First evidence of a lathe was found on the wall of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
The man at right is holding the cutting tool. The man at the center is
making the work piece rotate back and forth by pulling on a string or thong.

The basic knowledge of how to transfer reciprocal motion to rotary motion was known throughout most of Ancient Egypt. In Egypt, under the Islamic civilization, bow lathe technology (known as Khart) developed to an unsurpassed art form. From there, it spread all over the Islamic world.  One of the most spectacular examples of Khart can be seen in the 9th century Minbar of the Qayrwan mosque in Tunisia, the oldest sanctuary in the Islamic Maghrib

Bow lathe is the simpler and most effective version of the lathe. It is characterized by reciprocal motion, rotation caused by the up and down movement of the bow held in the right hand. 

The idea of the lathe is simple and ingenious.  A piece of wood is made to turn on an axis while a sharp tool cuts or scrapes the wood into a desired shape. The wood is set steady upon two points of an axis between two spikes (`usluwg in Arabic) "centers" held by the uprights between which the wood spins. The turner cuts on the down stroke, and then lets the spring action of the bow power the return motion. 

The two points - centers - acting together, can without exerting any force, effectively prevent the wood from slipping in any direction, and resist the rotation of the work piece on the other two axes. Furthermore, provided the points fit the holes in which they are engaged, the work can be removed, and replaced with absolute accuracy - the setting is "repeatable" and almost perfectly so. 

Traditional Islamic bow lathes are historically more accurate than electric lathes, which are handicapped in fashioning the miniscule modular beads, pared in different sizes.  These beads are the main component of the Mashrabiyah panels.

The lathe fashioned beads are eventually connected together with transitional miniature wood turned spindles, which are fitted together to create an all over pattern of latticework (see picture below).

As the craftsman’s bow moves back and forth, the wood turns as well, while his left foot  (for guidance) rests on the chisel held in the left hand, forcing a wedge and paring the wood to the desired shape.  The number and speed of the rotations is fully controlled by the craftsman. 

The fitting of the latticework is crafted entirely without the use of nails or glue.  Thus creating multi-designed latticework intended to be used as windows and balcony screens, furniture decoration, etc. 

The design of the Mashrabiyyat is purposely created in versatile designs in order to adjust the amount of desired light and air penetrating into the rooms. For example, a Mashrabiyah on the northern side (Bahriy) is designed with less density to easily allow the flow of air.  While for windows facing the Qibliy, the sunny southeast side of homes, the design pattern is usually narrower to shield the room from excessive light and heat.  Mashrabiyat also serve another important function, that of privacy, a hallmark of Islamic Architecture. 

Thanks to Egypt, the birthplace of the Mashrabiyah, wooden latticework, wood assembly, and lathe turning have spread all over the world. These styles, commonly known as “lathe-turning Arabesque”, were adapted and copied in many fashions throughout western Europe, by way of Andalusia

Meanwhile, the biggest blow to the Mashrabiyah style came as Cairo assumed a new physiognomy under Muhammad `Aliy Pasha.

Cairene buildings usually designed with Mashrabiyat were dealt a severe setback as a new style appeared with the prohibition against building Mashrabiyat ordered by the Waliy. Muhammad `Aliy's excuse was nominally for safety reasons, but mostly to legislate "modernism."

The use of glass windowpanes, a style that was half European and half Turkish, accompanied by a new organization of interior spaces that would become widespread in the second half of the century, supplanted the Mashrabiyat. With modernization the demand for Mashrabiyat dwindled significantly and the art consequently suffered greatly. By mid 20th century, the craft was already teetering on the threshold of oblivion. 

Fortunately, under the 1952 Revolution, Mashrabiyat experienced a second lease on life under the new impetus of the dynamic minister of culture, Dr. Tharwat `Ukashah, who embarked on an ambitious program to revive Egypt’s folklore arts and crafts.  For that purpose, in the early 1960s, a center for folklore crafts was dedicated and established in wikalit al-Ghuwriy. Its goal was to teach the new generations the old traditional crafts of Egypt, lest they vanish forever.

The center assembled all the old master craftsmen in Egypt and sponsored their work. Among them, the few remaining involved in the dying art of khart.  This effort successfully resuscitated the craft, just in the nick of time. Today without exception, all Khart craftsmen can trace their apprenticeship to this center.

Since then, the Mashrabiyah type of woodturning, an exquisite and delicate woodturning craft, has remained solely the domain of Egyptian artisans. 

Lately, talks were underway between the Cairene Khart craftsmen and the legendary carpenters of the port of Dumyat to merge in a joined effort to launch Egyptian designed furniture worldwide, combining Mashrabiyat as their signature. Their ambitious hope is to reestablish Egypt’s past supremacy in this field 

Below are the different traditional tools used in woodturning in Egypt and their terminology, both in Arabic and English

 © Ishinan 2005

 Black and white sketches are from the author's portfolio on the craft of khart in Egypt, 
Al-Ghuwriy Center -- © Ishinan 1979 -- 




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