Khazana's Crucible Days: Exploring ancient Palestinian, Slovenian & Italian communities in Egypt

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 21 Feb 2024

Last weekend, Khazana School for Heritage held their Bawtaqa (Crucible) Days at Al-Ghoury Dome and the House of Egyptian Architecture in historic Cairo.

Khazana s Days of Crucible
first day of the bawtaqa days of khazana school of heritage. Photo by amira noshokaty


The event that Khazana, which just turned two, organized in collaboration with The House of Egyptian Culture and BEE Culture Club, included a mélange of cultural activities that highlighted the rich and multilayered intangible cultural exchange that resulted from the infusion of numerous communities to Egypt. 

The three-day festival showcased the impact of Italian, Greek, Armenian, Sudanese, and many others.

The first day included a heritage exhibition from the Greek and Slovenian communities, story-telling for children from Armenia, and a game of heritage. The day ended with the enchanting voices of the Palestinian choir Abbad Al-Shams. 


Nubian wedding zaffa (wedding entrance)

The events of the first day opened with one of Egypt’s most cheerful and authentic ceremonies: the traditional Nubian wedding zaffa (entrance). 

Men from the Nubian Heritage Association dressed in white galabeyas sang their hearts to a vibrant tune. It was not hard to guess the words of such a performance since it was all in the Nubian language. All in all, it was a very delightful performance. 

The audience interacted with the dancing and singing ritual of henna, where women waltzed in with their vibrant colourful costumes holding rounded trays of colorful pottery containing henna and chanting to the occasion. 

The name of Nubia, located in the far south of Egypt, is believed to be derived from the ancient Egyptian "Nbu," meaning gold, for the abundant gold mines dotting the area. 


Story of Palestine told in stitches and crimson dye

"Heritage of [our] ancestors is the inheritance of the grandchildren," said Nadia El-Agha, head of the culture section at the Palestinian Women Coalition in Egypt.

El-Agha explained that storytelling through the use of patterns in what is now Palestine started in 2,080 BC when fishing cultures first started to decorate their leather outfits with motifs and patterns that reflected this profession. 

The history of textiles in the region goes back even further.

“In Ariha [modern-day northern Syria], a statue of Queen Enab that dates back to 7,000 BC shows that they knew textiles. Palestinian forefathers, the Kanaanites traded with their neighbours the Romans and Egyptians. Some murals show Canaanites knew how to sew since 4,500 BC. [They also show] how people used to wear Ebri (Hibrow) clothes. Some drawings document the trade between Palestinians and Egyptians in Beni Hassan tombs during the reign of Tuhotmos the Fourth.”

She explained that during the bronze age, the priests would go to Palestine, especially to Ariha, which was famous for their textiles and dyes. The colour orgowani (crimson), a mix between red and purple, is a signature Palestinian colour. Palestinians became famous for selling the red dye because they were very skilled in producing it. Hence in all our robes, we tend to use variations of the color red.

The crimson was derived from sea shells, the green from olive trees, the brown from tree pollen, the yellow from saffron, and the blue from a certain worm found in oak trees. 

Motifs varied according to the geographical area, according to El-Agha. The eighth flower, known in Bethlehem as the star of the moon, was worshipped by Palestinians’ Kanaanite forefathers from 4,500 BC and is a common motif. The Al-Sarw trees can also be found, usually on the front of the dress, while the rooster is used to reflect the Islamic fajr call of prayer.

Various Palestinian NGOs have made sure to document and preserve in books the Palestinian stitch's heritage after 1948.


Slovenia’s ‘Alexandrians’

“Snezinka, meaning snow, is the name of the Egyptian Slovenian association,” explained Salwa Hegazi, the president of the association, in her talk about the Slovenian community in Egypt. 

Slovenia underwent huge political transformations around World War I, finding itself on the frontline between Italy and Austria-Hungary. During the war, large numbers of Slovenian women in particular fled to Latin America or Egypt. 

They arrived in Alexandria and mainly stayed there, where they integrated with the city’s community. They were very cultured and worked closely with the Egyptian royal family. There is a convent and an orphanage that is still in Alexandria, which was in charge of settling the Slovenian community in Alexandria. 

The women worked in different fields to support their families back home. They were known for their fine needle lacework. They had such an impact that there is even a museum in Slovenia today dedicated to the “Alexandrians.”

The NGO just translated to Arabic a documentary book named “The Alexandrians” to highlight the inspiring stories of nine women and their love of Alexandria, the last of whom died in Alexandria in 2022.

Among the few men who came to Egypt was architect Antonio Lasciac (1856-1946). He built Al-Tahra Palace in Alexandria, The Train Station of Alexandria, The Jewelry Palace in Alexandria, and the Misr Bank building in downtown Cairo to name but a few.


The Italians of Egypt

Wafaa Abdel-Raouf, a professor of modern Italian literature at Helwan University, recounted a 1906 book that claimed an Italian who arrives in Alexandria would be pleasantly surprised to hear his language spoken on the streets to the degree that he would start to think this part of Africa must be an extension of his hometown.

Egypt’s postal system was first created by Italians. Indeed, postmen would yell, in Italian, “bosta” (post) when collecting letters. 

The Italians of Egypt also made up a big part of the foundation of Egypt’s first print house, the Bulaq print house, during the reign of Mohammed Ali. They provided machinery, materials, and technical expertise. 

Indeed, Egypt’s first printed book in 1822 was an Italian-Arabic dictionary, according to Abdel-Raouf

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