Recent excavations and experimental archaeology have revealed the long history of Egypt’s glassmaking industry. From ancient Tell al-Amarna to the modern Qait Bey district of Cairo, Egyptian artists have spearheaded innovations that have spread around the world while remaining true to their traditional roots.
In 1922, when Howard Carter first opened the sealed door leading to the tomb of Tutankhamen, the antechamber and the royal chamber contained around seven hundred items. The fabulous treasures that were removed from the tomb inspired generations of furniture designers, architects and goldsmiths, but the most stunning piece was the king’s now universally known funerary mask, made of gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz, obsidian, turquoise and glass. On the boy king’s chest lay another famous treasure: a precious stone-encrusted pectoral, which held at its centre a magnificent scarab made of pure translucent Libyan Desert silica glass.
Glass is a naturally occurring substance, found around volcanoes and at the scene of lightning strikes; effectively, anywhere that certain rocks melt in extreme heat, cool, and re-solidify quickly. Hence, it is believed that the ‘Libyan Desert glass’ used to fashion the scarab on Tutankhamen’s pectoral was probably created after meteorite impacts.
As scientists consider glass a naturally occurring substance, it cannot be said that it was invented by man. Nevertheless, as the use of glass products dates back to prehistoric times, we can ask ourselves at what point men started using glass and even at what time in history they began creating glass objects for domestic use. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, glass was accidentally discovered by man in Syria in the year 5000 BCE when the rocks upon which they were cooking started to melt and then solidified after cooling.
Today, it is believed that glass beads found in Egypt and in many Mesopotamian archaeological sites were the first man-made glass objects in history and that they were already being traded in around 3500 BCE. In 2007, Dr Paul Nicholson, an archaeologist and historian based at Cardiff University (UK), had the brilliant idea of reconstructing a 3,000-year-old glass furnace and, using it, showed that the ancient Egyptians’ glassmaking methods were far more advanced than previously thought. He based his reconstruction on the remains of a glassmaking furnace excavated at Tell al-Amarna, which is regarded as the ‘earliest fully excavated glassmaking site in the world’. Until this important discovery was made, historians believed that the ancient Egyptians imported their glassware from Mesopotamia. However, the excavation of this glassmaking furnace proved that glass manufacture was a flourishing craft in Egypt at least as far back as the reign of Akhenaten. Based on the excavation and reconstruction of the Amarna glassmaking site, Dr Nicholson has argued that glassmaking in ancient Egypt was ‘possibly a single-stage operation’ and that the glass works at Amarna was part of ‘an industrial complex which involved a number of other high-temperature manufacturing processes’.
It is an accepted fact that arts and crafts travel from place to place, and historians believe that with Egypt’s expansion into the Near and Middle East, local craftsmen and artisans came to settle in Egypt, bringing their craftsmanship along. Among them were Phoenicians, knowledgeable in the process of glassmaking. Most probably these craftsmen catered mainly for the royal family, court dignitaries and high priests. Because of this ‘elitist monopoly’ the methods of glass manufacture probably remained a mystery to most people.
At the very beginning, glassmakers used clay and sand moulds in the shape of goblets, vases or bottles, which they filled with hot raw liquid glass. Later glassmakers used glass blowing, a process magnificently represented in the colourful wall paintings of Beni Hassan, near Minya (Middle Egypt). The invention of glass blowing created a revolution in glass manufacture. The process consisted of shaping any glassware by placing a piece of hot molten glass at one end of an elongated hollow tube and then blowing through the tube to shape the molten glass into whatever form was needed. This process, as well as the various tools used by the ancient Egyptians, such as the masha (pliers), are depicted at Beni Hassan and are today used by Egyptian glassmakers in the Qait Bey district of Cairo. There, the various steps of this centuries-old tradition are still practised in their earlier, original form to such extent that even the process of decorating a piece of glassware is the same as that used by the ancient Egyptian craftsmen: thin, coloured rods of molten glass are wound spirally and shaped over the glass while still soft.
The Eastern Mediterranean, with Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, remained a centre of glass production down through the centuries, and, while continuing to be concentrated in these areas, the tradition of glassmaking also travelled across the Mediterranean and into Europe, where it developed into a fully fledged industry in places such as Venice. By introducing imaginative forms, colours and brilliance into an almost dying industry, the Venetian glassmakers revived the craft and thus became known as the link between ancient and modern glassmaking. In Seljuk-era Turkey, glass was used for architectural decoration and objects, but the traditional art of Turkish glassware only developed extensively during the Ottoman era, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of the finest and most stunning glassware was produced in and around Istanbul, such as is Eğrikapı, Balat, Ayvansaray and Bakırköy, to name just a few. The craftsmen working in those centres developed a technique that has become known as ‘Çeşmibülbül’ or Turkish filigree in façon de Venice. This technique was also called Beykoz-ware.
Glassmaking also continued to develop extensively in Egypt, where, in the eighth century, Egyptian artisans created a new technique by decorating glass with metallic stains. Using copper and silver, the artisans created a colour palette ranging from lemon-yellow to deep amber and thus enlarged the scope of artistic expression in this centuries-old craft. Experts reckon that this new colour palette became the most recognizable characteristic of early Islamic glass produced in the Near East. This lustre-painted glassware continued to be made in ninth-century Fatimid Egypt, as well as in Iraq and Syria, and also appeared in a variety of forms during the Mameluke period. During this period, glassmaking underwent a major transformation. Larger geometric and floral patterns as well as inscriptions and figurative imagery started to be incorporated into the decoration of large glass objects, such as hanging mosque lamps, flasks, beakers and vases.
Glassmaking particularly flourished under the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids of Persia and the Mughals of India, as it is under these three empires that the hookah (shisha or waterpipe) was introduced. Made with a globular glass base, the hookah was often decorated with wheel-cut decoration, making it resemble a rock-crystal object, next to which today’s shisha stands like a poor relative.
With the so-called Orientalist period in Europe and the several international fairs organized in Paris, London and Vienna, European glassmakers were introduced to Middle Eastern arts and cultures. The principles of the floral and geometric decorations of Islamic art became very popular and objects decorated with such oriental motifs became fashionable. These can be seen in the works of world-renowned glass artists such as Émile Gallé or Antonio Salviati. In their respective workshops – in Paris for the former and Murano and London for the latter – these two master glass artists designed and manufactured a wide range of hanging lamps, beakers and long-necked bottles inspired by Islamic works, which today are part of private and museum collections.
For more than nine centuries, stained glass windows have adorned churches, palaces and stately homes in Europe. In churches and cathedrals the patterns were invariably centred on religious themes, but for private dwellings the stained glass craftsmen used various patterns ranging from geometrics to floral and figurative. In Egypt, where mosques were decorated with stained glass, artisans used creative colour designs based on Islamic patterns, creating ornamental windows through which the light filtered, projecting amazing patterns on the walls and floors of the buildings. But stained glass was not solely the prerogative of Egypt’s sanctified places, it was adopted also by the upper class to embellish their homes. Some stately homes, like the Seragaldin house in Garden City or the Shawarbi villa in Agouza, have large stained glass windows, and though these were crafted in Italy or France, they were assembled in Egypt. In less grandiose dwellings, in middle class districts, stained glass windows and panels were incorporated into the vernacular architecture. Contrary to those art pieces made abroad for the likes of the pashas, these stained glass works were made by Egyptian glassmakers who had mastered the craft and adapted it to local needs and taste.
Today, modern architects are less inclined to use stained glass, but glassmaking still flourishes, the traditions of the craft continuing to pass from father to son. In the Qait Bey district of Cairo, a number of workshops maintain this centuries-old tradition, producing glassware for domestic use as well as for ornamental purposes. The raw material used in crafting the colourful bottles, lamps, vases, bowls and drinking glasses originates with old, used glass, which the craftsmen recycle by melting in their furnaces. With the exception of the raw material, every single step in the glassmaking process follows the trail and revives the traditions initiated centuries ago by the glassmakers of ancient Egypt.
With a history stretching back almost two thousand years, the importance of Egypt's textile industry is reflected in medieval documents, the diversity of preserved textiles – some referencing Pharaonic motifs and classical legends – and even in family names.
Eva Dadrian is an Emmy Award-winning British-Egyptian independent broadcaster and writer with extensive experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. She works as a political risk analyst for Arab Africa Affairs (London/ Cape Town). She also writes in al-Ahram Weekly and al-Ahram Hebdo (Cairo) and covers issues ranging from art and science to environment and religion for the BBC World Service.