Fatimid Fancies

The Epitome of Medieval Artistry

By Jochen Sokoly

From fabulous ivory carvings to lavish textiles with intricate gold embroidery, everything the Fatimids left behind points to opulence and abundance on a scale we can only imagine.

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When the Arab army defeated the Byzantines and conquered Egypt in the middle of the seventh century CE, the new rulers were astonished by the abundance they found in Egypt. Little is known though about the influence of the Egyptians on Arab dress or vice versa, but sources indicate that Egyptian costume remained largely unchanged until the 11th century by which time the Fatimids had established themselves and created a magnificent dynasty (973–1171 CE) remembered by its uniquely fine arts. A few sources survive to tell us about dress in Egypt under the Fatimids, and between the textual and material evidence, we can formulate an idea of how the famously lavish court and the Egyptian population dressed.

The Fatimids were of Arab descent, and their dress was influenced by that of their forebears and characterized by several layers of clothing with minimal or no tailoring for both men and women. The resulting look was relatively unstructured and covered the whole body. Men and women both covered their heads. One of the earliest representations of Fatimid court life is a marble relief at the Bardo Museum, Tunis which shows a ruler seated cross-legged and holding a conical cup, attended by a female musician playing a flute. The ruler wears a tunic with long sleeves, decorated with epigraphic bands, an ornamented belt at the waist, and a winged Sasanian-style crown. The female figure wears a long shirt-like dress also decorated with bands on the sleeves. The dress style here is a hybrid of Arab and Iranian traditions.

Court Fashions

Once the Fatimids had established their capital in Cairo, however, following the conquest of Egypt under al-Mu‘izz (r. 953–975), it seems a court style developed that was more refined and lavish than that of earlier times. While the great Fatimid palaces in Cairo have disappeared, there is quite a wealth of representations of courtly activity in the form of luxury works of art of the 11th and 12th centuries. A carved ivory frame which might once have been part of a piece of furniture, now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, features a wealth of figures feasting and hunting, accompanied by musicians and attendants. The lively activity and drama of the figures is underlined by a great attention to dress: patterned cloaks and tunics, turbans, baggy trousers, wide flowing sleeves—not unlike what we see in the illustrations of the famous Paris copy of Maqamat al-Hariri, copied and illustrated in Baghdad in the 13th century by Mahmoud al-Wasiti. Fatimid lustre ceramics also feature similar figures of the court. That the Fatimid court style trickled down into the middle classes may be indicated by a painting in an architectural muqarnas fragment from al-Fustat, now at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. It features a figure seated cross-legged raising a beaker, wearing a tunic with a floral pattern over a pair of trousers. The carefully wound turban is most prominent, but also the shawl worn over its back with the ends flying out from underneath the arms. It is accentuated by decorative bands at either end.

The Fatimid treasury at the time of the caliph al-Amir (r. 1101–1131) was described in detail by the civil servant Qadi Rashid ibn al-Zubayr in his Kitab al-dhakha’ir wa al-tuhaf, a work used and quoted by al-Maqrizi in his Khitat. The contents of khizanat al-kiswat (treasury of clothing) not only contained the wardrobe of the caliph and his family, but also items distributed to the various ranks of courtiers. The outfits described in most detail were those of the caliph, his brother, and the senior princess. These contain the largest number of individual items, ten or eleven for the caliph, five for his brother, and sixteen for the princess. Linings, mantles, and inside garments appear to have been mainly of linen with some containing silk. The materials of what appear to be mostly outer garments are not stated in the lists concerning the caliph’s outfit, but the outer garments in all four outfits all used large amounts of gold, the value of which was considerable. The caliph’s first ceremonial costume contained two thobs (robes) and a turban, each containing around 1.5 kg of gold for a total of over 4.5 kg. The first princess’s second veil and two cloaks were made of silk, but without gold. Although much less detailed, the lists outlining the outfits of relatives and palace officials also contain a large number of outfits which were either made of silk, gilded, or embroidered in gold. Only the lowlier ranks of the court hierarchy, such as servants, captains, and sailors of the caliphal barges were given ‘Alexandrian’, ‘Sus’ and ‘Damietta’ cloth, which may well have been linen fabrics produced in these centres. It is clear that in addition to gold-decorated textiles and silks, plain linens or linens woven with silk were also part of the palace wardrobe, depending on garment type and rank of the wearer.

Worth Their Weight In Gold

Tiraz bands begin to make an appearance during the Fatimid period, tiraz being the Persian word for ‘embroidery’. These textiles were presented by rulers as robes of honour at formal ceremonies and usually bore inscriptions naming the current ruler or caliph to whom the recipient owed loyalty. One of the few references to tiraz bands is found in a statement by Ibn Abi Tayyi, who mentioned that. ‘I have heard a certain person say that he was present at the “Investiture” at al-Kasr which used to take place in summer and winter, the value (of the stuffs given away) then being more than six hundred thousand dinars. The emirs used to be invested with garments of Dabiki, and turbans with gold tiraz borders, these two items worth five hundred dinars. The greatest emirs were invested with necklaces (tawq), bracelets (siwar), and ornamented swords. [...] In 516 H. (1122 CE) the various articles upon which money was spent came to 14,305 pieces.’

In contrast to gold thread and its value, enumerated in great detail, inscriptions receive very little attention in the Fatimid treasury lists. Relatively few tiraz textiles have survived that were either woven or embroidered with gold, the majority from the Fatimid period, and only a handful of complete garments have survived in Egyptian burials. The earliest is a small burial tunic at the Textile Museum in Washington. It is inscribed with an embroidered tiraz in the name of the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 907–932) and was made for a child. It is more likely that this tunic was tailored out of a larger sheet that was already inscribed, and the inscribed area was intentionally reserved for the sleeve. Another rare complete child's tunic, this one dating from the Fatimid period on account of its tapestry-woven sleeve bands is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. This tunic is decorated with embroidered bands that were purely decorative and bore no inscription. The two tunics are made of comparable-quality linen-base fabric of a close to tight weave structure. That this type of tunic and style of decoration continued after the Fatimids is illustrated by a carbon-dated tunic, also in Berlin, that dates from the Ayyubid or early Mamluk periods in the 13th century.


A Wealth of Detail 

Two very rare complete adult linen tunics from Egypt, one at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the other in the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, share a similar shape and construction with the children’s tunics mentioned above. The Ashmolean tunic was carbon-dated suggesting a mid-tenth century date (930 +/-35 years), which on account of the similarities between the two pieces would seem to apply also to the tunic in Kuwait. Tailored from pieces of cloth cut to the same basic shapes as the child’s tunic just described, both share the same basic construction and similar size: the Ashmolean piece is ca. 170 cm long and 140 cm wide, while the Kuwait piece is slightly shorter at 132 cm in length. In both pieces, the collar opening is fastened on the left side with a small cloth button. The neck opening of the Kuwait tunic is tighter and has a band collar. On the front and sleeves, both tunics are decorated with almost identical bands of large epigraphic decoration in a loosely embroidered silk, imitating a Kufic inscription with a continuous sequence of alifs or lams linked by a knotted motif, differing only in colour: blue on the Ashmolean piece, yellowish beige on the Kuwait piece. The style of both Kufic-style inscriptions, which consists of stumpy letters with hook-like stem terminals, points to the period in Egypt towards the end of Abbasid and the beginning of Fatimid rule. What is striking in both pieces are the disproportionally wide sleeves. These are what we see in some of the pictorial representations discussed above. It is likely that one would have worn another layer on top of such a tunic, perhaps a cloak or a shawl.

What we know of dress in Egypt under the Fatimids is largely conditioned by what has survived in burials. Some of the inscribed caliphal textiles in many museums are truly stunning and unique. Others are less luxurious and represent what the middle classes would have been using, perhaps like the tunics discussed here. Pictorial evidence provides a good idea of the variety of clothing styles and garment types. Yet, only the literary sources can tell us of the luxuriousness of caliphal dress with its jewelled aesthetic and profuse use of gold thread, most of which has been lost forever.

This article was first published in print in Rawi's Issue 11, 2021.


Adornment ,


Tunic. Linen with epigraphic bands in supplementary silk weft, 10th c.


Architectural fragment painted in fresco from a bathhouse in Fustat, 11th c.


The ‘Veil of Saint Anne’ dating from ca. 1095–1097 during the reign of al-Musta‘li (r. 1094–1101) represents one of the best-preserved complete garments with a caliphal inscription from the Fatimid Period. Preserved in the Church of Saint Anne in Apt, a town in the Southern French Vaucluse, the veil was probably brought to France during the early Crusades and served as a sacred relic of Saint Anne whose cult had developed in France in the 12th century. Raimbaud de Simiane, the lord of Apt, Guillaume de Sabran, and Isoard, the town’s bishop, are all known to have taken part in the First Crusade. The inscriptions mention the names and titles of caliph al-Musta‘li and his vizier al-Afdal, as well as the famous textile production centre Damietta in Lower Egypt as the place of production. How exactly the ‘veil’ was worn is not entirely known, as there are no signs of tailoring. Some scholars have proposed that it could have been folded to create a garment similar to the modern bisht, a form of light overcoat.

Jochen Sokoly

Jochen Sokoly

Jochen Sokoly is associate professor of art history of the Islamic world at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar where he has taught since 2004. His primary research interests focus on the material culture of the early caliphates, particularly within the context of court and administration. He is currently preparing a publication on the early Islamic inscribed textiles in the al-Sabah Collection at the Kuwait National Museum.