Rather than the land of milk and honey, Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, can unabashedly be called the land of dates and olives. Perhaps most known for its rich past as the seat of the famed oracle that advised Alexander the Great more than two millennia ago, Siwa is now visited not only for its historical relevance, but also for its visually stunning landscape (endless white sand dunes surround), burgeoning environmentally friendly hotel scene, and local, traditional crafts, which, for the last decade, have started to be revived by Siwa Creations.
Siwa’s craft production has been historically integral to its culture and economy. While some cotton and silk textiles used in the Siwa community were handwoven in Kerdasa, a village fifteen kilometers southwest of Cairo, and transported to Siwa Oasis (a tradition that continues today, minus the camel caravan), many handcrafted objects, including textiles, silver wares, and baskets, among others, were both produced and embellished on the oasis itself, due to its relative geographic isolation.
When Captain C. V. B. Stanley wrote about his visit to Siwa in a 1912 issue of the Journal of the Royal African Society, he commented on the yellow, green, and red silk embroidery that “prettily” adorned the traditional dress of Siwan women, who have also been the skilled hands behind this needle art within the oasis. Embroidery has long been an integral, women-dominated piece of the Siwa’s design culture—such ceremonial garments as the wedding dress are covered in multi-colored silk embroidery, and even the previously mentioned textiles woven in Kerdasa were often decorated with embroidery after their arrival in Siwa. Recognizing its importance within Siwan culture, embroidery was also the first skill that Siwa Creations began to preserve in 2001 with a group of fifty-five Siwan women, five elders teaching time-honored techniques to the other women and girls.
Reviving traditional, Siwan crafts and design techniques, however, was just one goal of the organization, which started as an initiative of the Cairo-based environmental consulting and investment firm, Environmental Quality International (EQI) and is led by Laila Neamatalla. Siwa Creations also aimed to revive a very specific arena of opportunity for Siwan women to actively contribute to the local economy, as well as Egypt’s powerful design culture, while simultaneously gaining financial empowerment.
Today, hundreds of female artisans have participated in the project, and the current number of active artisans hovers around ninety-five. The products created by the artisans of Siwa Creations, which comprise a line of home and fashion textiles and accessories, range from embroidered shawls and cushion covers to exquisite jewelry—utilizing skills that had been passed down from generation to generation.
In addition to local design techniques, Siwa Creations also utilizes local materials (for example, amber beads from the Cairo souk, Khan El Khalili, and fine cotton threads), often in unique combinations in the production of their collection. Galabeyas (traditional, floor-length garments worn by both men and women in Egypt) are updated with embroidered whirling dervishes. Silver bracelets are inlaid with stitched leather. Hand embroidery adds layers of depth to a vibrant and contemporary orange and pink dress.
One bracelet, which combines sterling silver with small shells from the Red Sea, speaks to the way the artisans of Siwa Creations have skillfully—and beautifully—meshed organic forms and materials into their hand-touched designs, merging humans and nature much like the Siwa Oasis itself, a reminder of man’s presence sitting peacefully in the vast desert.
For more information about Siwa Creations, visit http://www.siwa.com/SiwaCreations.html.