Need art to hang in your tent? Get thee to Cairo.

Why We Wrote This

From cave paintings to still lifes, humans have always liked to decorate walls. The furnishings for sale in Cairo’s tent-makers market also tell the story of Egypt’s rich past.

Taylor Luck
Tent-maker Ahmed Fatooh holds up an applique tapestry with the Arabic calligraphy “your tongue is your horse,” at his workshop at Souk Al Khayamiyya in Old Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 18, 2019.

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A walk along Cairo’s Souk Al Khayamiyya, between the buzzing motorbikes and puttering tuk-tuks, is a colorful journey through the cultures and civilizations that touched Egypt and the greater Islamic world. Luxurious fabrics are delicately laded with blue sparrows, geometric maze-like marvels, and blessings to God. But these aren’t displays meant for a palace or museum. They’re wall art for tents.

The art of Egyptian tent-making stretches back to the seventh-century founding of Cairo itself. The original Islamic capital was first called Fustat – literally “the tent.” Only recently has appreciation for the tent-makers been revived and their applique art reappraised. Cairenes are now returning to the tent-makers market for a more modest, but urgent, need: home furnishings.

Just as it was in the 12th century, it takes a day for a simple geometric design, while more intricate, larger panels may take 30 days to finish. Whether the client is a prince or a tourist, tent-makers abide by their ancient principle: you don’t rush a stitch. Craftsman Hossam Farouk knows this as he sews through a cloth bird beak. He says, “You cannot make a thousand years of art in a single day.”

On a dusty Cairo street at Souk Al Khayamiyya run seams and stitches holding together Egypt’s rich cultural tapestry.

Luxurious fabrics are delicately laid and interwoven to depict bright blue sparrows, a vase of flowers, geometric maze-like marvels, Quranic verses, and blessings to God.

But these aren’t displays meant for a palace or museum. They’re wall art for tents.

A walk along the roofed street of Souk Al Khayamiyya, literally the tent-makers market, between the buzzing motorbikes and puttering tuk-tuks, is a colorful journey through the cultures and civilizations that touched Egypt and the greater Islamic world.

From the row of workshops hang tapestries, banners, and pillows with geometric patterns, block inscriptions of Kufic Arabic, Turkish whirling dervishes, brilliant peacocks, pharaohs, and hieroglyphics. 

Tent-makers say these diverse eras, designs, and techniques – each requiring training and study – are a constant source of inspiration.

“Some might be more inspired by arabesque, others by animal designs, others are interested in calligraphy, and that is their art,” says Hossam Farouk, as he runs a thread through a villager’s hat on an Upper Nile village motif at his shop.

“But you can look at a blank canvas and take from any and all of these eras to create your own painting, your own tapestry, your own story that only you can tell.”

The art of Egyptian tent-making stretches back to the founding of Cairo itself.

The original Islamic capital in Egypt, founded by Islamic armies in the seventh century, was called Fustat, “the tent,” in an area that now lies in Old Cairo.

Moveable palaces

But it was with the arrival of the Fatimids and the foundation of new Cairo in the 10th century that tent-making art exploded.

The Fatimid rulers requested that local artisans stitch together colorful fabric paintings onto canvas to serve as an artistic interior to tents. The tent-makers, or khayamiyya, would use natural dyes for crimson reds and saffron for yellows. They even crushed Armenian beetles onto textiles from Egypt and silks further afield to produce bold and ornate panels that were cherished as much as gold.

The Fatimid – and later Kurdish Ayyubid – rulers would use these applique tapestries as a moveable palace, mobile grand halls they would take to the battlefield or onto Cairo’s streets to receive the public to celebrate religious holidays and military victories.

Forget DIY camping or lightweight tents with instruction guides. These massive, multi-chamber tents would take up to 100 camels to carry and dozens of men to set up, according to texts from the time.

The tent-makers were respected, influential – it was good to be a khayami. They eventually settled onto one street at the mouth of the Bab Zuwailah gate of Fatimid Cairo, where they remain today. 

The design of their tents changed in the 13th century with the rise to power of the Mamluks, a warrior class turned ruling class who favored intricately woven floral and vine-like designs known as arabesque in bold yellows, greens, and reds.

With the rise of the Ottomans, who took Cairo along with much of the Islamic world in the 16th century, tent art would transform once again.

These new Turkish rulers requested panels in more pastel colors, powder blue, teal, and rose, depicting flowers and animals not native to Egypt.

Cairo’s tent-makers were so renowned as skilled artisans, they were tasked to sew the intricate kiswah, the black cloths emblazoned in gold silk design and writings used to cover the Kaaba in Mecca. 

Every year at the time of the hajj, the sultan of Cairo would lead pilgrims and carry with him a new kiswah in a decorative caravan and complete a 1,000-mile journey on foot and camel to replace the previous year’s kiswah in Mecca in a grand ceremony.

The emergence of colonialism and European dominance in North Africa as the Ottomans receded marked another turning point for khayamiyya.

Taylor Luck
The colorful shops of Souk Al Khayamiyya in Old Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 18, 2019. The tentmakers market has occupied the same street for centuries.

Artistic revival

Many of Cairo’s tent-makers in this period shifted away from Islamic geometric or Ottoman floral patterns in favor of scenes that fit Western visitors’ romanticized images of Egypt: pharaohs, camels, sphinxes, scarabs, and hieroglyphics, peasants leading donkeys next to the river Nile.

Rather than an internalization of Orientalism, it was a shift born in practicality: With the lack of demand of the ruling class in the early 20th century, the khayamiyya turned to designs that would catch the eye of European tourists looking for an “exotic” souvenir.

But by mid-century, the art was largely forgotten; tent-makers were only called upon to stitch gaudy panels to be used for wedding parties or the backdrops for concerts.

Only recently has appreciation of khayamiyya been revived and their applique art reappraised.

In the past decade, Egypt’s ministry of culture has showcased khayamiyya artwork in traveling exhibitions and Islamic conferences; older panels are presented in museums as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Honolulu.

While they are no longer in need of royal reception halls, Cairenes are now returning to the tent-makers market for a more modest, but urgent, need: home furnishings.

Any time of the day, Cairo residents browse the market or special order designs for cushions, throws, pillows, and wall art for their homes, to spruce up the living room or dining room to impress guests ahead of Ramadan, New Year’s, or Eid.

It’s all in the stitching

To this day, it is a craft entirely handmade; tent masters trace out the design with chalk and have women from their family or the neighborhood cut or carry out the stitching or do the work themselves.

But make no mistake, no khayami is worth his salt unless he masters his stitchwork.

“You must train as an artist first, and then as a craftsman with your hands,” says Ahmed Fatooh, who followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the art at the age of 14. “You get one line off, a week’s work is lost.”

Just as it was in the 12th century, it takes a day for a simple geometric design, while more intricate, larger panels may take 30 days to finish.

Whether the client is a prince or a tourist, tent-makers abide by their ancient principle: you don’t rush a stitch.

“This is an art that you cannot rush; if you rush it shows in the stitchwork, the design, the symmetry,” Mr. Farouk says as he sews through a cloth bird beak.

“You cannot make a thousand years of art in a single day.”

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