Own the city: Esna - Where 'the habra is big enough for 10'

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 5 Oct 2023

Ahram Online joined the first heritage walk in the historic Upper Egyptian city of Esna, witnessing firsthand the local proverb that "the habra (traditional women's head and body scarf) is big enough for 10," which reflects the generosity of Esna’s people.

Woman dressed in traditional Esna Habara.All photos are courtesy of VISIT-Esna


We are the city. We are the hustle and bustle and those endless walks amidst ancient buildings leaning on trees that watched our grandparents grow. We are the streets that twist and turn, widen and narrow down to small allies that bear the treasure of time. We are those old songs that get remixed and never fall out of fashion. We are the city that owns the truth and all our versions of it.

Egypt celebrated World Tourism Day by sharing the VISIT-Esna project as a successful model of Value Investment in Sustainable Integrated Tourism (VISIT). The project is implemented by Takween Integrated Community Development company in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Part of the celebration was touring Esna day and night to get a true taste of the historic city and all it has to offer.

The road to Esna

The city of Esna is about an hour's drive (34 miles) away from Luxor. The road to Esna runs parallel to the Nile with its enchanting banks that widen and narrow, revealing a picturesque view of the mighty river and all the civilizations that grew up around it.

Since it was the season of Moulid Al-Nabi, (the birthday of Prophet Muhammad) the locals would ask our bus to stop so that they could offer us various beverages that they distribute to strangers all day long to celebrate such a grand occasion.

The Dababiyya Protectorate

Against the backdrop of the Nile, a stretch of golden hills greets the eyes. "This is the Dababiyya Protectorate," explained Maissa Mostafa, the tourism programme manager of the VISIT-Esna project.

"The land is a geological time scale that beholds one of the rare geological evidence of some millions of years that were missing from the earth's history." The protectorate is unmatched by any geological site due to the five thick limestone layers that are evident to the naked eye, that tell the geological story of some 2.4 million years of the earth's history and its transformations.

The Name of Esna

"The name Esna in ancient Egypt had more than one meaning. One of them is the land of traversing because it has always been one of the main commercial centres of ancient Egypt, being on the crossroad of many trade routes and the capital of a whole province during the Greco-Roman era," explained Mostafa, adding that Esna was the intersection of the Indian Ocean trade route which crossed from India to Morocco as well as the sub-Saharan trade route (also known as Darb El-40, referring to the number of days it took to make the journey) that crossed from Darfur to Assuit.

Layers of culture

In ancient Egypt, Esna was famous for its hand-woven textiles. Some of the main streets of Esna's market are named El-Mashat (The Comb), which was the place where they used to comb the threads of the hand-woven looms, Mostafa explained.

Esna's Coptic era was known for its resilience against Roman discrimination. The city contains the Monastery of Saint Ammonius, also known as the Monastery of the 160,000 Esna Martyrs. El-Fakhoury monastery or the Saint Mataus the Potter dates back to the fourth century AD, when Saint Mataus was one of the disciples of Saint Anthony the Great, the founder of Christian monasticism.

There are many Islamic mausoleums in Esna. Some date back to the earliest migrations of Arab tribes in 216 Hijra (831 AD). The land of The Hawara tribe, and the Sheikh Al-Arab Hammam whose influence was so grand that he was the representative of Esna's trade treaties with the Ottoman Empire in 1766, Maissa emphasized.  

Temple of Creation

The temple is set amidst the heart of the city. So as you walk past the houses, the top of grand colorful pillars greets your eyes, revealing that this is actually the top of the Temple of Creation! The temple that is set below the current city level, is Esna’s Temple of the Ram-headed god Khnum (the ancient Egyptian god of creation).

The construction of the Temple of Esna started during the reign of King Tuthmosis the third during the 18th dynasty and was completed during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras.

"The recent restorations of the temple were done by young Egyptian hands which makes it the temple with the most vivid colors today," explained Rehab Sakr, our young local tour guide as well as a member of the team that restored the temple.

The temple holds many gems. It holds the story of the creation, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs since it is dedicated to Khnum, the potter who molded people, living things, and even other gods from clay. It also tells the story of creation, which started with a small portion of land amidst a body of water. It holds the whole zodiac chart as well.

"All the people of Esna refer to the temple as PerBa, which is the ancient Egyptian language for the house of the soul," noted Sakr.

VISIT-Esna is working on making the site accessible to people with disabilities.


Wakalet Al-Jiddawi

Next, we came to a generous gateway to a mix of wooden structures, made from small bricks in the form of an arch with little star patterns scattered on it.

Is it a gateway to the sky? No, it is one of the traditional gateways to the houses of Esna.

This is the gateway of Wakalet Al-Gedawy. Wekalat means a trading centre that belonged to Hassan Beih Al Jiddawi in the 18th century. The concept of having numerous trade centers is part and parcel of the city’s history. The two-storey building was restored by the VISIT-Esna project and currently serves as a centre for cultural activities, workshops, and exhibitions,

The Caesar’s Market

The Qisariyya market got its name from Qaisar or Caesar, although it was probably there even before the Roman era.

The narrow shaded street extends for 1.5 km showcasing small shops containing the traditional handicrafts of Esna. In the old days, it contained mainly textiles because Esna was famous for handmade textiles for over 5,000 years. It holds traditional crafts such as the galabya tailor, and the foot iron service (where the man uses his foot to iron clothes for customers).

Unfortunately, the trade in Esna was badly affected by the construction of new barrages in the 1990s that diverted Nile cruises from Esna. VISIT-Esna has been trying to alter this for the past six years by creating diversity and innovation in the old market.

The results were impressive, There are now shops for pottery, textiles, art galleries, bags, and products from palm trees, and scarabs. All the renovated stores are still run by their original owners. And for the first time, young women from Esna are selling their goods in the bazaars.

HeritageTraditional Loom

At the textile shop in the market, handmade looms are shown alongside the traditional vibrant colorful shawls of Esna and the traditional women's body cover called the habara. It is a three-meter-long body wrap with a distinctive violet lining.

The seal stamp maker

Sitting at the end of the Qaisariyya market, the seal stamp maker was eloquently engraving the full names of people on the small copper cylinder. This trade has been passed on from the ancient Egyptians, especially in Neqada around 3000 BC. The personal seal stamp was quite popular back in the day for illiterate people who used it as their bank/authentic signature.

We ordered our seal stamp as a tribute to the ancient tradition.

The oil press

The oil press craft has been in Esna since the ninth century AD. We visited the only remaining functioning oil press in Esna, the Bakkur oil press, which was first established in 1897.

Diwan Huzayyen

In Esna, all of the big families have their own diwan. A diwan is a vast house with a big seating area to host family gatherings and special events. We were invited to visit Diwan Huzayyen, where the walls carried photos of the family that date back almost 100 years. We sat and listened to the great-grandson who generously opened his heart and shared his family stories.  

The wood workshop

VISIT-Esna launched an 18-day workshop for the youth of Esna to explore traditional carpentry. The ancient art truly marks the city, for every door is handcrafted by skillful hands. The outcome of the workshop was impressive, especially since it was the first time for the participants, mostly young women, to use such tools.

It seemed as if they had inherited their skills from their forebearers!

Food for the Soul

The tour ended at the Ansari Diwan. We were promised a treat of authentic Esna dishes made by Esna’s best female chefs who had won a local competition and were given the opportunity to present them for the first time.

The spacious, blue dining room was filled with rectangular tables with centerpieces of pink moulid dolls. The main course included signature dishes of Esna such as lentils, shallow (dry molokhia with garlic and vinegar), and fish with apricots.

Who is Sheikh Al-Ansari?

As I sat at the dining table, a white sign greeted my eye, declaring the room the mausoleum of Sheikh Al Ansari, who was named after the Al-Ansar tribe that supported Prophet Muhammad in Al-Madina.

Several people are buried in it, including El-Hussien El-Ansari buried in 370 Hijri (980 AD), and his brother El-Hassan Al-Ansari, who died 11 years later.

"This means that the mausoleum is over 1,000 years old, from the Fatimid era," explained Mostafa to Ahram Online, adding that the existence of an Al-Ashari, (a boat shape) on top of the mausoleum, means he was a highly appreciated religious scholar just like Imam Al-Shafaai who has the same boat on top of his dome.  

Tahteeb, the pride of men

The tour’s grand finale was a performance of Upper Egypt’s most favorite game. Tahteeb, or stick dance/game, is a dance performed, usually, by two men who each hold a stick and dance to the rhythm of a drum beat. This unique dance is an enchanting physical conversation between the two dancers, who move in a coordinated waltz of sorts that displays a vivid tableau of skills, talent, and flexibility. Enlisted on UNESCO’s 2017 Intangible Cultural Heritage list, this art was practiced by the ancient Egyptians and continues to be an essential skill and knowledge and the pride of men in Upper Egypt.

Visiting Esna is a truly exceptional experience, for once you step into the city, you can see the past and present effortlessly connected. You can witness the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another, a rare joyful, and quite blissful experience.

We should all visit Esna!  

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