The colorful textile above is a fragment from a Coptic Egyptian ecclesiastical garment depicting saints and biblical figures and dating to the 7th Century AD, now in The British Museum. Thanks to exceptionally dry conditions, many types of artifacts made from perishable materials that would not survive elsewhere are common finds on Egyptian archaeological sites. Between the late 18th and early 20th Century great numbers of ancient Egyptian textile fragments from all periods were retrieved by local Egyptian treasure hunters and artifacts dealers for sale to foreign visitors, by foreigners conducting their own ad-hoc “excavations” and by archaeologists, often excavating using methods that would by today’s standards be considered little more than treasure hunting.
While textiles of all types, from the most humble garments to the most elaborate, and from every period of Egypt’s long history have been preserved in the dry environment, Coptic textiles are a class unto themselves. In common parlance, use of the term “Coptic” here refers both to the time period from which these textiles date – corresponding to the roughly 300 year period of Byzantine rule in Egypt – and the Christian culture that created them, as the Coptic Church, still very much alive today in Egypt, gives its name to both the ancient and modern Coptic culture. This uniquely Coptic textile style continued on in Egypt long after the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century AD.
Many Coptic textile fragments, and in some cases entire garments, have since found their way into museum collections. This has somewhat reduced the number of high quality examples available on the legitimate art market. But many fine examples can be acquired from the major London and New York auction houses and reputable antiquities dealers in Europe and the North America.
Our own website offers a small but quality selection of Coptic textiles:
The example above is a large 5th-7th Century fragment featuring human, animal and geometric decorations. It has been sewn on a linen backing for mounting and custom framed. A brief description in modern Arabic from a late 19th – early 20th Century Cairo dealer enhances its value.
This 5th – 7th Century example, from the same old collection, is also framed and features complex foliate and geometric patterns.
Finally, this 4th – 7th Century example features a broad band of highly abstracted animal forms, including fish, birds and rabbits, with lovely deep red borders.
Some of the finest examples of Coptic weaving, which was generally made in linen and wool, were reserved for ecclesiastical garments. The 5th – 7th Century fragment pictured below, now in The British Museum, depicts a cross and bird; the bird may have been part of an allegory of the seasons, thus combining ancient pagan and the newer Christian iconography.
There are excellent print and online resources for the student or collector of ancient Coptic textiles. The Coptic Tapestry Albums & The Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, is a very accessible, lavishly color illustrated guide to the collection amassed by the controversial French psuedo-archaeologist Albert Gayet in the late 19th Century. It describes Coptic textile production techniques as well as offering insight into how collections of these objects were built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Two online resources that we recommend are the Rietz Collection of Coptic textiles in the California Academy of Sciences – http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/coptic/Collection.htm – and the Indiana University Museum’s small but excellent online collections – http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html.