The art of Egyptian tent-making can be traced back into ancient times, but as with many traditional crafts, it is struggling to survive in the twenty-first century.
Although tent making was probably quite popular in ancient Egypt, and embroidered tents were widely used at the time for festivities or decoration, it was not until 1881, when Gaston Maspero came across the burial equipment of Queen Istemkheb at al-Deir al-Bahari, that the first evidence for intricate tent-making in Egypt was discovered.
In his book, A Funeral Tent for an Egyptian Queen, Villiers-Stuart describes the tent that Gaston Maspero laid out on the floor at the old Bulaq Museum for his privileged eyes to see. ‘The tent itself may be described as a mosaic of leather work, consisting of thousands of pieces of gazelle hide, stitched together with thread of colours to match. The edges are neatly bound with a pink cord of twisted leather, sewn on with stout pink thread; each colour is a separate piece, no one section bearing two colours; thus each square of the chessboard-patterned footstool upon which the gazelles are kneeling is a distinct morsel stitched to its neighbours. The whole work is in fact a mosaic, and is the only example yet discovered of what may be called ancient Egyptian tapestry. The colours consist of bright pink, deep golden yellow, pale primrose, bluish green and pale blue. They are wonderfully preserved, considering that they were laid on not long after the Trojan War and are contemporary with Solomon!’
And who would believe that after centuries of war and peace, invasions, coups-d’état, and revolutions, the ancient Egyptian craft of tent-making would still be alive today.
Personally, I have to admit modestly that I have never come across anything related to Queen Istemkheb, yet that little-known lady of the Twenty-first Dynasty, has apparently become a celebrity, thanks to the tent found in her tomb. But what was such an intricately embroidered tent doing in a tomb? How come, after centuries and millennia, the fabric of the tent had not deteriorated, and the gorgeous colours of the birds and flowers had not faded away?
Many scholars, scientists, and Egyptologists may suggest a number of compelling answers connected to temperature, humidity, or dryness in the tomb, but to me what is mind boggling is that, thanks to a few master craftsmen, tents similar to Queen Istemkheb’s are still being crafted and used in Egypt today.
Al-Kheyyameya Street, the Street of the Tentmakers, in Fatimid Cairo, is a stone’s-throw from the gate of Bab Zuweyla, in Fatimid Cairo, next to al-Moayyad Mosque and al-Kurdi Mosque. Lining the wooden-roofed medieval street, two rows of small boutiques are home to master craftsmen, better known in the trade as Sheikh al-Sana’a, or the Elder of the Craft.
Hani al-Masri, a highly-talented designer and illustrator, tells us that the word kheyyameya derives from the Arabic word for ‘tent’ (khaymah). But Hani, being a multi-faceted and a multi-cultured artist, who immerses himself in intellectual as well as spiritual quests and moves at ease amidst a variety of cultures and civilisations, tells me that the name of the famous twelfth-century Persian poet, thinker, and astrologist Omar Khayyam has the same origin. Hani also points out that Omar Khayyam’s family made tents in Nichapur, Persia, modern-day Iran.
It may have been a long way for Omar Khayyam to move from tent-making to poetry, but the association between the two may have had a convincing influence on Khayyam when he wrote, ‘Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science, Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned, The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life, And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!’ Having listened to Hani al-Masri, I am not sure anymore whether ‘kheyyam’ has an Arabic origin or a Farsi one.
Yet, let us not dwell on this, and move from the stitching of ‘the tents of science’ and the ‘tent ropes of life’ in Nichapur, to modern-day Cairo, where the appliqué interior of tents is still crafted by artisans, who are unfortunately becoming rarer and rarer by the day.
It is in Kheyyameya Street that the few remaining craft masters have assisted Hani al-Masri in creating a masterpiece inspired by the classical oriental tale of the One Thousands and One Nights. This is an impressive tapestry, standing ‘five metres tall by eight metres wide, and weighing some forty-five kilograms’, according to Hani. Throughout, it has been executed in the traditional blind stitch kheyyameya technique.
The kheyyameya technique is complicated and tedious, and involves dexterity and creativity. It begins with the drawing of a sketch, and from this sketch a perforated stencil is created. In turn, this is transferred to the base canvas using a simple dusting technique. The little dots are clear enough to guide the redrawing of the patterns onto the fabric. Next, different shapes of fabric are cut out from the stencil and pieced together to reproduce the original design. There are no sewing machines here; ‘this is a handicraft’, says Saber, all the pieces of fabric are hand stitched to reproduce the original design.
But let us not be fooled. Contrary to many beliefs, kheyyameya is neither patchwork nor quilting. Though at first glance it looks like needlework, involving the sewing together of pieces of fabric, kheyyameya has its own strict rules and the order of the entire process – from sketching to blind stitching – takes years to master. It has been said that learning the skills of the kheyyameya craft – or should we call it the ‘Art of Kheyyameya’ – is like learning a ‘complicated language’, and as with most traditional crafts, there are absolute and strict rules to follow.
Sitting cross-legged in his small boutique, and surrounded by piles and piles of his work, Saber strongly believes that as a kheyameya Sheikh al-Sana’a, he has a mission to maintain the tradition and to pass the craft to the younger generation. As he relates, ‘Others would tell you I am a Sheikh al-Sana’a, but I consider myself a keeper of the tradition’.
Many of the younger generations, who have taken over most of the small shops and boutiques in the quiet Kheyyameya Alley, are less interested in keeping alive this millennia-old tradition than their forefathers. “’They are only interested in selling the articles crafted by us’, admits Saber, regretfully.
Our master craftsman may be saddened by the fading of the tradition, yet he acknowledges the recent revival of the craft. For the past decade, the craft has caught the interest of a new wave of Egyptian interior decorators and designers, who ask for wall-hangings, pillow covers, table cloths, bedspreads, and even covers for dekkak (settees). Pointing to the new styles, patterns, colours, and sizes hanging on the walls of his boutique, Saber reckons, ‘we have to move with the times’.
Though designs, colours, and usages have changed, the stitching techniques have remained unaltered for centuries; the same rules have been passed from one generation to the next by the master craftsmen. In the past, each design had a symbolic significance, inspired by original geometric shapes and motifs from the walls and floors of mosques. Today, these traditional designs are still maintained, but have made way for birds, lotus flowers, village scenes, peacocks, horses, whirling dervishes, and even the famous Eye of Horus.
Sewing has been a skill usually connected with women, or should I say, ‘delicate and small hands’, but as unusual as it may appear, the craft and skills of kheyyameya have passed down through generations of men, from their fathers and grandfathers. When asked, Saber lifts his eyes from the feathers of the peacock he is stitching, ‘Surely you are a feminist, and I will upset you by telling you that teaching this craft to girls would be a waste. Girls may become very good at it, but the fate of girls is to get married, give birth, and raise children.”
But that’s another story!
Traditional Egyptian crafts are in danger of becoming extinct, though with support they could be a major source of revenue and pride for Egypt’s population. This is a look at how the industry operates, and what it needs.
In the quiet backstreets of Old Cairo, a traditional art is being lovingly revived. Craftsmen are once more creating pottery and ceramic designs drawn from their nation’s rich heritage.
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.