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Akhmim as a Source of Textiles - Coptic Wiki

Akhmim as a Source of Textiles

History of Textile Production in Akhmim

According to the Strabo (Geography XVII, 41) Akhmim/Panopolis was a well-known production center of linen fabrics from pharaonic times. Up to now there is little literary evidence of textile manufacture in the town throughout the first millennium, the period to which most of the textile-finds belong. However, some documents confirm that various tex­tile specialists worked in Panopolis during the fourth century A.D.[1] Written regarding local textile production in the following centuries remain to be published.

However, with regard to the continuity in the town under Muslim rule a fragment of a rug decorated with an Arab inscription, today in the Textile Museum, Washington (inv. T.M.73.726), is of particular importance. The inscription confirms that Akhmim remained a center of textile production in Islamic times: it tells us that the rug was made in an Akhmim factory in the year A.H. 203 (A.D. 818/9). The Arab author Ya‘qubi (A.D. 891) recorded in his geographical work that ‘cut rugs’—a special type of fabrics with a pile of cut weft loops—were produced in this town. The existence of a tiraz[2] of Akhmim is also certified by Mas‘udi (A.D. 956).[3]

Discovery and Primary Research

It was in the eighteenth century that European travelers first took notice of the scant ruins of ancient Akhmim/Panopolis. Because former structures were overbuilt and used as quarries for the buildings of the following generations, hardly any architectural remains survived. The site was continuously settled from pre-dynastic times onward and supposed to be one of the most impor­tant cities in Egypt until the fifteenth century. Belonging to it are extended necropolises from where thousands of textiles of almost all periods originate.[4]

First excavations in the three major cemeteries were conducted in the years 1884—1888 by the team of the French Egyptologist Maspero (1846—1916). As we learn from the letters of his fellow-traveler, Charles E. Wilbour (1833—1896), “Maspero had an idea of stopping at Ekhmeem, not to find the famous tombs . . . but some graves where there are said to be fine mummy cloths.”[5] Maspero himself gives an important summary summary description of the ‘Byzantine and Coptic mummies.’[6] The dis­covery of the cemeteries attracted not only scholars but above all robbers and dealers, who plundered and demolished the site.

The disastrous result is soberly described by Klaus P. Kuhlmann as ‘the beginning of the end for a unique archaeological situation.’[7] Although the archaeological context is irretrievably lost today, Akhmim is considered one of the major find-spots for textiles of the first millennium A.D. There is no doubt, that most of the textiles circulating in the years 1885-1886 came from there; nevertheless, the true provenance of each single fabric always has to be questioned. The necropolis which delivered most of the material of this era is situated to the northeast of the town and called al-Hawawas.

Fig. 1: Map of the necropolises of Akhmim; after Kuhlmann, 1983: 53, fig. 14.
Fig. 1: Map of the necropolises of Akhmim; after Kuhlmann, 1983: 53, fig. 14.

During the 1885/1886 season Maspero discovered a cemetery with buri­als of late antique to medieval times in this area between the Dayr al-Wastani and the Dayr al-Qibli.[8] In all probability, the bulk of textiles from Akhmim brought to Europe came from this site. In fact, it seems to be the source for the large collection acquired by Franz Bock (1823-1899), a German cler­gyman and textile from who stayed in Egypt in 1886, although the location is not explicitly mentioned in his publications.[9] It cannot be excluded that further textiles of the first centuries A.D. originate from an urban cemetery that seems to have been used in Greco-Roman and Christian times.[10] Masses of textiles of an earlier date were also recorded in the tombs of the most northern cemetery, al-Salamuni (‘Friedhof C’ on the map fig. 1), which was in use during the Old Kingdom and again only in the Late Kingdom and during the Greco-Roman period.[11]

Inspired by Maspero’s finds and Bock’s acquisitions other scholars and collectors like Vladimir G. de Bock (1850-1899), Theodor Graf (1840-1903),[12] Carl Schmidt (1868-1938) and in particular Robert Forrer (1866-1947) visited the site of Akhmim for further research and not least to purchase textiles and other objects, which were subsequently sold or donated to museums and collections worldwide. It was a common practice among the dealers of their time to cut out the elements of large fabrics like garments, hangings, or any other kind of cloth to be sold piece by piece in order to obtain as much profit as possible. This explains why nowadays fragments from one and the same cloth are distributed over various museums and private collections. It is one of the aims of scholars today to reassemble the formerly separated pieces and to reconstruct their original context.[13]

Robert Forrer’s Research on Akhmim[14]

When Forrer arrived at Akhmim in the spring of 1894 he already owned a considerable collection of more than 2,000 textiles. According to his own words he bought them on the antiquities market in Cairo, which was sup­plied through agents who acquired the textiles from the local finders.[15] Although it seems probable that the greater part of Forrer’s collection origi­nates from Akhmim, the real provenance of the textiles he assembled before his own excavations is questionable. The only information concerning their origin is given to us through dealers, and we cannot be sure whether the material from Akhmim was not mixed with that from other sites in their stores. In fact, several museum textiles today show the name of the town Akhmim stitched or written on them in modern times, and we tend to believe this reference.[16]

It is curious to note that the first comprehensive studies on the Akhmim finds were written by Forrer in the years prior to his arrival, and on the basis of objects only said to locate from there.[17] Nevertheless, his publications are one of the few with a scientific standard at that time. However, the most reliable and critical source remains the letters he wrote during his stay to Dr. Gustav Muller, the director of the journal Antiquitaten-Zeitschrift. All these letters were collected in a small illustrated volume which was published in 1895.

In his fourth letter he minutely described the disastrous situation he was with on his arrival in Akhmim: ‘Everywhere—as far as the eye could see—one notices black holes in the hills, where graves have been opened and, while approaching, other black points can be identified as corpses of opened and unwrapped mummies, which have carelessly been put down, decomposing very slowly.’[18] Furthermore, Forrer’s notes leave no doubt that the al-Hawawas cemetery was the place of his excavations.[19] He informed us about tombs of “Byzantine times” around the al-Qibli mon­astery, where splendid silk weavings had been found and probably priests were buried.

Forrer mentions another burial place, from Roman and Christian times, further to the north, which seems to have been the focal point of his exca­vations, and, according to Kuhlmann, must be located in the neighborhood of the al-Wastani Monastery[20] on the site of a prehistoric cemetery. The common type of grave used in the late Roman and is classified by Forrer as flat graves, orientated in a west-east direction, con­sisting of a pit 2 m long, 0.80 cm wide, and 1.30-1.50 m deep.

The walls are partly faced with mud bricks.[21] It is worth noting that Forrer clearly distinguished between burials of different social classes. The mummy-bun­dles of privileged people were much larger than those of the less well-off. They were fitted out with a considerable number of decorated dresses and cloths and then fastened to a wooden board on the back, while the poorer people were only wrapped in a few layers of mostly undecorated cloth.[22]

Fortunately, in one of his letters Forrer also described the unwrapping of one of his more elaborate mummy-finds in detail.[23] The outer wrappings were coverings with purple stripes. Beneath he found a layer of bandages followed by eleven layers of linen under which another layer of bandages came to light. Pieces of crumpled linen were used to fill the angles between the shoulder and the head. Below these the corpse was wrapped in a mantle with blue cross-bands and star ornaments in tapestry woven in the middle of the cloth.

Now a wooden board on which the corpse was laid became visible. Having raised the mantle Forrer observed more layers of cloth and a lump of resin in the area of the stomach that could be identified as incense. Again two cloths with purple stripes appeared, and finally six alternating coverings and bandages followed by another cloth directly on the body and a rolled up cloth round the neck. Further rags of partly decorated fabrics, among which Forrer found a damaged tunic, were used as a sort of pad­ding for the body of the deceased, who was a man about forty to fifty years old and 1.85 m tall.[24]

Fig. 2: Cemetery A (al-Haw¯aw¯aš) from northwest. B = Dayr al-Wast¯anī, C = Dayr al Qiblī; after Kuhlmann, 1983: pl. 19 b).
Fig. 2: Cemetery A (al-Haw¯aw¯aš) from northwest. B = Dayr al-Wast¯anī, C = Dayr al Qiblī; after Kuhlmann, 1983: pl. 19 b).

Forrer’s description gives an idea of the enormous quantity of cloth which was necessary for only one burial. That is why it is nowadays impos­sible even approximately to estimate the total amount of textiles deriving from the cemeteries of Akhmim.

The most important items of Forrer’s former textile collection are today stored at the Museum fur Byzantinische Kunst in Berlin, the Musee roy- aux d’art et d’histoire in Brussels, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (Szepmuveszeti Muzeum Kozlemenyei), the Museum im Andreasstift in Worms, and at the Martin von Wagner-Museum in Wurzburg.[25]

Samples of Typical Akhmim Textiles

It is only accidental that textiles themselves tell us about their prove­nance, like the rug fragment in Washington already mentioned. Another sample might be a late antique square tapestry kept in the Victoria and in London (inv. 2137 — 1900). In the center a tyche, the personification of a city, is depicted. She is fitted out with typical attributes such as a cornucopia filled with flowers and fruits and an ear of corn. Her head is crowned with the symbol of a town wall.[26] Above it the letters nANOS can be read, a version of the town’s name, Panopolis, known from Greek and Coptic documents.[27] There is good reason to presume that this tapestry was woven in one of the town’s textile factories.

Usually, we have to believe the information given by the finders and collectors about the object’s provenance. As mentioned before, the most reliable source concerning the Akhmim textiles are the publications written by Robert Forrer. However, one has to keep in mind that even if the find spot of an artifact is guaranteed this does not necessarily mean that it was produced in the same place. Textiles belong to the type of movable objects ranking as popular trade-goods throughout history, implying that imported pieces occur side by side with samples of local production.

However, if we compare the textiles documented by Forrer with other lots said to originate from Akhmim, a certain conformity cannot be denied in several cases. From our present knowledge, it is possible to classify special groups of fabrics with particular stylistic and technical features or with characteristic patterns that allow us to attribute them to workshops in Akhmim.[28] The most character­istic is a group of silk weavings.[29] Fortunately, a unique sample of a nearly undamaged linen tunic with a complete set of silk decoration survived.[30]

The trimmings consist of shoulder bands, roundels at the height of the knees, and sleeve panels that are doubtlessly woven to fit. They definitely do not belong to the numerous recycled silk weavings cut out from dis­carded cloths to be used as elements later. All trimmings on the tunic show a homogenous symmetrically arranged pattern of emblematic palmettes or rosettes and other floral motifs framed by tendrils. The sleeve panels also contain a pair of armed horsemen attacked by a soldier with a lance in the outer compartments. Above the horsemen’s head the Greek name ZAXAPIOY can be read. This name and that of Joseph appear quite often on related silk weavings from Akhmim in connection with horsemen. The meaning of these names has been controversially. Some take them for the names of the horsemen, others for the owners. This is not convincing because silks inscribed with these names are quite numerous and also appear on silks with a purely floral pattern. It is more convincing to understand them as names of weavers or workshops.[31]

Generally the Akhmim silks show only little variation in motif, which always appears bichrome, that is bright on either a green, red or violet background. Apart from the mentioned motifs, human figures—warriors or dancers, single or in pairs—and busts, as well as birds, are found. There also exists a female pendant of the hunting or fighting horse­men interpreted as Amazons.[32]

Silks with narrative scenes such as those on the famous so-called Mary silk depicting episodes of the life of the of Jesus in the Abegg-Stiftung at Riggisberg (inv. 3100b) are exceptional so far. It is dated between the fourth and fifth centuries A.D,[33] while the typical Akhmim silks are attributed to the seventh to tenth centuries. This has recently been confirmed by radiocarbon analyses. The results of the analyses prove that two sty­listic groups of silks with a central palmette motif occurring either in an organic or in a stylized version existed almost contemporaneously. This refutes the former thesis, according to which stylized motifs were produced in a later period than those of a more naturalistic manner.[34]

Another group of textiles distinctive to the Akhmim-region seem to be cushions or coverings with a long pile decorated with rel­atively large squares with identical structural features: all show a cen­tral circle with one or two heraldic figural motifs (a hunter or mytho­logical figures) inside, framed by a of smaller circles containing erotes or various animals, leaves, and blossoms. The corners or the middle of the sides are often emphasized by multicolored baskets of fruit, which contrast with the otherwise monochrome pattern of dark purple, imitating color on a bright background. Sporadically, some tiny details are also accented in vivid colors.

Furthermore, a particular series of tapestries decorated with scenes from the life of the patriarch Joseph and other biblical subjects is connected with the town of Akhmim.[35] Some peculiar features suggest that they were made in specialized workshops. The group is commonly dated from between the sev­enth and tenth centuries and is characterized by an intensive red background on which scenes from the Bible are illustrated. The acting figures appear very compact and are drawn with dark outlines. They are depicted with oversized eyes in simplified faces and stylized, but colorful garments. They are all exe­cuted in a high quality. About seventy of these pieces have now been identified, telling the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph (Genesis 37).

Fig. 3: Fragment of silk weaving with Amazons. © Gustav-Lübcke Museum, Hamm, inv. 1341–1342.
Fig. 3: Fragment of silk weaving with Amazons. © Gustav-Lübcke Museum, Hamm, inv. 1341–1342.
Fig. 4: Square tapestry with hunter set within a piled linen fabric. © Katoen Natie Collection, Antwerp, inv. 533 / DM 53.
Fig. 4: Square tapestry with hunter set within a piled linen fabric. © Katoen Natie Collection, Antwerp, inv. 533 / DM 53.
Fig. 5: Tapestry-roundel with scenes from the life of the patriarch Joseph. © Katoen Natie Collection, Antwerp, inv. 625 / DM 144.
Fig. 5: Tapestry-roundel with scenes from the life of the patriarch Joseph. © Katoen Natie Collection, Antwerp, inv. 625 / DM 144.

The most prominent and complex samples are large roundels presenting a cycle of nine scenes from the first part of the story ending with Joseph’s arrival in Egypt. They are arranged either clockwise or anti-clockwise around a central circle with a depiction of the dreaming Joseph. A few samples also comprise scenes from the second part of the story taking place in Egypt. Apart from this, there exist smaller roundels and sleeve bands with an abbreviated version of the narrative on which only selected scenes are shown.[36]

Corresponding to the silks, the Joseph tapestries, and the decorations of pile fabrics mentioned above are carried out in different stylistic versions whereas the structural scheme principally remains the same. It is still an open question whether special stylistic features speak for different workshops—as is postulated—or not. To summarize, it seems that stylized motifs are woven in a less careful manner and often with coarser materials than equal motifs woven in a more naturalistic and elaborate way. However, this does not automatically mean that they were woven in different facto­ries. One could also imagine that high-quality fabrics were produced side by side with less valuable ones in the same workshop. Further research is necessary before more precise results can be obtained.[37]

Fig. 6: Kilted cap from Mameluk times. © Stiftung Moritzburg, Halle, inv. T 129, Foto: Gabriele Schrade (FH Köln).
Fig. 6: Kilted cap from Mameluk times. © Stiftung Moritzburg, Halle, inv. T 129, Foto: Gabriele Schrade (FH Köln).

In conclusion, the inexhaustible number of textiles attributed to Akhmim and spread out over collections worldwide affirms that the al-Hawawas necropolis from which the majority of the pieces derived must have been in use from Roman times onward, at least throughout the first millen­nium. A special kind of kilted cap, of which several samples—all located to Akhmim—exist, doubtless belongs to the Mamluk period.

It is not certain in which cemetery they were discovered. Perhaps they belong to the finds Forrer made in an urban cemetery during his stay in Akhmim.[38] So far later samples have not been found, which corresponds perfectly to Kuhlmann’s report that the town’s importance waned in the fifteenth century.[39] Interestingly, Akhmim is the only one of all the ancient weaving towns that have preserved its reputation as a textile production cen­ter up to the present day.[40]

[1] Wipzycka 1991: 2220.

[2] The term ‘tiraz’ is of Persian origin and means ‘embroidery.’ It became a term for a state-textile factory in Islamic times. After completing this paper, I came upon an article by Maya Muller, from “The History of Archaeology: The Destruction of the Late Antiquity Necropolises in Egypt Reconsidered.” In BAR International Series 1448 (2005): 43-48, which deals with, among other things, the discovery and exploitation of the cemeteries of Akhmim at the end of the nineteenth century.

[3] Kuhnel 1960: 1-2.

[4] For an extensive study of the literary and archaeological remains of Akhmim see Kuhlmann 1983. After having finished this paper, I came to know about an article by Maya Muller, “From the History of Archaelogy: The Destruction of the Late Antiquity Necropolises in Egypt Reconsidered,” in BAR International Series 1448 (2005), 43-48, dealing among other things with the discovery and exploitation of the cemeteries of Akhmim at the end of the nineteenth century.

[5] Capart 1936: 244.

[6] Maspero 1886: 210-12.

[7] Kuhlmann 1983: 2, 50-52.

[8] Maspero 1886: 210; Kuhlmann 1983: 55.

[9] Bock 1886; Borkopp 1989: 20. Bock only hinted generally to cemeteries in Upper Egypt: Bock 1886: 2-3, 10, 14-15, 17.

[10] Forrer 1901: 71-72; Kuhlmann 1983: 49, 53.

[11] Kuhlmann 1983: 71-86. Cf. Kuhlmann 1983: 71: “der Abhang ist ubersat mit den Uberresten der aus ihren Grabern herausgerissenen und zerfledderten Mumien; in den zerschlagenen Kammern liegt, z. T. noch ballenweise, zerwuhlt, feiner Achmimer Stoff, ehemals und noch heute beruhmtes Produkt der einheimischen Webereien . . . , das man den Toten in reichlichem MaBe beigegeben hatte.”

[12] There is some uncertainty concerning the accession year of the Akhmim textiles given to the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst in Vienna by Theodor Graf. According to the catalogue edited by Noever (2005): passim, the Akhmim textiles were acquired in 1883, i. e. before Maspero excavated the site, which diverges from Riegl (1889: VII-VIII), who wrote: “Diesem Leichenfelde sollen namentlich die zahlreichen von Dr. Bock nach Europa in den Handel gebrachten Stucke entstammen, was nicht hinderte, dass auch H. Graf daselbst noch reiche Beute machen konnte . . . . “ If my interpre­tation of Riegl’s utterance is correct, Graf visited Akhmim after Bock had been there, which was not before 1886. It seems to me that the group of Akhmim textiles in the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst was by mistake mixed with a collection of textiles acquired in 1883 from Theodor Graf.

[13] Several samples are listed in Renner 1974: 3—4; Renner-Volbach 2002: 30.

[14] For Robert Forrer, his textile-collection, and his researches in Egypt see Schnitzler 1999: 48-56 and PreiB 2007: 66-77.

[15] Forrer 1891a: 10.

[16] This is not limited solely to Forrer’s textiles but includes those from other previous owners as well.

[17] Forrer 1889; Forrer 1891a; Forrer 1891b; Forrer 1893.

[18] Forrer 1895: 31.

[19] Forrer 1895: 30, 32, 34; Kuhlmann 1983: 59-60.

[20] Kuhlmann 1983: 60.

[21] Forrer 1895: 38-41; Kuhlmann 1983: 62.

[22] Forrer 1895: 43-44.

[23] Forrer 1895: 44-48.

[24] Forrer 1895: 44-48; Kendrick 1920: 15-16; Horak 1995: 41-42. For fur­ther descriptions of mummies from Akhmim cf. Horak 1995: 46-48.

[25] Wulff and Volbach 1926, vol. 5: 159; Errera 1916: 207; Torok 1993: 13, 91; Renner-Volbach 2002: 11-12; Renner 1974: 1.

[26] Kendrick 1920: 62-63, no. 51, pl. XII; Rutschowscaya 1990: 36-37; Horak 2001: 44.

[27] Karig 1975: 54.

[28] Renner 1974: 1-9; Renner-Volbach 2002: 12-14; Desrosiers 2004: 16-17, 19-20.

[29] Falke 1913: 43-48.

[30] Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. 820-1903: Kendrick 1922: 75-­76, no. 794, frontispiece; Desrosier 2004: 19, fig. 7.

[31] Fluck 2006: 160-61 with further references.

[32] Stauffer 1992: 45-52.

[33] Cf. Schrenk 2004: 185-88, no. 62 with further references. The silk frag­ments belong to the same funerary context as the large wall hanging of the Abegg-Stiftung (inv. 3100a) showing Dionysos and his followers, cf. Schrenk 2004: 26-34, no. 1. The provenance and date depend on compa­rable textiles.

[34] De Moor, Schrenk, and Verhecken-Lammens 2006: 85-94.

[35] Renner-Volbach 2002: 13.

[36] Fluck 2001: 9-31 with further references.

[37] For more samples and details of typical Akhmim textiles see Renner-Volbach 2002: 12-14.

[38] Forrer 1901: 71-72.

[39] Kuhlmann 1983: 1, 14, 32-33.

[40] Ammoun 1991: 28-31. I am very grateful to Antoine De Moor, Anja PreiB, and Ellen Schwinzer for the permission to publish photos and plans of the archives of the Stiftung Moritzburg in Halle, the Katoen Natie Collection in Antwerp, and the Gustav-Lubcke Museum in Hamm. Special thanks are owed to Gebbe List-Petersen, Anja PreiB, Klaus Ohlhafer, and Sofia Schaten for revising the text and for offering valuable insights.