Photo: Egyptian Tentmakers photographed in the 1860's by the Zangaki Brothers

History Page; Dr Sam Bowker

The Tentmakers of Cairo sustain a spectacular aspect of Egypt's living heritage. Their ancestors made the majestic traveling tents of the Ottoman Empire, and today they produce intricate textile artworks that are unique to Egypt. These are called Khayamiya, or Egyptian Tentmaker Applique. 

Kim Beamish’s documentary presents a sophisticated and evocative narrative of the Street of the Tentmakers.
— Dr Sam Bowker, Art History, Charles Sturt University, NSW, Australia

Their work combines sophisticated skills with craft techniques that have been refined over many generations. Using only a needle, thimble, and large pair of tailor’s scissors, these skilled artisans flip, fold and stitch fabric with virtuoso precision. Khayamiya originates from architecture, but resembles the historic development of quilts.

The Tentmakers use a vast array of colours in their work. The careful use of colour combinations is one of the most important elements of their designs. During the Khedival period (1867-1914), the Tentmakers used cottons dyed by hand in shades of red, white and blue, as well as recycled fabrics. Their designs have changed dramatically over the last two centuries, drawing from a wide range of sources across the history of Islamic visual culture.

Khayamiya is an important feature of Egyptian public and private life. Decorated tents are used as backdrops and venues for weddings, funerals, feasts and many other celebrations. Throughout the twentieth century, many pieces of Egyptian Tentmaker Appliqué (or Khayamiya) were collected by tourists visiting Egypt, including soldiers and nurses during the World Wars. These souvenirs can now be found around the world, ranging from complete tents to cushion covers and wall hangings.

Since the 1990s, cheap factory-printed fabrics have undermined local demand and respect for the skilled work of the Tentmakers. Egyptian museums and galleries rarely display Khayamiya, so few Egyptians recognise its historic significance, nor are they aware of the growing international interest in this unique Egyptian art form. As shown through The Tentmakers of Cairo, the future of Khayamiya will be determined by the Tentmaker’s entrepreneurial ability to engage with new international audiences. The 2011 Revolution marks the beginning of a new chapter within a much longer story.

Read more of Dr Sam Bowker's work here >>