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.