Al Zaeem: Perhaps Luxor’s Best Koushary

Debate among scholars and Egyptian cooks contests whether or not koushary (pronounced koosh-ah-ree) is Egypt’s “national dish”. Certainly, koushary restaurants feed millions of Egyptians 365 days a year. No exaggeration. Young, old, poor and rich are nourished by this tasty dish that is rich in carbohydrates and proteins.

The most famous koushary restaurant in all of Egypt is Koushary Abou Tarek, in Cairo. Tarek's father is a success story. He began selling his recipe from a wood street cart years ago and now owns a multistoried establishment near Tahrir Square. He has been famous for his koushary for years but now he is revered for it is said that he fed the January 25th Revolution because his was the only restaurant that remained opened during the strife.

Many Egyptian women will make koushary for their families but the combination of rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas and tomato sauce is time-consuming to prepare. I often see women carrying bags of koushary home for a late evening meal with their families. A local fellow told me I could find the best koushary in Luxor at Al Zaeem Restaurant in the city's center. Interestingly enough, in Arabic "Al Zaeem" means "The Revolutionary". There definitely seems to be a link between koushary and power to the people.

Al Zaeem has two doors. On the right, stairs lead upstairs, where the d├ęcor is glass, marble veneered walls and tabletops and stainless steel plates and utensils. Here customers sit and have their favourite meal delivered to their table. Down at street level, from the wide open 'door' on the left, a constant stream of customers flow in and out with take-away orders.

Stacks of small and medium-sized plastic tubs in a storefront window often identifies a koushary restaurant. Behind the stacks stands the koushary's maestro. Some are very entertaining to watch as they twirl their spoons and play a little tune on the pots and dishes. Abou Ahmed at Al Zaeem is more down-to-earth. His focus is on getting the people their food. A conservative estimate puts the numbers of  koushary orders at approximately 20,000 per day.

All ingredients are precooked in the back kitchen and kept warm up front in large open bowls. Do not touch the counter beneath them -- it's hot!

First into the take-away tub is the pasta, a mixture of tubuli and short strands of spaghetti. Next, a big scoop of Egyptian rice is heaped in. Egyptian rice often includes pieces of fried vermicelli. Onto this carbohydrate base goes a good helping of brown lentils coated with seasonings and a ladle of tomato sauce.

Finally, fried onions and chickpeas are sprinkled on top.

Tubs are then sealed and packed with a plastic spoon. Take away orders come with two small plastic bags filled with two important condiments: a spicy chili oil and a tangy garlic vinaigrette.

Upstairs in the seating area, the dish is served with tomato sauce on the side, to be added according to the customer's taste. The size of the condiment vessels stationed at every table conveys the relative proportions of garlic and chili sauces that are typically added. A small pitcher contains the vinaigrette  da’ah made of lemon juice, garlic, cumin, vinegar and water; whereas a tiny bowl holds the hot sauce, called shattah, which is a mixture of hot chili pepper and oil.

Caution should be exercised when applying this Egyptian hot sauce. Its glowing crimson colour only hints at its fiery flavour.

Koushary is a hearty meal. A small portion is generally sufficient to appease a normal appetite. A medium portion feeds two people quite nicely, while the large portion feeds a family. All this tasty nourishment comes for between 2LE (small) and 5LE (large). At today's exchange rates, a family can eat for about 85 cents. If they are Egyptian. Unfortunately, the cashier at Al Zaeem enjoys cheating foreigners by charging them double. The cash receipt states the price quoted but the Arabic text shows that he's charged for a chicken meal not koushary. Such is the frustrating reality of shopping in Luxor.

Regardless of the cashier's tricks, the koushary is delicious and it both nourishes the body and soothes the soul. Centuries ago, the fourteenth century scholar Ibn Battuta wrote about koushary in his travel diaries yet some debaters insist that the dish was not made in Egypt until World War II when British troops brought the recipe from India. Whatever its origin, koushary is definitely ‘the food of the people’.

WHERE TO FIND ME


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The red storefront of Al Zaeem Restaurant is almost visible in the bottom right corner of Google's map. If you zoom out, you will see that it is located very close to Luxor Temple.

GETTING THERE USEFUL INFO SOURCES
Al Zaeem Restaurant is located on Moustafa Kamel Street in downtown Luxor. From the Emilio Hotel, walk approximately 200 m East on Moustafa Kamel Street. The restaurant is on the left-hand side. Its facade cannot be missed. Serious Eats article: “Koshary: Feeding a Revolution in Cairo” by S. Farhan Mustafa
Al Masry Al Youm article: Koshary Confidential
World Vision Report audio news report: "Koshary: The Food that Fed a Revolution"
EgyptianRecipes.Net website: Koshari Recipe
Tour Egypt website: Koshary
Clifford A Wright website: History of Koshary

Hagaza and its Famous Woodworkers

An uneasy expression had developed on my driver's face. Without words Adel expressed his worry that we would fail in our mission to find the woodworkers in what he considered an obscure village. My declaration that the village and its woodworkers are famous did not reassure him. Apparently, their fame does not extend beyond Cairo.

To ease Adel's concern, we telephoned a number that I had found on the Internet. Good fortune put us in contact with a carpenter named Ashraf, who met us somewhere in the sprawl of Hagaza village, located some 25 km North of Luxor. Its intricate network of dirt roads is lined with the homes of 60,000 people.

Ashraf took us to his two-room home. Here, in the back room with the family kitchen, he stains products made in the workshop that I was seeking. A computer with a database of product images has pride of place in the 2 m X 1.5 m front room. Wide benches on either side of this room serve multiple purposes: sofas for guests, beds for sleeping, and product display for surprise visitors.

Egyptian hospitality necessitates a glass of tea, which I sip while discussing all the products available for purchase. Ashraf brings out from the back room a beautiful slated-back arm chair that he has stained. Regretfully, LE500 is more money than I have to spend on this trip. When I ask the price of a wooden salad bowl, he pulls out a measuring tape to determine the size of the block of wood it was carved from.

With purchases in hand, Ashraf guides us the 3 km length of the village to our goal, the Hagaza Woodwork Vocational Training Center. Success!

For some 25 years, the center has been training the unemployed young men of the village in woodworking skills in order to alleviate poverty. Ashraf graduated from the program 15 years ago and has been able to provide for his family ever since. Life isn't easy but, thanks to his training and product marketing conducted in Cairo, it isn't dire.

Fifteen young men each year enroll in the three-year training program operated by an Egyptian non-governmental agency called the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development. None of the students were in attendance on this particular Tuesday because the national government closed all schools when the revolution began and has yet to re-open all of the universities and trade schools South of Cairo out of "security concerns".

Another unfortunate consequence of recent political developments was the cancellation of the annual exhibition in Cairo where many of Hegaza's small wood-carved objects are sold. It is the sales at this exhibition and through the Fair Trade Egypt shop that the craftsmen depend for their livelihood. And it is through these marketing efforts that Hagaza woodwork has become well-known, if not famous.

Hagaza's exhibition room presents a wide variety of products for sale. Pharaonic designs inspire many of the products, particularly the elegant nut trays that recall stone make-up tablets on display in the Louvre and Cairo's Egyptian Museum. But individual artistic imaginations obviously have scope here too as I spy a couple of Hagaza Godzillas on the top shelf.

Each nut tray represents about six hours of work, while a sculpted panther takes about two days. Mostly, the men carve wood from the "Sersau" (Dalbergia sissoo) tree, which the Centre brings from Aswan. Generations ago, the British imported the tree from India and it seems to flourish in southern Egypt, which is surprising given the climatic differences. Local tamaris (Tamarix aphylla), a blond wood, and Nile acacia (Acacia nilotica) are other popular woods that are carved.

From these woods the men trained at the Centre are carving out a better life for themselves and their families. Many, like Ashraf, now work independently. The Hagaza Centre shows how a relatively small investment made to increase human skills and to create links to external markets makes a big difference to people living in little corners of the world, and maybe even makes them famous.


WHERE TO FIND ME


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This building, located on the edge of the desert, houses the woodworking training facility.

GETTING THERE USEFUL INFO SOURCES
Because the Hagaza Woodwork Vocational Training Centre is located at the south end of the village of Hagaza, it is easiest to approach it from the village of Khuzam to the South.
Beginning from the Luxor Airport checkpoint, drive North on the Luxor-Qena highway for 16.8 km. You will pass a major checkpoint at Ashi. The next major checkpoint is located at the village of Khusam. Immediately after passing through the maze of road barriers, turn right (East) and follow this road for 4.3 km. You will drive beside an irrigation canal rich with bird life.
Now the route gets tricky. After 4.3km, turn right (East) on a narrow road. Follow this road and turn left (North) at the first intersection. Travel North for about 1 km and turn right (East), heading out into the desert. You will see the high walls of the Centre on the right.
Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development website: Hagaza Vocational Training Centre
Fair Trade Egypt website: Hegaza Wooden Craft Project and Product Sales
Ashraf of Hagaza contact number: 012-140-6920

Deir Mari Girgis el Ballas: A Holy Modern Masterpiece

Spirits soar in the bleak desert. Its desolation is alive with holy asceticism. In a 50-km drive on the desert highway North of Luxor, we pass three monasteries and there are said to be seven others in close proximity. On this trip to see the potters at El Ballas, we turn into the small monastery of St. George. As with most Coptic churches, the exterior is extremely plain belying the magnificence of its interior.

Its nave is roofed with 21 cupolas, a design feature of Coptic church architecture that arose due to a lack of wood in Egypt. Entering, I was floored by the power of the images gracing the domes. Each cupola tells two stories. All of the images are dated to 2007 and all are painted by maestro Samy Henes. In a country with high illiteracy rates, I could easily imagine monk priests referring to the images high above the seated faithful during their sermons. Certainly, the images radiate with the power of the stories.

As Jesus' first miracle, the wedding at Cana is celebrated with a minor feast in the Coptic church. In their ancient calendar, it is celebrated on Tobah 13, which is approximately January 12th. Copts believe "Our Lord changed the water into wine, as His first miracle, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, confirming His eagerness for our attaining the heavenly wedding, and granting us the wine of His exceeding love."

 
Monasticism was born in Egypt. From the 5th century A.D. onwards several monastic communities were established in the desert, particularly here in Upper Egypt. Certainly the image of Jacob's ladder would inspire the monks. For just as Jacob exclaimed so might they: "Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! I thought that I was all alone, but God has been with me. This place is the house of God; it is the gate of heaven!" (Book of Genesis 28)  Furthermore, since at least the third century A.D., Jacob's ladder is interpreted as the ascetic ladder that the soul climbs on Earth, with the steps representing increasing virtue used to ascend to heaven.

Christ is enthroned in majesty within the central copula. To me, the world seems to weigh somewhat heavy in His hand.

He is encircled by the popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, each one recognizable. The current pope, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, chose to live in the solitude of the desert as a monk when he was 31 and he has been instrumental in reviving Coptic monasticism since the 1970s. Hundreds of young men and women have reestablished monasteries and convents the length of Egypt. In the bleakness of the desert, their faith blooms.

WHERE TO FIND ME


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GETTING THERE USEFUL INFO SOURCES
Drive North from the main West Bank checkpoint to the sign indicating a left turn to Sheikh Tayb Saha village. Follow this road out to the desert Luxor-Qena highway. You will pass the large monastery of St. George on east side of the road and the domes of Deir el Malek on the west side. After 44.5 km from entering the desert, the entrance to the modern monastery of St. George at el Ballas is located close to the highway. Coptic Church website: Coptic Orthodox Church Network
Artist Samy Henes' website: Welcome
Wikipedia article: Coptic Architecture
Tour Egypt article: The Christian Monasteries Near Naqada by Jimmy Dunn

Deir El Ballas: Mother of Pots

Egypt is comprised of two disparate lands: the verdant Nile valley and the parched desert plateaus that border each side. The stark contrast is striking whether viewed with feet firmly planted on the ground or floating in space, and it is even embodied in bits of broken pots unearthed in archaeological excavations.

Nile silt clay produces pottery that is red in colour, while desert marl clay results in whitish wares. The difference lies in their makeup. Silt, carried vast distances from upstream and deposited here when the floods ebbed, is rich in iron oxides. Marl clay, on the other hand, is concentrated with calcium carbonates that come from adjacent limestone deposits. Even their characters are different. Nile clay is malleable, while desert marl is hard and more difficult to work.

But Egyptians have worked with this rock-like clay since predynastic times, about 4,000 B.C., particularly in the area near the modern city of Qena. Driving North from Luxor along the new desert highway the entire landscape is pinky grey and the high desert plateau forms a formidable bastion all along the east side. The landscape is daunting; one may even think it threatening. Yet following the desert wadis, or dry riverbeds, men enter this bleak realm to mine clay which is then transported by camels and donkeys down to a village at the desert's edge. Here the clay is broken up into smaller pieces and soaked in a round basin beside the potter's workshop.

The village is home to twenty families, each with a small workshop. A father, two sons and a cousin produce more than one hundred pots and garden water pipes each day. The work is hard and seemingly non-stop, even when a strange foreign visitor arrives on their doorstep.


The video captures some of the activity inside the 4 X 5 meter room, with most of the space dedicated to the preparation of the clay. Two men knead the clay with their feet to remove pockets of air. They also remove any 'impurities', such as pieces of calcite, that might damage the final product and add some fine sand to temper the clay.

Meanwhile, the potter works on his kick-wheel to complete the rounded bases for the jars. This is the final stage. The handles have already been added. He adds a length of twine around the jar's widest point near its base to hold its form while it dries. Twine markings are visible on sherds of ancient jars, so this potter works within a long tradition.

Lastly, with a chip of wood or a bit of a tree branch the potter might add a little decoration, a wavy line perhaps to the shoulder. Then his father takes the jar away for final drying before firing it in the kiln. Note that the walls of the workshop have been built of pots. Cuts made in some of the pots provide useful storage spaces. This same construction is used for animal pens and dovecotes.

Outside the door, kilns resemble hollow towers built of brick into a small hill. They are stoked from a small arched opening at ground level. Inside, just above the level of the door, is a grated floor that suspends the pots above the fire and allows the heat to pass upwards through multiple layers of neatly piled pots. The pots are loaded into the kiln from the top and then covered with a layer of straw. The fire is fueled for four hours with straw or sugarcane stalks that have been pressed for their juice, called bagasse. After the initial heating, the pots continue to 'cook' for a day from the radiant heat in the kiln and in the pots themselves.

Thus the ballas is created. All share the same amphora shape but are available in various sizes. The smaller ones are used to hold molasses or to age village cheese. Medium-sized ballaliis hold fresh milk as it separates its cream. Large ballaliis are used to carry water.

Making pots is tough work and life on the edge of the desert is hard - as hard as the marl clay they work. A visit to the potters at Deir el Ballas is fascinating, enjoyable and educational, but I return to the green valley with a sigh of relief. Life under palm trees feels far less vulnerable.


WHERE TO FIND ME


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It is amazing that an image taken from 681 kilometers (423 miles) above the Earth's surface enables us to see the round kilns, the bundles of bagasse that fuel those kilns, the grey mounds of raw clay, and the hut in which clay is transformed by the potter. The large supply of unprocessed clay suggests that the satellite image was taken late in the year at the end of the mining season. Clay is not mined during damp winter months because it becomes soft and can cave in on the miners who do not use roofing supports in their work.

GETTING THERE USEFUL INFO SOURCES
Drive North from the main West Bank checkpoint to the sign indicating a left turn to Sheikh Tayb Saha village. Follow this road out to the desert Luxor-Qena highway. Some 48 km from the turn, watch for rolls of bagasse on the east side of the road. This is the home of the Deir el Ballas potters. "Village" seems to denote a habitation much larger than theirs. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology article: Pottery Production by Paul T. Nicholson
Tour Egypt article: The Pottery of Ancient Egypt by Mark Andrews

Medamud: Past-Present Continuum Revealed


A procession of corpulent male deities and busty female deities parade before me. Each one comes to the god’s house bearing gifts from their region. Some bring grain; others cattle, precious metal dishes, libations or incense.


 Glancing over the head of a goddess that herds goats before the god, I spy their modern descendants jumping over the ruins of the god’s house. Past and present become contemporaneous.


It is a quiet morning at the house of Montu, god of war. The only visitors are me, the goats, and a few antiquities guards, called gawfeers in Arabic. Montu has had a temple at Medamud, located about 8km North of Luxor, since the Middle Kingdom. Four millennia have passed and relatively little of the temple remains visible. Correlating the guidebook's plan with bits of walls on the ground poses a challenge. Medamud is in ruin. Perhaps this is why the site is not open for visitation except by request. But step forward. Narrow the eyes’ focus to the preserved details. Exquisite splendor is revealed. It is well worth asking the Karnak inspectorate chief for permission to visit.


Egyptian temples represent a microcosm of the universe. The carving that covers every inch of its surface conveys the sensitivity of the artists to their universe. Ducks flutter above an offering tray. New shoots bend in the breeze. A dado of papyrus buds and blossoms around the temple's inner walls recreates the mound of creation from which all life was born.


And in this universe, men play the harp and women dance with castanets. The countless hieroglyphs record a hymn: “The priest honours You with his basket, And the drummers take their tambourines. Ladies rejoice in Your honor with garlands, And girls do the same with wreaths.”


I conclude my visit with a walk along the Avenue of Sphinxes to the quay. From here Montu, carried by priests, boarded his sacred barque and traveled along the canal to his residence at Karnak. Here, too, worshippers disembarked bearing alms for their falcon-headed lord. I looked down and found graffiti footprints of some nameless ancient. Carved as an act of personal piety to express eternal devotion, the prints match my own. Once again, past and present converge at Medamud.


WHERE TO FIND ME


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GETTING THERE USEFUL INFO SOURCES
Driving out of Luxor on Airport Road, turn North towards Qena. After 5.5 km along the Qena Road, turn West on a small road that crosses the canal and the narrow gauge railway for sugarcane harvest. The village of Nag al-Medamud is just ahead. At the first T-intersection, turn left. At the next T-intersection, turn right. Drive past the goats in the village square and you see the temple of Montu in front of you. Drive along the temple's north side where you will see the gawfeer's hut. Egyptian Monuments blog:
Medamud
Tour Egypt article: The Temple of Montu, Rattawy and Harpocrates at Medamud
Archaeology of Ancient Egypt: Medamud
Musee des Beaux Arts, Lyon: Kiosk Gate from a Temple at Medamud
Luxor News blog: Medamud temple, north of Luxor
Neferuhethert: Hymn from Ptolemaic Temple at Medamud