Thursday, January 20, 2011

Abu El-Haggag Mosque

One evening Affaf takes us to visit the Abu El-Haggag mosque. It is the oldest mosque in Luxor, and it sits right on top of the Amun temple. It was built when the ruins of the temple were covered by Nile mud. There is a catholic church close to the temple, run by Italian franciscan monks. When Eugenia, Paolo and I visited it, the monk told us that the first franciscan church was also built on the temple ruins, without them knowing that there was a great temple of Amun Re beneath it. When the temple was excavated the catholic church was moved to where it is now. The mosque was allowed to stay. Since I frankly just cannot be interested in everything in the world, I never bothered finding out much about Abu El-Haggag, but I do know that he is some sort of patron of Luxor. So the mosque is still there. The coptic church however will probably have to move anytime soon.

The altar of the Franciscan church

The altar of the Coptic church Santa Maria

Weird looking nativity set and dirty bikes in some corner in front of the Coptic church

The out side of the Coptic church

It is situated behind the temple above the sphynged alley. The great temple complex of Karnak is about three kilometres from the Amun temple in Luxor. In pharaonic times the two temples were connected by an avenue of sphynxes. A few of them have been restored and set up before the temples, with human heads in luxor and rams in Karnak. The rest of them lie under the town: In the course of millenia Nile mud, sand, dust and litter have accumulated above them and thus formed what is the ground level of modern day Luxor. One or two years ago however it was decided that the Sphynx alley was to be excarvated to make Luxor more attractive to tourists. So far I haven't met anybody who was happy about it. After all, there is a town above it and in the course of the excarvations, everything that's built on the course of the Avenue ist simply being torn down, including houses, mosques and churches. And my archaeologist friends told me the excarvations aren't even conducted properly, but without the necessary documentations. Aparently, since they know where the avenue is, they simply clear away all that's above it and litterally dig the sphynxes up. And since the coptic church is on that course, it seems likely that it will have to go, too. I don't know who's in charge of this excarvation, but since they have the power to remove buildings, I guess it's the egyptian government. The lady giving us the tour was very upset about it. She kept saying „This building is 102 years old!“ I couldn't help thinking, „Well, that's 102 years against 4000... not a chance.“

The Sphynged Avenue leading up to the Amun Temple

When we come to the mosque, we have to cover our hair, so Affaf helps us wind our scarfs around our faces like the Arabian women. We all giggle and take photos. Later Affaf and her sister Mahida, who also teaches at the school, tell us how beautiful we look and again I smile, wondering by myself whether they think something along the lines of „Finally they are dressed decently“. Outside the mosque in a corner there is a group of maybe 30 men, singing. One of them is singing words on a tune, while the others rhythmically sing the name „Allah“ and clap their hands. Their eyes are closed and they sway from side to side. It sounds lovely and the men look blissed out. I wonder whether we could somehow work with that in the Goddess movement and start thinking about a song, which we could use for a sort of trancey experience like that. Meditiation through song, rhythm, movement... it works for me, to feel the divine in my body. I love it actually. We stay quite a while, sitting in a circle on the floor, watching them.
When Affaf takes us into the mosque we see the tomb of Abu El-Haggag. I am more interested in the bits of temple masonary that have been built into the mosque. I walk around and I see that the mosque actually sits on a much higher level than the temple, and I remember that Affaf told us it was built when the temple was hidden under Nile mud. In the men's prayer hall a fries of pharaos runs along the length of the wall, the women's prayer hall is built into the first court of papyrus pillars. I can actually touch the chapters and I love it. I love how the architecture of the new and the old blend into each other. I love seeing the cartouches of the pharaoh's names in this islamic house of prayer. I don't see many reliefs that have been chiselled out, and I wonder whether, if I could read hieroglyphs, I could find the name of Amun somewhere in the mosque. Or Isis even?
I like the mosque a lot. All the pharaoh's added to the temple in praise of Amun and at the same time securing their own immortality. To me the mosque is just like that. Amun and Allah are but different names for the one Source and Abu Al- Haggag added to the temple complex, ensuring his own memento in the process, just like Amenophis III, Hatschepsut, Tuthmosis III and all the others.
I'm having an utterly lovely time in the mosque. I take some photos of the pillars and the giant statues, only now my perspective standing by the mosque is that I'm looking down to them. It's fantastic. More photos of Luxor temple for my coffee book table.
When we leave the mosque the girls and I start a little experiment. We keep the scarfs on as we walk back to the school to see if we're still being hussled as much. There is singing and drumming in front of a photo studio and Affaf explains to us that it's a wedding, and the couple is having their picture taken inside. We stop and watch a little and suddenly four young girls come up to us, smiling. They want to talk to us, which has never happened before, the girls have never approached us before. They want to know our names and whether we're muslimas. I'm fascinated of how easy it is to set up a barrier between women, but also how easy it is to build a bridge. When we tell them that we're not they seem a bit disappointed, but still interested. They don't speak english though and my arabic is not yet fit for a conservation. So I give them a smile and wave at a taxi. I go home.

Monika, Elisabetta, Sophia, Alice and I

Top of one pillar of the temple integrated into the architecture of the mosque

View from the mosque down into the temple court


  1. The singing trance ceremony is a Sufi practice, called dhikr (remembering), which is done in circles called HaDras. It has always seemed very attractive to me. I do believe there are circles in Europe as well.

    As to the scarf, I had the same experience: women come up to you, but in order to congratulate you on your conversion to Islam, which was not what I wanted. There are many ways to wear a headscarf though, I usually wear one tied in the back of my neck so it leaves my neck free, which has the advantage of covering my hair so it doesn't get exposed to the dirt in the air of Cairo or the dust and wind in the desert, and covering my head against the sun. As it's obviously not a hijab it doesn't imply you're a muslim, but it does cover your hair. In more conservative areas I wear the scarf so it does cover my hair and neck, but not in a hijab style, slightly more casual. It's fun to play around with headscarf styles and see the different reactions people give, it really makes a lot of difference.
    One reason women are harder to approach is not because they don't like you, but because most women don't speak any English, and are much shier than men. When you speak more Arabic, you will find that a lot of women and girls are really interested in you and want to befriend you, know who you are, if you are married and have children, what your life is like in exotic Germany... Dressing conservatively does help there too, in general women feel more comfortable with women who are dressed "decently". When I visited Yemen, a very conservative country, it was constantly the women telling me to cover my face and my ankles, never the men. I wonder if they enjoyed my sensual display of nose and ankle ;)

  2. I forgot to mention that I am really enjoying your blog (as you can tell by me reading it religiously ;), it's great to read about someone else's experiences of Egypt and seeing the pictures. Thank you for keeping it!