Robes of Honor in Fatimid Egypt

  • Paula Sanders
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


At its most literal, a khil’a (pl. khila’) is a garment that has been taken off (khala’a) by one person and given to another. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have given the mantle (burda) he was wearing to the poet Ka’b b. Zuhayr. While earlier rulers certainly bestowed such “castoff” garments as honorific robes, the term khil’a came into usage only in the Abbasid period (750–1258). In time, it was used to designate any garment bestowed by the ruler upon an official, and court officials were referred to as the “men of robes of honor” (aṣḥāb al-khil’a).1


Jewish Community Religious Tradition Silk Cloth Religious Scholar Generic Inscription 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, s.v. khil’a, and Yedida Kalfon Stillman, Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1972), p. 17 n.36. The designation was not limited to official works. Jewish courtiers are frequently referred to in this way in the Cairo Geniza, particularly in letters requesting their assistance; see S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 5 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967–88) 2:351.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Yamanī, Sīrat al-ḥājib ja’far b. ʻalī, cited in Heinz Halm, The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids, trans. Michael Bonner (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), p. 138.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    L. A. Mayer, Mamluk Costume (Geneva: Albert Kundig, 1952), p. 60.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Abū ’Alī Manṣūr al-Jūdharī, Sīrat al-ustādh jūdhar (Jawdhar), ed. M. Kāmil Husayn and M. ’Abd al-Hādī Sha’īra (Cairo: Dār al-fikr al-’arabī, 1954), pp. 137–38.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 28. Taqī al-dīn al-Maqrīzī, Kitāb al-mawā’iz waʼl-i’tibār bi-dhikr al-khiṭaṭ waʼl-āthār, 2 vols. (Bulaq: Dār al-ṭibā’a al-miṣriyya, 1853; reprint, Beirut: Dār ṣādir, n.d.) 1:453, lines 3–5.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Roland-Pierre Gayraud, “Isṭabl ’Antar (Fostat) 1994, Rapport de Fouilles,” Annales Islamologiques 29 (1995): 1–24; Jochen Sokoly, “Between Life and Death: The Funerary Context of Ṭirāz Textiles,” Islamische Textilkunst des Mittelalters: Aktuelle Probleme (Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 1997): 78.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Although ’Attābi is most often described as a silk stuff, I follow here Irene Bierman’s conclusion that this must refer to a cotton rather than silk cloth; see “Art and Politics: The Impact of Fatimid Uses of Ṭirāz Fabrics” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1980), p. 78. Carl Johan Lamm, Cotton in Mediaeval Textiles of the Near East (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1937), describes it as either cotton or silk, pp. 123, 210, 219. Cf. R. B. Serjeant, Islamic Textiles: Material for a History up to the Mongol Conquest (Beirut: Libraire du Liban, 1972), pp. 28–29; Stillman, “Female Attire,” p. 21.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    See Sanders, Fatimid Cairo, pp. 29–30, citing al-Musabbihī, Akhbār Miṣr (Tome Quarantième de la Chronique d’Egypte de Musabbiḥī), ed. Ayman Fuʼād Sayyid and Thierry Bianquis (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1978), p. 58.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    See numerous examples in Ibn al-Zubayr, Kitāb al-dhakhāʼir wa-al-tuḥaf ed. M. Hamid Allah (Kuwait: Dāʼirat al-maṭbū’āt wa-al-nashr, 1959), recently translated by Ghāda al-Ḥiijāwi al-Qaddūmī under the title Book of Gifts and Rarities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1996).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    For this account, and the analysis of its political implications, I rely heavily on Paul Walker, “Purloined Insignia: Stolen Symbols of legitimacy in the Abbasid-Fatimid Rivalry” (Paper delivered at the Middle East Studies Association, Providence, Rhode Island, November 21–24, 1996), pp. 9–13. I am grateful to Dr. Walker for his permission to cite so extensively from this piece, which is to be incorporated into his forthcoming book on Fatimid religious policy. The Arabic accounts may be found in al-Maqrīzī, Ittl’āẓ alhunafi bi-akhbār al-aʼimma al-fāṭimiyyīn al-khulafā, 3 vols. (Cairo: Al-majlis al-a’lā liʼl-shuʼūn al-islāmiyya, 1967–73), 2:138–39 and al-Musabbihī, Akhbār Miṣr, pp. 22–23 and 28–29. See also Thierry Bianquis, Damas et la syrie sous la domination fatimide (359–468/969–1076), 2 vols. (Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1989), 2:410–11.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Abuʼl-Maḥāsin Ibn Taghrī Birdī, Al-Nujūm al-ẓāhira fi mulūk miṣr waʼlqāhira, 16 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-kutub, 1929–55; reprint Cairo: Wizārat althaqāfa wa-al-irshād al-qawmī, n.d.), 5:16.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    For the sale of the Abbasid garments in the Fatimid treasuries, see Ibn Taghrī Birdī, al-Nujūm al-zāhira, 5:16; Serjeant, Islamic Textiles, p. 157. The most complete account of the sale (and later looting) of the Fatimid treasuries is in al-Maqrīzī, Ittl’āẓ al-ḥunafā, 2:279–301. For al-Basāsīrīʼs looting of the Abbasid palaces, see al-Maqrīzī, Ittl’āal-ḥunafā, 2:252–53. Al-Maqrīzī says that the Abbasid caliphs turban (mandīl), wound with his own hand, and his cloak (ridāʼ) were sent with other objects to Cairo and stored in the Wazir’s residence (dār al-wizāra). Al-Maqrīzī notes that these (and several other) objects that were the personal property of the Abbasid caliph were returned to the Abbasids by Saladin when he restored Egypt to Abbasid suzerainty after the death of the last Fatimid caliph. This would seem to contradict Ibn Taghrī Birdīʼs statement that the garments were sold. Other objects sent to Cairo included the Abbasid caliphs mantle (burda). Ibn al-Athīr, Al-Kāmil fi al-tārīkh (Beirut: Dār ṣādir, 1966), 10:61–62, says that a number of these items turned up in Baghdad with merchants, including items taken when al-Ṭāʼi’ was deposed and taken by al-Basāsīrï. What is important here is that these items were not merely the property of the Abbasids but were actually worn by the Abbasid caliph. Walker, “Purloined Insignia,” pp.14–17, discusses al-Maqrīzī’s report at length.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    See Eliyahu Ashtor, Histoire des Prix et des Salaries dans l’Orient Médiéval (Paris: SEVPEN, 1969), p.166, where he notes the appearance of khila’ in Geniza trousseaux of the 1100s and speculates that the increasing availability of the garments on the open market was a function of the political turbulence of the twelfth century, when officials and wazirs were often summarily dismissed in rapid succession and, no doubt, sold their robes of honor.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    See Gladys Frantz-Murphy, The Agrarian Administration of Egypt from the Arabs to the Ottomans (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1986); Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1: 99–108, 222–28.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    For a complex discussion of the issues involved in interpreting writing on many different media, see Irene Bierman, Writing Signs: The Fatimid Public Text (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998) and, on writing on textiles in particular, pp. 120–26.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    On the changes in the character of inscriptions, see Kjeld von Folsach, “Textiles and Society: Some social, political, and religious aspects of Islamic textiles” in Kjeld von Folsach and A.-M. Keblow Bernsted, Woven Treasures—Textiles from the World of Islam (Copenhagen: The David Collection, 1993), pp. 14–15. On pseudo and generic inscriptions, see also Veronica Gervers, “Rags to Riches: Medieval Islamic Textiles,” Rotunda 11 (1978/79): 22–31, and especially p. 28.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    Although the terms badla and ḥulla (pl. ḥulal) are attested in the Cairo Ge-niza for outfits for either men or women (see Stillman, “Female Attire,” pp. 73–75), in the inventory, badla seems to refer specifically to garments given to men and hulla to female garments. For the inventory, see al-Maqrīzī, al-Khitat, 1:410–413; Ayman Fu’ād Sayyid, ed., Passages de la Chronique d’Egypte d’Ibn al-Ma’mūn (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1983), pp. 48–55; Ayman Fu’ād Sayyid, ed., Le Manuscrit autographe d’al-Mawã’iẓ wa-al-l’tibār fī Dhikr al-Khiṭaṭ wa-al-Āthār de Taqī al-Dīn Ahmad b. ’Alī b. ’Abd al-Qādir al-Maqrīzī (London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1995), pp. 219–29.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    This interpretation is preliminary. With the exception of the two most famous royal women in the Fatimid period, Sitt al-Mulk and the Sulayhid al-Sayyida al-Hurra, women are scarcely mentioned in the chronicles. On them, see Yaacov Lev, “The Fātimid Princess Sitt al-Muì k? Journal of Semitic Studies 32/2 (Autumn 1987): 319–28; H. F. al-Hamdani, “The Life and Times of Queen Saiyida Arwa the Sulaihid of the Yemen,” J. of the Royal Central Asian Society 18 (1931): 507–17; Leila al-Imad, “Women and Religion in the Fatimid Caliphate: The Case of al-Sayyidah al-Hurra, Queen of Yemen,” Intellectual Studies on Islam, ed. Michel M. Mazzaoui and Vera B. Moreen (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), pp.137–44. Epigraphic evidence attests the usage for women of the Fatimid royal family, as well, see Gaston Wiet, Matériaux pour un corpus inscriptionum arabi-carum, II, Egypte (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1929) 52/2, no. 591, for an inscription in the name of al-jiha al-karīma (dated 533/1139) in the mausoleum of al-Sayyida Ruqayya attributed to the wife of the Caliph al-Amir; similarly, see Max Van Berchem, Matériaux pour un corpus inscriptionum arabicarum, I, Egypte (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1900), 19, no. 457, for an inscription in the name of al-jiha al-jatīla (dated 550/1155).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 30.
    The question of eunuch guardians is a complicated one. Women, especially noble women, are never referred to by name (a protocol that was observed by upper class Christians and Jews as well as Muslims; see Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 3:160–62). The inventory lists a number of women with the title jiha who, given their placement in the list between “Her Highness” (al-jiha al-’āliyya) (who is no doubt to be identified as the caliph’s wife), and his brothers, paternal aunts, and courtier cousins, should almost certainly be understood as royal princesses who are still unmarried. These may well have been the daughters or sisters of al-Āmir. They are designated in the text as: jihat murshidjihat ’anbar, al-sayyida jihat ẓill, jihat munjab, jihat maknūn al-qāḍī (sic), and jihat jawhar. Shaun Marmon, author of Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), notes that she has seen similar formulations referring to women of the Mamluk households, and suggests a working assumption that the custom of eunuch guardianship for minor women as well as young boys was not unknown among the elites of Fatimid and Mamluk society (personal communication, November 29, 1998). My interpretation must be considered tentative until a systematic study of the subject can be undertaken. Several of the names in the list (Murshid, ’Anbar, Jawhar) are common eunuch names: see David Ayalon, “The Eunuchs in the Mamluk Sultanate” in Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet, ed. Miriam Rosen-Ayalon (Jerusalem: Institute of Asian and African Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1977), pp. 267–95. Jawhar is mentioned twice in connection with the Dār al-Jadīda (New House), an otherwise unidentified location that seems to have housed the royal harem. Murshid is designated as al-khāṣī (sic, for alkhaṣī) (the eunuch). Maknūn (“Hidden”) is called mutawalïī khidmat al-jiha al-’āliyya (“chief in the service of Her Highness”). Such a position could be held only by a eunuch, and this calls into question the designation of Maknūn as al-qāḍī, the judge, in three printed editions: the Būlāq edition of Maqrīzī’s al-Khiṭaṭ, Ayman Fuʼād Sayyid’s Passages de la Chronique d’Egypte d’Ibn al-Maʼmūn, and Ayman Fuʼād Sayyid’s Manuscrit autograph d’al-Mawā’iẓ wa-al-I’tibār. I would suggest that Maknūn was in fact a eunuch. I consider it entirely possible that even al-Maqrizī himself might have misread an earlier manuscript or repeated a copyist’s error. Until a critical edition of al-Maqrīzī’s al-Khitat is available (itself a monumental project), the question cannot be resolved.Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    See Yedida Kalfon Stillman, “Costume as Cultural Statement: The Esthetics, Economics, and Politics of Islamic Dress,” in The Jews of Medieval Islam: Community, Society, and Identity, ed. Daniel Frank (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), p. 133; Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1:101–106.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Gervers, “Rags to Riches,” 26. The standard silk that is mentioned in the Cairo Geniza was converted so easily to cash and at such stable prices that it functioned as a sort of medieval Mediterranean traveler’s check. Yedida Kalfon Stillman, “New data on Islamic textiles from the Geniza,” Textile History 10 (1979): 186; Irene A. Bierman, “Art and Politics,” pp. 90–93; Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1:222–24.Google Scholar
  22. 41.
    For a full discussion of these issues, see Louise Marlows insightful study, Hierarchy and egalitarianism in Islamic thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stewart Gordon 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paula Sanders

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations