A Day at the Sagha



Sun, 15 Oct 2017 - 03:19 GMT


Sun, 15 Oct 2017 - 03:19 GMT

Photo by Rehab Ismail for Egypt Today

Photo by Rehab Ismail for Egypt Today

Downtown, in the heart of Old Cairo, lies one of the oldest historic gold markets in the region. Dating back to the Fatimid era, El Sagha, which means “gold shops” in Arabic, is located in Gamaleya, adjacent to the famous historic area of Khan el-Khan Khalili.
Egypt’s gold treasures have no end and unique Pharaonic pieces are still being unearthed to this day. It is believed that gold holds the secrets to our Egyptian heritage, which is why there is an ancient and special connection between Egyptians and the precious metal.

On a recent visit the gold market appeared fairly crowded, despite the economic downturn and price hike following last year’s currency flotation. As I strolled around the stores—which offer everything from touristy pharaonic and traditional Egyptian peasant-style designs to imported high-end Italian pieces, midrange Turkish items and cheap Chinese jewelry—I noticed a couple standing in front of a gold shop window trying to find a wedding ring. “Prices are very expensive for us, so we are trying to get a suitable ring,” they told me.

I left them to their window shopping and stepped inside the store where another couple have come with their parents to purchase a shabka, the present a groom is expected to give his bride. The bride, Nada, 24, told me that she was just there to select the piece she wants. It’ll be up to her father and the groom to discuss prices and bargain with the shop owner.

The owner, Karam Awadallah, has been in the gold business for 38 years and says he started as an assistant, then as a craftsman in a workshop, and soon after he began gold trading he was able to buy out the shop. “Twenty years ago things were better. People used to buy gold sets weighing about 120 grams, but now it rarely happens, they mostly just buy the wedding rings,” Awadallah says. He explains that gold items are priced according to their weight in grams, but that the masna’aya (workmanship) charge varies from one piece to another according to its shape and the type of gold.

“Other popular products people may buy are necklaces, earrings and bracelets,” notes Awadallah who says the skyrocketing prices are driving customers to look for alternatives. He recalls how a few years ago “Chinese gold” became popular in Egypt and customers, wanting to show off that they got a good shabka, began buying it up.

“But not all that glitters is gold!” warns Awadallah who claims the Chinese gold is fake. “They are all gold-plated ornaments with designs similar to the Egyptian ones. They just became more popular because they are very cheap, the piece may cost LE 50. But after a month or two, its color will disappear, and it cannot be compared to the real original gold that stays valuable forever,” he adds.

I left Awadallah’s shop and strolled around, taking in the ancient spirit of the old souq with its distinct scent of incense hanging heavy in the air, its architecture and beauty. The streets are home to countless shops catering to all tastes and price ranges, many with fancy marble entrances and flashy window displays, the sellers standing outside and inviting would-be customers to come inside and take a look. But it’s among its dark, narrow corridors that you find the real golden treasures inside the shops, where the sellers ask you to come inside not to buy, but to sell. Inside these shops, the circle of the gold industry starts, and it’s doing a brisk business as jewelry owners exchange their treasures for much-needed cash.

Amr Said is one of these gold shops owners who deals only in second-hand jewelry. He explains that the bulk of unwanted items are sold on to goldsmiths who transform them into golden bars. Traders cover the needs of the local market and then export the rest to get foreign currency.

“Egypt sells a considerable amount of gold to Dubai, one of the largest gold markets in the Middle East,” says Said who started up a Facebook page named Souq el-Dahab “The Gold Market” where he updates international prices of gold with their equivalent in Egyptian pounds, and where traders and customers can follow rates. The page has just under 33,000 followers.

“This profession is very old, but it has been affected badly for several reasons, mainly the decline in tourism and the economic situation,” says Said who adds that the recent inflation raised the price of the dollar from LE 8 to LE 17, so the prices of gold were doubled, from LE 350 to LE 650 a gram. “This huge raise affects the purchasing process, and more people now sell their used jewelry to make use of the differences of prices. And those who buy because there is a need, as in cases of marriage.”

El-Sagha is home to another segment of the gold industry: the workshops. Edging my way between some long, tight corridors of a very old building, I walk up to the second floor to chat with goldsmith George Michele, who started working in the profession since 1990. “Each workshop works in specific golden pieces, here, I only work in rings, as they are the item people look for the most,” Michele explains.

First they collect second-hand golden jewelry, melt and then reshape it into golden bars. This is followed by a step called sheshny (inspection), where they analyze the type of gold. Next, these bars are cut into longer and thinner ones, and finally reshaped into new pieces of jewelry. Soon after, the welding and polishing step comes. Finally, the items are placed in boiled water so they are clean and shiny.

“A great development occurred in the industry since I started 20 years ago, new machines now are included in the process which made it faster, but workshops had to decrease the number of workers, which affected the industry,” Michele says. He adds that the number of workshops and gold shops in Egypt was about 7,000, but that between 2012 and 2017 that number has been slashed by more than the half because of the economic situation. “Many workshops closed down and many craftsmen changed their jobs. But before they left these craftsmen had been working as goldsmiths for at least 10 years, so we need 10 more years to bring in a new generation.”

A number of gold sellers and workers are lobbying to create a syndicate for precious metal makers and traders, which aims to protect those who work in the industry, especially craftsmen who may lose their job at any anytime. Another goal is to provide them with training according to the latest techniques, Michele says.

Anton Mounir wholeheartedly supports the effort. At his workshop, where he has been fashioning intricate pieces for about 35 years, Mounir appears to hold all the secrets to the gold craft. “Before machines invaded the industry, I used to make a golden piece by hand from A to Z,” recalls Mounir who maintains “The Egyptian craftsman is very professional and talented, as he learns the profession from an early age...The gold industry is very important to any country and we have to work on improving it. But I have hope that things will get better in the future. With patience and determination, we will get the fruit of our patience.”



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