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Permanent home for Egyptian textiles

Mervat Ayad

26 Aug 2015 4:47 pm

Category: Museums
HP: Main + Heritage
FA: Museums

The Egyptian Textile Museum

The Egyptian Textile Museum is the first and only one of its kind in the Middle East. First opened in 2010, it was re-opened last month after extensive renovation by the Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damati and Cairo Governor Galal Saïd. Present were Mustafa Amin, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Antiquities; and Waad Abul-Ela, Manager of the Projects Sector.
The museum is housed in the 19th century sabil (water fountain) of Muhammad Ali in Nahhaseen Street (literally the Street of the Coppersmiths) in the Fatimid quarter of Cairo. Sabils were public watering spots where cold water was freely offered to passers-by. In Egypt, where the hot weather extends throughout some eight months of the year with weeks on end of sweltering heat, water is an invaluable commodity and one who offers it to a thirsty person is guaranteed a place in Paradise. It was fashionable for wealthy or influential individuals to build sabils which were usually beautifully decorated, ornate buildings that housed elaborate establishments whose major task was to secure a constant flow of cool drinking water and offer it in clean, sparkling utensils for anyone who passed by. Interestingly, the tradition persists on many Egyptian streets today, but has been reduced to small stands that house electric water coolers and a collection of mugs for anyone wishing to help himself or herself.

 

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From eyesore to showpiece
The Muhammad Ali sabil in Nahhaseen Street which now houses the Textile Museum has been redeemed from a neglected eyesore into a museum showpiece. The sabil was built in 1828 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in honour of his son Ismail and later became a sabil-kuttab, serving the double purpose of water fountain and school for youngsters, and given the name of the street it lay in, Nahhaseen.
With its rounded marble façade garnished with highly decorative inscriptions and overlooking the famed al-Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo, and a second façade overlooking the side street of Beit al-Qadi, the Ottoman-style building shows influence by European-style architecture. Its interior consists of the water fountain room with its marble floors and oval domed roof, in addition to a number of rooms annexed to it. A staircase leads to the upper floor which used to house the several rooms of the kuttab; a skylight dome above served the purpose of lighting the place and circulating fresh air.
“The building, which houses the 2771-square-metre museum, was in very bad shape,” Dr Damati says, “the floors and walls were damaged by moisture and the façade badly cracked. A damp course nine metres in length was installed, and iron beams were used to support the roof and guard the building against collapse. Before the walls were rebuilt, wooden props were installed behind them for fortification. The water level in the 8-metre high, 1770-cubic-metre cistern underneath the building—which used to act as the water reservoir for the sabil when it was in operation—has been reduced to 2m high and 500 cu.m volume.
The sabil walls have been restored and repainted, and the marble of the façade replaced, with the application of gold foil in the parts that originally carried it.

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Vulnerable material

Muhammad Saleh, head of the Textile Museum, told Watani that it was of prime importance to fire-proof the museum, in view of the fact that the building has only one entrance/exit and it was not possible to construct an emergency exit, rendering evacuation in the event of fire very risky. An auto-sprinkler system was thus installed.
Because textiles are very vulnerable to weather, heat, and humidity, a well-equipped restoration and preservation laboratory is being established. A new library has been set up to house the collection of papyri and old books concerned with textiles; some of the papyri go back to ancient Egypt.
Special display windows with heat adjustment settings have been brought in to protect the textiles from weather factors.
The museum features some of the rarest pieces of fabric, all carefully chosen from various Egyptian museums and excavation sites such as Fustat, Luxor, and Luxor’s West Bank. Other samples have been brought from the Islamic and Coptic museums and from the Gawhara Palace museum. Together they tell the story of thousands of years of textile production and use in Egypt.
Using state-of-the-art methods of display, showcases with touch screens give a description of each piece displayed in the showcase and each phase of restoration. Every room has several columns and wall sections plastered with historical facts relevant to the time period of the section written in both Arabic and English. Also impressive are the placards of information for nearly every piece detailing the items’ original use, dates and location of origin where possible.
Those fascinated by the world of textiles and weaving will find complete details of the workshops producing textile and the tools that were used in production.

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Journey through time
The museum’s collection is exhibited in 11 showrooms on two floors. The rooms are arranged chronologically and numbered accordingly, beginning with the earliest exhibit, a Pharaonic nappy. The first few rooms of the museum are devoted to pieces from the Pharaonic era, starting with a few simple linen shawls, tunics and loin cloths. There is also information on the typical fashions of the specific periods as well as the methods the ancient Egyptians used, including the nitrates found in the desert which they used to bleach their cloth.
Further on in the exhibition, pieces become more varied and elaborate with fringes and embroidery. A display case holds a primitive bedroom set.
Among the interesting pieces in the museum is a royal kilt belonging to King Tutankhamun (1336 –1327 BC). This 18th Dynasty garment was found in the king’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. There are even four royal bed sheets believed to have been presented by Queen Hatshepsut, a predecessor of Tutankhamun in the 18th Dynasty, to the designer of her temple at Thebes.
In the Roman period, which extended from 30BC to 640AD, textile factories spread all over Egypt; the centre at Alexandria and Fayoum gained special fame. Ganseyoum factories in Alexandria were known as the ‘royal textile factories’, where women were responsible for the embroidery.
The display moves on to the Coptic era during the Roman period, when Egypt gradually became predominantly Christian. Textiles of this era are famous for the beautifully embroidered Coptic tunics. Here the clothing becomes more colorful with different yarns woven into the fabric. Geometric patterns appear on traditional priest’s attire, as well as on caps and children’s clothing. In this period flourished a fine art that blends the ancient Egyptian together with the Greco-Roman arts.

 

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From Coptic to Islamic
Egypt’s history continues to be told through the world of textiles when one reaches the second floor. Inspired by the floral and geometric embroidery of Coptic designs, the Umayyads used many of the same techniques but changed the Christian imagery to Arabic calligraphy, a theme still popular to this day. As the exhibition continues, the beautiful collection of clothing and decorative textiles becomes more impressive and ornate with a brief step back to the politically volatile years of Mamluk rule. To complement this, the increase in trade during this time added gorgeous silks and European-inspired designs to the fabrics then fashionable in Egypt.
From the Fatimid period, a piece of linen cloth with Kufic calligraphy embroidered in silk praises “the auspicious conqueror Nizar Abi Mansour al-Aziz Bellah, Commander of the Believers” and supplemented with a decorative stripe containing images of birds. In another gallery, visitors can see woollen cloth from the ninth-century Tulunid period depicting an image of a hippopotamus embroidered in yellows, greens and blues.
Even prayer mats were beautifully woven in silk and decorated with gilded embroidery with botanical designs (17th and 18th centuries). One belonged to Zeinab Hanem, a daughter of Muhammad Ali, and was a gift from him on her wedding night. There is also an embroidered kisswa (cover for the Kaaba in Mecca) made of blue silk and decorated with botanical designs and Qur’anic verse embroidered with gilded yarns. This was “made as per the orders of the One who Puts his Trust in Allah, King Farouk of Egypt and Sudan in 1942”, the embroidery reads.

Watani International
26 August 2015

 

 

 

 

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