This is Part 1 in a series on the dress and adornment from the Siwa Oasis. The Siwa Oasis is an isolated settlement in Egypt, close to the Libyan border at the edge of the Western Desert. It is inhabited by sedentary descendants of the nomadic Amazigh, or Berbers. Siwa is the only pocket of Amazigh so far east in North Africa, all other nomadic people in Egypt are Bedouin. In this way, the people and traditions of the Siwa Oasis are often linked more to those of North Africa rather than to Egypt. Although the official language is now Arabic, Siwi, a Tamazight tongue, is still spoken and the inhabitants’ identity remains proudly Siwan.
The Zay Collection includes two items of Siwan dress. The main item is a heavily embroidered traditional wedding tunic, called asherah nuauk. (ZI500491 EGYPT) in the Siwi language. This tunic is decorated with two coloured braids, called gutan, (ZI500491a EGYPT) that are catalogued as a separate item in the collection.
The Zay Initiative acquired two Siwan wedding items from Mrs Sheila Payne’s collection, purchased from Kerry Taylor Auctions. Sheila Payne is a specialist on embroidery and the author of multiple books, including Embroidered textiles: traditional patterns from five continents, and Amulets: sacred charms of power and protection.
The main item is a white tunic dress traditionally worn during the wedding ceremony, called asherah nuauk, sometimes asherah nanilal, in Siwi. This particular piece in the collection is stitched in striped white rayon fabric, which would have been imported from the Nile Valley, in a generous T-shape, with long, wide sleeves that connect to the body with down stitching. The front of the costume is shorter than the back, with a hem that ends below the knee. Within Egypt, this T-shape is unique only to the Siwa Oasis, yet similarly shaped garments, called akbir nwasa, meaning ‘big, wide shirt,’ are found in other regions of North Africa, such as Tunisia. Interestingly, it was brought to my attention during the webinar on Egyptian dress with Dr Andrea Rugh, that Yemeni dresses also have some similarities in shape.
To give more width to the lower part of the ahserah nuauk in our collection, four longitudinal sections of black chiffon were added from the waist down to the bottom, joining the sides to the centre front and back. This was also done for economical purposes as the white cloth was expensive and woven in narrow widths. The cheaper black material extends the size of the panels and the black lines create a slimming illusion.
Embroidery and Embellishment
The front of the tunic is embellished with motifs and materials thought to promote fertility and protect the bride from the evil eye. The sleeves and back are left plain, except for around the neckline. The bib around the collar is added as a separate piece and often reinforced with a cotton backing to allow it to accept the heavy embroidery. The front of the tunic is split almost to the naval and fastened with nacre buttons (tutintfukt), surrounded by the heaviest embroidery on the costume. It is common to have seven square motifs around the neck opening, each divided into four quadrants as can be seen here. This motif is called (khatem), meaning ‘seal’ in Arabic. The khatem is meant to protect the bride from the evil eye with the sharp corners of the triangles forming a defensive function. Their placements are thought to also draw awareness to and promote fertility as the largest square rests against the woman’s reproductive organs, emphasising and protecting the bride’s fertility. The embroidery on the upper half of the garment also possibly resembles the ‘key to life’ embroidered on Tutankhamun’s shirt.
More embroidery radiates out from the central collar in a pattern resembling rays of the sun. The rays wrap around the neckline from the back like sunlight. The sun was one of the deities of the nomadic Amazigh people before the introduction of Islam. Nacre buttons, (tutintfukt) in Siwi meaning the ‘eye of the sun,’ is used as further symbolic embellishment. Nacre is used as an important talisman for the Siwan people because it reflects light and is believed to attract the energy of the sun, which is then transferred to the wearer.
The remaining embroidered symbols traditionally used in Siwan dress allude to items relevant to Amazigh daily life, most of which hold protective qualities; the spider, fish, leaf, fan, hand, comb, sword, etc.
The embroidery threads are predominantly the five traditional colours of Siwan embroidery: black, orange, yellow, green, and red. These colours represent the natural environment, signifying the desert sun and the ripening fruit of the date palms and olive trees. Again, these fruits symbolise both fertility and protection. The number five (khamsa) further possesses magical value against the evil eye (often represented as a hand, which is also called khamsa in Arabic).
Due to the many details in this costume, the process of stitching and embroidering it by hand takes many months, and the individual items are often acquired by the mother beginning in the bride’s childhood. These items are usually passed down through families and worn by married women during special occasions.
Gutan: bridal braided rope
The second item acquired by the Zay Initiative is decorative braided ropes that detach from the white wedding tunic. These tasselled braids are called gutan and were one of the many adornments traditionally worn by the Siwan bride. The gutan were attached to the various tunics worn by the bride during the seven-day wedding celebration, fixed to either side of the wedding tunic’s neck opening and drop down in front of the bride’s chest. The gutan act both as symbolic protection and to emphasise the bride’s femininity and fertility.
The braids are made from woollen yarns in the five colours of traditional Siwan embroidery: black, orange, yellow, green, and red. The main braids are made up of many smaller braids. The number of braids per strand is said to be 99, in reference to the names of God. They are also decorated with nacre buttons (tutintfukt). The gutan are said to be a very old and important decoration for the Siwan bride and are still worn today, as part of the comparatively modernised wedding costume, to add richness to the wedding attire.
The Wedding Trousseau
Weddings were traditionally held over seven days, yet since the middle of the 20th century, they have become simplified and now only take place over two to three days with fewer outfit changes. The white asherah nuauk is only one of many dresses worn throughout the wedding ceremony. Traditionally, it is said that the first dress is transparent white, the second is red, the third is black, the fourth is yellow, the fifth is blue, the sixth is pink silk, and the seventh is green. Due to outside influences and modernisation, the white dress is now the most favoured, with many of the original embellishments maintained, blending modernity with Siwan customs. The black wedding tunic (asherah hawak azdhaf) also has enduring favour.
The wedding tunics are only the outerwear part of the costume. They are worn over baggy pants (srawelin khatem) with embroidery at the ankle and red goatskin wedding shoes (zrabin), along with many layers of heavily embellished black shawls (troket), thick colourful tassels (tishusheet), bridal headdresses which resemble the diadems from Ancient Egyptian paintings (tadlilt), leather and tassel covered kohl pots (tangkult), braided ropes (gutan), and many layers of engraved silver jewellery.
Due to the palm date and olive trade, Siwa has been economically more prosperous than many of the neighbouring oasis, which is evident in the comparably lavish embellishments on their wedding costumes. The luxurious display was fundamental to the wedding ceremony and to the structure of Siwan society itself, solidifying the social standing and future economic status of the two families involved.
The multiple outfit changes, as well as changes in hairstyle and jewellery, have their own purpose, as they represent the transition of the bride from a young virgin girl to a married woman. After marriage, the wedding tunics and accessories were worn to celebrations and other weddings. Yet, Siwan women most commonly wear a simpler wide dress (akbir nwasa) and the traditional shawl (tarfutet) if she wants to leave her home. The tarfutet is a blue-and-white checked shawl, embroidered with the traditional five colours, that covers the wearer from head to toe. The women use one hand to hold the shawl in front of the face, leaving only a narrow opening in front of one eye, and with the other hand controlling the shawl at the chest. In modern days, the niqab is becoming more common, as it is seen as being more practical to wear.
In the next post, we will explore the international influence and exchange that is a result of the widespread popularity of Siwan embroidery.
- Fahmy, Azza 2007. Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
- Malim, Fathi 2001. Siwa: from the inside. Traditions, customs, & magic. Al Kaatan, Egypt.
- Vale, Margaret 2015. Siwa: Jewelry, Costume, and life in an Egyptian oasis. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
- Vivian, Cassandra 2000. The Western Dessert of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.
From the author
As a young Egyptophile, Siwa captured my imagination leading to my fascination with this desert culture and eventually led to me moving to Egypt in adulthood. I have always read as much as I could about Siwa and learned first-hand from the locals during my visits to the area. As the Zay Initiative’s researcher and librarian, I once again found myself reading about Siwan adornment. I obtained more information than what could fit in the limited space of the collection descriptions, thus this series on Siwa was born.