Alive with artisans: Cairo’s al-Darb al-Ahmar district – a photograph essay | Travel

“Whatever manufactured items there are in the world,” wrote the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi in 1671, “the poor of Cairo get hold of them, set them out and trade in them.” Nearly 350 years later, this custom lives on in al-Darb al-Ahmar. This neighbourhood of 100,000 individuals, south-east of central Cairo, is alleged to be home to a thousand workshops. The place teems with artisans crafting all the pieces from tents, books, bins and brass lanterns to glass bowls and silk carpets.

The view from the minaret of the Amir Khyarbek Mausoleum throughout al-Darb al-Ahmar towards the citadel and the Muhammed Ali mosque (above)

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Restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture between 2006-2009

The Street of the Tentmakers captures this business spirit. Built in 1650 as an arcade, this lined avenue is a succession of workrooms whose interiors are lined with ornamental textiles. From his cubic cavity within the Ottoman-era wall, a weaver referred to as Hasan says that al-khayyamiya, the craft of tentmaking, goes again to the time of the pharaohs. Some of right now’s weavers are descended from the households who would produce the kiswa, the material that lined the good stone at Mecca, in addition to tents, cloths and saddles for these setting out on pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest web site.

An artisan stitching a new design. For centuries Khayamiya artisans produced tents, cloths and saddles for those embarking on hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Sultan, sitting nearby on the ancient Fatimid gate, Bab Zuwaila, would watch the caravan depart in procession.

An artisan stitching a brand new design. For centuries Khayamiya artisans produced tents, cloths and saddles for these embarking on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca

The tools of Hassan’s craft.

It is not possible to conceive of all the weather that you simply discover in al-Darb al-Ahmar


The space, protecting just below a sq. mile, accommodates greater than 40 monuments constructed throughout successive Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras. In collaboration with the government, many of those, such because the Aqsunqur mosque and Amir Khayrbak advanced, have been restored by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – a non-denominational organisation that works to enhance the welfare and prospects of individuals within the growing world.

Sundial on the roof of the Khayrbak mosque

When this mosque was restored between 2002 and 2010, the glass used in the windows was produced by Hassan ‘Hodhod’s’ glassblowing workshop.

Sundial on the roof of the Khayrbak mosque; the glass used within the home windows was produced by Hasan ‘Hodhod’s’ glassblowing workshop

In al-Darb al-Ahmar, the one overseas faces I see are younger Muslims from Indonesia. They are attending the close by al-Azhar University. Most western vacationers at the moment keep away from Cairo on account of safety issues; there have been assaults on Egypt’s Christian minority in recent times. Walking across the neighbourhood, nonetheless, I really feel secure. Countless outdated males, seated on the qahwa the place they drink glasses of espresso or tea, welcome me with the phrases “Ahlan wa Sahlan”.

Next to the 14th-century Aslam al-Silahdar mosque, I enter a thread-dyeing home. I meet Salama, who has been a dyer for 73 years. Figures are hauling skeins of cotton out of a stone bathtub of black dye. Dark steaming liquid streams throughout the ground.

Cotton skeins are dunked in black ink

Salama Mahmoud’s dye workshop, the place the cotton skeins are dunked in black ink

Salama tells me how, below the revolutionary regime of Nasser, business was good: “The Russians would give us weapons and we would give them cloth.” But in 1967 issues modified after the disastrous six-day battle towards Israel. After Nasser got here Sadat, who liberalised the economic system, opening it as much as home and overseas funding. Cheaper items entered the native market. Small producers have been hit. Many lost their jobs.

Cotton skeins are dried in an industrial dryer

Cotton skeins are dried in an industrial dryer, after which transported to the roof of the workshop to be dried additional within the solar

Cotton skeins are dried in an industrial dryer

Cotton skeins are being transported to the roof of the workshop to be dried further in the sun

Most craftsmen and ladies are immersed of their historical past, reviving parts of their tradition every day. Inside the workshop of two bookbinders close to Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque, Aslam and his colleague bind 150 books a day. They are at the moment binding a tafsir, a commentary on the Qur’an, written in 630 hijri (AD1232). As I depart, Aslam describes one in every of their “special” books, about Alexander the Great, first produced on papyrus in 330BC.

Books being finished and prepared for sale and shipment

Yasser, Manager of Abd El Zaher bookshop hand stamping a notebook.

Hand stamping a notebook

Books are produced and hand stamped.

The books are hand produced and stamped

When Evliya Çelebi visited Cairo within the 17th century, he recorded 20 workshops using 300 carpet-makers. “They weave silk carpets and prayer-rugs, in praise of which the tongue falls short,” he wrote. In a small room within the backstreets of the close by Manshiyat Naser slum that ability is alive right now. It takes two individuals six months to supply a two-by-three-metre silk carpet.

It takes two people working eight hours a day, six days a week, six months to produce a carpet this size.

It takes two individuals working eight hours a day, six days per week, six months to supply a carpet this dimension

They sit on a low bench, dealing with the vertical loom with a cartoon of the completed design above them.

Hassan reveals the part of the carpet that has been produced so far.

A finished carpet.

Hasan reveals the a part of the carpet that has been produced thus far, and a completed carpet (proper)

Near al-Darb al-Ahmar is Cairo’s sprawling City of the Dead, the place locals have been buried for the reason that Muslim conquest of Egypt greater than 1,300 years in the past. Today, due to fast city progress, 250,000 Cairenes stay among the many shrines and tombs. I meet an ex-boxer-turned-glassblower, Hasan “Hodhod”.

A former boxer, Hasan Hodhod is perhaps Cairo’s most famous glassblower

A former boxer, Hasan Hodhod is maybe Cairo’s most well-known glassblower, and, beneath, one in every of Hodhod’s sons at work

One of Hasan’s sons at work

The furnace.

Hodhod says his work has been related to ghosts and myths that return to King Solomon deceiving the Queen of Sheba. In an try and dissuade him from taking on such arduous work, his father tried to spook him, describing glassblowing as “the craft of the spirits”.

An aish baladi (Egyptian flatbread) seller.

An aish baladi (Egyptian flat bread) vendor

At nightfall a bread-delivery boy cycles by, balancing a five-foot-long tray of freshly baked aish baladi (Egyptian flatbread) on his head. Moments later I meet Mohamed, a third-generation lantern-maker. Inside his workshop, half-finished brass and iron lanterns relaxation on cabinets and tables. To make the ornate metallic items, he attracts on Cairo’s heritage, utilizing Mamluk, Coptic, Andalucían and Moroccan designs.

Mohammed Hani at work on a table in the street.

Mohammed Hani at work, and (beneath) one in every of his sons engaged on a lantern, items of metallic and instruments of the commerce within the workshop

One of Mohammed Hani’s sons at work on a lantern

Tools of the trade

The youngsters of the neighbourhood are so . When they stroll previous, they ask questions, they wish to study

Mohamed, lantern-maker

Mohamed says that “Now is the most difficult time,” as the costs of uncooked supplies have risen but there are fewer vacationers – who have been his essential consumers. He finds an surprising constructive: Syrians have come, due to the battle. They began forming workshops, for upholstering beds and producing garments. Through their enterprise, he displays, they have contributed to the native economic system.

Towards the top of my time in al-Darb al-Ahmar, I garner one other perspective, which means that craftsmen possess a level of resilience towards historic occasions. I ask an 81-year-old material dyer what affect the 2011 Arab spring and subsequent counter-revolution have had on artisans. “For us, nothing has changed,” he says, “except the president. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same.”

It appears historical past laps over this place in layers, just like the strains of a tide. The imprint is felt, however solely evenly. Amid a lot creation and renewal, the sense of circulate is palpable. I consider these artisans are on the coronary heart of this. Despite the tumult of their nation and the broader area, they get by.

A fruit seller

• The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo, supported by the Aga Khan Foundation, is on on the Royal Geographical Society, London, 23 March-24 April 2018

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