Historical Egyptian vogue I Curator’s Nook Season 5 Episode 3

published on July 2, 2020

You might know how to 'Walk like an Egyptian'

but do you know how to dress like an Egyptian?

Hi my name is Amandine Merat

I'm an Egyptologist and an expert in ancient Egyptian textiles

and welcome to my corner!

So today if I tell you 'Ancient Egypt'

you will tell me

'Ohh, sculpture from pharaohs

temples

or maybe 'Walk like an Egyptian' – The Bangles (1986)

Well

I'm going to introduce you to another period of Egyptian history

and also another kind of material

Today we are going to say dress like an Egyptian

and we're going to talk about textiles in ancient Egypt

from the 7th century to the 15th century AD

Egypt has a long tradition in textile production

which dates back to the first millennium BC

Where in other parts of the world textiles haven't survived

thanks to Egypt's dry climate textiles survive in abundance

Today the British Museum collection of ancient Egyptian textiles comprises around 500 textiles

from the first millennium AD roughly

They mainly come from excavations lead at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century

They come from graves

because from the 2nd century onwards

Egyptians stopped mummifying their dead

instead burying them in their daily clothes

wrapped into furnishing textiles

So the textiles we'll look at today are both clothing items and furnishing textiles

So this one here is a fragment of a shawl or a furnishing textile

it's difficult to tell

It has been woven in linen

the main fibre used in Egypt since 4th millennium BC

As you can see it is decorated with a band here

which has been woven with tapestry

but this time not in wool

as was mostly the case during the so-called coptic period

but in silk

This is possible after the Arab conquest

because Arabs controlled the silk road

and so this makes silk more easily accessible in Egypt

It shows some birds and quadrupeds in vegetal interlacing

This iconography comes back from the classical imagery

imported by the Greeks during the arrival of Alexander the Great

during the third century BC

However this piece dates to the 7th or 8th century AD

and shows the continuation of imagery and iconography

throughout the centuries in Egypt

So this piece shows a transition

which will continue for example with this piece later on

So this textile has 4 edges preserved

They have been sewn underneath

and the shape indicates that this is a sleeve of a tunic

What is interesting here is that we can find the same iconography here

that we found here

which means the vegetal interlacing

and medallions which are housing some animal motifs here very much stylized

This inscription doesn't read anything

it's a pseudo-inscription

a pseudo-kufic inscription

which is an Arabic script

Such garments bearing such inscriptions are called tiraz

And 'tiraz' comes from the Persian word meaning embroidery

and tiraz was used to describe both the clothes produced at the time

and also the workshops where they were produced

At first tiraz were easily identifiable

because of their inscriptions

So the inscriptions was either naming the kalif

or quoting the Qur'an

Later on, especially from the 9-10th century AD

tiraz were also just identifiable by these pseudo-inscription lines

and they could also be not only embroidered but woven in tapestry like this one

Tiraz were produced to decorate furnishing textiles or garments

They were mostly found tunics on the sleeves

And at the time the main item of clothing for men, women and kids alike was the tunic

And the tunic could be of two types at this time

it could be either the traditional tunic which was adopted after the Roman fashion from the second century AD

which is a tunic which was woven in one piece in a T shape

folded and sewn along the edges

or it could be a tunic which was imported from the 7th century AD after the Arab conquest

from eastern countries

And this tunic was made of several pieces of clothe sewn together

So to imagine how this was worn

if you look at my jacket for example

this part would be that part

and this would come up to here

and these two ends would be sewn along the edge here

So we are now looking at textiles from the Mamluk period

which is roughly 13th century to mid-16th century

So I have 3 textiles in front of me

and I'm sure you can already notice some differences from the ones we just had a look at

The main difference with the Mamluk is their taste for geometric decoration

and that's why at this time the main decoration consists of geometric motifs

So for example you can see on this textile tiny, tiny triangle motifs

This textile is a pillow case and it was found in a grave as we can

notice through the stains coming from the humor of the body

Geometric decoration can be found on furnishing textiles

but also on clothing items

So in front of me is another example of a sleeve of a tunic

This tunic is probably of the type 2 that we described earlier

because under the Mamluk's type 1 is slowly but surely abandoned

and men, women and kids

only wore tunics made of several pieces of clothe cut and sewn together

But then you will tell me: 'But hang on, here there is some patterns????'

'AND IT'S NOT ONLY GEOMETRIC!'

This is true because under the Mamluk's one of the most important signs of high rank in society

became the blazon

So a blazon is basically a kind of logo for an amir or a prince

For example this blazon has been woven in cotton

one of the most used fibres under the Mamluks

and it was made to decorate a tent of an amir

and it is decorated with a cup

and this cup helps us to know that

this amir was the 'cup bearer' at court

which was a very, very high duty under the Mamluks

Thanks for watching my little introduction on fashion in Egypt

and textile production

I hope you enjoyed it

and I hope you're going to look for these textiles in museums now

If you want to see more Curator's Corners you can find them here

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