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Volume 37, Number 6November/December 1986

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Tentmakers of Cairo


Written by John Feeney
Illustrated by Theresa Le Bas
Additional photographs by John Feeney

"In the tomb of Princess Isinkheb was found an entire tent - its inside lined with animals and flowers, the blue ceiling studded with appliqued stars..." and the ancient Egyptian craft of tent making is still alive today.

Go to the massive 10th-century gate of Bab Zuwayla, in old Cairo, cross the small square in front of the gate and you are at the beginning of one of the oldest thoroughfares in Cairo - Shari Khayyamiya. Khayma means "tent" in Arabic and here, in the Street of the Tentmakers, the ancient craft of making huge tent pavilions, or suradeq, out of appliqued cloth patterns has been carried on for hundreds of years.

When you see a suradeq for the first time, it tends to take your breath away. Although very plain and grayish-white on the outside, the tents are lined inside from top to bottom with exquisite geometric patterns - usually in brilliant reds, greens, blues and yellows - every centimeter of them painstakingly sewn by hand according to a craft tradition rarely practiced anywhere in the Arab world today, except in the tentmakers' bazaar of Cairo.

Unlike the dazzling tents themselves, the Street of the Tentmakers is a rather mysterious place, always in deep shadow- one of the last roofed-over medieval streets left in Cairo. Amidst a constant babble and a flow of hooting traffic, sellers of brightly colored appliqued cloth in phar-aonic and Islamic patterns sit for the most part motionless and silent in their small boutiques lining both sides of the street.

Once, a thousand men were working there in the tent lofts and surrounding courtyards. Now, there are no more than a hundred or so. Passed on from father to son, the ancient craft, some believe, is slowly dying. "The young ones don't want to learn anymore," they say.

"My father was tentmaker to King 'Abd al-'Aziz," explains Emam Hamid. "The King's famous traveling tent, though not a suradeq, was made here on Shari Khayyamiya and in Makka I have often found tents made by my grandfather a hundred years ago."

But these are lean times and the tentmakers say they do not know how much longer they will remain at their ancient site. Because of Cairo's ever-pressing population, already their huge tent lofts have been turned into apartments.

But most devastating of all, the tentmakers say, are the machines. "Local textile manufacturers steal our designs, and what we take many months to patiently sew together, the mills run off in a few seconds," says one. These printed designs, of course, never possess the alluring magic of a laboriously hand-sewn tent. But, from a distance, when a tent is up, who can tell the difference - except a tent-maker?

Throughout Egypt, for thousands of years, the suradeq has continued to serve a unique purpose. As a people, Egyptians love to celebrate and any excuse is a valid one. Consequently, to this day at almost any hour of the day or night, you will find the suradeq being used for family gatherings and as part of a traditional way of offering hospitality to one another.

Until quite recently, in fact, it was the custom for all the important events in a person's life to be marked by the appearance of one of these tents - a happy wedding feast, the arrival of a new-born child, or a funeral.

Likewise, the tent pavilions have always been used at moments of national rejoicing. When the occasion calls for it, a whole street can suddenly blossom from end to end with archways decked out in bunting, leading to a suradeq marquee for the reception of officials and guests.

In Cairo, today, in the middle of summer, thousands of budding university students traditionally take their exams under enormous spreads of suradeq awnings. And, until 1970, ceremonies marking the peak of each Nile flood called for the erection of many tent pavilions along the banks of the Nile and its canals, providing guests and musicians with shade and shelter from the blazing mid-summer heat. But since completion of the Aswan High Dam, the flood no longer flows through Egypt - and that use of the suradeq has suddenly disappeared. Wedding receptions too are now more often held in the up-to-date luxury of a modern hotel.

But should a cause to celebrate suddenly arise, a simple phone call to afarrash will set things in motion. The farrash is the man who rents suradeq - handmade or machine-printed, large or small, depending on the number of guests expected. It will be erected wherever you wish - on the street outside your front door, with suitable police permission, or on the lawn in your front garden.

The farrasheen are the workers who put up the tent. They are specially skilled at walking about mounted on high ladders, which they use as stilts - first to position the tall wooden poles and crossbars, and then to haul up and tie the heavy pieces of appliquéd awning to the framework.

There is always magic in the way these brilliantly decorated tents seem suddenly to appear out of nowhere. Within a matter of hours they rise up and in no time at all are lined with carpets, traditional gilt chairs and small coffee tables - even chandeliers if you wish - depending on the occasion. And there is magic again, when, having served their purpose and the guests departed, the marquees are taken down and disappear as quickly as they came - for the suradeq usually come with the dawn and, after a brief night of splendor, are gone again before the sun rises.

The suradeq are especially in demand during the month of Ramadan to house groups of folkloric singers and dancers. And on the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, a whole tent city rises not far from the University of al-Azhar. At dusk, religious groups from towns and villages surrounding Cairo come in procession - drums beating, hands clapping - to take possession of the tent city for a few brief hours.

Several weeks before traditional holidays, small street stalls made out of suradeq material appear at long-established sites throughout the city selling little sugar dolls, as gaily decorated as the tents themselves and ready to delight every child's heart.

But what is this affair with the tent which for so long has dominated much of the social and public life of Egypt and other Arab countries?

Perhaps the tents nostalgically symbolize long-forgotten desert journeys. Certainly, every wintertime, thousands of Kuwaitis, Qataris and Saudis leave their comfortable city homes and retire to the desert for two weeks' relaxation in vast temporary tent cities. In recent years, orders for suradeq have come to Cairo from families in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia who wish to use the prestigious marquees for their receptions.

The latest of these requests has come from a government ministry in Bagkdad, and Emam Hamid, whose father made the famous traveling tent of King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, recently began the job which will take his tent-sewers six months to complete. It will be 4.5 meters (14 feet) high and will cover an area 15 by 25 meters (49 by 82 feet). Slightly different in design from a true Egyptian suradeq, it is, nonetheless, being made with the usual patiently appliqued patterns. But instead of using a wooden frame, it will have tent poles and will be anchored to the ground by ropes.

Each part of the tent has a name - the belma is the wall or side of the tent; the saket the slope that goes up to the tent's peak; the saqfis the tent's ceiling and, if there is to be a canopied entrance, this is called the sahabia.

The geometric designs used in Cairo's tents today come mostly from marble inlay patterns found in the walls and floors of Cairo's medieval mosques. Originally cut out of different colored marble, these intricate patterns also seem to lend themselves to being cut from soft pieces of colored cloth, and Emam Hamid is a master at selecting the many designs, and then arranging a series of vibrant colors to fit them.

There is much more to a tent pattern than at first meets the eye, for the appliqued designs are not mere copies from the mosques. Within each tent panel there must be a vein to hold it together, supports are made at the base of the pattern, and each panel must possess an outer chain surrounding the edge of the whole design. Sometimes a combination of Islamic flowers and the pharaonic lotus is used, the designs taken from paintings on the walls of the tombs.

All of the designs used in the making of a new tent must first be drawn on large sheets of brown paper. A fine needle point pricks out the outline of each pattern in tens of thousands of small holes.

The perforated sheet of paper is then laid upon each chosen piece of colored cloth - brilliant blue, blazing red or scintillating green. A black carbon dust is sprinkled lightly over the paper so that the dust percolates through the holes, leaving behind a fine stencil outline of the pattern pounced onto the cloth, ready to be cut out. This same process is repeated for the hundreds of pieces of colored cloth used to embellish a single tent.

Because the Baghdad tent is to be a sewan, a big tent, three work sites are in use: a workroom where the hundreds of patterns are drawn to scale and transferred to the cloth, and where some of the sewing is done; a courtyard area across the street for machine-sewing the completed pieces; and a large worksite on the roof, a large open area where sections of the tent can be laid out and the thousands of colored pieces appliqued, or "applied," to the enormous tent.

Sitting cross-legged and working eight hours a day, some 20 needle workers, begin hand-stitching the suradeq. For the most part the work is done in silence - darting fingers making millions of invisible stitches, day after day, month after month, slowly sewing together the tent.

Should a sewer's needle slip and his finger be pricked - which does happen sometimes - then an ever-so-slight drawing of a thread of cotton around the injured finger, followed by a gentle tapping with the scissors, immediately stems the bleeding and allows the hand to continue.

As the tent progresses, finished pieces coming from the stitchers on the rooftop go to the 'ustadh and his workers in the courtyard across the street, who machine-sew them together into the form of the completed tent.

But whether it is today's dazzling new tent for Baghdad, King 'Abd al-'Aziz's famous desert tent, or the austere portable black hair tents used by generations of desert travelers, all of mankind at some time or other, it seems, has felt the longing to live in a tent. Three thousand years ago Princess Isinkheb had hers laid ready in her tomb for use on her celestial wanderings. And more than a thousand years ago the Fatamid rulers of Egypt used tents made with silk and gold brocade supported by silver poles. One of the caliphs' tents required 100 camels to transport and had taken 50 artists nine years to make. Another was called "the slayer" because of its size and because one or two men were invariably killed in its pitching. All these tents were really traveling palaces, capable of being transported on the backs of camels over vast desert regions.

To this day, throughout the Arab world, celebrations in tents continue - in Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, new tents are required - so perhaps there is hope for the remaining tentmakers of Shari Khayyamiya, hope that their very ancient craft may yet prosper once again.

John Feeney, winner of four international prizes for his films on Middle East subjects, writes frequently on Egypt for Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the November/December 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1986 images.