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Athena Review Exhibition Reports: 

Late Antique Textiles from Egypt

Murray Eiland

           Museum of Applied Art, Vienna, Austria (December 7, 2005- May 5, 2006)

Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, England (May 20,2006 - September 10, 2006)

    Introduction: The end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century was something of a golden age for Egyptian archaeology. With a high degree of public interest there was enough money to mount massive excavations that yielded - by today's standards - an almost unbelievable amount of information. Egyptian antiquities laws allowed for a division of finds. At the same time, illicit digging spread Egyptian artifacts worldwide. The result is that remains of this period of exploration are now scattered in museums throughout the world. Much Victorian era research, elucidating Egyptian history as was revealed in the Bible, did not focus on the period of later antiquity. Many museums have Late Antique textiles from Egypt, yet few have paid much attention to them. They may make up only a small part of the “Coptic” section of the display. It appears that these museums have yet to update their exhibits. However one wants to define these textiles, many show evidence of great skill, and a few can be appreciated as high art.   

    Greco-Roman Egypt was perhaps not completely forgotten, but it was certainly understudied. In recent years, this trend has been reversed. Last year, there were two important exhibits, one in Vienna and one in Manchester, that showed how much the study of ancient textiles can contribute to understanding the Late Antique period in Egypt. The shows considered how people dressed. They  examined aspects of everyday life, which is a refreshing change to most Egyptian history that  typically concentrates upon elites. Perhaps most importantly, the study of textiles reveals information about the former inhabitants of Egypt.

[Fig.1: Piece of the so called “Marwan Silk” (132-140 mm x 120-133 mm) from the collection of Charles Robinson and now in the Whitworth Art Gallery. From the design it appears that it originated in Central Asia. It is associated with an inscription that identifies it with Marwan II, the last Caliph of the Ummayyad dynasty who fled from Syria to Egypt in AD 750 (The Whitworth Art Gallery, T.8496)].

    Historical Background: The first Millennium AD in Egypt can be appreciated as “non-Egyptian.” There were cultural changes to be sure, but there is no doubt that the people were largely the same as before. After the conquest of Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC) Egypt was firmly embedded into the economy of the eastern Mediterranean. The battle of Actium in 31 BC led to direct Roman control via a Roman governor.

    In AD 40 Egypt was converted to Christianity, reputedly by Saint Mark the Evangelist. While exact figures are hard to determine, Egypt probably had a largely Christian population through the Byzantine period, the brief Sasanian interlude (AD 619 - 629), and for several centuries after the Arab conquest in AD 639-642. In Arabic the Greek word aigyptos for “Egyptian” was translated into qbt. This in turn became known as Copt in English, which explains why so many of these textiles are known as “Coptic” today.  However, the term today refers specifically to members of the Monophysite Christian church in Egypt, which still claims adherents. The term “Coptic textile” is therefore not ideal. There was a close co-existence with pagan cults on the former end of the time scale, and with Islam on the latter. Decorative elements from many religions and cultures appear on Egyptian textiles of the first millennium. Not surprisingly for such a rich region, textiles were also imported from other areas.  

    The reason there has been so much recent interest in these textiles is not hard to understand. It requires a special environment to preserve ancient textiles. The Egyptian climate is perfect. Unlike Greco-Roman funerary practices, which favored cremation, Egyptians had a long tradition of mummification. By the time that Christianity took hold in the mid third century, Egyptian burial practices had changed so that the body was not interred in unadorned bands, but in the clothing used in life. While much is known of early Egyptian clothing from graphic art, the actual remains have revealed much more about Egyptian clothing. This was also a period that lies at the crossroads of empires. Perhaps not fully Egyptian, Greek, or Roman, it requires a great breadth of knowledge to make sense of the physical remains. The disciplines of architecture or sculpture in the field of archaeology are well established. Textiles, in contrast, can be said to be “women’s work.” The methods and materials of weaving are far from straightforward, however, and requires specialists to decipher. The history of design is one distinct part, but with textiles it is the technique that dictates, at least in part, the end result.

    Museum of Applied Art, Vienna: Despite the fact that the shows cover much the same period, there are differences between the collections and an even greater difference in focus between the two presentations. The Vienna catalogue (in both German and English) is the result of an exhibition of the Museum of Applied Art (MAK) that lasted from 12/07/05 - 05/05/06. There is a separate booklet (27 pages long) included with the catalogue that gives complete technical information about how the textiles were woven. The museum owns one of the earliest collections of this material to be formed due to the efforts of Alois Riegl (1858-1905). He was both a head curator of the museum’s textile collection and professor of art history at the University of Vienna. The exhibition was timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. It presented 114 textiles from the collection of about 1,200 objects. As of 2006 the entire MAK collection of Late Antique and Early Islamic textiles has been on a web database accessible from the MAK homepage ( After a short introduction to Late Antique and Early Islamic textiles, there is a detailed catalogue of objects. Special attention is paid to art-historical elements. This is in contrast to the Whitworth catalogue, which gives pride of place to complete or relatively complete items of clothing (figs.1-3). 

    Of particular interest in the Vienna catalogue is one example of a textile (cat. no. 98) that has been colored with purple derived from a Mediterranean marine snail (murex trunculus or murex brandaris). Known as “Tyrian purple,” texts note that this was a high prestige dye from Phoenicia reserved for royal use. It has been estimated that up to 12,000 snails were required for 2 grams of dye. It is rare to find this dye in Egypt, as other examples have been recovered from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Of the Egyptian finds, it appears that all identified textiles using this dye date from the third or fourth century. All identified Tyrian purple textiles apparently also use gold thread. 

[Fig.2:  Sleevebands from a wool tunic (198 mm wide). Dancing figures and animals (in this case appear to be dogs) are thought to represent rituals involving Dionysus. Such scenes also occur in conjunction with Christian symbols, attesting to a level of duality in popular belief. The color may be designed to imitate Tyrian purple, but is not very convincing (The Whitworth Art Gallery, T.11140)].

    Most dyes that now appear purple are crude imitations of the real dye (fig.2), and it is quite common to see attempts at imitating gold thread using dye color as well. One imitation dye was made from lichen that was not lightfast, and specimens today appear faint. It is a sad fact that in the Vienna catalogue, the example dyed with Tyrian purple appears little different than the imitations. This is due to, in this case, rather poor color reproduction, which show the color to be darker than it really is. It is clear from surviving examples that to the ancient world the color alone was the critical aspect. If this were not the case, there would have been more attention paid to differentiating the design. 

    Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester: The Whitworth Art Gallery is associated with the University of Manchester. The show of textiles lasted from 05/20 - 09/10 2006. Since the catalogue was compiled by a single author, it is therefore much easier to read in its entirety. The color reproductions are excellent. Many technical aspects of the cloth are discussed in the text.  There are ample reconstruction drawings that indicate how the ornament would have been worn.

    What became the Whitworth Gallery first opened in 1889, and by that time it had already acquired a collection of Late Antique textiles from Egypt. The initial collection of seventy textiles (fig.1) belonged to John Charles Robinson (1824-1913) the first Superintendent of what was to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. This group was said to come from Akhmim, an Upper Egyptian town known as Panopolis in antiquity and situated about 140 miles south of Thebes .  

    Another major contributor was W.M. Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) who is commonly billed as a founder of Egyptian archaeology. He gave approximately 260 textiles in 1897.  Originating from his excavations in the Fayum (principally el-Lahun), some can be identified according to location, but records for this period of material are not carefully kept. Part of the problem was the sheer scale of the grave goods recovered, as many bodies had several layers of textiles.

    Of particular importance are the number of complete items of clothing, including sixteen complete wool tunics, ten sprang caps, and a wool mantle. Ancient cloth that arrived to the museum via dealers was often cut (to multiply the sales possibilities), and as a rule illicit excavations tended to pass on figural rather than patterned fabrics.  This specialty of the collection forms a main interest of the catalogue, as it is possible to reconstruct how clothing was made over time, rather than just how it was decorated. The arrangement of decorative elements reveal many things about the status of the owner as well as changes in fashion.

[ Fig.3: Decorated section of the blue wool tunic, 166 mm wide. The rather abstract design suggests a later date (after the Islamic conquest) than figurative textiles. The design is rather complex, with pairs of snakes, millipedes, birds, and floral forms.  The lower band with a red ground has either a horse, roundel, or eight pointed star enclosed by lozenges. Dye analysis showed the red to be from Armenian cochineal, found in the area around Mt. Ararat. While the dye has been identified from Palmyra, it is rarely found in Egyptian textiles. The unusual design of the textile suggests that it, and not just the dye, was traded (The Whitworth Art Gallery, T.8461)].

    Egypt had a long tradition of weaving garments to shape on a wide loom, a trend that was to continue throughout the Late Antique period. Woven to shape tunics (figs.2-3) were made from a single piece of fabric turned ninety degrees and then seamed at the sides and under the arms. By the 5th century other techniques began to predominate. During this period, three separate pieces of fabric could be used, and a tuck concealed a seam at the waist. By the 7th century, most tunics were made with sewn on sleeves and side gores were used. It appears that this major change was stimulated by Persian (Sasanian) styles of dress that were particularly suited to horse riding. Tunics became shorter as trousers were used. A long tunic is not suitable for horse-riders. At the same time there was a greater use of decorative bands and roundels that were woven separately, rather than as part of the clothing. Narrower strips of cloth factored against the use of tapestry weaving for decoration. The trend continued into the Islamic period, which offered no radical break with the past for several centuries. Yet as woven to fit clothing declined, and sewing was increasingly used to put garments together, sewn decoration predominated. While few areas in the Near East continue the tradition of sewn to fit garments, most decoration in traditional clothing is stitched.    

    In conclusion both museum catalogues are good reading for anyone interested in the subject, as well as the art and history of early Christianity. The textiles in person, dimly lit to avoid damage, can be difficult to appreciate. If one takes into consideration possible errors in color reproduction, the catalogues offer an easier way to come to grips with fine detail. Appreciating a show of smaller objects often involves assuming awkward positions that are not conducive to detailed study. Armchair archaeology might not be the heroic way, but it is certainly the most comfortable.


Fragile Remnants: Egyptian Textiles of Late Antiquity and Early Islam. 2005. Ed. Peter Noever, with contributions by Angela Völker, Regina Hofmann-de Keijzer, Regina Knaller, Veronika Mader, and Anke S. Weidner.  Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit. 199 pages. ISBN 3-7757-1699-8. 29.80 Euro.

Pritchard, Frances, 2006. Clothing Culture: Dress in Egypt in the First Millennium A.D. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester. 154 pages.  ISBN 0-903261-57-X

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