Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 July 2003
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Threads of history

Weaving technology and techniques were established early on in Egypt, but we know little about the development of the industry, writes Jill Kamil

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Assortment of textiles in the Coptic Museum shows great versatility and the use of a wide range of motifs and decorations
In his Essays on Christian Art and Culture in the Middle East (Vol 2, 1999) published by Leiden University, Ezzat Salib, a restorer with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) working in collaboration with the Egyptian-Netherlands Cooperation for Coptic Art Preservation (ENCCAP), wrote: "A programme of conservation of the textile collection of the Coptic Museum began in 1990, when I returned from Switzerland after a specialised training with the Abbeg Foundation in Bern."

The museum's programme has two objectives: to stabilise the fibres and the structure of the textiles in the museum, of which there are more than 8,000 specimens, and to provide proper storage and exhibition conditions to ensure their preservation. The most badly damaged textiles have been attacked by fibre-eating insects, while others have been adversely affected by ultraviolet light which fades dyes and breaks down fibres. Heat makes the fabrics brittle, and humidity causes physical deterioration. For the study of textile structures, fibre identification, and decayed wool, good storage and study areas are a basic necessity.

The task has not been easy. Trying to make sense of Egypt's collection of textiles is extremely difficult. The dry climate and sandy soil have preserved them in large numbers, but we actually know very little the development of textile craft production, one of the most highly developed of industries.

It is rarely possible to match together the fragments of tunics, caftans, shrouds, curtains and cushion covers woven in wool, linen, silk and cotton, which show a wide variety of weaving patterns. The archaeological context of most of the pieces remains a mystery, while sequence dating has so far proved deficient, the chronology of Coptic textiles varies from one scholar to another, and efforts to classify Coptic tapestries into epochs is somewhat artificial. An attempt at classification was made by some early scholars and continues today. Salib groups the Coptic fabrics in the museum into four phases: pre- Coptic (first to third century AD), when the influence of Hellenistic naturalism was strong throughout the Roman world; proto-Coptic (late third to fifth century), when shapes become more abstract and colours restricted to blue, purple and white; Coptic period (fifth to seventh century), when there was a tendency towards symbols in place of pagan gods; and 'final' period (eighth to 12th century), when under Islamic patronage forms became almost unintelligible melanges of colours and lines.

The fact that most of the weaving technology and techniques employed by Coptic weavers were established early on is recognised by the conservation team but, in my opinion, the above classification gives the false impression that textile production was a short-lived industry rather than part of an enduring tradition.

For example, the wearing of ornate garments in ancient Egypt can be traced back to the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC), probably introduced as a result of Egypt's increased contacts with the countries of western Asia where material decorated with colourful ornamentation was already a centuries-old tradition. Hellenistic influence can be traced not only in the so-called pre- Coptic period in the first century, but from the third century BC when decorated shrouds were placed over anthropoid coffins.

Likewise, Coptic tapestries do not end in the 12th century as indicated in the above categories: consider that the fine 18th- century ecclesiastical robes and stoles in the Coptic Museum, as well as a silk garment embroidered with silver thread featuring the 23 disciples with their names written in Arabic, also from the 18th century.

Collections of textiles were assembled unscientifically, the bulk having been purchased by dealers -- often from illegal excavations -- who kept their sources secret, so it is not possible to trace the stylistic changes as they occurred over time at the great centres of the weaving industry -- Alexandria, Antinoe (Fayoum), Akhmim, Panopolis, Oxyrhynchus (Bahnasa), and Damietta. Nor is it possible to say which of these centres were influenced by the Egyptian master weavers and artists who were attracted to Persia in the third century with the rise of the Sassanian kingdom which preceded the founding of Constantinople. These returned to Egypt with a new Persian repertory of themes such as opposing horsemen, two facing peacocks drinking from the same vessel, winged animals and double palms. Even the dates of these innovations are uncertain.

When mummification was forbidden in Egypt in the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, towards the end of the fourth century, the custom began of burying the dead in their clothes, some in sumptuous tunics, cloaks, shawls and fine linen shirts, others in simple robes with a border decoration, and others again in undecorated but finely woven linen garments depending on their social status. There is no way to tell whether, or for how long, the fabrics showing a strong Greek-Egyptian influence survived beyond the so-called pre-Coptic period -- such as the weaving of a sphinx with a human head or Hellenistic dancers, warriors and musical ceremonies.

The textile makers were extremely versatile and had a wide range of motifs and decorations from which to chose. They let their creative imagination have full sway, and the freshness and vigour of their expression gives the fabrics a peculiar and distinctive attraction. The integration of contrasting configurations -- classical, Egyptian, Greek-Egyptian, and Persian pagan motifs, as well as Byzantine and Syrian influences -- led to a trend in Coptic art that is difficult to define because it is not possible to trace a unity of style. It seems that sophisticated work was produced by highly talented weavers at the same time that other pieces were produced that was simple, unsophisticated and yet equally forceful.

Abstract and decorative patterns with popular Christian motifs such as fish, grapes, and vine leaves may have been produced simultaneously with tapestries adorned with symbols. But from the fourth century, when Christianity was recognised as the religion of the Roman Empire and Old and New Testament themes were introduced into popular art, mythological themes did not disappear altogether.

In order for Coptic textiles to be appreciated in historical context, such terminology as a "Coptic Period" (with pre- and proto-Coptic before, and "final" after), should be abandoned, at least until such time as the conservationists in the Egyptian-Netherlands programme can back up their categories by placing the Coptic textiles firmly into the groups they define. Restorers concede that this is not an easy task.

Coptic cloth conservation

TEXTILE conservation is a time-consuming and highly specialised task. Each piece is carefully cleaned to remove the ravages of dirt and deterioration and to rejuvenate the fibres. Wet cleaning is used in nearly all cases, but beforehand the fastness of the dyes and the strength of the fibres has to be tested. Some of the pieces are so fragile that they must be sewn between two pieces of nylon netting; this is done with surgical needles so that the cloth remains flat on the worktable and need not be lifted.

Once consolidated, the pieces are soaked in ordinary water or, in the case of wool, in a glycerine solution. The glycerine fills the woollen fibre and helps to restore its original flexibility. After this the textiles are washed in water with a natural detergent, rinsed well and left to dry.

The textiles are dried on pieces of glass, since the surface tension created by the water in contact with the glass holds the textiles flat and practically eliminates the necessity of re-wetting and blocking. Afterwards, each textile is mounted to protect it from dirt by sewing it with silk thread on to a backing of nylon tulle. This material has been chosen because it is possible to see through it to examine the back of the textile.

Good storage and exhibition conditions are essential for the preservation of textiles, which, ideally, are presented on an angled, flat, covered deck to which the tulle-backing adheres firmly without the use of pins.

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