In the medieval village el-Qasr, set at the foot of a limestone mountain in Egypt’s western desert, pottery is taken very seriously. In their book Egypt, Civilization of the Sands, Pauline and Philippe de Flers quote the historian Nessim Henry Henein, who spent several months with master potters in the region.
He said, “The Potter of Al-Qasr describes his wheel as a soul that engenders life, and the act of potting as gestation and birth.” Reading this imbued my visit to a tiny, dark studio situated on the edge of the village with a sense of the sacred. But I don’t think the potters felt the same way.
Followed by a little boy who kept trying to sell me a woven broom, of sorts, and his sister who kept telling him to leave me alone, my guide introduced me to the famous potters of el-Qasr.
This was a brief interview illuminated by very little explanation. Inside the mud brick studio covered in palm fronds were two piles of clay made from the abundantly-available local top soil. These were covered with clothes to keep in moisture. The helper was responsible for pulling out the right amount of clay for the specific jar being made, and giving it shape, before lining it up in front of the potter.
The latter then turned the lump into a beautiful jar by carefully caressing and smoothing the spinning clay. Despite the old fashioned technology, which consisted of no more than a simple foot-operated wheel, the quiet man churned out three pots in the brief time I was there.
According to the de Flers, an ancient code dictates a unique design for each jar. This ensures that everyone who uses them will know the contents. The sega, which means “to give a drink” and is 16 inches long and 8 inches tall, has been used since before Roman times. They were designed to fit into the irrigation canals built alongside el-Qasr wells. Another jar of a similar size but with different squiggles would be instantly recognized for having a different purpose.
Although I tried not to make a menace of myself, the potters were grumbling unhappily about my presence. The room was small and dark, so I moved around trying to optimize the available light. But their rhythm was disrupted and the helper guy kept bumping into me. After the third time, and him protesting loudly, I realized I was not so welcome.
After being imbued with life inside, the pots are left to dry in the sun for several days before they are fired in a giant kiln. After that, they are sold all over Egypt and used locally to cool water. More than a historical cottage industry, although that is incredibly valuable and interesting to tourists, potting also generates a modest income for the humble people who live here.
El-Qasr is a little known jewel 12 hours south of Cairo. Learn how to bake bread like an Egyptian and stay tuned for more stories about this charming village.
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