Tourism is down. Chinese imports are up. Can Egypt’s traditional crafts survive?
by Nigel Fletcher-Jones
all images from Traditional Crafts of Egypt (AUC Press)
At this time of year, much of my attention—as a publisher of books about Egypt—centers on trying to understand what is happening in the re-emerging tourist market.
My weather vanes are not, for the most part, the resorts on the Sinai Peninsula or the Red Sea, but Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan, which attract those who are most interested in pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Coptic and Islamic monuments and history.
The good news is that, this season, things do seem to have been looking up for book sales. I have no doubts now, if I ever really had any, that we will survive the post-2011 slump, and will rise again, alongside the Egyptian tourist trade. This also seems to me to be inevitable given the seemingly universal interest in this most fascinating of countries.
So, the book trade will survive, in one form or another, but it is possible that others may not.
This was brought home to me this month as I read The Traditional Crafts of Egypt edited by Menha el-Batraoui. The book is magnificently illustrated, and covers a wide range of artisan-created products from across the country. It is, it seems to me, not only a glorious evocation of Egyptian crafts that can be traced back for hundreds, or thousands, of years, but also a plea for support from artists who are suffering not only from the current low levels of tourism, but also from the continuing onslaught of mass-produced, machine-made imports of little intrinsic or artistic value.
While many stylistic components have changed over the millennia, some of these crafts—pottery, glass, papyrus, jewelry, fabric, stone, metal, wood and leather—still exhibit characteristics which are immediately recognizable when they are compared to tomb and temple scenes from ancient Egypt.
Apart from those objects made specifically for tourists, the daily life and practical needs of those who still live along the banks of the Nile continue to exert an antique influence on the form, function and decorative characteristics of products made by hand.
From this very deep well of ancient skills—passed from generation to generation—artists have historically absorbed many elements from outside Egypt, and have continued to spontaneously create new forms as tastes waxed or waned up to the present day.
Long ago, for example, Egyptians discovered the seemingly magical properties of Nile mud. They shaped it, and heated it, to create pots with a distinctive hue—a shade darker than the pottery of the surrounding region.
Those pots were a central part of ancient life. So much so that the ancient Egyptian god Khnum is most often depicted at a potter’s wheel where he fashions human children. The folklore association of pottery and fertility persists to this day.
Regional centers where traditional ceramic forms from Egypt’s long history are made continue to exist, but one inevitably wonders, “for how long?” The domestic market for heritage styles is inevitably dwindling, and we can only hope that a major resurgence of the tourist market will reverse this trend.
As I drive home, I often pass the extraordinary sight between the arches of the Magra al-‘Uyun—the great aqueduct which once carried water from the Nile to the Citadel—of cow and goat hides stretched out over wooden frames that cover the roof-tops. The process of tanning hides—the beginning of the craft of leatherworking—has not changed substantially since antiquity. Yet, the leather industry is under severe pressure these days from cheap imports and artificial materials.
One area of time-honored leatherwork that is close to my heart, of course, is book-binding, and it is good to see that this continues to attract loyal, well-heeled, religious, or scholarly customers. Beside the Sultan Qaytbay caravanserai, near the Khan al-Khalil, ‘Abd al-Zahir bookbinders successfully continues this traditionally manual craft, and long may they do so.
Similarly close to another one of Qaytbay’s monuments (the mosque), glass blowers, like Khalid Ahmad ‘Ali, continue to fashion handmade glass in premises which shimmer in heat and multi-colored light.
The art of Egyptian glass blowing—as opposed to glass molding, which has a very much longer history—was recognized throughout the Mediterranean World in the first century AD. Egyptians were renowned for producing the purest of colors by using high-quality local sand, and the artists of Alexandria, in particular, guarded their secrets jealously. So prized was their work that Roman Emperors ordered that Alexandrian glass form part of Egypt’s annual tribute.
Glassmakers in Alexandria, Fayoum, and Fustat continued to produce spectacular objects well into the medieval period, as glass was often associated with religion and spirituality.
The industry was eventually eclipsed by other centers elsewhere, including Venice, but it is most pressured these days, inevitably, by factory-made glass.
There is not space here for me to talk about the splendid art of Arabic calligraphy, or the glories of brass- and copperware (though copper was the first metal that was tamed by humankind, and is still widely used in Egypt), or woodworking, or jewelry, or alabaster, or papyrus and palm, or carpets and kilims (perhaps another time, but I must encourage you to buy the book, even if it is only to turn to the glorious photography of all these things!).
Let us end, however, with that craft which might be defined as one of the greatest by-products of agriculture, village life, and patience—the manufacture of textiles. Perhaps more so that in any other craft, textiles differ significantly from one culture to another, depending on the availability of local resources and the development of cultural history.
The ancient Egyptians produced linen from flax cultivated in the Delta, Fayoum and central Egypt on wooden looms, in a manner that does not differ greatly from the way in which textiles are produced in villages today.
From the Ptolemaic period, Egypt was renowned for its production of fine silk utilizing yarn imported from India and China (until the 6th century and the introduction of silkworms to Egypt).
After conquering Egypt, the Arabs were so impressed by the fine textiles of the country that they named one fine fabric type qabati after the Qabat or Copts.
The skills and motifs of that glorious past are still kept alive by families in many villages utilizing horizontal looms placed on the ground or resting, in part, in a hole in the ground.
Yet some of the most spectacular products being sold today involve, not weaving, but overlaying sailcloth with colored fabric and embroidery, an art form known as khayyamiya derived from the Arabic word for tent. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of visiting Cairo is to pass through the Fatimid gate of Bab Zuwayla and walk beyond into the Street of the Tentmakers where this art remains alive and well.
This last thought makes me wonder whether my text here of irreversible decline in the creation of handmade art is too pessimistic, and I wonder whether traditional Egyptian crafts may yet see a sustainable resurgence based on their heritage and beauty. Let us hope so.
I hum quietly to myself while writing. I caught myself just now humming Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, which seems particularly apposite: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Let’s hope not this time.