This paper is about the all-time history of the textile industry in Egypt. Famous for being one of the most developed ancient civilization,
and for being under the influence of various foreign civilizations throughout its history, Egypt developed a distinguished textile industry
with old tradition and various characteristics. This paper is to concentrate on political, economic, and social accounts of textile industry
in Egypt, as well as artistic, technological features shown in Egyptian textiles. The periodization follows: the ancient times refers to 4000 BC
to the first century BC; the Coptic period to the first century to the tenth century, although the chapter which deals with the Coptic textiles
covers until the seventh century; the Islamic times to the seventh century to eighteenth century; the modern times to the nineteenth
century to this day.
II. Ancient Textiles
II.1 Dominance of Flax and Linen
Estimated to be cultivated well before 2500 BC, flax was the major textile produced by the the ancient Egyptians. The annual variety of flax
(Linium usitatissimum), which grows well on sandy soils, was first cultivated, but it was replaced by the perennial variety (Linium austriacum)
around 4000 BC. Egypt produced most of the flax products of all kinds; the goddess Isis, was worshiped as the inventor of flax. (1)
Considering that Isis, the wife of Osiris (the same rank with Greek deity Hades) and mother of Horus which was thought to be incarnated by
the pharaoh, is one of the most worshiped deity until the Roman times, the ancient Egyptians probably regarded linen as
an indispensible, important goods in their life. Moreover, since flax provided Egyptians with not only fibers but also the
stem for basketry and the seeds for extracting oil (2), the utility of flax would have made itself crucial
for everyday life of ancient people.
The relics serve as the furthermore evidence of the importance of linen in the ancient Egypt. The linens in the gable-topped chest which dates
back to 1550 to 1295 BC shows that there was variety of linens with different qualities, weaves and usages.
Figure 1. Gable-topped Chest and linen during Dynasty 18 (3)
For dressing and outer garment, Egyptians wore a high-quality linen with superfine weave. For a mattress, long sheet of dark linen with coarser
weave was used. Second, the chest contains large amount of linen only for a dead woman. Considering that the chest
is too austere for the royal's or noble's tomb, the owner of the tomb would have been from a family with minimum wealth to afford making tombs
(it can be family of artisans, rich farmers or technicians). For this dead body, the family put more than seventeen yards of linen for her afterlife
; it shows that linen was not luxurious commodity but for everyday consumption for all people.
The Spanish Wikipedia (article "Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto") claims that the ancient Egyptians used cotton before they began to use
. However, Robinson says that "the Egyptians appreciated its brilliant, silky, smooth appearance."
Since cotton is indigenous to India and cotton trees could not bear harsh climate of Mesopotamia, the introduction
of cotton cultivation would have not occurred during the ancient times; thus, cultivation of linen would have been more feasible, easier choice
for the contemporary Egyptians.
Wool was regarded impure and animal fur was tabooed (7)
. Moreover, wool of that time was not suitable for spinning
. All these factors gave rise to flax and the major fiber in the ancient Egypt.
II.2 Characteristics of Textile Manufacturing
Textile production comprises of spinning and weaving, and such process has been well disclosed and identified through various effort of
archaeologists, as can be seen from the detailedness of today's compiled research results. (see the article "Weaving Textiles of the ancient Egypt",
the article "Dyeing of the Egyptian Textiles" in the site ) For this reason, this chapter is rather focused on verifying the
historical origin of manufacturing technology including textile production and dying, and supplementing details not found in the site .>
II.2.1 Textile Production
Weaving was a common phenomenon ever since the world went through the neolithic era, so most of contemporary human communities must
have had at least basic skill of textile production. However, considering that the place where the oldest textile of the world is found is Egypt
(9), Egypt must have been a pioneering civilization of textile production in a very advanced level. As a result, according to
this claim, it can be said that Egyptian way of weaving is rather indigenous and local, and it was at the post of influencing adjacent civilizations
However, another source (Wikipedia) claims the oldest textile evidence to be a piece of linen found in Anatolia, estimated to be made around
7000 BC. It also describes that flax was imported from the Levant at least around 5500 BC. (In the Near East, the first cultivation of flax dates
back to 8000 BC) (10) To follow this claim, Egyptian was not a pioneering civilization of weaving technology. As a result, the ancient Egypt becomes
the place where weaving skills were further developed based on technology and material imported from areas outside, rather than a pioneering civilization.
Nevertheless, no matter what the real origin of Egyptian weaving material and technology actually is, it is undeniable that Egyptians developed
weaving technology to a degree which could not be emulated by other contemporary civilizations until the end of ancient era. Much technology
improved before the birth of Christ was still available during the Coptic era. (See chapter III.2.) Also, Egypt met the most of textile demands of the
Roman empire. (See chapter II.2.)
II.2.2 Dyeing of Textiles
The oldest evidence of dyeing is a brownish linen textile found near Tarktan, which dates back to the Dynasty 1 (11).
However, dying is more confidently confirmed from the time of Dynasty 3 and 4, based on a red textile fragment found in Meidum (12).
The mural from the tomb of a high-ranking official, in which the Semite women probably of 1900 BC, shows various types of designs and colors of
dyed patterns. (13)
There were several methods of dyeing textiles in the ancient times. The site suggests two ancient methods: a method called "smearing,"
in which the color is spread onto the cloth, possibly with the aid of clay, mud, or honey; the other one called "double dyeing", in which fibers,
threads, or cloth were first dyed one color and then dyed again with a different color to obtain a third color. (14) Another reference
suggests another method called "hand painting", which is regarded to be one of the oldest, and by which mummy clothes were decorated. Moreover,
making red, ocher (hydrated oxide of iron) mainly was used (15) For blue was indigo. Rich purple was from cochineal; yellow
was from saffron. (16) Surely, dyes in this time were natural, extracted from brightly colored plants and flowers; the Egyptian
hieroglyphs which describes such process is the clear evidence. (17)
The historical origin of dyeing in the ancient Egypt is thought to be the Arabian merchants who delivered dyeing technology (18)
Moreover India was the pioneer of dyeing which dates back to the third millenium BC. (19) Thus, it is possible to say that
dyeing was introduced to Persia (Mesopotamia in which Arabians lived) through the trade with India, and Arabian merchants then again introduced the
technology to Phoenicia, and Egypt could finally obtain the technology through trade with Phoenicia around 3000 BC; the Dynasty 1 in which the oldest
evidence of dyeing was made is around 3100 BC, and the Dynasty 3 in which the confident evidence was made is around 2600 BC. Also, the Egyptian
artifacts found in the Phoenician city of Byblos date back to the Dynasty 4, which is around 2500 BC (20), which means there
must have been commercial intercourse between the ancient Egypt and Phoenicia at least before then; not only that, Indigo, an Indian native, was found
in Egyptian clothing dating back to 2500 BC (21). These evidences reinforces the presumption that the origin of Egyptian dying is
around 3000 BC.
One thing significant is that Egyptians was the least affirmative in utilizing dyeing techniques of the four major ancient civilizations;
the ancient Egypt was the last to be aware of dyeing (probably even later than Phoenicians), and linen was more difficult to be dyed
than any other textiles such as wool.
II.3 Governmental Control on Production
The governmental control on production had been imposed throughout entire Egyptian history. (23) The oldest available
evidence are certain documents dating back to the Ptolemaic times. (24) The Ptolemaic government ordered each governorate
to give a percentage of the fabric and clothes it produced. If the allocated amount was not met, the government imposed a licencing tax on the
weavers. (25) The Prolemaic state utilized home, public and temple workshops for textile production; town officials collected
yarns from peasants and delivered it to the weavers who produced the amount ordered by government. Temple workshops produced byssus (probably
linen) and polymita (embroidered ones), which were renowned for high quality. (26)
However, the Ptolemaic dynasty did not monopolized the industry; but the Roman empire imposed more rigid control over the production. Romans
needed great amount of linen, partly for consistent supply for the Roman army. (27) For private consumption of luxurious
fabrics, some workshops began to specialized in wool tapestry weaving etc. (But the wool tapestry weaving reached its climax during the Coptic times.)
For everyday consumption, Roman Egypt met most demand of tunic all over the empire. (28)
During both the Ptolemaic and the Roman times, Alexandria was the major site of production and trade of textiles. Jute, linen, and woolen clothes were
produced and the ports made their export easier. (29) Moreover, since most tapestry workshops were stationed at Alexandria
after the Roman times (30), development of wool tapestry mainly took place in Alexandria, becoming the cradle for the emergence
of later Coptic textiles.
II.4 Usage by Various Social Classes
In the Ancient times, silk production was not introduced, and the only source of silk was the Roman empire's trade with the Han dynasty in China.
Sericulture has only been available since the sixth century AD, because China had hidden the secret of silk production until then. (31)
Thus, silk was not available for the royal and noble people before the Roman occupation, and linen was common for all walks of people in the ancient
Egypt, as can be seen from the murals which depict the pharaoh, the royal, the nobility, the common and even deities wearing whitewashed (or sometimes
However, the garments represented social status, although it is questionable that certain garments were reserved for special social class. (In case of
animal fur, the priests wore it while the others tabooed it and avoided using them for dressing (32); the crown, a cobra-like
garment uraeus and scepter are found only in the depiction of the pharaoh)
Figure 2. The Mural "Relief of Thutmose I", around 1500 BC (32a)
In this mural from around 1500 BC, the pharaoh wears various kinds of garments such as gold, colored bids, delicate embroideries, jewelry etc, on his linen
skirt called shenti. The queen wears a long linen robe with an elaborately decorated wig on her head. Also, their clothes are dyed. The fake beard
represents the pharaoh's authority.
Such clothing was not much different for the nobility. Shenti (for men) and a long linen robe (for women) were common for everyone ;
the nobility decorated themselves with garments similar to that of the royal. In some cases, they put false teeth and headdresses.
Figure 3. Vignette on Khonsu's inner coffin lid, 1279-1213 BC (34)
The vignette shows the most plain dressing of an Egyptian male. The man of the vignette only wears a shenti, and staples it with
a simple tie rather than a belt.
All in all, linen was common for everyone as a major clothing material, so was the form of dress (shenti and robe). The priests wore animal fur,
although most avoided using that. The difference of consumption only appears from how they decorated themselves and how
many kinds of additional clothing were used.
III. The Coptic Textiles
III.1 The Foreign Influence
Coptic art in general was influenced heavily by Egyptian and Greco-Roman heritages, while there are also a degree of Persian, Byzantine and
Syrian influence. For example, even after Christianity became dominant, Egyptian symbolism was used along with the biblical motifs. (35)
Also, ever since the Romans brought silk to Egypt through trade with the Han dynasty, silk was adopted gradually to Egyptian textiles.
The Coptic textiles is probably the pioneering figure in which silk is used. Not only that, after the Roman empire recognized Christianity in 313
and then promulgated it as the state religion in 395, Christianity protruded into Egyptian society and resulted in the Coptic church. For this
reason, Christian motifs became major elements of the Coptic culture until the arrival of Islam.
The factor that should be take into account is that, at first, the Coptic church separated from the Eastern Church of which head was the
Byzantine emperor because the Coptic church stood for the doctrines different from what was decided in the ecumenical council of Chalcedon
in 451 (36)
. Moreover, the Sassanid Persia temporarily possessed Egypt for 10 years (618-628). For this reason, the
earlier Coptic art was rather influenced by Persian culture imported through Syria than Byzantine culture. However, after Constantinople
was settled as the capital of the entire empire, Byzantine culture had great impact on Coptic weavers, enriching repetoire of design and motifs.
As a result, the Copts imported patterns such as roundels in which animals such as griffins were inscribed.
The following roundel below shows representative qualities of the Coptic textile.
Figure 4. The Roundel around 6-7 Century AD, Panapolis (Akhmim, Egypt) (39)
The roundel is mainly an undyed linen, while it is embroidered with polychrome silk; linen remained the major element, while silk emerged as
the new element of Egyptian textile. (This also becomes the existing evidence for the chapter III.2.) Since the roundel is from the late Coptic era,
it was conspicuously influenced by the Byzantine culture; it shows a Roman [Byzantine) emperor in fight, and the style overall resembles that
of Byzantine. (40)
III.2 Application of New Weaving Techniques and Material
The Coptic way of weaving (tapestry-weave and loom-weave) was inherited the traditional Egyptian method; even a special technique called
"Egyptian knot" was not forgotten and continued to be utilized. (41)
However, while traditional Egyptians only
used "tabby weave" which is the simplest, the Copts started to frequently use "Soumak weave" which made distinctive outlines of textile,
and invented the "Flying Shuttle (or Bobbin) technique" in which a second shuttle is inserted to an extra linen weft, (42)
so that it would be possible to work in an extra pattern yarn for facial features or dot patterns (43)
. In spinning, the
Copts used the "S-twist" thread, in order to correct tendency of rotation which occurs in the washed natural flax fibers. (44)
Although flax remained to be the major material (45)
, other various fibers were gradually introduced to Egyptian
weaving. Since the Greeks and Romans systematically produces finer qualities of wool unlike Egyptians did (46)
was not until the Hellenistic and Roman period when wool became comparatively common (47)
, changing the old
bias about impurity of wool. Around the fourth century, wool became the indispensable element for tapestry, while the use of silk weaving
had been still rarely found; however, silk became popular after the sixth century. It coincides with the period when two monks who lived in
China for a long time secretly brought silkworms to start the first sericulture in Europe. In the eighth century, linen and silk were woven together
(interweaving) into clerical robes, and the skill of weaving became sophisticated that textiles looked like embroidery. (48)
The interweaving of silk and flax became one of the most featured characteristic of the Coptic textiles.
III.3 Change of Design
According to the article "Coptic Textiles" of , archaeologists grasp the change of artistic features [and design] of the Coptic textiles
through the division of timeline: the Greco-Roman period (1-300 AD), the Inter-phase (300-500 AD), the Coptic phase (500-900 AD). (49)
The criterion of this periodization somewhat coincides with Wilson's explanation; he indicates that there is the progression of style that proceeds
from the Greek, through the Roman (Byzantine), and Persian, and then to the Islamic. (50) In this paper, the periodization is
to be a) Greco-Roman period until 400, b) Christian period until 700. (The Islamic period is to be discuss in the chapter IV) The Persian influence on
design will be discuss in III.3.2. The causes of change of design is discussed in the chapter III.1.; therefore, this chapter is to focus on the development
in design, especially about techniques and depicted objects.
III.3.1 The Graeco-Roman Period
In this period, designs were Hellenistic and pagan; there were a lot of reproduction of classical motifs such as Greek deities, Nilotic scenes, vines,
humans, animals etc. (51) Not only that, geometric designs were popular. Also, the most skilled artisans made out
third-dimensional, realistic depictions through molding. (52) In contrast, especially after the Roman empire conquered Egypt,
artistic tendency of textiles artisans were "submerged" by the influx of iconographic formulas of the empire, finally abandoning most of the artistic
heritage of Pharaonic age. However, Egyptian mythological figures survived it, as can be seen from Isis' becoming the representative of the Nile,
which was the most popular object of Roman Egypt (53). This was possible because the Roman empire was polytheistic
and tolerant with most religions existing in its domain. (i.e. Faith in Isis was pervasive throughout the empire).
Figure 5. Textile Fragment, 4th Century (54)
This textile fragment, which dates back to Late Greco-Roman period, shows the superior degree of contemporary Coptic design. The object is a
(probably noble) woman with Roman female hair style and garments. The artistic technique is far different from traditional Egyptian's, and rather
similar to the mosaics found in the ruins of Pompeii; the gradual change of shadow and the realistic depiction of countenance make out the third-dimensional
expression of the object. However, in this textile fragment, it is impossible to find any remnants of the Pharaonic Era.
III.3.2 Christian Symbolism; Persian Design
After the fourth century, the symbolism of Christianity became more typical (55)
and the pagan motifs were "christianized"
rather than being depicted its original form. The examples of Christian symbolism are: harvesting of grape, which represents God's calling soul to
heaven; the episode of Joseph (Jacob's twelfth son); equestrian saints fighting against the evil; cross etc. (56)
In case of
some pagan symbolism, though most subsided, some survived: ankh, which represents faith in resurrection; the tree of life; the fish (Greek
abbreviation referring to Christ); (57)
Daphne's transformation into the laurel tree, which represents the soul's leaving the
Probably, there are several reasons for such drastic alteration between the fourth and the fifth century. First, Christianity was declared the state
religion of the empire by Theodosius in 395, which resulted in iconoclastic movement against paganism. Just as can be seen from the fire of the
library in Alexandria, the religious persecution was thorough and rigid; hence, in order for mythical elements to survive through the persecution,
it had to transform itself to fit in the new circumstances. Second, the traditional method of burial became obsolete and new way was needed, partly
because of the predominance of Christianity; (59)
hence, the Coptic textiles substituted previous burial accessories.
(See chapter III.4.)
At the same time, the Persian patterns, which was imported via silk imported from the Sassanid Persia, became popular. Eastern motifs such as
double palms, floral backgrounds, winged animals, griffins, human heads were arranged in staggered rows all decorate wool tapestries. (60)
There is a significant change in design technique during this period; designs became symbolic rather than realistic, and the use of color
became flatter and rather monotonic. Not only that, textiles began to show rather coarse texture and disportionate figures. (61)
Figure 6. A Part of Tapestry, the fourth or fifth century; (62)
Figure 7. A Part of Tapestry, the seventh century (63)
The change is conspicuous between the these fragments of tapestry. Actually, the left one is bigger than the right one in the real size, which means
the left one could be more detailed than the other one. However, despite such condition, the way the objects in the right one is depicted seems
"degenerated" than that of the left one; in the right one, there is almost no change of shadow, and the colorfulness is rather meager than the left
one. Also, the equestrian of the right one is very disportionate, while the female of the left one is detailed, proportionate and realistic.
To this phenomenon, some authors say there was a degeneration in weaving technique, while others say it is the adaptation of a new technique to
design by distorting the angle of the weft, using embroidery and outlining, and employing vivid colors to emphasize abstraction. (64)
(In reality, the left one has no outline and is used rather pastel-toned color, while the right one is applied with a distinctive black outline and primary
colors such as red in the background) Probably, it could be the result of that the monasteries which had been the center of the Coptic tapestry went
through decay after the Muslim rule from 640; the folk art (65)
would have replaced the role of specialized monastery
craftsmanship and developed its own techniques.
III.4 Various Usages of the Coptic Textiles
The most significant usage of the Coptic textiles is that it was used for wrapping corpses substituting conventional method of embalming and
preserving mummies. Mummification was abandoned and the corpses were put everyday clothes in the late third century. Instead, these bodies
were tied to a board and wrapped in mantles, hangings and curtains, which are the Coptic textiles. (66)
Considering that many
Coptic textiles included depictions of certain biblical episodes with funerary and symbolic meaning and often carried the pharaonic symbol of ankh,
the usage of Coptic textiles in burial reflects the change of Egyptian concept of afterlife especially after Christianity.
This shows that the Coptic textiles marks the important change of the burial culture in Egypt.
Not only at burial, the Coptic textiles were used for various purposes, at public places and for everyday needs. In churches, they were used
for hangings and curtains, mostly including icons of saints and biblical themes. In homes, they were used for fashion garment, tunic, curtain,
bad sheets, covers, towels, napkins, table clothes, sacks etc. (68)
IV. The Islamic Textiles
IV.1 Political and Religious Background
Politically, Egypt was conquered by the Arabs during the Islamic reign of the second Caliph Umar in 639. Since then, Egypt was under the
continuous rule of the Islamic dynasties until 1805, except for a few cases when it was occupied Napoleon's French army in 1799. That is,
Egypt has been under the strong, consistent influence of Islam for more than eleven centuries, with the close contact to its neighboring
Islamic political entities. For this reason, the Muslim traditions and culture profoundly rooted in here, which indeed have made great impact
on the textile industry. (Technically, Egypt has Islam as its state religion and at least eighty percent of its population is Muslim.) Also,
some Muslim dynasties imposed various measures on textile industry as can be seen from Tiraz or prohibition of silk for most populace.
As a result of Islamic occupation, the Quran and the Sharia (God's law) regulated everyday life of the Muslim world, including clothing
and artistic activities. In case of dress code, the Quran says "Tell the believing men to... protect their private parts. That is purer for them."
(24:30) Especially in case of women, it demands "not to show off their adornments [except for the close male family], to draw their veils
all over Juyubihinna(their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)."
Not only were women restricted in
their fashion; men were also forbidden wearing gold and silk on their body. (70)
However, it did not mean that the
demand for silk was diminished, as can be seen from that "many other cities began to weave in response to the tremendous demand"
This was due to that silk was consumed not only for dressing but also for cushions, curtains, tapestry, prayer
rugs, and myriad of other purposes.
Also, since depicting human figure especially in religious places was regarded sacrilage because of possibility of being idol; thus, unlike
the Coptic textiles, Islamic textiles rarely exhibit human figure. Instead, the pattern called Arabesque, or depiction of natural figures and geometrical.
abstract design, is often applied. For example: curved, veined leaves, rosettes, tendrils and blossoms. (72)
IV.2 Governmental Institution : Tiraz
It is not sure if there was a strict governmental interference on textile industry in the Islamic Egypt. However, there was a certain institution
which was reserved for meeting the demand of the royal and the privileged, which is called tiraz.
Originally, tiraz means an inscribed silk (or a mixture with other type of fiber) arm band on which embroideries are placed
as a badge of honor, favor and distinction. It often contains a single-line Arabic inscription in foliated kufic script extending
blessings to the Prophet and the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah (ruled 953-975 CE). (73)
Figure 8. Tiraz Tapestry Fragment, Nubia, Fatimid Egypt, 11-12C (74)
Tiraz was principally a prerogative of the caliph, but some distinguished people were given tiraz under the special favor and
permission of the (Fatimid, Abbasid and other dynasty's) caliph. (75)
Thus, manufacture and distribution
of tiraz were carefully controlled through a complicated institution. (76)
According to Muslim historian
Ibn Khaldun, "It[tiraz] is part of royal and government pomp and dynastic custom to have the names of rulers or their peculiar marks
embroidered on the brocade, or pure silk garments that are prepared for their weaving."
(The Muqaddimah) (77)
On the contrary, tiraz simultaneously meant a palace factory which manufactured works for ritual adornment and royal
consumption. Thus, some scholars say that tiraz was an administrative department responsible for satisfying the textile
demands of sultanates and emirates (78)
. According to Foisier and Sondheimer, the tradition of tiraz
was especially eminent and long-lasting in Egypt, and tiraz was divided into two agencies : tiraz al kassa, which concerned
with product exclusively reserved for the caliph; tiraz al amma, of which products were in wider circulation and were distributed to officials,
servants of the caliph, the military and perhaps even for mundane trade. (79)
IV.3 Characteristics of Islamic Egyptian Textile Industry
In the Arab world, the parts of which shared a market with easy accessibility to each other, could respectively specialize themselves;
each region became a center of industry of a certain type of textile, according to their major raw material. Such diversification was
extensive; for example, raw silk from Khurasan and the Ahwaz. (80)
In case of Egypt, its delta produced the
largest amount of flax in the Arab world. Also, along with Syria, Egypt specialized in producing wool (the silk-like wool of Egypt was
highly appreciated). As a result, Egypt satisfied most of the demand of flax gauze, and continued to produce its distinctive wool textiles
of which the tradition dates back to the Coptic tapestry.
Until about 1820, Egyptian textile industry was characterized by small workshops, guild organization of craftsmen, and a extensive
diversification of labor. Workers in each production process of the textile industry were respectively organized into separate guilds.
Also, in this period, Cairo was the most important textile production and distribution center specializing
in the weaving of silk, cotton, and linen. Dyeing was a semi-industrial specialty of Cairo. Workshops with an average of twenty workers
were concentrated in three main areas of the city. After coffee and spices, textiles were the most important product sold in Cairo's markets.
V. Modernization of Textile Industry
V.1 European Influence; Development of Cotton Production
At first, Egypt exported a fair amount of woolen textiles and linen to Europe; for example, 30 percent of Egyptian export to France was
textiles. However, after 1840s, as the Industrial Revolution, along with import of fiber resources from colonies such as India, brought
a significant development of textile production in European countries. This seemed to have brought new competition among Egyptian
textile industry and that of Europe. Handcraft such as embroidery and dressmaking remained prevalent by local housewives who
did not expect profit out of it, but the number of traditional textile artisans show diminishing trend through the late nineteenth century,
After Muhammad Ali seized power of Egypt in 1805 as the governor who became an independent viceroy of the Ottoman empire,
Egypt went through drastic modernization in every field of economy, under the leadership of the government. Ali especially encouraged
cultivation of commercial crops, and this policy led to installment of modern infrastructure such as road, railway and irrigation, (84)
which then again contributed in increasing the production of cotton. (85)
. International Historic Statistics shows
that the export of cotton was only 1,600 metric tons in 1821, and the amount increases to 10 in 1823, which is the significant improvement
of productivity in just three years (86)
. This proves that Ali's irrigation policy actually brought dramatic increase
of cotton production in a short period of time.
Because the indigenous Egyptian cotton called baladi was not good enough to satisfy European demand, an Ethiopean species
called maho was used, which had better quality. (87)
(later, it was substituted by long-staple
cotton or Gossypium hirsutum, which is from the South of the US) Production of raw cotton emerged as one of the most crucial industry
in Egypt in the nineteenth century. The wealth derived from cotton production was invested in raising modern army etc.
The other important moment of Egyptian raw cotton production industry was the American Civil War (1861-1865). This war resulted in
expansion of cotton production. During the war, the South (Confederacy) which produced great amount of cotton was blocked from trade,
which resulted in a lack of supply for British fabric manufacturing industry. In this situation, Egypt was regarded as the best alternative
because Egyptian cotton was of high quality. British companies began investing heavily in cotton production in Egypt, and this resulted
in great expansion.
Figure 9. Export of Raw Cotton, 1850-1878 (88)
As can be see from the graph above, the export of cotton is stagnant until about 1862, which is just before the American Civil War, and
it reaches the highest point in 1864, which is the starting year of the war. Even after the war ended, the export of Egyptian cotton increases
up to 140 in 1876, which at least four times as much as the average export before the war.
Figure 10. Comparison of Output and Export of (Raw) Cotton, 1865-1953 (89)
Since there is no available statistical data which shows the cotton production before 1865, it is difficult to know whether the dramatic
augmentation of export actually influenced cotton production in Egypt.
However, since most of the cotton produced in Egypt was for export until 1953, it is deducible that the cotton export almost equals to the
cotton production before 1953. (Before the Independence of Egypt in 1952, almost all raw cotton imported by developed countries, mainly for
Britain, Egypt's colonial motherland) The graph above shows that output of cotton draws the line which follows the trend of export of cotton;
because the primary aim of cultivation of raw cotton was to make revenue through international trade, such deduction is very plausible.
Thus, with high probability, it can be concluded that the American Civil War definitely had grand impact on the cotton production in Egypt.
However, at the end, the boom subsided. The foreign investment imposed heavy debt on Egypt, which could not be paid until the British
Empire established a protectorate over Egypt (90)
. Even worse, after the American Civil War ended and the trade of
cotton from the South resumed, demand for Egyptian cotton deducted in consequence, which made cotton production less lucrative.
V.2 Modern Attempts to Nationalize Textile Industry
V.2.1 State Monopoly by Muhammad Ali
The first attempt to nationalize textile industry was by Muhammad Ali in the nineteenth century. Ali wanted to centralize all power of Egypt
and establish the hereditary rule by his lineage, so he implemented a government monopoly over all manufacturing and foreign trade. Textile
industry, of course, was one of the major objects of this policy; Khurunfish quarter in Cairo city was the center of the state monopoly. First
it mainly produced silk, but when cotton became more profitable, it concentrated more on cultivating and weaving of cotton. In this process,
many Europeans were hired with priority treatment, but mechanization was very limited. Thus, most of Egyptian handcraftsman were needed
forced to engage by the state program. Hence, the traditional guild system was incorporated into the state monopoly.
Figure 11. Export of (Raw) Cotton, 1822-1852 (91)
At last, nevertheless, owing to the international recession of 1836, failure of administration, lack of fuel and British opposition against
monopoly finally ended up the state monopoly of textile industry. (92)
The graph above shows that there has been the most severe
fluctuation of export of cotton between 1822 and 1843. Also, in this period, cotton export keeps stagnant, its maximum being 14. Since
the state monopoly lasted from around 1818 to around 1840, it can be said that the state monopoly turned out to be a failure compared
to the increase of export since 1840s.
V.2.2 Nationalization by the Nasser Government
Another notable attempt to nationalize textile industry was by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1960s. When the new regime based on military
power persecuted demonstrations of trade unions of textile industry, many textile unions changed their mind to become a good cooperator
of the Nasser regime. At the end, leftist trade unions were almost ousted, trade unions being apparatus of state-planned economy, and
finally the entire textile industry was nationalized under direct control of Egyptian government. According to Beinin, textile workers
benefitted from the system, because the whole workload lessened after nationalization.
The nationalization have resolved throughout recent decades; by the 1970s the state encouraged private enterprises, and in the 1990s
the governmental control over textile unions became lenient. For now, the recent textile industry of Egypt is going through the impact of
neo-liberalist economic policy. (93)
V.3 Recent History of Egyptian Textile Industry
While Egypt focused on producing and trading raw cotton before 1950, the focus of Egyptian textile industry moved to production
of woven cotton fabric and other types of textiles after 1950. The two graphs below shows this eminent tendency.
Figure 12. Comparison of Output and Export of (Raw) Cotton, 1941-1999 (94)
Figure 13. Output of (Woven) Cotton Fabric, 1941-1997 (95)
The first graph shows that the disparity between output and export has been getting wider right after 1950. Moreover, while raw cotton
production shows slow increase until mid-1970s, export of raw cotton shows decrease between 1940 and 1997. This might indicate
that domestic demand for raw cotton has drastically increased and the international demand diminished after 1950. Eminently, raw
cotton production was no longer a major industry after 1950; the majority of cotton production became to be consumed by domestic industry.
Meanwhile, the second graph shows that the output of woven cotton shows steep increase after 1950, and the production thereof continues
to increase until 1980. Especially, the period when output and export of raw cotton shows the widest disparity coincides with the period when
the production of woven cotton fabric reaches its maximum in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. This information implies that the surplus
raw cotton which came from disparity of output and export had been consumed for domestic weaving industry; this might be the result
of spurred modernization and mechanization of Egyptian textile industry after independence and nationalization of economy by Nasser regime.
Nevertheless, both raw cotton production and cotton fabric production shows drastic fall after mid-1980s. The possible assumption is that
the beginning of neo-liberalist policy has removed protectionist policy and the competition among newly emerging industrialized countries
such as China has become fiercer after 1980s. (In 1999, 20 percent of total export of China was from textiles; other developing countries participate
in World textile market, because it is easy to access.) Another possible conjecture is that the land which was originally used for cotton production
is used for other purposes, as Egypt has modernized and industrialized itself in the late twentieth century.
The textile industry of Egypt has a complicated, long history, as it has benefitted from fertile environment for growing certain types of
fiber and developed sophisticated technology based on its own tradition and the influence of foreign civilizations.
Egypt has usually played an important
role in its neighboring scope, the Mediterranean. The ancient history proves that Egyptians were one of the pioneering figures in the
earliest textile industry in human history, especially specializing themselves in production of linen. They also improved its distinctive
style based on its ancient tradition and Greco-Roman artistic style; the Coptic textile was the combination of Egyptian tradition of linen
weaving and artistic realism and new material (wool and silk) imported from the Greco-Roman world. In the Islamic times, Egypt was the
major supplier of flax and produced other types of textile demanded by the consumers in the Arab world and some parts of Europe. Still
in the modern times, Egypt converted itself into a centerpiece of cotton production, as well as one of the major producers of high-quality
silk and wool in the world. Reaching its maximum productivity between 1950 and 1980, Egyptian textile industry seems economically
less significant than it had been before.
In the aspect of politics, Egyptian textile industry was regarded probably the most important industry of all Egypt, and the governmental
interference has persisted throughout history. In the ancient times, Ptolemaic pharaohs requested textile artisans to weave of the state,
and also did Romans. In the Islamic times, it is not palpable whether the Muslim rulers had direct control over entire textile industry, but
it is true that Egyptian tiraz system, which satisfied the demands of the royal and the nobility, showed the most palpable example in the
Arab world. In the mordern times, textile industry was more susceptible to governmental control; Both Ali and Nasser coveted strong,
centralized power and the state temporarily nationalized (or monopolize) textile industry, although at last it failed. It was not more than
recent three decades since textile industry was least controlled by the government.
In the social aspect, the stratification of textile consumption was mainly defined by economic wealth; while linen has been universally
consumed by all walks of people, silk or certain types of wool products were available for the rich and the nobility. In a few cases, political
status defined eligibility to certain types of textile works; for instance, tiraz in the Islamic period. On the other hand, religions
(major ones being Christianity and Islam) have had a degree of impact on production and consumption of textiles.
In summary, the textile industry of Egypt has developed in various aspects, throughout its restless history of five thousand years.
(1) Robinson 1969
(2) Robinson 1969
Works of Art : Gable-topped chest and linens, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1550-1295 b.c.
Egyptian; From the tomb of Hatnofer and Ramose, western Thebes from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
(6) Robinson 1969
Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
Materials used to Make Textiles in Ancient Egypt, from Eternal Egypt
Doosan Online Encyclopedia, Article : History of Textiles
"The oldest evidence of textiles ever disclosed
until now is a piece of linen found at a bank of the Nile (3000 BC) along with a piece of cotton fabric at a bank of the Indus. (3000 BC)" Considering
that, five thousand years ago, there was no any form of connection between the two distinctive, isolated civilizations, it is much probable that
Egypt was independently pioneering developed textile production.
Article : History_of_Textiles, Section "Ancient Textiles and Clothing",
Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(13) Robinson 1969
Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(16) Robinson 1969
Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Article "Dye"
Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, Article "Dyeing"
Article : Dyeing, from Wikipedia
Article : Byblos, from Wikipedia
(21) Robinson 1969
(22) Robinson 1969
p.9 "..the harder nature of the flax fiber probably
accounts for the fact that linen is much more difficult to dye or print than other natural fibers."
The Textile Industry in Egypt, from Eternal Egypt
(26) Wilson 1979
The Greco-Roman Economy, from Eternal Egypt
(30) Wilson 1979
(31) Robinson 1969
Indumentaria en el_Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
Relief of Thutmose I, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose I, ca. 1504?1492 B.C.
Egyptian, Color facsimile by Nina deGaris Davies (1925), from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Indumentaria en el_Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
Works of Art : Vignette on Khonsu's inner coffin lid, New Kingdom, reign of Ramesses II, ca. 1279?1213 b.c.
Egyptian; From the tomb of Sennedjem, Deir el-Medina, western Thebes from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
(35) Kamil 1987
Works of Art : Roundel, probably 6th?7th century
Byzantine; said to be from Panopolis (Akhmim), Egypt, from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Personal Experience: One of the greatest feature of the Byzantine culture is its
distinctive mosaics; the depiction of objects in the Coptic textiles are very similar to the famous mosaics which are today found in Ayasofia
(Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul.
(41) Kamil 1987
(43) Wilson 1979
(45) Wilson 1979
(46) Robinson 1969
(47) Wilson 1979
(48) Kamil 1987
Coptic Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(50) Wilson 1979
Coptic Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(54) Turkotek Salon
(55) Wilson 1979
(57) Wilson 1979
At first, Christians regarded mummification helpful for future's assumed resurrection
and applied a variant method which was similar to Egyptian one. However, the stricter Christian leaders objected to it because it not only
was a pagan convention but also bore the possibility to be an object of relics worship. (Article "Mummy",
Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911
) Thus, traditional Egyptian mummification became persecuted after the fourth century, and
was completely eradicated when the Muslims brought better embalming technology. Until today, while most Christian branches allow
embalming, Eastern Orthodox church imposes an absolute ban against it. (Article "Embalming", Wikipedia
(61) Wilson 1979
Works of Art : Tapestry Square with the Head of Spring, 4th?5th century; Early Byzantine
Egyptian, from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Works of Art : Roundel, fragment, 7th century Byzantine ; Egypt (?),
from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
(64) Wilson 1979
(66) Wilson 1979
(69) The Holy Qu¡®ran
(70) Islam Question and Answer
The scholars are agreed that it is permissible for women
to wear and use pure silk, and that it is haraam for men to do so, because of the hadeeth of ¡®Ali ibn Abi Taalib (may Allaah be pleased with him),
who said that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) took a piece of silk in his right hand and a piece of gold in his left, held
them aloft and said: ¡°These are haraam for the males of my ummah and permitted for the females.¡± (Reported by Ibn Maajah, 2/1189).
(71) Lewis 1971
Tiraz Textiles, from IIS
(74) Bolton Museum and Archives Service
Tiraz, other Textiles, from
The Kelsey Online Virtual Gallery of Historic Textiles from Egypt
Tiraz Textiles, from IIS
(78) Fossier and Sondheimer
(81) Beinin 2004
History, from Egyptian Cotton
Large projects such as the Delta barrage
and dams were constructed in Upper Egypt (1835-1909) to provide a much improved irrigation system. This lead to a large increase of land used
for agriculture by the beginning of the 20th century. In the 20th century cotton production has doubled in Egypt without lowering the standards.
Doosan Online Encyclopedia, Article : Muhammad Ali
History, from Egyptian Cotton
Based on IHS
Based on IHS
History, from Egyptian Cotton
Based on IHS
(92) Beinin 2004
Based on IHS
Based on IHS
Note: websites quoted below were visited in October, November and December 2009.
, History of Egypt
2. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art) https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/
Salon du Tapis d'Orient (Turkotek Salon
4. Bolton Museum and
, Egyptology Collection http://www.boltonmuseums.org.uk/collections/egyptology/
B. R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics: Africa, Asia & Oceania, 1750-2000, fourth edition, 2003
J. Kamil, Coptic Egypt: History and Guide, 1987
K. Wilson, A History of Textiles, 1979
S. Robinson, A History of Dyed Textiles, 1969
R. Lewis, Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey, 1971
J. Beinin, Egyptian Textile Workers: From Craft Artisans Facing European Competition
to Proletarians Contending with the State, 2004
R. Fossier & J. Sondheimer, The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages I, 1997
J. Dunn, Feature Story: Ancient Coptic Christian Fabrics, posted on
Wikipedia Spanish edition :
Article "Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto"
(Spanish: Clothing in Ancient Egypt)
Wikipedia English edition : Article "Coptic Art"
Wikipedia English edition : Article
"History of Textiles"
Wikipedia English edition : Article "Dyeing"
Wikipedia English edition : Article "Byblos"
Wikipedia English edition : Article "Embalming"
Wikipedia English edition : Article
20. Eternal Egypt, www.eternalegyt.org :
Article "Materials used to Make Textiles in Ancient Egypt"
21. Eternal Egypt, www.eternalegyt.org :
Article "Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian Textiles"
22. Eternal Egypt, www.eternalegyt.org :
Article "The Textile Industry in Egypt"
23. Eternal Egypt, www.eternalegyt.org :
Article "The Greco-Roman Economy"
24. Eternal Egypt, www.eternalegyt.org :
Article "Coptic Textiles"
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica : Article
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica : Article
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Article
Doosan Online Encyclopedia
History of Textiles
(in Korean), http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=730032
Doosan Online Encyclopedia
(in Korean), http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=825792
30. "The Holy Quran"
, an English translation of the Quran
31. Egyptian Cotton : History
Islam Question & Answer,
"Wearing Silk or Part Silk"
The Institute of Ismaili Studies,
Tiraz and Other Inscribed Textiles, from
The Kelsey Online Virtual Gallery of Historic
Textiles from Egypt
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