We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

The Tentmakers of Cairo

Recollections and Representations

In the Tentmakers’ Bazar the shopkeepers call out: “No sharge for looking,” as you pass. The moment when you have said that you are not going to buy anything is rather a good time to buy. They put the prices down very low to tempt you. They don't mind if you do break your word—in this way. Price the same sort of thing at different stalls which are a long way from each other. It helps to give the real price and to show which stall is cheapest. Do not be afraid of giving trouble. Orientals do not mind how much trouble they take for a prospective customer, or how much trouble they give by asking three times what they mean to take.

From: Sladen, Oriental Cairo: The City of the “Arabian Nights”, p. 102.

Today Egyptians are making patchwork that is undoubtedly a development of the very art practised in the days of Ptolemy, Rameses, and Cleopatra. They do not use patchwork to adorn quilts, since these are unknown in the warm Nile valley, but as covers for cushions, panels for screens, and decorations suitable for wall hangings... The patchwork designs are typically of paintings found in tombs and temples. These paintings are copied as faithfully in colour as in design, even the hieroglyphics being exactly reproduced, and altogether make very striking and effective decorations.

The modern Egyptians have the innate taste and ability of all Orientals for harmonizing colour... With nearly as many shades at their disposal in cloth as a painter has in paint, they are quite ambitious in their attempts to produce realistic scenes... There are many attractive shops in Cairo that sell quantities of this gay patchwork, and few tourists leave Egypt without a specimen or two as mementoes of the paintings that give us a glimpse of Egypt’s ancient splendour.

From: Marie D. Webster, Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company/ London: B.T. Batsfordd, Ltd, 1915, pp. 12-13.

Hotel Moeris

Hotel Moeris, photographed by A. Tosco, in 'L'Egypte d'Antan': [under ‘Fayoum’].

Hotel Moeris
Hotel Moeris

Every one who sees this hotel, called the Karun [Hotel Moeris at Lake Karun in Fayyum], is delighted with it... The hotel is built of canvas—the gay awnings of the Arab tentmaker... [S]ometimes in winter it must be all upstairs, for the basement, built of more substantial materials, is probably under water in flood-time. The upstairs, divided into the drawing- and dining-rooms, is simply a tent of rich Arab stuffs and awnings covered with parodies of ancient Egyptian life. I should like to shoot the whole lot of tentmakers for the vulgarity with which they caricature the scenes painted in the Tombs of Memphis and Thebes, playing down to the ignorant tourist's sense of humour. It would be far better if they took their designs from Mr. Thackeray's inimitable “Light Side of Egypt”—it would be more Egyptian and more amusing.

From: Douglas Sladen, Queer Things about Egypt (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1911), p. 239.

The tentmakers are the most hopelessly vulgarised of all the denizens of the bazar ; elsewhere I have inveighed against them for prostituting their art by substituting coarse caricatures of the ancient Egyptian tomb paintings for the beautiful texts and arabesques which are on the awnings and tent linings they make for Arabs. They talk incessantly to every foreigner who passes:

“Look here, sir, you want to buy very nice. Come in— no sharge [sic] for examine”— and so on. (p. 73)

From: Sladen, Oriental Cairo: The City of the “Arabian Nights”, p. 73.

Where the Sharia Kasabet-Radowan draws in to the Suk of the Tentmakers there is an avenue of stately buildings, native mansions with rich portals and balconies, and mosques with pattern'd stonework and massive bronze grills clustered together. The Suk of the Tentmakers is a blaze of colour ; it is also a blaze of vulgarity and impudence.

... two sides of the street almost meeting overhead warn you that you have reached the Tentmakers' Bazar, through lovely lines of mosques and minarets and old palaces with meshrebiya'd oriels. It is always cool and dark and picturesque in the Tentmakers' Bazar, just the right environment for the gay awnings and saddle-cloths and leather work that are made in its tiny shops. ..

From: Douglas Sladen, Oriental Cairo: The City of the “Arabian Nights”. London: Hurst & Blackett, Ltd., 1911, pp. 24 and 72.

Despite Colonel Nasser’s worthy programs of slum clearance and replanning, another layer of Cairo life remains darkly medieval. In the city of the Mamelukes, east of the skyscrapers, there are alleyways and slums in which the Middle Ages are still robustly alive; where the evil eye is still a threat to be shunned, where women are still veiled or closeted, where the superstitions of pre-Islamic thought are still more potent by far than the certainties of science. Your trim and personable nursemaid, feeding the children their cornflakes, goes home at night, as likely as not, to the fourteenth century; and if you wander about the city at nighttime it is sometimes horribly easy to imagine the Egyptian famine of 1069, when the unsuspecting pedestrian, making his way down a side street, would find himself grappled with hooks and hauled upstairs to be eaten... Through the surrounding meshwork of streets, beneath the traceries of high harem windows, a dense mass of citizens moved cheerfully, in long robes or turbans, veiled or painted, sheepish or resplendent, precisely like the crowds that mill so vividly though prints of eighteenth-century Cairo (and probably not at all unlike the citizenry of London at the time of the Black Death).

From: James Morris, Islam Inflamed: A Middle East Picture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), pp. 33-34, writing of 1956 Cairo.

‘Outside the gate [Bab Zuwayla] is the congested thoroughfare of Ahmad Mahir Street, creating a chaotic junction with Darb al-Ahmar to the east. Immediately opposite the gate, the cluster of impressive monuments continues. During the seventeenth century, this area was developed by the powerful Radwan Bey and was called the Qasabat Radwan, commonly known as the Khiyamiya, or the Street of the Tent Makers, which is actually a continuation of al-Mu’izz Street. This area has been famous for its products since the eleventh century, when it provided the Fatimid armies with saddles and tents.’

Jim Antoniou, Historic Cairo: A Walk Through the Islamic City (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998), p. 88.

‘Qamar took charge of the wedding party. She prepared the roof of her house for the women, invited a famous lady singer and hired the most skillful cook in the whole neighborhood. A pavilion was set up in the courtyard for the male guests and their singer… Hassan had so much to drink that the patterns on the pavilion’s fabric danced before his eyes, and this did not escape Uwais’ notice.’

Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley, trans. by Peter Theroux (New York: Anchor Books, 1996) [originally published as Awlad al-haratina, 1959], pp. 275-276.

Mahmal Celebration

There is no religious celebration in Cairo more impressive and beautiful than this festival, held on the eve of the setting out of the Mahmal's Pilgrimage to Mecca [the procession by camel of a ceremonial palanquin from Cairo to Mecca]. There are other great public occasions, when the Oriental splendour of illumination breaks out, to thrill the thronging populace, and the out-of-door excitements of the fair are linked with the claims of pious significance. But this official fête in the pavilions at the foot of the Citadel combines in equal proportions a sense of the sacred office with that of subdued entertainment, a feeling of religious awe being curiously mingled with that of rejoicing… Not that Oriental splendour is lacking; indeed, the scene that burst upon our vision, when our carriage had driven to the door of the Citadel building, along a long avenue of special street lamps, placed only a yard or two apart, was dazzling in its beauty. The thousands of candles and electric lights, in an endless vista, as one looked through the whole range of halls and tented pavilions, with the sparkling lustres of the almost solid mass of chandeliers, shone down upon the picturesqueness of an Eastern gathering … [p. 205]

… [W]e pass to a gorgeous pavilion, one of those huge tents, the walls decorated with the brilliantly coloured appliqué work in Arabesque design, with verses from the Koran, so much used in Egypt for all ceremonial occasions. Here the lighting is almost overpoweringly brilliant, from the myriads of candles in their lustre setting. [p. 206]

The greatest birthday festival of all the year, of course, is the Moolid [mawlid, birthday] of the Prophet, which in Cairo is celebrated with a splendour scarcely realised by ordinary visitors. Indeed, Stanley Lane-Poole in his famous book on Cairo dismisses the event as hardly worth noting … To say, as he does, that “the tents have mostly disappeared,” is more than misleading; it is the very antithesis of the truth. I imagine there is no yearly celebration anywhere in the world that can compare with the Moolid en-Nebee, as it is celebrated at the present day at Cairo; where the immense square of decorated and illuminated tents set up at Abbassieh—one of Cairo's near suburbs—make up a scene of unrivalled splendour. [p. 242]

On the great plain a vast number of splendid tents had been set up in an enormous square. The Khedive's tent, lined with dark red, was in the middle of the top row, and next to his the tent to which I was invited, a very fine one—lined with green—as became the cheif sheikh of the country…[p. 251]

Other tents in the long rows belonged to the Ministers of State, the great public departments of the Government, the Wakfs administration, the different Ways [turuq, Sufi orders], and to many of the great Moslem families.

Seen in daylight, these tents, with their flags and mottoes, made a wonderful setting for a scene of national rejoicing. Some of them had really beautiful gardens of flowers and palms, made temporarily in the sand; the [Shaykh al- ] Bekri tent being particularly beautiful in the floral decorations of its awning-covered court.

Imagine what a scene of splendour this became when a million electric lights, in every colour, sprang forth at sunset, in a thousand graceful devices, all round the vast square, outlining and decorating all the pavilions, and the myriad candles sparkled in the lustre chandeliers of the tents. [p. 252]

The greatest sign of the modern spirit, however, was to be found in one of the larger tents, where a preacher, whom I know well, was standing on a platform and delivering a sermon to a great crowd, who listened to his moral exhortations with deep attention. This is the sheikh …who conducts “missions” in different parts of Egypt. That he is a most effective speaker was manifest: his appeals and warnings were received in breathless silence; then, when the tension had become almost too great, he would tell some apt story from real life, or from Arab history, raising a smile, or sending a quiet laugh round the whole tent. In some ways one could have imagined this to be a meeting of a “tent mission” in England (or Wales)… [p. 255]

S.H. Leeder, Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1913).

‘Radwan Bey was amir al-hajj for twenty-five yeas from 1631 to 1656. His duties were to organise the purchase of supplies to accompany the caravan to ensure proper distribution of food, and to provide protection to the pilgrims on their sacred journey to Mecca. The provision of grain and funds was also made to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Although the Ottoman Imperial Treasury made contributions, Radwan Bey donated large sums of money from his private revenues, including those from the Khiyamiya, to finance the trip. The ceremony of departure for the pilgrimage started outside Bab Zuwayla, near the Street of the Tentmakers.

Antoniou, Historic Cairo: A Walk Through the Islamic City, p. 92.