INTERVIEW: Azza Fahmy's latest designs draw inspiration from Mamelukes

Ingy Deif, Thursday 2 Jan 2020

"Places have souls, they resemble those who inhabit them," says the jewelry designer as she dedicates the proceeds of her new collection to restoring Mameluke artefacts

AF announces launch of Mamluk collection
AF announces launch of Mamluk collection at Islamic Museum

It was a serene afternoon as crowds of art aficionados and jewellery enthusiasts gathered at the majestic Islamic Museum in Cairo to witness the intertwining of art and history as acclaimed designer Azza Fahmy launched a new collection inspired by the Mameluke era (1250- 1517) and announced that proceeds of the collection will be dedicated to the restoration of the gate of the Sultan Hassan Mosque.

Fahmy speaks to Ahram Online a few days after the collection was released about the initiative at the factory of Azza Fahmy, located at the city of 6 October, on the outskirts of Cairo.

The place, which brims with the energetic rows of expert craftsmen, with its antique doors and window frames remind one of a bygone era, while the vintage posters adorning the walls invoke nostalgia.

AF factory craftsmen at work
AF factory brimming with craftsmen work( photo: Ingy Deif)

These features mark the signature tribute to heritage, culture and art in all of Fahmy's creations.

"It is because places have souls, they resemble those who inhabit them," Fahmy explains.

For the love of Mameluke renaissance

The passion for culture and history have always shown in all of Fahmy's collections, which drew inspiration from Egyptian art throughout various eras. Nevertheless, the Mameluke era holds a special place in Fahmi's heart.

"The logo of all my previous pieces was inspired by a Mameluke emblem used by Mameluke sultans to label their buildings and architecture. I have always been truly inspired by this period of Egyptian history. The Mameluke era was rich -- art and prosperity go hand-in-hand. It manifests the peak of the renaissance period in Islamic history capturing its ancient patterns and star motifs which continued to inspire Ottoman and Eastern Mediterranean architecture," she says.

Mamluk collection
Shajar Al Dorr Ring

More than half a century ago, the Cairo-based jewellery designer Fahmy ventured as an apprentice in the male-dominated workshops of the Khan El-Khalili learning all about the craft of centuries-old jewellery-making.

She then started her workshop with a handful of people, aiming to tell stories of heritage and culture through her creations, before she launched her own line and eventually became one of the most famous Egyptian jewellery designers, collaborating with famous names on the catwalk.

Now Fahmy is acclaimed worldwide, not only for her designs that rely profoundly on research, but also for the manifestation of the Ottoman craftsmen hierarchy, which had been sustained in Egypt for centuries.

"It is always important to stay rooted to our culture and art while being open to modern techniques and theories of applications. Both go hand-in-hand. We have a treasure of history right here that we have to utilise," she tells Ahram Online.

Story of inspiration

Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, pearls and a handful of semi-precious stones adorn 18-carat gold and silver pieces. The new Mameluke collection that consists of 12 handcrafted pieces include the Qawasun necklace, Sultana ring, Qalawun cuffs and Baybars-Qaytbay hexagonal bangle, but one piece holds a special place in Fahmy's heart.

Mamluk collection
Maqarnace necklace

"I am indebted profoundly to the acclaimed writer Gamal El-Ghitany who opened my eyes to the essence of the Mamelukes and the charm of their stories.

"I remember his TV programme Tagaliyat (Revelations) and the way he drew attention to the importance of the artistic beauty of these Mameluke artefacts, like Bab El-Wazir and Bab El-Azab.

"I dedicated a cuff to his soul, and inside it we inscribed verses from his poetry. This remains one of the dearest pieces to my heart," she says.

Inscriptions and calligraphy are a trademark of Fahmy's collection through decades of work, with the Sufi verses usually standing out as favourites.

"I have always been fascinated with the Sufist line of though, which I regard as liberal and enlightening. Their vision of soul searching, love, and mysticism connects with me," she explains.

Fahmy tells the story of the initiation of this collection. "It was in 2016 when I met Dr Omneya Abdel-Barr, an acclaimed researcher in the history of architecture, who spoke about her initiative, ‘Restoring the Mameluke Minbar’ (a minbar is part of the prayer hall with steps), many of which were looted in the course of history. She described with passion how she aspired to see many artefacts from the Mameluke period restored.

"When she proposed that the proceeds of a piece of the collection go to the restoration project, we said that not only a piece but rather a whole collection would be dedicated to the cause. It took us two full years, and then the collection saw light."

Mamluk collection
Qalawun Cuff

"We integrate modernism with tradition, without losing character. In every collection we have a piece that speaks to everyone, the simple and minimal, and the statement."

Giving back

Fahmy revealed that she is about to publish an autobiography for the first time, telling her story as she commemorates the 50th anniversary of the launch of her first pieces.

"I always felt that I have this immense energy to benefit people. I want my expertise and years of mastering design to be channelled to the coming generations of talented Egyptian youth. It is why we established the design school and then the Vocational Training Foundation. I want to focus more on the school and the foundation in the near future. This is how I know I can benefit my country," she concludes.


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