Cotton: One of Egypt's Most Famous Exports

Buying Egyptian Cotton in Egypt

by Seif Kamel

An ornate Beadspead made of Egyptian Cotton

History of Cotton

Cotton is a plant that belongs to a family that includes hibiscus and okra. It produces a natural vegetable fiber that is used in the manufacturing of cloth. No one really knows how long cotton has been used for textile production. Scientists searching caves in Mexico found bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton cloth that proved to be at least 7,000 years old. They also found that this cotton was much like that grown in the United States today. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth as early as 3,000 BC. At about the same time, Egyptian's were probably growing a form of cotton in the Nile Valley.

Arab merchants introduced cotton cloth to Europe around 800 AD, though this cotton likely came from farther away. Later, when Columbus came to America, he found cotton growing in the Bahama Islands. By 1,500 AD, cotton was known generally throughout the world. Cotton is believed to have been planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. By 1616, colonists in the US were growing cotton along the James River in Virginia.

Colorful Egyptian cotton fabric sold by the meter

However, cotton did not achieve any sort of broad use prior to two important events. The first was cotton spinning equipment developed in England in 1730. The second, and perhaps more important event was Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The cotton gin, which removes seeds from cotton fiber, made it possible to supply large quantities of cotton fiber to the fast growing textile industry. Within 10 years, the value of the US cotton crop rose from $150,000 to more than $8 million dollars each year. However, events in the US, namely the Civil War, would have a significant impact on US cotton production, which in turn would have a very direct and important impact on Egypt.

History of Cotton in Egypt

Mohammed Ali

Although some scholars argue that cotton was planted in Egypt thousands of years ago, it is almost certain that the high quality Egyptian cotton that is so popular around the world now was not known to the ancient Egyptians.

Irregardless of whether cotton was present in more ancient times, it was Mohammed Ali, often referred to as the founder of modern Egypt, who introduced, in 1822, the commercial production of cotton in Egypt. Indeed, Egypt already had a native cotton, known as baladi, prior to 1822, but what was desperately needed by the cotton mills of Europe was a superior quality of cotton which could stand ginning and milling and emerge strong enough and with a staple fine enough to be woven into high quality cloth.

Between 1818 and 1819, a Frenchman named Jumel, who had been to America and knew something about cotton, tried to persuade Mohammed Ali that an Ethiopian cotton called Maho, after a Turkish bey who grew it in his garden, could revolutionize the whole agricultural output of Egypt. Though Mohammed Ali wasn't convinced, Jamel and a local merchant planted a plot of the Maho cotton nearby the Heliopolis obelisk By 1820 they had shipped three bales of it to Trieste, which convinced Mohammed Ali enough to put Jamel in charge of his own cotton plantations.

In 1822 some Americans arrived in Cairo to show Mohammed Ali a "Whitney Saw-gin" cotton gin, but he chose instead to buy a roller gin. However, that machine did not work for the Egyptians, because the fellah's (peasant) hands and feet were cheaper. Though the introduction of cotton hardly went smoothly in Egypt, Mohammed Ali nevertheless saw in it the gold mine he had been seeking. All cotton in Egypt belonged to him, and he began to extend the crop all over the Delta. Mohammed Ali began to sell the whole crop each year at a fixed price, and capital flowed into Egypt.

What this gradual concentration on a single crop eventually did to Egypt's economy can hardly be measured even today. It was not simply a commodity, because it created a new European interest in possessing Egypt, and it began the process of turning Egypt into a single crop colonial country, tied as a source of raw material to the apron strings of European manufacturing. However, at this point, it was Mohammed Ali himself who controlled the huge sums of cash that the cotton generated.

A gin machine in Egypt some years ago

However, it was cotton that also brought the credit system to Cairo. European banks enticed Mohammad Ali and his successors to borrow, and often at exorbitant rates of interest. It seems that they needed more money than the cotton generated in order to industrialize and modernize Egypt.

This went on for some time, and the country of Egypt was modernized to a significant extent. And even though Egypt had gotten itself into debt with the Europeans, it was perhaps a manageable burden.

A modern cotton production facility in Egypt

However, the American Civil War erupted in 1861, which effectively ended the supply of American cotton for a period of time. This created an amazing escalation in price for Egyptian cotton. Exports of it rose from about $16 million dollars in 1862 to $56 million dollars in 1864.

By this time, Egypt was ruled by Ismail, Mohammed Ali's grandson. Ismail had been educated in France and had traveled extensively in Europe, and he wanted Cairo to rival the modern quarters of Paris. He created would come to be known as the "Paris on the Nile," and with the increased cotton exports, he spent money like never before. Of course, he also opened another resource, built with Egyptian money and blood, that Europeans thirsted for, and that was the Suez Canal.

Egyptian long staple Cotton

In the end, one might say that cotton failed Egypt, since after the American Civil War, the US reentered the market. However, it really was not the fault of cotton, but the wealth that it promised which was to blame for Egypt's colonization by Europe. The rulers of Egypt, and perhaps especially Ismail, spent more, and took out more loans from European bankers, often with terribly unjust terms, than they could ever repay. So Egypt succumbed to Europe without a single shot being fired. In 1879, Britain and France did what they had been waiting to do for a long time. They simply repossessed Egypt, telling Ismail to abdicate, which he did. However, cotton did change the face of Egypt, and allowed it to move into the modern world, though it was now controlled by Europeans, and would be until 1952. Even today, cotton remains a major cash crop in Egypt, and it's fame is likely to keep it that way for many years to come.

Shopping for Cotton in Egypt

The Shahin Cotton Store in Cairo

Egyptian cotton is preferred around the world because it is a long fiber cotton that makes it softer and stronger at the same time. For many years, it was so valuable that most of the crop was exported to European countries, and Egyptians themselves could hardly buy items made from its cloth.

However, manufacturing in Egypt has developed considerably over the last thirty years. Many textile factories have opened all over Egypt and especially in Mahla, a large Delta city south of Cairo, famous for its many factories that specialize in producing the best cotton products in Egypt. There are also such facilities springing up in the industrial cities of Six of October and Tenth of Ramadan, located on the Cairo-Alexandria highway.

Ornate Egyptian cotton handkerchiefs

Nowadays, this remarkable development has at last turned Egypt into a market for Egyptian cotton products. Long staple Egyptian cotton items can be found in many different shops in every neighborhood of Cairo. For example, in Mohandeseen, there is the Tayseer Mardini shop on Shehab street and Bon Marshe in Muhi El Deen ABu el Ezz Street, while there is also the Hawa shop in Lebanon square. In upscale Heliopolis, there is Salmeko on Ismailia square and Egypt Express in the Sheraton Building. In Zamalek, there is IMM in Ahmed Mazhar Street, and of course many others. A number of chain shops, such as Mobaco Cotton, can be found throughout the city selling Egyptian cotton clothing.

Yet, as is often the case in Egypt, there are certain centers for this trade in Egyptian cotton products. Three specific districts, consisting of Wekalet El Balah, Al Azhar Street and El Sadd Street beside the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, are particularly famous among Egyptians for their large selection of fine items at great prices. The merchants in these locations are not generally frequented by tourists, but one can find almost any Egyptian cotton product in these districts.

An Egyptian cotton bedspread

In my quest for good Egyptian cotton products at good prices, I began by exploring the Saida Zeinab district on El Sadd Street, four blocks from the famous Saida Zeinab Mosque. There are a number of shops here, but we began with the Yousef Cotton shop, which is actually the biggest store in the area and which was also recommended by some of my family. That proved to be a good lead, for as I looked about, I found every imaginable item that could be made from cotton. Here, I met El Haj Yousef, the owner and founder of the shop. When I asked him to tell me a bit about the cotton trade and its manufacturing in Egypt, he smiled at me and said, This is like a deep, deep sea. I smiled back and asked, Can you give me a few pointers so I can snorkel in this deep sea?

We talked for a while and he explained that one should be careful to look for pure cotton products, which are more expensive than mixed fibers.

Fancy, pure cotton sheets and accessories with embroider work

He gave me a lot of information. The first thing he said that if the product is pure cotton, it should be more expensive than other mixed products. In fact, he told me that cotton is usually mixed with other kinds of fiber, so one must be careful and make sure that the product is pure Egyptian cotton. Most of the cotton products sold in Cairo, he told me, comes from textile mills in Mahla, though other products are actually imported from Europe and Syria. Otherwise, the design of the product, its complexity, and how it is manufactured, determine much of the price. Note that the design work is often fancy embroider work. Now I was ready to look about. Here, there were towels of every kind and in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes made from pure Egyptian cotton. The salesman told me that towels are usually not mixed with other fibers, but made of pure cotton. Prices for towels vary, of course, but a 150 x 80 centimeter towel with a nice design I found cost 23 Egyptian pounds, while a larger shower towel, known in Egypt as a bashkir and measuring 170 by 110 centimeters might cost around 30 pounds. Smaller hand towels averaged about 10 to 15 LE (Egyptian pounds).

Pure, soft Egyptian towels in a variety of colors

The second item we looked at were bed sheets. One should be aware that shop owners will not typically understand the term, "thread count" (TC). The reason is that the higher thread count sheets are typically produced from Egyptian cotton in other countries. After talking to a number of Egyptian cotton manufactures, we determined that what one usually finds in Egyptian stores is 300 TC sheets. One may occasionally find 600 CT, according to some factories, but in fact, all of the store managers we spoke to were unfamiliar with the term, "Thread Count". Also unfortunately, normal Egyptian cotton bed sheets sold in Egypt will not fit beds in the US, as their sizes are different, but they may fit beds in other countries. Indeed, one usually finds only two sizes of bed sheets. Sheets for single beds measure 220 by 240 centimeters (86.6 by 94.5 inches). Sheets for double beds we are told measure 240 by 260 centimeters (94.5 by 102.4 inches). There are no common sizes, though we suspect some specialty shops may sell larger ones.

Yousef Cotton Shop in Cairo

Yousef Cotton shop had a big collection of sheets in many different colors and designs. A bed sheet that is made out of pure Egyptian cotton but with a simple design might cost between 70 and 90 Egyptian pounds, for a double bed. These bed sheets are soft and they look amazing. Hussein, the vendor, showed us another collection of bed sheets that are richer in design. These sheets cost between 150 to 210 Egyptian pounds. He pointed out that a brand known as Lorenzo is perhaps the best type of sheet in Cairo.

The third item we looked at is sometimes referred to in Egypt as the body cotton cover, but which is really a cotton blanket. In Egypt these are called coverta. These covers are made of cotton mixed with a certain heavy fiber that keeps the body warm.. They are not very expensive. One for a double bed might typically cost between 65 and 80 Egyptian pounds. Such blankets are usually 240 by 260 centimeters (94.5 by 102.4 inches).

Beadspreads, often with a French flavor, in pure cotton ranging in price from 400 to 600 LE

There are also bedspreads, which often have a French flair, though of course there are many different designs, many of which might be considered more Arabic. These covers are made mainly of pure cotton with a little artificial fabric to make them heavier. Once again, there is often considerable embroider work making up their design. They range in price from about 400 to 600 Egyptian pounds depending on the material and design. They usually range in size from 250 by 280 centimeters (98.4 by 110.2 inches) to 260 by 300 centimeters (102.4 by 118.1 inches).

Plush, Egyptian cotton bath robes

The last item we saw was a marvelous ensemble of after shower robes, one for a man and one for a woman. They are made of pure Egyptian cotton but manufactured in Syria. This product costs 375 pounds and it is really recommended for newly married couples.

Egyptian cotton cloth at 16 LE (about $3.00 USD) per meter.

The Yousef Shop also sells Egyptian cotton cloth sheets in various designs and colors that cost 16 Egyptian pounds per meter.. The cloth can be used for a variety of purposes, but is often employed to cover chairs and sofas. Indeed, the Yousef Cotton shop is a great place to buy cotton products because of its huge variety.

There are a number of other shops in this area of Sadd Street, such as Zehoor Misr and Shaheen cotton shop. All of them have a fairly good selection of cotton products at similar prices, though shopping around a bit can produce some good deals at most any of these stores.

Various towels in Egyptian Cotton from Azhar Street shops

Next, we visited the cotton market on Azhar Street, which is located next to Opera Square near downtown Cairo. This locations contains some 20 shops selling cotton items, and is really considered by many Egyptians to be the center of the public cotton trade. Some of these shops specialize in curtains, while others carry a complete selection of items. In these shops, one may often find less expensive pricing, but one must also more closely examine the quality of the products.

Table covers and accessories made of Egyptian cotton

Some of the stores carry somewhat inferior items, but some really good deals can be found for fine items if one takes that time to wonder about. Perhaps one of the best stores in this location is Shaheen, which is also one of the largest shops in the district. It occupies a second floor of a large building, with a variety of cotton products at very reasonable prices. Here, I was attracted to the tablecloths, which range in price from 180 to 350 Egyptian pounds. When I asked the vendor about the difference in prices, he told me that the less expensive table covers are a mixture of cotton and fabrics while the more expensive ones are made of pure cotton. The design, as usual, can also make a difference in the price. In fact, patterns

Great for kids! a  spyderman towel in pure, soft Egyptian cotton

that are rich with decorations are much more expensive than simple ones. Typically, these tablecloths are sold in packages that include the tablecloth itself, twelve napkins, and four or so table mats. This store also carried a large selection of bedspreads that were much less expensive than those at Saida Zeinab. However, this is mainly due to the quality of the products, which is lower, and the fact that they are simpler in design. Here, such bedspreads sell for between 250 and 400 Egyptian pounds. We also visited a smaller store in the Azhar district called Al Rashad cotton store. I wanted to make a comparison between the towels here and those in the Yousef Cotton shop. Here, medium towels cost between 120 and 170 Egyptian pounds per dozen, which is cheaper than in the Saida Zeinab district, but the quality of the towels were clearly inferior. The larger bashkir towels sell for between 22 and 30 Egyptian pounds each. I did like a small collection of medium towels with cartoon characters that cost about 20 Egyptian pounds each.

One of the small stores, Al Rashad cotton store, on Azhar Street

We also stopped by a small shop just across the street from Shaheen which appeared to have no name at all. There, cotton cloth, usually used to make dresses and other apparel was sold by the meter. Pure cotton cloth here sells for about 12 Egyptian pounds per meter, while cotton cloth mixed with other fabrics sells for between five and eight pounds per meter. This shop also carried very nice medium sized towels that were well designed and very soft for between 12 and 20 Egyptian pounds. Another area that is considered a public center for the cotton trade in Egypt is Wekalet El Balah. This market is located in the old neighborhood of Boulak Abu Al Ela, which is very close to the Nile River on the left hand side of the World Trade Center and Arcadia Mall. This markets history goes back to the beginning of the 20th century Then, ships would deliver large quantities of used cloth from all over the world which would then be cleaned and sold at vary inexpensive prices.

Pure Egyptian cotton cloth at 5 LE per meter

Today, the existence of dozens of small shops in the Wekalet El Balah district promotes low pricing and lots of customers, particularly on Fridays. Here, one can even find merchants with their cotton products spread about the street though must of these sell items that are clearly inferior in quality. However, there are also a number of good shops with a fine variety of goods, such as Makary, Panorama, El Batal, Reveel, and Soiree. These shops have all the cotton products one might expect, with good quality and low prices. In fact, I made several purchases for myself at several of these stores.

Some of the shops in the Wekalet El Balah, like Panorama and Reveel, specialize in selling thick cotton cloth of different colors and designs, which usually costs between 18 and 25 Egyptian pounds per meter.

The detail of a fancy bedspread made of pure Egyptian cotton

Today, Egyptian cotton sheets are all the rage in the western world, specifically because of the quality and softness of this fiber. If one has the correct size bed, good sheets and other bedding can be relatively inexpensive if purchased in Egypt. However, Egyptian cotton sheets are readily available most anywhere outside of Egypt. Perhaps more interesting is the many other Egyptian cotton products one might buy, such as towels, fine, soft bathrobes and table items. It's certainly worth a look, and unlike many other products a tourist might purchase in Egypt, there is no problem with breakage on the way home. Of course, we have not touched upon Egyptian cotton clothing in this review, as that would be a story of its own.


Last Updated: August 21st, 2011