Costume Of The Religious


The dress of hermits, monks, and secular clergy. When Christianity appeared in Egypt, the earliest converts, for the most part from a Jewish milieu, did not dress differently from their coreligionists. Jesus did not modify the dress of his disciples. He gave them only the injunction reported in Matthew 10:9-10: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff. . . .” Jesus opposes the custom of the traveler or the wandering philosopher, requesting an even greater deprivation. But this appeal of Jesus does not appear to have been actually put into practice in the later Christian setting.

In both Jewish and Christian environments, there were several distinctive customs in matters of dress. Women, young girls, or widows who lived in community, took the veil as a sign of modesty and virginity. The polemics surrounding this custom were numerous. Tertullian even devoted a whole work to it. The Essenes, for their part, chose the white baptismal robe to signify to the world their purity and their “baptism of life.”

In the desert, the prophets of all ages clothed themselves in a cloak of camel’s hair and a loincloth of skin. In the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, a new ethic of clothing arose around PALLADIUS, Saint John CASSIAN, and EVAGRIUS PONTICUS, rooted in the prophetic example in the context of the desert and of eremitism.

To the ideal hermit were attributed the melote (mantle of animal skin), symbol of mortification; the skhema (a garment like a scapular marked with a cross, which recalled the cross of Christ); the Koukle (a hood, cowl, or cap), symbol of the grace of God and a witness to the childlike spirit of the follower of Jesus, His simplicity and His innocence; the girdle (leather belt worn by soldiers), which kept the Christian from impurity and was an attribute of the soldier of Christ; the sleeveless tunic, symbol of renunciation of the world; and sandals, which rather than shoes gave nimbleness for running the spiritual course.

This costume, however, was not worn in any rigorous fashion in the different ascetic centers. Anchorites and cenobites exhibited various and sometimes whimsical forms of dress, at least in early times.

They drew upon local forms of dress, adapting them as closely as possible to the basic ideal scheme. Considerations of the level of asceticism, the material resources, and personal preferences were also taken into account. Also it was possible to distinguish one group of monks from another by variations in their dress.

An important evolution toward a more uniform style of dress took place under the influence of the political, economic, social, and religious progress of Egypt. The state had something to say, and popular fashions—Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Syrian, Byzantine, or Arab, to mention only the most important—influenced even the religious.

These conditions produced in Egypt a very changing and subtle style of dress, for these fashions were more or less fixed according to the regions, the levels of population, and the zones of immigration. This evolution can be traced through six periods.

Third Century

Egyptian asceticism in the third century passed through a period of extreme poverty and solitude. Some hermits wore nothing at all and possessed nothing, not even a garment. Without even a loincloth, they covered themselves only with their long hair or their beard if they could grow one. Some used their mats as clothing as well as for sleeping. Others plaited tunics for themselves from the fiber of palm, papyrus, or some other fibrous and coarse plant. Simple long white tunics of linen, without sleeves or decoration, were also used. Some ascetics wore the klaft (cap), which was like the cap of very small children.

Some covered themselves in cool weather or on journeys with the balot (cloak of sheepskin or goatskin), which on occasion served as a pouch if the ends were knotted. Some girded themselves with the mojh (leather cincture characteristic of soldiers), on which was hung a purse for small change. The most valiant ascetics lapped over themselves, front and back, the skhema, or Arabic marcnah (scapular of tanned leather, made of bands passed over the shoulders and attached to the mojh).

Although these garments constituted the basic model of religious dress, the complete costume was practically never worn at this period.

Alongside these garments of Egyptian origin, a whole range of clothing brought in from abroad was gradually established with the great periods of immigration. The Greek kentonarion was a “patchwork” garment of various fabrics, which gave it a multicolored appearance. Two tunics, the kolobion, from Greece or Syria, and the lebiton, are often confused.

The first was of brown wool, the second of white linen and originally worn by the Levites (hence the name), straight in form and without sleeves or seams. In the same way the plebeian cloaks of Greece and Rome, the lodix and the melote, were found among the monks of Egypt.

The lodix was very shaggy, of wool woven with all its fleece, either sheep wool or goat hair; it served both as a greatcoat and as a rug or blanket for covering animals. The Greek melote (mantle) was made of sheepskin or goatskin with its white fleece. It was knotted on the chest, and was akin to the balot. In Rome it was also fastened with a fibula. The melote generally came down to the level of the knees. It is often portrayed in representations of Moses and Elijah.

In Romanized contexts, the analabos replaced the skhema. The analabos was similar to suspenders, shoulder-straps, or bands of woven wool, which, like the skhema, crossed over on the back and on the chest, passing over the shoulders and attaching to the belt. This kind of crossed sash had the immediate advantage of holding the ample tunics in fashion close to the body so as not to hinder movement, especially during work.

The ascetics who originated from Syria brought with them the akes, a simple loincloth of linen, wool, or some vegetable fiber crudely worked.

Fourth Century

A rather important change took place in the fourth century when the first rules for monastic life, including clothing, were enacted, and in a very specific manner, first by ANTONY (toward 310) and then by PACHOMIUS (315). The latter rule, taken up and encouraged by ATHANASIUS I of Alexandria, affected also the secular clergy and liturgical usage. Other rules followed, which we do not always know, since they probably remained in the domain of oral tradition and are consequently lost.

The directives issued by Antony and Pachomius had better fortune, for they were immediately translated and disseminated in the West. It is probable that at this period each monastery of any importance had its own usages, following the basic model more or less strictly. It was thus that the number of the garments worn by the religious grew.

In addition to those known in the preceding century we may note the caciton (tunic), of coarse linen, hemp, or jute, made of two pieces of cloth joined at the shoulders and rectangular in form; the pork (Bohairic, phork), (cloak), of dark color and woven of fleecy wool, reserved for divine service; the hook (leather belt or plastron that soldiers also wore); the auleou (loincloth) of horsehair; the hboos (perhaps a liturgical tunic of linen); and finally the rahtou, of tanned goatskin or sheepskin, which was akin to the skhçma but perhaps corresponded to the triangular aprons of the Shenutian monks; found on the mummies of several monks, it symbolized a very high degree of asceticism.

Other garments, of Greco-Roman origin, made their appearance in the milieus of the Coptic religious. Such were the zone, a belt of leather that gathered the tunic to the body and held in the analabos, and the lention, without any ornament, a symbol of mortification, which could serve as a turban just as well as for linen or loincloth.

For the liturgy, there was a whole array of garments. The principal item was the sticharion, a tunic made of linen and falling to the feet, with sleeves stitched and tapered at the wrists. In early times this tunic was always white. Sometimes it was adorned with clavi or with motifs embroidered on the lower part. Other vestments included the kamassion, also a tunic of linen for the use of deacons and priests, closely resembling the long liturgical tunic; the epomis, made of two pieces of linen joined at the shoulders and white in color, put on by priests and deacons at the moment of communion; the katanouti, a small cloak for the liturgy, which recalled the woolen pallium of the Romans; the maphorion, which was in origin a woman’s cloak, worn around the neck and shoulders among men, as among the monks in the Christian period, and resembling the Latin ricinum, a kind of shawl edged with fringes; and the ballin, a long double band of wool passing round the head, then crossing behind the back and fastened in the girdle.

Fifth Century

The fifth century was the great period of the koukoullion or koukle, the kolobion, the lebiton, and the akes, while the lention, kentonarion, lodix, maphorion, and katanouti seem to have been abandoned. The koukoullion was originally a simple piece of material of small dimensions, or even a bag, attached at the back to cover the head in times of rain or cold.

It thus took the place of a hood on thick cloaks. Peasants, artisans, and travelers were the first to wear it, then the slaves and the monks. In 382 it was officially authorized. The Roman army in Gaul adopted it for the winter, which leads one to think of a garment properly Gaulish. Small children were muffled up in hoods of identical form.

Some typically Egyptian garments also disappeared, to be replaced by others. This was probably due to a stricter application of the rules in the monastic communities. Thus the monks wore only the tunic, shten, and caciton, the klaft, the mojh, and probably the pork and hboos; though we have no evidence of these certainly dating from this century, they definitely survived into the following centuries.

Sixth Century

During the sixth century, there were scarcely any changes from the preceding one. The klaft was perhaps less frequent, or restricted to liturgical usage, as was the kolobion. But the thouraji began to appear. This was made of leather, and represented the armor against evil for both men and women. It was a kind of analabos of leather, which recalled the telamon (baldric, or ornamental shoulder belt) of the Greeks and Romans as well as the Greek thorakion. The thouraji was one of the consecrated vestments handed over in the course of the vesting ceremony for monks and nuns at a later period.

Seventh Century

There were profound modifications in Egypt at the time of the arrival of the Arabs, and clothing was no exception. The features of the monastic habit were sharply transformed, first, because Egypt turned in upon itself in a period when it sought to eliminate foreign customs that were too pressing or burdensome.

The only garments of Greco-Roman or Byzantine origin that were preserved were used for the liturgy. A second cause of transformation was the Coptic church’s very quick adoption of Greek rituals. In the monastic centers, where the forms and rules became blurred once more as in the beginning, the thalis, sak, and jolh were current.

The thalis, of rough hairy material, was a rectangle twice as long as it was wide, cut in strictly rectilinear fashion with a hole at the center. It was worn folded in two. Archaeologists have found on the walls of a monastery at DAYR AL-MADINAH instructions relating to the thalis, according to which there were two possible sizes, small and large. But we should also note that the thalis was also a simple sacks for onions and other merchandise, and that it sometimes had the color of an onion.

The sak was similar to the thalis. It, too, was originally a common sack, with which the Hebrews in particular clothed themselves as a sign of mourning after rending their garments. The sak afforded a very coarse tunic in goathair or horsehair, of a quite straight form. Among the Christians, it symbolized mourning and penitence and became assimilated to the various haircloth garments dear to the ascetics.

The little known jolh was no doubt a very simple cloak, of which again there were two standard sizes, small and large.

With the arrival of the armies of ‘Amr and the conquest of Egypt, new clothing appeared. People began to wear the qalansuwah, a long woolen garment ending in fringes, which the monks rapidly adopted to replace that other hooded cloak, the birrin (or Latin birrus). The monks continued to follow the ancient ideal of Palladius and Cassian in assigning symbols to garments, even if the evocation of martyrdom and the arena became less pronounced.

The clothing of this period was always marked by a lively desire for wandering and solitude, poverty and penitence, which in former times the prophets proclaimed. This, in fact, has always been characteristic of the ascetic spirituality of Christian Egypt. This period also assigned a special designation to the civil dress of the cleric or monk, kosmikon, which signified “of the world” or “of the clergyman.”

Eighth Century and After

The evidence relating to the costume of the religious in later times is scanty. Some sources still mention the epômis in the eighth and ninth centuries; the ballin, the rahtou, and the koukle in the ninth century; the qalansuwah, the koukle, and the klaft in the twelfth; the qalansuwah again in the fourteenth; and finally, the jibab and the mizzar in the seventeenth century.

The jibbab was a long tunic of brown wool, the sleeves of which did not reach the wrists and which was closed in front. The mi’zar was a large lined cloak, black on the outside and white on the inside. It was generally reserved for traveling.

In fact, though the reforms in clothing during the Arab period introduced many new things, they did not replace the original clothing. Even now the religious of Coptic Egypt call to mind the ancient model and its symbolism, even if sometimes they have forgotten the first significance or the origin of their dress.

This brief survey of the religious clothing of Egypt is by no means exhaustive. A more thorough study of Coptic clothing reveals, in fact, many other articles of clothing, about which we have only very few details and no dating. Thus we know that in early times people continued to wear the shenti, a loincloth, unless this is the Roman cento; that some wrapped themselves in shrouds or funerary cloths; that there was a cloak, the sholbi, and a woolen tunic, the joouni, among the monks.

The latter also borrowed from the Greco-Roman wardrobe the talaris tunic, the stole, the cloaks palis, birrus, and phelonion, as well as the telamon (baldric). In the milieus of Syrian origin, the fleecy tunic counac (kaunakes), the ephod (of the high priest), and the headgear sidarin continued to be worn. For the liturgy, clergy such as the cenobites kept the vestments consecrated to the Basilian and Cyrillic rituals in the Eastern church: the omophorion (scarf), the epitrachelion (sash), the morphotakion (robe), and the onarion (sash) (cf. Burmester, 1967, pp. 29-30, 183). Arab customs introduced at various periods the tunyah, the ‘aba, and the shamass as tunics.

As mantles there appeared the burnus, the shamlah, and the taylasan; as headdress, the caük, the kaslet, the turban, while some mantles (burnus, qalansuwah) had a hood attached. As a belt for the liturgy, the religious adopted the hyassah and the mintakah, with the batrashl as a ornament; and for footwear the markub (footwear) and tasumah (sandal). The poorest clothed themselves in muraqqa‘ or rags. There were also pantaloons, which were worn by the religious at a late date, but for which we have only vague iconographic evidence.

Despite this multiplicity in matters of clothing, an underlying continuity kept alive the direct heritage of the first religious, Antony and Pachomius; costume was accommodated to the religious domain, and a continuing heritage was very definitively established in a land watered with the blood of the earliest martyrs.

Throughout all the changes, the ancient values persisted, through an ingenious concern for adaptation that was able, for example, to transpose the Greek sticharion into the Arabic istikharah, the kamassion into qamis or shamas (pendant), the sak into shuqqah, the zone into zunnar, and the skhema into iskim, though the origins of these garments might be forgotten.

[See also: Liturgical Vestments.


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