Cairo, Egypt: The Street of the Khayamiya (Tentmakers)

There’s an historic street in Cairo’s Khan al Khalili district known as the Sharia al-Khayamiya (Tentmaker’s Street). Along this street, vendors sell a uniquely Egyptian handcrafted textile known as khayamiya. You might also see it spelled as “khayamia”, “khyamiya”, “khayameya”, and other variations of that. The word is derived from Khayma, which is the Arabic word for “tent” You may have heard of Omar Khayyam, whose name means “Omar the Tent Maker”.

Although it’s possible to purchase khayamiya in places other than this street, you’ll find the best selection here. I find it captivating to explore the shops and admire the many tapestries available there.

What Is Khayamiya?

Khayamiya artisans create the pieces using applique techniques to make designs. The fabric is a type of canvas. Historically in the Middle East, such appliques were used to decorate the interior of tents.  As the photo at the top of this article shows, some khayamiya pieces are small enough to be used as a cover for a throw pillow, while others are large enough to cover a large section of a wall, similar to the sizes often used in the U.S. for quilted wall hangings.  As a textile artist myself, I’m very fond of the khayamiya technique, and it’s always a treat when I go to Cairo to visit the Sharia al-Khayamiya.

In 2012, the quilt shows presented by the American Quilter’s Society featured a khayamiya artist from Egypt touring throughout the U.S.

Types of Designs

The majority of khayamiya designs that I’ve seen fit into these categories:

  1. Geometric designs similar to those typical of Islamic art
  2. Images inspired by Pharaonic art from tombs and temple walls, especially birds
  3. Scenes depicting Egyptian life, such as Saidi musicians or men playing the tahtib martial art. See the photo below showing two different views of Saidi musicians, one in which the musicians wear burgundy galabeyat, and the other in which the musicians wear navy blue.
  4. Words written in Arabic calligraphy. Most of these that I’ve seen translate into Allah’s name, or praises to him.
These two khayamiya pieces show Saidi musicians playing traditional Egyptian musical instruments. The image on the left shows men playing a mizmar (similar to an oboe), a rebaba (stringed instrument), and a deff (frame drum). The one on the right shows two mizmar players and a deff player.

The photo below shows several khayamiya pieces displayed on the wall of one of the shops on Sharia el-Khayamiya.  The owner of this shop gave me permission to take this photo, as well as the others shown in this blog post.

About the Khayamiya Street

Sharia el-Khayamiya is one of the last Medieval covered streets remaining in Cairo, and is worth a visit just to take in the history it represents. The street lies immediately south of the historic city gate known as Bab Zuweyla.  It was built in the 1600’s.

Historically, when Egypt was the hub of the Islamic world, every year the artisans of the Tentmakers’ Street would craft a massive tapestry to cover the kaaba stone in Mecca for the annual hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). When the time came to transport the tapestry to Mecca, it would be carried through the Bab Zuweyla and placed on the camel caravan that would transport it there.  The departure of the caravan to Mecca was occasion for the people of Cairo to celebrate.

In recent decades, since the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula, the Saudis purchase their tapestry for the annual hajj from other sources.  Egypt no longer provides it.

If you stand outside a shop in Sharia el-Khayamiya, you may need to dodge cars and motorcycles, since it still is a functional street.  I find it best to quickly move inside a shop displaying designs that appeal to me, rather than linger out in the street area.

There is an article on the Aramco World web site that provides a large amount of interesting detail about this historic Cairo neighborhood.

Buying Khayamiya Pieces

The khayamiya textiles come in many sizes.  Prices vary according to the size of the piece and the intricacy of the design. Sometimes when I visit these shops, I sit down on a bench, pick up a large pile of textiles, and start looking through it in search of something to catch my eye.  For me, it is a pleasure even just to look through them. The vendors are always very willing to help me find specific pieces if I tell them what sort of design or size I’m looking for.

Although some of the vendors don’t speak much English, they can typically recruit someone nearby to translate. I’ve never had a communication problem, and I enjoy seeing their faces show their pride in their work as they answer my questions about certain items.

I have purchased many khayamiya pieces to use as gifts for friends and family members.

Closing Thoughts

It can be a challenge figuring out what gifts to buy when visiting Egypt.  I have given several pieces to people in my life who appreciate handcrafted textiles.  The diverse selection of color combinations and designs offers options that could appeal to a variety of tastes.

I also have several pieces for my own home, and when I look at them, they bring back memories of my visits to Egypt.

Egypt – Why Have I Gone Back So Many Times?

I’ve been to Egypt 13 times since my first visit in 1999, and often when I tell people I’m planning another trip, they’re astonished!  Many of my friends and family are mystified by this. They ask me, somewhat disbelieving, “Why????  Haven’t you seen it all already?”

The short answer is, “I love Egypt!”

The longer answer is that Egypt offers much more to appreciate than  pyramids.  I do find ancient civilizations fascinating, and I always enjoy returning to my favorite Pharaonic temples, tombs, and monuments.  But, that’s just the beginning of what I love about Egypt.

Architecture

Many spectacular historic buildings remain as testimonial of bygone times.  I continue to discover beautiful architectural jewels, including mosques, houses, wikalas, cisterns, and more. This photo shows the interior of a historic Ottoman home known as Bayt Suhaymi, which was built in 1648:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

I also enjoy the modern-day vibrant neighborhoods of traditional cultures, such as beautifully decorated Nubian houses. The photo below shows an interior room of a Nubian house in Gharb Saheil, a neighborhood of Aswan.

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Incredible History AFTER the Era of the Pharoahs

Egypt has long been an important centerpiece of Islamic culture, and actually remains so today.  From 1174 to 1517, the Fatimid Caliphate was centered in Egypt. The al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded in 970, and remains an important center of scholarship in the Koran.

In addition, Egypt was a prominent stop for trade caravans.  During the time of the Crusades, Saladin built a landmark called The Citadel to protect Cairo from the Crusaders if they should ever make it all the way to Egypt. (They didn’t.)

This photo shows the minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad rising above Bab Zuwayla, which is a gate to the city of Cairo dating back to the 11th century.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel.

Cairo is rich in museums that celebrate its history, such as the Citadel, the Islamic Art Museum, and the Oum Kalthoum museum.  In Aswan, the Nubian Museum pays tribute to the ancient, vibrant culture of the Nubian people that coexisted with the Pharaohs.

Everywhere I turn in Egypt, I find signs of bygone times.  I learn so much about history by simply learning the stories behind the places I visit.

Cultural Arts

Egypt has served as a crossroads for many ethnic groups throughout history, including the people of ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Bedouins, the Nubians, the Amazigh of the Western Desert, and more.  Each of these cultures enjoys its own distinct traditions of music, dance, textiles, and other expressive arts. I take great pleasure in attending traditional cultural shows at El Dammah Theater, the Mazaher Ensemble at Makan Theater, and the tannoura show at Wikala el-Ghouri.

Often, I’m introduced to cultural experiences that are new to me.  For example, in 2016, which was my 11th visit to Egypt, I saw a Nubian music concert at the El Dammah theater featuring an instrument known as a rango. In 2018, I saw a concert of Port Said music and dance for the first time. It was also my first time of sitting at a Sufi tent in Luxor listening to the music of a zikr and watching the participants.

The photo below shows a Saidi ensemble performing at El Dammah Theater in Cairo. The musician on the left is playing a mizmar, which is a reed instrument that resembles an oboe. The one on the right is playing an arghool, which is a type of flute.

Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In addition, Egypt has long been a center for performing arts: music, theater, dance, and cinema. It’s still possible to visit remnants of the entertainment district of the early 20th century, including Emad el-Din Street and Azbakeya Garden. Some of these historic night spots are still open today, such as the Shahrzade next to Alfi Bek restaurant.  Historically, Egypt attracted aspiring performers from throughout the Arabic-speaking world who sought fame and fortune.

Today’s vibrant night life in Cairo features some of the top performers in the Arabic-speaking world.  I always enjoy going out to enjoy music and dance shows.  Even though I have seen some of them before, Egypt’s top performing artists are so inspiring that I enjoy seeing them over and over. This photo from 2017 shows Dina, Egypt’s top belly dancer:

Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

No, I Haven’t Seen it All!

There are many parts of Egypt I have never seen, which I hope to visit someday.  My wish list includes the Siwa Oasis, the Fayoum Oasis, the Red Sea area, the town of Mersa Matrouh on the Mediterranean coast, the Amarna archaeological site at Minya, the Suez Canal, and the Hathor Temple at Dendera.

In addition, even when I visit sites I’ve seen before, I often notice things I didn’t previously notice.  For example, on my 8th visit to the Edfu Temple I noticed something I’d never seen there before: an image of a liturgical dancer holding his arms in the goofy bent-wrist-and-elbows pose that everybody thinks is representative of ancient Egyptian dance.  I’d been looking for evidence that such a dance posture actually existed in ancient Egypt for many years, but somehow never spotted it until my 2017 visit!

The People

Most importantly of all, I have come to feel a deep affection for the Egyptian people. I have come to appreciate their warmth, kindness, and hospitality.  Most of all, the Egyptian people are the reason I keep going back.

Related Blog Posts

These links lead to blog posts about some of my experiences mentioned in the above narrative: