Photographs by Jackie Zhao
Growing up, the word “oasis” to me was synonymous with paradise. I learned much later in life that it exists in reality, a paradox of a place where water is found in the middle of a desert. The Faiyum Oasis, located in the Sahara desert 100 km from Cairo, is fed by water from the Nile transported by a series of canals to this depression in the landscape. Lake Qarun, the largest salt-water lake in Egypt, is located in Faiyum, and contains dozens of plant, fish, and bird species. This magical setting is ideal for a pottery village to thrive.
Tunis Village, in Faiyum, is one long path dotted with dozens of studios run by individual potters. Every wall along the street creates a welcoming atmosphere of bright murals. Each studio boasts unique hand-painted pottery: from renowned Rawiya Pottery’s signature blue glazed plateware to Ibrahim Samir’s pottery that look like masterful watercolors. Renowned for their techniques, the potters of Tunis Village have created a collective personality of pottery and painting that is recognized internationally as a signature of Faiyum and Egyptian craft.
The story of Tunis Pottery began with Evelyne Porret, a potter from Switzerland who visited with friends from Egypt in the ‘80s, and decided to emigrate to Faiyum and continue her practice. With her arrival, the locals - especially children - became interested in her pottery, so she began to teach them how to wheel throw and paint pottery. Porret opened up a school as a result, to pass on her techniques. Porret has lived and worked in Tunis for the past forty years, and the school continues to thrive, training a new generation of potters.
Directly across the street from the pottery school is the workshop of local potter Ibrahim Samir. I was drawn to a piece by Abdullah, a 16-year-old potter who lives and works in Tunis under the apprenticeship of Samir. Abdullah’s work features painterly carvings of whimsical scenes depicting nature and animals that are local to Faiyum. He, like many of the Tunis potters, derives his inspiration from nature and animals he sees around him.
Tunis Village hosts a pottery festival once a year, during which the entire village comes together to showcase their work, including live demonstrations of making pottery. Panel discussions are held to share various techniques and ideas. The festival makes an effort to expand beyond pottery by including craft from any artisan who wants to exhibit and sell their work, in an effort to showcase the incredible diversity of local craft throughout Egypt.
Two years prior to this visit, I remember visiting the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, where I met its curator. He patiently toured me around the museum, and we paused for a moment at the pottery exhibit. He pointed to a vase painted with cobalt blue motifs, and told me that the earliest form of writing was recorded on pottery, before the invention of papyrus. In Tunis Village, people have only recently picked up the craft of pottery, one of Egypt’s oldest crafts, yet it’s become once again an integral part of livelihood, community, and cultural identity.
Tunis Village photos: