Silk Textiles in the Southern Levant

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By: Orit Shamir and Alisa Baginski

Silk, natural protein fibers produced by insect larvae, is first known from archaeology in China by the fourth millennium BCE. Valued for its drape, sheen, and ability to be dyed and woven into intricate patterns, silk spread widely across the Old World. But this process was related not only to the silk’s properties but the spread of peoples, trade, and other technologies, some seemingly unrelated.

The Hebrew word for silk, meshi, is mentioned in the Bible only once (Ezekiel 16:10; 16:13). Although Jewish historical sources of the Roman and Byzantine periods mention silk many times, there are few archaeological finds besides imported textiles from the Byzantine period. A turning point in the history of the Negev occurred around 400 CE, a period of prosperity related to the advent of Christianity and pilgrimage, which enabled the purchase of imported silk textiles. These were probably produced in Egypt where linen textiles were decorated with wool or in more rare cases – in silk.

At Nessana, four small silk fragments in compound weave were found in the ruins of a Byzantine house. One has an upper part of a roundel with a pearl border, a pair of reversed birds of prey with spread wings and pearl collar standing on half palmettos among ivy leaves. A single silk textile from the late Byzantine period (no later than 636 CE) was also found in a building at 'Avdat, some 50 kilometers south of Be’er Sheva. The main field of the fragment is divided by light-colored double stripes into panels which contain cartouches with floral devices.

Nessana, linen textile decorated with silk tapestry.

Silk textile in compound weave, Nessana.

Silk compound weave, 'Avdat.

The textile was produced in Egypt, since 'Avdat served as a way station on the road connecting Egypt with Syria. This silk textile resembles a group of decorated silk tunics found at Antinoë in Egypt and serves as an important benchmark demonstrating the high degree of weaving skills in the region just before the Islamic conquest.

The Early Islamic period (seventh-eighth centuries CE) yielded three silk textiles from Nahal ‘Omer. The site is located approximately 40 kilometers northwest of Petra on the western edge of the `Aravah. Two hundred fifty one textiles were found at the site made of cotton, linen, wool, hair and silk.

Nahal ‘Omer location.

Nahal ‘Omer, silk, brocading.

Nahal ‘Omer appears to have been a farming village on the Spice Routes joining Petra, in the Edom Mountains of modern Jordan, and the mercantile outlets on the Mediterranean Sea, notably Gaza and El Arish. These routes also led to Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, parts of the Persian Gulf, and the sea-routes to India, as well as to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and from there all the way to China. The caravans carried a variety of trade goods as well as spices, which were a major commodity during the Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods.

Sixty one textile fragments, most made of wool, and 10 small bundles of woolen fibers, were also uncovered at 'En Marzev, dated to the Early Islamic period (late seventh–ninth centuries CE), a date confirmed by Carbon-14 analysis (787–896 CE). One example, a white cotton textile, was decorated with red cotton bands alternating with shiny silk threads wound with silver strips that have disintegrated. It appears that precious metals may have been used in combination with fibers in order to produce luxury fabrics for political and religious elites.

Some of the differences in quality between the textile finds from Nahal ‘Omer and ‘En Marzev may be attributed to their findspots. While the finds from ‘En Marzev originated in structures that were abandoned in an orderly fashion, those from Nahal ‘Omer were found in a waste dump, representing an accumulation of objects discarded over years of habitation.

The most important silk textiles assemblage in the Southern Levant to date was found near Jericho at Qarantal Cave 38 and dates to the Medieval period (9th-13th centuries CE). Textiles were found only in one of the cave’s connected spaces.

'En Marzev location.

A cotton textile decorated with red cotton bands alternating with shiny silk, S-spun threads wound with silver strips, 'En Marzev.

A cotton textile decorated with red cotton bands (alternating with shiny silk, S-spun threads wound with silver strips, 'En Marzev.

Qarantal Cave 38

Among the 800 textiles the most significant are the silk fragments. The textile remains are torn, cut, and patched, and many have been reused, sometimes more than once. It can be assumed that most of these fragments were parts of clothing such as tunics, trousers, and coifs although no complete garments were found. Others could be recognized as bags, wrappers, and strips for tying. Textiles in antiquity were too costly to throw away. When a garment reached a state where patching was no longer feasible, it was cut into pieces and remade into another garment or used as patches or in decorations (as a majority of the reused ones in Cave 38 were). 

Many such textiles originating in Egypt have been dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries CE. These were all luxury fabrics woven on sophisticated looms such as the drawloom, a technical apparatus for mechanical patterning. Such products have been discovered in Egypt, for example at Antinoë.

During the Byzantine period and after the Islamic conquest, centers in Syria already produced compound textiles; some have even been preserved as relic covers in the treasuries of European churches. A few were found in excavations near Rayy (Iran) together with other compound silk fragments attributed to Byzantium, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Iran. The craftsmanship is very fine, indicating that they were expensive luxury items affordable only by the upper classes. The Cave 38 silk fabrics could have been imported from Syria, Byzantium, Mesopotamia, or Persia. A few other medieval textile assemblages have been discovered, for example, at ‘Avdat, Kasr el-Yahud and at Judean Desert caves. However, none of these assemblages is as rich and diverse as the one in Cave 38 and none of them have silk textiles.

Cave 38, Linen decorated with silk tapestry, swimming birds (ducks?).

Cave 38, printed silk.

Cave 38, Silk 3/2 twill, a pocket.

Cave 38, Silk, weft-faced compound tabby, octagon with stylized plant and geometric motifs.

Cave 38, Silk, weft-faced compound tabby, octagon with stylized plant and geometric motifs.

Why was such a large quantity of used and reused textiles stored in the cave? It can be assumed that the people who stored them were rag collectors or merchants who collected them for the paper-making industry. Paper had been introduced by the Arabs from China through Central Asia in the eighth century CE. It became popular in the Middle East using mainly textiles as its raw material, along with date-palm leaves and fibers from basketry and cordage. The paper was made by breaking down different organic materials into fibers, which were then soaked in water and separated using a fine netted sieve.

The principles for manufacturing paper were known in China but for a long period the secret of its discovery stayed within the borders of the Chinese Empire. It was only the wake of the Islamic conquests that the paper industry expanded, first to the Near East, and later Europe. The Arabs’ massive use of cotton as a raw material in the paper-making industry was one of the most important changes, which utilized the waste products of the local cotton-based textile industry. Though this industry is likely to have consumed most textiles in antiquity, we are fortunate that samples have been preserved in sites like Cave 38.

Orit Shamir is Curator of Organic Materials, Israel Antiquities Authority. Alisa Baginski is retired senior lecturer of textile history and retired curator of the textile study collection, Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion, Israel.

* All photos by Clara Amit and Tzila Sagiv, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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