Baksheesh, or tipping, is a pervasive part of daily life in Egypt. It’s expected for any service or favor performed, no matter how small, for tourists and locals alike. It’s more common than a handshake. Westerners are generally amazed at how extensive it is.
Tips are a big deal to the average Egyptian whose income in 2015 was 28 percent likely to be below the poverty line, 32.5% in 2018. To add insult to injury, Egypt had an annual inflation rate of 10% or more for years, peaking at a staggering 28% in 1989, which did nothing but increase the ranks of the poor. In 2016, when the IMF made it a pre-condition for getting a $12 billion bailout, the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound was floated and promptly lost half its value, which was disastrous for an economy that depends on imports. Traditional subsidies on food, fuel and utilities were also cut in recent years. Poverty is getting worse, not better. It will explode with COVID-19.
With a situation this bleak, is it any wonder that anyone would rub fingers together or ask for baksheesh outright? It was never begging. Some service was always performed, even in the line of duty, such as a security guard walking with us on pyramid grounds or housekeeper on a Nile cruise who created whimsical towel art. This also happened with an airport luggage handler, alabaster shop employee, attendant at a temple entrance, the list goes on. Even after our tour guide Waleed collected a lump sum from each of us to take care of tipping on our behalf, the requests for tip were still made.
Before the trip, my wife and I amassed as many $1 bills as possible, taking the advice of travelers who on the internet claimed Egyptians would be ‘happy’ to accept foreign cash as eagerly as their own. Well, maybe. I found out more than once that Egyptian banks don’t do locals any favors by refusing to exchange $1 bills for pounds or piastres. One family in Abusir asked if someone on our tour could swap five ones for a five dollar bill for this reason.
To me as an American, an Egyptian pound (£E), which might be given to a toilet attendant, is equal to about $.06 (6 cents). Most tips are in the £E 5-10 range (32-63 cents). So it seems appropriate that I, as an American (for instance), be generous to those far less fortunate.
And I was willing. But there was one big problem.
It was a headache getting my hands on small bills. The problem was this. When I made an ATM cash withdrawal, it would be for a few thousand pounds (equivalent to a few hundred U.S. dollars), which would primarily be dispensed in £E 100 notes. Since £E 100 is a large amount for baksheesh, it brings up the problem of making change. (Rather than repeating how hard this is, I refer you to a similar post here.) Even when exchanging £E 100 at the hotel bank, I got back a fifty pound note, two twenties and a ten. In this respect, the infrastructure doesn’t support tourists and indirectly the people who rely on baksheesh. Egypt is not alone in this. I found the same problem in Morocco and I suspect it’s true in many other places of the world.
For the average Egyptian, everyday business is conducted in transactions much less than £E 100. There is a scarcity of small bills in Egypt, or it’s more likely that tourists like me can’t get our hands on them. I imagine that locals hang on to them dearly so they can function in the informal cash economy.
I don’t know what the solution is for anyone who wants to travel to Egypt. Not everyone will have a tour guide like ours to help ease the frustration. Am I discouraging travelers from visiting Egypt? Absolutely not. Baksheesh is a cultural phenomenon that tourists should acknowledge and accept. Egypt is a wonderful place. Sadly a visit, for now, will have to wait until the world returns to normal, insha’allah.
Calling a woman a cow nowadays is asking for trouble, but the Egyptians of yore depicted Hathor as a cow, a woman with cow’s horns or woman with cow’s ears. She was one of Egypt’s most important deities, a primordial goddess, daughter of Ra and Nut, goddess of joy, female love, sex, destruction and rebirth, just some of her many aspects. She was so venerated that a cult developed around her in Dendera where a temple complex was dedicated to her. Construction of the temple began in the Ptolemaic period (Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra) and ended with additions made by Roman emperor Tiberius.
The Temple of Hathor was easily the most beautiful I visited in Egypt. It’s considered one of the best preserved. The still vivid paints can thank the desert sands that covered the temple for millennia and the result of meticulous restoration. The temple also impressed me with gorgeous wall carvings and the Great Hypostyle Hall.
Aside from its beauty, the temple has some remarkable features.
The temple’s dedication to Hathor is obvious just by looking up. Her image as a female goddess with cow’s ears appears throughout the temple, most conspicuously as capitals on its 24 columns, the most striking I saw in Egypt. Her face is on all four sides, gazing out at the cardinal points of the universe. I wondered if it was religious zealousness that defaced all 96 of her faces.
The temple has two distinctive zodiacs, one which may be the oldest in the world. It’s known as the Dendera Zodiac. Visitors casually walking through the temple will never find it on their own. Our tour group was led up a stairwell to the temple roof. No one else was up there except guards. On the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris is the zodiac, the only one shaped like a circle in Egyptian art. I couldn’t make out details at first because it was covered in black soot from centuries of wood-burning underneath. With some effort, the figures of the constellations gradually became more visible. The planisphere corresponds to the modern zodiac although some constellations have Egyptian forms.
The Dendera Zodiac isn’t without controversy. In 1820, the original was removed and taken away to France where it is now displayed in the Louvre. The one in Dendera is a plaster replica. While the zodiac’s transplantation may have been legal and sanctioned by Egyptian authorities at the time, there is a bigger moral issue of its return, just as the bust of Nefertiti that rests in the Neues Museum (Berlin). Still, I was grateful to the tour for including a special visit to this facsimile.
The other zodiac, in the common rectangular form, appears on the ceiling of the main hall. I had to squint to see the figures because the architrave on which they’re carved is over 50ft (15m) above the floor.
Show Me Your True Colors
The colors in the main hall are gorgeous, as if they defied the ravages of time. There’s a reason. Like the Dendera Zodiac now, the ceiling and walls used to be covered in soot from centuries of burning fires inside. But after meticulous cleaning efforts, some of the original vibrancy of the colors has been beautifully restored.
So why hasn’t the Dendera Zodiac been restored? My guess is because it’s a replica, waiting for its replacement with the real one that France needs to return.
Shedding Light on a Mystery
Depending on one’s inclinations, the biggest attraction might be the so-called Dendera light bulbs. These are controversial panels in which figures appear to be holding giant ‘light bulbs,’ complete with ‘filaments’ (snake forms) and ‘cords.’ So, these guys had electricity? Hold on. Archaeologists counter that the ‘bulbs’ represent the creation of the universe emerging from lotus flowers, which are symbols of death and rebirth, the ‘cords’ are their stems and the snake, another symbol of resurrection and creation. The choice, it seems, is between symbolism and realism. These depictions are found in two places, in the main temple area and in an underground crypt. They don’t appear anywhere else in Egyptian art.
Rite of Passage
I don’t mean to titillate but many women touch it in the hopes of becoming pregnant. Near the Dendera light bulbs is a relief of a snake that symbolizes fertility, procreation, creation, resurrection. And like the ‘light bulb’ image, it too emerges from a lotus plant. The figure is well worn from countless touches over the years, not necessarily only by ladies who want children.
The Protection of Nut, the Sky Goddess
To me, the most symbolically striking image in Egyptian art is the celestial goddess Nut who is frequently depicted as the sky goddess, covered in stars and arched in exaggerated form on her hands and feet, like the vault of heaven, to protect the dead and through whose body the sun traveled in its daily cycle. In the depiction here, the sun shines its rays on Hathor’s temple.
Precision of Faith
I recently read a book by Christopher Dunn. Highly experienced in engineering, tool making and precision machining, he makes some intriguing revelations about Hathor’s temple. After analyzing photographs, he concluded that the builders manufactured the Hathor column capitals that today can only be made with advanced machining tools. The capitals include not only Hathor’s head but two cornices and sistrum, a rattling musical instrument associated with her. What amazed him are the complex transitions from one kind of three-dimensional surface to another.
Dunn also discovered that the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall (including orthogonal projections of some critical points on the capitals) are parallel or perpendicular to each other. He took a digital image of four columns with camera on tripod aimed straight up, making sure that the center of the image coincided with the geometric center of the columns in order to avoid angular distortion. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, reference lines were drawn along cornice edges and through certain intersections of Hathor’s head and cornice. The result indicates that the capitals are exactly aligned.
This is an incredible quality a visitor could never imagine. One would think that something a little less than perfect would hardly be noticeable; the overall effect of the temple would still be amazing. So I wondered, why the exacting standards? Is the achievement of perfection a manifestation of religious devotion, of sacredness? I wonder if other Egyptian temples show this kind of care and building prowess. I wouldn’t at all be surprised.
To walk through the Temple of Hathor was an exquisite experience. Its beautiful architecture and carvings, celestial allusions—and colors—affected me like no other temple. That the builder applied an esoteric craft in its design and construction makes the temple all the more wondrous.
I ignored it in Egypt for the first few days, not so much that I don’t like falafel (I do), but I can get it in Seattle where I live. How many ways can it be made, I figured.
That’s before I knew there was a distinctive Egyptian version. How is it different? Instead of chick peas, it’s made from fava beans. They take on a nice shade of green from any number of herbs that can be mixed in the batter, like parsley, cilantro, leek, dill.
The first sample I had was just down the street from the hotel where I was staying in Giza, a restaurant called Felfela, where our tour guide Waleed ordered a plateful. He told us the restaurant is known for its ta’ameya, which is what the falafel is called.
The best I’ve ever had without question. Why? Favas don’t absorb as much oil as chick peas do, according to Waleed, which makes them extra crispy on the outside. Because they’re not as mealy as garbanzos, the texture inside is a tad chewier. In addition, the falafels tend to be flatter than the spherical shape made throughout the Middle East and Levant.
On our third day on tour, while visiting the pyramids of Saqqara, we stopped in the town of Dashur where Waleed got everyone a falafel sandwich from a local stand. It was lightly dressed (if at all) and packed with fresh vegetables, falafel and roasted eggplant. Simple but delicious.
The Egyptian diet also includes ful medames (mudammas) which my Giza hotel served every morning. Their version of these beans was more smashed than usual, looking more like Mexican refried beans. Condiments on the side included minced red onion, lemon, salt, ground cumin and ground chiles. I had them every morning until I noticed their effects later in the day. Still, if there weren’t friends around me, I wouldn’t have worried so much about their after-effects.
I like vegetables with meals. Egypt didn’t disappoint. Every lunch and dinner included many salads and vegetable side dishes that I’m not entirely sure were Egyptian. But many were. Vegetarians need not worry in Egypt.
Eggplant dishes are bountiful in Egypt. Every meal at hotels and on the Nile river cruisers served them in one form or another. The most abundant is baba ghanoush, roasted and charred eggplant mixed with spices.
A dish similar to dolmas is called mahshi, eggplant or zucchini stuffed with rice, herbs and spices.
We loaded onto the bus after an all-morning visit to the Cairo Museum. It was lunchtime. “Americans love McDonald’s, Egyptians love koshary,” Waleed told the group. Then, he distributed takeaway containers from a renowned place specializing in it (Abou Tarek in Cairo). Koshary is a savory, filling carb-loaded dish: rice, lentils, chick peas, fried onions, spaghetti-like noodles cooked in two ways, topped with a chunky tomato sauce.
A few places served kofta, a dish popular throughout the Levant, minced meat (beef, lamb, chicken) with spices, formed into cigar shapes around skewers and grilled.
While in Egypt, I knew I had to try pigeon, which as a delicacy is not nearly as popular here in the U.S. The flesh is reminiscent of dark chicken meat and is fattier like duck. The squab is typically stuffed with rice (or freekeh).
Egyptian pita, called eish (aish) baladi, was served at almost every meal.
No account of my culinary journey in Egypt would be complete without mentioning Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom. It’s a beverage to be savored by itself (or dessert). Powdery fine ground coffee, sugar (optional) and water are heated in a small pot (cezve) and poured unfiltered into demitasse cups. You take a small sip at a time and leave the coffee sludge at the bottom. The cardamom gives it an exotic taste, which I much prefer to cinnamon (which I find too ‘sweet’). Sometimes ground ginger and nutmeg are added. At home, I’ve adapted it to my electric coffee machine.
Recently, the Seattle area’s only Egyptian restaurant opened. My wife and I have yet to try it. But no matter how good, the food won’t be as unforgettable as when we ate it at communal tables, in Egypt, with our newly made touring friends with whom we shared this culinary adventure.
It was deja vu all over again, as a famous American Yogi once said. I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gigantic stones in ways that we can’t explain.
Here’s where current thinking becomes unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we think of historical engineering achievements relative to our own, that technology evolved from simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology in a linear fashion. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?
And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.
The Valley Temple and Osireion are such examples.
Valley Temple of Khafre
The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s provenance is the famous statue of him, now in the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock, is wondrous in itself.)
This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty, claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple (the pyramids are not mentioned) were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. Some dispute its claim, complicated by the fact that it was written roughly 2,000 years after Khafre. If it is true however, the temple’s construction would be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.
Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, its physical characteristics are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Physical evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were molded onto the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. This type of dressing is quite similar in technique to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s roughly cut limestone core blocks.
In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels that define the temple’s core structure.
The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.
Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are shaped like parallelograms, others are notched, yet others curve around corners at right angles.
I stood there in amazement. What could possibly be the reason for manufacturing stones with odd dimensions? Some say it was for earthquake-proofing. Maybe so. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.
The Osireion, which we visited several days later, is a complex directly behind the Temple of Seti I in Abydos. It is currently regarded as a cenotaph for Osiris. It’s striking that it has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise was submerged in water for a time. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. It used to be roofed over by two rows of thick granite stone slabs, before they collapsed, were removed by stone robbers or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe, damage that was curiously spared Seti’s temple.
I was disappointed that visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.
Both the Valley Temple and Osireion reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. There are similar examples all over the world. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to have reverberated across the ocean.
And, for good measure:
What the Nub is Going On?
The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.
One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.
What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.
No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. They are a complete mystery. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Rather than a design element, they must be the by-products of an undiscovered process?
What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stones in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia.
Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that was lost long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it appears.
Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. They probably are Old Kingdom works, but they could conceivably be older. Nevertheless from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of advanced knowledge and technologies that were sophisticated beyond measure.
The Temple of Karnak in Luxor rivals an amusement park in size. The grounds are so big that it can easily surround the great cathedrals of Europe: Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan and more. Started in the Middle Kingdom and added to over a period of 2,000 years into Ptolemaic times by thirty pharaohs, it is a complex mishmash of smaller temples, hypostyles, courts, chapel, pylons, storerooms and living quarters. It even contains a lake.
With this kind of cornucopia, it isn’t surprising that it’s the most visited site in Egypt second only to the Giza pyramids. In its day, it would’ve looked splendid, judging by its colossal scale and whispers of color that still remain. Now, the patina of old age hints at an ancient civilization long gone. I could have walked around here for hours.
At 50,000 sq ft/4,600 sq meters, the Hypostyle Hall is the largest religious building in the world. The largest of its 134 columns is 79ft/24m high with diameters of 10ft/3m, dwarfing mere humans who walk among them. It isn’t an experience easily forgotten. If the roof survived, the interior would have surpassed the greatest religious structures in the world.