Posts Tagged With: Fayoum

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

Mohamed Ali Mosque

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

Zoser’s step pyramid at Sakkara

The alabaster Sphinx at

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis-Sakkara

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

Colours of the Sun Bird

If you want to know, or want your child to know, how the environment has influenced the farmer’s character, his life style, traditions, customs, tools, and ethnic dress in Egypt — then this culture garden at Mansouriya is the place for you and your family to visit.

The Sun Bird garden in Mansouriya, south-west of Cairo near the Giza pyramids, is unlike any other garden. This is a place where you can not only enjoy nature, but also learn: how fruit and vegetables are cultivated and what their seeds and flowers look like. On this living museum of contemporary life one can also observe how farmers live, what their homes are like and the traditions and customs they follow. The display encompasses a glimpse of the life of all the farmers of Egypt, from the Nile Delta in the north to Nubia in the south.

This “culture garden,” as its owner likes to call it, is a place where adults and children from at home and abroad can see the birds and animals which help the farmer in his daily life. Visitors can tour sections demonstrating such traditional crafts as pottery, weaving and the production of honey. The culture garden is divided into sections representing Egypt’s governorates, of which Fayoum and Sinai are particularly interesting. Here are illustrations of migratory birds and plants indigenous to the area, as well as examples of local traditional crafts and customs: wedding parties, the arrival of a new baby, and festivals — religious, social and folkloric.

Image                         Young visitors enjoying the garden Photo:Magdi Abdel Sayid

“This project came to mind when I was still working as a tour guide,” Sun Bird’s owner, Leila Sadiq, says. “I found I was always having to answer questions from travellers on bus tours as to the name of a plant, an animal or a bird, or how the farmers lived or why they wore their clothes in such and such a way. In this garden, I have supplied all the answers. It is not only for foreign tourists; it’s for Egyptians too. Some of them have never seen a field or a farm, and know nothing about rural life. This place will provide them with this kind of knowledge.”

The name of the garden, Sun Bird, Sadiq says, is symbolic. This is the name given to a small bird which lives in the Nile Valley and flies from flower to flower, feeding on nectar. The bird’s bright colours of violet, yellow and green represent, it is said, the colours of the Nile, the desert and the rich green valley. In the garden this delightful bird, one of the main attractions, flies from tree to tree.

The garden covers two feddans, and on every tree and plant is a sign, written in Arabic, English, French and German, providing information.

Guides show visitors round the sections of the garden, while small children can spend the time playing in a large green area. Older children can try their hand at cultivation or making pottery. As for adults, there are shady palms under which to sit and relax on mastabas (benches) covered with mats and cushions. As visitors enter Sun Bird they are served cold mineral water and other refreshments. Later, fatir (traditional pastry) is served hot from a baladi (country) oven by one of the farmers.

This ambitious project is not run by a tourist company or a group of investors. It is owned and run by one enthusiastic woman, an ex-tour guide, with the help of a group of farm workers. They cultivate the land, bake the fatir and do the cleaning and maintenance. Sadiq herself designed all the sections into which the garden is divided, drew the maps and executed the paintings of the birds.

Sadiq says that although all the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are the same varieties as those on sale in markets and supermarkets, many people do not know how they grow or what they look like in their natural environment. They do not know which are indigenous to Egypt, whether they have become extinct and reintroduced, or whether they are imported. “Sweet potatoes, for example, are known worldwide, but the plant itself grows only in certain countries, including Egypt. Here is where people can learn such things. They have an opportunity to react with Nature and see how generous she is,” Sadiq says.

No artificial fertilisers are used at Sun Bird, so there are no large, standardised tomatoes or green peppers. Rather, the produce comes in the shape that nature gave them, in various sizes, and in varying shades of colour. This applies to okra, regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, artichokes, aubergines, pumpkins and limes. “Artificially grown fruit and vegetables are sold at greengrocers and supermarkets. Here I want to show people the way they grow naturally,” Sadiq says.

The section on Fayoum is well recommended. A large concrete map shows details of the great depression in the Western Desert, outlining its history, geology, agriculture, resident birds and birds which migrate through the area in September and April. The traditional crafts of Fayoum, especially basketry, are shown. “Fayoum is extremely fertile, and wheat was cultivated there on a large scale in Roman times. The area then was one of the granaries of Rome,” Sadiq says. “Once a visitor sees this section and has all this information to hand, he or she will be inspired to visit Fayoum itself.”

Image                      Section showing the birds of Fayoum Photo: Magdi Abdel Sayed

Traditional dress is always of interest, and on display here are galabiyas (loose gowns) from the different regions of Egypt — from the north coast, the Delta and Upper Egypt, to the oases of the Western Desert and Sinai. Here one can become acquainted with different traditions and customs concerning wedding celebrations: the bridal dress, the wedding feast, the contribution of the bride’s family to the marriage, the gifts of friends and the entertainment.

“Pottery played an important role in Egyptian history. It was extremely important for utilitarian reasons. The clay used in pottery manufacture used to come from Qena or Aswan in Upper Egypt, and people in ancient times did not fire the pottery or use a glaze, as we do today: they dried the pottery in the sun and its natural colour survived,” Sadiq says.

In the Sun Bird’s pottery section are examples of all the instruments used in its manufacture, including a foot-operated wheel. Also on show are cooking pots, butter or ghee pots, pickle pots and oil pots, along with pigeon houses and other items. Pottery chips are of great use to farmers, who put them on the roofs of their houses for the dual purpose of protecting them from rain and insulating them from the heat of the sun.

Few people have the opportunity to enter a farmer’s home. This, then, is your chance to do so. You will notice that the door and the high windows are so designed to prevent passers-by from seeing inside. You can see the farmer’s brass bed, the oven in which his bread is baked, the plates from which he and his family eat, the oil lamp, the oil cooker and the pigeon cage. You can even look inside a home typical of the Ababde, a tribe of the south-eastern desert, which has its own distinctive features.

Image      Celebrating the baby’s first seven days at the sebou Photo: Magdi Abdel Sayed 

“This place could be attractive to tourists at the end of an excursion, or for conferences, since businessmen also need to relax in a green space at the end of the day. Here they will learn aspects of Egypt that they would not otherwise be exposed to,” Sadiq says.

Sun Bird neither seeks nor needs wide promotion. “People tell one another about this place, and the word gets round. I also have a nice brochure which I distribute to schools and nurseries — that serves us well enough,” she says.


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

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