New Images, Old Patterns

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 many centuries.

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 Mediterranean.

Around the 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 protection.

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.                                 
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 and Jerusalem.

 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 villages.

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 the 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.  

This carved head from the 13th century BC,  found at Ugarit in present-day Syria, wears a headdress that resembles the Bethlehem shatwih of this century.

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.”

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. 

Bethlehem Shatweh, 1900

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, the bird of paradise. Though every woman could express her creativity by her choice of patterns and their arrangement on the dress, each region of Palestine 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 the past.

Hanan Karaman Munayyer and Farah Munayyer are the founders of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation.