R. Neil Hewison is the author of Fayoum Pottery: Ceramic Arts and Crafts in an Egyptian Oasis (AUC Press, 2021) and The Fayoum: History and Guide (AUC Press, revised edition, 2008) and the translator of After the Nobel Prize 1989–1994: The Non-Fiction Writing of Naguib Mahfouz Volume IV (2020), as well as fiction by Yusuf Idris, Yusuf Abu Rayya, and Gamal al-Ghitani.
In this interview, Hewison talks about the fascinating world of Fayoum pottery—from its roots in Ancient Egypt to its modern-day international appreciation.
Pottery making has been a tradition in Egypt for a long time. How well has it survived over the centuries?
Pottery was a key craft in Egypt throughout history until the last century, as everybody needed pots for cooking, storage, and transportation of food and the cooling of water. But plastics, metals, and modern refrigeration have taken over many of those functions, and the demand for pottery has naturally fallen off, leading to a consequently steep decline in production.
Was the Fayoum always a cradle of Egyptian pottery making?
Pottery was made widely across Egypt, not just the Fayoum, and there are still important centers of pottery production in Upper Egypt and in the Delta. But the Fayoum has held onto one unique form of the craft that has disappeared elsewhere — in the village of al-Nazla, where artisans still practice a skill passed down through the generations of one family, hand-forming the spherical water jars known as bukla, using an ancient hammer-and-anvil technique that probably goes back to earliest times.
Are the local techniques of pottery making evolving and are they being influenced by potters from abroad?
In the village of Tunis — which had not been a traditional center of pottery — a pottery school established by two Swiss potters in 1990 has trained several generations of children, many of whom are now adults with their own workshops, in the skills of shaping, decorating, glazing, and firing clay to make bowls, plates, mugs, teapots, and much more. In al-Nazla, the traditional methods are being applied to new forms, as the decline in demand for utilitarian water pots has led to diversification, and the potters now make decorative items such as planters and garden lights, using the same hammer-and-anvil technique as for the bukla.
Is the art of pottery making in Egypt endangered or seeing a surge of interest?
I’ve already mentioned the sharp decline in demand for the traditional utilitarian ware, but on the other hand there seems to be a renaissance of interest in the kind of local, hand-crafted, and unique home and kitchen ware produced in Tunis, in a rejection of universal factory-made uniformity.
Are there different styles of pottery making in Fayoum? What is Fayoum pottery used for?
Each of the three pottery villages of the Fayoum has its own style and techniques: Kom Oshim is known for the huge terracotta planters popular in the gardens and terraces of hotels and resorts across the country; al-Nazla produces water pots, mixing chopped straw or ash with the clay to make it porous, so that moisture evaporates from the surface, cooling the water inside; and the potters of Tunis make bright, colorful, glazed ware for use or display in the home.
Is Fayoum pottery very ornate? What are some of the most common motifs?
The giant unglazed garden pots of Kom Oshim are often fluted, ribbed, or adorned with floral swags and other flourishes. At Tunis, colorful patterns or lively scenes of rural life — palm trees, donkeys, village folk — are often painted onto the pots before glazing, colored glazes are sometimes used, and sometimes a Japanese raku technique is used for a subtle dark, smoky crackling in the off-white surface of the pot.
You are a resident of the Fayoum. How much local pottery do you have in your home?
A lot! I’ve been buying it for many years. At a quick count (Tunis, Kom Oshim, and al-Nazla combined) . . . around 170 pieces.
Fayoum pottery is becoming an appreciated commodity abroad, sold in Europe and the United States. Why is it special?
In an increasingly factory-made and anonymous western world, people are attracted more and more to hand-made artisanal products, things that you can hold and know they were created by an individual with care and attention — even if you don’t know who that individual is, it is a human connection.
Is the younger generation in the Fayoum keeping the tradition of pottery making alive?
In Kom Oshim and al-Nazla, no — most of the potters I spoke to here are aware that there is less of a living to be made in their traditional craft now, and they are not encouraging their children to take up the trade. In Tunis, yes — there is an appreciation that the kind of decorated, colorful pottery made here (whether learned at the pottery school or at a parent’s or older sibling’s wheel) can open the door to a wider world and a better living than the main alternatives of farming or laboring.