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HANDS ON Traditional Crafts at The City of the Dead in Cairo



The mediaeval mosques of Cairo, including those in the Qaitbey area of the Cemetery, include outstanding pieces of woodwork. Nowadays, numerous workshops in the city produce vast quantities of very diverse wooden objects, some of excellent artistic quality. Many traditional techniques are still practiced and transmitted to the younger generation.


Timber has always been scarce in Egypt, as only a few species of trees are native to the Nile Valley, and there are no forests in the country. This is why wood was a precious resource, often re-used many times over. Egyptian craftsmen mastered ingenious techniques that allowed them to create large objects from small pieces of wood, and to use them to great artistic advantage.


Such techniques include inlay, in which little pieces of coloured woods or other materials are inserted into recesses carved in a larger piece of wood; and marquetry, in which a surface is entirely covered with little pieces of wood veneer laid side-by-side to form patterns. Egyptian craftsmen have for a long time excelled in creating huge screens of elaborately joined small pieces of turned wood. Bay windows constructed with such screens, called mashrabiyya, were until recently a defining feature in the appearance of Cairo streets, and many can still be found in the historic quarters of the city. The art is still alive, and turned-wood screens (usually called arabesque in modern Egyptian Arabic) are also produced in the “City of the Dead.”

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