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Egyptian Tent

June 2, 2022 – December 23, 2022

Egyptian tentmaking has been a colorful and unique feature of the streets of Cairo for many centuries. The Arabic word for “tent” is khayma, making khayamiya “the art of the tent.” Primarily involving appliqué – sewing one piece of cloth atop another to make a pattern or image – khayamiya can line the interior of an entire tent (suradeq, meaning pavilion or “street tent”), as well as cover individual wall panels (siwan).

As an art form, Egyptian appliqué dates back at least to Pharaonic times (2980 BCE to 332 BCE), though over the last two centuries the role of the distinctive khayamiya panels has evolved from adorning tents used for ceremonial feasts or celebrations like weddings, to making smaller, more portable textiles for sale as souvenirs to foreign tourists. While some historians consider Greek traveler Herodotus the founder of Egyptian tourism, since he visited as early as 454 BCE and later wrote about the experience, most point to Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 for bringing attention to its ancient civilization and touching off the fascination that has attracted visitors from around the world ever since.

Appliquéd Wall Hanging, ca. 1900 (2004.037.003)

By the early 19th century, large numbers of European tourists were visiting the land of the Pharaohs, with archaeological milestones like the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone (1799 and 1822), the first serious excavations of the Great Sphinx (1817) and the Pyramids at Giza (1880), and the discovery of the mummy of Ramses II (1881) regularly renewing interest in seeing the age-old sights. While there, the visitors admired and often purchased the colorful wares of the Cairo tentmakers.

Khayamiya occurs in four common styles: Islamic, Calligraphic, Pharaonic, and Folkloric. While Egypt was under Ottoman Turkish rule (1517-1867), most khayamiya featured intricate geometric patterns reflecting Islamic motifs seen in ceramics, mosaics, and mosque windows, or were Calligraphic textiles decorated in Arabic script with verses from the Qur’an, poems, or religious phrases. By the early twentieth century, tentmakers had begun introducing “Pharaonic” scenes imitating old Egyptian tomb paintings after realizing that tourists were mostly fascinated by ancient Egypt. A smaller number of Folkloric khayamiya portrayed village scenes of people and animals. All four basic styles were often combined for the tourist trade, reflecting the fusion of contemporary Islamic Egypt with ancient Egyptian culture.

Appliqued Tent Panel (Sitara), 1989 (1997.002.290)

Even though tourism has been a fact of life in Egypt for at least two hundred years, it is only very recently that scholars and curators have come to accept and appreciate the importance of these vibrant textiles. Because khayamia was branded as “inauthentic” and “kitsch,” its significance as an eye-catching expression of Egypt’s living cultural identity and its role in marking special occasions in ordinary Egyptians’ lives were long ignored, and few museums collected it. Meanwhile, the number of artisans who still practice the ancient craft is dwindling since fewer young people are willing to dedicate the time to develop the skills to pursue it. The Gregg Museum is proud to display one of only six fully intact Egyptian tents in museum collections anywhere, alongside examples of khayamia panels from its permanent collection.