Walking in El Moez Street is like browsing through history, with Egypt’s precious authentic heritage visible at every corner. The street is named “El Moez li Deen Ellah” after the fourth caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty, and is home to many historical buildings and mosques covering almost every era, including the Fatimid, Ayubid, Mamluk, Ottoman and up until the reign of Mohamed Ali.
Some of the most historical monuments of the area include El Sultan Qalawon Complex, Sabil Mohamed Ali, Beit Wasseela, Beit el Sehemy and Al Aqmar Mosque, to name a few. Shops that sell different types of handicrafts are on either side of the street, which stretches from Bab Al-Futuh in the north to Bab Zuweila in the south.
El Moez Street embraces various kinds of crafts like copper handmade products, textiles, pottery, reed plates and glass painting, among others, which especially flourished during the Islamic and Arab civilizations.
Extinction of Egyptian Copper Products
Darb el Nahaseen was famous for displaying splendid copper products used to create cookware like decorated trays with bronze, cups and jars as well as braziers with Kufi inscriptions, bowls and chickpeas, also named “tasset el khadda” as people believed it cured neuropsychiatric diseases.
Though this specific craft used to attract tourists and increase foreign currency income, it also led to the increase in raw material prices, opening the doors for importing copper sheets, which led to gradually diminishing the craft.
We met with Adel Gomaa, owner of a metal and copper crafts workshop, who inherited the workshop from his ancestors. Although he is a graduate from Al Azhar University and is now a professor there, his passion for the craft led him to keep a hold of the workshop.
“With the closure of the Alex Copper factory, the material became unavailable, so I turned to buying old Egyptian copper from the countryside and Upper Egypt, as I do not like to work with imported copper because the quality is uncomparable to the local,” explained Gomaa.
“The market for genuine handmade copper is fading, and unfortunately we can’t sell products in the local market due to the high prices of products made from Egyptian copper as well as the increasing availability of machine made products. Moreover, youth nowadays have lost interest in this profession as they are unaware of its value. The craft requires a lot of effort, time and patience, as a piece might take from three months to a year to produce, passing through several stages starting from the formation to the polishing, and so accordingly, there is a lack of trained craftsmen,” he mentioned.
“I managed to sell my products to companies that work in the exporting field, and I succeeded to gain credibility that gained me a loyal customer base,” resumed Gomaa. The copper pieces made by Gomaa are rich, and his collection includes a copper Qalawon brazier plated with silver inlaid with gold and a copper Qalawon table with Kufi inscriptions.
When asked how this craft can prosper again, he said, “The government, especially, the Ministry of Culture, started to encourage the production of handicrafts, and they are giving us their support by holding regular exhibitions for our products. I received a certificate of appreciation from the Ministry for my contributions in metal works, yet I propose that there should be more organized workshops to train the unemployed youth and those interested in the art of craft-making, which will also work towards increasing the awareness of copper crafts’ value,” emphasized Gomaa.
“I have been working at this workshop ever since I was six years old. I wanted to learn how to create engraved copper trays, even though a lot of time and effort needs to be put into it,” said Hag Mahmoud Hafez, a craftsman. “The problem is that although engraving copper trays requires talented craftsmen who are specialized in the formation of this metal’s ore, we unfortunately do not sell enough, and so we are suffering from low income. Unfortunately, the majority of copper products in bazaars are not 100% handmade as they use machines and imported copper sheets,” he added.
The Egyptian Textile Museum
The Egyptian Textile Museum represents one of the major industries that flourished during the Middle Ages, when Egyptian fabric started becoming considered as the best worldwide, and the textiles were then widely spread globally, especially in the European market.
The museum comprises an exclusive collection of Egyptian textiles. Built in 1828 during the era of Mohamed Ali, it was designed to be a charitable educational facility, which later became a school launched by Farouk Hosny, the former Minister of Culture. In December 2010, the building became the Egyptian Textile Museum before it closed for renovation and reopened again in April 2014.
Going through the various sections of the museum, I realized that most of our clothing nowadays stems from Ancient Egyptian styles and fabric. Most of the fabric displayed was embroidered with floral units, hearts or geometric shapes. Textiles that were used at that time were linen and wool, then later cotton and silk were introduced, and were widely spread all over the world.
Ancient Egyptians used to dye textiles using vivid colors extracted from natural plants, so red came from madder roots, blue from indigo plants, yellow from safflower and pomegranate, green from mixing of yellow and blue dyes and pink was obtained from insect’s scale.
Textiles in Ancient Egypt served other purposes besides clothing. They played a major role in trading before the introduction of currency, and were also used in manufacturing shears, covers for cushions, making royal chariots, strainers for perfumes, oil and wine, curtains and clothing for funerals in which shrouds were painted with water or wax.
Pottery is also one of the most important features of the Egyptian craftsman, as it proves his creativity and talent.
Mahmoud Mareey, a visual artist who graduated from the Faculty of Art Education from Al Azhar University, opened his own atelier that gained strong recognition in 2014, and can be found beside Beit el Seheimy. He also participated in 29 group exhibitions and held six solo exhibitions.
His first exhibition took place when he was a student in 2005, which was sponsored by the Cultural French Palace. He also participated in exhibitions organized by the Acquisition Cultural Museum and the International Parliament Union in Switzerland. He won prizes at the 24th and 25th Youth Salon, as well as being awarded the acquisition prize from CIB.
“I would classify myself as an abstract artist as I like to use space and colors in my drawings and paintings. At the beginning, I determine the shadow areas and color, and then I start dividing the usage of colors. I usually use Egyptian tin or old wood, and write Sufi poems on fabric to enrich the surface,” explained Mareey.
“I have established my company in handmade home accessories, and I wanted to encourage handicraft works and support in providing suitable jobs to copper ore workers,” he added. “I use Egyptian raw materials like copper, marble, nickel, Fayrouz, seashells and gemstones that play a role in creating my modern Islamic pieces,” mentioned Mareey.
Unfortunately, all these crafts gradually declined due to negligence, the scarcity of skilled workers or a loss of interest. However, recently, the government has started to focus on the importance of renovating our heritage as well as encouraging handicrafts by holding regular exhibitions in various governorates.