Egypt was the first stop for most New Zealand service personnel on their way to the two world wars. For many it was a relatively short-term stopover before going on to Britain and the continent, but for those who saw service in and around the Middle East, Egypt was an important administrative, medical, rest and recreational centre. Both Zeitoun, the initial large camp in the First World War, and Maadi camp in the Second World War were close to Cairo, and the capital offered lots to amaze, tempt and distract visitors from the other side of the world.

Blog by Gail Romano, Associate Curator War History

Zeitoun (WW1) was nearly 10 kilometres northeast of the city, close to the ‘wonderful new tourist resort’ of Heliopolis (with a Luna Park and a grand hotel) and ‘most fashionable suburb of Cairo’ according to Dr William Aitken, New Zealand Field Ambulance1. An electric railway ran from Heliopolis into Cairo making it a relatively easy place for soldiers to get to from camp. At the end of every ‘workday’ soldiers had free leave for a few hours as well as every Sunday afternoon and evening. The Mousky, the famed Cairo bazaar, was a favourite destination especially in the early days when the men had a bit of ‘spare money’. It was here that artisans worked and often lived, in booths or stalls on the main street or in side alleys that were dedicated to a given trade or craft. In a letter to his mother dated 13 January 1915  Vincent Stichbury, Auckland Infantry Battalion, remarked on the variety of goods that hawkers offered for sale on the street in Cairo. ‘Some of the men look like small travelling shops. I reckon I could easily fill three pages of this writing pad with the names of the different articles… Sunday here is just the same as any other day. Most of the shops are open as usual & carpenters etc work as on other days –‘. He also notes that ‘the mounted men do not get nearly so much leave as the Infantry.’2 Bargaining was part of the buying experience. During a January 1915 visit to the Mousky Dr Aitken wrote in his diary that stall owners gave him a cup of tea while he was bartering for a cushion cover and a woman’s scarf. 

NZ lieutenants about to leave Zeitoun in a cattletruck, WWI. PH-2014-69-1-p28-2

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Entrance to Zeitoun Bazaar, WWI. PH-2014-69-1-p39-2

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Maadi Camp (WW2) was about 12 kilometres south of Cairo. Again, leave opportunities were plentiful on weeknights and during weekends depending on training requirements, so leave decisions were governed more by a soldier’s spending power than by official allocation. Nearby Maadi village offered rail service right into the city and motorized transport from the camp to the railway station was soon set up. Shopping in the bazaars was particularly popular in the last half of the year as soldiers sought out Christmas gifts to send home that evoked the cultures and environment that surrounded the camps. ‘Probably seldom before have bazaar streets like the famous Mooski (sic), in Cairo, known such a demand for articles of the kinds sought after in normal times by tourists.’3

Embroidered souvenir cloth from Egypt, WW1, associated with Canterbury Regiment Lieutenant George Sissmore Lavie. 1996.1

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The word khayamiya means ‘tent’ in Arabic and the craft has a long history, passed down through families. It is now under pressure as few practitioners remain. During his First World War sojourn in Egypt, Canterbury Regiment Lieutenant George Sissmore Lavie acquired three khayamiya and sent them to his wife. George arrived in Egypt in November 1915 and spent several months in the Training Battalion before returning to his infantry duties and leaving Egypt in mid-April 1916 for the Western Front. He was killed in action two months later around Armentières so sadly he did not have the happy experience of seeing his purchases at home.

These works which are all above 400mm x 1400mm in size have been appliqued in superb detail on linen cloth and feature iconic Egyptian figures and scenes. From a distance they may appear to be woven or even printed on napped cloth, but the hand stitching is easily seen in close-up.

A khayamiya similarly rendered was presented to the Museum in 1960 by AM Samuel (1960.121, T505, 36161). Although we cannot be definitive from the records, AM Samuel is almost certainly Alfred Moeller Samuel who served as a Major with the Wellington Mounted Rifles (WMR) during WW1. Other than five months on Gallipoli serving as infantry during which this regiment was decimated at Chunuk Bair, WMR was based in Egypt for the duration of the war. Alfred was fortunate to miss Chunuk Bair because he arrived with reinforcements as the WMR were evacuated from Gallipoli for a month to regroup. However, they returned to the peninsula to spend a miserable final six weeks as a bitter winter set in. As a Major, Alfred took temporary command of the regiment twice from October to full evacuation in late December 1915.  

His service history makes it likely that this khayamiya was another souvenir acquired during WW1. The hanging is a really lovely piece, large (2560mm x 1290mm) and richly detailed, but it tells no coherent story. Josh Emmitt, Curator Archaeology, describes the scene as ‘a mix of different motifs typical of depictions made for the tourist trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which alone have meaning, but do not occur together in Ancient Egyptian contexts.’ The piece incorporates elements of the natural environment, particularly lotus flowers and papyrus, and the Nile flowing across the foot of the scene. The name of the 18th Dynasty ruler Thutmose III appears ‘forwards and backwards, with an ankh (life) symbol in the middle’. Other iconography includes a pharaoh, an undefined Egyptian goddess (left column) and Anubis (right column), and winged sun-discs with uraei (cobra emblem worn symbolically on the headdresses of ancient Egyptian sovereigns and deities).

Egyptian wall hanging, belonging to Major AM Samuel, New Zealand Mounted rifles, NZEF, WW1. Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 1960.121, T505, 36161

In early 1916, 16-year-old Private Donald Brown of the Auckland Infantry Regiment sent home a different type of Egyptian textile, one for his mother and one for his toddler sister, Hope. This type of embroidered cloth, often self-labelled as ‘Souvenir of Egypt’, was clearly aimed at the travelling or tourist market. Allied soldiers were a particular category of such visitors. Most of these cloths were made of cotton sateen which has an attractive sheen and smooth feel, and were machine embroidered, although there are occasional examples featuring hand embroidery. Typical Egyptian scenes beloved of tourists such as camels, pyramids, the Sphinx, and date palms were popular, but they could be easily customised at the time of purchase with added names or a dedication. Donald’s fringed purchases are different in that they do not declare themselves an Egyptian souvenir, nor include a date. Instead, both feature, along with a dedication, a war-related motif which itself was probably customised from a template.

The larger red cloth, 'To Mother From Donald', bears a central circular ‘badge’ named to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, surmounted by the King's crown and surrounded by a laurel wreath. In the smaller purple cloth, a more substantial laurel wreath frames the central message, 'To Hope Zeitoun Egypt'. These cloths are particularly poignant as we know Donald from a small number of letters: a very young man doing what he felt was right following the death of his father and hoping to look after his family when he returned from war, but who lost his own life on the opening day of New Zealand’s engagement on the Somme. You can read a little more about Donald in the blog, ‘Dear Mother This War is a Buggar [sic]'.

Embroidered souvenir cloth from Egypt, WW1, associated with 12/3565 Private Donald Melville Wood Brown, Auckland Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Company, NZEF

Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2017.98.4.

Embroidered dedication on souvenir cloth from Zeitoun, Egypt, (close up).

With thanks to Donald Melville Wood Brown's family Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Embroidered souvenir cloth from Egypt, WW1, associated with 12/3565 Private Donald Melville Wood Brown, Auckland Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Company, NZEF

Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2017.98.5.

This detail of the textile for Donald Brown's little sister Hope clearly shows the chain stitch which the market embroiderers were able to produce with their small machines.

The Museum holds several First World War variations on the souvenir cloth theme.

Rifleman Len Truscott sent home a printed version featuring an embroidered dedication and lace edging that has been over-embroidered with an undulating line of chain stitch. A similar edging style has been applied to an unusual bi-coloured cushion cover which is certainly a fully custom cloth product purchased by New Zealander Leonard Orr who served with the Australian 6th Light Horse Regiment. Not only does the embroidery reproduce the ‘unofficial’ brush turkey collar badge of the regiment, but also the regiment’s diagonal colour patch although the colours are oriented wrongly. You can see an example of the 6th Light Horse Regiment colour patch, here.

Souvenir cloth sent back  to New Zealand by Rifleman Len Truscott, 3rd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade, NZEF, WW1. Along with an Egyptian scene the print features the leaders and flags of the Allies: clockwise from lower left Belgium, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Serbia. Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1999.223.1.

Embroidered pink runner purchased by Len Truscott, 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, for his parents, 1915.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 1999.223.2.

Len Truscott also sent home an attractive pink runner with gold fringing. An independently imaginative artisan who embroidered a design which adds a different aesthetic character to the common souvenir elements, themselves less dominating in the overall pattern on the cloth. A degree of individuality is also evident in the framed cloth purchased by ‘Ted’ of the 3rd Auckland regiment for ‘Gena’. The souvenir includes a tastefully restrained and nicely positioned floral array below the regimental badge.

Closeup of Len Truscott's souvenir runner.

New Zealand servicemen in Egypt during the Second World War were attracted by the same opportunities to purchase mementos that captured something of the ‘exotic’ nature of the environment in which they found themselves and which were reasonably easy to send home. The off-the-shelf dated souvenir cloth was again popular, often on black cotton velveteen. Elements familiar from the earlier cloths show up again: fringing, Egyptian scenes, machined chain stitch (that good all-rounder), embroidered badges, and the custom dedication. Examples in the Museum collection demonstrate the likely use of a semi-standardised pattern for these cloths which nevertheless allowed some options for choice of icon (pyramids or camel?) and had space for a message. The dense fill of the fern fronds of 2002.106.1 also shows the different aesthetic tastes or skills of individual embroiderers in what was still largely a hand-made object. But again, the machined chain stitch remains the basic technique.

Variations on the ‘standard’ or ‘popular’ cloth pattern include varying the NZ Onward badge at each corner with a specific regiment badge. We see an example of this in 1984.126, W2727, a roughly cut tablecloth-size cloth with unfinished edging which uses the New Zealand Artillery badge as the corner motif instead. The cloth purchased by Charles Humphreys (2019.7.8) for his wife Phyl (Phyllis) goes all out, including all text options as well as mixing badges and using multi-coloured embroidery. This may have fetched a luxe price in the market.


Souvenir Egyptian embroidered cloth or wall hanging, associated with 36679 Private. Charles Henry Humphreys, 27 Machine Gun Battalion, 2NZEF. The black cloth features gold fringing, an Egyptian scene of pyramids by the Nile with date palms, crossed Egyptian and British flags, and New Zealand regimental badges (2x NZ Onward, 2x 27 Machine Gun Battalion). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2019.7.8.

Souvenir embroidered tablecloth, New Zealand Artillery badge with motto: QUO FAS ET GLORIA DUCUNT, New Zealand Artillery, Egypt 1941, WW2.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 1984.126, W2727

Souvenir of Egypt 1943, Private Ross St Clair Sutherland, 27 (MG) Battalion, 2NZEF, WW2, with close-up showing the chain stitch embroidery.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2006.86.18.

Souvenir embroidered cloth sent home by 25577 Gunner EA (Ted) Frost, 7th Anti-Tank Regiment, NZ Artillery, 2NZEF, WW2.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2007.78.8

The Museum’s Second World War collection of souvenir Egyptian cloths does, however, include an interesting selection of what may be less ‘standard’ presentations. Other than the preferences or specialist offering of individual crafters it is also possible that the pattern and style differences reflect those favoured by artisan groups in different locations. While keeping the declaration, ‘Souvenir of Egypt’, the cloth Ted Frost sent home to his mother (2007.78.8) depicts only the NZ Onward badge and uses zig zag as the main stitch style, varying the length and width of the stitches to achieve densities, or perhaps a satin stitch on the fern fronds. An unassociated fringed cloth in the collection, dated 1941, departs entirely from the iconography we have come to expect. The familiar chain stitch depicts a contemporary hope for (perhaps mantra of?) ‘Victory’, although Allied success in North Africa was still a year and a half away.

‘Souvenir of Egypt embroidered cloth, WW2. Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 2019.62

Whether purchased by service personnel as mementos of the time they spent in a unique country and the range of emotions and experiences rolled into such tangible reminders, or as unusual gifts and remembrance pieces for someone left behind at home, the work of Egypt’s textile artisans found its way into many New Zealand homes during the First and Second World Wars. Whether or not related to such widespread wartime purchases, an Egyptian influence certainly showed up in homewares and fashion items between the wars. But that is another story.

"How we write home. 'Dock' hard at it." Photograph of a soldier writing a letter in a military tent at Maadi Camp. The man is leaning on a metal box and is surrounded by boots, clothing and personal. PH-2020-1-2-30-30 More information ›



Header image: Embroidered souvenir cloth from Egypt, WW1, belonging to Major AM Samuel, New Zealand Mounted rifles, NZEF, WW1. Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 1996.2

[1] Friends of the Hocken WW1 Transcription Project – Diary of Dr William Aitken 1914-1915, MS-1334/001

[2] Correspondence relating to Vincent Stichbury. Stichbury, Vincent John, 1891-1966 : Family papers and World War One diaries. Ref: MS-Papers-11559-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand., accessed 26 September 2023.

[3] ‘Christmas Presents from Egypt’, Manawatu Times, 20 November 1940, 8., accessed 26 September 2023.


Further reading:

You may find these short online items interesting:

Dianne Rutherford, The 'Souvenir of Egypt' and the 'Souvenir of Palestine', The Australian War Memorial, 15 April 2013,, accessed 18 September 2023.

Anne Peranteau, ‘Digitally ‘restoring’ a WWII souvenir textile’, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, 19 Apr 2018,, accessed 18 September 2023.