By Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
The Fatimids were a Middle Eastern Caliphate in Egypt from 909-1171 C.E. The period which carries their name is considered by many to be the height of medieval Islamic art. This period is noted for a high level of religious tolerance for “People of the Book”, specifically Muslims, Christians, and Jews — including all of the branches within those faiths.
“Islamic culture” is a term on par with “Western culture” – it doesn’t simply define an area controlled by people of the Muslim faith, it encompasses the influences spread throughout the region, and people will often use the term “Middle Eastern” instead. Though Islamic culture is concentrated within the Middle East, it also extends to the greater Mediterranean regions, much of Africa, Asia, and even the Iberian Peninsula. “Islamic culture” also encompasses the Christians and Jews who lived in the Islamic lands as well.
I. Fatimid clothing
Protecting one from the sun, the cold, and the eyes of the unknown, cloak-type wraps were, and continue to be, an important part of the material culture of the Middle East. Wraps are simply large rectangles of fabric draped and pinned to conceal the body, yet there were no fewer than ten different types of wraps used in the Fatimid period of Middle Eastern history.
Studying Fatimid clothing
Many sources aid modern researchers in the study of Fatimid period clothing in Cairo (969-1171 C.E.). Primary among them is a collection of hundreds of extant documents discovered outside Cairo in a geniza, or storehouse. Many of these documents are trade records and bridal trousseau lists which describe the colors, style, and adornment of clothing and household objects. Another significant research source is the large number of extant Fatimid fabrics now housed all over the world, owing to the dry climate of Egypt which preserves abandoned textiles. Additionally, there are secular illuminated manuscripts, the creation of which reached its height in the thirteenth century.
There are, of course, limitations to the sources. First, the contemporary writers whose records exist in the Cairo Geniza inherently knew the differences between clothing types and therefore only recorded details which distinguished, say, two ridâ’ from each other, instead of a ridâ’ from a mulâ’a. While that information might give a baseline, it becomes muddled as writers from different generations would use different words to describe the same garments. Second, many of the extant fabrics known today were discovered by nineteenth century archeologists who would cut apart garments to keep only the repeat, decoration, or design. Further, the beautiful illuminated story books still in existence were not created in the Fatimid period, but some one hundred years later. And finally, Scholars over the last 70 years have used different standards of transliteration (for example, Koran and Qur’an) when looking at the same extant manuscripts.
Known elements of Fatimid costume
- In one collection of extant Fatimid fabrics studied by Kühnel and Bellinger, the loom widths range from 0.665 meters to 0.992 meters. Items that don’t have both selvedges attached reach up to 1.016m (about 40 inches) along the weft.
- Linen was traded more than any other commodity in medieval Cairo markets. Among the fibers, wool production and usage follows next. And while sericulture was practiced in Fatimid Egypt, silk is used quite a bit less than wool. Cotton usage trails at a distant fourth (Goitein).
- Fabrics were produced in a rainbow of colors at this time. Color names used include snow, pearl, cloud, silver, lead, soot, pepper, sky blue, turquoise, pistachio, emerald, pomegranate, pink, purple, violet, crimson, ruby, purple-brown, apricot, bitter orange, sandalwood, saffron, safflower, and sandgrouse, plus many more (Stillman 1972).
- In the Fatimid period, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived, worked, and shopped side by side. They all spoke Arabic in daily interactions and dressed much the same as each other.
Fatimid period cloak-wraps
Of the eleven known Fatimid wraps, six have been fairly well identified by Yedida Stillman in her dissertation examining the bridal trousseaux found in the Cairo Geniza. The remaining five are still somewhat elusive. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this theme are to Stillman’s dissertation, listed below in the references section.
The ridâ’ was considered the basic garment of the Islamic wardrobe for men. It was worn several ways: to cover the head and body (a cover-all); draped like a cloak; or wrapped toga-style around the body and left shoulder, leaving the right arm free (Stillman 2003). Women’s ardiya (plural) were distinct from men’s but there is no mention in the Cairo Geniza of what made them different. Women’s ardiya were fastened with a fibula, called simply a ridâ’ pin.
Fabric choices for ardiya ranged from unbleached and coarse linen to fine linen to silk. They were most frequently white or blue, but other colors were also used. Decorations included woven-in and/or embroidered borders. Extant examples of fabric scraps feature narrow repeating motifs of animals in linked roundels, text, or pseudo-text.
The half-ridâ’ was also frequently listed in bridal trousseaux and was described as shorter than a standard ridâ’. The half-ridâ’ was occasionally lined, whereas the ridâ’ was never listed as such in the trousseaux. Typical cost across the two types was of 1/4 of a dinar to 7 dinars.
The izâr was a common item in men’s clothing and slightly less common for women. Men’s and women’s are noted as distinct from each other but the Geniza records do not yield a description of the difference. A man could be considered fully dressed if both his head was covered and an izâr was wrapped around his waist, although it was typically worn draped like a cloak. A woman could wear the izâr both indoors and as a cover-all when she went out of doors.
As to size, the izâr is described as a large, sheet-like mantle. Like all wraps, numeric dimensions are not provided in the historical records. In the trousseau lists izâr colors are never mentioned, though their adornment is. They were occasionally decorated on the hems of the short sides (along the weft) with an appliquéd border of colored fabric. Some had fringe. Wool appears to have been the standard fiber choice for the garment, and the ornamentation choices included wool, silk and linen. The izâr was sometime worn with a brooch. Typical cost for a plain izâr was between 1-1/4 and 1-1/2 dinars, while extravagant izârs might go for 10 to 35 dinars.
The mulâ’a was usually worn by men and women as a cover-all, but was also worn as a cape thrown over the shoulders (by men more than women). The mulâ’a was made of two or more pieces of cloth sewn together along the length, and is described as large and enveloping. Usually made of fine linen cloth, an elaborate mulâ’a might have been decorated with a border on two opposite sides (following the weft) or all the way around; decorated with appliquéd silk bands; or gilded, perhaps with script or pseudo-script. The mulâ’a were often white, but brightly colored mulâ’a were worn for special occasions (Stillman 2003). This garment doubled as a blanket or bedsheet. Typical cost was between 2 and 20 dinars each.
The burd or burda was a garment for both genders. Another large wrapper that doubled as a blanket, the burd was most often described as thick and woolen. Abrâd (plural) were striped, and often quite colorful. The word appears to have evolved into an adjective as well during this period, probably indicating that an object was striped. Oddly, burd is also the word used to describe a different kind of wrap at the same point in history. This second garment was a fine striped cloak made of silk and decorated with borders of a different color. This fine burd was sometimes described as not having selvedges.
Urban Fatimid women had the choice of a milḥafa as well (men were no longer wearing the milḥafa in urban locales by this period). This garment was for outdoor use and was described as a large piece of fabric. It was often made of more expensive linen, including polished or glossy linens, and might have a repeating pattern woven in. It occasionally doubled as a bedsheet — perhaps a decorative top blanket. Prices ranged between ½ dinar and 6 dinars.
Additional cloak wraps
The remaining five wraps mentioned in the Cairo Geniza are more difficult to define. Again, using Stillman’s findings these garments are discussed here.
The barrakân is a wrap for men and women. The word could be derived from a Persian root, “barak”, which would mean that the garment was made of camel hair. Stillman indicates that a find barrakân might be woven of both silk and camel hair, but give no indication for this belief. It is known to have been worn in Tunisia during the middle ages as well. The word occurs once in the Cairo Geniza and no price is listed, suggesting that it was not a popular garment for the urban dweller.
The kisâ’ appears to be a man’s garment in Fatimid Egypt. The only mention of it in the Geniza describes it as both wrap and blanket (and does not mention a price). Linen was the only fiber known to be used in making the kisâ’ (Stillman 2003).
The niṣfiyya was not identified with a gender in the few places it is mentioned within the Geniza. It is known to be a garment, and the root of the word might indicate it is a half-garment. It appears to have been listed with other wraps in a single trousseau. One of the records indicated it was made of a fine linen cloth. The single recorded price (from the same trousseau) was 6 dinars, which, according to Stillman, might reflect extreme ornamentation.
The safsârī was also not gender-specified in the Geniza. It is known to be used as a garment in Tunisia and Libya during this period (Stillman 2003). It was another wrap which likely doubled as a bed covering. There are no Fatimid-era descriptions of the safsârī, though a fourteenth century record suggests that the garment name derives from fabric of the same name.
A garment called a lihâf has been lumped in with the milḥafa as they derive from the same root word, though they are listed separately in the same documents more than once. It could be a bed blanket instead of a garment. The price range is also ½ to 6 dinars.
Finished wraps could be purchased in the Fatimid markets where both new and used clothing were sold alongside fabrics and raw materials. Considering the costs of the above garments, and knowing that ½ dinar could purchase 100 pounds of bread (Goitein), it’s not surprising that textiles, used and new, were considered liquid assets and might comprise the greater part of a family’s investments.
Knowing that each outfit required several layers of clothing the cost of a wardrobe for the bourgeoisie class is astonishing. Of course every part of life contributed to this practice in the Middle Ages—from protection from the elements, to conspicuous consumption, to the ever important daily practice of faith in the lives of medieval people, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
Though many limitations hamper research efforts, the armchair Fatimid historian has access to an astounding number of resources, the largest among them being the Cairo Geniza. From these records we can piece together many aspects of the daily lives of people living in the Medieval Islamic lands. While there are currently only scattered records defining each of these garments, their cultural significance is clear. Within a short period of history, and tight geographic area we have records of at least eleven distinct flat rectangular garments which are wrapped to conceal and protect the body.
Copyright. Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001.
Note: beautiful and affordable full color photo book of extant embroidered items with technical analysis. Pieces included span the Fatimid to Mamluk periods.
Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. 1. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
Note: heavily footnoted nitty gritty details of trade, culture, and everyday life in the Fatimid period. Goitein’s findings exhibit how the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultures co-habitated in Cairo fairly comfortably during this period. This is the first of six volumes.
Kühnel, Ernst and Bellinger, Louisa. Catalogue of Dated Tiraz Fabrics: Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid. Washington: National Pub. Co., 1952.
Note: Detailed black and white images and analysis of extant textiles, including the backs of some embroidered items. Arabic, transliterated Arabic-English, and English translations of all the text on the textiles is included.
Stillman, Yedida K. Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza. PhD Dissertation. Unpublished: University of Chicago, 1972.
Note: Detailed analysis of extant documents put into encyclopedic format for easy reference. Many direct comparisons to other North African items of clothing. Includes some cultural analysis and descriptions of complete outfits.
Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress from the Dawn of Islam to Modern times: A Short History. Boston: Brill, 2003.
Note: Posthumous production of Yedida Stillman’s work. Some flaws in the compilation. Good discussion of cultural use of clothing with little direct description or details.
http://www.eternalegypt.org/ is an online resource compiled from multiple museums housing collections of Islamic art. There are several examples of extant Fatimid textiles available. Note that this site is a resource hog, best used with a fast computer on a fast connection.
II. Women’s undergarments
Women’s undergarments are rarely a topic of conversation, even among friends – until you practice historical recreation! Figuring out how to meet some basic needs becomes readily apparent the minute you start putting on clothing that’s nothing like you’ve worn before. Supporting the breasts is not just a matter of style, but a function of comfort. Mundane nuisances become quickly magnified when your standard tools are no longer the standard choice. Only then do we recognize just how rare the conversations of undergarments have been held throughout history – and how little of it has been recorded.
When researching any kind of garments for the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, one will eventually discover the treasure trove of the Cairo Geniza. A forgotten collection of legal and trade documents, the Cairo Geniza gives us the tools to piece together a fairly good picture of daily life under the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. One of the re-creators favorite parts of the Cairo Geniza is presented primarily through the works of Yedida Stillman (chief among them Arab Dress and her dissertation Female Garments). She was able to review many bridal trousseaux from the period and discuss the different garments and fabrics listed there. A glaring omission, however, is still the discussion of underwear. Since men were the ones recording the trousseau lists, they didn’t want to talk about or look at such things which were frequently recorded along the lines of “a box and all of its [intimate] contents”.
Therefore, the information presented here is a compilation of conjecture. We can guess at some things, and use some secular images for a few more, and a little bit of suggestive poetry to fill in some voids. Included here are the undergarments that I typically recreate for myself when wearing Fatimid clothing. Starting from the top, they are:
The ma’raqa is a small fitted cap that absorbs sweat from the brow and protects the rest of the head gear from body soil (the root word of ma’raqa is “sweat”). There is a smidge more information about it because it is the absolute minimum headcover a person of either gender is expected to wear. It formed the base of the headwear such as a turban or hijab (veils).
The qumîs is the chemise or shift: the layer closest to the skin.
Under the qumîs might be a rifada to support the breasts. The rifada is wholly a guess: a band of soft linen wrapped around the body and pinned in place with a straight pin under the arm. This is similar to a style known to be worn by Roman women in the Late Antique period, about 700 years earlier.
A tikka is an ornate decorative drawstring for the sirwâl.
The sirwâl are called drawers, but were more similar to pajama-bottoms in that they reach to the ankle. They were held up with a tikka. While the sirwâl are seldom mentioned, there is somewhat more information about the decorative drawstring because tikhat (pl.) are an item of interest in writings of an intimate nature. Occasionally a young man would carry the tikkaof his lover on his belt as an outspoken token of her affection (see Stillman’s Arab Dress).
With a little more knowledge about what the foundation garments were, the historical re-creator can use some imagination about how to utilize them for suiting our so very personal – and common -needs. Of course some questions remain unanswered and speculation abounds. With time, new information might come to light from yet-unknown sources. Plus, additional work is being done to translate the contents of the Cairo Geniza, making it more accessible to the armchair historian.
If you have thoughts, research, or other tidbits of information, please feel free to share it with myself and others in the comments.
Copyright: Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
III. Some examples of Fatimid veiling
Clothing in the Middle Eastern city of Cairo was often a display of conspicuous consumption during the 11th to 13th Centuries. One of the greatest sources for displaying wealth was the headwear. In Medieval Egypt fully half of the clothing an individual owned was headwear, whether the owner was Jewish, Christian or Muslim . While many of the head coverings found in period source can be defined through contemporary comparison or backwards-tracing etymology, several are still a mystery to modern researchers.
One of the core items for both men and women was the ma’raqa. This close fitting cap was the foundation for dressing the head. As the root word “sweat” indicates, it was used to protect the more expensive pieces from body soil. Women would typically have two or three of them in their trousseau. The ma’raqa is the minimum that a man would appear in public wearing, and usually only if he were quite poor.
A basic and typical women’s head covering is the ‘isâba. This mini-turban is a cloth that is wound around the head to conceal the hair. It is distinguished from the mi’jar, an elegant garment equivalent to the ‘imama (men’s turban). Gilded and/or brightly colored mi’jar appear to have been popular.
A popular shawl or scarf used to cover the head was a radda, which is often listed as matched to an ensemble. This veil might be adorned with borders, fringe, gilding, or embroidery. The long and narrow cloth tied around the head to hold such veils in place is the taqnî’a. The taqnî’a was often tied so that a loop poked out above the knot.
A mystery clothing item is the kuwâra. It means “beehive,” and the rare occurrences of this word in period documents only suggest that it is an item of headwear. Another is themukallaf. This expensive piece of women’s headgear came in a vast array of colors from “mandrake” to “pearl-colored”, which is distinguished from “white-grey,” to “apricot” and “pomegranate” .
Only extreme circumstances, such as mourning the death of a loved one, would drive an urban woman out of her home with her hair exposed. Men would not be considered fully dressed until wearing a turban. Such modesty was a sign of respect for one’s faith and one’s family. It is difficult in our modern day to image placing such importance on clothing for the head, but it is an essential key to understanding the culture under study.
Copyright: Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
 All reference in this theme are to Stillman, Yedida K. Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza. PhD Dissertation. Unpublished: University of Chicago, 1972.
IV. A winter image of Fatimid Cairo
Cairo was a bustling metropolitan area during the Fatimid Caliphate (969-1171), with merchants arriving from all over the Mediterranean to trade goods, shop the market, and share news. As anywhere in the Middle Ages, urban living shifted with the seasons as much as rural life.
In the home, extra furniture such as curtains and rugs would come out of storage for the winter season. These would join the everyday couches (in this case a matched set of cushions and pillows without a wooden frame), draperies, carpets, and low tables. Additional multipurpose cushions in the home would be stacked next to the door, ready to serve as seating in the evening.
Evenings during the shorter winter days were illuminated by linseed oil, wax, or – for the wealthier families – the preferred olive oil . Family time might be spent studying religious texts as it was a mark of pride for people of all ages to be able to quote from them; and such continuing education was also regarded as an act of devotion .
When they weren’t studying, children could be playing indoors with puppets, dolls, or board games such as chess and backgammon . Women might be doing handicrafts which could be sold in the market, or perhaps mending a “Byzantine” bed cover, prized among the home’s possessions . Adult men would be gathered in a different part of the house when hosting guests. They might play card games, talk philosophy, or discuss the thriving trade in the city.
When preparing for bed, cushions, mats, and blankets would be collected into the interior rooms. There were no designated “bedrooms” in urban Cairo homes during the Middle Ages, instead family members would spread out during the hot summer months to the windows and patios, and draw together during the chilly winter months. By the end of November most of the family would be sleeping in the smaller, inner rooms to conserve heat as it can at times get cold enough to put a transparent sheet of ice on water at night.
Rising in the morning, family members would stack their bedding neatly in the corner. Cushions used for seating would return to the main gathering rooms to be stacked next to the door. Men would prepare for working at their store in the market, and mothers would dress children neatly for school at the local mosque, church, or synagogue. Men would then accompany the children and attend morning prayers before starting their day. And so the work day would begin.
Copyright: Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
 Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. 1. Berkley: Univ of California Press, 1967.
 Goitein, S.D. Vol. 2., 1971.
 Lindsey, James E. Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
 Goitein, Vol. 1. Byzantine made, or made in the Byzantine style, bedcovers were an expensive item and listed in many Fatimid-era trousseaux.
Simerg is deeply indebted to Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania for permission to reproduce and adapt the above articles from her blog idlelion.blogspot.com.
About the author: Julia May whose adapted name is Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills, and traditions of pre-17th-century Europe. Members of the SCA study and take part in a variety of activities, including combat, archery, equestrian activities, costuming, cooking, metalwork, woodworking, music, dance, calligraphy, fiber arts, and much more. If it was done in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, odds are you’ll find someone in the SCA interested in recreating it. Every person in the SCA picks a name to go by in the Society.
Please visit her blog by clicking Home page of Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania where you will find Samia’s recreations of Fatimid clothing and other interesting information, including recipes.