It is midday. The sun is high and hot, yet the street is alive. Kids play football. Goats, tethered to a wall, observe stoically. Motorcyclists thread past on bleating, smoky mopeds. The air is filled with dust, flies, and lingering smells of rubbish. I am in a Cairo neighbourhood that few foreigners visit these days: al-Darb al-Ahmar. Walking among the many mosques and madrasas, I hope to learn more about the artisans that work there.
“Whatever manufactured items there are in the world”, wrote the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi in 1671, “the poor of Cairo get hold of them, set them out and trade in them. They get by in this fashion.” Nearly three hundred and fifty years later, this tradition lives on in al-Darb al-Ahmar. This extraordinary neighbourhood of 100,000 people, which lies to the south-east of central Cairo, is said to be home to a thousand workshops; the place is teeming with artisans, crafting everything from tents, books, boxes and brass lanterns to glass bowls and silk carpets. They trade what they can, and they get by.
The Street of the Tentmakers captures this vibrant, commercial spirit. Built in 1650 as an arcade, this covered street is a succession of workrooms whose interiors are lined with colourful, decorative textiles. From his cubic cavity in the Ottoman-era wall, a weaver called Hasan says that al-khayyamiya, the craft of tentmaking, goes back to Pharaonic times. Some of today’s weavers are descended from the families who would produce the kiswa, the fabric that covered the great stone at Mecca, as well as tents, cloths and saddles for those setting out on pilgrimage to Mecca. The sultan, sitting nearby on a balcony above the ancient Fatimid gate of Bab Zuwayla would watch the caravan depart in procession.
Perhaps Hasan notices my pleasure at imagining this sweep of history, alive today. “We are lucky to be born here”, he says, with a smile. “It is a heritage site, and a spiritual place. If you wanted to create a neighbourhood like this, you could not. It is impossible to conceive of all the elements that you find in al-Darb al-Ahmar.”
The district’s heritage is indeed remarkable. The area, covering just under a square mile, contains over 40 monuments built during successive Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras, spanning a thousand year period. In collaboration with the government, many of these, such as the Aqsunqur Mosque and Amir Khayrbak complex, have been restored by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Such efforts are crucial to preserve Cairo’s Islamic heritage and attract more visitors and custom to the neighbourhood.
In al-Darb al-Ahmar, the only foreign faces I see are young Muslims from Indonesia. They are attending the nearby al-Azhar University, a centre for Islamic learning. Western tourists currently avoid Cairo due to security concerns; there have been several Islamist militant attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority in recent years. Walking around the neighbourhood, however, I feel perfectly safe. Countless old men, seated at the ubiquitous qahwa where they drink glasses of coffee or tea, welcome me with the words “ahlan wa sahlan”.
At times the fortunes of al-Darb al-Ahmar waver with Egypt’s. Next to the 14th century Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque, I enter a thread-dying house. I meet Salama, who has been a dyer for 73 years. In the darkness, figures are hauling skeins of cotton out of a stone bath of black dye. Dark steaming liquid streams across the floor. Salama tells me how, under the revolutionary regime of Nasser, business was good: “the Russians would give us weapons, and we would give them cloth.” But in 1967 things changed after the disastrous Six-Day War against Israel. Then after Nasser came Sadat who liberalised the economy, opening it up to domestic and foreign investment. Cheaper goods entered the local market. Small producers in the neighbourhood were hit. Many lost their jobs. Families were torn apart. For a time, says Salama, it was “chaos”.
Most craftsmen from the neighborhood are physically and mentally immersed in their history, reviving elements of their culture each day. I witness a clear example of this inside the workshop of two bookbinders near Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque. Aslam and his colleague bind 150 books a day. Along their workspace are piles of half-bound books. They are currently binding a tafsir, a commentary on the Qur’an, written in 630 hijri (1232 CE). As I leave, Aslam smiles and describes one of their ‘special’ books, about Alexander the Great, first produced on papyrus in 330 BC.
When the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi visited Cairo in the 17th century, he recorded 20 workshops employing 300 carpet-makers. “They weave silk carpets and prayer-rugs, in praise of which the tongue falls short” he wrote. In a small room in the backstreets of the nearby Manshiyat Nasser slum, of all places, that skill is alive today. It takes two people six months to produce a two-by-three-metre silk carpet. They sit on a low bench, facing the vertical loom with a cartoon of the finished design above them. Their technique, says one plainly, has been employed for over 1500 years.
Near to al-Darb al-Ahmar is Cairo’s sprawling ‘City of the Dead’, where locals have been buried since the Muslim conquest of Egypt more than 1,300 years ago. Today, because of rapid urban growth, a quarter of a million Cairenes live among the shrines and tombs. In this living graveyard I meet an ex-boxer turned glassblower called Hasan ‘Hodhod’. Hodhod says his work has been associated with ghosts, mystery and myths that go back to King Solomon deceiving the Queen of Sheba. In an attempt to dissuade him from taking up such arduous work, his father tried to spook him, describing glassblowing as “the craft of the spirits”.
It is dusk. A bread-delivery boy cycles by, seated upright, balancing a five foot-long tray of freshly baked aish baladi on his head. Moments later I meet Mohamed, a third-generation lantern-maker. Our conversation reveals the influences that history has had on the craft sector. Inside his workshop, half-finished brass and iron lanterns rest on shelves and tables, dimly lit by a single bulb. To make the ornate metal pieces, Mohamed draws on Cairo’s heritage, using Mamluk, Coptic, Andalusian and Moroccan designs. Mohamed says that “now is the most difficult time”, as the prices of raw materials have risen yet there are fewer tourists, who were his main buyers. Yet he finds an unexpected positive: Syrians have come, because of the war. They started forming workshops, for upholstering beds and producing clothes. Through their enterprise, he reflects, they have contributed to the local economy. “They have helped us a lot”, he says.
Towards the end of my time in al-Darb al-Ahmar, I garner another perspective, which suggests that craftsmen possess a degree of resilience against historical events. I ask an 81-year-old cloth dyer what impact the Arab Spring-inspired 2011 revolution and subsequent counter-revolution have had on artisans. “For us, nothing has changed,” he replies, “except the President. Our lives, the food we eat, the money we earn – it is the same.”
It seems history laps over this place in layers, like the lines of a tide. The imprint is felt, but only lightly. Events are merely absorbed into the welter. Amid so much life, death, creation and renewal, the sense of flow, or cyclicality, is palpable. I believe these artisans are at the heart of this. Despite the tumult in their country and the wider region, they get by.
A version of this article was published in The Guardian.
The exhibition – ‘The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo’ – is being held at the Royal Geographical Society, Exhibition Road, London, between Thursday 22 March and Tuesday 24 April 2018. Admission is free.