Khayamiya (Egyptian Arabic خيّامية Khayyāmiyah) is a type of decorative appliqué textile historically used to decorate tents across the Middle East. They are now primarily made in Cairo, Egypt, along a covered market known as the Street of the Tentmakers (Share'a el Khayamiya, or Souq El-Khaymiya). This street is located immediately south of Bab Zuweila, and has been in continuous use since the Mamluk era.
Khayamiya are elaborately patterned and colourful appliques applied to the interior of tents, serving a dual function of shelter and ornament. They resemble quilts, and possess the three layers typical of quilts - a heavy 'back', a background 'top', and elaborate applique over the 'top'. Functionally, they can be compared to curtains, though their recent roles have diversified to cater for touristic purposes. These now include cushion covers, fashion, bags, bedspreads, and other applications.
Khayamiya feature hand-stitched cotton appliqué over a heavy cotton back. This back is intended to be protective and durable against a hot, dry, and dusty climate. The hand-stitching is performed quickly by skilled tentmakers while seated cross-legged, using needles and thread. Small pieces of fabric are cut to size as they are required using large scissors. Khayamiya are usually completed by a single tentmaker regardless of the size of the piece. These can range from basic cushion covers to intricate whole-wall hangings several metres across. Large projects can subsequently take several months to complete. The tentmakers are very protective of their creative innovations, as successful new designs are often copied by their competitive neighbours.
Popular design motifs include geometric and curvilinear arabesque patterns derived from Islamic ornaments, and scenes inspired by Pharaonic art, especially papyrus and lotus motifs. Egyptian folkloric subjects such as Goha, Nubian musicians, and the whirling dervishes are popular touristic souvenirs, as are stylised depictions of fish and birds. Calligraphic patterns, based upon texts from the Qur’an, are often shaped into objects and animals. Examples made in the early twentieth century feature larger blocks of appliqué and wider stitching, though khayamiya made since the 1990s have favoured finer and more elaborate handwork.
The correct spelling is in Arabic, but English approximations of this term are diverse, including Khiamiah, Khiyamiya, Khiamiyya, Khyamiyya, Kheyyemiah, Kheyameya, and Khayyāmia. The Arabic word Khayma (خيمة), meaning 'tent', is also linked to the Persian خیام Khayyām (which also means 'Tentmaker'). Popular alternative descriptions in English include the 'work of the Tentmakers of Cairo', 'Tentmaker applique' or simply 'Egyptian applique'. Medhat Adel Emam has discussed the origin of the term as it applies to distinctly Egyptian Arabic with Turkish influences. Very large decorated 'pavilions' in Khayamiya are known as suradeq.
Historic specimens of khayamiya are rare. They were originally made to be placed outside in dry heat and dust, and were regarded as replaceable - hence not highly valued for collection or preservation. Four older examples are held in the collection of the British Museum. There are also references to Khayamiya in photographic records and European orientalist paintings from the nineteenth century and earlier. Literary references to their use, including illustrations, can be seen in medieval manuscripts. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that khayamiya have been created and used in Egypt since the Pharaonic era.
Despite their historic legacy, the 'tentmaker' occupation is now endangered. This is largely due to competition from imported mass-printed fabrics bearing similar decorative patterns. These printed sheets are now widely used across Egypt as temporary screens for special events, notably during Ramadan, festivals, weddings, and funerals, in place of the original handmade Khayamiya. The majority of Khayamiya created in recent years are marketed to tourists visiting Egypt. In the 2000s, the first international exhibitions of Egyptian khayamiya were held in Australia, the UK, France, and the USA. These were curated by Jenny Bowker, an Australian quiltmaker and teacher.
Khayamiya in Contemporary Art
The Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr features Khayamiya-inspired aspects in his contemporary mixed-media artwork. Susan Hefuna's installation "I Love Egypt!" (featured in the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012) also applies Khayamiya within the context of contemporary installation art. From 2009, the Egyptian artist Hani el-Masri collaborated with the Tentmakers to produce a 5m x 8m interpretation of the One Thousand and One Nights. The Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi has also collaborated with the Tentmakers of Cairo to create large calligraphic banners, such as his Invisible Masters series. As Koraïchi stated in 2011:
- "When we talk about an Islamic craft tradition, we're not talking about the art of the 19th century that took place in an artist's studio and on canvas. Here we're talking about things that come out of everyday life... It's not a world in which the artist lives apart."
- The culture of the artisan - still present, but steadily disappearing in the streets of Koraichi's native Algeria and surrounding Maghreb countries - offers an insight into how art can be drawn directly from a day-to-day world, yet heightened by the dedication of craft. "If you look at the foundations of western art," Koraichi continued, "it was based on a whole tradition of craft that went into churches; the goblets made by metalworkers and the marbling. It's exactly the same with mosques, in that they were built by those who could work with stone and weaving. These are sources that we can clearly see but the question we have is how to take those disappearing traditions and make them present again in the living moment."
Map to the Street of the Tentmakers
This link will direct you to a Google Map detailing the location of the Street of the Tentmakers, relative to the popular tourist landmarks of the Khan el-Khalili. The Tentmaker's Street is not known for the hard-sell hassles associated with touristic shopping in the Khan el-Khalili.
- Arabesque Khayamiya, consisting of elaborate interlinked patterns. This broad 'style' dominates this art form.
- Folkloric Khayamiya, such as the legends of Goha.
- Orientalist Khayamiya, such as street scenes based on prints by David Roberts, or their actual equivalents located in Cairo.
- Bird Khayamiya, often associated with the tree of life, the Garden of Eden, or Pharaonic tomb painting
- Musicians performing traditional Egyptian or Nubian musical instruments and dances.
- Calligraphy usually based on the Qur'an.
- Pharaonic designs based on papyrus texts from the Book of the Dead and other ancient Egyptian art.
- Commissioned including unique pieces made at the request of artists, designers, curators, and publishers.
-  Ahmed Ramadan, 2010
- British Museum collection link
-  Caroline Stone, 2012
-  John Feeney 1986
-  'Stitch like an Egyptian', exhibition for the American Quilt Society in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012
-  The Tentmakers of Old Cairo by Jenny Bowker
-  Article by Rose Issa, November 2011
- http://www.hanielmasri.com/tapestry/web-content/index.html Hani el-Masri
-  Rachid Koraichi: a mystical winner of the Jameel Prize. Christopher Lord, September 14, 2011
-  Guardian Reader's Tips for Shopping in Souks, September 2010
- Movable Palaces by Caroline Stone, January 2012 An account of the history of decorated tents in the Middle East, including references to Khayamiya.
- The Tentmakers of Cairo Pinterest Board maintained by Jenny Bowker.
- Tentmakers of Cairo John Feeney, November–December 1986. Article for the Saudi Aramco World Magazine.
- Public Facebook Group linked to a documentary film currently under development, "The Tentmakers of Chareh El Khiamiah".
- Article (in French) by Dina Darwish for Al-Ahram Weekly
- Interview by Bonnie McCaffery (2011) with Jenny Bowker and two of the Tentmakers of Cairo, Hossam and Tarek.
- Photographs of Khayamiya in context in Cairo by Betty Wass, 1979-1983 University of Wisconsin database
- Rachid Koraichi: a mystical winner of the Jameel Prize. Article by Christopher Lord, September 14, 2011
- Website of Hani el-Masri describing the techniques used to develop Khayamiya designs.
- Article by Hadeel al Shalchi (March 14, 2009) describing the walk to the Tentmaker's Street from the Khan el-Khalili.
- The Egyptian Tentmakers Exhibit Blog post by Kelly Smith (30 August 2012) regarding the AQS exhibition 'Stitch like an Egyptian', curated by Jenny Bowker.
- Blog post by katiemaytoo also discussing and illustrating several Khayamiya exhibited in Michigan, USA, in 2012.
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