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Coptic Textile Design Work

Illustration: Silk textile design from Alexandria, 6th century

Some of the most colourful and obviously charming textiles to come out of what we would see as Ancient Egypt were those produced during the early Christian era. These Coptic textiles, named after the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, have little that seem at first to be immediately identifiable as belonging to Egypt. Many of the designs and pattern work derive from sources closer to Greece, Rome and Byzantium than they do Thebes or Memphis. However, these textiles come from an era when Egypt was first a province of Rome and then of the Greek Byzantine Empire and so the outside influence is obviously much stronger than that of Egypt itself.

Illustration: Textile roundel design from Egypt 6th century

Many of the examples that we can see today were actually robbed from Christian cemeteries in the nineteenth century. Interestingly it was gold ornaments that were at first surreptitiously removed from graves and then sold in the markets in and around Cairo, while the textiles were cast aside. However, when a steady market was discovered for ancient textiles in Europe, much more care was taken and grave robbing took on a more professional and careful stance. Unfortunately one of the habits of the local robbers was to divide spoils equally therefore a number of textile pieces were cut up and divided between individuals. These pieces were not always sold together and so original design work was often scattered across Europe. Another form of dividing fabrics was to cut out interesting motifs, panels or medallions and sell them separately from the rest of the garment. While this made good business sense, it has left us with lots of interesting detailed work, but relatively few intact garments, and so it is sometimes difficult to put the work in the context of a costume.

Illustration: Woven tapestry panel of wool on a linen background, Egypt
Much of the Coptic textile work that was sold by this method ended up in European museum collections. The V&A procured an increasingly large collection through the influence of the British in Egypt who occupied the country from 1882. The textile work robbed from graves was mostly in the form of clothing, much of it either woven or embroidered. Woven linen was the usual construction, with embroidered work often in wool which was unfortunate as although the linen survived largely intact, the wool was prone to be attacked by insects and eaten. However, some fine examples were produced that still had their original colouring largely intact and it is these items that today make these Coptic pieces so valued and popular.

As said earlier, there is little to truly identify these pieces as immediately Egyptian, rather than any other Eastern Christian region. The motifs used are largely standard Christian ones and any ornamental text is usually in Greek. The decorative work identifies quite closely with that of mosaic pattern and design work found right across the later Roman Empire and Byzantium. However, there are small, but definite reminders of Egypt's past, in particular the use of a stylised lotus motif that is not always prominent in the decorative composition, but is often placed perhaps as a reminder of Egypt's past uniqueness.

Illustration: Tapestry inlaid into a linen cloth background, Egypt 3rd or 4th century

It is sometimes hard to imagine the sheer longevity of the Egyptian culture. Egypt was already old in the period of Classical Greece, and when it became a province of the Roman Empire it had existed as an entity for over three thousand years. It is the power of Egypt's uniqueness that we are in awe of today. However, although there is an element of an unchanging and unbroken nature to the culture of Egypt, it is interesting how vibrant and young these textile pieces appear. It may of course have something to do with a culture adopting a relatively new religion, but it perhaps says much more about the lively human condition, that although a nation, empire or region may appear to be old and intransigent, the people who inhabit it are anything but, and the zest for creativity continues unabated.

Illustration: Woven tapestry and needlework star ornament, Egypt

It is difficult to try to condone or quantify grave robbing in any form. The dead were not expecting to relinquish their grave goods and certainly were not expecting to be stripped of their clothing to fuel Europe's expanding Museum collections. However, the textile skills of these anonymous Egyptian weaving, tapestry and embroidery crafts people is so spectacular that an uncomfortable balance has been formed between extricating grave goods and applauding the techniques and skills base of this particular Egyptian phase of their culture.

Reference links:
Looms and Textiles of the Copts: First Millennium Egyptian Textiles in the Carl Austin Reitz Collection of the California Academy of Science (Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences)
A Coptic Textile Fragment Egypt, circa 4th-7th Century AD Giclee Poster Print, 36x48
Coptic Textile Designs: 144 Egyptian Designs from the Early Christian Era (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Coptic Weaves: Notes on the Collection of Coptic Textiles in the Merseyside County Museums
Coptic textiles;
Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum
Late antique Coptic and Islamic textiles of Egypt
Coptic Fabrics
The Coptic Tapestry Albums: And the Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet
Early Coptic textiles: Stanford Art Gallery, Stanford University, May 4 to May 25, 1969 (Stanford art book)

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