A new generation of potters is reviving an ancient art form.
Reham El-Adawi visits the Islamic Ceramics Centre
Mention Islamic ceramics and what generally comes to mind are the marvellous lustre-painted ceramic work of the Fatimid era, which began in the 10th century and reached its peak in the 12th. For although the technique of glazed pottery can be traced to as early as the sixth century BC, when Greek potters settled in the Delta port of Naukratis, the technique only developed to a peak of perfection under Islam.
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A worker burns the clay artefacts; old Islamic pots; one of Al-Fustat Ceramic Centre modern potters creating a ceramic vase; different forms of authentic glazed ceramic plates and pots
The term "Islamic ceramics" is very general and includes Persian and Chinese influences, the result of the spread of Islam into Asia. But the incomparability and taste of Egyptian ceramics in the Fatimid era has never been surpassed. Pottery was one of the most important industries of the day, and the fragments of glazed and elaborately decorated earthenware that have been found in abundance at Fustat -- the first Arab capital near what is now Old Cairo -- show its evolution.
Egyptians have been masters at pottery production for thousands of years. This is far from surprising: raw material was readily available, both from desert marls and Nile alluvium. The earliest pottery was largely for utilitarian use, unglazed and rarely decorated. To be sure, vessels were sometimes burnished to a lustre -- but only when the Greeks settled in the Naukratis did they introduce into Egypt polished ware that was burnt in furnaces, resulting in a glaze so beautiful that in time it was further developed and adapted to local taste.
In the seventh century AD, when the Arabs settled in Fustat, the technique of Egyptian potters was put to good stead, at first in the
predominantly geometric motifs that decorated the ware, and later, influenced by the local Coptic style, with human figures depicted in abstract and symbolic form. Gradually the technique of pottery manufacture developed until products made of local clay were painted, and glazed to such a glassy transparency, so subtly coloured, that it was in demand throughout the Arab world. Egyptian lustre-painted ceramics under Islam occupied an advanced position among potters. A peak was reached that could not be surpassed.
Motifs, however, did go off on a different tangent, and this is what happened as tastes changed. In the Mamluke period (1258-1517), red clay began to be used for ceramics, and enameled or glazed pottery achieved great depth and luminosity. This was enhanced by new techniques such as piercing and skimming, or scratching. The ware produced in this period was more elaborately decorated. Calligraphy was introduced into the design more frequently than ever before, as well as flora, and fauna such as deer and rabbits.
Egyptian pottery, in wide demand throughout the Ottoman world, began to be personalised. The names of emirs and princes were included in the design -- sometimes even as the main design, which became more complex. Gradually, with the changes in taste, some of the more ancient techniques were lost and slowly even the spirit changed. The very creativity of earlier times was lacking with mass production.
In 1958 a veteran potter, Said El-Sadr, set about reviving the ancient craft. He had recently returned from the United Kingdom where he had completed his art studies, and he decided to establish a ceramics centre on the edge of Old Cairo, on the site of the first Arab capital where archaeologists have found so many early ceramic fragments not only from home but also from such far flung production centres as China. With the blessing of the then minister of culture, Sarwat Okasha, El-Sadr started his project on a modest scale: just one small room containing two ovens, wood and solar heating. There was no electricity. That came later.
Fortunately it was no difficult task for El-Sadr to find enthusiastic
apprentices. Potters had been producing utilitarian ware around Fustat for generations, and among them were many young artists anxious to acquire new skills and improve their products. Rather than continue producing pottery using age-old techniques, which were considered the best for the simple reason that "they were always done this way", they now had an opportunity to develop their craft.
"These contemporary potters and artists are not mere copyists," the centre's director, Ali Ibrahim, stressed. "They are creative artists, developing and elaborating on raw material, themes and techniques of various periods of the ancient past."
El-Sadr's tentative first steps to perpetuate the revival of Islamic ceramics were so successful that a need was seen to upgrade the facility, and in 1996 an area of 2,400 square metres was chosen as an appropriate place for the expanding centre. The building, designed by Gamal Amer, a student of famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, is a modestly-size structure in the style of the master, who was known to the younger generation of architects simply as Hassan Bey. Domes and vaults form a spacious and airy interior, which is adorned with arabesque doors, windows and furnishings. There is also a mosaic fountain.
At the Islamic Ceramic Centre, which is under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, the products of a new generation of ceramists are on view. The ground floor is devoted to the display of pottery produced by young local artists, as well as works donated from veteran potters, both from Egyptian and other Arab countries. There are seven studios on the second floor, in which the artists work and live. Young potters are trained by graduates from the Faculty of Applied Arts as well as by traditional craftsmen. This is an interesting part of the project, since many of these now elderly men are illiterate, yet they have inherited their age-old profession passed down for generations and have an inherent knowledge of the "feel" of the clay; their strong fingers handle the medium with confidence. What they produce is skilled.
Watching them at work one is reminded of the relief in the tomb of Mereruka on the Saqqara necropolis, carved in the third century BC which features two potters facing one another. The hieroglyphic text beside one of them reads "that is a beautiful pot you are making," and beside the other, "indeed it is!"
Techniques have developed considerably since then. "The centre is equipped with the most updated ovens, tools, and materials such as glaze, paint and clay that help produce high quality ceramics," Ibrahim said, adding that experimentation and research was encouraged.
The Islamic Ceramic Centre was officially opened in 2001. It contains a specialised library with a range of books on art and pottery, and a marketing department that handles artefacts for sale at competitive prices ranging from LE5 to LE150.
The Islamic Ceramic Centre is a short walk from Mar Girgis Metro Station on the Cairo- Helwan route.