03 November 2013

An Interpretation of Urban Middle Eastern Clothing Layers

An Interpretation of Urban Middle Eastern Clothing Layers in the Middle Ages
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
December 2011, revised November 2013

Yedida Stillman, Middle Eastern clothing expert, identified a pan-Islamic style of dress (which excludes Persian culture) throughout the Medieval Middle East and Mediterranean.[1] This pan-Islamic style would extend to the dress of Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule.

  • Pan-Islamic dress style was common in the Middle Ages for most of the Middle East: al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, the Maghreb (North Africa not under Egyptian control).
  •  Separate and distinct styles of dress would be found in Iran (Persia), Constantinople (Byzantine, then Ottoman), and the Far East.

Figure 1 Men in front of a judge. Note seated man and left attendant wearing farajiyya. Maqamat al-Hariri Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Ms. Arabe 5847 fol. 118, detail

Men’s Urban Clothing

Required: headcovering, tunic.
Expected: Headcovering, turban, tunic, pants (sirwâl), sandals.
Fully Dressed: Headcovering, turban, tunic, pants (sirwâl), sandals/shoes/boots, overtunic, mandil (handkerchief), wrap, optional: coat.

Two woman observing a conversation. Note wraps and low boots. Baghdad, Maqamat al-Hariri, Late Eleventh to early Twelfth Centuries. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 3929,  fol 134. Maqamat 40, detail.

Women’s Urban Clothing

Required: headcovering, tunic, pants (sirwâl)
Expected: headcovering, veils, tunic, pants (sirwâl), wrap, shoes/sandals/boots
Fully Dressed: headcovering, veils, tunic, pants (sirwâl), wrap, shoes/sandals/boots, overtunic, mandil (handkerchief), overwrap (yes, two wraps), optional: coat.

Two men in states of undress.  Note sirwâl, patterned fabric, green wrap (on the man in blue). Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 3929, fol. 45. Maqamat 21, detail.


The sirwâl are pants. Pictorial and extant evidence suggest that they would occasionally have a decorative hem, which could be seen while sitting. These are the closest layer to the lower body, a kind of underwear.

A tikka is an ornate decorative drawstring for the sirwâl.

The qumîs is the shift, or closest layer to the upper body. Under the woman’s qumîs might be a rifada to support the breasts—there is very little info available about this garment.

The ma'raqa is a skullcap to absorb sweat from the brow and protect the rest of the head gear from body soil. It is the absolute minimum headcover a person of any social stratum is expected to wear. In place of the ma’raqa, a kerchief could be tied around the head to protect the remaining headgear from sweat.

Man and woman speaking. Note patterned fabrics, hem trim; woman’s veil and fillet. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 3465 fol. 130v, detail.

Base layer of clothing

Over the ma'raqa or kerchief, a woman might wear an 'aqbiyya-- a square or rectangular piece of fabric, tied with an 'isaba--a narrow length of fabric. This ubiquitous combination can be seen in illuminations throughout SCA period in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The ‘aqbiyya can be of any size, from just-covering the hair to draping all the way to the floor.  The 'isaba can be identified because it is tied so that a small loop sticks up from the knot at the back of the head.

For men, "a turban was an indispensable part of a well-dressed person's apparel. Only the lowest of the low would have contented himself with a skullcap." [3]

A common women’s garment is the jukaniyya: a fine tunic. It is often adorned with a variety of treatments, including borders and fringe. [4]  It is one of the most common dresses in the trousseaux of Fatimid women.

Around the waist a woman might wear a wasat, a belt that is wrapped a few times around. The wasat is often matched with the tunic. [5]

Men could choose to wear a leather belt, or a soft length of fabric for a belt, often seen with a half-loop sticking up above the front of the hip. The tail would hang as long as the knees.

Slippers and shoes: In images, both men and women are pictured in black low boots or in sandals when out-of-doors. Indoors, women are described as wearing slippers and occasionally pictured with colored footwear. Expensive garments were often ordered with shoes to match.  [6] If the shoe is decorated with an image, that image faces the wearer, not the observer. [7]
Automated woman retrieving a drink. Note ‘isaba around the brow, pearl drop earrings, henna on the feet. Carrying a mandil. Topkapi Sarayi Librarary, Istanbul. Ms. Ahmet III 3472, detail.
The rida’ is an unfitted wrap or cloak, rectangular in shape. It could be worn by men or women, and is a very common item in the trousseaux. [8] It is one of the few wraps that are not described as being able to double as bedding, which might mean it is lighter weight, or more decorated. A rida’ could be held in place with a rida' pin, similar to a penannular.

Many wraps would double as bedding, suggesting a larger size. Loom widths of extant fabrics reach up to 1.5m (59 inches).[9]  Gauging from illuminations, wraps might be 2-3 yards long.

Wraps/cloaks are occasionally seen in the illuminated manuscripts with decorations characteristic of tiraz. A tiraz-inscribed garment that was presented from royalty would also be called khil’a, or a robe of honor. [10] For the SCA, this would be a good use of the text of a scroll.

Fatimid pin. The stick pin inverts behind the element, so the element hangs from the end. National Museum of Damascus, No. ع 5881

Dressed for the Day

Over the tunic, men and women could wear a farajiyya. This robe is like a coat, fully open down the front, and occasionally decorated with buttons. [11] It could be lined or not, and the sleeves could be slit from wrist to forearm if so desired.

For women, the face could be covered with any of a variety of veils. Some are as simple as a hood with and oval eye opening, others with complex ties around the head (under the other veils). Most allow the eyes to be seen, however there is one style, the sha’riyya, which is a sort of horsehair personal sunshade covering the eyes. [12] This can be recreated in the SCA context with draw-thread work.

Finally the mandil is carried in the hand or the sleeve. No proper person of any gender would be seen in public without a mandil; however deciding which mandil to bring is an important question. There were different mandils for greasy fingers, daubing wine from the lips, catching a tear after listening to a beautiful poem, and drying the hands after washing them. Mandil is also the word used for the kerchief that is tied around the head. [13]

A mandil might be decorated with embroidery, fringe, borders, poetry, Qur’anic verses, a story told in the first person(!), or gilding. They could range in size from 10 inches square, to 18 inches wide and 48 inches long. [14] Occasionally the mandil would cost as much as half the rest of the outfit. [15]

Four men and one woman. Note different layers. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 3465, fol. 55, detail.

Other notes

Urban dress was more tailored. Rural dress was less structured. Loose sleeves are ok (as long as you’re not in an SCA kitchen!)

Matchy-matchy and color coordinated clothing was important in the Middle East in 1066. Linen and wool are good choices for garb. Silk is less common, and cotton is a novelty in this period (yes, even in Egypt).

Stripes, solids, spots, and patterned fabrics were all used in the Middle East. Garments in this period are noted to have any of the following: clavi decorations, “birded” patterns (with an all-over bird decoration), and windowpane plaids. [16]

Tiraz, or inscriptions, along the bicep and head-wear are seen frequently on men and women. They could be as simple as “blessings come from God” or “health, blessings, and prosperity” to complex prayers or detailed accounts of a recognition. Pseudo-tiraz also develop in the Middle Ages: these might have fake script, or no script- just ornamentation. They could be painted, embroidered, or woven in.
Men arguing over object. Note different belts, narrow sirwâl, red undertunic beneath the blue tunic. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Ms. Arabe 5847, fol. 43v, detail. Maqamat 16

[1]Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress from the Dawn of Islam to Modern times: A Short History.  Boston: Brill, 2003.; 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.

[2] Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001.
[3] Goitein, S D.  A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.
[4] Stillman, Female Attire.
[5] Stillman, Female Attire.
[6] Goitein, Vol 2.
[7] Montembault, Veronique. Catalogue Des Chaussures de L’Antiquité Éyptienne. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2000.
[8] Stillman, Female Attire.
[9] Golombek L, & Gervers V. 'Tiraz Fabrics in the Royal Ontario Museum', in Studies in Textile History: in Memory of Harold B. Burnham. Ed. V. Gervers. Toronto: 1977. 82-125.
[10] Sanders, Paula.  “Robes of Honor in Fatimid Egypt,” Stewart Gordon, ed., Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture. New York: Palgrave, 2001: 225-239.
[11] Stillman, Female Attire.  
[12] Stillman, Arab Dress
[13]  Rosethal, Franz. "A Note on the Mandil." in Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam. The L. A. Mayer memorial studies in Islamic art and archeology ed. vol. 2. Brill, 1972.
[14] Baker, Patricia L. "A history of Islamic Court Dress in the Middle East." Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy (Faculty of Arts), School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, 1986. 
[15] Stillman, Female Attire.
[16] Stillman, Female Attire.

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