Postcard from Cairo: points in time at the tentmakers’ bazaar

In a covered street in the Islamic heart of Cairo, surrounded by splendid monuments and tall minarets, the craftsmen of the tentmaker’s bazaar carry on an almost thousand-year-old craftsmanship, which is part of the pomp and pageantry of the city. since medieval times. .

For centuries, the main product of the bazaar was ceremonial tents, opulent feats of temporary architecture commissioned by princes and sultans, and used to host public events and festivities. Brightly colored and richly decorated, they were made with a technique still in use today called a needle-turned appliqué, in which pieces of cotton fabric cut into intricate patterns are hand-sewn onto a canvas to form elaborate patterns.

In recent decades, with the demand for expensive, handmade public tents declining, artisans in the market have thrived in turning their skills towards producing items for tourists, focusing on home textiles. such as wall hangings, bedspreads, cushion covers and tablecloths.

The coronavirus, however, took a heavy toll on them. It halted the tourist flow less than a year after returning to levels not seen since the 2011 revolution, which ushered in a long period of political upheaval. “There was a slowdown that lasted until 2019 when business rebounded,” says Mahmoud al-Hariri, one of the market’s master craftsmen. “Then corona came in and stopped anyone coming in or going out.”

But while there are few tourists now, the older generation of skilled artisans like Hariri say they take the opportunity to work on difficult and time-consuming pieces that showcase their prowess while waiting for the market to pick up.

“My colleagues and I are constantly watching each other’s work and we challenge each other,” Hariri says proudly unfolding what he considers his masterpiece, a bedspread that took six months to go, decorated with interwoven arabesque stars and finely detailed flowers. designs in green, red and blue. A Kuwaiti sheikh wanted to buy it, he says, but refused to sell it when it turned out that it would serve as a rug.

At 53, Hariri boasts of a career that began as a 10-year-old boy, apprenticed to his uncle and learned the trade until he achieved “Craftsman on a Cushion” status. “. The term refers to an accomplished craftsman who sits cross-legged as he sews his seams – a sight still familiar in the small shops that line both sides of the street.

A morning bread delivery to the tent makers’ bazaar © Dreamstime

“What we do is like carving using fabric on fabric,” says Hariri, who grew up in the neighborhood around the market working for Fattoh Sons, his cousins’ family business, and inspiring medieval and Ottoman monuments in the region. “Mosques are our place of study. We are imbued with the decorations on their walls.

Sitting leaning over a piece of canvas marked with the outline of an arabesque shape, Mostapha al-Leithy, 55, another master craftsman, explains how the craft changed during his lifetime. Although public tents were still used in Egypt, by the late 1970s fabric printed in traditional patterns made by tent makers began to replace the hand-sewn panels that were the basis of the workshops where it was built. ‘entailed. “Suddenly there was no more work for a lot of people, so we had to adapt and learn to move beyond the traditional patterns we were producing,” he says.

Arabesques still occupy a prominent place in the production of tent makers, with pieces echoing the geometric shapes of traditional Islamic woodwork or reproducing in vibrant colors the carved stone and marble of mosque prayer niches. Arabic calligraphy, rural scenes, pharaonic motifs such as the lotus flower, and fantastically colored depictions of birds and fish also decorate textiles of all sizes stacked in tent makers’ stores.

“Islam is my favorite style,” says al-Leithy. “It’s like sculpting the fabric to create a painting. There is flow in the patterns.

His brother, Yasser al-Leithy, recognized as a leading designer, works from a free office accessible through a maze of winding alleys behind the market. An accountant in an oil company in the morning, he pursues his passion as a tent maker in the afternoon. He, too, pulls out of a wardrobe a prized masterpiece of Islamic design awaiting the right buyer who will appreciate its exquisite craftsmanship and delicate arabesques in a myriad of intense colors.

A craftsman at work in the tent makers' bazaar

A craftsman at work at the Tentmakers’ Bazaar © Alamy

Some of his works venture far beyond the traditional motifs of the bazaar. He is especially proud to have copied 14 boards from the Description of Egypt, a series of volumes produced by scholars and scientists who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his military expedition to Egypt in 1798 which aimed to catalog ancient and modern aspects of the country.

On a computer screen, he shows a pictorial recording of his work, including a recent wall hanging that reproduces Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. “It was for an Italian client who wanted to hang it in a church in Italy,” he says. “It took me five months. The same client had the painting reproduced on papyrus and woven on a loom like a carpet in Iran.

As much as the artisans of Tentmakers’ Bazaar are passionate about their work, they fear that it faces an uncertain future. Few young people want to undertake the hard work that this entails. “I give this machine 10 years before it disappears,” says Yasser al-Leithy. “Now hardly anyone is coming to learn.”

Seif El Rashidi, art historian who co-wrote Cairo tent makers: medieval and modern applique craftsmanship from Egypt, believes that artisans have already shown an ability to adapt to new markets in Egypt and even abroad. “Many of them exhibit internationally at craft fairs and the standards of their products have improved,” he says. “I think the profession still has a future. It has already become an art with people using their work to decorate their homes.

Hariri is inspired by the long history of tentmaking art and the way it has been resilient through the ages. “It is true that there have been periods of decline,” he says. “But there is something in the genes of traditional craftsmanship that helps them struggle and survive.”

Heba Saleh is the FT correspondent in Cairo


Egypt is currently open to international tourists, but a negative PCR test, carried out within 72 hours of their flight’s take-off, is required; see egypt travel for more information

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