The fascinating history of the colourful and intricate appliqué tents ubiquitous at every Egyptian social occasion.
Temporary structures made of fabric are so much part of Egyptian social life that they often go unnoticed. From shop openings to Ramadan gatherings, from church festivities to polling stations, it is not far-fetched to say that any big occasion, sad or happy, will traditionally rely on a fabric pavilion, known as a siwan or suradeq, to enable large numbers to congregate temporarily, and in many cases, simply to convey a clearly visible message of occasion or festivity. Such pavilions quickly transform public open spaces into carefully demarcated enclosed areas, creating a semi secluded hall of impressive dimensions literally out of thin air, using nothing more than long wooden beams and panels of decorated fabric. Today, much of this is computer printed and, thanks to the ease of printing, can feature an unlimited array of motifs—from intricate medallions mirroring the decorative designs on traditional Quran bindings and calligraphic panels bearing the 99 names of Allah to depictions of the Virgin Mary and Valentine’s day hearts. Colours range from a sombre yet regal black and gold satin for funerary tents, to cheerful skeins of coloured gauze for more joyous occasions. The strong Egyptian sun makes such canopies valuable as shade-providing devices and the generally dry and windless climate of Egypt means that these tent pavilions are rarely at risk of being blown down or getting water-logged and collapsing. Although tent pavilions have been used by many different cultures around the world, they are particularly prominent in the Egyptian context.
A Symbol of Status
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Egyptian tradition is just how old it is. One of the oldest known surviving examples of an Egyptian ‘tent’ canopy is from the tomb of Isetemkheb dating back to 1000 BCE (now in the Egyptian Museum), an impressively striking green and red design decorated using appliqué (the technique of sewing a piece of fabric or leather of one colour onto a different colour to create a striking contrasting design). By virtue of its visual effectiveness (and the fact that it is cheaper than other techniques such as embroidery), this technique has been used for Egyptian ceremonial tents across the centuries.
In today’s society, we tend not to think about textiles as being valuable goods, but in premodern times, costly materials like silk and expensive dyes such as crimson red and saffron yellow meant that textiles were status symbols, and ‘textile architecture’—in other words, ceremonial tents—were the ultimate symbols of wealth. Accounts of the storerooms of the Fatimid Palace in Cairo list a sumptuous array of magnificent tents of silk, velvet, and linen so large in scale that one of them took 150 workers nine years to manufacture, another had a tent pole made from the mast of a Venetian ship, and a third, supposedly costing 10,000,000 dinars, was described by court poets as being loftier than the tips of mountain peaks. Tent pavilions like these would have covered several acres, and, like palaces, comprised several huge, interconnected chambers, often around a magnificent central space. In an age long before ‘the media’ as we know it today, physical public presence was an essential way of conveying political status, and sumptuous tents were perfect for this function. In periods of political conflict, the collapse of an enemy leader’s tent, usually pitched high on a hilltop for maximum dramatic effect, was the proof that the other side had won.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, various Mamluk sultans held court or entertained in a large tent pavilion below the Cairo citadel on a regular basis, often treating their guests to magnificent banquets amid flower-filled basins and gleaming silver and surrounded by fruit trees imported from their Levantine provinces. Often, the royal tent was erected several days before the sultan actually used it, so that members of the public could come and admire it, obtaining a first-hand image of the magnificence of their nation.
One of the great emblems of the Mamluk kingdom was a large round tent commissioned by Sultan Qaitbay at the end of the 15th century primarily for the court celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday. Described as a wondrous work of appliqué with unforgettable medallions, its value as a national symbol meant that it was immediately targeted by the Ottomans when they defeated the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517. In a clearly political act, the Ottomans sold it to Moroccan merchants for a fraction of its value, who in turn cut it up into fragments and sold these to the public for use as curtains.
Palaces for the People
But beautiful tents were not the prerogative of a privileged few. Accounts of huge festivities like moulids, include mention of the thousands of colourful tents that would be put up by pilgrims, like fields of tulips, which would bloom then quickly disappear like a mirage once the festivities were over. Similarly, when the Nile was low and mudflats appeared off its banks, the residents of Cairo would while away the hours splashing in the shallow waters, and then return to the shade of tents they had put up to eat cucumbers they had planted in the mud and goodies from little pop-up stalls.
It is from the 19th century onwards that a wealth of information survives regarding Egypt’s splendid tent pavilions. At the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, thousands witnessed the spectacle, many from the comfort of large cotton tents decorated with colourful appliqué in pretty geometric and floral patterns. Stitched into the fabric were often wishes for prosperity and poems describing these structures as places of beauty and tranquillity, revealing that such tents were regarded as worlds within a world.
From Father to Son
Like many trades, the tentmaker’s market, where banners, wall hangings, and palanquins (textile canopies carried by beasts of burden to transport people in privacy and shelter) were also made, was one in which a number of craftsmen worked in close proximity. The skills of the trade were passed on from one generation to the next through a traditional apprentice system. Unsurprisingly, given the large scale of the tents and the heavy weight of the fabric, it has always been a trade dominated by men. Although the craft tradition has remained the same, the market has moved over the course of its history, generally following the markets for horses, weapons, and other trades related to battle and adventure. The main Cairo market served the demand for tents across the nation and probably beyond its borders, too.
The tenting trade comprises two distinct but complementary professions, the khayamiyya (tentmakers) and the farrashin, who actually erect the tents. The farrashin commission the tents they need from the tentmakers and then rent them out to clients, usually per day. Their trade involves the daunting task of erecting the tent or awning, a process requiring agility and acrobatic skill. Because of the expertise required, even the royal court relied on external farrashin to ensure that the monarch and his family had appropriately impressive tent pavilions to precede them wherever they travelled.
After 1953, the young Egyptian republic under President Nasser saw the tentmaking profession thrive, as the president’s many public appearances across Egypt were invariably held in a suradeq. Reflecting a strong sense of nationalism, tent panels often incorporated the Egyptian coat of arms, with close attention given to capture minor changes reflecting Egypt’s evolving political identity, most notably its union with Syria from 1958 to 1961. Tents from this period also saw the growing prominence of the lotus motif, an ancient Egyptian symbol, used to emphasise a sense of Egyptian-ness.
By the late 20th century, the standard tent pavilion was rectangular and red, with accents of orange, blue, black, and green. It remained an essential feature of political public life until the assassination of President Sadat while he was attending a military parade in 1981. From then on, the centuries-old tradition of jubilant public appearances by the ruler came to an end. Fortunately, the tradition of celebratory pavilions continued, but the role of even these was diminished by the growing fashion for weddings and parties in hotels and social clubs.
As a response, more and more of the tentmaker’s output has moved away from the production of tent panels for the traditional suradeq and focused on the market for appliquéd home furnishings, like pillow covers, hangings, and quilts. As art pieces, many of these are finer and more intricate than their historic predecessors, which were sumptuous backdrops rather than objets d’art. Increased travel coupled with social media exposure have given the tentmakers access to international markets—and non-Egyptian tastes. This has led to the introduction of a much wider palette and new motifs such as butterflies and trees filled with birds. As the tentmakers contemplate their future, they know that they must innovate to survive. ‘We have inherited this profession from father to son for as long as we can remember. We want to have something to pass on to our children’, they say.
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Seif El Rashidi is an art historian currently based in London. He specialises in the management of heritage projects involving community engagement, and is currently working for the Institute of Historical Research and the Guildhall Library. He is co-author of "The Tentmakers of Cairo: Egypt's Medieval and Modern Appliqué Craft" [El Rashidi, Seif, Bowker, Sam] 2018, AUC Press. Much of his research and writing is about the Islamic world and its visual heritage.