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A History of Textiles in Egypt

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kang, Jun-suk
Term Paper, AP European History Class, December 2009

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. The Ancient Textiles
II.1 Dominance of Linen
II.2 Characteristics of Textile Manufacturing
II.2.1 Textile Production
II.2.2 Dyeing of Textiles
II.3 Governmental Control on Production
II.4 Usage by Various Social Classes
III. The Coptic Textiles
III.1 The Foreign Influence
III.2 Application of New Weaving Techniques and Material
III.3 Change of Design
III.3.1 Graeco-Roman Period
III.3.2 Christian Symbolism; Persian Influence
III.4 Various Usages
IV. The Islamic Textiles
IV.1 Political and Religious Influence
IV.2 Governmental Institution: Tiraz
IV.3 Characteristics of Islamic Egyptian Textile Industry
V. Modernization of the Textile Industry
V.1 European Influence; Development of Cotton Production
V.2 Modern Attempts to Nationalize Textile Industry
V.2.1 State Monopoly by Muhammad Ali
V.2.2 Nationalization by Nasser Government
V.3 Recent History of Egyptian Textile Industry
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
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 (4); 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 linen (5). However,
Robinson says that "the Egyptians appreciated its brilliant, silky, smooth
appearance." (6) 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 (8). 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 including Mesopotamia.
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
dyed) linen.
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

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
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. (33)

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. (37) As a result, the Copts imported patterns such as roundels in which
animals such as griffins were inscribed. (38)
The following roundel below shows representative qualities of the Coptic

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), it 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

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 body. (58)
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, (67) 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)." (24:31) (69) 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" (71) This was due to that silk was consumed not only for
dressing but also for cushions, curtains, tapestry, prayer rugs, and myriad of other
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. (81) 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. (82)

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, (83)
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

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.

VI. Conclusion
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.

IX. Notes

(1) Robinson 1969 p.8
(2) Robinson 1969 p.8
(3) 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
(4) ibid.
(5) Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
(6) Robinson 1969 p.9
(7) Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
(8) Materials used to Make Textiles in Ancient Egypt, from Eternal Egypt
(9) 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.
(10) Article : History_of_Textiles, Section "Ancient Textiles and Clothing", from Wikipedia
(11) Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(12) ibid.
(13) Robinson 1969 p.15
(14) Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(15) ibid.

(16) Robinson 1969 p.15
(17) Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Article "Dye"
(18) Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, Article "Dyeing"
(19) Article : Dyeing, from Wikipedia
(20) Article : Byblos, from Wikipedia
(21) Robinson 1969 p.24
(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."
(23) The Textile Industry in Egypt, from Eternal Egypt
(24) ibid.
(25) ibid.
(26) Wilson 1979 p.112
(27) ibid.
(28) ibid.
(29) The Greco-Roman Economy, from Eternal Egypt
(30) Wilson 1979 p.112
(31) Robinson 1969 p.9-10
(32) Indumentaria en el_Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
(32a) 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
(33) Indumentaria en el_Antiguo Egipto, from Wikipedia Spanish edition
(34) 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, p.69
(36) ibid. p.70
(37) ibid. p.76
(38) ibid. p.70
(39) Works of Art : Roundel, probably 6th?7th century Byzantine; said to be from Panopolis
(Akhmim), Egypt, from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
(40) 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, p.76
(42) Dunn
(43) Wilson 1979 p.114
(44) Dunn
(45) Wilson 1979 p.113
(46) Robinson 1969 p.7
(47) Wilson 1979 p.113
(48) Kamil 1987, p.76
(49) Coptic Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(50) Wilson 1979 p.114
(51) ibid.
(52) Coptic Textiles, from Eternal Egypt
(53) Dunn
(54) Turkotek Salon
(55) Wilson 1979 p.114
(56) Dunn
(57) Wilson 1979 p.114
(58) Dunn
(59) 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)
(60) Dunn
(61) Wilson 1979 p.114
(62) Works of Art : Tapestry Square with the Head of Spring, 4th?5th century; Early
Byzantine Egyptian, from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
(63) Works of Art : Roundel, fragment, 7th century Byzantine ; Egypt (?), from Heilbrunn
Timeline of Art History
(64) Wilson 1979 p.114
(65) ibid.
(66) Wilson 1979 p.113
(67) Dunn
(68) ibid
(69) The Holy Quran
(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 p.158
(72) ibid.
(73) Tiraz Textiles, from IIS
(74) Bolton Museum and Archives Service
(75) Tiraz, other Textiles, from The Kelsey Online Virtual Gallery of Historic Textiles from
(77) Tiraz Textiles, from IIS
(78) Fossier and Sondheimer, p.263
(79) ibid.
(80) ibid p.254
(81) Beinin 2004 p.3
(82) ibid p.2
(83) ibid p.7
(84) 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.
(85) Doosan Online Encyclopedia, Article : Muhammad Ali
(86) IHS p.334
(87) History, from Egyptian Cotton
(88) Based on IHS pp.246-247
(89) Based on IHS pp.246-247, 335-336
(90) History, from Egyptian Cotton
(91) Based on IHS pp.335-336
(92) Beinin 2004 p.6
(93) ibid pp.15-16
(94) Based on IHS pp.246-247, 335-336
(95) Based on IHS p.454

X. Bibliography

Note: websites quoted below were visited in October, November and December 2009.

Bibliographic Sources
1. WHKMLA, History of Egypt

Primary Sources
2. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
3. Salon du Tapis d'Orient (Turkotek Salon)
4. Bolton Museum and Archive Service, Egyptology Collection
5. B. R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics: Africa, Asia & Oceania, 1750-2000,
fourth edition, 2003

Secondary Sources
6. J. Kamil, Coptic Egypt: History and Guide, 1987
7. K. Wilson, A History of Textiles, 1979
8. S. Robinson, A History of Dyed Textiles, 1969
9. R. Lewis, Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey, 1971
10. J. Beinin, Egyptian Textile Workers: From Craft Artisans Facing European Competition
to Proletarians Contending with the State, 2004
11. R. Fossier & J. Sondheimer, The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages I,
12. J. Dunn, Feature Story: Ancient Coptic Christian Fabrics, posted on Tour Egypt n..d.
13. Wikipedia Spanish edition : Article "Indumentaria en el Antiguo Egipto" (Spanish:
Clothing in Ancient Egypt)
14. Wikipedia English edition : Article "Coptic Art"
15. Wikipedia English edition : Article "History of
16. Wikipedia English edition : Article "Dyeing"
17. Wikipedia English edition : Article "Byblos"
18. Wikipedia English edition :
Article "Embalming"
19. Wikipedia English edition : Article "Gossypium
20. Eternal Egypt, : Article "Materials used to Make Textiles in Ancient
21. Eternal Egypt, : Article "Dyeing of Ancient Egyptian
22. Eternal Egypt, : Article "The Textile Industry in
23. Eternal Egypt, : Article "The Greco-Roman
24. Eternal Egypt, : Article "Coptic
25. 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica : Article "Dyeing",
26. 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica : Article "Mummy",
27. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online,
Article "Dye"
28. Doosan Online Encyclopedia History of Textiles (in Korean),
29. Doosan Online Encyclopedia Muhammad Ali (in Korean),
30. "The Holy Quran", an English translation of the Quran
31. Egyptian Cotton : History,
32. Islam Question & Answer, "Wearing Silk or Part Silk",
33. The Institute of Ismaili Studies, "Tiraz
34. Tiraz and Other Inscribed Textiles, from The Kelsey Online Virtual Gallery of Historic
Textiles from

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