Medieval Islamic Cloak-type Wraps
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Copyright March 2010, Julia May
Protecting one from the sun, the cold, and the eyes of the unknown, cloak-type wraps were, and continue to be, an important part of the material culture of the Middle East. Wraps are simply large rectangles of fabric draped and pinned to conceal the body, yet there were no fewer than ten different types of wraps used in the Fatimid period of Middle Eastern history.
Studying Fatimid clothing
Many sources aid modern researchers in the study of Fatimid period clothing in Cairo (969-1171 C.E.). Primary among them is a collection of hundreds of extant documents discovered outside Cairo in a geniza, or storehouse. Many of these documents are trade records and bridal trousseau lists which describe the colors, style, and adornment of clothing and household objects. Another significant research source is the large number of extant Fatimid fabrics now housed all over the world, owing to the dry climate of Egypt which preserves abandoned textiles. Additionally, there are secular illuminated manuscripts, the creation of which reached its height in the thirteenth century.
Figure 1 Women listening from the gallery. Image from the Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī. MS Arabe 5847, fol. 58v, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Note: borders and colors of the over-wraps.
There are, of course, limitations to the sources. First, the contemporary writers whose records exist in the Cairo Geniza inherently knew the differences between clothing types and therefore only recorded details which distinguished, say, two ridâ’ from each other, instead of a ridâ’ from a mulâ’a. While that information might give a baseline, it becomes muddled as writers from different generations would use different words to describe the same garments. Second, many of the extant fabrics known today were discovered by nineteenth century archeologists who would cut apart garments to keep only the repeat, decoration, or design. Further, the beautiful illuminated story books still in existence were not created in the Fatimid period, but some one hundred years later. And finally, Scholars over the last 70 years have used different standards of transliteration (for example, Koran and Qur’an) when looking at the same extant manuscripts.
Known elements of Fatimid costume
- In one collection of extant Fatimid fabrics studied by Kühnel and Bellinger, the loom widths range from 0.665 meters to 0.992 meters. Items that don’t have both selvedges attached reach up to 1.016m (about 40 inches) along the weft.
- Linen was traded more than any other commodity in medieval Cairo markets. Among the fibers, wool production and usage follows next. And while sericulture was practiced in Fatimid Egypt, silk is used quite a bit less than wool. Cotton usage trails at a distant fourth (Goitein).
- Fabrics were produced in a rainbow of colors at this time. Color names used include snow, pearl, cloud, silver, lead, soot, pepper, sky blue, turquoise, pistachio, emerald, pomegranate, pink, purple, violet, crimson, ruby, purple-brown, apricot, bitter orange, sandalwood, saffron, safflower, and sandgrouse, plus many more (Stillman 1972).
- In the Fatimid period, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived, worked, and shopped side by side. They all spoke Arabic in daily interactions and dressed much the same as each other.
Figure 2 Two men talking. Image from Kalila wa Dimna, MS Arabe 3465, fol. 15v, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. circa 1200 Syria. Note: two ways of wearing their wraps.
Fatimid period cloak-wraps
Of the eleven known Fatimid wraps, six have been fairly well identified by Yedida Stillman in her dissertation examining the bridal trousseaux found in the Cairo Geniza. The remaining five are still somewhat elusive. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this theme are to Stillman’s dissertation, listed below in the references section.