The Artisans of the Walled City of Lahore

Perched outside his workshop in Lahore’s Walled City, Mohamed Tahir plays a harmonium while watching the passing melee. The melancholy sounds of the instrument are barely audible over the din of motorbikes and wheel cutters, but still they evoke something of Lahore’s history, a world that lives on beneath the dust and frantic rhythms of everyday life.

“The piano and harmonium were brought here by the Britishers, but drum-making began during the Mughal period,” Tahir says. Wrapped in a black cotton shawl, the elderly man has been making musical instruments on this street for over 70 years.

Like many artisans in the Walled City, Tahir’s skills have been passed down the generations, surviving the turns of history that have ruptured this region. With changing traditions and market competition, though, Lahore’s craftsmen face an uncertain future. Yet some initiatives are offering these artisans an opportunity to craft a profound transformation upon the city.

There are hopes that the work of these craftsmen and women will revive a city that has been passed over by tourists for decades. Lahore rivals Delhi for its heritage, yet receives a tenth of the visitors. Plus it’s a relatively short drive from the city to the country’s breathtaking northern mountain ranges. For travellers, the lure of the city has been overshadowed, it seems, by the drama of Pakistan’s history.

When Pakistan became a sovereign state in 1947, Mohamed Tahir’s family moved from Amritsar, in India, to Lahore, inside the new Pakistani border. The period is known as Partition. Seven million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Over 10 million Muslims crossed into Pakistan, including many of Lahore’s current artisans. Theirs is a lineage disrupted by politics, whose continuity lies in their craft. Though in the upheaval surrounding the new state of Pakistan, a great deal was lost.

For over a thousand years, Lahore thrived by welcoming all sorts; Chinese travellers, Sufi saints from Ghazni, Portuguese priests, Italian painters and Armenian ironsmiths. Lahore reached the height of its splendour during the Mughal period, from 16th to 18th centuries. The Emperors of this time – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb – were generous patrons of the arts and crafts. The most impressive Mughal architecture, such as the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, borrowed from Islamic, Persian and Hindu traditions. The Walled City became Lahore’s commercial heart: a dense maze of alleyways and markets, whose karkhana (workshops) thronged with thousands of weavers, ironsmiths, masons, miniaturists, astrolabe makers, jewelers, cobblers and carpet weavers. Together they sustained imperial trade and supplied a burgeoning society with their material needs.

Many craftsmen are still at it. Walking through the bustling Kasera bazaar, the blacksmiths are impossible to ignore: standing at their workshops which open onto the street, they press blades and other tools onto sharpening wheels, prompting the shrill, piercing sound of drills and sprays of sparks like fireworks. Here, in his tiny workshop, I meet Affif Mughal, a blacksmith whose forefathers made swords for the Mughal court and aristocracy. With the decline of the Sikh Empire in the 19th century, his family switched to knives and scissors. Today, Affif’s scissors are used by Lahore’s tailors and cobblers. These artisans comprise an ecosystem. Such relationships are a remnant of former, more prosperous days, when dozens of craft industries were bound together.

Lahore’s artisans are proud of their heritage. Down a back alley off the Moti bazaar, on the floor of a tiny room, I meet Fazal Durrani, a shoemaker in the Walled City since 1981. “The Mughal Emperors had their own cordwainers (cobblers),” he says, waving a leather sole under his work lights. “I am continuing this tradition”.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, many of Lahore’s crafts diminished. The artisans’ fortunes were invigorated under the muscular reign of the Sikh, Ranjit Singh, but by the time the British seized the city, in 1846, new patterns of trade threatened the old professions. Over the ensuing decades, British manufactured imports, such as umbrellas and bicycles, began to appear in Lahore’s shops. With a new political economy came changes in consumption patterns.

Rudyard Kipling was in Lahore at the time. When the author depicted the Walled City in his 1891 story, The City of the Dreadful Night, he described a place of “fetid breezes”, lepers and corpses, a city “of Death as well as Night”. As a champion of the British Empire, Kipling has always faced criticism. Orwell labeled him a “jingo imperialist”. Today, some will see Kipling’s portrayal of the Walled City as ‘orientalising’; that he rendered the place otherworldly and uncivilized, its people listless, and therefore, by implication, worthy of subjugation.

But the ‘creative destruction’ of British-led capitalism was already imposing itself upon many of Lahore’s old trades. From the time of the Raj onwards, Lahore’s artisans have faced stiff competition from market forces, while many fail to adapt to changing tastes. One craft struggling to survive today is hookah pipe production. Passing stalls displaying colourful dupattas and saris, I walk around the Wazir Khan mosque, where Kipling set his story. Here, I meet Umer Saleem, a large, thoughtful man, and one of the Walled City’s last hookah pipe makers.

“There used to be 30 workshops here. Now there are only three,” he says. Saleem’s family began making smoking pipes three generations ago. He describes the history of the hookah, invented by the Persian physicist, Abu’l-Fath Gilani, in the 16th century. He proclaims their social value, as a way of “bringing people together” and “taking time”. But he is not optimistic. A 2013 law banned their use in cafés and restaurants. Also, he concedes, “the new generation prefers cigarettes”. Saleem has suffered a 75 percent decline in sales.

In recent decades, the Chinese have taken up where the British began. Chinese factories supply everyday items to Lahore’s markets, at prices that undercut local producers and capture domestic markets. Up two flights of stairs, in a hot, bare room in the Langa Mandi quarter, I meet a metalworker called Muhammad Muzamil. Working on the floor beside two other craftsmen, he is feeling the pinch. “China has introduced cheaper goods. They have their own factory designs, but I believe hand-made is better,” he says, while hammering a pattern into a steel buffet lid. Muzamil’s great-grandfather started their business, in Delhi, but he is not passing his craft onto his children. “It is too up and down” he says.

If the fate of Lahore’s artisans seems bleak, there are grounds for hope. Several organisations are supporting craftsmen. The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), for example, wants to highlight the influence that artisans have had on the city. “Old Lahore was a place where people were identified with their skills. Places still bear the names of the craftsmen who worked there, like Bowmakers Street,” says Kamran Lashari, the WCLA Director General. The WCLA has offers leases to designated shopkeepers to sell local crafts along Food Street, a prominent avenue near the crimson walls of the Badshahi Mosque. The WCLA has also been giving free day tours for visitors around the Walled City and the Lahore Fort since 2012, and began organizing night tours last year. Passing areas such as the Lohari Davarza (Blacksmiths’ Gate), the walks navigate places where the Lahore’s craft history lives on today.

Over the past decade, the WCLA has partnered with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to conserve some of Lahore’s most remarkable buildings. Initially, AKTC restored the walls and mashrabiya of the old havelis along the Shahi Guzargah, the Royal Trail. Processions of Mughal Emperors coming from Delhi would follow this road, entering Lahore via the Delhi Gate and travelling on to the Lahore Fort. Craftsmen under AKTC have also conserved the last remaining Mughal-era bathhouse, the Shahi Hammam, as well as the walls, minarets and façade of the Wazir Khan mosque. Both structures were built in the 17th century.

AKTC’s most ambitious project is the restoration of the 450 metre-long and 16-metre high Mughal-era ‘Picture Wall’ in the Lahore Fort. Constructed in the early 17th century, it was exquisitely decorated by hundreds of artisans under Shah Jahan. The result was an artistic triumph; a monumental screen of over 110 panels comprising glazed tiles, faience mosaics and frescoes. Some of these depict figurative images, such as angels and dragons. These motifs, now brought back into focus through the AKTC restoration, reveal what was an outward-looking Empire, receptive to eastern and western ideas.

These days, walls are rarely the subject of unanimous praise, nor do they elicit a sense of pluralism. But this one inverts the idea. Dozens of young female and male architects, fresco painters, chemists, digital conservators and historians are collaborating on this assignment. The project may take several years, but the conservators are a pool of enthusiasm. They discuss the wall’s Persian, Italian and Chinese influences. The older master craftsmen, busy restoring tiles, filigree and brickwork, are equally excited. One evening, as the sun is setting behind the nearby tomb of Ranjit Singh, I climb up to the highest point of scaffolding along the wall. There, I meet Ala Uddin, a master mason. He is laying bricks. “I love this wall,” he says, his face literally glowing in the orange light. “It brings our culture and traditions to life.”

Of course, restoring Lahore’s historic monuments will not tackle the structural economic factors threatening the city’s artisans. But these projects are employing craftsmen in numbers not seen in decades. These artisans are reviving Mughal techniques, while also working with a diverse community of practitioners trained in the latest methods. The results will attract more visitors to Lahore, generating income that can be reinvested into further restoration work. The project may even awaken a demand for craftsmanship among wealthy Lahoris looking to embellish their homes.

Yet the restoration work is really about something deeper. If the Picture Wall displays Lahore’s cosmopolitan past, the way it is being restored suggests a pluralistic present rarely found in contemporary narratives of Pakistan. The multidisciplinary team of craftsmen and conservators, from different generations, gender and ethnic origin are, in their small way, embodying the ‘can do’ spirit that animated the city four centuries ago.

My last interview in Lahore was with an elderly master mason, Mohammad Ramzan. It was after dusk, and the end of his day. What he said about the Picture Wall, and the restoration effort, lingered in my memory: “It is a way of understanding our identity.”

 

A version of this article was published in the FT Weekend

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The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo

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.

 

 

 

Harry Johnstone

 

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.