The Shadow Fantasy

The Egyptian shadow treasures in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart (Germany), 1 January 2016.


What a surprise at the puppet exhibition « Die Welt des Schattentheaters » (« The World of Shadow Theatre », opened from 3 October 2015 to 10 April 2016) organised by the Anthropological Museum in Stuttgart, the Linden Museum!

All traditional Asian shadow puppets gathered together at one place: the wayangs from Indonesia, large sbeks shadows of Cambodia, the Togalu Gombeyyata from Karnataka as well as Tholpavu Koothu from Kerala (India) – the place where the famous Pulavar family lives. And also shadow puppets from Sichuan (China) and of course the Turkish Karagöz and the Greek counterparts called Kharagiozis. Most of these puppets were collected by enthusiasts or anthropologists, who were attracted by this art expressing multiple and universally rich human imagination. The puppets from Karnataka and Kerala belonged to the collection of anthropologist Friedrich Seltmann. He also made a film about the tradition of Kerala called « Die Seele der Lebendige Schatten » (« The Living Soul of Shadows ») in 1960-70. The Sichuan shadows date back to the second half of the 19th century. This collection of 46 pieces was bought by the teacher and sailor Karl Eger thanks to his cousin, the art merchant Gottlieb Eger. In December 1934, these puppets also played in a show presented by Max Buhrmann (1904-1976), who is far from being a stranger to our theatre and Museum. Max Buhrmann played at our World Puppetry Festival organised in 1958 as part of the Brussels World Fair. Two old shadow puppets from China we have in our collection in Peruchet may come from that link, but it is not confirmed.

A rich museum as well as any rich private puppet collection can be characterised by having (old) unique pieces or pieces that cannot be found elsewhere. To organise an exhibition of the fascinating world of Asian shadow theatres, remains on the top of the agenda of any anthropological or puppet museum … And of course, it’s not the number of puppets that defines the value of a collection but unique pieces. At the heart of this exhibition in Stuttgart, which is informative and wonderfully arranged, what was my surprise to discover the collection of Paul Kahle: 18 Egyptian shadows dating at least to the 17th or 18th century or may be even to the 13th century !!!! I was amazed to see such a big collection, I have not seen elsewhere. Lisbon, Lubeck, Chrudim, Palermo or Topic Tolosa do not possess such wealth. I have seen them only in books, for example in the book « Puppets and Puppetry » written by Eileen Blumenthal or « General History of the puppet » written by Jacques Chesnais. In Europe, the Anthropological Museum in Munich has few Egyptian shadows and it seems that the Leather Museum in Offenbach also has some.

The orientalist Paul Kahle (1875-1964) collected about 100 ancient shadows in Cairo with the help of German merchant Gustav Mez and brought them to Germany – 26 of them were given to the Stuttgart Museum in 1913 (today, only 18 have been rediscovered by Annette Kramer in the collections of Linden Museum, 8 of them disappeared or were destroyed). Paul Kahle dated them to the 13th or 14th century, but another research estimated that they are rather from the 17th or 18th century. In any case, they remain one of the oldest shadow puppets of the Muslim world. In 1909, Kahle found in the city of Menzaleh old figures of shadows in an old family of puppeteers. These figures belonged to this family for over 150 years, and the owner before that family would have bought them from a noble Pasha. Not all shadows come from one source. The merchant Gustav Mez also found some on his own. (see the exhibition catalogue, chapter « Das arabische Schattentheater und die ägyptischen Figuren der Sammlung Kahle, » p. 22).

bateau crocodile

Egyptian shadow puppets are puzzling. They are black made of a finely perforated camel skin, highlighting stylish and slightly coloured figures. They create a feeling of abstraction in order to emphasise their aesthetics. They are not translucent like Turkish or Chinese shadows. They are not as colourful as Indonesian wayangs. They are slightly larger than Turkish shadows, between 20 and 30 cm high. Their expressiveness comes from skilled shearing and fine punching of the leather, and from adding a touch of a blue, green, red, orange or yellow colour. They do not have moving parts, such as Turkish, Chinese or Indonesian shadow puppets. In that sense, they are closer to Togalu Gombeyyatta or Tholpavu Koothu from India, with the exception of pelican puppet (in the picture).


The charm of these puppets is such that Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky (founder of the Blaue Reiter in 1912) would have been amazed by beauty of these figures, especially by the fish with a human face and the boat. The fish with a human face figure can be found in their manifesto. Among these 18 puppets shown at the exhibition, we find many animals – camels, pelicans, or even a crocodile, but also slaves, prisoners, merchants and knights.

The Egyptian shadow puppets theater have experienced its glory in the 13th century when a doctor and poet from Iraq, Ibn Daniyal (1248-1311), wrote many comedy shows describing the life of the time in Cairo. This author is considered as « Arabic Aristophanes’. Paul Kahle even translated some of his plays including « The crocodile’s play » in 1915 (« Das Krokodilspiel ») which was played in 1924 with puppets present in the Stuttgart collection. According to Medieval Arabic sources, the concept « khayal az-zill » defines this type of theater. The word « khayal » means « fancy, representation, ghost or dream. » The first reference of a shadow theater in the Muslim culture dates back to the scholar Ibn al-Haytham (died in 1039) and Ibn Hazm (994-1064). Although the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam raised the metaphor of “Play of Shadows », the puppets have always been subject to prohibition or, according to the period, to a relative tolerance. In Egypt, the shadow puppet theater knew its glory during the period of the Mamluks (1250-1517), showing scenes of battles and hunts, as well as a daily life, in the equally comic and sophisticated way.

cavalier4    lion

This « shadow fantasy » Egyptian theater would have influenced the Ottoman theater and influenced the shape of new figures, the Karageuz and Hacivat, which appeared in the early 15th century in Bursa. In 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim was impressed by this theater and invited the Egyptian masters to Istanbul. From that moment, the Egyptian shadows have gradually lost their importance and have almost completely disappeared. These shadow puppets are even more beautiful and rare as they witness the exceptional value of this theatre in the universal history of the puppet theater. They survived only due to the passion of collectors, enthusiasts and scholars from Egypt and elsewhere. The most incredible is that this tradition has not yet gone out, despite its discretion, and showed the resistance to continue inspiring us until today…


  • Jacques Chesnais, Histoire générale des marionnettes, 1947, 1980, Bordas/Editions d’aujourd’hui, Paris.
  • Eileen Blumenthal, Puppetry and Puppets, Thames and Hudson, 2005, London,
  • Max von Boehn, Puppets and Automata, Dover Publications, 1982, New York, second volume, Puppen und Puppenspiele, Bruckman Verlag, 1929, München.
  • Jasmin Li Sabai Gunther und Ines de Castro, Die Welt des Schattentheaters, Linden Museum Stuttgart, 2015, Stuttgart.