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Volume 12, Number 8October 1961

In This Issue

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The Potter's of al-Qarah

For 15,000 years and maybe longer man has mixed clay, water and imagination to create ceramics.

Jebel al-Qarah at Hofuf, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, contains a wonderful assortment of caves. They come in all shapes and sizes and make ideal spots for the adventurous games of young Saudi Arab boys. But one of the caves on the north side of the jebel is neither a "hideout" nor the site of "buried treasure." It is, less romantically, the workshop of Sayied Tahir ibn Ali Al Gahrach. But within the cave Tahir ibn Ali and his family ply a trade that has the romance and dignity of a 15,000-year history. The trade, or better yet art-form, is that of ceramics—the molding of clay or earth in plastic forms that are given permanency by the use of intense heat. Tahir ibn Ali picked an ideal spot for his workshop: his clay, stored in large stone vats, is kept moist and the cave provides him and his family with natural air conditioning.

That Tahir ibn Ali turns out a useful, eye-catching product is no surprise. His family has been working with ceramics for generations. Tahir ibn Ali and his two eldest sons are the potters who "throw" the pieces on foot-powered potter's wheels, which are built into the rock for stability. Other members of the family dig the clay from nearby clay beds, wedge (mix) it, prepare the outdoor kilns or ovens, and fire them with a fuel of dried palm fronds. Youngsters are taught at a very early age to help in all stages of pottery production, and they are not very old before they are shown how the potter's wheel operates. In this way the art of ceramics is passed on from generation to generation.

Visitors to the workshop are amazed at the display of dexterity that enables the potters to "throw" a two-foot-tall water jug in about six minutes. Tahir ibn Ali first centers a roll of clay on the wheel head. Then, with the clay whirling between his hands, he quickly opens the top of the batch. It begins to assume a jug-like shape as Tahir ibn Ali pushes his left hand down into the center of the pliable clay while his right hand raises and supports the outside wall. Extreme steadiness of hands and arms is needed to insure uniform thickness and shape. When the jug reaches its full height, Tahir ibn Ali forms the narrow neck by squeezing his hands together. So sure and swift are his movements that his skill looks deceptively easy to an)'one who doesn't appreciate the many years it took to acquire. Carefully, Tahir ibn Ali lifts the finished jug from the wheel and hands it over to another member of the family.

After the jug has dried in the sun, it is ready for baking. The two large outdoor kilns are stone-lined pits with fireboxes below to burn the palm fronds. Placed in the pits in circular rows, the clay pots are given a covering of broken pottery just before the fires are lighted.

The result of all this family effort is a handsome and durable water jug that more than likely will find its way into a home in the village of al-Qarah, where it will be used to hold water. The porous clay allows a small amount of seepage which evaporates, keeping the water inside cool even in the hot summers. The al-Qarah potters make enough water jugs, bowls and vases to supply the village needs. In Hofuf other potters are busy supplying that city's needs, and in Qatif still other potters are at work. Wherever ceramics are needed, there are men like Tahir ibn Ali.

The same holds true in other parts of the world. Outside of the mass-production methods that supply some domestic and export needs, many countries foster handmade potteries similar to those fashioned at al-Qarah. The ceramics craft ranks along with such other ever-popular cottage industries as weaving, looming, carving and basketry, and no matter where made, the handmade jug or bowl always retains the distinctive touch of the individual craftsman, a touch that is lost in the mass-produced article.

Potters have been plying their trade for some 15,000 years. How it all started, no one knows, but it's reasonable to believe that a primitive man left his footprints in clay which dried and hardened in the sun. He saw that the depressions held water and might have guessed that clay would make an excellent lining for his reed baskets.

Hardening clay by fire was probably also an accidental discovery, but someone long ago also found that after being fired a ceramic article is almost indestructible. Excavations in the Nile Valley turned up fired clayware that was at least 13,000 years old and as good as the day an ancient potter put the finishing touches on it. Similar clayware found elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and South America indicates that the development of the ceramics craft belongs not to a particular people or region but to the world as a whole.

Although many improvements and refinements have evolved, the basic steps in pottery-making have changed very little over the centuries. One improvement, however, was extremely important—glazing, which enabled potters to make their clay vessels more beautiful, durable and watertight. There are countless variations of the glazing compound, a molten substance which is fired on the surface of the clayware under intense heat. Egyptians as early as 3,000 B.C. were already glazing their wares, and the Syrians and Persians were not far behind in developing a very practical alkaline glazing compound. Later, iron, cobalt, manganese and copper were used to produce magnificent colors. Some of the most beautiful ceramics, considered masterpieces today, were produced in the Middle East of the pre-Crusade era. Artisans decorated pottery with various paints before applying a transparent glaze.

Earlier, across the Mediterranean, the Greeks favored liquefied clay and molds that could produce duplicate vessels, covered with a very thin, lustrous glaze. Their famous dark glazes were obtained by using iron oxides with silica and small amounts of alkali as a flux or fusing agent. Although Roman potters borrowed much of the Greek styling, they were artisans in their own right, some of their best work seen in the valued Samian and Etruscan wares. Besides vases and bowls, the Romans produced ceramic bricks, tiles, drainpipes and bathtubs. Invading Roman legions carried pottery-making techniques into France, England and Germany. Evidence that articles they made were of enduring quality is the fact that some of their water conduits in France and Italy are still in use today.

Using kaolin and feldspar as clay ingredients, the Chinese developed porcelain. Fired at an extremely high temperature, porcelain is a dense, translucent pottery, watertight even without glazing. The Chinese sometimes used a bluish-green or cream-colored glaze on porcelain ware that was the envy of Europe from the twelfth century until John Bottger discovered kaolin in Saxony, Germany in 1708 and began producing his own porcelain ware.

Other countries, too, added grace to the world's market places in the form of individualized pottery. Spain, for example, long has been noted for its majolica ware. The Spanish technique of applying an opaque gloss glaze, then painting on colored designs, was introduced to Europe during the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century. Japan, France and England had their own ceramic industries but not until 1300 A.D. and later. On the North American continent, pottery was not a common craft until at least 500 A.D., and even then it developed very slowly. In fact, the Indian pottery of the American Southwest was produced by the coil method (successive strands of clay), and the potter's wheel was unknown until the arrival of the white man.

In the United States, ceramics, almost as old as man himself, has won a new popularity, not as an industry but as a hobby for home or club workshops. Hobby stores furnish everything needed: pre-mixed clays, glazes, kilns and potter's wheels that enable everyone from housewives to business executives to enjoy a creative pastime.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where ceramics as a cottage industry has always been important, ceramics as a hobby is catching on. Nearly a dozen wives of Arabian American Oil Company employees are avid ceramics hobbyists. Corners of their homes have been turned into workshops, or else they pursue their interest together at the Aramco Art Center in Dhahran. Not all of them progress to the potter's wheel, and some prefer the hand-molded vases and sculpture. Of those who do use the potter's wheel, very few can hope to match the skill and speed of Tahir ibn Ali. The Aramco wives are well aware that it takes years of constant practice to turn out consistently well-made pottery pieces, the kind Tahir ibn Ali and his two sons produce at Jebel al-Qarah.

But that very difficulty presents a challenge worthy of diligent, dedicated potters. As one of the ladies put it, "After being a potter for several years, I still find that I'm learning new things about ceramics."

This article appeared on pages 3-5 of the October 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for October 1961 images.