Pottery was first produced in the Stone Age. If early manifestations were rather crude, as civilisation became more sophisticated pottery became not only more elegant but widespread. Indeed, one cannot imagine ancient trade around the Middle East without pottery. Shards of pottery can be found in most human settlements from Roman times forward.
In her book, Common Pottery in Egypt and the Memory of Egyptian Civilisation (Al-Fokhkhar Al-Shaabi fi Masr wa Zakerat Al-Hadara Al-Masria), Iman Mahran says that the oldest pottery making sites in Egypt are those found in the pre-dynastic sites of Naggada, Al-Badari, and Al-Emari.
Ancient Egyptians so believed in the power of the potter that they pictured Khnum, the Nile deity, creating children from clay at his potter’s wheel.
During her research in Egypt in the 1920’s, Oxford-educated researcher Winifred Blackman documented a wealth of information about the customs and beliefs connected with pottery making.
The man who works in pottery is called fakharani (after the word fokhkhar, meaning pottery). An experienced fakharani knows what shapes are in demand and in which season. He must be able to produce the shape of jars used during birth celebrations, the incense burner over which the mother has to step in subu, the celebration held on the seventh day after the birth of a baby.
He can fashion jars that look like horses and roosters. And he can make fruit basins embellished with human faces. Fakharanis often keep the secrets of the trade in the family. To be a fakharani you have to come from a pottery making family.
If you remember the old drinking jar, called zir, you’ll see that it has a conic bottom, which means that to keep it upright it has to sit on a metal contraption that is circular at the top. The design allows for better cooling and cleansing of the water, and has been also used by the Greeks and the Romans.
Because pottery was used intensively as a foot carrying container in ancient times, archaeologists often come across areas in which the population dumped used jars. One such location is Kom Al-Shoqafa (literally, heap of shards) in the Karmuz section of Alexandria.
The continuity of aesthetic motifs in pottery is worth examining. According to Iman Mahran, Coptic pottery drew on ancient motifs developed in pharaonic times, but with enough modification to make them acquire a new spiritual meaning. Coptic symbolism preserved to us ancient motifs, such as the fish and the bunch of grapes.
According to Islamic art historian Soad Maher, advancement in the art of pottery led to the birth of what we now call porcelain. Even regular drinking jars, known as kollal (singular, kolla) were embellished with filigree work of great refinement.
Pottery objects of great elegance, dating back to Fatimid and Ayyubid times (11th to 13th century), can be admired at the Islamic Museum in Bab Al-Khalq in Cairo.
The local pottery scene experienced a drop in quality after 1516, when the victorious Ottomans rounded up the top craftsmen and shipped them off to Istanbul..
In his book, History of Ancient Egypt (Tarikh Masr Al-Qadima), Ramadan Al-Sayyed describes the pottery industry in Tel El-Amarna, site of Akhenaton’s old city, Akhetaten, which is close to Mallawi.
In Akhetaten, pottery was used to decorate temples, palaces, and private homes, even the humblest of dwellings
Mohammad Hasan, a pottery master living in Fustat, says that he learned the profession from his father. It takes patience, imagination, and dedication to become a good potter, he says.
Hasan recalls the time when every new bride had to acquire sets of pottery for her new home. He wishes the government would help potters more in order to keep the art form alive.
He adds that pottery can be made of different types of clay, such as Aswani, which he prefers, and Asbukla and Brosline.
The artist Mohammad Mandur, who works mainly in pottery, says that pottery aesthetics improved remarkably in Roman times, and that Coptic monks modified the motifs to suit their beliefs, as did the Muslims later on.
Mandur is a great admirer of Fatimid pottery, especially the pieces given a metallic glaze.
He says that pieces that came from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods were of exquisite quality, but things began to deteriorate under the Ottomans.
In Al-Fawakhir, not far from the Hanging Church in Masr Al-Qadima, a new breed of artisans is introducing innovations in style. Their customers are looking for gifts for friends or pretty things to decorate their living rooms. Pottery has not lost its flair, but it is not the indispensable commodity it once was.