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The pottery workshops in Fustat

Dr Kim Duistermaat (NVIC) en Niels Groot (TU Delft)

Fustat, medieval Cairo, was famous for its beautiful glazed pottery. Since then, potters have always been working in this area of the city. Nowadays, the potteries of Cairo are still concentrated here. They used to be located around the mosque of Amr Ibn el-‘As. But when the SCA fenced off the archaeological site of Fustat, the potters had to move. Most of them relocated to the south, to an area called ‘Batn el-Baqara’. However, in 1999 the Egyptian government wanted to remove the potters here too: the black smoke of their kilns created too much pollution. The potters, together with a local NGO, developed a plan to modernise their workshops. From 2006 onwards, the old workshops were demolished to make space for new buildings. It was planned that the potters will return here, and work in more modern and cleaner circumstances. 

‘Traditional’ crafts are interesting for archaeologists. It is the only way to directly observe techniques, the use of tools and space, how people organise themselves and what material traces their activities leave. The potters in Fustat were documented by ethnoarchaeologists twice before. A French-Egyptian team made a detailed study of the workshops, buildings, tools and products in the 1970’s. Most potters were then producing ‘olla’s’, water jars, that were fired in enormous kilns with two or three floors. In 1998, a small NVIC team visited the potters again for a short documentation. The production of water jars had stopped, and they were making a variety of pots. In 2008 when our team visited, the potters were producing a diverse range of garden pots, rooftiles, lanterns and garden decorations. The enormous kilns had disappeared, and only smaller kilns were used. These were profound changes that affected the potters and their craft. Some of them have not been able to bridge the period between the demolishing of their old workshop and the move to the new buildings. They relocated to another area in Cairo, or left the craft. Others tried to continue, but their work will have changed. They use gas kilns, have a different kind of space, and perhaps cater more for a tourist market.  

In 2008 the NVIC started an ethnoarchaeological documentation project, to document the pottery workshops in Fustat one last time in detail, before these changes took effect. The project was carried out in cooperation with Leiden University and the Technical University of Delft, and was sponsored by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Cairo. Based on archaeological questions, we described pottery technology, use of space and organisation of the work. The descriptions are illustrated with maps, photo’s and video. The final publication will also contain information on the archaeological and historical information on pottery production in the area, and compare the current situation with the 1970’s. When the project started, about ten workshops were still active, of the more than 60 once located here.  

Most of the fieldwork was carried out in October and November 2008. The Dutch team spent three weeks in Fustat, and consisted of A. van As, L. Jacobs (Leiden University) and Niels Groot (Delft University). They studied the techniques of production and the use of space. Three students of archaeology from Leiden assisted them (R. Zineldeen, N. Staring and J. Schoester). A visual anthropology student, F. Breeksema, recorded the work of the potters on film. The architecture was documented by D. Bakhoum and her assistants, while M. Kačičnik took care of the photographic documentation. K. Duistermaat is working on a study of the way production is organised, and P. Sheehan will provide an overview of the archaeological and historical sources for the pottery craft in Fustat.   The final publication of the project is still in preparation.

During the project we were touched by the hospitality and willingness of the potters to assist us with our research, even when the whole group was roaming the area with a camera. They always answered our many questions in a friendly manner, and even if we did not have questions they were always ready to tell us all about their work.  

Further reading:

  • Duistermaat, K. and N.C.F. Groot (2008), A new ethnoarchaeological documentation project at the Fustat pottery workshops, Egypt. Leiden Journal of Pottery Studies 24: 181-186.  
  • Golvin, L., J. Thiriot and M. Zakariya (1982), Les potiers actuels de Fustat, IFAO Cairo.  
  • Van As, A., Duistermaat, K., Groot, N.C.F., Jacobs, L., Schoester, J., Staring, N. and Zin el Deen, R. (2009), The Potters of Fustat (Cairo) in 2008: a preliminary report. Leiden Journal of Pottery Studies 25: 5-30.  
  • Van der Kooij, G. and W.Z. Wendrich (2002), The potters of el-Fustat (Cairo) and el-Nazla (Fayoum). In: W.Z. Wendrich and G. van der Kooij (eds.), Moving Matters. Ethnoarchaeology in the Near East, Leiden: 147-158.
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