29 March 2010

Medieval Islamic cloak-type wraps:Material Culture fourteen: A&S 50 Challenge

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.

The ridâ' was considered the basic garment of the Islamic wardrobe for men. It was worn several ways: to cover the head and body (a cover-all); draped like a cloak; or wrapped toga-style around the body and left shoulder, leaving the right arm free (Stillman 2003). Women's ardiya (plural) were distinct from men’s but there is no mention in the Cairo Geniza of what made them different. Women's ardiya were fastened with a fibula, called simply a ridâ' pin.

Fabric choices for ardiya ranged from unbleached and coarse linen to fine linen to silk. They were most frequently white or blue, but other colors were also used. Decorations included woven-in and/or embroidered borders. Extant examples of fabric scraps feature narrow repeating motifs of animals in linked roundels, text, or pseudo-text.

The half-ridâ’ was also frequently listed in bridal trousseaux and was described as shorter than a standard ridâ'. The half-ridâ' was occasionally lined, whereas the ridâ' was never listed as such in the trousseaux. Typical cost across the two types was of 1/4 of a dinar to 7 dinars.
Figure 3 Two women listening. Image from Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, number 40. MS Arabe 3929 fol. 144, detail; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Dated to 1240s, location unidentified.

The izâr was a common item in men's clothing and slightly less common for women. Men’s and women’s are noted as distinct from each other but the Geniza records do not yield a description of the difference. A man could be considered fully dressed if both his head was covered and an izâr was wrapped around his waist, although it was typically worn draped like a cloak. A woman could wear the izâr both indoors and as a cover-all when she went out of doors.  

As to size, the izâr is described as a large, sheet-like mantle. Like all wraps, numeric dimensions are not provided in the historical records. In the trousseau lists izâr colors are never mentioned, though their adornment is. They were occasionally decorated on the hems of the short sides (along the weft) with an appliquéd border of colored fabric. Some had fringe. Wool appears to have been the standard fiber choice for the garment, and the ornamentation choices included wool, silk and linen. The izâr was sometime worn with a brooch. Typical cost for a plain izâr was between 1-1/4 and 1-1/2 dinars, while extravagant izârs might go for 10 to 35 dinars.

The mulâ’a was usually worn by men and women as a cover-all, but was also worn as a cape thrown over the shoulders (by men more than women). The mulâ’a was made of two or more pieces of cloth sewn together along the length, and is described as large and enveloping. Usually made of fine linen cloth, an elaborate mulâ’a might have been decorated with a border on two opposite sides (following the weft) or all the way around; decorated with appliquéd silk bands; or gilded, perhaps with script or pseudo-script. The mulâ’a were often white, but brightly colored mulâ’a were worn for special occasions (Stillman 2003). This garment doubled as a blanket or bedsheet. Typical cost was between 2 and 20 dinars each.

The burd or burda was a garment for both genders. Another large wrapper that doubled as a blanket, the burd was most often described as thick and woolen. Abrâd (plural) were striped, and often quite colorful. The word appears to have evolved into an adjective as well during this period, probably indicating that an object was striped. Oddly, burd is also the word used to describe a different kind of wrap at the same point in history. This second garment was a fine striped cloak made of silk and decorated with borders of a different color. This fine burd was sometimes described as not having selvedges.

Urban Fatimid women had the choice of a milḥafa as well (men were no longer wearing the milḥafa in urban locales by this period). This garment was for outdoor use and was described as a large piece of fabric. It was often made of more expensive linen, including polished or glossy linens, and might have a repeating pattern woven in. It occasionally doubled as a bedsheet—perhaps a decorative top blanket. Prices ranged between ½ dinar and 6 dinars.
Figure 4 Two men and a boy. Image from Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, number 23. MS Arabe 3929 fol. 163, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Note wrap tided around the shoulders with borders on four sides.

Additional cloak wraps
The remaining five wraps mentioned in the Cairo Geniza are more difficult to define. Again, using Stillman’s findings these garments are discussed here.

The barrakân is a wrap for men and women. The word could be derived from a Persian root, “barak”, which would mean that the garment was made of camel hair.  Stillman indicates that a find barrakân might be woven of both

silk and camel hair, but give no indication for this belief. It is known to have been worn in Tunisia during the middle ages as well. The word occurs once in the Cairo Geniza and no price is listed, suggesting that it was not a popular garment for the urban dweller.

The kisâ’ appears to be a man’s garment in Fatimid Egypt. The only mention of it in the Geniza describes it as both wrap and blanket (and does not mention a price). Linen was the only fiber known to be used in making the kisâ’ (Stillman 2003).

The niṣfiyya was not identified with a gender in the few places it is mentioned within the Geniza. It is known to be a garment, and the root of the word might indicate it is a half-garment. It appears to have been listed with other wraps in a single trousseau. One of the records indicated it was made of a fine linen cloth. The single recorded price (from the same trousseau) was 6 dinars, which, according to Stillman, might reflect extreme ornamentation.

The safsârī was also not gender-specified in the Geniza. It is known to be used as a garment in Tunisia and Libya during this period (Stillman 2003). It was another wrap which likely doubled as a bed covering. There are no Fatimid-era descriptions of the safsârī, though a fourteenth century record suggests that the garment name derives from fabric of the same name.

A garment called a lihâf has been lumped in with the milḥafa as they derive from the same root word, though they are listed separately in the same documents more than once. It could be a bed blanket instead of a garment. The price range is also ½ to 6 dinars.

Figure 5 A woman concealing her face before the judge, accompanied by two men. Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī number 9. MS Arabe 3929 fol. 15v, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Note: White unadorned garment, probably an izâr.

Obtaining wraps
Finished wraps could be purchased in the Fatimid markets where both new and used clothing were sold alongside fabrics and raw materials. Considering the costs of the above garments, and  knowing that ½ dinar could purchase 100 pounds of bread (Goitein), it’s not surprising that textiles, used and new, were considered liquid assets and might comprise the greater part of a family’s investments.

Knowing that each outfit required several layers of clothing the cost of a wardrobe for the bourgeoisie class is astonishing. Of course every part of life contributed to this practice in the Middle Ages—from protection from the elements, to conspicuous consumption, to  the ever important daily practice of faith in the lives of medieval people, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.

Though many limitations hamper research efforts, the armchair Fatimid historian has access to an astounding number of resources, the largest among them being the Cairo Geniza. From these records we can piece together many aspects of the daily lives of people living in the Medieval Islamic lands. While there are currently only scattered records defining each of these garments, their cultural significance is clear. Within a short period of history, and tight geographic area we have records of at least eleven distinct flat rectangular garments which are wrapped to conceal and protect the body.

Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001.
Note: beautiful and affordable full color photo book of extant embroidered items with technical analysis. Pieces included span the Fatimid to Mamluk periods.

Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. 1. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
Note: heavily footnoted nitty gritty details of trade, culture, and everyday life in the Fatimid period. Goitein’s findings exhibit how the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultures co-habitated in Cairo fairly comfortably during this period. This is the first of six volumes.

Kühnel, Ernst and Bellinger, Louisa. Catalogue of Dated Tiraz Fabrics: Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid. Washington: National Pub. Co., 1952.
Note: Detailed black and white images and analysis of extant textiles, including the backs of some embroidered items. Arabic, transliterated Arabic-English, and English translations of all the text on the textiles is included.

Stillman, Yedida K. Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza. PhD Dissertation. Unpublished: University of Chicago, 1972.
Note: Detailed analysis of extant documents put into encyclopedic format for easy reference. Many direct comparisons to other North African items of clothing. Includes some cultural analysis and descriptions of complete outfits.

Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress from the Dawn of Islam to Modern times: A Short History.  Boston: Brill, 2003.
Note: Posthumous production of Yedida Stillman’s work. Some flaws in the compilation. Good discussion of cultural use of clothing with little direct description or details.

http://www.eternalegypt.org/ is an online resource compiled from multiple museums housing collections of Islamic art. There are several examples of extant Fatimid textiles available. Note that this site is a resource hog, best used with a fast computer on a fast connection.

The illuminated manuscripts mentioned above are called the Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī and the Kalila wa Dimna.  Using “Maqamat al-Hariri” in an Internet search engine will yield many images from several copies created throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A maqāmā is a story or tale (literally “assemblies”), and al-Ḥarīrī is the man credited with writing this collection.  Dimna and Kalila are the names of the title characters of the second manuscript. Because it was originally a Persian tale there are many non-Islamic illustrated copies of Kalila wa Dimna from period as well.

1 comment:

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