Madam Nubia: Leather skirts from Sudan

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"Her little girl, in a Madam Nubia fringe, clung to her skirts……" (Amelia B. Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, p. 360)

Rahat skirt, TRC Collection

Rahat skirt, TRC Collection

 

A rahat skirt acquired in Khartoum, Sudan in 2003. It is made from narrow stripes of purple leather fastened to a waistband of the same material. (TRC 2003.0112)

 

The "Madam Nubia fringe" or rahat is a short skirt made from hundreds of narrow leather plaits hanging from a waistband. They are particularly associated with the Nubians from Egypt and Sudan. This type of skirt is very old and can be traced back for hundreds of years. Examples of rahat were found, for instance, at the southern Egyptian site of Qasr Ibrim, which is now an island in Lake Nasser. These garments date to the medieval period when the region was officially Christian. Later examples of rahat were found among the 200 plus textiles and items of clothing excavated at Kulubnarti, in northern Sudan. These objects date from between 1600 and 1800 when Islam had become well established in the region. Most of the Kulubnarti rahats are made of leather. However, there was one with a woven waistband (wool) with spun goat hair tassels. These tassels were partially wrapped with red, blue, green, yellow, cream, purple, burgundy and brown wool yarn, giving it a very colourful appearance. Late 19th and early 20th century examples of rahat in various museum collections are sometimes decorated with cowrie shells and Venetian glass beads. Girls of Nubian origin in Saudi Arabia used to wear this style of skirt during the 19th century. 

 

Nubian girls wearing Rahat skirts. Private collection

Nubian girls wearing Rahat skirts. Private collection

                    

 

A lithograph entitled "Nubian women at Korte" by Robert Davids (1796 - 1864). The picture shows a group of married Nubian women wearing white garments and unmarried girls wearing rahat skirts. 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls wearing rahat skirts. Library of Congress

Girls wearing rahat skirts. Library of Congress

Early 20th century photograph of two Nubian girls wearing rahat skirts (Library of Congress; LC-USZ62-82893)

During the 19th century it was normal for a Nubian girl to wear a rahat until her wedding day, when her clothes were changed to a loose, white cotton dress (sob) and headcovering (shaigga). These were regarded as appropriate clothing for a married woman. Related types of garment, namely plaited skirts, are worn in various other parts of Sudan, such as the leather skirts worn by girls of the Ingessana tribe (Northeast Sudan) and a plant leave version used by the Nilotic tribe. Nowadays, however, the rahat and the other related garments are very rarely seen and the use of this ancient garment has virtually ceased. Many Sudanese regard the skirt as being un-Islamic ans therefore do not approve of it.

The display is available for loan and includes:

  • The leather skirt, four photographs and a short text describing the history and role of the "Madame Nubia."

For further information about the loan of this display, see Exhibitions for hire

Further reading and links:

  • Adams, W. and N. Adams, Nubia, Corridor through Africa, Princeton, 1977.
  • Adams, W. and N. Adams, Kulubnarti II: the Artifactual Remains, London, 1998.
  • Edwards, A., One Thousand Miles Up the Nile, London, 1888.
  • Gordon, L.D., Letters from Egypt (1862-1869), London, 1865.
  • Labelle, M-L., Beads of Life: Eastern and Southern African Adornments from Canadian Collections, Quebec, 2005.


Acknowledgements

We would like to thank both Mrs. N.K. Adams and Mrs. E. Ashry (wife of the former Sudanese Ambassador to the Netherlands), for their help in preparing this information.
 

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