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A History of Natural Dyes - Episode 2, Egypt, part 1

Here we are again, in what has developed (due to time constraints) into a quarterly installment, rather than bi-monthly. Sorry for the delay! Enough with the apologies. Let’s get into what I’m here to share what I’ve been researching the past few months: the history of the Egyptian area’s natural dye culture. I’ve split this into several parts since there’s a lot of documentation and information that I found regarding this area of the world’s history with dyes, so this will be Part 1 of I think…3. Here we go!

Now, when I speak about this here, I’ll be referring to the geographic area of the globe that existed since ancient days in the Early Dynastic Period (app. 3150 - 2613 BCE) all the way to our more modern definition of geographic Egypt. 

As was discussed during the article about the traditions of natural dyes in Korea, in Egypt, in ancient times, use of color was very much connected with spiritual significance for the people of the Egyptian region. According to Joshua J. Mark’s “Color in Ancient Egypt”, “Color in ancient Egypt was used not only in realistic representations of scenes from everyday life, but to illustrate the heavenly realms of the gods, the afterlife, and the stories and histories of the deities of the Egyptian pantheon.” In art from this period, gods were depicted as having gold skin, The following is a list of colors that contained spiritual significance during the Early Dynastic period:


Associated with : Hathor (goddess of the sun), Osiris (god of the dead), and Horus (god of the sky)

Represented: Goodness, growth, life, the afterlife, resurrection, renewal, transformation and rebirth. 


Associated with: Set (god of chaos)

Represented: Life, vitality and energy, but also evil, danger and destruction. Symbolized both fire and blood. 


Associated with: Amun (god of the air), Bes (the protector god), Thoth (god of wisdom)

Represented: Fertility, birth, rebirth and life. Often depicted water or the heavens. 


Associated with: Ra (god of the sun), Isis 

Represented: the sun, eternity, suggest purity or the sacred aspects of objects


Associated with: Nefertun (goddess of beauty)

Represented: Purity, sacredness, cleanliness and clarity. Represented the close connection to the gods enjoyed by the kings. Also associated with daily life….as it was the color of everyday clothing


Associated with: Anubis (god of death), Osiris (god of death), Bastet (goddess of women)

Represented: Death, darkness, the underworld, but also life, birth and resurrection. Connected with fertile soil of the Nile after the annual floods. Although connected with death, never represented evil. 

Life of the Dyer in Ancient Egypt

Dyers were stinking of fish, with tired eyes and hands working unceasingly.
— Egyptian papyrus dating from app. 236 BC.

In the dyehouses of ancient Egypt, conditions were trying. The space was often quite small, with hot, stinky air floating up from the dye vats and filling the cramped quarters. The plants and minerals bubbling away produced quite a stink, that could leave a scent on the dyers skin as they went through the rest of their daily life. Woad, a color still used today, that produces blues similar to indigo, is so stinky that I only use it in an open air environment. I can only imagine that dyers of this time period wore linen around their faces to protect from inhaling too much of this stinky air. Or perhaps they became accustomed to it, and didn’t even notice that ferrous smell after a while.

Dyer’s Workshop in Athribis

Dyer’s Workshop in Athribis

In Athribis, a city in what would have been Lower Egypt during ancient times, a dyer’s workshop was discovered during archealogical excavations. The space had it’s own well, providing a constant water source to the dyers. It had a lead-lined cistern, and walls tiled with stone. Around the room were workbenches with deep vats carved into them, some of them stained a dark blue, probably from the indigo or woad dyes used in this dye space so many years ago.

I did a bit of digging on why the cisterns would have been lead-lined, and while I definitely didn’t come to any firm conclusion, I’m guessing it’s cause it would make it waterproof, and thus able to hold amounts of water for the dyer’s work purposes.

A Few Historical Accounts of Dyeing - 

Pliny the Elder, a Roman historical writer, who is often known for his often inaccurate and definitely interesting medical treatments and diagnosis, wrote in his book, The Natural History, about the process of dyeing in Egypt: 

In Egypt too, they employ a very remarkable process for colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb color. This done, the tissues, still unchanged in appearance, are plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye, and are removed the next moment fully coloured.
— Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, Chap 42

This method of dyeing would have been optimal for color saturation. When dyers mordant the fibers before plunging them into the dye vats, the fibers have a chance to FULLY absorb all of the mordant powders. Then, when the dyeing is happening, more color fragments are able to be absorbed because more mordant remains in the fibers. Pliny also recorded his personal thoughts on use of color during the time of Mark Antony and Cleopatra: 

Attempts, too, have even been made to dye linen, and to make it assume the frivolous colours of our cloths. This was first done in the fleet of Alexander the Great, while sailing on the River Indus; for upon one occasion, during a battle that was being fought, his generals and captains distinguished their vessels by the various tints of their sails, and astounded the people on the shores by giving their many colours to the breeze, as it impelled them on. It was with sails of purple, too, that Cleopatra accompanied M. Antonius to the battle of Actium, and it was by their aid that she took to flight: such being the distinguishing mark of the royal ship.
— Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 19, Chp. 5

We see here again that color, and purple specifically, is being used to mark royalty and upper class status, a representation that Roman, Greek and Egyptian armies all adhered to. Clothing during the Early Dynastic Period would have been most commonly made of linen fibers. They would have been worn in their natural pale brown or pale grey shade. However, the people that could afford to wear dyed garments, did so with natural dyes, or even bleached by methods unique to this region of the world to produce white linen.  The upper classes in Egypt would have been more likely to wear brightly dyed linen clothes, to show off their wealth, while the working class people would have worn the natural colored linens.

Mordants - 

Alum was readily available in Egypt, as it’s a natural resource in the Mediterranean region. In the more volcanic regions of the Aegean, it’s constantly renewable due to the activity of the volcanoes….there’s a science-y reason for why, but I’m not too sure about it so I’ll let you learn more about that on your own if you’d like! Haha!

With alum being readily available, that meant that Egyptian dyers were able to easily work with the dye stuffs in their area that might have otherwise washed out easily or not have adhered to the fibers well. The colors produced were vibrant and long-lasting, and we can see them even today in fragments that remain on textiles and art from times as early as the Old Kingdom (2613-2181 BCE). 

This is a good stopping place for now! I’ll be talking more about the dyestuffs that were most commonly utilized as well as the way that Egyptians in ancient times developed methods to bleach linens to a pristine white!

Thanks for reading and keeping up with this!



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