The famous Coptic textiles of Egypt, with their elaborate woven patterns taken from Christian and classical themes, were not made in Nubia. In the earliest part of the medieval period, when Egypt was still weaving with flax and wool, the Nubians were using cotton almost exclusively. Cotton made its appearance in Nubia sometime in the first century of the Christian era, and most probably came from Meroë, the Kushite capital farther south in the Sudan.
The Meroites were expert weavers who continued the traditions of pharaonic Egypt in the new fiber of cotton. In addition to the plain white cloth used for most clothing, they produced very fine complex patterns in tapestry weave with geometric designs and motifs from pharaonic iconography. Long and shaggy, and short and furlike pile weaves also were made. Embroidery and appliqué were used to decorate garments. Shades of blue, and very occasionally red, were the only colors used in addition to the natural color of the undyed cotton.
The clothing style of the Kushites was derived from that of the ancient Egyptians. Kilts with long, pendant aprons in front were worn by the men; women wore long or short skirts, and are shown on temple reliefs wearing long, close-fitting dresses, though none of these has been found by archaeologists. In addition to tapestry weave, pile weaves, and applied decoration, elaborate borders of wrapped openwork and fringe were made for the lower edges of skirts and other garments. These lattice borders are strictly Nubian and have not been found in Egypt.
In the fifth and sixth centuries the use of cotton decreased markedly, and wool took its place. There were many reasons for the change, but one important factor must have been the collapse of Meroë, which interrupted well-established trade networks. Also, the coming of Christianity brought many changes, including standards of personal dress. The new styles seem generally to have covered more of the body than did pharaonic clothing. The tunic, popular in Coptic and medieval Egypt, was worn by the elite Nubians, but most of the people wore a rectangular length of cloth draped or fastened around the body. Much of the material had brightly colored stripes in red, green, yellow, blue, or purple, as well as the natural color of the white wool and many shades of brown and tan.
The use of linen and cotton gradually increased, so that by 1000, 40 percent of the Nubians’ textiles were cotton, 20 percent were linen, and approximately 35 percent were wool—only half as much wool as had been used 200 years earlier. Cotton fabrics were often embroidered with geometric designs and Christian symbols in brightly colored wool yarn. Silk was rare, but was imported by the wealthy. Goat hair was made into bags, rugs, tents, cords, and straps. The weaving techniques for the latter were often complex, producing different patterns on the two sides in several different colors.
By the late Middle Ages, Nubian textiles were numerous and varied. The jallabiyyah seems to have been the basic garment. It was dark blue or white, made of linen or cotton. In style, it was little different from the modern jallabiyyah, which is an ankle-length, shirtlike garment with long, wide sleeves and a front neck opening that closes with string ties. The neck opening was often decorated with small circles or flowers worked in silk embroidery. Checks and stripes in blue and white were also used.
Wall paintings found in Nubian churches provide detailed pictures of ecclesiastical and royal dress. The overall impression is one of great richness—voluminous garments in several layers, elegant braids decorating hems and cuffs, a profusion of pearls sewn in rows of rosettes on sumptuous fabrics. Although there is no way of identifying the material from which these luxury fabrics were made, it is reasonable to assume that some, at least, were of silk. Among the patterned fabrics, stripes are most commonly seen, but small and larger repeating patterns are also present.
There are many ways in which these patterns could have been produced: by printing or painting, by applied decoration such as embroidery or appliqué, or by the weaving process itself. All of these techniques have been found archaeologically from the medieval period, and it is clear that garments similar to those represented on the wall paintings did, in fact, exist. Much of this luxury fabric was imported from the great textile centers of the Middle East and serves as an eloquent indication of the wealth of medieval Christian Nubia.
- Adams, W. Y. Qasr Ibrim: The Late Medieval Period. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoirs. In preparation. Crowfoot, E. G. “The Clothing of a Fourteenth-Century Nubian Bishop.” In Studies in Textile History, ed. V. Gervers. Toronto, 1977.
- Eastwood, G. “Textiles.” In Quseir al-Qadim 1980, ed. D. S.
- Whitcomb and J. H. Johnson, pp. 285-326. American Research Center in Egypt Reports. Malibu, Calif., 1982.
- Michalowski, K. Faras. Warsaw, 1974.
- Plumley, J. M.; W. Y. Adams; and E. G. Crowfoot. “Qasr Ibrim 1976.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63 (1977):45-47.
NETTIE K. ADAMS