Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Potters of Fustat

First published by Heritage Key: http://heritage-key.com/blogs/garry-shaw/potters-fustat

If you’ve ever wanted to own a perfect hand-crafted piece of traditional Egyptian pottery made by a man with only one thumb and one eye I can tell you exactly where to go. His name is Salah and he lives in Fustat, in the area better known today as Coptic Cairo.  

Getting to Fustat
It’s an easy journey, you can take the metro from downtown Cairo there in no time at all, roughly only fifteen minutes. Then, after arriving, you get to confound the local tourist police by walking away from all the wonderful ancient churches, and straight down the dirty roads that surround the tourist precinct. They’ll tell you that you can’t go down this street or that street, that you’re heading in the wrong direction, but just keep walking; they’re trying to be helpful in their own way, because no one these days goes to visit the potters.

There have been potters living and working in this area since medieval times and, despite being shifted around by the Egyptian government, they can still be found close to the archaeological remains of Fustat – the first capital of mediaeval Egypt - continuing their traditional trade below the imposing city wall of Saladin.

Salah’s Workshop
I passed behind a modern pottery display area, situated on the edge of a busy main road to tempt drivers into making a purchase as they pass by, and entered the first workshop that I could find. It was made of stone and mud-bricks, with a roof half covered by straw and wood, and a dirt floor littered with straw. Within I met Salah, a warm welcoming man, who smiled and laughed, causing his face to crinkle with the type of wrinkles only etched into those that have lived a hard life. He is unshaven, and a cigarette hangs limply from his mouth. He introduces me to his two sons, Amr – who I’m told carries out the fine decorative work – and his younger son Mohammed, who is normally at school.

After the pleasantries Salah springs into action, grabbing a lump of clay with his rough hands from beneath a sheet of plastic, and carrying it over to his roughly constructed table, sunk slightly into the ground and held together by old nails and thin pieces of rope. He throws the clay on to a spinning wheel, cut into the centre of the table. Below, his feet rhythmically control the spinning of the wheel, surrounded by the curling remains of discarded clay that litter the floor. Seconds later a perfect pot sat upon the wheel, formed by the use of a scraper positioned on Salah’s first finger. At this moment I realise that he only has one thumb, and one eye to match, making the quality and speed of his work even more impressive. Give me a lump of clay, a wheel, and a few hours, and I’ll produce for you something resembling the elephant man’s face – Salah made five further pots in less than five minutes.

Making Pottery Fustat Style
Suitably impressed I decided to walk around the small workshop to get an idea of the process involved – I quickly learnt that it is the preparation that takes the time, not the actual shaping of the clay. Outside the workshop was a large trough; this was for levigation – the first part of the process, in which wet clay is left to stand and dry, causing the top layer to become finer, and the coarser particles in the clay to sink. The potters then scoop out the top layer and bring it to another trough within the workshop. Here the clay, which is mixed with higher quality powdered clay from Aswan in the south of Egypt, is brought and mixed with water before being trodden until it becomes more elastic and workable. From here it is piled up beneath a plastic sheet, next to the trough, ensuring that the clay stays evenly wet.

Once made, each pot is left to dry for up to a week before being fired in a large outdoor kiln – any moisture left within the pots could cause cracking during the firing process. The kilns are loaded with burning wood at the bottom, and then the vessels are placed in the middle, above the flames; the roof is pierced with a series of holes to allow the smoke to escape. The doorway of the furnace can be made bigger or smaller, in order to control the amount of oxygen within. The kilns have a limited lifespan; the constant firing eventually causes the bricks and clay to crack and the structure to begin to disintegrate. Salah’s kiln had been dormant recently, and it clearly needed some repair before it could be used again. Others were certainly in use, however, as the entire area smelled of burning.

Walking around outside, you could be forgiven for thinking you were standing on an archaeological site; everywhere broken pottery sherds emerge from the ground, slowly being covered by straw and dust until their existence is completely hidden. The main activity around me was roof tile production; young children carried them around on their backs, transporting them to open flat areas where they could lay them out on the floor so that they could dry for up to a week in the sun; a series of tiles had been unceremoniously stepped on by a dog, leaving full paw prints embedded in the clay. Up to 3000 tiles can fit within a single kiln, and they sell for only 40 piastres (about seven cents) per tile in the display area along the road.

Moving with the Times
Although working mainly in a traditional way, the potters have been forced to move with the times in order to keep business alive, leaving the time-honoured vessel shapes, such as the large zir– water pots or small gulaa, behind. Today, in the display area you’ll mainly find a variety of moulded ornaments, such as large frogs covering their faces, mushrooms, cups emblazoned with large letters, and other such items that would be at home in your local garden centre. They even sell large ceramic fish - cute, but far from traditional - for about 20 LE ($3.50) each. I’m startled by how cheap the items sell for, and also by the honesty of the shopkeepers when telling me the prices; if this were anywhere more touristic the starting price would be five times that, and could only be haggled down to twice the standard price after an hour of talking and thirteen cups of sugary tea. Even then the shopkeeper would still behave as if you’d insulted his mother and kidnapped one of his children.

Even the potters’ overall environment is about to change – the small mud-brick workshops are slowly disappearing, replaced by new, modern buildings behind. This is such a massive cultural shift that anthropologists from the Netherlands have been documenting the lives and practices of these people before it is lost forever. The changing work of the potters is also seen in the broken moulds that litter parts of the floor – standardised shapes, that are quick and easy to produce.

Before leaving I return to Salah’s workshop one last time to find he and his family repairing their kiln with old pottery sherds and clay; things are changing for the potters, but in the meantime life must continue in the way that it always has. It is a hard and dirty life, and soon to vanish forever; whether the traditions will survive modernisation will only become apparent with time. I say my goodbyes and take the road back to the metro station; close to the station, and firmly back in the tourist zone, I pass a rather familiar ceramic fish sitting outside a small shop – ‘only 110 LE,’ the vendor shouts, noticing my attention, ‘good price.’ Things really can change very quickly.