Upper Egypt

Luxor on a shoe string

The small non-star family-run hotels of old Gurna in Luxor in Upper Egypt have always been the choice of travellers, mostly those on a tight budget, who like to spend an untraditional vacation in the midst of the Theban necropolis surrounded by authentic rural life, lush green fields and mountains.

Old Gurna on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor

Old Gurna on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor

Thousands of travellers cross the Nile in Luxor every day from the east bank to the west, wandering around the temples and tombs of the Theban necropolis. After finishing their tour, the majority return back to the east. For those who opt to stay, however, their only choice has been to book a room in one of these hotels scattered around the village.

Most of them are clean, run by locals and are located adjacent to the ancient sites. Some have air-conditioned rooms, others have ceiling fans or have both, some have rooms with separate bathrooms, others have shared ones, some have TV’s and washing machines and others have not.

Marsam Hotel, founded by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul, who was a member of the clan who helped discover the Tomb of Seti I, tops the list of options. Situated in Gurna village itself, the hotel is situated directly beside the temple of Merenptah. It has a significant history. In 1920, the hotel was the site of the prestigious Chicago House, where American researchers did their studies and practical work.

Sheikh Ali Abdel RasoulPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Sheikh Ali Abdel Rasoul
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

When the Chicago House was moved to the city of Luxor, Sheikh Ali took over the whole area, including the building of the Chicago House- which turned to Al Marsam, a meeting point for artists, Egyptologists, and tourists from all over the world, where they discussed, exchanged their experiences in calm atmosphere and nice surrounding.

The hotel started with only ten simple rooms in the old Chicago building. But over the decades, Sheikh Ali’s place became so famous and demanded that he had to increase the number of rooms. In 1970, he built a new guesthouse with thick walls of mud bricks, small windows and domed ceiling, following the style of late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. This construction style keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.

Marsam facadePhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Marsam facade
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

Al Marsam is the oldest in the west bank area. It currently has 30 simple furnished rooms and a beautiful garden with seats in the shadow at the center of the hotel complex.

Most archaeological sites on the west bank of the Nile are within a walking distance from the hotel, except for the Valley of kings. The hotel can arrange excursions by bicycles, donkeys, horses, camels and cars to the ancient sites.

Al Marsam GardenPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

Al Marsam Garden
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

Double rooms without private bathroom are for LE100 per night, single rooms are for LE50 per person per night; double rooms with private bathroom are for LE150 per night, single rooms are for LE75 per person per night. Rates are inclusive of taxes. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast basis.

A bedroom in Al MarsamPhoto: Al Marsam Hotel

A bedroom in Al Marsam
Photo: Al Marsam Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.luxor-westbank.com/marsam_e.htm

Al-Gezirah Village, only few miles from the dock of the ferry in the west, accommodates a number of small hotels such as Amoun El- Gezirah Hotel, Al-Gezirah and Al-Gezirah Gardens.

Built in 1996, El-Gezirah Hotel is a family business that includes 11 air-conditioned rooms, a restaurant, a terrace, a roof garden overlooking the river Nile. Situated near the village of Gezirat El-Beirat, on an old branch of the Nile, guests would experience the traditional Egyptian village life.

Facade of Al Gezirah HotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

Facade of Al Gezirah Hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

Most archaeological sites on the west bank of the Nile are accessible from the hotel. Museums and temples of the east bank of the Nile are also accessible by ferries and motorboats.

Besides sightseeing, guests can enjoy visiting the local vegetable gardens and sugar cane fields. They can also go on donkey excursions, motorboat or felucca trips.

View from TerracePhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

View from Terrace
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

All rooms are located on the ground and second floors. They are equipped with a private bathroom, shower or tub and air-conditioning.

Single rooms are for LE100 per night;  double rooms are for LE75 per person per room per night; triple room is for LE70 per person per night. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast.

Rooms at Al Gezirah HotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Hotel

Rooms at Al Gezirah Hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.el-gezira.com/E/hotel.htm

If you look for a more sophisticated vacation, then the sister hotel Al-Gezirah Garden, adjacent to El Gezirah Hotel, is the place.

El-Gezirah Garden consists of 8 apartments and 18 double rooms. Each apartment on the upper floor consists of two rooms, a kitchen and a large bathroom. The apartments on the ground floor have two bathrooms and no kitchen. The apartment can accommodate four adults, or two adults and two children. All apartments and rooms are equipped with satellite TV, telephone and air-condition.

The garden at the hotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

The garden at the hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

For entertainment, the hotel has a garden, a swimming pool and billiard facility.

Rates for an apartment is 60 Euros per day, including breakfast and taxes; a double room for two persons is for 35 Euros and 25 Euros for one person with breakfast.

A double room at the hotelPhoto: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

A double room at the hotel
Photo: Al Gezirah Gardens Hotel

For more information, visit http://www.el-gezira.com/E/garden.htm

At the edge of the desert behind the ticket office in Medinat Habu, lies Pharaohs Hotel. Opened in 1984, the hotel has 20 double rooms, 10 triple rooms, all with private bath room and air condition. No telephone, television or radio are available in the rooms.

Mortuary Temple of Ramsis III in Medinat Habu

Mortuary Temple of Ramsis III in Medinat Habu

The hotel has an indoor and an outdoor restaurant, large garden terrace, reading corners and a billiard table. The sun beds at the spacious roof terrace invite guests not only for a sun bath, but also for a magnificent view up to the mountains, to the Habu Temple, the second largest temple after Karnak, and over the agricultural land to the Colossi of Memnon. During the excavation season in the winter months the hotel frequently is booked by international archaeologists. Therefore it also is called by the ancient name Per Äao (big house) from which the word pharaoh was adapted.

Travellers would find all kinds of entertainment at Pharaohs HotelPhotos: Pharaoh Hotel

Travellers would find all kinds of entertainment at Pharaohs Hotel
Photos: Pharaoh Hotel

Single rooms are for 18 Euros per night and double rooms are for 23 Euros per night. Rooms at the roof are a bit more expensive. Single rooms are for 26 Euros per night and double rooms are for 32 Euros per night. Accommodation is based on bed and breakfast.

For more information, visit http://www.luxor-westbank.com/pharaohs_e.htm

Whatever your budget and whichever your choice, if you opt to reside on the west bank and experience its riches, you will most definitely be residing in a hotel in a class of its own.

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Categories: Egypt, Hotels, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hooked on the Nile

For the adventurer with a taste for the serene, Lake Nasser fishing safaris are a bright spot in a sea of temples and ruins.

Have you ever considered spending the night on Lake Nasser in a fishing boat? Some travellers come to Egypt to do just that. No luxury hotels or air-conditioned buses here, just the symphony of nature and the unassuming splash of the lake’s abundant game.

It seems that not all tourists come to Egypt to do the culture thing; some come just to enjoy nature — and they are prepared to rough it. While the devotion of those who delight in casting a line — often without success for hours on end — is something non-enthusiasts can never share, these are adventure travellers, and the lake is the limit of their holiday terrain.

No matter if the day’s results are nothing more than a tale about the one that got away. This is a hobby, or even a passion, and having sampled the pristine beauty of Lake Nasser and its desert terrain, enthusiasts come again and again. Still predominantly a trip for die-hard anglers, tour operators are keeping their eyes on the trend with hopes that fishing safaris will flourish like other specialty tours, including desert safaris and deep-sea diving.

Photo: The African Angler

Photo: The African Angler

Although fishing trips are not offered by most travel agencies, African Angler, an Australian company, is sampling the potential. It could take off as a tourist draw; it may generate limited interest. Either way, the trips have introduced a fresh alternative for travellers to Egypt who have either traipsed the Luxor colonnades enough or for whom a civilisation dead for thousands of years doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

“I have been working in tourism in Egypt for a long time and I have always been interested in the potential of Lake Nasser,” said Tim Baily of African Angler. “When I first started looking into the possibility of launching an attraction to anglers, I learned that the lake was under military control.”

African Angler approached the governor and military officials in Aswan and was granted special permission to organise big game fresh-water fishing safaris. Like a desert or mountain-climbing safari, it’s not a trip you can go alone. Other than permission, you need transportation, provisions, professional guides, fishing and supply boats as well as sleeping bags and tents.

“We are not near a hospital, we cannot call an ambulance, so we have to take care to stay in contact with one another. In case of emergency, we have radios and can communicate with the police in Aswan, or get the military if help is needed,” Baily said.

Stretching between Aswan and northern Sudan, with some areas over 12 kilometres in width, Lake Nasser is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. A controversial outcome of the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s, the lake now nurtures a vibrant aquatic life, including Nile perch, tiger fish and vundu catfish, making it a splendid venue for fresh-water fishing.

“Most anglers who visit the lake for the first time will find themselves hauling in the biggest fresh-water fish of their lives,” said Baily.

Big catches have made a name for the lake as having a lot of potential, explains Baily. Two world records have been set at Lake Nasser, including a Nile perch weighing 213 pounds (about 97kg). When Larry Dahlberg, a famous American fisherman, went on a fishing safari with African Angler, he made a film about fishing on Lake Nasser. The safaris have also been featured on BBC2 and Thai television.

Lake fly caught record 67lbs- Jonathan BoultonPhoto: The African Angler

Lake fly caught record 67lbs- Jonathan Boulton
Photo: The African Angler

Another big catchPhoto: The African Angler

Another big catch
Photo: The African Angler

Photo: The African Angler

Photo: The African Angler

For those interested in the details, a safari trip usually includes one supply boat and two specially equipped fishing boats that accommodate six to eight anglers. The supply boat carries all the required equipment, provisions, fuel and shore staff. With its own built-in kitchen, dining facilities and large ice boxes, the boat enables the group to set up comfortable camps on shore, close to the best fishing areas, even when the shore-line is rocky or inhospitable. “In effect, it is a moving camp,” Baily notes.

Boat safari camp, mother ship and live aboard boats.Photo: African Angler

Boat safari camp, mother ship and live aboard boats.
Photo: African Angler

As for the two fishing boats, they serve as a mobile home and fishing platform. Each can accommodate from two to four persons and they have been designed “for tough work in remote areas.” Meals are prepared by the Nubian safari staff who, according to Baily, “have the ability to cook food in the middle of nowhere. They even bake fresh bread every morning.”

Safari crew camp; guides – party time.Photo: African Angler

Safari crew camp; guides – party time.
Photo: African Angler

The fishing boats are no luxury cruise vessel, but each has comfortable and functional on-board facilities, with two bunks enclosed by strong canvas tenting at night. In place of organised entertainment in the evenings, the only diversion is feeding left-overs from dinner to the animals that live around the lake.

One of the issues that concerns Baily is the conservation of the lake and the need to keep the water clear and unpolluted, not just to protect the different species of fish, but because the region is rich in flora and fauna. More than 100 species of birds have been recorded in the area, as well as crocodiles, Dorcas gazelles, jackals and desert foxes. Laws prohibiting hunting on the lake have never been seriously enforced. “I am extremely upset that hunting is allowed at the lake,” Baily says. “Hunting is destroying wildlife.”

Baily explained that African Angler has adopted a firm policy. “We look after the lake,” he said. “We never kill all fish we catch. We keep one or two for our meals, but release all other catches alive … for future visitors.”

Pelicans settling in for the night, isolate islands are used to escape predators.Photo: The African Angler

Pelicans settling in for the night, isolate islands are used to escape predators.
Photo: The African Angler

A typical day on Lake Nasser involves getting up at first light for a couple of hours of shore-fishing, followed by breakfast, explains Baily. The boats then set off for a day of trolling and shore-fishing.

“When we venture far from camp, a picnic is taken and the boats often meet up for lunch to exchange success stories. We then fish again until the sun sets,” says Baily. “At night, sitting in the desert camp beneath a canopy of stars, one hears the sounds of frogs and crickets, the call of an owl, howling jackals, night birds and the tantalising sound of a splash made by big fish feeding near the camp.”

Plovers competing for territory with a young crocodile.Photo: The African Angler

Plovers competing for territory with a young crocodile.
Photo: The African Angler

So, how successful are fishing safaris? Baily, who brings roughly 500 anglers from different parts of the world annually, believes that Lake Nasser has excellent potential. “Once anglers discover a good place to fish, they come back again and again,” Baily says, explaining that 47 per cent of his business is repeated business. But he concedes that there are a number of obstacles.

“Months of tiresome delay, red tape and bureaucracy are needed to get through five governmental departments for various permits,” he groans. “It’s all very time-consuming … and costly.”

For more information about African Angler, please visit their website, http://www.african-angler.co.uk/

Categories: Egypt, Environement, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Travellers of the senses

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to be a blind tourist; to see a country through touch, sound and smell. Yet, this is exactly what a group of blind German tourists did, several years ago, travelling from Cairo to Fayoum, Wadi Natroun and Upper Egypt.

“We always use the word ‘see’ when we describe something,” explained Carla Arning, the group organizer, who is specialized in tourism for the blind and the visually impaired. The verb used in this way means to get an impression of things through the other senses,” she said.

Wherever the group went, they would all listen very carefully to what the tour guide had to say before having their hands guided to the object described so as to trace its outlines with their fingers. When the monuments were too large to gauge by touch, as in the case of the alabaster sphinx at Memphis for example, they were given small reproduction statues to explore its shape.

“The blind have a right to travel and enjoy life, like any other people,” said Arning. “They should not be kept in dark rooms because they are blind, and nor should they be kept in the dark about other cultures.”

Arning has devoted her life to working with the blind. She explained that she is not paid for her work, feeling that God gave her special gifts to communicate with others and that it gives her pleasure to use these gifts.

Judging from the reactions of the 20 member group, Arning’s work is a great success. The group enjoyed every place they went to and felt that they had absorbed a great deal about the culture of Egypt.

“I was fascinated by Sakkara- the wide area, the many tombs, and the ability of the workers in ancient times to build such fantastic tombs with such wonderful paintings,” said Doris.

“I loved the Pyramids and the quarry and the unfinished obelisk in Aswan,” said another. “It is the contrast between the green and the brown, i.e., between the desert and the fields in Upper Egypt which attracted me most,” said a third.

The group spent a week in Cairo where they visited the Citadel, the mosques of Mohamed Ali, Sultan Hassan and Ibn Tulun, as well as Khan El-Khalili. They also went to Giza, Memphis and Sakkara. In Fayoum, they went to Lake Qarun, and then to the monasteries at Wadi Natrun. Finally, they spent a week on a Nile cruiser in Upper Egypt, where they visited Luxor, Aswan, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna.

Mohamed Ali Mosquewww.art.com

Mohamed Ali Mosque
http://www.art.com

Sultan Hassan Mosque

Sultan Hassan Mosque

 

At Sakkara, the group visited all the places which are on the regular tours. They “saw” Zoser’s Step Pyramid, Unas’ pyramid, the tombs of Mereruka and Ptah- Hotep. Before entering the tomb of Unas, a king of the Vth dynasty, the tour guide, Ziad Anwar, read some of the pyramid texts inscribed on the walls of the burial chamber. They were believed to have magical powers and were written by the priests to ensure that the deceased would overcome all difficulties in the afterlife. Reading some parts of the text before entering the burial chamber prepared the visitors for the hieroglyphic inscription they are going to touch inside. Inside the tomb of Mereruka, they touched the reliefs which depicted life of ancient Egyptians: their clothes and their children’s games.

Zoser's step pyramid at Sakkarawww.treklens.com

Zoser’s step pyramid at Sakkara
http://www.treklens.com

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis-Sakkarawww.ghandoury.wordpress.com

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis-Sakkara
http://www.ghandoury.wordpress.com

The group was equally impressed by the Islamic monuments they visited. During their visit to the Mohamed Ali mosque, they admired the charming Turkish Baroque ablution fountain which, in its individual and collective features, they were able to compare with similar sabils of the Mohamed Ali dynasty around Cairo. They also touched the magnificent marble cenotaph which marks Mohamed Ali’s resting place as well as the minbars (pulpits) in the mosque, the larger one of wood decorated with gilt and the smaller one of alabaster, a gift from King Farouk in 1939.

Each blind visitor was accompanied by a sighted companion who helped him or her throughout the trip, sometimes explaining places where they passing on the way. These companions were sometimes relatives, friends or colleagues of the blind people and sometimes volunteers.

One companion described the experience: “It is very different from touring alone. I have to describe everything I see. The problem is not only to guide the blind but to try to describe things to them all of the time,” said Martin Roth, a student from Goettingen.

“The difficulty,” said another,” is that you have to be attentive all of the time. However, I think I gained considerable experience in describing things.”

Most of the visitors in the group not blind from birth- but later lost their site. This facilitates the task of the guide to some extent, as they are able to imagine the shape and the colors described.

Erika Knoop, a telephonist, has partial sight. “When I touch any monument I can imagine it,” she said. Petra, a teacher from East Berlin, also talked about the impression she can get of an object by touching it. She can tell the size of a statue from simply touching its foot or leg. “One or two touches are enough to imagine how big it is,” she said.

Some of the group was already well-travelled. Ortwin Eileors, a telephonist in Hildesheim, for example, has already been, among other places, to China and Florida.  “Every country is different from the next,” he said, “The taste, the smell and the noises are different.”

“From the sounds I could hear I would feel that Cairo is both crowded and noisy. However, I also get an impression that its people are very friendly,” said Doris.

Doris was accompanied by Gerd, who is partially sighted. “My problem is how I can lead the blind while I am partially sighted myself. But I think it is a bit easier in a group,” he said. “In a group I won’t get lost because there is always someone looking for us,” he added.

Most of the companions on the trip expressed their willingness to do the job again, especially with people they knew already. “I wouldn’t do it with just anybody because that would be extremely difficult,” one companion said.

These tours are obviously tailor-made for the blind. “We have a lot more colors and more detail in our explanations,” said Arning. “Our tours are not done in a hurry. We spend a longer time at each site than other groups.”

Ziad, the tour guide, mentioned the importance of measurements. “A blind person will not understand terms as ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘high’, ‘low’. Actual measurements have to be used instead.

According to Arning, sighted people, who often care about pictorial images, miss out on a lot that the blind pick up on.

A special trip was also made to the Kalabsha temple, which is rarely visited by tourists. They chose to go there because it is generally empty and gave the group the chance to touch as much as they liked. It also enabled them to get acquainted with the shape of the temples, the inner sanctuary and the open court yard. Kalabsha was a sort of an introduction in the explanation of other temples.

There were some problems which faced the group. The first was in the Egyptian Museum where the tourists were only allowed to touch statues made of granite and diorite. “It is always a problem in my trips and it is always frustrating,” said Arning. “We are allowed to touch everything in all of the museums in the world, including the Pharaonic monuments, but in the Egyptian Museum there are restrictions,” she said.

Another problem was on the cruise in Upper Egypt, when the group complained about the music of the parties they attended. “The blind have sensitive ears and they could not stand the level of the noise,” says Arning.

Arning is on the opinion that it is better to have a small group, not exceeding 25, on such a special tour, because this gives the travellers a chance to enjoy themselves, and to take things at their own speed.

Categories: Cairo, Egypt, Giza, Travelers with Special Needs, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Luxor’s heydays

This article was published in February 1996 in Al Ahram Weekly newspaper.  I was in Luxor, in Upper Egypt, when I met with the owner of the oldest bookstore in Luxor, Abdallah Gaddis, who died two years after this interview. Gaddis has withstood the fluctuating tides of tourism from World War II to the post-Gulf War era and I decided to flip, with him, through the pages of history.

Gaddis bookstore at Winter Palace Hotel

Gaddis bookstore at Winter Palace Hotel

Abdallah Gaddis was barely one year old when Howard Carter discovered the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1921 but he can relay his father’s impression of the spectacular flux of tourists Luxor witnessed at the time. “It was the most successful year ever. Hundreds of the aristocrats and the members of the press flocked here to witness and cover the discovery,” says Gaddis, who runs the shop his father opened in 1907.

One of the historical photographs taken by Abdallah's father. Howard Carter unwrapping Tutankhamun's mummy

One of the historical photographs taken by Abdallah’s father. Howard Carter unwrapping Tutankhamun’s mummy

A seasoned member of the tourist industry, Gaddis has welcomed widely different customers during many seasons, eras and wars into the Gaddis bookstore that neighbors the legendary Winter Palace Hotel. He’s shared conversation and books with the European elite, the habitués of modern package-tours, with bargain-hunters and backpackers. And despite his versatility, he is definitely nostalgic about the “good old days.” “My clients were the world’s richest and most elegant aristocrats; the cream of the society,” recalls the 74-year old Gaddis.  “They toured the sites in their best clothing; women in furs and elegant dresses and the men in suits.”

Customers making purchases in the 1940s

  Customers making purchases in the 1940s

 

Customers in 1956

Customers in 1956

Early visitors preparing for a flight  over ancient monuments in Luxor

Early visitors preparing for a flight over ancient monuments in Luxor

 

But times were not always peachy. The wars Gaddis and his father witnessed often struck bad blows to the business. But his father did manage to expand the store during World War II, when the British and American tenants of the surrounding three shops did not return to Egypt for the tourist season. “The owner asked my father if he would like to rent all three premises. He agreed and paid a nominal price for them.”

His father once sold silver and gold ware, learning trade secrets from his friends in Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili. He then turned the shops into one bookshop, specializing in books and photographs about Egypt, and particularly monuments. “My father was a pioneer in a field hitherto monopolized by Greeks and Jews, says Gaddis.

gaddis_shop_4

Books, post cards, souvenirs and photos are among the products sold by Gaddis bookstore

 

When Gaddis took over the bookshop in the later 1930s, he would often keep it open past midnight, long after the crowds of tourists had retreated to their hotels. “My clients could then quietly select their books and decide which photographs appealed to them. “ Not only was his bookstore frequented by the wealthy, but the wealthy were willing to spend heavily on his books, making LE1,000 or LE2,000 purchases,  “a fortune in those days,” says Gaddis.

He remembers that “only one Maltese officer and 25 Egyptian soldiers” guarded the monuments of Luxor, Karnak and the Nile’s west bank in the 1930s, and only 40 guides or torgomen, toured the sites with visitors. “They wore traditional caftan, tarboush or emma (turban)” he recalls. “They were cultured though not necessarily university graduates. They were enthusiastic readers of ancient history of which acquired profound knowledge. And they spoke English or French or both.”

He recalls that the Winter Palace Hotel would have the guides work in rotation. If a group of 50 tourists arrived, for example, four were allocated one tour guide at LE2 a day. “At the end of the trip the visitors usually give an envelope to the guide containing LE100 in appreciation of his efforts. That was a good income then. “But conditions for the torgomen changed in the 1960s when they became too old to work.

Winter Palace Hotel, one of the oldest in Luxor and Egypt www.sofitel.com

Winter Palace Hotel, one of the oldest in Luxor and Egypt
http://www.sofitel.com

Luxor also had a fixed tourist season at the time; from mid-December to the end of March, and the hotels would open only during those four months, recalls Gaddis. Egypt was still under the British occupation and Luxor was not heavily populated. During off-season, he says, “it was unusual to see a single pedestrian before noon. Only a few fruit, vegetable and clothing shops were open.”

This changed after President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a visit to Luxor in November of 1952. “He met with local businessmen,” Gaddis said, “and we told him that we wanted the hotels to stay open all year round. When Nasser asked us if we could guarantee tourists throughout the year, we suggested carrying out of a two-year experiment. It proved so successful that all the hotels opened in the summer and the winter.

A flying boat moored outside the Winter Palace

  A flying boat moored outside the Winter Palace Hotel

But business has never been good during wars, says Gaddis. A few years before the outbreak of World War II, a worldwide economic depression drastically affected tourist movement to Egypt, and consequently Luxor. “In place of wealthy tourists,” said Gaddis, “British soldiers were brought in in large numbers by Eastmar Travel to see the monuments of Upper Egypt.”

At that time as well, he says, Egyptians began to visit Luxor. “They would leave Cairo and Alexandria in the winter and spend at least two months at the Winter Palace.” While tourists from abroad only trickled to Luxor in the war years, it was only four years after the war that Germans, British and Americans came in large numbers. “The situation improved,” says Gaddis. “Tourism was at a peak at the time of the July 1952 Revolution.

Another peak, says Gaddis, was during the 1960s with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and following UNESCO’s decision to relocate the temples of Abu Simbel. “There was a tremendous influx of visitors for three years. They were anxious to take a last look at the temples at their original sites before they were dismantled and transported to other locations. Hotels were full.”

The early days of Gaddis & Co

The early days of Gaddis & Co

Gaddis &Co in 2007, 100 years later

Gaddis &Co in 2007, 100 years later

 

But then there was the June 1967. “On the day the war broke out, there was not a single empty room. We had three bad months before tourism revived,” says Gaddis whose shop was exempted from rent for one year by the government.

Gaddis believes that the most severe slump came during the Gulf War, and to an extent not even seen during the wars with Israel. “When the Americans shot the first bullet in the Gulf, there was not a single tourist in Luxor. Conditions improved after the war but then terrorism followed and tourism dropped again.”

Today, books about Egypt in English, French, German and Arabic fill the shelves of the bookshop and potential buyers have a large choice of publications, from the famous Blue Guide and Insight Guides to specialized books, souvenir publications and coffee-table editions. Never before have the shelves of Gaddis  been so heavily stocked.

For more information about the history and products of this historical bookstore, visit http://www.gaddis-luxor.co.uk/gaddis_shop/index.htm

Categories: Egypt, Travel History, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hanging Monastery in Assiut

The religious life is always one that is devoted to God, but for those who choose the monastic tradition, it is a life of seclusion. Keeping to themselves is hardly a problem at the remote monastery of Saint Mina Al-Agaiby (the miraculous), on the east bank of the Nile near Assiut, in Upper Egypt, where even the locals cannot give you directions.

You probably heard of the hanging church in Cairo, but have you heard of the suspended monastery? Better known as Deir El-Mualaq (literally, the suspended monastery), the monastery is nestled high up between two massive rocks in the mountain of Abu Foda, roughly 170 metres above ground level.

Deir El- Mualaq, 170 metres among ground level. Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

Deir El- Mualaq, 170 metres among ground level. Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

When we reached the foot of the mountain and I looked up at the monastery virtually hanging in the rock face, I thought for sure we would never reach it. The steep road that leads up to the monastery was not for cars that are weak at heart, and so, like the ancient pilgrims before us, we were forced to make the last part of our trek up to the monastery the old-fashioned way — on foot.

You can see the big contrast between the green fields and the desert from the top of the monastery. Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

You can see the big contrast between the green fields and the desert from the top of the monastery. Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

Getting to Abu Foda is in itself a trek. The village of El-Maabdna, which lies at the foot of the mountain, is situated on the outskirts of the city of Abnoub, roughly 35 kilometres northeast of Assiut. We had to cross the Nile by ferry and then hire a car to the monastery. Making your way across the Nile in this part of Upper Egypt is a mini-vacation through Egypt’s natural elements: the lush, green agricultural lands, the calm waters of the Nile and the desert beyond.

Once on the east bank of the Nile, we made our way along the narrow road, lined with palm trees, out to Abu Foda. We passed farms and small traditional homes and saw children playing. What we didn’t see were any signs telling us we were even remotely in the right place. There was no indication that Dier Al-Mualaq was in our midst, much less a scrap of an arrow pointing “this way.”

But I’ll say it now: the trip is worth it. From the monastery the view is breathtaking, and the ascent up the stairway that leads to the monastery is one you will probably make alone. We spotted the ruins of a small village, believed to be a Coptic community from the fifth century A.D. while making our way up to the ancient keep (tower).

Partly built of brick and partly rock-hewn, the keep is divided into three floors, the first mainly populated with cells for the monks. The second floor consists of three rooms used as a sacrificial hall in honour of the saint. The third floor leads to the top of the keep, where the two churches of the monastery are located, both carved into the rock.

The Church of Saint Mina is a modest place of worship, built into an ancient cave. No rich rugs, icons or chandeliers here; its significance is its age and location. The wooden gate of the presbytery bears Coptic inscriptions like those on the gates of El-Suryani (the so-called Monastery of the Syrians) at Wadi Al-Natrun. One of the monks accompanying me explained that the Arabic and Coptic inscriptions on the gate were the names of people who had financed some restorations inside the monastery some 300 years ago. The monastery’s other church was converted from a Pharaonic temple. Today it is the Church of the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael, but the ancient shrine is still evident in the Pharaonic inscriptions that remain.

The wooden gate of the presbytery bears Coptic inscriptions like those on the gates of El-Suryani.Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

The wooden gate of the presbytery bears Coptic inscriptions like those on the gates of El-Suryani.
Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

According to Bishop Lukas of Abnoub, the monastery is typical of the hermitages around Assiut from the fourth century, when monks used to live in different places, without a uniform style. “For example, Saint Yohanna El-Assiuti lived in a two-room cell with a window, through which he could see those who came to visit him,” Bishop Lukas explained. “Other monks lived in small monastic communities. Still others lived alone in caves, either at the edge of the agricultural land, or deep in the desert.”

At the time, the Nile attracted many monastic groups; echoing earlier Pharaonic traditions of making offerings and prayers to the river to ensure a good crop. “Some monks took on the responsibility of praying for a good flood,” Bishop Lukas said. “Saint Yohanna El-Assiuti had the reputation of knowing the unknown, and was able to predict the rise and fall of the flood, as well as anticipate the crops. For that reason, during the annual celebrations performed at the beginning of the flood season, he was asked to bless the water of the Nile instead of the pagan priest.”

The monastery itself has been renovated, with two new buildings constructed beside the ancient keep. One houses an icon of Saint Mina Al-Agaibi, the other is used as a storeroom for incense, candles, oil and flour for the sacred bread. New cells for monks were also set up, as well as a new receiving hall for visitors. I asked around to find out if the monastery had a steady flow of visitors, but it seems that it is mainly a place of pilgrimage for Egyptians, who tend to come in big numbers during the annual mulid, which takes place from 8 July to 8 August. Foreigners are few and far between.

But it is obvious that one need not be a Copt to appreciate both the beauty and serenity of Deir El-Mualaq. I wondered whether the monastery could develop into a tourist destination — and whether the monks would in fact want to play host to backpackers and holy route tourists veering off their itinerary. For now, Deir El-Mualaq is best left as it is.

Map of Assiut

Map of Assiut

Categories: Egypt, Uncategorized, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ancient tombs unearthed in Egyptian city of Luxor

Ancient tombs unearthed in Egyptian city of Luxor

Italian archaeologists have unearthed tombs in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor that are more than 3,000 years old.

Egypt’s antiquities ministry says the tombs were found under the mortuary temple of the Pharoah Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1427 BC to 1401 BC.

The temple is located on the western bank of the River Nile.

The ministry said remains of wooden sarcophaguses and human bones were found inside the tombs.

Jars used to preserve the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines of the deceased were also found, decorated with images of the four sons of the god Horus.

The figures – which have the heads of a human, a baboon, a jackal and a falcon – were believed to help the soul find its way to heaven.

Wafaa Elsaddik, a professor of Egyptology, told the BBC the find was significant because it showed that temples were not just used for worship, but for burial as well.

She said the jars were of very good quality which suggested that the tombs had belonged to wealthy people.

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Thebes Revisited

Since the ancient Greeks made their first journey to Thebes, Luxor has always been an unforgettable experience.

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The Colossi of Memnon

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

My last trip to Luxor was in October 1997, when I attended the final performance of Verdi’s opera Aida at Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir Al-Bahari — the year before it was moved to the Giza Plateau. Much has changed since then. Streets have become wider, the Corniche has acquired a new, reformed façade, and an assortment of five-star hotels have sprouted throughout the city.

The visit, for me, begins in the sky — my heart literally pounding as the plane approaches Luxor International Airport. I spot Homer’s hundred-gated Thebes, its gigantic temples appearing like matchboxes from the air, surrounded by a blanket of yellow and green stripes — the collage of the desert and its neighbouring agricultural land. Nearby, a sliver of blue marks the Nile, dividing the city into its two characteristic entities. The east bank houses the city and its main state temples, and the west holds the mortuary temples and tombs.

I have been to the ancient city over 20 times. This time, I opted for something special, treating myself to one of Luxor’s most exclusive resorts, the Maritim Jolie Ville Luxor Island Resort on Crocodile Island. The island earned its name many years ago, when it became the favoured domicile for the river’s reptilian giants before the building of the Aswan High Dam hemmed them in to the new Lake Nasser.

The trip from the airport takes 45 minutes. We check in and are guided to our rooms — an excursion in itself, allowing us to take in an array of Southern Egypt’s rich flora and fauna. We pass through the resort’s tropical garden and dozens of surrounding bungalows. The low-lying buildings and unobtrusive landscaping allowed me to do some amateur bird- watching, first on the walk and later from my room. I spot a panoply of colourful species flying from one tree to another. The resort is in fact known as one of Egypt’s best bird- watching locations. The only obstruction to the skies are palm trees which shed dates with abandon. The surrounding tropical garden hosts over 100 species of plants — ornamental, tropical and aquatic, both Egyptian and from around the world.

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Maritim Jolie Ville Luxor

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Spur-winged Plover, one of the bird species on Crocodile Island in LuxorImage

You can also spot a hoopoe

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A Whiskered- Tern

After settling into our rooms and eating a lavish breakfast, we waited for Ibrahim, driver for the Supreme Council of Luxor, who arrived at noon to take us to the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

THE TEMPLE OF AMUN: Our first stop was the Karnak Temples — a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks, all dedicated to the Theban gods. Everything at Karnak is on a gigantic scale. The site measures 1.5 kilometres by 800 metres and the first pylon is advertised as double the size of the one at Luxor Temple.

Built, renovated, dismantled, restored, enlarged and decorated over a period of nearly 1,500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in all Egypt during the height of Theban power. It was known as Ipet-Isut, meaning “the most perfect of places”.

At the centre of this remarkable space is the vast Amun Temple enclosure (sometimes referred to as the Precinct of Amun), complete with a large sacred lake. This was the main place of worship of the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons, and is the site of the famous Hypostyle Hall, a spectacular forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns.

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The Hypostyle Hall

“It is a place that has been much written about and often painted; but of which no writing and no art can convey more than a dwarfed and pallid impression … the scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one’s own dumbness, and littleness, and incapability, too complete and crushing,” wrote Amelia Edwards, a 19th-century writer and artist who journeyed the Nile and visited the temples.

As I conjure Edward’s words in my head, and envisioned her writing amidst the ancient structures, I heard an echo from one of the shaded corners of the temple.

“This is the Holy of the Holies, the place where Amun was worshipped and where offerings were made,” the voice said. “And this is Tuthmosis III’s Hall of Festivities; a few parts of it were turned into a church in the Roman period.”

The voice is that of Amm Sayed, one of the temple’s seasoned guards, narrating the history of the site and deciphering its walls in return for a touch of baqsheesh (tips).

“In the past, travellers coming to Luxor were different,” he explains. “They were more wealthy, more cultured and more elegant. Luxor itself was different. There were no cars, only hantours (horse-drawn carriages), there were also only two hotels, the Winter Palace on the Corniche and Luxor Wena Hotel, in front of Luxor Temple. The only boats cruising up the Nile to Aswan were Sudan, Isis, Osiris, and King Farouk’s Qased Kheir.”

Even the nationality of visitors has changed.”And you know, we used to have lots of British. Now they are few. We have Italians, Spanish, Czechs and Russians instead. Russians used to come to Egypt in the days of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Today the Russians are different. They are wealthier,” he reminisces. “Those were the good old days. However, I must admit, my status as a guard now is better than it was in those days. Now I have a fixed salary and the city itself has improved. Now we have clean drinking water, a sound sewage system and better roads. You can’t have it all.”

Karnak is crawling with travellers. They gaze up at the structures, snapping away with their cameras, or stroll mindlessly through the columns. Amidst the individual gatherings of Italians, Spaniards, Germans and Japanese, the voice of a guide would filter out — each one trying to project his voice louder than the next. It appears, to the outsider, to be an especially good season for tourism.

But suddenly, with seemingly no forewarning, the crowds vanish and the temple sits nearly empty. I later learn that many divers take the day off from their Hurghada schedule to visit Luxor for a day, arriving at 11am and leaving by 6pm.

“This is a ‘false’ crowdedness,” one of the hoteliers who spoke on condition of anonymity explains. “It gives the impression that we have plenty of tourists whereas we don’t. We don’t benefit from them. Luxor gains only LE12 from each as a lunch charge in addition to the entry fees of ancient sites.”

We departed the site at 2pm and decided to return to the serenity of our island where we dine in the cool interior and walk through the gardens listening to the hotel’s soothing background music as the sun seemingly sinks into the Nile.

THE TEMPLE OF ALL ERAS: There is nothing more spectacular than Luxor Temple at night. The architecture lit with pastel lights bounces off the carved relief to form a show of shadows on the temple walls, pillars and floor.Entrance to the temple is from the Corniche gate. No buses are allowed beyond this point.

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The temple life span is of a mind-boggling length. First built by Amenhotep III in 1500 BC, it was enlarged by Ramsis II in 1300 BC, and partly restored by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. One part of it was reused as a church by fifth-century AD Christians. The northeast side is composed of the still-used 13th century Mosque of Abul-Haggag.

The temple sits on the site of an older sanctuary built by Hatshepsut and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons. Amenhotep greatly enlarged Hatshepsut’s shrine and rededicated the massive temple as Amun’s southern Ipet or sanctuary — the private quarters of the god.

That night there are a handful of tourists in the temple; the serenity of the surroundings broken only by their light chatter and the hypnotic preaching of a sheikh at the Mosque of Abul-Haggag.

Within the mosque, inviting entrance with external green lamps and tea-light decorations, crowds of people gather, some of the children peering from the mashrabiya windows and waving to passers-by.

“These decorations are for the moulid (religious festival) of Abul-Haggag and tomorrow is al-leila al-kebira,” explains Seifeddin Gado, a 50-year-old guard of the Luxor Temple. “It is always held in mid-Sha’ban (the Islamic calendar month preceding the holy month of Ramadan), and thousands of people from Luxor and neighbouring villages celebrate the event. People usually open their houses to guests to eat rice, vegetables and kebab.” The kebab Gado spoke of, I later discover, is not the usual kebab found in Cairene eateries, but rather, a golf ball-sized concoction of minced meat and wheat (similar to Cairo’s kofta).

The moulid is held in honour of Youssef Abul-Haggag, Luxor’s patron saint, a 13th-century Iraqi who settled in Luxor. Many of his descendants still live in the area. This is not the only moulid in Luxor, but it is by far the largest. There are the moulids of Sheikh Ali Moussa and Abul-Goud on the east bank, and Sheikh Ahmed El-Adasi, and Abul-Gomsan in Gurna on the west bank. Most of these moulids take place during Ragab and Sha’ban, the two months preceding Ramadan.

AN INDIAN NIGHT: We leave Luxor Temple at 8pm, considering, momentarily, dining at a local Luxor restaurant, which had treated me to tasty fare in the past. Instead, however, we pampered ourselves once again, opting for the cuisine of one of the city’s five-star hotels.

The plan was to go to the Italian La Mama at the Sheraton Luxor Resort — a personal all-time favourite. But we decided to try something new. We ended up at the hotel’s Indian restaurant, Agra.

Agra is welcoming, a cozy atmosphere complimented by Indian architecture and motifs. Sitting at a table facing a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal, we survey the portraits of elephants, Indian dancers and temples covering the walls. Indian music plays in the background, and the aroma of Indian spices fills the air.

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Agra Restaurant at Sheraton Luxor

Given my ignorance of Indian specialties, I asked the waiter to choose for me. Tandoori, I learn that night, is not a kind of food, but rather a method of cooking. All tandoori items are baked in a clay oven and then served in a cast iron plate with mint sauce. It is decided that the photographer and I will have the tandoori bahaar, a dish of mixed grills cooked “à la Tandoori”.

Our “mild” appetisers came first, accompanied by two kinds of bread; mint paratha, a baladi- like bread made of whole wheat flour with fresh mint, and tandoori roti, a crispy dry whole wheat bread.

We dip the mint paratha in dal makhani (a dish of black lentils simmered with tomato and cream sauce). It overflows with flavour. The palak mushroom, a spinach and mushroom dish, is a bit too spicy for my tongue, but nonetheless tasty.

The roti crispy bread smells tantalising. It tastes equally good — except for one small problem for those with taste buds like mine. When you first bite in it comes across as tasty and mild, but once you down the first mouthful the intense spice begins to burn!

The pickled mango evokes a similar response, tasting somewhat like apricot with more than a dash of salt blended in.

Our main course is also up to expectations, with mouth-watering grilled meat, shrimp, chicken and kofta. The photographer delighted in the cuisine as did I, except for my inability to deal with the Indian definition of “mild”!

Having long bid our driver goodnight, we depart to the hotel on foot. We had been assured by him that the walk from the Sheraton to our hotel was just one kilometre. The first portion of our walk took us to Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Street, after which a right turn takes us to the road leading home, a two-way green-lined street. We walk and walk and walk. A good 15 minutes later lights appear ahead.”This must be the hotel,” the photographer says, relieved.

We should be so lucky. The walk went on, at least an hour passing since our departure from the Sheraton. When we finally arrive home, we are pleasantly informed that our wanderings had been in the four kilometre range.”I think Ibrahim had to tell us that because he was tired and wanted to go home,” the photographer laughs.

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The Valley of Kings at the west bank of the Nile

THE WEST BANK: The following morning is our designated west bank day — starting with the Valley of the Kings and then moving on to Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir Al-Bahari. On our way back we stop at an alabaster factory called Hatshepsut, where we observed local workers mould replicas of Pharaonic statues out of rock quarried from the mountains of the valley. The people of Gurna are known to be the only ones in Egypt to have mastered this kind of art — a talent passed down from their ancestors. There are many alabaster shops, displays and workshops in the area. Watch out for machine-made items that are less expensive but of lesser quality.

SUNSET FELUCCA: A late (5pm) lunch by the Nile is followed by a felucca to nearby Birds Island. The weather is unfortunately and unseasonably hot. Without much of a breeze, rayyes (captain) Mukhtar has to row most of the journey. Half an hour later, though, the wind died completely, and every sailor on the Nile got to work connecting each boat to the next by rope. A motor boat then came and pulled us all, in one long line.

The obscurity of the scene, coupled with the lush surroundings, a sunset-coloured sky, and the tales of our rayyes made it a most memorable ride.

“Tonight is al-leila al-kebira of Abul-Haggag,” he tells us. “This is something that you should not miss. I am going there right now. This is our feast.”

MOULID ABUL-HAGGAG: The moulid was unlike any I have attended in Cairo. During al-leila al-kebira, the area surrounding the Mosque of Abul-Haggag and all the roads leading to it are eccentrically decorated with lights that reflect the spirit of the festivities. Vendors from Luxor and neighbouring villages peddle their local halaweyyat al-moulid (the sweets of the celebration), tarateer (party hats), zamameer (whistles), balloons, fake golden bracelets, earrings and rings, food and soft drinks. Thousands of Upper Egyptians flock to the mosque to visit the sanctuary of Sheikh Abul-Haggag. A large area attached to the mosque is enclosed with a tent where munshids (cantors) perform religious songs, and Sufis partake in the zikr (remembrance).

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Moulid Abuel Haggag

The night may be raucous, but the actual peak of the moulid comes the following morning, on the final day of celebration (al-dora). A camel with a tag bearing Abul-Haggag’s name kneels at the door of the mosque with a cord hobbling its feet. After Friday prayers, according to tradition, the imam, the highest religious authority of the mosque, cuts the cord binding the camel’s feet, allowing the majestic desert beast to rise, to the cheers of locals. It then starts to run through the densely-packed streets followed by a parade of thousands of celebrants singing and dancing, accompanied by camels adorned with colourful silk scarves. People cheer, laugh and chant with unwavering enthusiasm. All of this symbolising the beginning of Abul-Haggag’s journey to Luxor.

The parade also had a nautical motif. A large boat — and sometimes three boats — are carried by donkey-driven carts resembling the solar barque processions of Pharaonic times where one of the gods was taken from his/her own temple to that of another in a boat. In Islamic symbolism the boat is often considered a vehicle for spiritual knowledge and thus the procession may well focus the attention of the populace upon the search for this. As the boats paraded by, crowds revelled in traditional entertainment. There are tahteeb (stick fights) to rhythmic music and horse races in which the horses are adorned with saddles knit of gold and silver threads.

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STUCK AT THE AIRPORT: Our final day is slow and peaceful — lunch, shopping, a stroll and dinner.We arrive at the airport at 10.30pm, in plenty of time for our 11.45pm flight.But the check-in counter holds a surprise.”You should have travelled on the 11.45am flight and not the 11.45pm flight,” the EgyptAir official informs us. “You will be on a waiting list.”

Luckily, we got the last two seats. But not without a fuss.”You can’t board until you pay the fine,” we are told. “You didn’t show up in the morning, so you must pay LE77 each.”

The clerk is insistent and we are too tired to argue. We pay, board and arrive home exhausted at 1am. Not quite the perfect ending to an otherwise spectacular trip, but certainly not enough to take away the joy of three days of bliss.

Categories: Egypt, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghosts of traders past

Once a major commercial and industrial centre in the Ottoman era, Assiut is known for its wikalas where merchants and traders used to assemble to sell their goods. Despite their historical importance, they are neglected.

Well-known for its Pharaonic and Christian monuments, Assiut is still more in the business of daily living than shuttling tourists from site to site. A relaxing and picturesque city, it is nonetheless heavily populated and hardly accustomed to catering to the needs and expectations of the foreign traveller. But as someone familiar with this generally undervisited city, I have always appreciated my visits as an opportunity to explore the area’s lesser-known spots.

One of the wekalas in the old market of Assiut.Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

One of the wekalas in the old market of Assiut.
Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

Assiut is a natural departure point for interesting sites like the rock tombs of Mier and the Coptic monasteries of Dronka and Al-Muharraq. But during my last visit, when I found myself with some extra time on my hands, I decided to search for something new. A friend had suggested I go to the western part of the city and visit the wikalas in Al-Qesariyya. “It’s the oldest part of the city,” Adel told me, “and if you want to capture the real spirit of old Assiut, that is the place to go.”

Not that I didn’t trust my friend Adel, but I wasn’t so sure. So when he started to tell me how the wikalas — old commercial centres housed in large buildings — in Assiut were comparable to the vibrant trading centres we have in Cairo, like Wikalat Al-Ghuri and Wikalat Al-Balah, I got interested. What he didn’t tell me was that the communal trading of Assiut’s old wikalas is alive and well: the wikalas, however, barely remain.

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Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

 The wikala has served many functions, both as public and private space, since its introduction in Egypt during the Fatimid era. Historically, however, wikalas were large buildings, usually two stories, where merchants and traders assembled in a large main hall to sell their goods. Off the main communal area were chambers used for storing the merchants’ goods and the upper floor functioned as something of an inn, providing rooms complete with kitchens and bathrooms for itinerant traders. Money raised from the wikala sometimes went toward an adjacent mosque — the builder or owner’s way of offering a community service. Wikalas continued to be a feature of urban society through to Ottoman times.

Ready to take on the wikalas of Al-Qesariyya, I left my hotel in Assiut early in the morning, thinking it would be a straightforward journey westward. But like most big cities, Assiut’s streets were crowded with women and children buying the day’s household needs and people making their way to work. Students and school-children clogged the little road space that wasn’t blocked up with cars. I seemed to have hit the rush hour and it was hard going.

Stuck in the car, I had a little time to contemplate Assiut as the major commercial and industrial centre it once was in the Ottoman era. A major stop on the Darb Al-Arbi’in road, which leads south, Assiut was also famous for its textile and oil industries. Merchants regularly passed through the city, either as a stopover or to replenish their supplies on their way to what is now Sudan. With this in mind, I had envisaged Assiut’s wikalas to be grand, stately halls, perhaps tarnished and worn down by time, but still carrying vestiges of their former prominence.

When I finally reached Al-Qesariyya, what I found was a far cry from what I had imagined. I found myself in a large, bustling marketplace with rows of shops on both sides stocked with every item imaginable: food, clothes, spices, plastics, perfume, vegetables, fruit. I saw carpenters, upholsterers, blacksmiths and other craftsmen at work. The marketplace was colourful and buzzing with activity — but where were the wikalas?

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Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

It didn’t take long to realise that the historic wikalas were not monuments to be visited and toured; they were simply crumbling buildings interspersed among the modern trading areas. Goods were displayed and stored alongside ahwas (coffee shops), where the merchants gathered, drinking, smoking and socialising. They may be historic Ottoman sites, but to the locals of west Assiut, they were nothing more than walls on which to lean. I was tempted to give up and go back to my hotel when I spotted a big billboard in the middle of the marketplace — a professional sign that looked like a tourist marker bearing the names of the wikalas and the so-called Bath of Sabet.

I sought out the Bath of Sabet, only to find that it was closed. After asking around, I found a guard who told me that the site was being restored, but I found no evidence of this in its run-down entrance or the painfully neglected surroundings. Feeling somewhat discouraged, I decided to check the place out anyhow, and was allowed in. From the moment I entered, I saw immediately that the bath, comprised of several halls used for different stages of hot water and steam, was once quite beautiful. We passed through another domed hall into the central hall, its floor made of marble and dotted with a number of benches where people could rest after their bath and sauna.

In one of the few books on Assiut I was able to lay my hands on, the Bath of Sabet is described as the only medieval public bath in Assiut and its neighbouring cities. Situated beside the mosque of Galaleddin El-Siyouti, its architecture is said to be unique. To me, the tourist potential was obvious, but whatever the previous efforts to take advantage of the site were, they have long since crumbled with the scaling walls. The monument is in sorrowful condition. The wikalas I found in Al-Qesariyya have hardly fared better.

laWikalat Lutfi, whose western facade overlooks Al-Khan alley, was built in 1629 by Lutfi Abdel-Gawad, then one of Egypt’s important magnates. Lutfi turned the wikala into a waqf (charitable endowment), which would benefit the neighbouring mosque that bore his name. Wikalat Al-Kashef was built by Prince Mohamed Kashef Bekzada in 1821. Wikalat Sabet, situated alongside the mosque of Galaleddin El-Siyouti and overlooking Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha Street, was built by Mohamed Sabet in 1822. Down the street from Wikalat Sabet is Wikalat Shalabi, built two years later.

In 1853, Wikalat Mohamed El-Hilali, a commanding 23-room structure built with rock and roofed with palm tree trunks, was established by Hagg Mohamed Farghali Abdel-Fatah El-Hilali. El-Hilali, then the head of the merchants guild, was said to have had good trade connections with Sudan. Moreover, he was also a relative of Omar Makram, who at the time was a prominent Egyptian leader under Mohamed Ali.

Surprised to find that such precious historic sites were so poorly treated, I looked into the matter on my return to Cairo. Speaking with Amaal El-Amri of the Faculty of Antiquities at Cairo University, I learned that of the nine wikalas established in Assiut, only five remain. “They are of great historical importance,” El-Amri told me. “However, their state is miserable. Too many people and sellers have encroached on them.”

Well, I had experienced this for myself. Upon entering one of the wikalas in Al-Qesariyya, I found a group of merchants occupying most of the building, with every corner and storage space crammed full of either goods or garbage. Here plastics, there cartons, in a far corner, metal tins. The second floor, once a comfortable hotel for traders, looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. But no sooner had I asked my accompanying photographer to take some photos of the interior than a guard materialised out of nowhere warning that pictures were “mamnu’a!” (forbidden). This, I was told, was because the site was “under restoration” — yet I noticed that this antiquities guard did not seem to think that merchants sitting around smoking shisha (waterpipe) and using the place as a private shop was a threat to the supposed restoration.

El-Amri scoffed at the situation as “absurd,” claiming that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) should save the sites since the wikalas of Assiut are the only places there that dates back to the Ottoman era. When asked about the local inhabitants who have inhabited the area, she added, “these people will have to be relocated before any restoration begins.”

Sometimes, the more you dig, the more you find that you might have been better off never knowing. I left Assiut with mixed feelings this time around, having discovered an area of the city comparable in historic relevance to many places in Old Cairo — but also saddened by the decrepit condition in which these sites remain. Forgotten by time and deemed, for the time being, unworthy of restoration, I realised that there was little hope for the wikalas of Assiut. And though I have always enjoyed this city, I worry about what other assets the city may hold, buried in neglect.

Categories: Egypt, Upper Egypt | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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