Egypt’s Gypsum Trade
Once crafting masks for mummies, today, the gypsum workers of Egypt make stuccos for homes and mosques.
Saeid Abdel Hadi is on his knees on the stone floor of his workshop, bent over a block of gypsum plaster with a small tool in his hand that looks like a scalpel with a blunt tip.
Located on the ground floor of an apartment building, Abdel Hadi’s small workshop has no windows and has only one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling – though it’s not turned on. The daylight streaming in from the open door, reflecting in the whiteness of everything in the room, is enough for Abdel Hadi to work. The floor is entirely covered in a white layer of gypsum plaster, continuing up the walls. His hands and arms are covered with white spots, as is his face, jeans and tools – and there are white handprints on the walls, left by Abdel Hadi leaning against it.
Top: Saeid Abdel Hadi in his workshop in a working class neighbourhood of Cairo
Bottom: Abdel Hadi works using an assortment of simple tools and brushes
With the scalpel, he begins to scrape off plaster from the block and carve the shape of a leaf. These are the last details added to a large piece of stucco ornamentation, requested by a customer for the façade of his new house. Abdel Hadi has been working for almost two days on a single block of gypsum, using only his hands and an assortment of simple tools and brushes. His process to make decorative gypsum plaster is the same one used since the days of the pharaohs.
‘You need to get all the little things right. If you don’t pay enough attention, it will never turn out beautiful,’ says Abdel Hadi as he takes a break to smoke a cigarette.
Leftovers from previous work
Placed in front of his workshop are a couple of Roman columns made from gypsum, and a stucco depicting two gazelles decorates the entrance.
In ancient Egypt, gypsum plaster, also known as alabaster, was famously used to make masks for mummies, which were then painted. Later the material came to be an important part of Islamic architecture: stucco ornaments were abundant in mosques, palaces and houses, typically featuring geometrical patterns. Gypsum statues were in demand in colonial times, and today ornamentation with Roman motifs are popular in houses across Egypt.
Pictures of the stucco made by request of a customer
‘I can do Islamic motives, Pharonic and Greek or whatever the customer wants. But these days it’s mostly the Roman style that is popular,’ says Abdel Hadi, who also sometimes works on restoring old houses, both in Egypt and abroad.
The piece he’s finishing now is a special request. The customer brought a photo of the design he wanted; Abdel Hadi made the ornamentation from scratch, just as craftspeople did hundreds of years ago. He started by placing a thin piece of paper on top of the gypsum block and drawing the outline with a pencil. Then began the time consuming work of carving out the Roman motif using tools and brushes, glancing from time to time at the photo just to ensure he copies it correctly.
Special requests like this one are rare these days, though. The most widespread way of producing stucco today is by using moulds, which is much less expensive.
Nagi Ibrahim has worked with gypsum plaster since he was young
In the store of Nagi Suleiman, another gypsum worker, are a variety of cornices and stuccos for customers to choose from. He has them displayed on the wall, one on top of the other, with their different decorations ranging from simple patterns to elaborate flowers. There are even more on his mobile phone, which he leisurely swipes through to show different styles.
For making these designs, Ibrahim has ready made casts of fibre and rubber, ready to be filled with gypsum. Once the plaster has set in the casts, Ibrahim and his co-workers remove them and must only do a bit of finishing and polishing before the stucco is ready to be put up on the customer’s ceiling, balcony or wall.
Abdel Hadi also makes cornices, using casts like this one in blue
In a country where the population grows by 1.5 million every year, new houses are constantly being built and decorative ornamentations remain in demand. Egypt’s traditional plaster workers may be challenged by readymade ornamentations coming from China, but there is still plenty of work to be found.
‘When I learned this craft back in the ‘70s, stucco was not widely used in Egyptian homes. I learned the craft from the only one in Cairo who knew how to do it. Today, you find workshops all over the place. The old styles have come back into fashion,’ says Suleiman.
Back at Abdel Hadi’s workshop, he is finally satisfied with the stucco ornamentation he’s been finalising. He brushes gypsum off his arms and hands, smoking a last cigarette. There is only one more thing he needs to use his skills for: fitting the stucco onto the front of the buyer’s house, to give the impression it has always been there.
Writer: Rasmus Bogeskov Larsen
Photographer: Mohamed Kamel
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