Thursday, May 12, 2022

Coptic Artisans: History of Egyptian Textiles

The Louvre

History of Egyptian Textiles RAWI's ISSUE 6, 2014 by Seif El Rashidi  

...The importance of Egypt's textile industry is reflected in medieval documents, the diversity of preserved textiles – some referencing Pharaonic motifs & classical legends...The country’s reputation as a textile producer probably dates back almost 2,000 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 & beautifully coloured, textiles produced in Egypt were so prized that they were traded all over the Mediterranean & beyond.

Fourth/fifth-century Coptic textile fragment (linen, wool) original; provenance: Akhmim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tens of thousands of textiles survive from the period predating the Arab conquest of Egypt, a time when most Egyptians were Christian & 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 & from merchants, bills, & 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 10C-12C 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), & 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 & 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...

Fifth-century fragment of garment: square tapestry panel in polychrome wool depicting bird and ankh-within-wreath. The British Museum

Surviving Coptic textiles, which usually date from between the 5C-8C, show an incredible variety of patterns & 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 & decorates the ‘canvas’ at the same time...

The range of surviving textiles is broad – many are garments...but some are household textiles, such as curtains, or wall hangings. Many of these, especially the earlier ones, are classical in taste, & bear strong resemblance to Roman mosaics, often managing to create the idea of shading very effectively, despite the difficulty of the medium...