Cairo copper engraver hopes for brighter future

Hand-engraved copper pieces hang in Sayyed Mukhtar's Cairo workshop. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Hand-engraved copper pieces hang in Sayyed Mukhtar's Cairo workshop. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

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Sayyed Mukhtar inherited his profession from his father and says it is the kind of work that requires only a small chair, a wooden table, a hammer and several steel tools.

It is a trade based on a sense of tranquillity, where the only sound is that of the hammer and its smooth monotone blows, falling on a copper piece.

Mukhtar is a copper engraver, for many years an important profession in Egypt. Engravers can still be found in workshops scattered throughout Cairo's suburbs, particularly in tourist areas.

Mukhtar, who began engraving at 15, told Al-Shorfa he is still struggling to practise his profession at his small workshop in one of Cairo's old neighbourhoods near Khan al-Khalili.

Al-Shorfa: Tell us about your beginnings in this profession.

Usta Mukhtar: I began learning this profession from my father's brother, who taught me his own style of workmanship. As soon as I reached the age of 10, he asked my father to allow me to work at his workshop in Khan al-Khalili. He kept me there for about five years as an assistant to the engravers and those who make the patterns. He taught me everything about the profession, without letting me actually practise it until I had memorised the types of copper, hundreds of patterns and all the tools used, such as hammers, chisels and colouring implements.

My first piece came out of my hands was when I was 15 years old, and the feeling of joy was indescribable. The piece was a plate of red copper ornamented with patterns detailing the pyramids and the sphinx, which I still have today.

Forty years later I have my own workshop and understand why my uncle chose to teach me this way. He made me fall in love with this profession. I was enamoured with its tools, and had to first understand and absorb it before I began to practise it so the piece came out of my hands a beautiful trophy.

Al-Shorfa: What tools do you use?

Mukhtar: Most of the basic tools we use in this profession are engineering ones, including the ruler and the bikar, which define the basic lines of the pattern being engraved. The other tools [include] hammers and a small chisel, which is made of steel. Each pattern has its own tools. For instance, the "joharesa" is used to create circles; the "zunba" is for dots; the shortened chisel is for finishing the piece; and the "termeel" for knurling the background. There are also some pegs made of steel, including the "booz", which is used for small and narrow areas, and finally the "jella", which gives the piece its circular shape.

Al-Shorfa: Have the pieces and their forms changed since you began engraving?

Mukhtar: The pieces have changed a lot. In the past, Egyptian families used to depend primarily on such copper pieces as household utensils, which included jars and teapots, as well as bean pots and serving trays. Now, however, the industry has transformed into decorations, trophies, souvenirs, vases, chandeliers, plates -- in particular ones with pharaonic patterns -- picture frames and souvenir plates.

The reason behind this, of course, is the change in the economic situation, and the rise in copper prices, especially Egyptian red copper, called the "Qaradha", whose prices have doubled more than 10 times compared to what they were a few years ago.

Al-Shorfa: Which patterns are most common?

Mukhtar: Like any engraving or form drawing, engraving on copper has numerous forms and patterns. Often, a workshop will have a calligrapher, a painter and a colouring specialist in addition to the engraver, who is doing the work. In Egypt, patterns are mostly Islamic and pharaonic, in addition to Arabic calligraphy and Persian forms.

Patterns differ based on the hammers and chisels and other tools you use. We call using the bikar and the ruler "the carpentry style". For other patterns, and in particular the pharaonic ones like Tutankhamun, chariots, the pyramids, the sphinx, Nefertiti, fish and birds, we use steel-engraving tools for the hammering. There are also many other styles we use in engraving, in inlaying copper and in making high-quality ornamentations, which are made to order because of their high cost.

Al-Shorfa: What is the price range for copper pieces, and who are your customers?

Mukhtar: Each piece has its own price, based on its size, weight, ornamentation type and the time it takes to make it. And of course, there is the type of copper used, and its grade of purity. Prices start from 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.50) and go up to thousands of pounds. Most of our customers are Arab and foreign tourists.

Al-Shorfa: What is the current state of this industry in Egypt?

Mukhtar: The state of things now is very bad. The profession is almost headed to extinction. The rise in prices, due to the rise in the cost of copper and the rise in workers' salaries, have led to a sharp decline in the purchase of these products among Egyptians. Chinese-made goods are the most serious rival, as many of these can be found in Egypt with pharaonic engravings and are sold to tourists at extremely competitive prices.

Some workshops have turned to chemical and machine engraving, which can produce hundreds of pieces every day, whereas in workshops where engravers work by hand, hardly one or two pieces are produced in a single day.

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    نبيلة عبد العال

    2013-1-12

    Everyone is complaining about the low prices in comparison to the effort placed in the production process. The manual products that are produced with high professionalism and craftsmanship cost large sums of money so that the art pieces may cater to the liking of the tourists. However, there are some products of very low quality, which most of the time end up at stores and shelves. These products are abundant at Khan el-Khalili market and are sold commercially.

  • مصطفى محمود

    2013-1-12

    The Craftsmen Union is still under formation and is not yet functional. It has not yet done any work to support crafts due to a lack of proper administration. I thus request from the government to secure all needs of the craftsmen and pay attention to their demands so that this profession may gain ground. The workplaces of this profession are not spacious enough and are not suitable for performing craft work. Hence, the government must increase the value of handicrafts so that they can underpin the Egyptian economy.

  • محمود عبد القادر

    2013-1-12

    The Egyptian government must take care of handicrafts and establish centers that teach these skills since this will greatly curb unemployment. For instance, I took a one-day course at Life Makers Academy in perfumery. The course was free of charge in the beginning, but then it used to be delivered for a nominal fee so that enough money could be raised to support the Life Makers Academy. I benefited a lot from this course and the instructor was honest as she revealed all details to us. There were many people among those who took the course who started business off of it, but I took for my personal use. I also took a course in waxes, but I didn’t like it since the perfumery course was much easier. For those who want to know the address of Life Makers Academy, it is located at El Maady opposite the station. There are other branches which you can find by conducting a google search, and I wish that there will be many branches like the one at El Maady

  • امال الابراهيمى

    2013-1-12

    I demand the Egyptian government to take handicrafts into consideration since these professions can contribute to the nation’s development and increase national income. It is also possible that the handicrafts industry could take the country to the next level, but the government must show interest and concern. This could be in the form of establishing craftsmanship clubs that provide support to everyone who is skilled in a certain handcraft that can be honed and enhanced. Similarly, craft schools must be established in order to aid and finance those craftsmen and provide them with free-of-charge education. Also, schools must be built for those who have no prior experience in this profession. Therefore, we demand the Ministry of Education to acquire expertise in this field and support art schools in an appropriate manner. Also, the authors of the academic curricula should improve the current curricula of manufacturing, maritime and art schools. This will create competition between craft schools and mainstream education since the former are the ones that make the most profit. For instance, the profession of embroidery and knitting is quite easy to learn by many women, including illiterate ones. Therefore, the Egyptian government must do its best in order to improve this profession by creating small projects and supplying them with knitting machines. This will help the workers with their job and it is of great benefit to them and to the nation as well. Similarly, female prisoners must be educated and trained on the use of these skills and small projects must be put in place to harness their potentials for the benefit of Egypt. All of this will add to the national income and will create more job opportunities.

  • مجد المحمودى

    2013-1-12

    A long time ago, I tried to study the industry of porcelain frames in a center called “The Future” in Sayeda Zeinab. I attended one or two sessions. I learned how to make them but I did not continue the training because I did not like it. In fact, there was no creativity. Besides, I did not like the materials used. That is why I quit. I hope that the government will care about handicraft industries and improve them a little.

  • جميلة العدان

    2013-1-12

    The handicraft is an authentic Egyptian art. It goes back to antiquity. Unfortunately, the authorities are no longer interest in this field. They do not seem to think about it. We will talk about handicraft as an artistic genre, a hobby and a craft which was handed down through generations. The Egyptians inherited this talent and excelled since their childhood. It is a precious treasure there in Egypt. In fact, we are not aware of its importance despite its historic value. If ever we invest properly in this important field we could ensure an economic growth in Egypt and overcome the current crisis.

  • tamer

    2013-1-9

    I think that this is much better, but the government in Egypt does not care about them. Tourism is deteriorating remarkably and we ask God to help and protect our country.