Egypt: Egyptian Art After the Pharaohs

Egypt and Islamic Art

Egyptian Arts After the   Pharaohs

With the advent of Islam to the country, Egyptians fell in love with Islamic art. One outstanding advantage of Islam is that it is both a spiritual and civic religion. In other words, beside religious issues, Islam addresses and organizes various walks of life. Architecture, in general and urban architecture in particular, is the physical receptacle of community life. The principles, values and teachings of Islam clearly define the appropriate urban and architectural patterns.

Unity and Diversity

As a result, Islamic architectural and town- planning styles and patterns have shown striking similarities all over the Islamic world in general , with specific variations to suit different environmental conditions. Islamic art is , therefore, characterized with both unity and diversity, that can be clearly seen in the common style of mosques, houses, residences and similar architectural design and titles of residential districts and market places in Islamic towns.

For example, Cairos markets of coppersmiths, jewelers, glass-makers, and spice and silk-dealers, etc. are echoed in Tunis, Fez, Damascus, Baghdad and other cities in both the Mashreq and Maghreb. As Islam is a religion of peace and harmony, so is the Islamic art. When Egyptians embraced Islam, they also loved Arabic that was the medium of the Holy Quran.

Music of Language

Influenced by the beauty of the Arabic language, the Egyptian artist made use of its intrinsic music in his artistic creations. A close scrutiny of the ground marble at Sultan Hasans Mosque in Cairo for example will reveal the contrast and harmony of colors, in the same pattern of paronomasia and antithesis in figurative literary language. Sometimes, an artist created rhythms of calligraphy and formations. Although the Egyptian artist in the Islamic era inherited a system of interlaced block masonry, he introduced his own system of color distribution. Impressed by harmony and music, together with a long history, the Egyptian artist using such distributions, created a plethora of lively works of art.

Egyptian Arts After the  Pharaohs

The Qibla at the mosque itself chants, in colors, calligraphic distributions and verses of the Holy Quran. With an entrenched sense of civilization, the Egyptians had recognized that humans yearn to tunes and harmony. If a noble meaning is coupled with fine melody, it will be soon heart-felt. That is why Egypt was the first Islamic country to know melodious recital of the Holy Quran.

Art of engraving

As the Egyptian Muslim artist inlaid and adorned, he recalled earlier experience of stone sculpture, gilding, forming, painting, etc.. Here comes out Egyptian Mishkas, as though formed out of the light of rare gems.

In addition to its ancient art of sunken or embossed engraving, filigree, enamel coating, Islamic Egypt introduced the art of inlaying that was adapted but never matched by Europe and Italy in particular.

In the Fatimid era, deemed by historians to be a turning-point in the history of Egypt in terms of religion, the art of deep engraving, earlier created by ancient Egyptians, re-emerged. This exquisite formation can be seen in the double minbar (pulpit) at the Goos mosque, the mihrab of Sayyda Roqayya and panels of the minor Fatimid palace in display at the Islamic Museum.

Geometric Ornamentation

With its geometric and star-shaped ornamentation Egypt had outrun the most famous Islamic antiquities in the world. This is evidenced in the mausoleums of Imam al-Hussein and Imam al-Shafiie and in Tolons mosque minbar. Decoration is indeed an ancient Egyptian art as reflected in its antiquities and inscriptions. The magnitude of such decorations indicates that they were not simply created with the sole purpose of adornment but rather inspired by the Egyptian vitality and intimate desire to express deep rhythms of life in a visible way.


Thanks to Egypt, wooden lattice work, wood assembly and lathe-turning have spread all over the world. These styles, commonly known as Arabesque had been adapted by the Arabs and later copied by Europe through Andalusia. Egypt had presented to Islamic art, al-Jamie al-Aqmar whose facade is a genuine piece of fine art. In this mosque, there appeared for the first time stalactites(Muqarnasat) that later became a unique product of Islamic art.

Gilted Mosaic

Another Egyptian innovation was gilted mosaic used as coating for the dome of King as-Saleh Najm-Eddin Ayyoub. Egypt was the first to use vaulted ceiling and upgraded the dome that later became one of the most significant features of Islamic art. This art rose to a peak during the Mameluk era. In Egypt, the dome was the pyramids cap. In the hand of the Muslim Egyptian artist, lines became more curved and softer as a side-effect of the new lenient religion. Egypt also introduced glazed ceramic and roof tiles. It further developed mosque architecture, particularly minarets that were a natural extension of Pharaonic obelisks. Hence, it affirmed the importance of both the cultural and religious dimensions in urban architecture and construction. Undoubtedly, the pre-Islamic cultural heritage had a clear impact on Islamic urban architecture, particularly in view of the fact that Islam as a religion was highly responsive to generally acknowledged, beneficial practice.

Religious Architecture I

slamic traditional and particularly religious monuments are still extant and functioning, while civil and military monuments such as gatehouses, walls, towers and castles are now deserted and unpopulated remains.

Fatimid Cairo

Fatimid Cairo houses such a great number of gorgeous Islamic monuments that it deserves to be called an open museum. Egypt has always been keen to maintain and safeguard its wealth of Islamic heritage. However, an overall, unprecedented face lifting scheme for the Fatimid Cairo area is underway, in a bid to restore the beauty of the once prosperous district of Cairo.

Mishkah A Marvelous, Dazzling Islamic Art

With the help of a rich heritage of well-established traditions of craftsmanship and artisanship dating back to millennia, the handicraft of painting on glass flourished in general during Mameluke era. Glazing industry in Egypt prospered during the 16th Century BC and further progressed over time. Muslim contributions to this industry had added many experiences in both art and application. However, glazing industry reached particularly high peaks in the Mameluke era, where Egyptian artisans developed a variety of processing techniques such as blowing, printing, gilding and coloring.

Egyptian Arts After the  Pharaohs

Through the Ayyobid and Mameluk eras, Egyptian artisans inherited and further advanced these artistic and technical tradition. Particularly in the Mameluke era, artisans beat the limit in the art of Mishkah-making.



Mishkah is a glass housing for lanterns used both to protect candle or torch light against air currents and to diffuse light evenly over the place. The lantern is fixed inside the light housing with wires pegged to the edges. Mishkah itself was hung from the ceiling of mosques with chains of silver or brass tied to handles around the body of Mishkah.

There still exist intact about 300 Mishkahs, of which a collection of the largest in number and finest in value and artistic beauty are kept at the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art. Almost all Mishkahs in display belong to the Mameluke state, where Mishkahs-making reached its peak particularly in the 8th Century AH (14th Century AD).

Value of Mishkah

This art flourished because it was badly needed to light and adorn huge religious facilities. Mameluke Sultans, princes and gentry vied for acquiring Mishkahs in an attempt to gain Allah Almightys favor.

As a matter of fact, most of Islamic buildings that still exist in plenty in the older parts of Cairo date back to the Mameluke era. These include inter alia mosques of all types, Bimarstans (hospitals) for medical treatment and study of medicine, khanegas and zawayas ( prayer and accommodation rooms for sufists and ascetics), mausoleums, vaults etc.

Due to pressing need for Mishkahs, they were in high demand. As a result , this industry highly prospered and there emerged a large number of artisans.

Mishkahs were adorned with a variety of ornaments, chief of which was Arabic calligraphy. In terms of content, calligraphy on Mishkahs ranged from religious to memorial and historical inscriptions. While religious inscriptions often comprised some Quranic verses, memorial ones contained historical and social data often of high importance, such as the name titles, positions of the principal, who could be a sultan, prince, employee, etc., followed by some appropriate supplications. The writings could also indicate the place where Mishkah is destined to be installed, such as the sacred chamber of Prophet Mohammad or other mosques or schools. A Mishkah could also show the name of artisan who made it, such as the signature of Ali Ibn Mohammad of Makkah that appears on a Mishkah presently in display at the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art.

Calligraphy on Mishkahs

Passages of calligraphy often circumscribed, in wide bands, the neck, base or the whole body of a Mishkah. The style most commonly used in handwritings on Mishkahs was one known to scholars of arts and antiquities as the Mameluke style of calligraphy, characterized with elegant curvature and flowing proportionate letters.

Since the 12th Century AD, the Neskhi calligraphic style (the common Arabic cursive script) was used as a substitute for the Kufic style as a monumental one. Naskhi-style handwritings on Mishkahs were in many cases inscribed against a back- ground of floral ornaments consisting of harmonious clusters of plant stems from which leaflets and flowers branched.

This is a common style of ornamental Arabic calligraphy. It reflected a happy harmony between Kufic calligraphy with its curved and straight lines and floral decorations with clusters and arches. However, using the same background together with Neskhi style sometimes led to interlocking between letters and ornamental plant stems, unless enamel colors were different for both elements. Nevertheless, Egyptian Muslim artists could, in many instances, achieve a fine harmony between Neskhi calligraphy and its floral background.

In most cases, a decorator had to offset the horizontal extension of the arrangement of calligraphy bands around Mishkah by placing, in-between, at equal intervals, round decorative elements containing, in addition to floral ornaments, supplications in favor of the Sultan. Mishkah often showed the owners name and logo, drawn in a gorgeous decorative style.

Mishkas and logos

A logo is a specific sign or emblem a person takes up exclusively for himself. A logo normally consisted of a drawing of a specific object or creature such as an animal, bird or flower or more than one at the same time. Logos were usually inscribed on all personal property including buildings, garments, utensils or metal work etc.

Logos were widely used particularly during the Mameluke era, where they became a formal tradition strictly maintained and cherished by holders. They ultimately turned into an exclusive prerogative of the Sultan and princes. Probably, the logo format was relevant to the vocation or position of owner upon being appointed and granted his logo. For example, a Saqi , would be given a logo shaped like a cup or and a keeper of ink-pot, a logo shaped like an ink-pot or stylo holder. Sometimes, a logo of a prince reflected the meaning of his name, as was the case with prince Aqoush (that means a white bird).

Some people would take up logos in the form of animals or birds known for their power such as lions, eagles or cocks, symbolizing their might or greatness. Art museums abound in many gorgeous Mishkas with their splendid decorations. Striking examples of this art can be seen in Mishkas still existing at Sultan Hassans Mosque in Cairo.

Coptic Art Where all Civilizations Converge

Upon first coming across the phrase Coptic art, one may think it means Christian art. However, Christian art refers to the art of Christians worldwide, while Coptic art means the Egyptian Christian art. Originally, the word Coptic is derived from the ancient Egyptian word Ha-Ka-Petah associated to Petah temple at Memphis. The name of the capital was used figuratively to denote the whole country then called Egiptos. The name was converted into Arabic from Greek as Gipt or Copt as it was later known in English as a specific denomination for Egyptian Christians.

Egyptian Arts After the  Pharaohs

Influences and Effects

Initially, Coptic art was influenced by some features of the ancient Egyptian civilization, then by the Greek and Roman interloping civilizations due to the distinguished location of Alexandria and finally by the Islamic civilization. However, Coptic art is characterized by its ability to adapt to whatever would establish its identity. Despite the brevity of its evolution, it is an authentic and highly distinct art with a marked ability to adapt to different creeds, beliefs and traditions.

Coptic artists were inspired by some Egyptian, Grecized, Greco- Roman, Persian, Byzantine, and Indian forms. But, despite these several contributions, Coptic art has remained Coptic after all. It has never abandoned its indigenous heritage or the traditional principles of folk arts.

No wonder then to see models of Coptic arts adorning many museums all over the world. For instance, the Louvre Museum in Paris has a special department for Coptic art, so do the Berlin, Metropolitan, London, and Brussels museums. These contain important pieces of sculpture, marble, textile, ivory, metal and ecclesiastic tools for which Copts were famous since the Second Century AD up to the Sixth Century AD.

Egyptian Arts After the Pharaohs

University Studies

World-famous universities were deeply interested in such art. Some of these universities such as Leden, Holland and Monster, Germany, provide specialist academic and post-graduate studies in this field. Worldwide, universities like Warsaw and Paris Universities send missions to study Coptic art on site. Moreover, Coptic art was able to respond to the contemporary artistic concerns. It did not only handle subjects from its own perspective, but it also attended , in line with modern trends, to decorations that enhance the aesthetic value of works.

Themes of Coptic Art

Historians mention many subjects tackled by Coptic art. It is interesting to note that St. Luke the Apostle was himself an adept painter. He is believed to have drawn the Virgin Mary holding infant Jesus Christ. This drawing later became a stereotype in all churches. Historian Father Vancelip mentioned that he witnessed during his visit to the Cathedral of Alexandria an icon of angel Michael drawn by the hands of St.Luke himself.

The Catacombs

One of the witnesses to Coptic art in its early centuries were the catacombs. These are a series of underground tunnels used for burying the poor often in engraved boxes. The walls of these tunnels were full of symbolic drawings like the picture of a fish that stands for Jesus Christ.


Coffins made of marble and carved stones were used for burying rich people. Since Christianity albeit widespread, was recognized only in the third Century AD. As a result, pagan and Coptic arts interlapped as the same artist decorated both Christian and pagan coffins. Gradually, Coptic coffins were made in the Coptic style, with inscriptions showing miracles of Jesus Christ.

Chest Covers

Egyptian Arts After the  Pharaohs

These chests, were used to keep things as a source of blessing. The chest was covered with drawings of the Virgin Mary, nativity of Jesus Christ and an icon of baptism. Each drawing expresses a place of the holy visit. One of these chests, dating back to the end of the fifth Century AD, is kept at the Vatican Museum.

Monza Vessels

These vessels were sold in Jerusalem and the holy places during the Fifth and the Sixth Centuries. They were filled with the water of the holy river for visitors of the holy places to take back home. These vessels were adorned with drawings of the cross on one side and the resurrection and seven drawings of holy scenes. These vessels were named after the city of Monza in Italy where a large collection of them were found.

Evolution of Coptic Art

Evolution of Coptic art can be traced in three stages as follows:

1- Stage of Awakening By the end of the third Century AD, Coptic art started to emerge. During this time, Coptic art derived effective element for awakening from the history of ancient Egyptian art .

However, Coptic art was much more concerned with the idea than the contrast between mass and space as it believed this would overshadow the idea. Coptic art in fact sought after the spiritual satisfaction and the perception of the invisible through symbol.

Coptic art had been initially influenced by the Greek and Roman mythology. Initially unaware of Christian traditions, Coptic artists drew nude pictures in the style of Greek mythology. It was only when they grasped the principles of Christianity that they started to make drawings expressing its solemn traditions.

2- Stage of Consummation During the mid-fifth Century, there appeared several drawings expressing a blend of pagan and Christian beliefs. Then, gradually pagan drawings disappeared and only the Christian ones with their purely Coptic symbols persisted. During this period also Coptic decoration, unlike the Greek and Roman art had no longer an architectural function. Coptic sculptors chose decorations specifically for ornamentation and beautification purposes.

During this period, Coptic art could create great works expressive of innermost feelings, tending to idealism. It also translated reality into levels more elevated than realism and expression is stage of wide dissemination from the eighth to the twelfth Century.

3- Stage of Proliferation As Coptic works of art continued to adhere to Grecized trends, researchers came to the conclusion that Coptic art will remain unchanged. Thus, they arbitrarily disregarded the bulk of great Coptic productions made after the Islamic conquest. However, they later came to realize that Coptic art was able to grow and evolve even under the Islamic reign. Thus, Coptic art had progressed from a folk art to an ornamental art in its stages of boom, associating itself with traditions of the Pharaonic art. Despite the Hellenistic occupation, it emerged as the real heir to Pharaonic art and could inspire Nubian art with some elements and to lend Islamic art some of its main distinct features inside and outside Egypt.

In sum, Coptic art is a beautiful icon consummated by all civilizations, but with the characteristics of Coptic art.