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The Pottery Story In Egypt: Tracing Back the “Olla...

The Pottery Story In Egypt: Tracing Back the “Olla”

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Just around the corner in an alley in a local Egyptian district, you find it standing there. It’s waiting for a thirsty passerby to come and find comfort in a sip of refreshing cold water. This is the story of an object that has become a significant symbol of local Egyptian life and within it the secret of an ancient art lies; the art of “Pottery”. We have traced back the art’s origin, and we’ve also been to an amazing pottery artist Mr.Hakeem and his workshop to talk more about its secrets and development. So come with us on this interesting journey, this is the story of the “Olla”!

Discovering Pottery Legend

Mr.Hakeem told us that It is said that pottery was discovered by mere coincidence. The ancient man used to make clay objects to drink with from the river. And one day his cave was on fire, that’s when he discovered that after the fire, the clay became much stronger. From here started the relation between Clay and Fire, and thus “Pottery”.

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Egyptian Pottery

Ancient Egypt

Pottery is one of the very ancient arts in history, and Egyptians were from the first civilizations to utilize it. The oldest Egyptian pottery shards we found come from “AL-Fayoum” and date back to around 10,000 years ago.

The art of pottery developed with time throughout the Egyptian history, and each era had a certain style in its pottery, whether it’s the process of making, the used material, the final forms, or the colors. There is even a special system of classification of Egyptian pottery called “The Vienna System”, and in general the Egyptian pottery is known for being simple in form, elegant in proportions, and functional.

Pottery products had various uses in all aspects of ancient Egyptian life, such as storing grains and drinks, cooking, toys and games, ritualistic uses, and mortuary pots in the tombs too.

The art of pottery had a big religious significance in the ancient Egyptian culture as well. One of the legends of “Man Creation” says that the Ram-headed god “Khnum” -called “The Divine Potter”- took clay and silt from the Nile, formed the human body on a potter’s wheel, and then placed the body into the mother’s womb.

As different cultures successively mixed with the Egyptian culture, pottery art was affected too.

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Mortuary Egyptian Potter- Canopic Jar

Greco-Roman

We find Greco-Roman pottery which introduced the glazing layers, and large-sized pots with complex compositions and ornament.

Coptic

The Coptic pottery, in which the Copts used to write sacred texts on pots and shards, and they also used to draw Icons of saints as well. and because not a lot of colors were available, we find that the designs were simple and abstract.

Islamic

The Islamic pottery, with wide varieties from Fatimid, Mamluk, Ottoman, etc. It was characterized by the drawing of plant ornaments and Arabic calligraphy, as well as the use of gold layers. It was also used in Islamic architecture as patterned or colored tiles, and mud burned bricks as well.

And so the clay products of pottery were the main spine of ancient daily life. It was easy to use and shape, with materials available under our feet. Unlike other materials such as Iron or Wood, being hard to sculpt or rare to find.

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Various Traditional Pottery Pieces

Pottery Making

Despite its long age, The process of pottery making hasn’t changed much despite its long age; the techniques used today in handmade Egyptian pottery are almost the same as of the ancient Egyptians.  Mr.Hakeem explained the different phases of pottery making as follows:

Thinking of the Design & Choosing The Material

Different kinds of clay used in pottery, and it mainly depends on the piece you want to make, its usage, and its design. The types of clay are mainly classified into three types:

1-Earthenware: It is the most commonly used, being available and cheap for normal people to buy or use. It also doesn’t need a very high temperature in burning. We have different types of earthenware from  different parts of Egypt having special colors and characteristics, such as:

Aswan Clay: Coming from Aswan in Upper-Egypt. It has a reddish-brown color and it is the most commonly used because it is easy to use and dries at a suitable time.

Black Clay: Coming from cultivated lands and is usually mixed with straw to give it strength and cohesion.

White/Yellow Clay: Coming from “Tebbin” in “Helwan” having a white or off-white color.

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Earthenware Pottery

2-Stoneware: needs a higher temperature in burning, and is more expensive. It is usually used in sculpts pieces, and bathroom fixtures.

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Stoneware Pottery-Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

3-Porcelain: It is more industrial, expensive, and characterized by its bright white color, to which we can add other colors as well. It is used in tableware and artificial teeth.

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Porcelain Pottery Products

Mixing With Water

After choosing the right material, the clay is mixed with water and is left for some time to rest. The more time it is left the better the clay will be. It is said that in China Grandchildren would use the clay their grandfathers left for them.

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Preparing The Clay

Form Making

This also depends on the design.

The Potter’s Wheel: If it is a symmetric design with circular elevation then we use the wheel. Then the potters give it the form they want on different phases.

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The Potter's Wheel- Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

Hand Pressure or Molding: This is used if the design is more sculptural or asymmetric, by either hand forming the clay, or by preparing a mold with the design so that the clay would take the exact shape. Molding is also useful if we’re going for mass production.

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Hand Pressure- Mr.Hakeem, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

Clay Burning

After finishing the form it is left to dry for some time, then it is burned in special ovens with high temperatures so that it becomes more solid.

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A Traditional Pottery Oven-Darb 1718, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

Painting and Glazing

After that it is painted or decorated -and may be given a glazing layer-, then it enters the oven again, producing beautiful pieces of art.

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Painted Glazed Pots-Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

The “Olla” and its Siblings

We then talked with Mr.Hakeem about the traditional pottery pieces and the story behind them. He told us that every house depended on pottery before plastic became common. Millions of pieces were produced for variable purposes, and mostly they were made from earthenware. The places where pottery was made were called “Amayen EL-Fokhar”. It was usually a complex having an oven and workshops for the potters. The presence of the fire attracted other activities as well such as beans cooking in the clay pots. Also, the heat of the ovens was used to heat public baths as well.

There are many pottery products that we see in daily Egyptian life, or even hear about in the Egyptian proverbs, here are the “Olla” and its Siblings:

-The “Olla”: A clay bottle-like pot, where water is stored. The clay material helps in cooling and filtering the water, and it was usually put in an opening in the “Mashrabeya” to cool the air entering the space as well. Actually, the “Mashrabeya” got its name from the presence of the “Olla” from the Arabic verb “Yashrab” meaning “to drink”.

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Egyptian "Olla" in a Mashrabeya, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

-The “Zeer”: A large pot used also for storing a larger amount of water as a container, it usually has a wooden lead and a cup attached to it.

-The “Tagen”: A cooking pot used in special Egyptian meals and desserts such as “Bamia” –Okra- or “Um-Ali” desert.

-The “Ballace”: A big storage pot, still used in Upper-Egypt till now for storing cheese and other kinds of food.

 -The “Qasreya”: pots of different sizes used usually as plant pots, and recently people use small ones for decorative purposes or as ashtrays.

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Pottery From Mr.Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

The Main Centers of Pottery in Egypt

Because of the high connection between Pottery and Egyptian culture many areas in Egypt have great expertise in pottery making. Here are some of them:

Qena Governorate

Qena in Upper-Egypt is very famous for pottery making especially the “Olla”. There is even a famous folklore song: “El-Olal EL-Einawy” meaning “the Olla from Qena”.

“Tunis” Village in “Al-Faium”

In the ’70s a Swiss artist “Evelyne Porret” visited the village and saw the kids playing with the mud making funny shapes. Being a pottery artist herself -and inspired by Ramsis Wisa Wassef’s Harraneya Center- she decided to settle in the village and teach the children the art of pottery. Now she established a school for pottery in the village, and the village’s products participate in international galleries and competitions.

“AL-Fustat”-Old Cairo

It is a center for handicrafts in general and especially Pottery. There lies “The Potters’ Village” where the locals produce the most amazing art pieces from clay. Also in the same area, there is “Al-Fustat pottery center” which is mainly concerned with developing this art through multiple initiatives and workshops.

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Al-Fustat Center, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

Pottery Today

We asked Mr.Hakeem about the market of pottery today and how sees it.

The Fall and Rise

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Painted Glazed Sculptures-Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

He told us that in the last 20 years there was a big regression. People started to lose their interest in pottery pieces. But now the market is rising up again. Many customers love to have a piece or two in their homes. In Al-Fustat especially, the development of the area into a cultural center helped a lot. the presence of artists inspired the artisans to produce new designs with new perspectives.

What People Want

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Clay Sculpture- Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

People are interested now in having hand made clay tableware for their homes, and sculptural pieces as well. Others want to learn this art, and make pieces themselves, and explore its secrets.

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Various Pottery Pieces-Hakeem's Workshop, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

The Potter

We then talked about what makes a pottery artist unique from other artists in different fields.

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Mr.Hakeem, Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

he told us that Pottery is an art that needs a lot of patience, imagination, and practice. To produce only one piece this might take about two weeks, and you never know exactly how it will turn out. Unlike painters, photographers, or sculptors, who see their product on the spot.

When you’re coloring a piece you don’t see the actual color that will turn out. You only get to see it when you open the oven at the end. It is an intriguing surprise, sometimes it will be a good one, sometimes not.

He also told us that he hosts weekly workshops for those who want to learn this art and explore it by themselves.

The art of Pottery is as old as Egypt itself. It connects us to our roots and legacy. Make sure to have one or two pieces in your home to connect you with your legacy. And the next time you drink from a simple “Olla”, know that it is not as simple as it looks!

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The Egyptian "Olla", Photo Courtesy: Linesmag

If you’re interested in arts and crafts, you might also want to check more of our Art Articles, Here on Linesmag!


David grew up loving all kinds of narrative arts, it made him realize that everything revolves around, and ends up being a story. During studying architecture, he discovered that it is directed by a concept, a message or an idea interpreted in a physical form, and is directly influencing the lives of its users. And David is always eager to make these architectural stories, stories worth telling.

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