Textile art

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Peoples have consistently expressed their identity through their clothing, and this appears to have been true of the Christian Nubians, who consciously turned their backs on the sartorial traditions of earlier times. Throughout the pagan periods at least for the previous two thousand years, Nubians, like Egyptians, had dressed scantily, in garments either of linen or of cotton that were mostly white. With the coming of Christianity they adopted much fuller forms of body dress, perhaps reflecting the puritanism of the new religion. They also began for the first time to wear garments of wool, a fiber that takes colored dye much more readily than do either linen or cotton. The result was the appearance of garments far more richly colored and elaborately decorated than was true at any earlier age. Weaving in wool reached a peak at the beginning of the Classic Christian period, but declined fairly steadily thereafter, as linen and cotton became once again popular. Linen garments - probably all imported - enjoyed a brief return to popularity in the Late Christian period, but thereafter rapidly gave way to cotton.

Our knowledge of medieval Nubian textile art derives almost entirely from small fragments found at Qasr Ibrim and Meinarti, which rarely permit a full reconstruction of either forms or designs. Though the complete form of garments can seldom be recognized, it appears that large, full-body robes were the dominant dress for both sexes. In the beginning they were apparently untailored; later, tailored sleeves were usual in the robes worn by men, which resembled the modern jellabiyeh. In addition to garments, there was evidently a considerable abundance of carpets and hangings.

Cotton and linen fabrics were most often undyed, and decoration when present consisted usually of simple stripes and checks. It was in the field of woolen weaving that the Nubian artists most fully expressed themselves, both with an extraordinary variety of colors and in a seemingly endless variety of tapestry-woven designs, some of them highly complex. Embroidery was also employed in a variety of ways. Though the medieval fabrics have never been found intact archaeologically, an idea of their richness and complexity can be obtained from the numerous mural paintings in the churches. They are entirely different from anything known from contemporary Egypt, and bespeak the love of color characteristic of the Nubians. But elaborate weaving died out along with nearly all the other arts of civilization at the end of the Christian period. The Ottoman garrison forces at Qasr Ibrim in the post-Christian period enjoyed some quite elaborate textiles, but they were all imported.

Sources: N. Adams 1996; N. Adams 2010a; N. Adams 2010b. For colored illustrations see Adams 2002, Color figures 57-62; and Adams 2010, Color plates 1-5.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)