Earlier on this blog I posted a piece entitled “Staples” about a Chinese porcelain bowl bought in 2012 at an auction in Aboyne, a small town in Aberdeenshire some 30 miles west of Aberdeen. This new posting is about another purchase from the same auction. I paid £5.00 for it. What a great day that was!
I had forgotten all about this item but happened across it again in the attic a few weeks ago, at the same time that I found the collection of flags which I wrote about in my last blog entry. I sold the flags on eBay, but I still have this piece.
Here’s its picture. If you know anything about me (but why should you?) you can see at once why I bought it. If you don’t know anything about me, it’s because of the Arabic inscription. I have no knowledge of the language but my wife Frances’s first degree was in Arabic, and she had occasion to use it extensively during her career as a specialist librarian dealing with Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Islamic materials. So if ever I see anything in an auction which looks vaguely attractive and has Arabic written on it, then I tend to buy it in case it might please her. In this particular case her pleasure was tempered by:
- the amount of other and less pleasing stuff which I also bought from the auction;
- the utter impossibility of actually doing anything with this object other than putting it immediately into the box of unsorted-but-potentially-interesting textiles in the attic, where it languished for the next six years.
Having rediscovered it, I decided that the time had come to research it. But I didn’t know where to start. I asked Frances, who recognised the word Allah occurring twice in the inscription, but was unable to interpret the rest of the writing because the Arabic script is highly simplified and lacks the essential diacritical marks.
All I knew from my simple observations was that it’s a colourful rectangle of cotton cloth, 190 cms x 80 cms, made up from panels with cut-out patterns sewn on by hand, and it has an Islamic origin. With as little information as that, it’s difficult to work out any useful search terms for trawling online images in search of an identification. I tried and failed. More in hope than expectation, I next posted photos of the front and back on the Facebook Warp and Weft group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/232633273563822/.
Bingo! As is so often the case when you post anything interesting and obscure to these wonderful special interest groups, within a few hours someone came back with a good lead. Here’s the word to search for: Khayamiya.
Try it for yourself. You immediately find yourself in a narrow and ancient covered market in an alleyway in downtown Cairo, lined with colourful booths where old men sit over their sewing as they and their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. You have arrived in the street of the tentmakers.
“Khayamiya (Egyptian Arabic خيّامية Khayyāmiyah) is a type of decorative appliqué textile historically used to decorate tents across the Middle East. They are now primarily made in Cairo, Egypt, along a covered market known as the Street of the Tentmakers (Share’a el Khayamiya, or Souq El-Khaymiya). This street is located immediately south of Bab Zuweila, and has been in continuous use since the Mamluk era.” (From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khayamiya).
“Unlike the dazzling tents themselves, the Street of the Tentmakers is a rather mysterious place, always in deep shadow- one of the last roofed-over medieval streets left in Cairo. Amidst a constant babble and a flow of hooting traffic, sellers of brightly colored appliqued cloth in pharaonic and Islamic patterns sit for the most part motionless and silent in their small boutiques lining both sides of the street.
“Once, a thousand men were working there in the tent lofts and surrounding courtyards. Now, there are no more than a hundred or so. Passed on from father to son, the ancient craft, some believe, is slowly dying. ‘The young ones don’t want to learn anymore,’ they say. (Quoted from http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/198606/tentmakers.of.cairo.htm).
Viewing the online images of khayamiya textiles, I seemed to be on the right lines, but my example looked rather different from others. It was smaller, simpler, more modest than most of the bright, complex textiles on view. I needed to know more.
Further searching gave me a couple of names. The current world authorities on khayamiya are Dr Sam Bowker, a lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, and his fellow academic Seif el Rashidi of the Institute of Historical Research at London University. Their new book on The Tentmakers of Cairo will be published later in 2018.
I found an email address for Sam, and with my usual low expectations I emailed him asking if the object was a khayamiya, and attaching some photos. My expectations are low because if I were a world authority on anything I might take a dim view of someone I’ve never heard of trying to contact me out of the blue making demands on my expertise. On most occasions when I have acted precisely in this way I have received an extremely polite and helpful reply from the expert. But I don’t expect it, and it’s always a very pleasant surprise when it happens.
As indeed happened on this occasion. Within about a week of my email I received a very courteous and enthusiastic reply from Sam, followed a couple of hours later by another from Seif containing supplementary information. They were pleased to get my email. They were delighted, perhaps even quite excited, to look at the images of my khayamiya. It turns out to be quite a special one. From my point of view, it qualifies as Random Treasure.
Here’s a ten-point summary of what Sam and Seif told me:
- It is “a striking example” of a khayamiya appliqué textile made by the tentmakers of Cairo;
- The Arabic inscription is a verse from the Quran نَصْرٌ مِّنَ اللَّـهِ وَفَتْحٌ قَرِيبٌ, which translates roughly as “Victory from Allah and a swift conclusion” and is a quotation frequently seen on khayamiya of this age;
- Unusually it wasn’t made for hanging on the wall of a tent (or, for the tourist buyer, for hanging on the wall of your living room or staircase) – it’s too small for that purpose;
- The name of Allah must not be dragged along the ground, so the repetition of this word at the bottom of the piece indicates that it is to be held up high and not hung on the wall – thus, it must be a ritual or processional banner, associated with the Sufi practice of street processions;
- My piece is from the Khedival period. Khedive was the title used by the Ottoman ruler of Egypt between 1867 and 1914;
- Many khayamiya were made to be sold to Western tourists as colourful souvenirs of their Grand Tour to Egypt. Mine, however, with its simple design, relatively small size and Arabic inscription, is more likely to have been made for local use in association with the street processions in Cairo and collected by someone with an interest in Egypt and Islam;
- Some khayamiya made during the khedival period were brought home to Britain as souvenirs or loot by soldiers engaged in the various Egyptian campaigns of the late 19th century;
- Khayamiya were made to be used and most of those which stayed in Egypt became worn out and were discarded. As a result, most known specimens in good condition are items brought into the West by tourists;
- Surviving khedival khayamiya are rare and are mostly found in museum collections. Small-sized examples are rarer still;
- My khayamiya appears to be the first one to have been discovered and documented in Scotland.
In fact they told me more than what I have summarised above and attached a number of interesting and relevant images of khayamiya in domestic, ritual and artistic settings. And then I had a discussion via Facebook with John Taylor, another expert, who gave me access to his wonderful Rugtracker blog and a link to his Pinterest board at https://www.flickr.com/photos/rugbam/sets/72157633509687676/.
One question which my new-found contacts were unable to answer was how such a rare and exotic object as a khedival khayamiya might have found its way into an auction sale in the small Aberdeenshire town of Aboyne. I don’t think it’s possible to know for certain, but I can offer a conjecture.
This sale was the one and only occasion when my regular local auctioneer in Edinburgh has ventured out of town to run an off-site sale. He rented a large hall in Aboyne (see my previous blog post “Staples” for more information about the venue), where he auctioned several hundred lots sourced from vendors in the local area. Judging from the very good quality of some of the objects on offer, it can be inferred that many lots were from one or more of the great houses in the area, of which there are several. But judging from the mouldering and decrepit condition of many of said objects, it can also be inferred that a majority of the goods were obtained from the attics of these houses and not from their grand dining rooms, drawing rooms and baronial halls.
Now, the landowning families in this part of Aberdeenshire – among them the Gordons of Huntly and Aboyne, and the Burnetts of Leys – are a warlike breed. Over many generations they have sent their sons into the army, where due to birth or merit (or perhaps a combination of the two) they have tended to rise to senior ranks in command of historic regiments. Notable among these was the Gordon Highlanders, raised locally, an illustrious regiment which was involved in a number of military campaigns in Egypt and the Sudan from 1882 until about 1899.
With this information, it’s not difficult to imagine a young army officer returning to the family estate after a tour of duty bearing a trunkful of souvenirs (or loot) including a colourful processional banner bearing an Arabic inscription. It’s also not difficult to imagine his mother murmuring “that’s nice, dear”, and having a servant remove it immediately to the attic.
That’s my conjecture about provenance – and I realise, shamefacedly, that my musings add nothing whatsoever to the authoritative opinions of the experts who I consulted. Indeed I don’t and won’t know anything more about khayamiya in general or about my example in particular than what I have summarised in the bullet points above.
It’s a large field and I have arrived at the very edge of it and have been given an intriguing glimpse inside. But that’s it. I don’t intend to take it any further. Fascinating as it is, I’m too busy with other stuff, and have too many other interests, and don’t have access to other specimens for comparison and study. There’s no market for these objects in Scotland and you won’t find them in charity shops. There’s no space for it on my wall, and if there were I’d worry about the effects of sunlight and dust and moths. I’m privileged to have come into possession of a lovely object, and I feel very pleased to have owned it and handled it and learned something about it. But it doesn’t fit into my collections or my surroundings and will have to be moved on.
My intention is to offer to donate it to a museum. But even though it appears to be Scotland’s first khedival khayamiya, I don’t know if it will be thought significant enough to be accepted into a Scottish museum collection. I’ll keep you posted.