New Images, Old
A Historical Glimpse
Written by Hanan Karaman Munayyer
Textile arts have been of unique importance in the Middle East since
antiquity. In every age, the crafts of spinning, weaving, dyeing and
embroidery have been held in high esteem and their traditions have changed
relatively little over time. This is demonstrated eloquently in
Palestinian costume styles, which have remained virtually unchanged over
Around 1500 BC, the land that would later be called Palestine became
known as Canaan, “The Land of the Purple.” Its Semitic inhabitants
decorated linen and woolen cloth with a precious purple dye extracted from
murex sea-snails, and these textiles were prized trade items around the
On ancient Egyptian paintings, Canaanites can be recognized by their
distinctive clothing, a long A-shaped dress worn by both men and women and
known to modern archeologists as the “Syrian tunic.” An ivory
engraving dating from 1200 BC, from Megiddo in ancient Palestine, depicts
similar women’s tunics decorated at the neckline and hem. This long
A-shaped tunic is still the basic shape of most Palestinian costumes.
Similarly, surviving ivory statues of Canaanites—apparently women—from
1500 BC show a headdress then prevalent in many areas of the Eastern
Mediterranean that bears a remarkable similarity to the shatwih
headdress worn in Bethlehem into the early 20th century.
In the Iliad, Homer recounted that Paris, abductor of Helen of
Troy, imported Eastern Mediterranean needlewomen from Tyre and Sidon—confirmation
of the reputation of these cities as famous early embroidery centers.
circumference of the magnificent coronation mantle of Roger II, Norman king of Sicily, is an
Arabic inscriptions praising the king and wishing him fulfillment and
In later Roman times, the basic linen tunic was decorated from shoulder
to hem with two woven bands of intricate patterns called clavi.
This eastern Mediterranean tunic, or “dalmatic,” was introduced to
Rome in 220 AD by the Syrian-born Emperor Elagabalus. The dalmatic was
frequently depicted in early Christian paintings and Byzantine mosaics,
and the style endures today in ecclesiastical vestments. Women’s headdresses, too, were often rendered according to the style
commonly used in the Levant since antiquity. Seventh-century
sarcophagi in Palmyra, Syria, display the same style that survives today in Palestinian costume in the traditional headdresses of Ramallah
Byzantine emperors adopted the rich tradition of costume decoration
from Mesopotamia and the Levant. Clergy in
Jerusalem a spiritual center
of the Byzantine Empire, wore robes heavily embroidered with metallic
thread, another stylistic feature that
survives in some present-day
churches. In time, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Bethlehem copied this
style in their dresses, and it eventually spread to the surrounding
The period of Muslim Arab rule that followed the Byzantine era in the
seventh century (See Aramco World, September/October 1996)
witnessed a flourishing of the textile arts. Weavers combined the
Byzantine and Persian legacies and elaborated on them. The Arabs
introduced a style of ornamentation called tiraz, a word borrowed
from the Persian for “embroidery,” which incorporated Arabic
calligraphy into the patterns. The Arab world, which then stretched from
Baghdad to Granada, led the world in production of textiles, one of the
great commodities of that era, in terms of both volume and magnificence.
The weaving and embroidery expertise introduced into Spain and Sicily by
the Umayyad Arab rulers was subsequently passed on to the rest of Europe,
where it was influential in the development of textile centers in Italy
and France. In 1133, Arab textile workshops in Palermo produced the famous
coronation mantle of Roger II, Norman king of Sicily, which is embroidered
around its edge with Arabic written in kufic calligraphy.
Almost three hundred years later,
Italian Renaissance painter
Gentile da Fabriano
used similar edge-bands in his "Adoration
of the Magi," but by then the "Arabic"
consisted only of
meaningless letterforms, with no function but to lend richness to
textiles and emphasize the magnificence of the three kings.
Other prized Arab textiles
were used throughout Christian medieval
Europe by the nobility and clergy in ceremonial and ecclesiastical
clothing and even in the linings of ornate boxes. Several European
paintings from the 14th century show embroidered Arabic calligraphy in the
costumes of wealthy Europeans. In Gentile da Fabriano’s “Adoration of
the Magi,” painted in 1423, bands edging a woman’s shawl are decorated
with prominent mock-Arabic calligraphy, and a squire wears a sash from
shoulder to waist that is embroidered in gold in Arabic letter-forms.
Remnants of finely embroidered 10th-century fabrics have also been
found in Egypt. The geometric patterns embroidered on these recreate woven
designs known as early as the fourth to second centuries BC. This delicate
embroidery had become possible thanks to finer needles, which were
probably the result of improved steel-manufacturing techniques in the Arab
world, particularly in Damascus. These embroidery patterns are similar to
some Palestinian ones still in use today.
Thus by the end of the 14th century, the main features of a
slowly evolving basic style had been established. Robes found in Arab-ruled Spain
and dating from the 13th century have the same cut, the same square chest piece
and the same decorated back panel as many Palestinian dresses
up through the present day.
During Ottoman rule of the Middle East, in the 16th through 19th
centuries, urban fashions followed the styles of the ruling class, and
during the 19th century those styles became increasingly Westernized. But
in Palestinian towns and villages, the traditional style of costume remained unchanged. The
fabric was always linen, and the embroidery was
silk stitched in the centuries-old patterns.
The 19th-century Western Christian missionaries who assumed that local
embroidery styles were borrowed from the Crusaders were 180 degrees wrong:
The influence flowed the other way, from East to West. Costume historians
generally agree that the rich embroidery and ornate headdresses
fashionable in medieval Europe are another example of Near Eastern
influence in domestic style and comfort, mediated by returning Crusaders.
In fact, the Crusaders in Palestine often adopted Arab dress. The
Frankish chronicler Foucher de Chartres, who took part in the First
Crusade, deplored this. “The man who was Roman or Frankish is here a
Galilean or Palestinian.... We have forgotten where we were born,” he
huffed. These styles and habits of dress were carried back to Europe.
According to Ibn Jubayr, writing between 1180 and 1185, “Christian
ladies [in Sicily] completely follow the fashions of Muslim women in the
way they veil themselves and wear their mantles,…[and] flaunt themselves
in church in perfectly Muslim toilettes.”
This carved head from the 13th
century BC, found at
Ugarit in present-day Syria, wears a headdress
resembles the Bethlehem shatwih of this century.
In Palestine, the traditional style was itself influenced by the
important nearby textile centers of Syria, famous for their silk weaving
since the fifth century. Syrian fabrics were used in many Palestinian
costumes, and Syrian traditional dresses share a similar repertoire of
motifs with their Palestinian counterparts. The influence of the Arabian
Peninsula is seen in the ornate silver jewelry brought in by trade and
incorporated into the Palestinian costume.
Although the influences on Palestinian costumes have been numerous, the
end result is a legacy that is uniquely and distinctly Palestinian,
transcending its role as an art form to become a symbol of Palestinian
identity. The ancient embroidered patterns bore symbols of hope,
prosperity, good health and protection, and had traditional names that
reflected natural features: the moon, the cypress tree, the tree of life,
Bethlehem Shatweh, 1900
the bird of paradise. Though every woman could express her creativity
her choice of patterns and their arrangement on the dress, each region of
followed its own distinctive stylistic rules.
Embroidery of costume and home accessories was done—and still is done—by
women who preserved the traditional patterns by copying older dresses. In
so doing they created costumes of lasting beauty that have earned a
special place among the ethnic folk dress traditions of the world. More
significantly, this tradition of Palestinian needlework has kept alive
ancient styles and symbols that have provided us with a unique window to
Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Munayyer are the founders of the
Palestinian Heritage Foundation.