Egyptian Ouds from 1800 to the 1930s

By Tarek Abdallah

In the period 1800-1895, written and iconographic sources relating to Egyptian musical instruments describe one predominant model of oud, namely the seven-course instrument known appropriately as al-‘ūd as-Sab‘āwī. However, as discussed elsewhere on Oudmigrations, of the two 19th-century ouds that travelled from Alexandria to Brussels, one has only six courses, and a number of other six-course instruments survive elsewhere. In fact, some of the most celebrated 19th-century commentators on historical ouds – François-Joseph Fétis and Guillaume André Villoteau – appear on close reading to be somewhat unreliable. The purpose of this article is thus to present an overview of what may be discovered about 19th-century Egyptian ouds through a broader and more detailed reading of the various sources.

One important source is the oud method of Muhammad Ḍākir Bek (1903), which observes the coexistence of six- and seven-course models. Of these two models, according to Aḥmad Amīn ad-Dīk and Kāmil al-Ḫula‘ī, the six-course model was most popular among virtuosi of the early recording era (Ḫula‘ī 1904). As we will see, three sizes of the seven-course model can be distinguished from the various accounts: the large, the medium and the small one.

The celebrated philosopher al-Kindī (born c.801) noted that ouds differed in terms of shapes, dimensions (length, width, and maximal depth) and thickness of constituent elements. The section of the string that vibrates in sound (VSL) seems to be crucial: it is the basis for the division of intervals through the system of frets (dasātīn) which were traditionally knotted around the neck in precise positions, and also for identifying the instrument’s other dimensions.

The six-course model of al-Ḫula‘ī (1904) had a 64cm-VSL. Likewise, Iskandar Šalfūn (1922) noted this VSL for what he named al-‘ūd al-Maṣrī al-Kabīr or “the Great Egyptian Oud”. Ḫula‘ī admitted that both the VSL and the neck length (NL) varied, but observed a VSL of 64cm for ouds used by virtuosi, at the top of which he placed the legendary Aḥmad al-Layṯī (1816-1913) and Maḥmūd al-Gumrukšī.

al-Ḫula‘ī supplied a table of measurements on a diagram of strings with 64cm VSL. From this, beginners could create a drawing to stick on the finger-board in order to find the position for each note. He also provided a mathematical method to be applied to other lengths such as 62cm. In that way, he completed the work of Ḍākir Bek and ad-Dīk (1902).

Figure 1 : Kāmil al-Ḫula‘ī’s note positions on the finger-board (1904/05)

Ṣiyānāt Maḥmūd Ḥamdī (1978) seems to have been the first to provide approximate measurements of three different sizes of instruments. She based her thinking primarily on the total length (TL) and the vibrating string length (VSL). Each oud size corresponded to a vocal register (which is reminiscent of the considerations of the great Egyptian musician and author Ibn aṭ -Ṯaḥḥān in the 11th century), or responded to the morphology of the player. Regrettably she failed to provide any specific sources, but the average measurements advanced by Ḥamdī correspond more or less to the different descriptions and illustrations of Egyptian ouds throughout the period mentioned, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Measurements of the different sizes of Egyptian oud according to Ṣiyānāt Ḥamdī
Size TL VSL NL Ḥamdī‘s Remarks Matches
The large oud 73cm 63 cm 20.5 The Sultan of ouds; Used by the best virtuosos. Bass register  Brussels oud, Ḫula‘ī
The medium oud 66 cm 58 cm 20 Middle register Villoteau, E. Lane (TL= 64.8 cm)
The small oud 59 cm 52 cm 18 High register. For women and children having small hands L. Deutsch, Iḫwān Ḥānūm (1892), Brussels small oud

The measurements also correspond to those of several six-course ouds manufactured between 1892 and 1948 (Table 2). Among these are a 1914 Nu‘mān Rahba oud that belonged once to Ḫula‘ī, and a 1910 Rafla Arāzī oud that belonged to Alexandrian composer Sayyid Darwīš (1892-1923), the latter conserved today at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Figure 6).

Table 2: Measurements in cm of eleven original Egyptian six-course ouds built between 1892 and 1948
Lute-Maker Year TL VSL NL
Brussels small oud 1879 62.8 53.3 16.5
Iḫwān Ḥānūm 1892 58.5 51.5 20.5
Rafla Arāzī 1909 74.5 63 20.5
Rafla Arāzī 1910 73 64 20
Nu‘mān Rahba 1914 74.7 62 21.2
Al-Layṯī 1912 74.6 63.5 20.3
Rafla Arāzī 1919 75 63.7 19.8
Ḫalīl al-Gawharī 1935 74.5 61.8 20.8
Aḥmad Muḥammad 1936 70.4 60.7 20.5
Maḥmūd ‘Alī 1938 75 64 20
Ḫalīl al-Gawharī 1948 72 62.3 21.5

We can deduce from all these sources that the VSL of the large Egyptian oud varied between 62 and 64cm, but was considered ideal by theorists when it was 64cm.

Both the seven-course oud described by Villoteau  and the oud presented in Lane’s Manners and Customs (with  64.8 cm as a TL), are approaching the measurements of the medium size.  Considering the measurements communicated by Ḥamdī, we can estimate they had a VSL of 57-59 cm.

Figure 2: The oud player in the Egyptian ensemble observed by Lane (1860)
Figure 3: Lane’s seven-course, medium sized oud (1860)

Finally, the small seven-course oud is represented by the painter Ludwig Deutsch in both The Musician and in another painting mistakenly named The Mandolin Player.

Figure 4: ‘The Musician’ by Deutsch. (A small seven-course oud)

As we can see from this painting, the peg-box is curved, narrows at the top and has only 13 pegs (6 up and 7 down), which usually means that the lowest string was not wound. These features aimed at once to shorten the peg-box and reduce the tension of the strings. They established a balance in terms of length and weight between the main constituent elements (peg-box, neck and sound-box).

Some imbroglios of the seven-course oud descriptions

Villoteau’s measurements are inconsistent for one main reason: the total length must equal sound-box length + neck length. However, 43.3+22.4 = 65.7 cm, 2 cm shorter than the total length.

Table 3: Comparison between the measurements of the oud described by Villoteau and the oud in Brussels 
Villoteau’s oud measurements Brussels oud
Totale length 67.7 73.5
VSL Unknown 63.7
NL 22.4 22.4
S-BL 43.3 51.1
S-BW 35 40.1
MD 16.2 23.5
Number of ribs 21 23

Clearly one section must have been longer – either the sound-board or the neck. If we use the NL of the Brussels oud as a comparative measure, we may estimate that the length of the sound-box was 45.3cm.

A further layer of errors emerges in the work of Fétis, who owned in his collection of musical instruments what is considered today as the oldest surviving oud. Although he had the instrument from 1839 until his death in 1871, he didn’t take his instrument into consideration when he wrote his Histoire Generale de la Musique (1869-75, 5 volumes). Instead, he plagiarized both Villoteau and Lane.

  • Firstly he advanced the same measurements of the large oud mentioned by Villoteau, and reproduced the tablatures in the same order with a little modification – adding the third finger overlooked by Villoteau.
  • Secondly, he reproduced Lane’s two engravings of the medium size oud with some changes. The young player was replaced by an old man, and the dark mark on the finger-board perpendicular to the strings was simply erased (see figure 5). Finally, the number of ribs mentioned by Fétis doesn’t match with Lane’s engraving or with the Brussels oud (See figure 3).
Figure 5 : Fétis’ distorted reproduction of Lane’s engraving (Fétis 1869).

The relationship between the length of the neck compared to the length of the vibrating string is determinable for both fingering and position shifting (Table 4 below). As shown here, the neck of Egyptian ouds didn’t conform to the criteria of the perfect-fifth, it was either greater or smaller than the third.

Table 4: Different types of relationship between NL and VSL
Types of ratio Position of the perfect fifth (3/2) Examples
NL = 1/3 VSL On the junction between the neck and the sound-board Al-Kindī, the modern ouds
NL > 1/3 VSL On the finger-board before the neck-joint Ibn a-ṭ-Ṭaḥḥān, Villoteau, Lane, Maššāqa, the Brussels oud
NL< 1/3 VSL On the sound-board Ḫula‘ī, Arāzī 1910

In conclusion, we can make the following summary regarding the common features of the various seven-course ouds

  • The sound-board slightly extends onto the fingerboard. This method was first applied on the Coptic double-twisted lutes (one example can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and many centuries later, on European Renaissance lutes.
  • Three rosettes, the smaller ones in close proximity to the central one, and the smaller ones with a distinctive ornament.
  • The shape, the material and the large size of the pickguard (raqama) is made mostly of fish-skin.
  • The moustache shape of the bridge.
  • The length of the neck is always greater than a third of the vibrating length. A dark line is notable crossing some finger-boards that Ibn aṭ-Ṭaḥḥān (first half of the 11th century) calls naqša (ornament) and Maššāqa calls ‘alāma (Ronzevalle, 1899). Maššāqa pointed out the double advantage of this ‘alāma in position shifting and tuning. Contrarily, the ratio NL/VSL of six-course ouds is either greater or smaller than the third (Table2).

Alongside all these common features is one difference: the shape of the peg-box on small seven-course ouds is curved instead of straight (see Figure 4 above).

The shared characteristics of six-course ouds can be gleaned form Egyptian authors and surviving instruments, as follows:

  • one sound-hole only.
  • an oblong-shaped bridge.
  • the shape of the small pick-guard glued diagonally on the sound-board, probably. indicating the direction of the right hand movement (See Figures 6,7 & 8).
  • the ḥigāb (the ornament on the upper side of the sound-board next to the neck joint).
  • the ṭawq (the curved collar which covers the joint of sound-board and neck from behind).
Figure 6: the oud of Sayyid Darwīš made by Rafla Arāzī in 1910 (©Ahmad Ezzat)

The picture of Ṣafar ‘Alī during the Congress of Arab Music in Cairo in 1932 shows what was considered as the typical Egyptian six-courses model (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The Egyptian composer and oud player Ṣafar ‘Alī in 1932 during the Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. He is holding a typical six-course instrument.

One of the first portraits of an oud player was made in 1934 by the pioneer of this art in Egypt, Ahmad Sabry (1889-1955). The oud player was his student, the painter and the amateur musician Hussein Bicar (1913-2002). We know that Bicar commissioned this refined instrument specially for the portrait and kept it till the end of his life.

Figure 8. Painting by Ahmed Sabri of his student Hussein Bicar (1934)
Figure 9. Hussein Bicar with his six-course oud and buzuki

Many thanks to Rachel Beckles Willson for her help in editing this article; Ahmad Al-Salhi, owner of eight of the ouds mentioned in Table 2, for sharing with me all data and pictures of his precious oud collection; and Ahmad Ezzat for providing me the pictures and the measurements of Sayyid Darwīš’s oud.


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