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Islamicate clothing

A Syrian

Turkish woman

Turkish man

Headwear and mantles

Stepping Out

Headwear and mantles in Egyptian and western Arabic dress in the fifth to seventh centuries after the Hijra (late 10th to thirteenth centuries c.e.)

This article was originally published in 1994. This version has been revised and expanded.

In what is commonly referred to as the “middle ages”1 no free person of any but the most impoverished class in any society of the Islamic world would have left home without some kind of head covering and mantle. A comparison of pictorial and written sources from the period and more recent practice can yield a great deal of clear information which can be used to assemble a better representation of clothing for this era and culture.
The principal written sources used are from the records of the Cairo Geniza, a collection of civil and financial record of the Jewish community of Cairo in the period of the Fatimid Caliphate. This vast collection of records covers almost every area of life, but for our purpose the portion of interest is the lists of trousseaux of women of the community. These enumerate the property a woman took into her marriage, usually with some description and assessment of value. A consideration of the cost of living at he time is outside the scope of this article, but it should be noted that this was a middle class, urban community of artisans and traders. It should also be recognised that prior to the relatively recent advent of various types of religious fundamentalism, there were very few material differences in day to day life between communities of different religions living in proximity to one another.2

The main pictorial sources are the various manuscripts of the Maqamat (Assemblies) written by al–Hariri, and, closer to the Geniza records in time and origin, the frescos of the muqarnas (“stalactite”) ceiling of the Capella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily. These were painted in the first quarter of the sixth century (twelfth century CE) at the behest of the Norman King Roger II by artists who, if not actually imported from Egypt, came directly out of the Fatimid tradition.3All the existing illuminated manuscripts of the Maqamat were illustrated in Mesopotamia in the first half of the seventh century (thirteenth century CE).4

It has been a habitual failing of people studying Near Eastern social customs to project recent “traditional” forms indefinitely into the past. In drawing upon ethnographic studies of the early twentieth century I hope to avoid this by a careful comparison with primary sources and calculation of the variations that would result from different social and economic circumstances.

Women’s headgear

The trousseau lists refer to a multitude of names for women’s head coverings, but at present it is difficult to pin specific terms on specific items. The task is complicated by the lack of any clear descriptions of any piece, by the fact that the lists apply the same name to manifestly quite different objects, and by the observation that we can be confident that different terms were applied to the same items. What is clear, however, is that it was rare for a single head covering to be worn, rather anything up to four layers.

The innermost layer was ether a ma’raqa (pl. ma’ariq), a close fitting cap sewn or made by ‘knotless netting’ or knitting,5 or else a lifafa (pl. lafa’if), a fine cloth wound about the head.6 Both of these served to protect the next layers from sweat and hair grooming substances. Ma’ariq were finely made of colourful linens and silks, and most trousseaux had several, presumably indicating the heavy wear they received. The recent ma’raqa has a flap falling over the back of the neck, a type which can be corroborated in the Capella Palatina frescos.

The next layer was some sort of headscarf. The generic term for any cloth used for such a purpose is khirqa (pl. khiraq.7 Beyond this there is a plethora of other expressions: aqbiyya; bukhnnuq; burqu’; khimar; mindil / mandil; minshafa (the last two could also mean handkerchief.); miqna’a; mukallaf; rumiyya; shadda; and tarha.8Doubtless some of the distinctions were on the basis of size, fabric, whether the item covered just the head and neck, or the head, neck and throat, or all these and the face, or just the face, but there seems now no way to tell between them, and scholarly opinion is widely divergent.9 Whatever the distinctions of form, the trousseau lists consistently show that these various headscarves were of fine cloth, most often linen, predominantly white or off-white shades, and otherwise pastel hues of blue and green, with the occasional appearance of some other stronger colour. Some were edged with a contrasting colour or embroidered. (see illustration 1) One head covering which is more definite on etymological grounds, and very commonly mentioned, is the niqab (pl. anqiba, a hood with eyeholes like the recent traditional Arabian burga.5An example of this can be seen in the so-called St. Vaast Maqamat. (see illustration 2)11

middle eastern costume

Illustration 1: A large, bordered khirqa, probably secured with pins as well as a fisadiyya. A light or small ’ardi is draped over one shoulder.

muslim women's costume

Illustration 2: Detail of a black niqab. From the St. Vaast Maqamat, Leningrad.

The niqab in illustration 2, like the recent burga, is black, while those of the Geniza trousseau lists are almost all either white, grey-white or pearl coloured, and sometimes edged and embroidered. The traditional burga is commonly festooned with coins or medallions, partly as a show and store of portable wealth, and partly to ensure they hang well and stay in place. A passage in the Mishna or regulations for observing the Sabbath compiled in the centuries immediately prior to the advent of Islam approves for Jewish use the practice of Median (Persian) and Arabian women of attaching coins or nuts to headscarves for the latter purpose.12

The khirqa could finally be surmounted and held in place by a variety of items. Commonly seen in pictorial sources is a simple ribbon (see ill 1), which can be equated with fisadiyya (pl. fisadiyyat). Strangely it occurs but twice in the trousseau lists.13 The rarity of it in that source can be ascribed to it being to basic and inexpensive an item to be worth mentioning among the diverse and often ornate and valuable garments listed. Some of the women on the Capella Palatina ceiling can be seen wearing fisadiyyat in their other use as a hair-band.14 Much more commonly mentioned in the trousseau lists is ’isaba (pl. ’asa’ib). One type of this was a metallic fillet or tiara, while another was (and still is) a cloth, then almost always white or off-white, wound around the head.15 Illustration 3 shows the method of winding the ’isaba alone- that is, without a headscarf underneath,16 and illustration 4 reproduces an example from the Capella Palatina.17

middle eastern costume

Illustration 3: A method of winding an ’isaba.

middle eastern costume

Illustration 4:
A woman from the
Capella Palatina
wearing an
’isaba alone.

Most of the women in these paintings are wearing them, and one shows that the ’isaba could be wound simply as a roll, without the end being spread over the crown of the head, and it would be done over a ma’raqa or a khirqa.18 An alternative to the ’isaba was the ma’ajir (pl. mijarat) or woman’s turban. The mijarat of the Geniza lists are made of diverse fabrics, all manner of colours besides the ubiquitous white, and could be bordered, decorated with silk or even gilded.19 It is evident from both art and text that there was a bewildering variety of ways a male turban (’imama) might be would in this era, so it is unfortunately impossible make any sort of a strong guess as to the precise method for a ma’ajir.

At this point there is no evading the vexed question of face covering. The first difficulty is in terminology. Today the term “veil” is used in an indistinct manner, which may include covering the face. Unfortunately for a long while translators have rendered as “veil” a variety of words in Arabic and other languages which do not necessarily imply a face covering, and may not even refer to a head covering.20 In particular, the references in the Quran only refer to covering the chest as an injunction to modesty, not the face. In a recent work Leila Ahmed argues that face–veiling only became entrenched as an Islamic norm as women emulated the wives of Mohammed, who had adopted the Jewish custom of veiling in order to quell disruptions in the Prophet’s household caused by importunate petitioners accosting them in the street.21 Fortunately, for once class considerations simplify the issue a little. There is no question that veiling has always been very rare amongst the rural peasantry—the majority of the population. At the other end of the social scale, it is equally certain that women of the high aristocracy would hardly ever have been seen in public unveiled, for their lives were the most circumscribed of all. Hence the question is really for the urban middle class, the very sort of people represented by the Geniza records. Yet the evidence remains tenuous. Of relevant pictorial sources, the sampling accompanying this article is representative — slightly more than half the women shown have their faces covered. In noting that, we must recognise that the manuscripts shown a conventionally acceptable image of society, not necessarily an entirely accurate one.22 That the authorities acted to constrain the social (or should that be sociable?) appearances of women,23 and that moralistic writers criticised their conduct from time to time,24 confirms that unveiled women were at least as common on the streets as the manuscript pictures indicate. Circumstantial as such evidence is, it suggests to me that even for the urban middle class, let alone for the society as a whole, veiling was not a majority practice. In so far as it was employed by women o status, it is worth noting that it could have been embraced by them willingly for its cosmetic benefits in protecting the complexion from harsh elements, as forced upon them for moral and religious reasons.25

Women’s mantles

Having fittingly bedecked her head, a women would put on some sort of mantle before emerging into the street. Again, names are more common than details: barakan; izar (probably a generic term); milhafa; mula’a and safsari.

middle eastern costume

Illustration 5: These women may not be wearing headscarves under their mantles, since the one at the right seems to be showing a little hair. If so they would probably be wearing ’asa’ib, but whatever the case their sheer veils must be separate items. Their ’aradi have borders all the way around. Scheffer Maqamat, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

middle eastern costume

Illustration 6: The woman at left wears a simple khirqa under a mantle with contrasting edges. The woman at right wears a fuller, bordered khirqa over plain ’ardi. St. Vaast maqamat, Leningrad.

For some it is a little clearer. The garment of greatest antiquity was the burd (pl. abrad). This was originally a piece of striped, woollen cloth which doubled as a blanket. In the time of the Prophet this was considered an entirely respectable garment, but by our period it was considered quite rustic. By that time the term had been transferred to certain silk cloaks by analogy with the stripes worked into them.26 The common successor to the burd was probably the 'ardi (pl. ’aradi). These were made of fine linen or silk and could be adorned with contrasting edges, decorated bands, tassels, streaks (perhaps this means ikat) or embroidery. They might also be lined and padded, suggesting the dual use as bed covers, which was the norm for items of this type.27 The burd of recent times is 1.5 metres by 2 metres, which would be appropriate to the mantles shown in illustrations 5, 6 and 8. Striped and ikat silks of very similar proportions are still being woven in Damascus today. A fuller type of mantle is the rida’ (pl. ’ardiyya). The recent Bedouin rida’ is about 1.5m by 4.5m, but this version serves as the sole garment and must be long enough to be tied around the wearer’s waist.28 The medieval rida’ of our social group was just the top layer and removed indoors and so was not so firmly attached not so long. The Geniza records state that ’ardiyya were supplied with pins,29 and this was probably the norm, as it is still at the shoulders for the Bedu rida’. Illustration 7 shows a likely method for fastening the medieval rida’.30

middle eastern costume

Illustration 7: a method of draping a rida’.

’Ardiyya came in the full range of fibres and qualities, from unbleached linen to fine silk. The prevalent colours were white and blue. The trousseau lists also mention “half ’ardiyya” which only covered the upper body, and which might be lined. There are some ready inferences which can be drawn about the two types of mantle just discussed. Since it is held in place by hand the ’ardi would tend to have been used on shorter trips, in calmer weather and when the woman did not have to do anything with her hands. It would not have been practical in other situations. The rida’, in contrast, being more firmly attached with pins, and all enveloping while leaving the hands free, would have been better for harsher weather, longer excursions and those where the woman had to engage in some sort of manual activity.

Men’s garments

middle eastern costume

Illustration 8: A man in a turban with the free end (rif-raf) pulled across his face and a bordered izar. Schefer Maqamat, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

For most of this article I have concentrated on women’s dress because these garment were quite essential to their wardrobes. Yet there were many similar articles in men's dress also. Illustration 6, commonly taken to be a woman on cursory examination, is revealed by the accompanying text of the Maqamat to be, in fact, a man, thus illustrating how convergent the dress of the two genders could be.

The use of substantial caps under the turban (’imama) is well attested and there are surviving examples.31 In addition it is very likely that a ma’raqa would also be worn, as with the women. The use of the hanging end of the turban (rif-raf) drawn across to afford some protection from sun and sand is a somewhat clumsy expedient in my experience. More practical is the use of a khirqa, or more properly kufiyya under the turban falling over the shoulders somewhat. The only pictorial source I know of which clearly shows this is outside the strict parameters of this article, being the eighth century AH (fourteenth century CE) portraits of the Nasrid rulers painted in the “Chamber of Justice” in the Alhambra at Granada.32 There is much evidence that Andalusian society preserved earlier more easterly customs.
If we were to accept pictorial sources like those of the Maqamat uncritically, we would believe that men’s mantles were rare and largely confined to the aged and to religious officials. Yet documentary references strongly contradict this picture. It appears that semi–circular cloaks like the Greek khlamys and Persian mandyas were not the norm amongst Arabs and Egyptians, so we are left draping a rectangle of cloth around the body. A practical method is shown in illustration 9,33 and the manuscripts do show the practice was often quite casual. The ’izar shown in this illustration is 1.2—1.5 metres by 5 metres, and pictorial sources suggest quite variable proportions and weights for such items.

middle eastern costume

Illustration 9: A method of draping a large ’izar or rida’.

Another method which went back as far as the ancient Greeks employed a single cord fixed to one corner of the mantle. This was then tied around a knob formed by tucking a pebble into a fold of the cloth. This could be arranged in any way that suited the wearer.

With this sort of information there is no need for anyone aiming to accurately reproduce Egyptian and Arab dress of the fifth to seventh centuries to compromise on modesty or to shiver in cooler weather!

Timothy Dawson

Additional bibliography
Bernard Lewis (ed), The World of Islam, London, Thames and Hudson, 1976.
R. B. Serjeant, Islamic Textiles: Materials for a History up to the Mongol Conquest, Beirut, Librairie du Liban, 1972.
Desmond Stewart, The Rise of Islam, New York, Time-Life Books, 1967
Yedida Kalfon Stillman, ‘libas’, Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1986.


  1. “The middle ages” and “medieval” are properly speaking not very applicable to anywhere outside western Europe, but are used here in the common manner as a convenient shorthand. For more information on this subject see my 2001 Abbey Museum lecture. Back to text
  2. 2)In terms of dress the exceptions are localised and generally brief, occurring only when rulers imposed vestiary laws to distinguish social groups. Examples in Egypt are the reign of al–Hakim in the fifth century AH. (eleventh century CE) and the Mamluks over the period from the seventh to ninth centuries AH. (thirteenth to early fifteenth centuries CE). Back to text
  3. Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Painting in the Fatimid Period: A Reconstruction’, Ars Islamica, 9 (1942), p. 113. Back to text
  4. See André Grabar, The Illustrations of the Maqamat, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984, for a full description and analysis of these manuscripts. Back to text
  5. Yedida Kalfon Stillman, Female attire of medieval Egypt according to the trousseau Lists and cognate material from the Cairo Geniza, unpub. PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 1972, p. 104f. Back to text
  6. Stillman, Female attire, p. 138. Back to text
  7. Stillman, Female attire, p. 133. Back to text
  8. Stillman, Female attire, part c, chapter 3 passim. Back
  9. For example Stillman, Female attire, asserts that the burqu’ was a hood with eyeholes (p. 124), while Mayer states that it was a veil “covering the face up to the eyes”: Louis A. Mayer, Mameluk Costume, Geneva, Albert Kundig, 1972, p. 73. Back
  10. stillman, Female attire, pp. 175—178. For burga see Helen Colyer Ross, The Art of Arabian Costume, Freibourg, Arabesque Publishing, 1981, pp. 46-48. Back to text
  11. Leningrad Institute of Sciences, dated c. 620 AH (c. 1230 CE), p. 288. back to text
  12. Emily Marmorstein, ‘The veil in Judaism and Islam’, Journal of Jewish Studies, 5 (1954), p. 7. Back to text
  13. Stillman, Female attire, p. 126.Back to text
  14. Hugo Monneret de Villard, Le Pitture Musulmans al Soffito della Capella Palatina in Palermo, Roma, Libraria della Stato, 1950, figs. 187, 207, 209, 210. Back to text
  15. Stillman, Female attire, p. 128—30. Back to text
  16. After Ernst Racknow, Das Bedouinenkostüme in Tripolitanien, Berlin, Verlag von Dietrich Rimmer, 1943, pl. 6. Back to text
  17. Monneret de Villard, Le Pitture, fig. 44. Back to text
  18. Monneret de Villard, Le Pitture, figs. 196, 205, 213, 214. Back to text
  19. Stillman, Female attire, p. 124f. Back to text
  20. Much of Marmorstein’s excellent article is devoted to demolishing such dubious translations. Back to text
  21. Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: The Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, London, Yale University Press, 1992, p. 53f. Back to text
  22. Grabar, Maqamat, p. 114. Back to text
  23. Such as Caliph al–Hakim previously mentioned: Elizabeth Hallam (ed), Chronicles of the Crusades, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1989, p. 22. Back to text
  24. A late example is ibn al–Hajj in the mid–seventh century AH (thirteenth century CE): Ahmed, Women and Gender, p. 119. Back to text
  25. An aside on women and situations properly outside the scope of this article seems called for here.
    It appears that any sort of head covering was less common for women of all classes in al–Andalus in this period: (Stillman, Female attire, p. 734, and compare the illustrations to the seventh–century, Bayad wa Riyad manuscript in the Vatican Library).
    Despite the fact that all the women shown on the Capella Palatina ceiling are musicians, but for one dancer, and so may well be slaves, it seems reasonable to take them as indicative of the practice of women in general when in private. Hence I conclude that it was usual to dispense with the khirqa, and when their hair was covered with anything other than the end of the ’isaba, it was only with the ma’raqa or a fine mandil covering only the crown and a little down the neck. Comparing the “Blacas Ewer” in the British Museum of the mid–seventh century AH, we find a more complex situation. One rondel of two musicians shows one wearing just a fisadiyya while the other is fully veiled. Yet another of a lady and her maid (a slave) has the lady wearing a jewellery ’isaba alone while her servant wears a headscarf but no veil.
    Slaves were usually never veiled. However the ewer just described, and a number of literary accounts telling how indulgent and protective of their concubines male slave owners could be, tells us that there were exceptions to this as much as any other rule. Back to text
  26. Stillman, Female attire, p. 142f. Back to text
  27. Stillman, Female attire, p. 120—122. Stillman consigns these to the category of headcoverings, but the fact that some were lined and padded makes it more fitting that they be considered mantles. Back to text
  28. Adapted from Racknow, Das Bedouinenkostüme, pl. 5. back to text
  29. Stillman, Female attire, p. 60. Back to text
  30. Adapted from Racknow, Das Bedouinenkostüme, pl. 5. Back to text
  31. Fine examples are held in the Islamic Museum, Cairo, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. back to text
  32. Finely reproduced in Gabrielle Crespi, The Arabs in Europe, New York, Rizzoli, 1979, p. 192-3. Back to text
  33. Adapted from George Marcais, Le Costume Musulmans d<46>Algier, Paris, Librairie Plon, 1930, p. 29. back to text