Arabesque: An Iconic Islamic Art Form

Authentic Egyptian Art, Witness to a History Full of Ingenuity
Medium shot for Mashrbyia of a building in Gamaliya, old Cairo, Egypt. By: Salma Adham

Many years ago, when the machine did not control every craft and industry, Egypt was the pioneer of arabesque art. Islamic civilization was known for its unique wooden motifs inside and outside the Arab world.

Arabesque art is considered one of the most famous and unique arts throughout history, and it was known as Arab decoration or Arab art. It mainly consists of rhythmic linear patterns and intricate geometric patterns to decorate intersecting motifs. These motifs could be flowers, fruits, or leaves of trees. As a geometric art, Arabesque relies on repetitions for patterns and wood and metals such as copper and gold as raw materials.

These geometric shapes convey to the viewer a pleasant sense of serenity and beauty. This type of artistic expression, meant that the artist used a base unit, a leaf or a flower, deprived of its natural form so as not to give a sense of weakness and death, and transformed into stylized forms that indicate a feeling of existence and eternity.

Being one of the original arts that characterized the Arab-Islamic civilization, its origin may go back more than a thousand years. But how did it appear in Egypt and, how did the Islamic civilization introduce it?

Wide shot for arabesque decorating building windows in old Cairo, Egypt. By: Salma Adham

ARABESQUE IN EGYPT AND ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION

The art form can be traced to the beginning of the Fatimid era in Egypt. It is said that the many wars that the state fought forced it to use a lot of wood, which was the mainstay of the arms industry at that time, and there were plenty of scrap pieces in small pieces, which were sent to carpenters and craftsmen who in turn manufactured decorative pieces in simple geometric shapes. They used these simple shapes in the construction of windows ornamented with the wooden pieces.

Arabesque was first linked to the Islamic world by the domes of mosques and the cover of the Holy Qur'an, but it spread to shrines, mausoleums and holders where the Qur'an and books of supplications were put for reading. It became an essential feature of Arabic calligraphy with the letters known as "wooded inscriptions."

Arabesque patterns were also used in wooden mashrabiya, which is one of the the most famous features of Islamic architecture. It is a type of projecting window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the upper floors of a building. It is considered a part of the architectural composition, which helps the passage and distribution of light, making it soft and quiet, allowing the passage of air and facilitating looking outside without the passing eyes of the curious seeing inside.

Arabesque was not limited to furniture in Islamic styles of various shapes but also related to the architectural formations of mosques and palaces. It was also used to decorate some utensils, but the most common displays of the use of it appeared in the furniture industry.

With the start of the Abbasid era, people were interested in science and translation which led to an increase in knowledge of geometric shapes, and thus the arabesque artists had a great opportunity to develop this art and to make it grow and improve.

"Almost 65 years ago since we started to learn this craft when we were children, as craftsmen, we were creative and popular, and people know us by names. Today the situation is different, there are not many people who work in this profession, and those who are working are copying more than creating," Ahmed Dahab, arabesque craftsman and workshop owner in Old Cairo, said.

In the nineteenth century, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul called the Egyptian arabesque artists to decorate their palaces because of their talent, so they moved to the Levant and from there to Anatolia. The strangest thing that was narrated about these craftsmen, is that the Ottoman sultans detained them after completing their work, and they did not return to Egypt which in history known as "the capture of artists".

Entire cities and neighborhoods in Egypt were specialized in creating arabesque works, which formed what looked like art workshops or educational schools for this craft, but unfortunately, it began to disappear more than half a century ago.

Photos on wall from inside an old arabesque workshop in old Cairo, Egypt. By: Salma Adham

HOW IS IT CREATED

"Arabesque art" depends on the artist's innate taste. The artist creates intertwined geometric shapes that require patience and high precision. The few well-known arabesque artists are currently concentrated in the old Gamaliya neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt.

The production process goes through several stages, starting with preparing the drawings for the parts to be lathed, choosing the type and size of wood required, then installing on the lathe, printing the design on wood, drilling and shaping. After completing the drilling and shaping of the wooden piece, this piece needs to be painted.

Arabesque also demands an expertise in other supporting arts such as engraving, decoration, calligraphy and painting.

"We make furniture such as desks, tables, chess boxes, chairs, tables, and boxes for the Qur'an of different sizes, and we are responsible for the part of putting different shells on the wood," Mohamed Shibata, arabesque worker said.

Among the basic tools for the production of ancient arabesque artifacts are wood, hammer, plywood, ivory, glue, paint and finishing materials, sandpaper, drawing paper, arquette saw, meter, and other traditional tools that may be relatively outdated.

The many colors used in it give a special charm that distinguishes it from other arts. These forms are distinguished by the aesthetics of decoration, refined lines, and graceful and distinctive drawings. "Arabesque is one of the most stunning professions one can do, especially in the last part which is painting the wood in which we try to show its real beauty. It is an art," Ramy Shibata, arabesque painter stated.

Close up shot for arabesque craftsman hand while working in his workshop in old Cairo, Egypt. By: Salma Adham

"The work does not only depend on Egypt, we export to countries such as Tunisia and Morocco in North Africa and European countries such as Belgium, France, Spain and Germany," Shibata added.

In addition to the major problems that face many old crafts in Egypt such as the few workers and facilities, the Coronavirus pandemic came to affect the arabesque industry and export as it relies to a large extent on tourism.

"Our main problem in the industry today is the marketing. We only deal with the merchant and cannot reach the client directly. Many people stopped working in it because of the high prices of the materials which do not meet the profit we get," Shibata said.

There is no specific literature about arabesque art, nor have its craftsmen revealed some of its secrets to the new generations, which means the art is about to be extinct. But does the origin of any art or craft disappear totally or will there always be a way that leads us to the precious start?