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

Decorative Plaster Workshop

Ever since the early days of Islamic architecture, abundant stucco ornaments adorned the walls of mosques, palaces, and houses. Mediaeval Cairo was no exception, and many excellent examples are preserved in the city, some as early as the 9th century. The craft is still thriving today. The modern workshops of Cairo follow a very long tradition: the Egyptians worked in fast-setting gypsum plaster as early as the Old Kingdom, more than 4,500 years ago. Mummy masks of painted plaster are perhaps the earliest known examples of decorative plasterwork. Instructions by the Roman architect Vitruvius for ensuring that decoration in stucco relief is soundly attached to the wall are as relevant today as they were in the 1st century BC.

 

Two different techniques of stucco decoration developed. In the first, decorative motifs were carved in plaster already applied on the walls. This allows for striking artistic effects, but is labour-intensive. Alternatively, decoration cast in moulds is attached to the walls, with carving used only to add the final touches. This faster and more efficient technique is predominantly used today.

 

Nowadays, decorative elements in gypsum are cast in moulds made of rubber. The inner surface of the mould is lightly greased before being filled with gypsum reinforced with hemp or jute fibres. It takes about fifteen minutes for the gypsum cast to harden, after which it is removed and finished free-hand.