The Egyptian textile industry has illustriously flourished since the Pharaonic times. The remains that we have today of the fibers used to wrap mummies indicate an impressively high level of accuracy in manufacturing and production. From the times of the rule of the Ptolemy in Egypt followed by Roman rule, Egypt was continuously obliged to pay tribute in the form of currency, papyrus and even textiles.
Archaeologists have divided Coptic textiles into different artistic and historical periods:
The first designated period features decorative textiles that were artistically influenced by Hellenistic art, which is to say they portray objects in a realistic way.
The second period is distinguished by the appearance of Christian symbols and images of both saints and religious parables.
The third period was a time where human forms were woven in distorted ways, without any details, thus making the artists use many colours in each piece to keep attention away from the decoration.
Textile from the Coptic Museum in Cairo
When the Muslims entered Egypt, they helped in the development and distribution of textiles, and employed the same weavers, who were Coptic, in their government factories. The Muslims also founded an area in Egypt which served exclusively for making textiles. They named it Al-Teraz.
The different historical stages of development of the textile industry in the Islamic Era:
Textiles in the Abbasid period:
Most of what remains of Egyptian textiles from the Abbasid period are various sized pieces of linen fabric that feature Teraz ribbons (strips of embroidered text). Teraz ribbons serve as important historical documents, as they enable us to better understand historical events through what is written. The Teraz ribbons always start with the Islamic invocation “Bismallah,” meaning “in the Name of God,” or a short prayer, or even both. This honourific introduction is then followed by the mentioning of the name of the ruler, or caliph, then his successor. Lastly, the Teraz ribbons have information such as the date of production, the name of the production centre, and sometimes the name of the master of the centre. Most of the textiles fashioned in this period have embroidered text of red or blue silk on a yellow or brown linen backdrop. Some Teraz ribbons also feature a decorative strip above and below the text depicting animals or floral motifs, influenced by the style found in Samarra, Iraq.
Turban belonging to Samuel Bin Tadros from the Islamic Museum
Textiles from the Fatimid period:
The textile industry was among the first industries that the Fatimids focused on as textiles were essential in helping them disseminate their public decrees, and extravagant textiles would portray the message in a lavish and therefore authoritative way. For this reason, the industry was developed, and a master was appointed for the managerial responsibilities. The master enjoyed special rights and benefits that other employees did not; he would arrive in Cairo and be greeted by a formal reception, be given one of the ruler’s horses as well as a furnished home with hospitality normally reserved for honoured guests. This shows the level of importance the Fatimids placed on the industry and indeed why it reached such an elevated level of accuracy and quality.
Historians elaborated on the various types of textiles found in the Fatimid period such as zebra prints, brocades, tassels, and bejeweled turbans.
Textiles in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods:
The Teraz ribbons disappeared as the symbol of the caliphate with the fall of the Fatimids, after which textiles became more free form in terms of decoration, and free from the restriction of Teraz ribbons. They instead employed methods of decorative motifs that could cover the entire surface. The Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Kurds brought a diversity of artistic styles, and decoration came to reflect nature more realistically.
Examples of textile forms during the Mamluk period from the Metropolitan Museum
Sample from the cover of the Kaaba from the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul
Sample from the cover of the Kaaba from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo
Textiles in the Ottoman period:
The textiles that we have today from the Ottoman period are largely intact compared to what remains from the earlier Islamic periods. Therefore, they can be be classified into two groups.
The first group includes men’s and women’s fashions, with subgroups regarding the styles of different social classes. For example, the fashions of men include those of governmental and military uniforms, attires of scientists and clergymen, and the gowns of the Sufi mystics and dervishes. Likewise, women’s fashions varied from upper, middle and lower class.
The second group is comprised of dining room and drawing room furnishings such as curtains tablecloths, handkerchiefs, napkins and finally, the cover of the Kaaba. These textiles have been acquired from several international museums, in addition to clothing items such as turbans, caftans, traditional undergarments, and other such fashions.
The resplendent art of the Islamic era has an illustrious history, not only because of its aesthetic qualities, but also because it served practical functions. Textiles in the history of Egypt can give invaluable insight to the culture and lives of times past. The evolution of Islamic art in textiles also serves as a reflection of the innovation of the human spirit in artistic expression throughout the ages.