Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Polishing up the copperware

Mai Samih  attends a festival in Al-Fustat that aims to revive the ancient craft of handmade copperware in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The artisans who make copperware today are the descendants of the ancient Egyptian artisans, and the handicrafts of today and those of our ancestors have many things in common,” said Khaled Aboul-Majd, a professor at the Faculty of Arts Education at Helwan University, at a recent festival in Cairo. “During the era of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, copper was used in many fields, as it is today.”

The festival, entitled “The Fine Art Age and Copper Craft Festival”, showed how many ancient cultures shared expertise on handmade goods. According to Aboul-Majd, ancient Egyptians started to use copper as early as 800 BCE. Weapons made of copper have been found in tombs dating back to the First Dynasty. Malachite, derived from copper, was used as an eyeliner by ancient Egyptian women in a turquoise powder form.

“Copperware also appeared at this time. People discovered copper and its characteristics, such as the ease of shaping it, and they began to make plates out of it to put food on and cups to drink from,” said Heba Selim, a professor of jewelry at the Faculty of Applied Arts at Helwan University.

She added that the quality of the work changed according to the era and the social class of the owner. “They also used gold and silver, but for obvious reasons copper was more practical. Later, jugs, containers and even tables were made of copper during the Islamic era.”

The festival was organised by the Al-Fustat Market for Traditional Crafts and the Tourism Development Authority and was held at the Al-Fustat Market in Old Cairo near the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque. The event sought to encourage craftsmen to keep working in copper and to save the craft from disappearing.

It featured a bazaar selling copperware and copper jewelry, as well as other types of products. Workshops were held by craftsmen to teach adults and children how to make objects and jewelry out of copper. They included sessions on shefteshi-style jewelry (wire jewelry) and a performance of Arab music and tanoura dance.

“I started as an amateur with the aim of developing this craft, which began in the times of the ancient Egyptians who used copper to make plates, jewelry, and weapons. Copper was used for the windows of their temples, and later in the Coptic era it was used in churches. In the Islamic era, it was used in mosques,” said Hazem Abdel-Ghani, 44, a traditional copper workshop owner who has been working in the craft for 22 years.

“When glass lamps lit with oil began to be used, ornamented copper cables were used to hang the lamps. The lamps then evolved into the form we use today, varying in style and taking Islamic, Pharaonic and Nubian forms,” he added.

“Today, the main problem facing the craft is that craftsmen have begun to quit it. In the past, they would teach their children, who would then inherit the craft. But now this is no longer the case, and many young people do not want to learn the craft, even though it can provide a good living,” said Abdel-Ghani.

“The aim of the festival is to change this situation, and while the craft depends on copper there are also other metals like silver and tin that we use and which distinguish Islamic art.

“Raw copper and tin are expensive now as they are imported, however. If we compare the prices of raw materials over the last five years, we can see a 100 per cent increase in prices,” he added.

Abdel-Ghani used to own a copper factory in Alexandria, but it has been shut down. Said Abdel-Ghani, “Even the quality of the copper we buy now is not as good as it was in the past. In addition, the wages of the craftsmen are going up, and even the money they earn is not enough to help them to live a decent life.”

For Selim, the aim of such festivals is to encourage young people to take up the trade. “What distinguishes this event is the opportunity it presents for children, grown-ups and the elderly to directly communicate with craftsmen through workshops and to learn from them,” she said.

“This helps to pass on the craft and to create new trends. People buy copper products without understanding the effort exerted to make them. The festival is an opportunity for people to see how it is done.”

Samar Hassanein, an Egyptian batik fashion designer and one of the festival organisers, agrees that there are many disappearing crafts in Egypt, despite the number of skilled craftsmen who want to continue the ancient crafts.

“Every month we are now planning to focus on a craft and to shed light on it, especially those not appreciated by many people. We began with copperware as a lot of people like it and Egyptian craftsmen excel in this field. We want to make the Al-Fustat Market a centre for reviving dying crafts.”

Hassanein started with crafts in Cairo, but she also intends to ask craftsmen from Upper Egypt to participate in similar festivals at the Al-Fustat Market. She then hopes to organise a festival for traditional clothing, followed by others for handmade carpets, drawing and pottery.

Two workshops have been organised to teach people how to make copperware and jewelry out of copper, as well as a pottery workshop.

“I teach students how to use copper wire to make jewelry and how to set stones in it. I am teaching at a level that suits beginners and those who are already interested in the craft. Most of my students are girls, and some of them have made jewelry before,” said Asmaa Al-Said, a traditional arts student at the Traditional Crafts Centre. She taught at the copper jewelry workshop organised on the second day of the festival.

Al-Said worked in the field before studying the art of jewelry making and has organised workshops in many places, including the Faculty of Fine Arts and some local libraries.

“During the Persian, Greek and Roman, Mamluke and then Ottoman periods in Egypt craftsmen were either influenced by the copper work of the conquerors or by the impressions of the Egyptian craftsmen sent to these countries,” Selim said.

During the Coptic period, the Copts acted as the guardians of Egyptian artistic traditions. Then came the Islamic age, when Egyptian copperware was restored to Egypt by Seljuk craftsmen who came to Egypt from Iran and spread their craft, together with advanced techniques for making copperware, Aboul-Majd explained.

They taught local craftsmen how to combine the two metals, for example, which helped the industry advance. “An Egyptian craftsman does what few other craftsman do. He develops what he has learnt from others,” he said.

According to Selim, “What makes Egyptian crafts unique are the forms that are used, since neither the Pharaonic nor the Islamic forms are used by any other craftsmen. Such unique handicrafts are what makes Egypt special, and they are found in other crafts, such as coral inlays in wood and the whole practice of kheyameya [tent-making], among others.”

As a result of the current economic recession, customers are cutting back on their spending on handicrafts, according to Abdel-Ghani. “The market is in recession, as handmade ornaments are expensive for many Egyptian citizens. We depend on fairs and hotel displays to sell our products at the moment.”

Fekreya Nagmuldin, a retired housewife, was disappointed to find many shops closed in the market when she visited, having come to the event after seeing a post on Facebook.

“I came because when I went to Khan Al-Khalili I saw how many shops had gone out of business because of the economic crisis and the fact that there are now few artisans working in the field of copper engraving. The post said that a craftsman would be working here and that there would be an exhibition, so I came to see both,” she said.

Al-Fustat is the spot where the three monotheistic religions meet. The prophet Moses was thought to have been found as a child in the River Nile in the place now occupied by the Ibn Ezra Synagogue near Al-Fustat in Old Cairo.

The area’s Hanging Church, the oldest Church in Egypt, was the place where the prophet Jesus stayed as a child. It is also the place where the Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque, the first mosque on the African continent, was built at the beginning of the Arab era in 641 CE.

For Selim, in order for Egypt’s crafts to flourish and the work of its craftsmen to be recognised, there must be better marketing.

Al-Said agrees, saying, “There are few places that support workshops or sponsor them, and so we have to try to promote our work ourselves. There is no one in charge of this marketing process. We have a lot of work to do already. If someone else could take care of it, it would be much better.”

However, the government’s involvement in the festival, co-organised by the Fine Arts Sector and Traditional Crafts Department of the Ministry of Culture, was a promising start.

“Regular communication between ministries is very important. If the Ministry of Culture decides to train people in a particular craft, the Ministry of Industry should extend this training to factories or workshops and provide people with job opportunities,” said Selim.

The red tape many young people currently face before getting their projects approved should also be radically trimmed.

“Young people should be given more time to pay off their debts after marketing their products through fairs. Such young people could be sent abroad to sell their products, or even form links with foreign cultural centres in Egypt. These could also be venues for young artisans to sell their products,” she said.

“The tali craft [traditional embroidery], famous in Upper Egypt, was revived by one woman when it was about to disappear. Crafts like handmade carpets in the village of Naqada near Qena, and oyma [wooden ornaments] in Damietta exist today because individual families have been willing to support them. There should be further such initiatives, since these help to teach young people a sense of responsibility and preserves our cultural heritage,” said Nagmuldin.

“I call on the government to give us greater moral support. It could lower our electricity bills and exempt us from taxes as we do not work in factories but only workshops. It should also organise more fairs,” said Abdel-Ghani.

“Copperware workshop owners are fighting for their very surival. It is very difficult to open a workshop but very easy to close one down. The craftsmen work for 12 hours a day at least, and no one appreciates them.”

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