Ferka and other Egyptian handmade weaving styles are now enlisted on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent preservation.
Ferka and Kabaty (Coptic) are authentic hand-woven textiles that we have inherited from ancient Egypt. On their looms, our Egyptian ancestors created masterpieces that marked them as the best hand woven fabrics in the world.
Best found in Neqada village in Qena, and Akhmim village in Sohag, the Ferka uses fabric made of natural silk threads with stylised lines and geometrical shapes in dominant red, black, and yellow colours. Ferka fabric is usually divided into three sections, the beginning, middle, and end. The beginning and end are called ends, and the middle is the inside. Its back is called the background.
There are three types of Ferka:
The ‘Sudanese’ Ferka, with its bright red and yellow shades, is produced on hand looms in Naqada and exported to Sudan. It has had an impact on Sudan’s folklore. Sudanese women wrap Ferka around their bodies at weddings and occasions as a symbol of blessing and good luck.
The Ferka made in Siwa and Matrouh, known as Siwan Melaya, has distinguishing blue and white colours. It is wrapped around women’s stomachs as soon as they give birth. According to Siwan beliefs, Ferka wards the evil spirits off the mother and child.
The Ferka exported to the Hijaz, known as the Hijazi Melaya, is used in baby shower celebrations, and is associated with bringing a new life. It is also wrapped around the child after circumcision.
As for Kabaty textile, it leaned towards the white colour fabric that most ancient Egyptian royalties, like Queen Nefertiti, wore. It was the fabric from which the cover of the Muslim Holy Kabba was made and sent to Mecca every year.
The Kabaty fabric also reflected a lot of Christian heritage, with antique Coptic textiles featuring important decorative units of humans, animals, plants, and geometrical forms as symbols in Christian culture.
Such Christian motifs were usually spread on three different areas of the handmade fabric. The first represents the sky or a circle that represents the higher heavens; the central area contains the story of the subject to be portrayed and the third represents the ground with the number of people painted on.
Christian religious themes were obvious in this artwork, which depicted geometrical motifs, crosses, and excerpts from the bible and psalms, to the extent that some historians referred to them as “wearing the bible on your body.”
At the top of the drawing, there is a painting of Christ sitting and holding his cross, and at the ends of the cross are four animals that are both symbolic and mythological Coptic figures.
Kabaty art reflects traces of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic eras of Egyptian history. It is also clearly influenced by ancient Egyptian art. The portraits of the Virgin Mary breast feeding Christ is very similar to that of Isis breast feeding Horus.
The theme called “the Eye of God”, which is a famous Coptic theme, draws from ancient Egyptian mythology, denoting life within the pyramid.
They also built on the cosmic ancient Egyptian map in Dandara temple for example, where four ancient Egyptian deities uplift the globe. In Coptic motifs, it’s a similar concept, only the deities are replaced with four angels.
Arabs were familiar with ferka and they called it “qabati” textile or Coptic textile from Egypt.
After the Arabic conquest of Egypt, Arabs nationalised the textile industry in Egypt and it flourished throughout the ages, especially during the Fatimid era, where they established Dar Al-Taraz, which means the house of embroidery.
The cover of the Holy Kabba used to be embroidered in Tanis, Egypt.
During the Islamic era, the main centres for textiles in addition to Neqada were Debaq, Assiut, Ehnas, Al-Bahnasa, Tanis, Shata, Fayoum, Akhmiem, Tama, Demira, Touna, Ashmonien, Damietta, and Alexandria.
A copy of this article was published in Arabic in Al-Funun Al-Shabia Magazine.