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Egypt: Weaving and Basketry in Ancient and Modern Egypt


Basketry in Ancient and Modern Egypt

by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Covered basket, made of coarse fiber, palm fiber and split reeds and dating to Egypt's 18th Dynasty


Basket making is one of the worlds oldest forms of craft, and therefore not surprisingly a part of ancient Egyptian tradition. Basketry is known from the earliest sites in Egypt. Remains of baskets have been found in the Fayoum dating to the Neolithic period, about 5000 BC. Basketry found in a Predynastic context is often of very high quality, not surpassed later. There were several words used to denote baskets, including mndm, nbt and dnit.

In general, baskets can be categorized into at least three primary descriptive classes, based on their construction and form, each exhibiting a wide range of variations. The three classes are coiled, twined and plaited, and all three types are known from ancient Egypt.

Baskets, baskets and more baskets from the tomb of Tutankhuman in the Valley of the Kings

In coiled construction, a basket is formed by spirally coiling a continuous foundation of tightly wrapped bundles of fibers which creates a circular or oval base and walls. This coiled foundation is then bound by stitching, which intersects and binds the successive coils one to another. The stitching usually provides the products unique look. In the Bee-skep technique of coiling, the stitches are spaced widely apart without touching one another. The Furcate coil technique uses the new stitch to split the stitch in the preceding coil.

Twined basketry is constructed by weaving horizontal fiber elements called wefts around a stationary vertical framework called warps. Many different knots and stitches can be employed for securing these elements. For twined basketry, one set of construction elements is active (the wefts) while the other is passive (the warps).

Ancient bag made using basketry techniques (from Egypt)

In all plaited basketry, construction elements are active and strips of material are woven into baskets by passing under and over each other usually at regular intervals. The continuous intersections of the plaited constructional elements provide a cohesive unit, so no additional stitching is usually required except, in some examples, to secure the edges. Of the three types of basketry classes, the coiled types were by far the most commonly produced in ancient Egypt. There was a wide variety of materials used to produce baskets produced by the ancient Egyptians.

The leaves of the date palm (Phoenix dactilifera) and the dom plam (Hyphaene thebaica) were most commonly used, particularly in plaited baskets and for wrapping and stitching the foundation elements in coiled basketry. Leaf-based fibers from palms were also used as a basic material to form the foundation bundles of coiled baskets. However, the halfa grasses (Desmostachya bipinnata and Imperata cylindrica) were a more common bundle material. These grasses could also be twisted into cordage, which might serve as one or both sets of elements in a kind of twined basketry. Sedges (Cyperus papyrus and Cyperus schimporianus), rushes (Juncus acutus and Juncus arabicus), flax (Linum usitatissimum), and a woody shrub (Coruana prateenis) were also variously employed, often due to local accessibility.

A variety of Modern Egyptian Baskets

In ancient Egypt, baskets were made in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There were oval and circular body forms that were particularly common, some having lids made to match, and sometimes even carrying loops to ease handling. Other than their essential functional role, the craft of basket making also allowed a wide degree of artistic expression in terms of construction and decoration. The patterning of the various constructional elements could be manipulated in order to produce not only useful containers but also objects that were aesthetically pleasing. Smooth, rounded lines and graceful reinforcement ribs, for example can be seen in many surviving examples of ancient Egyptian coiled basketry.

Egyptian baskets were frequently adorned with ornamental or colored stitching or with plaiting incorporated into the constructional design. Geometric patterns, such as Van Dyke and checkered, were very common, and animal designs can also sometimes be seen. Black, red and white pigments were frequently used to color such designs through painted or dyed stitching, plaits or threads.

A variety of Modern Egyptian Baskets

There is little difficulty in finding evidence of the use of baskets in the daily life of ancient Egyptians. Besides the many surviving examples, numerous artistic depictions of baskets can be found in tombs and on other monuments, which demonstrate their vast range of utility.

Besides containers, other objects were also produced using basket making techniques. Mats are one example, which were constructed by the binding of plant materials with string or by plaiting. Much of the same plant material used for making baskets were also used for matting.

Baskets, which are both lightweight and unbreakable, served either as versatile storage and transportation containers for food and other goods, or as tools used for moving earth during construction processes. Flat plaited mats provided flooring and roofing in mud-brick homes and also served as wrapping material, among numerous other uses. However, basketry techniques were also employed to make such items as grain silos, made of coiled straw or plaited reeds, clothing such as sandals, furniture and even river rafts.

Modern Window shade matting from Egypt

Matting, besides providing floor coverings and a place to sit, could be used in the construction of bed frames, window covers, door covers and according to Herodotus, even ship sails, especially in the earliest of times. Later, in dynastic building, earlier construction using matting was frequently duplicated in stone.

Like most folk art, basketry is stylistically conservative, changing little over the centuries. According to Willeke Wendrich who made comparative studies of basketry in a Nubian and an Egyptian region:


It appears that Egypt enjoys a strong regional continuity. Basketry from New Kingdom Middle Egypt (ca. 1350 BCE) has more features in common with present-day basketry from Middle Egypt than with ancient basketry from Nubia. Similarly, there is a clear continuity between ancient and modern Nubian basketry.

Today, baskets in Egypt are made much the same way they were in ancient times, using many of the same materials. One can really find some beautiful baskets originating from the Nubians in Aswan. One of the most common styles is the round, flattish cone used for serving and protecting food, which some people make into elegant sun hats.However, there are also many different shapes and sizes of baskets, bags, matting and other modern products available.

A basket ventor in Cairo

Most pedestrians can find highly utilitarian baskets packed on donkey carts on many Cairo street corners. These usually come from Fayoum, where they are cheaper and there is more variety.

I learned the craft from my father who learned it from his father a long time ago in Aswan, and it has been my passion ever since. I felt a very strong respect toward my father because of his proficiency, and I wanted to keep the same quality he produces," said Am Kamal, a 63 year-old man selling baskets from a cart in Cairo. "Now I have three children and I am very happy that my older daughter has inherited the craft from me and is interested in continuing this work after I am gone, he added.

Producing a final basket take several hours and maybe days to create but the more a person makes, the faster he becomes. Basketry involves a great deal of concentration. It needs a lot of attentiveness and a soft touch on the materials because its very fragile. You have to be very patient, to avoid ruining the piece, Kamal tells us.

A variety of Modern Egyptian Baskets



"For almost 35 years, basketry has been simply more than just a career, its also a hobby. I used to make baskets in my village for my friends and family, but then I thought that I should concentrate on making it a career so I can make a living from what I enjoy," said Am Kamal. "Making something beautiful with my hands gives me great satisfaction."

It is easy to see that Kamal really loves what he does. He speaks about the basketry works as warmly and proudly as people speak about their children. Those creations are very much like his children. Each of the baskets and mats are unique, and almost all of them have their own stories. "I can make anything you want; baskets, bags, mats, table ... even a whole house, if you just have enough money."

While the impact of modern Cairo on Egyptians is easily recognizable, they nevertheless still choose to keep their heritage and continue to love items made by weaving within their household. For some, it has even become an art form. Ahmed Askalany uses basket weaving techniques for his innovative art work.

One final factor. Of course, when purchasing a basket in Egypt, due to the variety, prices can have a wide range. However, being mostly labor intensive, they are very affordable for tourists.

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References:


Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Life of the Ancient Egyptians

Strouhal, Eugen

1992

University of Oklahoma Press

ISBN 0-8061-2475-x

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Valley of the Kings

Weeks, Kent R.

2001

Friedman/Fairfax

ISBN 1-5866-3295-7

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last updated: June 8th, 2011

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