In the heart of Old Cairo, off the Mamluk water reservoir of Beir Om El-Sultan, Egyptian alabaster craftsmen cut and shape stones, which they have moved all the way from Upper Egypt to Cairo, into unique art pieces. Hence, these men literally move mountains.
It is not difficult to find his workshop. The dazzling sound will lead you to a workshop that has two sides: one for cutting stones and the other for lathing and shaping. Outside the cutting workshop stands a small mountain of creamy and yellow-shaded alabaster marble stones, which had been moved from Upper and Middle Egypt to the heart of Old Cairo to be cut and shaped.
Sitting peacefully outside his workshop, which lies beneath the apartment where he lives, 66-year-old Abdel-Rahman Mohamed revealed his passion for his craft. "I have worked in alabaster ever since I was 12, in Gourna, in Luxor, next to the Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, where the whole town would work all day manually with El-manad," he told Ahram Online.
" It was not until we moved to Cairo in 1974 when we started using the machines in cutting," he added.
According to Mohamed, this trade dates back to the ancient Egyptians and should be passed on from one generation to the other. He proudly shows us around his workshop and showcases the skilful work of his sons.
"We get alabaster from Assiut, Suez, Arish and Minya. It is transported by trucks until it reaches here where we cut it into squares. Then we take it first to the lathe to shape it, and then we glaze it," explained Ali, one of Abdel-Rahman's sons who joined him in 2003.
From Temples to Jars
According to Egyptologist Fatma Keshk, alabaster or Shess, as ancient Egyptians called it, was popular in Ancient Egypt.
"The Ancient Egyptians used it to make various utensils and pots. It was also used in building tombs and the floors of temples, such as the Khafre Temple in Giza and the temple of Unas in Sakkara," she explained.
Keshk added that alabaster is found in the mountains of Upper and Middle Egypt, especially in Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut and Luxor.
"One of the most famous alabaster pot collections at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir is the one that archaeologists call the Canopic Jars. They were used for burying the deceased's internal organs during the mummification process," she said.
“A cover representing one of the sons of Horus protected each jar. The first cover, in the form of a human head, represents Imsety, the spirit that guards the liver. The second cover, in the form of a baboon’s head, represents Hapy, the protector of the lungs. The third cover, shaped like a Jackal’s head, represents Duamutef, who protects the stomach. The fourth and final cover, in the form of a falcon’s head, represents Qebehsenuef, the protector of the intestines," Keshk noted.
Something old, Something new
Little has changed since then, and despite modern ideas, clients still order alabaster ornaments that represent Ancient Egypt, especially vases with two side handles and oval boats.
"The shapes of ornaments depend upon the client's requests. Some clients ask that the alabaster be made into geometrical shapes; others would ask for a typical ancient Egyptian jar – which takes a lot of time to make. My clients are Egyptians and foreigners. A short while ago, a Danish mission of college students studying architecture came by to document the craft," explained Ali.
He also noted that their artwork is sold at the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York, and the British Museum in London.
The alabaster workshop of Adel Fouad is located a few blocks away. Since he was a child, Fouad was fascinated by the artistic craft of shaping alabaster, which he learnt in the same area where he grew up -- off the Mamluk water reservoir of Beir Om El-Sultan.
"I love everything about it. It is very artistic, and I left everything behind to work in alabaster. This craft has taught me patience and excellence," he told Ahram Online.
Sitting outside his workshop, established in 1973, Fouad showed us the latest modern ornaments created by both his sons and him.
"In the old days, we focused on making the typical vase, bowls, and statues, but now we craft lighting units and trays, to name only a few. However, the Pharaonic boat-shaped plate is still in fashion and highly in demand," Fouad notes.
The secret of the trade
"We inherited such craft from our ancestors, who used to say that the secret of this craft is having three things: A tool in your hand, a long time and a clear mind," Abdel Rahman Mohamed said.