So, if you open your mind beyond Facebooklandia, it turns out you really can learn something new every day. While I have been All Things Silk for about two years now, my other love is Raqs Sharqi. And since I like to blend my passions to cut down on confusion, I thought I’d see when silk first hit Egypt.
Now, there are references to it in travel literature, that dancers wore Silks, mostly plain woven, but with accent pieces of satin or crepe (Fraser, 197…a most excellent read). So definitely by the 19th century, silk was in Egypt. But silk was EVERYWHERE by the 19th century, so that really isn’t much of a leap. China has had silk for 8500 years.
The Silk Road has been around for 2200 years and was a major trade route across all of Asia, and certainly had contact with Persia and Rome. But Egypt ALSO has a long and storied civilization behind it. Egyptians were active traders and conquerors. Surely they must have had some notion of China and the wonders of silk. So I Googled it.
And had two rather surprising hits. The first was a letter from 1993, response it seems, to an inquiry about some fibers located in a mummy. It references Cleopatra and it would not be surprising to find she had access to silk, given her contact with the Romans and we know the Romans certainly had silk by the time Cleopatra reigned. However, the letter reveals that scanning determined the fibers were in fact silk filaments, from China…and they had been found on a mummy dated to 1000 BCE. This puts silk, in Egypt, 1000 years earlier than initially believed.
The second was a New York Times article, also dated from 1993. This article begins by commenting on the letter about silk filaments found on very old mummies, but also includes references to silk being excavated from 7th century BC graves in Germany and 5th century BC graves in Greece. So we know silk was a tightly controlled commodity by the Chinese prior to the Byzantines stealing it. But even tightly controlled commodities can get out to the general market…if the price is right.
The NYT article concludes by guessing that border guards bribed nomads with silk. I contend it could just as easily have gone the other way. Maybe the border guards were offered incredible sums of money for silk. Either way it happened, silk was likely in Egypt 3000 years ago. And certainly available for Raqs Sharqi costuming when that dance hit the stage.
And so this happy little book worm is delighted at the successful marriage of my two passions…Silk and Dance.