Textiles from the pharaohs to today

Mina Adel Gayed, Tuesday 17 Dec 2019

The history of Egypt’s traditional textiles goes back to Pharaonic times, especially those made in the Upper Egyptian town of Akhmim, writes Mina Adel Gayed

A textile panel with Orpheus and the animals on display at the Egyptian Museum

Canadian Ambassador to Cairo Jess Dutton inaugurated the Akhmim and Hegaza Fair at the Upper Egypt Association for Education and Development (UEAED) in the Al-Daher district of Cairo on 28 November in recognition of the long tradition of textile manufacturing represented by the weavers of Upper Egypt.

The ceremony was attended by friends of the Association from France and Canada, various expatriates, and NGO leaders in Egypt. Dutton admired the handiwork of the Upper Egyptian textile makers displayed at the fair, which is still made with simple tools and showcases this aspect of the artistic heritage of Upper Egypt.

He said that Canada fully supported the development of Egyptian handicrafts in comments made at the annual fair that runs until 8 December.

The weavers from Akhmim near Sohag in Upper Egypt make magnificent pieces that attract buyers inside and outside of Egypt. Mariam Azmi, lead artist at the Association’s Services Centre which sponsors and trains the Akhmim artists, has worked in traditional textiles for 40 years and is still inspired by the environment of Upper Egypt.

Textiles with Islamic motifs

“When I pass through the farmland of the region I take in the rural scenes and store them in my memory until I recreate them with coloured thread in the form of traditional textiles,” she said. She first draws the composition with white chalk on cloth, afterwards making adjustments over a period of a week or more until it is complete in her eyes. Then the work of weaving can begin.

Azmi said the taste of the public at exhibitions was not the most important thing for her when making textiles and that her main emphasis was on what was most pleasing to her.

In recognition of her work and of the tradition that it emerges form, Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali announced in March that Egypt had won Best Production Award for 2019 among the participating Arab countries at the Princess Sabeeka Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa Competition that encourages traditional crafts in Bahrain. Azmi, 62, herself from Akhmim, won a special prize, with her work being considered to epitomise this traditional form of art.

Azmi herself cannot read or write, but she has a vast and creative imagination, and her images of natural scenes represent an unbroken tradition of presenting nature. At the Association’s Services Centre, she trains new generations of weavers, and she was nominated for the Bahrain Competition because of her long association with this form of art.

Samir Shakour, a French-Egyptian critic who has enjoyed the work of the Akhmim weavers for decades, markets the work in Europe and helps to educate western societies about this authentic Egyptian form of art. He said that it was often marketed abroad as “naive art” and was collected by specialised museums such as the Musée International d’Art Naif in Canada where he hoped to organise an exhibition of the Akhmim textiles in 2021.

“This form of art is made without any formal education or guidance. No one taught these women how to draw, what to draw, how to compose their pieces, or ways to choose colours. They create these masterpieces spontaneously,” Shakour said. “If they had been taught how to draw, their drawings would likely all look alike. As it is, each artist has her own way of drawing. This is the beauty of the Akhmim artists and what makes their work art.”

Lola Lahham, author of Tales of the Women of Akhmim and director of the Akhmim project at the association, said it had played a pioneering role in reviving and protecting Egypt’s textile heritage. As well as the annual fair at the association’s premises in Cairo, last year it was awarded a commemorative shield by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi when he opened the Turathna Exhibition of Egypt’s heritage.

It was “an expression of his appreciation of the work of the Association in developing heritage handicrafts,” Lahham said.

A decorated panel dating back to the Umayyad era

Tales of textiles: The techniques used by the people of Akhmim in weaving textiles were inherited from the ancient Egyptians, along with the designs of the looms they use.

Despite the passage of time, they still continue their traditional crafts. Weaving is also a family affair in Akhmim, with an average of one loom in every household. Women account for 80 per cent of the weavers, though the work is commonly divided between husbands and wives, mothers-in-law and daughters. Very often a man works at the looms since the work is considered labour intensive.

Akhmim has long been famous for its handmade textiles. One historian has even written that “Akhmim is an early Manchester,” a reference to the British city that in the 19th century was famous for its textile production. Yet, Akhmim itself is a rural community like many others in Upper Egypt, a small town surrounded by greenery, built close to the River Nile and with a splash of modern housing.

The houses are clustered together, intertwining among a labyrinth of narrow alleys, and visitors might not immediately recognise that the town is also one of the oldest in the world, there having been a continuous settlement on the site over the past 4,000 years. To the east of the modern town, the layers of civilisations built one on top of the other can still be seen, indicating the history of this town that was rebuilt at least seven times during Egypt’s Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras.

In 1913, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie found what he believed to be the oldest woven tunic in the world at Akhmim. The discovery was made at the Tarkhan Cemetery dating back to the First Dynasty of the ancient Egyptians located some 50 km south of Cairo. This linen V-neck tunic was examined using carbon testing by Oxford University in 2015 and dated to 3482-3102 BCE with 95 per cent accuracy. It is currently on display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London.

In 1928, German archaeologist Hermann Junker discovered the Merimde-Beni Salama Cemeteries from the Neolithic period in nearby Fayoum. He also found woven fabrics that had been worn by those who had lived in the area in antiquity in the form of linen garments, as well as tools for weaving fabric dating back to the Neolithic period.

These items showed that such textiles emerged towards the end of the Stone Age and developed until they flourished during Pharaonic times. The textile industry in this part of the world is one of the earliest in human history, and sample exhibits of cloth from the region can be found in museums throughout the world.

Historically, Akhmim was the capital of the ninth Upper Egyptian region and was named after the Pharaonic god Min, the god of fertility and harvest. In the Old Kingdom, Ahkmim was called Khante-Min, or City of the God Min, and it featured prominently in the New Kingdom when the pharaoh Ramses II (19th Dynasty) built many temples, royal tombs and statues there. The Greek historian Herodotus who visited Egypt in the fifth century BCE (around 484-425 BCE) mentioned Akhmim as a place where “the women take care of the household and the men work in the textile industry.”

The world’s oldest woven attire

Some key designs during Pharaonic times were of animals, plants and geometrical shapes, as well as magic charms on priestly tunics and mummy shrouds and embroidered leather sandals. The ancient Egyptians spun cloth out of flax seed, used plant dyes for colour, and alum to make them colourfast. They used coarse-fibre plants in textile production and for daily needs, most notably flax, palm fibre, and the halfa that was used to make rope. Animal fibres did not feature much in textile making.

Textiles developed in Graeco-Roman times became famous during the Ptolemaic era. The Greek historians of the time wrote of Egypt’s textiles in terms of their detail, especially an intricate type called “peipus” that corresponds to the world “tissot” in Ancient Egyptian, meaning “royal” to indicate it is a luxurious type of woven linen.

During the Roman era, the textile workshops in Alexandria, Egypt’s capital at the time, would supply the emperor and his court with the linen fabrics that Egypt was then famous for. Akhmim textiles were used in royal palaces during the Pharaonic and Ptolemaic times, and during the Roman era its production of silk was exported to Rome.

The Coptic and Islamic eras: When Christianity arrived in Egypt, Akhmim was renamed “Shemin” or “Khemin” and many churches and monasteries were built in and around it.

Some of these have survived until today, including the Martyrs Monastery, the St Pachomius Monastery, the St George Monastery, the Holy Virgin Mary Monastery, the Archangel Michael Monastery and the St Pisada Monastery. Many Christians who were killed for their faith at the hands of the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century CE are buried in Akhmim.

The town was especially famous during the Coptic era for its intricate embroidered cloth with Christian motifs depicting the lives of the saints and stories from the Bible. Some of the most famous Christian motifs include the cross, the saints and the fish, with special attention given to embroidering cloth for the Church. Weaving also advanced in Coptic times when designs had more creativity and freedom than before, while at the same time maintaining the Pharaonic tradition of coordinating colours.

Coptic textiles and embroidery are on display in museums around the world today, showing a blend of weaving and embroidering by hand using techniques that have largely disappeared with time and are often impossible to replicate. As well as using intricate details and motifs, the designs were embedded in folklore and included designs not dictated by the authorities or the state.

In the early years of Christianity under Roman rule, due to the heavy persecution by the Roman emperors Christians could not openly practice their faith or depict it in their textile designs. As a result, Christian artists used the existing Graeco-Roman mythology, while adapting it to the needs of their faith. They used the legend of Orpheus, a great musician who enchanted humans and animals alike, who was allowed to enter the underworld to convince Hades to bring his dead wife back to life, for example.

Orpheus failed in his mission and became inconsolable, wandering in sorrow over his wife until all the birds and animals gathered around him. The early Coptic artists portrayed Orpheus as the good shepherd Jesus in their designs who plays music to gather the stray sheep of the believers.

The Islamic era began in 641 CE, and it impacted textile designs by banning the depiction of human figures and their replacement by Quranic verses, geometrical designs, and the names of the caliph or emir, the artist, the date and the city in which the textile was made. The era became famous for its embroidery using silk and silver thread on linen. A silk garment was found in Akhmim with the name of the caliph Abdel-Malek bin Marwan, the fifth Umayyad ruler (646-705 CE), embroidered on it.

Textiles at this time did not depict living creatures, though at the beginning of Umayyad rule they did retain features of Coptic art. Then techniques changed, and plant and animal motifs reappeared in abstract form.

In the later Fatimid era, silk cloth began to be used featuring embroidered Quranic verses, such as was used for the covering of the Kaaba, in the centre of the mosque in Mecca. Such pieces show the progress of weaving and textile manufacture in Egypt over time, and even today some clothes designers copy traditional motifs and revise them for modern times.

Egyptian textiles were famous and admired around the world and were seen as models of luxury and beauty. The Arab conquerors of Egypt encouraged this artistic heritage until the textile industry flourished across the Islamic world. They also abandoned their coarse Bedouin garments of woollen tunics fastened at the waist with sashes, adopting instead textiles from the civilisations they had conquered, and making the textile industry in Egypt in particular a flourishing and vital industry.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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