Place in the sun

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Ruth Levis examines how an ancient art is being kept alive in an egyptian village school

Ali Selim

Born 1946

At first, there was no room for Ali Selim at the school in Harrania, but Ali developed such a desire to weave that he built himself a rudimentary loom and soon earned himself a place. His tapestries have since been exhibited around the world.

"Hymn to the Sun", written by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, charts the journey of the sun during one day:

"When thou dost set in the western horizon, The earth is in darkness, like to death.

Men sleep in a bed-chamber, their heads covered.

Darkness prevails, and the earth is in silence - Since he who made them rests in his horizon."

Ali Selim, a young weaver from Egypt, began his response to this ancient poem by depicting the night sky, on the right, with the pale moon visible above the silhouettes of the trees. At dawn, the leaves on the trees are illuminated by the fiery rays of the morning sun. The movement of the wildlife signals that day has begun; soon we can see villagers at work in the fields. In the distance, below the afternoon sun, another village looms on the horizon, while in the foreground a man walks his donkey and camels to market. As dusk falls, the sun's bright light fades to burnt reds and oranges and the sky fills with darkness. All activity ceases and the only light is from the tiny windows of the houses and the dying embers of the setting sun.

In the 1970s, Ali, a tapestry weaver in a village near Cairo, came across this ancient poem and embarked on creating a visual representation of its words. What seems truly remarkable about this tapestry is that he used no preliminary sketches or designs before he started weaving - he used only the ideas and images the poem formed in his mind.

Measuring more than three metres wide and two metres tall, the tapestry of Akhenaten's "Hymn to the Sun" was woven over a period of almost two years from naturally dyed wool fibres on a high-warp loom, the same craft as was practised in ancient Egypt. Looking at the outcome, it is difficult to visualise the slow process of tapestry weaving. Sitting on a low stool in front of a large loom, Ali started to weave what we see as the left-hand side of the image - for him the sky and the trees would have appeared horizontally as he progressed upwards from night to day and back again. He would not have seen the whole picture until it was complete.

The inspiration for this tapestry takes us back 3,500 years to Egypt and the reign of the New Kingdom Pharaoh, Akhenaten. During his rule, Akhenaten is thought to have revolutionised religious beliefs by discarding the many nature gods of his forefathers and worshipping only the god Aten - the sun god or spirit - thus establishing the first monotheistic faith. Although certain aspects of Akhenaten's life and rule are unclear, he did leave behind a poem to the god Aten, "Hymn to the Sun". In the ode, the sun is seen as the original creator, a natural force that is visible, tangible and real. It is thought that, during this period in Egypt, Pharaohs were regarded as the sons of the sun god, bringing light, life and prosperity to their land. Sun and Pharaoh together protected the land.

Ali learned how to weave by attending the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre in his home village of Harrania, 16 kilometres from Cairo. The school was built in 1952 by Ramses Wissa Wassef, an architect who designed and built it as an "experiment in creativity". Ramses was frustrated by the distinction between an artist as someone who creates and a craftsman as someone who merely reproduces, believing that this distinction worked against creativity. He chose tapestry weaving as the medium in which to test his theories about creativity, because it strikes a balance between artistic creation and manual work.

Instead of working the land or looking after the house, children living in Harrania were paid to join weaving workshops. They were encouraged to find inspiration from their surroundings - local wildlife, village life and the landscape. The children's earliest tapestries were of birds, rivers or palm trees, but as their techniques developed they were able to attempt more ambitious projects. As they grew older, they were read stories from many religions and cultures to spur ideas for their weaving.

"I had this vague conviction that every human being was born an artist,"

said Ramses Wissa Wassef. "But a child's gifts could only be brought out if artistic creation was encouraged by the practising of craft from early childhood."

From his first experience of weaving in the 1950s up to 1976, when he completed his masterpiece, "Hymn to the Sun", Ali slowly perfected his craft. It was precisely the length of time it takes to make a tapestry that was key to Ramses' philosophy. "I attached great importance to this slowness and the child's ideas ripening in his mind and guiding his fingers as they materialised," he said.

Fifty years on, the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre has seen two generations of weavers come through its doors. The experiment has expanded to incorporate cotton and rug weaving and even batiks. Today, the school has 50 weavers aged between 13 and 60 still joyfully experimenting with their creativity.


Egyptian Landscapes: 50 Years of Tapestry Weaving at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Cairo catalogue, pound;10

Akhenaten, King of Egypt

By Cyril Aldred

Oxbow Books, pound;16.95




Lesson ideas


Build simple card looms by cutting vertical lines every centimetre on pieces of A4 card. This is the warp. Using strips of paper, card or material, weave in and out of the warp, then go back again the other way.

Experiment with different colours and textures. (You can produce a large quantity of weaving strips quickly and effectively by shredding paper in an office paper shredder).

Akhenaten's "Hymn to the Sun" describes many different times of the day.

Ask students to use a large sheet of paper to sketch the different stages of an event - perhaps a typical day, a special moment or even a dream they have had. Try to make all the different aspects of the event fit together through linking the backgrounds.


Experiment with methods of visually presenting the meaning of a poem - perhaps the one you are currently studying - and the emotions it conjures up. Students could make a collage using pictures from magazines or newspapers along with their own illustrations and words from the poem. How has the writer's language created these images in their imaginations?

Which poems glorify the power of nature? John Keats's "Ode to Autumn" is a great example.

Ali Selim's tapestry and Pharaoh Akhenaten's "Hymn to the Sun" both chart the sun's journey from night to day and back again.

Discuss how the structure of "Ode to Autumn" tracks the changing of the season from ripe fruitfulness to cold wintry skies.

Students could write their own ode to something powerful or significant in nature.

Ask them to write it in the second person by using the words "you" or "yours".

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