The Workshop initiative walks us through the art of Kiswa making stitch by stitch

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 13 Jul 2021

Hajj season in Egypt still has its artistic charms

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In the heart of Cairo’s oldest market place, lies the workshop that has adorned the holy Kaba with its hand woven stitches for decades. Elegant calligraphy serma tableaus covers the entrance and walls of the small workshop. “Shawqi Al-Qasabgi,” reads the old sign that summarises about 100 years of hand weaving the Kiswa (Holy Kaba’s cover).

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entrance of al qasabgy workshop. Photo by amira noshokaty

Last Friday, the To The Workshop Initiative resumed its local tours that uncovers gems and human treasures in Egypt. Founded by specialist in intangible heritage Mostapha Kamel in 2015, the initiative aims to document and safeguard handicrafts in Egypt, as well as introducing such rich elements of intangible heritage to new generations. After being on hold for a long while due to COVID 19, the initiative restarted its activities by visiting the old workshop during the Hajj season.

Al-Qasab hand weaving style

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reseacher Mostafa Kamel and Ahmed Al Qasabgy the master of Qasab art. Photo by Amira Noshokaty

“I am the grandson of Othman Abdel Hamid, who was the head of Dar Al-Kiswa in Egypt (1923-1926) and we are honoured to say that for three successive years, we were the ones to hand weave it,” explained Ahmed Shawqi Al-Qasabgy to Ahram Online.

Being among the masters of the trade, Ahmed Al-Qasabgy’s family name is related to the hand weaving of Qasab string, which is a very tough string made of 22 threads. The Qasab weaving is a very famous Egyptian embroidery that has adorned the holy Shrine for centuries. With its shades of bright yellow and white, the Egyptian hand made calligraphy of Quran verses gracefully crowned the four corners of the Kiswa.

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A rare photo of Ahmed Al Qasabgys grandfather, hand weaving the Kiswa. Courtesy of Ahmed Al Qasabgy

The makers of Kiswa were ten of Egypt’s finest embroiderers. They would spend one year making it. Sitting in two groups of five opposite to each other, they used to perform ablution, then rinse their hands with rose water. They would recite the Fatha and start off using the Qasab string, which was made of silver, plated with gold. They would cover their fingers with leather to avoid pricking them with the needle, remembered Al-Qasabgy.

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sample of Qasab hand weaving style on royal garments. Courtesy of Ahmed Al Qasabgy

Al-Qasab style, also known as serma, was not limited to Kiswa making. It decorated the front area of the royal Khedive and kings’ jackets with their golden colours. “My grandfather was also in-charge of hand weaving military badges and that of the Egyptian king. We would hand weave the royal suits of the king with the crest and sashes,” Al-Qasabgy explained.

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Samples of the work of calligraphers Helmi and Salem Bagnid. Courtesy of Ahmed Al Qasabgy

The Kiswa stopped being made in Egypt during the Nasser era, for political reasons. And after the assassination attempt on the late-President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government stopped ordering handmade military badges, added Al-Qasabgy. Since then the family business expanded the scope of the art of Qasab to include canvas, clothes, curtains, fabric for upholstery, and even wedding dresses.

“In this workshop we hand wove the 11 meter long wedding veil of Princess Diana,” he told Ahram Online. “And we also decorated the crib of Princess Alia, the military uniform of Sadat (late Egyptian president), Sudanese, Kuwaiti and Yemeni military uniforms to name but a few.” Al-Qasabgy added.

From Cairo to Mecca with love

Kiswa has been made in Egypt for centuries. According to the book titled Kiswa of Kaba and The Arts of Hajj, by Ibrahim Helmy, the first account of Kiswa was documented in the year 159 Hejra in the book titled Akhbar Macca (Mecca News), where the author Al-Fakehi stated that the he had seen the Kiswa made of Al-Kabati fabric of Egypt. That Kiswa had been made in Egypt since the time of Prophet Mohamed until the end of the Fatimid reign.

“The fabric of Kiswa itself was made of pure silk, black in colour with same colour prints of religious quotes such as: Ya Hannan Ya Mannan (O you the source of kindness and that who provides for us), Subhan Allah wa behamdihi, sub7an allah al azim, Al Hafiz, Subhan Allah Al Azim (Praise Allah the great), La Ilah Ella Allah Muhamed Rasoul Allah (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is the Prophet of Allah) then the name god. Such quotes are scattered along the fabric, Al-Qasaby explains.

The annual ceremony of sending the Kiswa to Mecca was a grand procession, with khayamia decorated camels, members of sufi orders and the Walli himself in the lead until they bid them farewell at the Bab Al-Wadaa (The Gate of Farewell). In addition, Egypt also has a long tradition of artistic hajj rituals that includes, hajj songs and hajj graffiti.

All the colours of Kiswa

Though black in colour for decades, the Kiswa was not always black, noted Al-Qasaby. During the Mamluk era, till the Othman era, the Kiswa was dark red, white, yellow and green. After the arrival of a new Kiswa, the old one is usually kept inside the Kaba. Saudi Arabia used to hand out pieces of the old Kiswa as royal gifts for high profile people.

Even the key to the door to kaba is kept in a handmade cover.

Written by Helmy

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Samples of the work of calligraphers Helmi and Salem Bagnid. Courtesy of Ahmed Al Qasabgy

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Inner main last photo, A child trying out the art of Qasab. Photo Amira Noshokaty

The embroidery of calligraphy is no easy task. It required experienced artistic hands of calligraphers who would draw the design in Tholous Tarkeeb Arabic style, which is usually used in Kiswa embroidery, noted Al-Qasaby.

Among the oldest Egyptian calligraphers of Kiswa was Abdalla beih Zohny and Hajj Refaie (around 1340 hijra) as well as Saudi calligraphers Helmy (1365 hijri) and Salem Bagnid (1430 hijri). Helmy used to sign his works with the phrase : Written By Helmy, “he noted.

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