Egypt’s pottery-making village an attraction for tourists
Fayoum Oasis - Nothing around the small village of Tunis in Egypt’s Fayoum Oasis, 100km south-west of Cairo, suggests the charm awaiting inside. Tunis, named after the Tunisian capital for its geography and architecture, has long established a reputation as a hub of art and culture known particularly for its handmade pottery.
“Part of the charm of the village is that most of the houses are much like those in Tunisia: Painted white with their windows painted blue. The landscape as well looks a lot like that of Tunisia, including hills, greenery and the desert,” said Ashraf Ramadan, a Cairo-based tourist guide who organises visits to the village.
The village’s charm is far deeper than the colour of its homes or its geography. It is the residents who are at the heart of its appeal.
Approximately 4,000 people live in Tunis. Some are farmers and others are fishermen but most of the population works in pottery, turning the traditional craft into an art.
“The residents of Tunis have made the reputation of their village from this art,” Ramadan said. “This reputation has reached some of the farthest corners of the globe.”
Residents have turned their homes into pottery workshops. Some use pottery wheels and others simple jiggering machines to make beautifully designed ceramics that are displayed in the village galleries and pottery showrooms.
Visitors are always keen on taking back colourful glazed potteries, including pots, vessels and decorative items that are sold much cheaper locally than in the shops in Cairo.
Items sold outside Tunis for tens of US dollars, sell in the village for tens of Egyptian pounds — a bargain at a time when the exchange rate is 18 pounds to the dollar.
“True, most of the residents of the village earn a living by working in pottery but this is not about money,” said Hani Mahmud, a village resident and potter. “It is about the love of art and the desire to do something unusual.”
The transformation of Tunis into an art hub for pottery started in the 1980s, when Evelyne Porret, a potter from Switzerland, moved there and built a pottery studio. She was the first potter in the village and trained many local children in the craft. Several of her students opened pottery studios.
The village now boasts a pottery school, several pottery studios and an art centre. It also is the site of an annual pottery festival.
Tunis is not listed on Egypt’s tourist map. Neither is it part of the packages of most travel companies because it has no beaches, no luxurious hotels or branches of international restaurants. It does, however, have its special rural charm and the very kind nature of its people.
Apart from touring the pottery galleries and showrooms, visitors can enjoy the serenity of the landscape of cultivated fields overlooking branches of the Nile River. Tunis offers several guest houses and home stays as well as a wide range of activities, including bird watching and horseback riding.
Some residents have turned the roofs of their simple mud-and-brick homes into guest centres where they receive tourists, offer authentic and delicious Egyptian food and traditional Egyptian drinks for a small amount — $5-$10 for breakfast and $10-$20 for lunch.
“There are also some nice small hotels in the village but Tunis’s beauty lies in the open where visitors can be in direct contact with nature and people,” Ramadan said.
Tunis is only a step away from a rich treat of historic sites, all of which are present within the boundaries of Fayoum.
They include the Pyramid of Hawara built by Amenemhat III, the sixth pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, and Dimeh al-Siba, which contains the ruins of a city believed to be founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BC.
Hamada Hussein, an accountant in his mid-40s from Giza province, said he first visited Tunis village with his family several months ago.
“I was taken by the scenery in the village and its natural beauty,” Hussein said. “The serenity of the area, its residents, the gifts one can take back home and the beautiful sites surrounding it make Tunis a place worthy of visiting more than one time.”
Tunis is increasingly becoming a destination for both Egyptians and foreigners looking to enjoy a unique mixture of culture and nature away from the bustle of Cairo.