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1 October 2013 / leggypeggy

Tentmakers of Egypt—an art form strives to survive

tenthanging

Ekramy shows off one of his works

I’d been in Cairo for about a month when I was invited to my first wedding. It was a lavish affair with lots of people, joy, laughter, music, food, belly dancing (a talent which comes naturally to all Egyptians) and loads of colour.

Egypt really isn’t known for her colour—unless you’re in the ancient tombs or fond of the dun brown dished up by the Sahara Desert—but she sure knows how to dress up for an important occasion.

Street suradeq

Multi-coloured street suradeqs are used to decorate occasions from weddings to funerals

Back in 1976, when I first arrived, many of Cairo’s festivities were liberally decorated with tent hangings. These enormous appliqués—with their bold colours and geometric designs—were used to create the walls and ceilings of celebratory spaces.

Even then, I knew tentmaking was an ancient craft. I’m guessing it started with nomads who wanted to bring colour and texture to the interior of tents pitched in the midst of desert landscapes.

But these days, handmade tent hangings are being replaced with acres of el-cheapo pre-printed fabric, and that change and a lack of appreciation for the skill needed to create the appliqués are killing the art form.

In the late 1970s there were about 45 master tentmakers on Sharia Khayamiya, the tentmaker street in old Islamic Cairo. Today there are fewer than 20.

But master quilter and friend, Jenny Bowker, is working hard to ingest new life into the craft and find new markets that will foster a healthy future.

Egyptian tenthanging

Hany shows off one of his pieces

And the folks in Canberra are lucky she’s sharing her crusade with us.

As part of celebrating Canberra’s 100th year, Jenny, the Canberra Quilters and other donors have joined together to bring two master tentmakers from Egypt to Australia for a program of displays, demonstrations and classes.

The fun started last weekend, when master tentmakers Hany El Sayed and Ekramy Hanafy wowed the crowds at the Egyptian Embassy’s Open Days. Both men learned their craft as children, and how they are passing the skill on to their own children.

Ekramy explained how a tent hanging comes to life from initial pattern to colour selection to construction to completed product, and Hany described the appliqué he created to mark the revolution of 25 January 2012 that saw Hosni Mubarak ousted from power.

The Open Days included a display of about 40 appliqués, including some of Jenny’s magnificent quilts inspired by her life in Egypt from 2005–09.

I feel blessed to have seen these displays and equally blessed to own about 12 small tent hangings purchased when I lived in Egypt in the late 1970s.

Jenny feels somewhat hopeful about the craft. The American Quilter’s Society has signed a three-year contract with 18 remaining tentmaking shops to provide works for international exhibitions.

Thank you Jenny for all yours efforts on behalf of the tentmakers of Egypt. If anyone is  interested in knowing more about Jenny and her amazing work, please check out her website, including the images of her incredible quilts.

More exciting news was shared in a comment below. A film, titled The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah, being produced. Find out more at their website.

26 Comments

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  1. Joanne T Ferguson (@mickeydownunder) / Oct 1 2013 10:54 pm

    G’day and HOW AMAZING Peggy, true!
    Tent making…a lost art in the making, but hopefully can be preserved for future generations too!
    Cheers! Joanne

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Oct 1 2013 10:59 pm

      Yes Joanne, I look forward to returning to Egypt soon and buying some of their ‘new and improved’ tent hangings. They are really figuring out how to cater for the tourist-buying market, while still retaining their historical talents.

      Like

  2. lmo58 / Oct 2 2013 1:36 pm

    Hi Peggy,
    Thank you for a really interesting post on this ancient art. The colours are stunning and the individual hangings must take hours to make. These are a tribute to the passion, patience and talent of the individual weavers. Thank you again.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Oct 2 2013 5:45 pm

      My pleasure, Louise. The hangings truly are exquisite, and the more complex ones can take months to make.

      Like

  3. Ahmed Kamal / Oct 2 2013 2:57 pm

    Tentmakers in Cairo couldn’t come to an international exhibition without Great Um El Khiamiah supporting. I mean Jenny Bowker as we all here consider her our great mother.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Oct 2 2013 5:44 pm

      Hello Ahmed,
      Jenny is a wonderful person and she has been the perfect person to support the tentmakers of Cairo. I’m so happy I was able to write about and photograph the tentmakers who visited Canberra so even more people know about your fabulous and intricate artworks. Please share this page with anyone you think might be interested. 🙂

      Like

  4. Kim Beamish / Oct 4 2013 12:45 am

    Well done to Ekramy, Hany and obviously Jenny Bowker. I hope the film ‘The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah’ might be able to help a little more in explaining the tentmakers and modern Egypt. So if you are keen to find out more about them and help in getting the film made take a look at http://www.tentmakersofcairo.com or sign up to our Facebook page. If you have a look around you’ll even get to see Ekramy teaching his ten year old son. Again well done to you all.

    Kim Beamish
    Producer
    The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Oct 4 2013 8:28 am

      Kim, thanks so much for commenting here. I’m going to add your link to the body of this blog entry so it is seen by people who don’t read the comments.

      Like

  5. Sy S. / Oct 6 2013 11:31 am

    This is one of your best blog entries; amazing how much skill is required to made these beautiful tent hangings from Egypt… bright colors, perfect geometric patterns (hand stitched) and time consuming. I would guess the better ones command a big dollar amount. However, my guess is that only the Persian rugs will be slightly more valuable, as an investment.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Oct 6 2013 2:07 pm

      Thank Sy. I can’t express how much joy I got from writing this entry and from contributing even a small effort to help keep this wonderful craft alive.

      Like

  6. gallivance.net / May 5 2014 11:09 pm

    Peggy, these tent hangings are gorgeous! What an incredible skill and art. And as any quilter knows, producing a beautiful applique is no easy feat – these are some talented folks. So glad that there are people working to keep this art alive. Wonderful post! 🙂 ~Terri

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / May 5 2014 11:27 pm

      Hi Terri – So glad you visited this page. Egypt’s tentmakers are absolute legends and I feel privileged to own a couple of hangings made in the 1970s. Come to Australia and I’ll show them to you! 🙂

      Like

  7. ambrasomewhere / Jul 14 2014 7:12 pm

    Very beautiful patterns!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Holistic Wayfarer / Sep 9 2015 12:34 am

    My 8-yr-old tapped the like. He’s studying Ancient Egypt at the moment so I wanted him to get a glimpse of modern Egypt. Always learning something here. =)

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Sep 9 2015 1:38 am

      That’s so great to hear. Tell him thank you.

      Like

  9. Tesha / Feb 27 2016 10:51 pm

    I was in Egypt for a week and it is so weird that I never noticed these beautiful quilts. I guess my interest was more on the pyramids. Glad too to learn that these can be ornamental.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Feb 27 2016 11:08 pm

      The pyramids are wonderful thing to look at. But it’s not weird that you didn’t see the tent hangings in Cairo. There’s a tentmakers’ street, which is where the craftsmen make these beautiful pieces. So if you’re ever back in Cairo, ask to go to Khayamiya Street (or Sharia Khayamiya).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Nancy J / Oct 4 2016 3:34 am

    Stunning colors and crafting. I am sad to hear that it is becoming a lost art. I am going to visit your friend’s site. Egypt has always intrigued me. I am half Meditteranean and Western Asian, Italian, Greek, Syrian, and Armenian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Oct 4 2016 6:43 pm

      My goodness, what a wonderful mix of heritage you have. So glad you like the tent hangings. I own a few small pieces and love them to bits, including a very small one that says ‘oh shit’ in Arabic. Haha

      Like

  11. kelleysdiy / Jan 2 2017 5:09 am

    Beautiful works of art!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ellen Hawley / Jan 29 2017 6:57 am

    Gorgeous colors. Amazing patterns.

    Liked by 1 person

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