In the pre-Islamic period Egypt was already famous as a centre of weaving, not only of fabrics which recognisably drew on the art and traditions of Pharaonic Egypt, but of luxury silks, such as those produced, probably in Alexandria, for the Byzantine court. The general context of Hellenistic and Sasanian cultures upon which their designers drew was probably little interrupted by the Arab invasion of 641 AD.
The 'Abbasid Caliphate however, created a new demand, partly for ceremonial fabrics, such as the cover sent to the Ka'ba at Mecca each year, but also for "robes of honour", distributed at regular intervals by the Caliph to his emirs and embroidered with the Caliph's name and titles. Special factories were established to produce these, known as the Dar al-Tiraz; They were of two types, the Khassa and the 'Amma, (private and public, though the exact distinction between them is still far from clear).
In these new types of textiles Egypt rapidly re-attained its former supremacy (the earliest tiraz so far discovered in Egypt is dated 884 AD), and a large number of important centres, in both the Delta and Upper Egypt, are known to us from the Muslim geogpaphers, together with their specialities. In the Tulunid period and for some time afterwards a silk or woollen warp on a linen weft was chiefly used, though even at this early period some silks are known. Decoration, with stylised foliate, patterns, animals and even some human figures, is mainly in the form of bands in tapestry weave, Interestingly, tiraz fabrics occur not only with the names of Tulunid rulers but also in the names of the later 'Abbasid Caliphs, suggesting that Egypt had become, even for Baghdad, a principal production centre for the Mesopotamian court.
The advent of the Fatimids, and the establishing of their rival Caliphate increased the demand, since they adopted both the ceremonial garments of the 'Abbasids and their tastes for varied and luxurious clothing. Nasir-i Khusraw's account of Egypt (written in 1040 AD) with its impressive list of shot silks, and fine muslins or linens produced in various Egyptian towns is ample testimony to the fact that the textile industry was one of the principal luxury industries of the 11th century' Islamic world.
The decoration of Fatimid textiles may conveniently be divided into four periods: firstly, that of the Caliphs, al-Mu'izz, al-'Aziz and al-Hakim (969-1020 AD), where foliate designs and animals or birds appear affronted or addossed within hexagonal or oval medallions between borders of Kufi. Initially decorative bands are
few and narrow, but they increase in breadth and number as the period advance*. The second, under the Caliphs al-Zahir and al-Mustansir (1020-94 AD) is characterised by a finer technique and the greater variety of decorative motifs employed, the gcaeral disposition of medallion bands between borders of Kufi being retained, k the third,under the Caliphs al-Musta'li bi'llah and al-Amir bi-Ahkami'llah (1094-1030 AD) there is a development of the decorative style, medallions containing decoetive motifs being enclosed by broad bands of plaited ribbons, the epigraphic txaders towards the end of the period showing forms of early Naskhi. The fourth, under the Caliphs al-Hafiz, al-Zahir, al-Fa'iz and al-'Adil (1094-after 1160 AD) is characterised by the development and elaboration of this plaited decoration, the bands teing widened so much that they covered the entire fabric. The ground colour is ftr the most part a bright golden yellow, which has conserved its colour suprisingly welt this was doubtless in imitation of even more luxurious fabrics embroidered or enh»ced % with gold thread. Other kinds of luxury textile appear at this period, in particular fabrics with designs printed in gold outlined in red or black. While they were pfcanly much easier to manufacture than the tapestry-woven silks and less expensive i> raw materials than those with gold thread, the fineness of the design and the high cpality of the textiles used as the base show that these newer techniques are not decadence but merely adaptation, perhaps to changes in demand.
The most important textiles known to us from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods are silks, both printed and woven. The centres of production shifted from the Delta back to Alexandria and to Damanhur, partly because of the destruction wroi^ht to Damietta and Tinis during the campaigns of the Crusaders. In the 14th centiny Ibn Taghribirdi testifies to the prosperity of the weaving industry in Alexandria, saying that there were 14,000 looms and 100,000 weavers, which, even allowing for mediaeval exaggeration and the inconsistency of comparative numbers of craftsmen and looms, suggests a considerable output Al-Nuwairi, in his account of the visit of Sultan Sha'ban (circa 1370 AD) to the tiraz factories at Alexandria, actually describes the manufacture of textiles on a draw-loom: "The Sultan watched a weaver producing a fabric decorated with full-blown flowers enriched with gold thread". Aid al-Aalqashandi, gives specimens of documents for the appointment of directors of the dar al-tiraz in this period, defining their duties, and stating that the factories made robes for the Sultan, fine silks and linens, and these textiles were, of course, woven on draw-looms. Their decoration included bands of processing or pursuing animals,
alternating with, or on a ground of foliate arabesques, and some types were known by the animals which appeared on them, munammar (nimr, a leopard, cf. perhaps the fabric, with its curious weaving fault) mufayyal (fil, an elephant, no specimens of which seem to have survived). But it also included bands or medallions with names and titles of Sultans, as well as the good wishes usual on many Islamic artefacts.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, perhaps because of the developing commercial relations between Islam and the Far East, silks, both brocades and damasks, adopted a wide range of chinoiseric motifs - lotus and paeony scrolls, cloud scrolls as well as Chinese mythical animal; though the more traditional materials with woven bands of decoration show less Chinese influence. The chinoiseric style was not, of course, confined to Egypt, and similar textiles are known from both Persia and Syria during the period. To judge at least, however, from the titulature of various Mamluk Sultans which appears on some pieces found outside Egypt, it would appear that a proportion of silks must have been imports, Egypt, which avoided the disasters of the mid-13th century Mongol campaigns, being in this respect a more likely source than Syria. The only farbric, however, to have survived with a maker's stamp, the magnificent Mamluk silk in the present exhibition, found at Djabal 'Adda in Upper Egypt, bears the stamp of an Asyuti workshop.
It is also from the Mamluk period that the making of common block-printed linens and cottons would appear to date. In the earlier period, according to the sources, these were the prerogative of India and were widely imported from there into the Middle East. Mention has already been made of the late-Fatimid printed material with the design filled in gold: no plainer fabrics of the type are extant, and nothing of this quality is known from the Mamluk period. However, the designs show vitality, for example, The porter with his load and grace, for example, the bold Naskhi inscription on a ground of waqwaq scroll: and that their models were often high-quality materials is shown in the way the design of the gold silk robe from Djabal 'Adda, is exactly reproduced in an indigo print of the same period.
Terms& Archaeological text (Dr.Ahmed Tony) F.A