Adult Programs

From Cradle to Grave: Fabrics in the Lives of Women in Medieval Cairo

Tiraz fragment Linen tabby with silk tapestry Egypt 996 - 1021

This lecture charts the varied ways in which social interaction with textiles and their production informed the fabric of life of women in medieval Cairo. The Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171, famously intensified and perfected the production of textiles and the tiraz style in particular. During their reign, Egypt became the most important centre for the export of this precious commodity across the Mediterranean and beyond. This 'industrial revolution' had a life-changing impact on most men and women, be they of royal lineage or common folks. Women became not just consumers of textiles, but also producers, traders and investors. As ladies-in-waiting in charge of the wardrobe of the royal household, they acquired prestige and visibility. Women belonging to the upper echelon of society could display publicly their status and authority through what they wore but also through the fabrics they gave as gifts. In furnishing their houses with silks or wools women from all strands of life could assert their styles and aspirations. In death, lavish shrouds or simple wraps served as the ultimate mark of respect to accompany women in their final journey. Extant material evidence dating to the time under discussion provides us with a colourful visual 'catalogue' of styles that were popular among women of medieval Egypt. The variety of patterns and uses of the textiles shown in artefacts ranging from ivories to pottery places their wearers at the centre of a rich, cosmopolitan cultural universe that remained unrivalled for some 250 years.

Speaker: Dr. Delia Cortese, Middlesex University, London  (PhD, SOAS University of London), Assistant Professor in Religious Studies.

Dr Delia Cortese’s area of research is medieval Islam, particularly Ismaili studies and the Fāṭimid period. In recent years she has been focusing on gender and social history, Islamic codicology, and the interrelationship between Europe and the Islamic world. Beside Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam (with S. Calderini, Edinburgh University Press, 2006), she is also the author of Arabic Ismaili Manuscripts: The Zahid Ali Collection, IB Tauris, 2003 and  Ismaili and Other Arabic Manuscripts, IB Tauris, 2000. Recent articles include ‘Voices of the Silent Majority: the Transmission of Sunni Learning in Fāṭimid Ismā‘īlī Egypt’, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, vol. 39 (2012), and ‘A Dream Come-True: Empowerment Through Dreams Reflecting Fāṭimid-Ṣulayḥid Relations’ in O. Ali-de-Unzaga (ed.), Fortresses of the Intellect, Ismaili and other Islamic Studies in Honour of Farhad Daftary, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Presented in Partnership by the Royal Ontario Museum and His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Canada.

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