The Potters of Garagous

A worn sign told us that we had found it. "Here is the Pottery" it said, with the subtext "Congratulations, you found the place!" Venturing off the main byways of Egypt to find something specific, rather than just taking in the view, can be a challenge. Yet finding the potters of Garagous, a village 27 km North of Luxor, was remarkably straightforward.

As we left the main Luxor-Qena highway, we asked directions from a passing motorcyclist. Somewhat surprisingly, he knew exactly what we wanted and how to get there. He gave explicit instructions to our driver -- and repeated them twice. At the next turn, we asked for confirmation from a driver of one of the pick-up trucks that has been remodeled into a public taxi with a cab on the back to seat 10 people. He shouted, "Follow me!" After his route diverged from our own, we were hailed by another service taxi driver who spotted the hawaga (foreigners) and knew what they were looking for. And then, all of a sudden we saw the sign. Hurray!

Since we were visiting on a Friday, there were few people at the pottery center but we were sincerely welcomed and given a tour of the facility. The famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy built the complex in 1950 using traditional mud-brick architecture that he was working to re-establish in Egypt. The workshop was very spacious and designed with functional workspaces for each task.

Hasan Fathy used domes and vaults for ventilation and natural cooling. Under his lantern domes (shukshaykas) at Garagous, the craftsmen work in a cool atmosphere, made all the cooler by the use of water evaporating in a trough in a narrow space between two walls that was open at ground level. The air flowed naturally from outside down the windcatcher (malkhaf), across the water and into the room creating a low-tech 'swamp cooler'.

Girgus, the master potter, says he can throw about 200 pots a day. He follows the techniques first taught in Garagous in 1955 when two Jesuit monks from France established the centre with the assistance of a nephew, Robert De Mongolfier, who owned a pottery factory in France. Their efforts to create sustainable employment has transformed the impoverished village, where it is estimated that half the population now works in the community-based ceramic industry.

In another zone, plates and casserole dishes are made using plaster moulds. Plates are probably the centre's most popular product decorated with birds and fish.

In the open-air courtyard the clay is prepared for the potters. The clay used in Garagous pottery comes from Abu Simbel. The raw clay arrives at the centre where it is mixed with water and then purified as the mixture passes through three screens of progressively finer mesh into a drying basin. The resulting clay is beautifully smooth and malleable.

The distinct colours of Garagous pottery are green and blue.

St. Mary protects the original kiln in the courtyard while an adjacent building is home to two new electric kilns that are filled to capacity.

The beautiful result of all the work is piled on shelves in the storage room. This is a treasure trove for pottery enthusiasts with stacks of plates, bowls, mugs, casseroles, jugs, and teapots. Airline restrictions on baggage weight necessitates some hard decision-making to select just a few pieces, but oh what fun!

The repertoire of Garagous potters extends beyond plates and bowls. The products for sale in the display room reveal creativity and a sense of humour. These traits are embodied in a comical rendition of the Sphinx. Its bright yellow mane encircles an Egyptian portrait. It would be interesting to know who the model is because there is probably a story hidden behind the sphinx's enigmatic smile. Perhaps he smiles because he knows where to find Garagous pottery.


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Trying to find the Centre on Google Maps has posed the most difficult challenge to date. I must admit that I have doubts that I have truly identified the correct building. When I return to Garagous, perhaps in the distant future, I will check my bearings.

From the Luxor airport checkpoint, drive North on the Luxor-Qena highway for 20.6 km and turn left (West) off the highway, crossing over the big irrigation canal.

After crossing over the railway tracks and 0.4 km from the main highway, turn right (North) and follow the asphalt road that runs beside a small irrigation canal. Heading North, the canal will be on your right and a narrow-gauge sugarcane rail line will be on your left.

After 4.3 km, you will come to the first bridge over the canal and see a sluice gate on the right. You'll probably also see a gamoosa (water buffalo) tethered to the side of the road. Turn left (West) at the gamoosa. ;-)

Travel for 0.8 km and make another left turn. This road leads you through town and past a very tall, see-through minaret constructed of iron grillwork -- an Eiffel Tower, of sorts -- in the centre of Garagous. At 0.7 km from the previous turn, there is a dirt road on the right. Turn right and drive 0.3km on this dirt road, past a domed mausoleum for a local sheikh. Turn left and the center is immediately on your left. Look for the sign: "Here is the Pottery". You'll know you have reached the right place.
Hassan Fathy PDF document: The Man and His Legacy and Catalogue of Works of Hassan Fathy by Ismail Serageldin
Garagos Handmade Company website: A History and Catalogue of Garagos Pottery
Al Ahram Online news article: Folk Arts: Garagos Pottery in Town
Potter Girgus Youssef contact number: 012-950-2471

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