Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 May 2006
Issue No. 796
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tapestry of Coptic history

An attractive publication with a somewhat formidable title draws Jill Kamil 's attention to a worthy source on textiles, one of the finest of all Coptic arts

Click to view caption
Tunics in Coptic style and structure, as sketched above, span 1,000 years; two women weaving on a horizontal loom is a sketch of a 12th-Dynasty Egyptian wall; birds and flowers were popular themes

The Coptic Tapestry Albums and the Archaeologist of Antino‘, Albert Gayet, is the lengthy title of a new book by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, who has researched Coptic collections in more than 50 museums around the world and who has produced a book that is a delight to handle and read. Here, at last, is a publication on Coptic textiles that is well-researched and illustrated with photographs in vibrant colour, along with detailed line drawings of weaving techniques and ancient weavers at the loom.

Thanks to Egypt's dry climate and sandy soil, textiles have survived in vast numbers and in an unrivalled state of preservation. Tens of thousands of coloured fragments found their way into the museums of the world, especially after 1889 when the French archaeologist Albert Gayet published a catalogue of Coptic art and, in the Bulaq Museum, staged the first exhibition of Coptic monuments.

"The first time I saw a Coptic tapestry portrait with its soul-searching gaze I was completely captivated," Hoskins writes in her introduction. "I felt I had connected -- through craft -- with someone from that far distant time and place. The dancers were enchanting, the angels ephemeral, the flowers ever festive, the weaving free-spirited."

Her enthusiasm subsequently inspired Hoskins, a former college weaving instructor who has published the results of her research in more than 50 professional journals, to examine Coptic collections in museums in the United States as well as the Coptic Museum in Cairo, which has the largest collection of Coptic textiles in the world. Thus began a research project that has led her to review museum collections in England, France, Portugal and Canada.

Hoskins shared her passion for textiles with Coptic scholars and conservators, professional weavers, art historians, and authors. She visited exhibitions of Coptic tapestries and in 1988 presented a lecture at the first International Tapestry Symposium in Melbourne, Australia. So inspired was she that she grew flax, dyed fibres, spun yarn, and tested Egyptian textiles techniques with simple looms and with a "very advanced loom that interfaces with my computer". She delved into the past to inspire her own handwoven art fabrics.

Egyptians first invented a very primitive horizontal loom made of two fixed bars placed on the ground, with the warp threads stretched in between and the weft inserted by hand until the idea of the heddle -- the movable frame which holds and separates the warp threads -- and the comb were conceived. The technique of weaving was followed by the use of organic colourings, and the burial grounds of such cities as Antino‘ (ancient Crocodilopos in Fayoum) and Akhmim (near Sohag in Upper Egypt) have yielded tens of thousands of fabric pieces, most of which date from the fourth century when mummification fell into disuse and the dead were buried in their clothing.

Coptic textiles range from tunics of undyed linen with medallions and decorative borders -- some woven so fine as to appear more like embroidery -- to a variant of loop weaving in wool (in which the weft was not pulled tight). The textiles included cloaks, shirts and shawls, wall hangings, blankets, and curtains. The motifs on the garment trimmings show great diversity of subject matter: lively dancers and warriors, girls riding marine monsters, and Nilotic subjects with birds and animals woven into foliage, which was a popular artistic cliché in Egypt.

The Coptic Tapestry Albums is no modest publication outlining one of the crafts of Egypt, but is a comprehensive study of the style, structure, and iconography of each tapestry from the Gayet collections considered in the cultural context of Late Antique and early Christian Egypt. Hoskins has painstakingly documented her research, and, in the words of Gawdat Gabra, former director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, she has produced, in The Coptic Tapestry Albums, "one of the most exciting archaeological detective stories."

The first part of the book provides a valuable historical record of Graeco-Roman cities in Egypt, where pagan gods were worshipped even while Christianity was taking root. It was at this time that the fragments found in the city of Antino‘ were woven. Hoskins reviews the career of Albert Gayet, a charismatic French archaeologist (1856-1916), who unearthed a vast number of textiles in successive seasons and staged stunning exhibitions of the fabrics in Paris. A large number of the textiles then went on public sale, and one private collector, Henry Bryon, had his 144 fabrics bound into two albums which are featured in Hoskins' book. This was an era, of course, when there was no control of Egyptian antiquities, and when sites were opened up and objects taken abroad without their provenance being recorded. At that time burial grounds were left to the mercy of grave-robbers who were well aware of the value placed on such objects in the Western world, and they were ruthlessly pillaged.

Coptic weaving and embroidery terms and techniques, as described in the second part of the book, reveal the depth of Hoskins's study into ancient and late antique fabrics -- techniques and dating, material and methods, with special mention of the specific techniques of Coptic weavers.

Finally, part three of The Coptic Tapestry Albums comprises a catalogue of the theme, style and structure of various textiles that the author has studied from published collections, personally examined, and compared with mosaics, sculptures, frescoes and manuscript paintings of the piece under review. Hoskins provides an author-date system of documentation that makes Coptic tapestries easily accessible, and has created a glossary of technical terms that will doubtless become standard.

Had Hoskins been a resident of Egypt she might have noted, in villages like Gurna on the Theban necropolis, Akhmim in Upper Egypt, and Kerdassa, Harraniya and Wisa Wassef near Giza, that Coptic weavers are still producing tapestries and textiles. Like the painting of icons, and the illumination of manuscripts, weaving is part of a living culture that endures to the present day. One has only to look closely at the working methods of contemporary weavers, analyse the type of material they use, the methods they employ, and the geometric and floral patterns that dominate the greater part of their work, to note that they are, with few exceptions, much like those of the ancient past. Thread is spun on a rudimentary spinning wheel and weavers work at an archaic loom, throwing the shuttle back and forth to produce designs of local lore or representations that describe an environment that is not so different from themes produced in earlier times. Such continuity could have been made clear in the introduction, rather than identifying a "Coptic Period" as covering "centuries in Egyptian history between the time of the Pharaohs and the Muslim rulers".

This beautifully bound and produced publication will delight historians, weavers, archaeologists and the lay public alike. It has been selected as one of the best textile books of 2004 by the Textile Society of America.

Hoskins, Nancy Arthur (2004) The Coptic Tapestry Albums: and the Archaeologist of Antino‘, the University of Washington Press, Seattle.


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