“The sun has risen; how pleasant its light; let’s go fill our pitchers with water; and milk the buffalo”, is a beloved folk song which more or less depicts a typical early morning in any given Egyptian village. The song was one of several performed by the choir of the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED) during a recent “cultural evening” held on the sideline of the annual exhibition of Akhmim and Hegaza artworks.
Since it was founded in 1989, the choir has performed songs and music of heritage, which fulfils AUEED’s major goal of preserving Egyptian heritage. AUEED centres in Upper Egypt help promote and cultivate the abilities and talents of local people in producing art and handcrafts that have been indigenous in their regions from ancient times. The process brings about social development and promotes respect for human dignity and freedom.
Akhmim, which lies on the east bank of the river Nile at Sohag some 500km south of Cairo, is one of the world’s most ancient villages. Its name derives from Min, the god of harvest and fertility in ancient Egypt. For 4,000 years, Akhmim has maintained a distinctive style of tapestry weaving whose golden age was during the Coptic era between the 3rd and 6th centuries when the tapestry was made of silk, wool and linen. Cotton was more recently added.
AUEED, which was founded in 1940 by the Jesuit sociologist Father Henri Ayrut (1907 – 1969) who sincerely loved and respected the poor villagers, sponsors the development of the spontaneous art of tapestry and embroidery. It fulfils the double target of protecting the craft from dying out and helping Upper Egyptian women realise self-dependence through cultivating their talents.
Women in the Akhmim centre are encouraged to express themselves by creating their own designs. Their work, without guidance or any academic study of art, depicts scenes of everyday life: market day, the harvest, the River Nile, spring with its flowers and birds and suchlike. They frequently depict animals inspired by the ancient heritage such as the duck as a symbol of happy marriage, as well as the cat and the ibis, which were sacred to the ancient Egyptians, using fine silky fibres and vividly-coloured threads.
Visitors to the exhibition were able to purchase exceptionally beautiful tapestries of different sizes to hang on the wall, as well as magnificent scarves, bed covers, table napkins, and so on. “The only trouble, said one witty visitor to the exhibition, is that you have to be really careful what colour you choose, she laughed. It will never wear out.”
Hegaza, one of the villages in Qena, 600km south of Cairo, is famous for its wooden products. AUEED has enabled young men in the village to use their golden fingers to transform simple instruments into artistic masterpieces.
It takes several steps to produce one of these coveted wooden pieces. The wood is first taken to a workshop to be cut in various dimensions, and then stored for two years. Then, it is cut into smaller pieces which are sculpted into plates, candle holders, statuettes, and models such as the widely popular Pharaonic sun boat or the Lotus.
This year there was a special corner for children called “The Child of the future” where various wooden toys for different ages were on display, such as wooden trains, aeroplanes, small dolls dressed in beautiful robes and many educational toys to enhance and develop children’s skills.
The “immortality of art and the genius of the Egyptian” is the main truth AUEED believes in. Through their handmade textiles and wooden handicrafts, the villagers of Akhmim and Hegaza have proven themselves to be the faithful and capable descendants of the earlier Egyptians.