When an art form dies, a word is lost from our vocabulary and a symbol is lost from our magical past.
Take for example the hand-carved carpentry of Egyptian doors in the late nineteenth century, or the carved masonry of stone houses of the same period.
Many of the art motifs that the artisans used tell a story of post- or pre-biblical civilisations.
For example, a triangle may denote an amulet, for the practicing sorcerers of the middle ages liked to fold the amulets in this form. A tree can be a symbol of life, borrowed from ancient Egyptian or Persian mythology. And the eye is a symbol of protection, often referring to Horus, the falcon deity whose eyes were said to be the sun and the moon.
So when the art of tinsel needlework called tally began to disappear in the twentieth century, conservation groups and researchers tried to keep it alive, and also to document its methods and motifs. When prominent anthropologist Nawal el-Messiri started researching the ancient art of single stitch embroidery, known as tally, in 2002, her research proceeded slowly at first. The art had been in decline for decades, and the artisans were hard to come by.
Then, she got a call from southern city of Sohag.
“I found a treasure,” a researcher who was working with her said. “One village with a large number of girls engaged in the embroidery of tally.” Nawal took the first train to Gazeirit Shandaweel and the rest is history that she summarised in “The Making of a Traditional Artist.”
The village’s name, Shandaweel, has a story, not really related to tally, but evocative of the grandeur that must have inspired this form of art.
“A long time ago, there was a pharaoh whose name was Weel, who had a daughter called Shind. Shind was very sick with asthma. The pharaoh took her around all the towns and villages of Egypt but found no cure for her. The priests advised the pharaoh to take her to an island located on a cliff in the middle of the Nile. After a tedious journey in search of this place, he found an island with dry weather, so he took it as a residence. His daughter was cured and got married to someone from this village. Ever since this incident this village was called Gezeirit (island) of Shind daughter of Weel: Gezeirit Shandaweel.”
Tally is a special form of embroidery made with silver or gold threads. The artisan makes one stitch at a time, then cuts the thread off and moves on to work on the next stitch. This gives the design the exact same shape when seen from the back or the front.
According to Nawal, tally was popular among tourists visiting Egypt in the early nineteenth century, especially those going on cruises down the Nile. The ladies would commission clothes in European cuts embroidered with tally.
The motifs often have Islamist or Coptic connotations, but their roots may go further back in time.
Water, for example, is traditionally shown as a zigzagging line, which is how ancient Egyptians wrote the word “water”. Temples and crosses are common, so are a variety of birds and stars. The designs are highly geometric and look quite “folkloric” today, but they often repeat ancient art forms found in Egyptian tombs and preserved in Coptic fabrics. The detailed examples of motifs in Nawal’s book shed light not only on embroidery, but on the visual history of Egyptian art.
"The Making of a Traditional Artist", Nawal el-Messiri, The Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions (Cairo, 2007).