Contemporary Khayamiya: An Egyptian art 'as great as your dreams'

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 13 Apr 2022

Wall to wall rich textiles with shimmering colours and bold modern patterns that waltz back and forth in time, reflecting a rare infusion between authentic craftsmanship and fresh ideas in the latest Khayamiya Exhibition.

Photo by amira noshokaty


Could we be witnessing that rare moment in history when intangible heritage is passed on from one generation to another?

As great as your dreams

Inspired by the late Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish quote, “The earth expands to encompass your dreams,” the Khayamiya (The art of tent making) exhibition that was held last month in the Factory in Downtown with the title ‘As Great as Your Dreams.’

The exhibition showcased a collection designed by Markaz (A social business managed by social entrepreneurs) and Seif El-Rashidi and hand stitched by Yadawyat Gallery and Atelier Atef Kamal.

“I love this saying and it reflects the different dreams of all people — those who dream of serenity and those who dream to be Tuk Tuk drivers instead of tent makers. It’s about the freedom of dreams and aspirations that are reflected in the variety of designs in the exhibition,” explained Seif El-Rashidi — art historian, director of the Barakat trust, and designer of the exhibition — to Ahram Online.

Colourful calligraphy stretched on a vibrant pallet of numerous textiles. Authentic motifs of different eras of Khayamiya art side by side. Contemporary icons of our social history hand stitched into fabric. All artistic forms of hand-woven Khayamiya were on display.

Something old, something new

This is the second exhibition that El-Rashidi organised for Khayamiya (Tent Makers) along with Sam Bowker — an expert on the topic and a co-author of ‘The Tentmakers of Cairo’ (AUC Press 2018).  

According to The Tentmakers of Cairo, “Khayamiya are used in Egypt in two main forms. The first is as an architectural textile — literally tents — ranging from mammoth rectangular pavilions (Suradiq or siwan) used to host ceremonial events such as weddings, feasts, and funerals, to single-poled camping tents (Singular fustat) used by travelers, particularly tourists.”

“The second form of khayamiya is individual panels (Singular tark), which can also take the form of screen like bands or tent walls. This is the most significant form today because it produces quilt-like artworks for interior display rather than cumbersome ephemeral buildings. Both forms of khayamiya in the late nineteenth century regularly featured Arabic epigrams.”

The book is a true gem, yet El-Rashidi wanted all this knowledge to be an added value to this ancient craft, for he was always concerned with safeguarding such trade that is deeply rooted in Egyptian History. This rich art has a whole section on El-Moez Street in the heart of historic Cairo, for the idea came from the ceremonial tents of the Fatimid, Mamluk, and Ottoman empires, whose ceremonial tents were made out of khayamiya vibrant colours.

Very much alive

“Last year’s exhibition was to show the richness of such traditional trade, how we kept the calligraphy and geometrical shapes and colours. But this exhibition — which is more of a continuation of the first exhibition — focuses on the future and how it could be a traditional craft that is renovated without losing its essence,” noted El-Rashidi, adding that he worked with Markaz on a contemporary khayamiya that is affiliated with history yet within a different context and display.

“When I think of the crafts in Egypt, its weak point is the fact that it has not given something new, hence the general aim of the exhibition is to let people appreciate our authentic handicrafts and to see that it is very much alive and that it is not limited to being heritage or touristic and that it can be modern and show elements of the old,” he added.

Masters of the trade


“El-khayamiya-making is my life and source of joy, one that has been in our family for over 100 years,” explained Mostafa Abdel-Wahed — one of the masters of the trade and owner of Yadawyat Gallery that participated in the exhibition — as he was pointing the details in his latest masterpiece.

Though it was not his profession, for he was an employee, he would still spend almost ten hours a day working on khayamiyas.

Focusing on ancient Egyptian motifs, for decades, Abdel Wahed’s name resonated with exquisite taste and fine stitches. When asked what is left of the trade and what was washed away in time, he answered that for starters, “the khayamiya is no longer affiliated with suradiq (Mammoth rectangular pavilions used to host ceremonial events) and is replaced by prints, because it is very costly. Also, the vibrant orange colour and bright green are no longer part of the khayamiya pallet,” he told Ahram Online, noting that despite having a variety in colour of the fabrics, the quality of the fabrics remains quite poor, making it a challenge to find the right fabric.

Back in the day, the khayamiya was limited to either Islamic geometrical motifs or ancient Egyptian ones. Abdel Wahed was among the new generation in the early seventies who thought of making it on bags.

“I believe that despite the fact that there are no tourists yet, there is a lot of work. Since most of the customers are Egyptians, we integrated our art into functional products such as bed covers and curtains.”

Reflecting on their latest exhibition, his son, khayamiya artist Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, noted that in terms of designs, it was a big success thanks to the great efforts of El-Rashidi as a designer and the corner stone of the exhibition.

“The exhibition made us think outside the box in terms of designs as well as fabrics, for we worked on the thick velvet like fabrics of Markaz that were very different and challenging to work with rather than the usual thin fabrics we are used to working with,” he noted.

To follow up on the latest khayamiya contemporary designs and to meet the masters of the trades and the designers, don’t miss their upcoming exhibition, this weekend.


Khayamiya Pop-Up -- Exhibition reflecting Contemporary Khayameya Products in the presence of the designers and craftsmen

Bayt Yakan, El-Darab El-Ahmar, Historic Cairo 

April 15-16 from 1-11p

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