With a history stretching back almost two thousand years, the importance of Egypt's textile industry is reflected in medieval documents, the diversity of preserved textiles – some referencing Pharaonic motifs and classical legends – and even in family names.
While fine quality textiles, especially cotton, tend to be associated with the modernization of Egypt, and the associated internationalization of trade in the nineteenth century under Mohammed Ali, the country’s reputation as a textile producer probably dates back almost two thousand years. All it takes is a look at some of the textiles from the third to the twelfth centuries to see why. Exquisitely woven, elaborately designed and beautifully coloured, textiles produced in Egypt were so prized that they were traded all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
Tens of thousands of textiles survive from the period predating the Arab conquest of Egypt, a time when most Egyptians were Christian and funerary rites involved burying people in their best clothes – often very finely-woven tunics. The arid climate has preserved these in excellent condition, providing a real insight into the world of Egyptian textiles. Because Muslim tradition was to bury the dead in simple shrouds, far fewer decorated textiles survive from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. Fortunately, however, this is a period when documentary evidence is rich, thanks to sources like the Geniza of the synagogue in Old Cairo, where thousands of documents bearing God’s name were preserved, as per Jewish tradition. Among such documents are contracts, letters to and from merchants, bills, and receipts, all of which clarify the important place that textiles had in Egyptian society.
Goitein, the German Arabist scholar who spent a lifetime painstakingly reading through the Geniza documents, discovered that textile production was a well-developed field, with highly specialized craftsmen who dealt with different stages of the production process. Documents from the tenth to the twelfth centuries refer to extremely specific professions, some of which still survive in Egyptian family names like al-Naqqadi (the unraveller of silk), al-Qattan (the preparer of ﬂax), and al-Qazzaz (the silk weaver), all reﬂections of the sophistication of the industry. Perhaps less well-known is that dyers were often specialized in the production of a certain colour, or in the use of certain types of dyes – probably reﬂecting specific techniques of extracting dyes and ensuring that the colours would not run or fade. Thus, there are documents referring to dyers as al-qirimisini (the dyer of crimson), al-zaafarani (the saffron-dyer), or al-sammaq (referring to the use of sumaq), for example.
Consumers were equally discerning, placing orders as specific as ‘five fine covers, one gazelle-blood, one pure violet, one musk-coloured, one silvery, one intense yellow; two others, pure clean white, inclining to yellow’, and complaining when things weren’t exactly as they had hoped: ‘the robe is of the utmost beauty, but not exactly what I wanted, for it is white and blue, and I wanted to have, instead of the latter colour, onion colour.’ A fair number of the records derive from the trousseau lists of Egyptian brides, which specifically note the different textiles they had to buy before their wedding, usually costumes of various sorts.
But nothing is as indicative of the quality of textile production as the designs and patterns that can be found on the textiles themselves. Surviving Coptic textiles, which usually date from between the fifth and the eighth centuries, show an incredible variety of patterns and motifs. Most surviving examples are actually tapestries, meaning that the designs are woven as part of the fabric itself, not applied to an existing fabric later, as embroidery or printed designs are. It is said that tapestry is one of the hardest art forms, as one creates and decorates the ‘canvas’ at the same time.
Early pieces show the persistence of Pharaonic motifs, such as the key of life, which may have initially started off as a cryptic cross, especially in the third and early fourth centuries when Christians were heavily persecuted by the Romans. One fragment in the Coptic Museum also shows peacocks, an early symbol of resurrection, and the Christogram (the first two letters of Christ’s name: X and R), which were probably used as a secret sign by early Christians, and may have been retained in the artistic vocabulary of Coptic art, even after Christianity became accepted and the Roman Emperor Constantine himself embraced the faith in AD 311.
The range of surviving textiles is broad – many are garments, which would have been worn by the deceased during their lifetime – but some are household textiles, such as curtains, or wall hangings. Many of these, especially the earlier ones, are classical in taste, and bear strong resemblance to Roman mosaics, often managing to create the idea of shading very effectively, despite the difficulty of the medium.
Numerous examples depict legends and stories from the classical world, most of which have a moral somehow related to the message of Christianity, like the story of Daphne, who, desiring chastity, asked her father to save her from the romantic pursuits of Apollo and was turned into a beautiful laurel tree. Hellenistic culture had synthesized with local Egyptian traditions, and Coptic textiles show a wonderful range of inspiration. Unsurprisingly, many textiles are simply decorative, depicting birds, fish, ﬂowers and animals of various sorts, as well as scenes showing the finer things in life: music, dancing and wine. Geometric
of great complexity appear early on in the weaver’s repertoire, and as Egyptian culture became increasingly Islamic, these designs, as well as representations of animals and birds, both real and mythical, such as griffins and harpies, survived, while representations of humans, and the legends of the classical world, eventually died out.
The craft tradition that captured the hearts and minds of societies far from Egypt’s shores still survives though, most notably in the work of the Harraniya Art School, whose founder, Ramsis Wissa Wassef, revived the tradition, and whose contemporary cotton weavings, produced under the direction of his daughter, Yoanna, embody the spirit and vitality of their ancient predecessors.
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Seif El Rashidi is an art historian currently based in London. He specialises in the management of heritage projects involving community engagement, and is currently working for the Institute of Historical Research and the Guildhall Library. He is also co-writing a book about the tents and tentmakers of Cairo. Much of his research and writing is about the Islamic world and its visual heritage.