8) and women doing some kind of hair tosses (photo 9). Seeing these images
cemented in my mind the continuity of some cultural elements from ancient to modern. Before even leaving Luxor, I read Elizabeth Wickett’s 2009 article comparing elements of the Moulid of Abu al-Haggag to the ancient Egyptian Feast of Opet. Wickett concludes that many of the traditions unique to the moulid are directly linked to past rituals, such as the procession of boats (pharaonic) and ritual jousting (Fatimid). Once again, modern customs are modified from historical traditions.
Now, months later, I continue to learn and reflect on my experiences in Egypt. One of the most important realizations is that of my own cultural bias. To me, and perhaps to many Americans, events that happened three thousand (or even three hundred) years ago seem antiquated, mysterious, and perhaps unknowable. We want to put cultures and civilizations in categories with definitive dates attached, but the reality is much more complex. Regardless of our specific areas of interest, whether modern raqs sharqi or dance from some specific period of history, understanding the historical, political, and cultural environment is essential. Truly, Luxor taught me that the new is built atop the old.
Journey through Egypt, 2015, https://journeythroughegypt.com/. Accessed 07 Sep. 2022.
Lost Egypt Photographic Catalog. Oriental Institute: University of Chicago, 2022, https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/le/mosque-abul-haggag-luxor-temple. Accessed 08 Sep. 2022.
Whitcomb, D. and J. Johnson. “The Chicago Medieval Luxor Project.” 1985-86 Annual Report, pp. 31-34
Wickett, Elizabeth. “Archaeological Memory, the Leitmotifs of Ancient Egyptian Festival Tradition, and Cultural Legacy in the Festival Tradition of Luxor: The Mulid of Sidi Abu’l Hajjaj al-Uqsori and the Ancient Egyptian ‘Feast of Opet.’” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 45, 2009, pp. 403–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735464. Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.
Belly dance has been Rahil's constant companion for over half of her life (and the better half, she might add). While she's been dancing for almost 19 years, every day she approaches this art form with a fresh perspective and considers herself a lifelong student. Rahil has discovered that her passions for research and history, art and expression, teaching and mentorship, are all satisfied by her time spent with belly dance. She loves learning and growing as a dancer, and she is passionate about helping others learn and grow, too. She is the owner of KC Raqs World Dance Studio in Kansas City, where she teaches, performs, and hosts shows and events regularly. You can follow Rahil on Facebook (Middle Eastern Dance with Rahil), Instagram (rahil.dances), or check out her website: www.kc-raqs.com.