If the Shoe Fits

Footwear in Ancient Egypt.

By André J. Veldmeijer

People have always been obsessed with shoes, and ancient Egyptians were no different, producing a fine collection of footwear that was not only functional but surprisingly beautiful as well.

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In ancient Egypt, the main purpose of footwear was to protect the feet against dirt—and cold and water in the case of shoes. In the Book of the Dead, the collection of magic spells set out to assist the deceased person in navigating the Underworld, we find, ‘I will not step on the faeces with my sandals’. Setting out without sandals was not advisable, as we can also read in the Letter of Menna and many other texts. Sandals were also important for soldiers, and thus, sandal-makers were usually part of the expeditionary crews together with donkeys laden with sandals. The provision of sandals for the army was not without problems, however, as shown in Papyrus Lansing, which specifically mention the lack of sandals. Papyrus Chester Beatty V even describes the problems a soldier might face without proper sandals, ‘… he is in pain as he walks without sandals, hindered by the     rushes,      while      the undergrowth is abundant and thick, and the weneb- plants troublesome’. It is interesting to note that, despite the fact that from a fair number of texts it is clear that soldiers wore sandals, they are never shown wearing them in reliefs in temples and tombs.

Footwear also contains a (sometimes hidden) symbolism. The equivalent today would be very characteristic shoes such as Dr. Martens or red stilettos, which conjure up certain ideas about the wearer. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Isis says to Osiris, god of resurrection, ‘I have made you a god; I have placed your enemies under your sandals’, which is strange, as the gods in ancient Egypt were also never shown wearing sandals (in contrast to, for example, the gods of ancient Mesopotamia). However, comparable statements are common in royal inscriptions to express dominance and strength. For the king, trampling enemies (or other nasty creatures) is a message seen from the Old Kingdom onwards and lasting thousands of years into the Roman era. Footwear-related motifs that relay messages of a different nature, such as references to fertility, demons, or gods, are extremely rare in ancient Egypt. Only two examples are presently known, and the sandals are being studied to determine their significance.

‘His Health is Like Those of Corpses’

Although texts are informative, they are not always helpful in establishing the material from which footwear was made. Finds show that a variety of materials were used such as grass, various parts of the date palm (the leaves and leaf sheaths) and, to a lesser extent, papyrus. Leather footwear (especially sandals), though less common than footwear made of vegetable materials, was relatively common, nonetheless, and often forms the biggest group of leather finds on an excavation. If a sandal-maker is shown in the imagery or mentioned in texts, he is always shown during the manufacturing of leather sandals. That it was not one of the best jobs, however, is expressed in Papyrus Lansing: ‘The sandal-maker mixes behu; his odour stinks; his hands are red with dye, like one who is smeared with his own blood and looks behind him for the vulture, as a wounded man whose flesh is exposed…’ A similar reference can be found in the so-called Satire of Trades, although it is not to be taken too seriously as it is written in a biased way to boast about the superiority of the profession of scribe: ‘the sandal-maker is always under his jars of oil chewing on the skins and his health is like those of corpses’. In medieval Europe and even in the more traditional leather industries of today, leather tanneries are usually located outside densely populated areas, which possibly was the case for the ancient Egyptian tanners as well. Besides showing the soaking of leather in large, oil-filled jars to make skins more durable, imagery only shows the production of the so-called ‘eared’ sandals. From the archaeological record, however, we know that there were many more types of leather footwear. Perhaps, the eared sandals were singled out for depiction because they were the most common type of sandal and worn by people at all levels of society, and hence, easily recognizable. Although the archaeological record is rather scant, the evidence seems to suggest that at least some kinds of footwear worn in a particular town were not fashionable in other towns.

There are references to the production of sandals in temple workshops, but it is difficult nonetheless to reconstruct how they were organized. That the scale of production was considerable is suggested by texts mentioning no less than 18,000 sandals being given to temples by the king! Not at all an unrealistic number, as the priesthood was large, and there were many feet to be shod. It has been suggested that priests wore each pair of sandals only once for purity reasons, hence the large number, but there are no textual, pictorial, or any other indications hinting at such a practice.

Sandals or Shoes?

In the New Kingdom at least (ca. 1550–1069 BCE), sandals were worn at almost all levels of society. This is different for shoes, although the archaeological record shows that open shoes were worn by a fairly large segment of society as well. Open shoes (either made of leather or more commonly of plant materials such as palm leaf and grass) are basically sandals onto which an upper was attached that enclosed the side of the foot only, leaving the toes and top bare. They were probably introduced into Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1650–1550 BCE) by the Hyksos (people from Asia Minor), together with many other innovations, such as the chariot and the composite bow. A pair of leather sandals, probably from Meir (Middle Egypt), also hints at foreign origin, considering the loose flaps on the side of the foot (they are attached to the front and back strap) that we do not know from any other examples. Open shoes, as well as entirely closed shoes, are never shown in scenes on the walls of temples and tombs, however. If the ‘enveloping sandals’ mentioned in texts refer to open shoes, the number of references is scant, suggesting that sandals were much more common. The various types of footwear from the archaeological record confirm this view.

Footwear for Everyone

If sandals were worn by almost all segments of society, what were the differences between the rich and famous and the commoners? Research shows that the difference is mainly the level of craftsmanship, and to a lesser extent, types and materials. For example, the leather open shoes and sandals recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamun show a high degree of craftsmanship and were richly embellished with semi-precious stones, gold, beads, and more. One pair of sandals had soles decorated with tiny hollow gold bosses or protrusions along the front edge and two narrow strips of gold sheet woven through slits along the perimeter. The straps consist of an elaborate openwork layer of leather over vegetable material, again further embellished with gold bosses and gold strips woven through slits. A pair of open shoes also has two narrow strips of gold woven through slits along the edge of the sole. The upper consists of a closed inner layer and an openwork outer layer, both of leather decorated with gold foil and gold bosses. The straps combine gold bosses and strips with beads. Other examples from Tutankhamun’s tomb combine leather soles with gold soles. The leather of the upper part of the shoe also has a gold bead outer layer. Possibly, these open shoes were worn in combination with specific clothing and/or on certain occasions.

Although these royal examples show rich decoration, examples from high officials and priests also show that colour and decoration were used to make objects more attractive. Of course, gold was not used as much, and neither were semi-precious stones. A pair of curl-toed ankle shoes from the New Kingdom, for example, is bright red and decorated with green appliqué. Extensions of the toe provided a graceful curl back towards the ankle to enhance the beauty of the shoes. Other comparable shoes were green and decorated with red appliqué, openwork, or cut-out motifs. One type of sandal usually displayed different colours, often in the popular combination of red and green and occasionally even in blue. Sandals like these are also seen in reliefs and worn by priests; possibly these are the same as the ‘priest’s sandals’ mentioned in texts. Leather sandals were also worn by the lower echelons of society. These were plainer and usually not decorated.

The variety and beauty of footwear prevalent in ancient Egypt leads us to conclude that in addition to the many uses and symbolic meanings of footwear at the time, the aesthetic element was probably as important as it is today. 



André J. Veldmeijer

André J. Veldmeijer

André J. Veldmeijer is a visiting research scholar at the American University in Cairo. He studied archaeology at Leiden University and received his PhD in vertebrate palaeontology from Utrecht University. His main interest is the material culture of ancient Egypt with a focus on technology. He has worked on archaeological missions in Egypt since 1995 and has published extensively, both for scientific and popular audiences.