Tricks of the Trade:
Purchasing Egyptian Alabaster
Notation: If you are not planning to go to Egypt, you can still purchase fine, hand carved alabaster as well as "oriental alabaster in our on-line store, the Virtual Khan el-Khalili.
The use of alabaster in Egypt dates well back into the Pharaonic period of Egyptian history, and this is very evident when one visits the temples, tombs and museums in Egypt. New pieces of alabaster from ancient Egypt seem to turn up constantly.
The ancient pharaohs used this wonderful material for many purposes, including household items, ritual objects, and for a number of different funerary purposes such as sarcophaguses and canopic equipment. Some of the finest ancient artifacts made from alabaster can be found in the Tutankhamun collection of the Egyptian museum, where we find a variety of different items made from this material.
However, after the end of the pharaonic period, little mention is made of alabaster until the time of Mohamed Ali Basha, who used it to adorn his mosque at the Citadel. Known today as the Mohamed Ali Mosque, it is also frequently referred to also as the Alabaster Mosque. Its construction was begun in 1830 under the Turkish engineer, Yousef Boshnak, and but was completed after that sultans death by his son, Abbas I.
"Alabaster is a fine-grained, massive, translucent variety of gypsum, a hydrous calcium sulphate. It is pure white or streaked with reddish brown. Like all other forms of gypsum, alabaster forms by the evaporation of bedded deposits that are precipitated mainly from evaporating seawater. It is soft enough to be scratched with a fingernail and hence it is easily broken, soiled, and weathered. Because of its softness, alabaster is often carved for statuary and other decorative purposes. The often-used term "Oriental Alabaster" is a misnomer and actually refers to marble, a calcium carbonate, whereas gypsum is a calcium sulphate.
So we do know two different kinds of Alabaster, including the gypsum kind, which is used mainly for pure hand-made products and the "Oriental Alabaster" which is a much harder stone, similar to marble, and which today is only used for machine-made products."1
However, what's in a name? Even Egyptologists refer to "Oriental alabaster" (marble) as alabaster, and it was this material that was extensively used by the Egyptians in sarcophagi, in the linings of tombs, in the walls and ceilings of temples, and in vases and sacrificial vessels.
Machined alabaster on the left, and hand carved alabaster on the right side
In Egypt alabaster is found in two places, a few miles behind the Valley of the Kings in Luxor (ancient Thebes) and the Malawi area . Some Alabaster factories in Luxor and Aswan prefer to get their Alabaster material from Malawi because they can use trucks for transportation, but the road to the area behind the Valley of the Kings is not good enough for trucks to transport the stone, so they still use horses or donkey drawn carts. However, each vein of alabaster has its own unique color and characteristic. It is found in nature in bulky, irregular shapes, in different sizes and at variable depths, mixed with other materials like marls or clay which protect the alabaster from other exterior agents.
The handmade alabaster objects are almost always very thin, lighter in weight, waxy feeling with a matte finish (not shiny). Hand artisans can only achieve this thinness of the product, not machines. Its colors range from pure white to a rich creamy white, and sometimes streaked with various hues of warm, rusty reds. Always ask to have the pieces you are looking at held to a light to see the true natural beauty of the colors and patterns. It comes in various sizes and shapes of pots, vases, cups, bowls, sconces, ashtrays, etc. Hand made alabaster is almost always more expensive than the machine made alabaster.
Though it is beautiful, the machine made products lack the character and translucence of the hand made alabaster. Because the machines do not have the sensitivity of the artist, the machine made products are thicker and heavier. The machines also provide the highly polished surface. The color most often found in machine made items is generally yellowish to butterscotch with white. As does the handmade, it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Machine made "Oriental Alabaster) items are usually more uniform and one may not need to take as much care in the purchases of such items as when contemplating the purchase of handmade alabaster items. Checking to make sure that the object is structurally sound and without cracks is usually sufficient. However, one should not be mislead by a dealer who claims that such cracks are normal (they may in fact be fairly normal, but not in a quality piece of machined alabaster.
For handmade alabaster, one must make a close inspection, including feeling the piece. It should have somewhat of a waxy feel, be very translucent, light and the color of white or cream with veins of a dark red. Be aware that any richly vibrant colored items sitting along side the alabaster is probably soapstone that has been dyed, not alabaster as some dealers will inform you. Also, in hand made alabaster, look for wax deposits. Wax is sometimes used to correct imperfections either in the stone or the workmanship, and particularly on the inside of the object, so avoid such pieces where there are substantial wax deposits within the item. Though hand made alabaster is certainly not completely smooth, look for even walls on the object, with even carving and fine carving.
Also, the veins of color in the alabaster are natural, and they do not weaken the product unless one can feel a break. Often, the dealer will refer to such a crack as a vein. The true colored veins give the alabaster a very special beauty with mixed colors, but they must not be breaks.
If one searches, most products in Egypt are available everywhere. However, some items, such as hand carved alabaster, are more prominent in specific locations. While these items may be purchased in Cairo, they will perhaps be less expensive in Luxor, where much of it is made. Beware, however, that when visiting the Valley of the Kings, tour guides will almost certainly make a stop at an alabaster factory. Keep in mind that the tour guide will get a kickback on what ever purchases you make, so it might be best to shop around a bit before making a purchases. Also, you may be given a small item, such as a scarab, which will be used then to raise your "guilt level" to purchase a more expensive item.
After purchasing alabaster, care of the item is not difficult, though it must be handled with some care, as any such object. For cleaning, it is beast to simply use water and cloth, while avoiding the use of colored cleaning liquids as they can leave spots especially on the inside of some machine made products because they are porous and not protected by wax. Water itself will work fine, and will leave no residue. Obviously, a dishwasher should never be used to clean alabaster.
An original investigative report by Diaa Khalil.
last updated: June 20th, 2011