Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1384, (8 - 14 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Treasures of the Textile Museum

Jill Kamil introduces the Egyptian Textile Museum, a little-known gem in Islamic Cairo

Textile Museum
Textile Museum
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Egyptian Textile Museum in Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street in the Gammaliya district of Islamic Cairo is a gem. It is in a populous area and worthy of a visit as a delightful getaway from the crowds and busy streets around about. 

First of all, the building itself is delightful. It is housed in a converted sabil or mediaeval water fountain, and converting it into a museum presented quite a challenge. The building required internal structural changes to suit its new function, including installing elevators and ramps to facilitate the movement of disabled visitors. Some of the windows had to be blocked and special display areas created with heat-controlled settings in order to ensure that the textiles are protected from environmental factors. Film screenings showing the different stages of the renovation can be made on request.

The comprehensive collection of textiles that the Textile Museum contains was taken from around the country and includes selections from the Islamic and Coptic Museums in Cairo as well as from the Gawhara Palace south of the Mosque of Mohamed Ali on the Cairo Citadel. Today, this is a user-friendly Museum, providing historical facts in both Arabic and English relevant to each time period from which the artefacts come and information on each piece of textile exhibited along with its original use.

Egypt has been famous for making flax since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians invented a horizontal loom made of two fixed bars placed on the ground with the warp threads stretched in between and the weft inserted by hand. Later, the idea of a movable frame which holds and separates the warp threads was conceived along with the use of a comb.

The displays in the museum are on different floors. The lower floors are devoted to pieces from the Pharaonic era that include ancient Egyptian tunics, loin cloths, simple linen shawls, and more elaborate embroidered pieces. These are artistically displayed along with Pharaonic statuettes and rudimentary tools. 

The early Coptic textiles in the museum that date to the third and fourth centuries CE are both colourful and elaborate. Geometric patterns appear on traditional attire as well as on children’s clothing. The pieces range from tunics of un-dyed linen with medallions and decorative borders (some woven so fine as to appear like embroidery) to a variant of loop-weaving in wool (in which the weft is not pulled tight). 

Other Coptic textiles include cloaks, shirts and shawls, wall hangings, blankets and curtains. The motifs on the garment trimmings show great diversity of subject matter and include lively dancers and warriors, girls riding marine monsters, and Nilotic subjects with birds and animals woven into foliage. 

No Islamic dynasty valued calligraphy as highly as the Ottomans, who later formed one of Cairo’s main trade guilds. The written word, being tightly bound up with the Quranic revelation to the Prophet Mohamed, means that to glorify the name of God and to quote passages from the Quran is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic art forms. The mystical bond between Islam and the art of writing was so sacred that the latter’s reproduction by machine was once considered blasphemous. The upper floors of the Textile Museum include a large collection of Islamic tapestries in which the same techniques were used and adapted to Arabic calligraphy as they had earlier been to Coptic. 

Egyptian textiles were so famous in Ptolemaic times from the death of Alexander the Great in 33 BCE to that of Cleopatra in 30 BCE that many ancient writers describe in flattering terms the tapestries, blankets and pillows that the Pharaoh Ptolemy II once provided for his guests. These often stunned visitors with their realistic natural depictions. 

Women continued to spin and weave during the Roman era (30 BCE-325 CE) and, with the spread of Christianity in Egypt after 325 CE, Christian symbols merged with the prevailing artistic and spiritual traditions of Rome and Constantinople.

Among the attention-grabbing pieces at the museum is a collection of four royal bed sheets believed to have been presented by the ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut to the designer of her temple at Deir Al-Bahari near Luxor, a royal kilt once belonging to the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun, and, from the Islamic Fatimid period, a piece of flax cloth with kufic-style Arabic calligraphy embroidered in silk and praising “the conqueror Nizar Abi Mansour Al-Aziz Bellah, commander of the faithful” supplemented with a decorative stripe containing images of birds. 

From the Islamic Tulunid period (ninth century CE) comes a delightful woollen cloth featuring a hippopotamus in yellows, greens and blues. Even prayer carpets were beautifully made of silk and decorated with golden embroidery using botanical designs. One on view in the museum today once belonged to Zeinab Hanem, the daughter of Egypt’s 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali. This was a gift from her father on her wedding night. 

Finally, visitors to this marvellous museum have the chance to see a splendid covering cloth for the Kaaba in Mecca made of blue silk and decorated with botanical designs and Quranic verses knitted with gilded yarns. It was “made on the orders of King Farouk of Egypt and Sudan in 1942”, the inscription on the piece says.

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