Part 1

The Karakalpak Kiymeshek
Role of the Kiymeshek
The Aq Kiymeshek
The Qızıl Kiymeshek

Part 2

Different Qızıl Kiymeshek Patterns
Distribution of Qızıl Kiymeshek Patterns
The Dating of Qızıl Kiymesheks
Pronunciation of Karakalpak Terms

Part 3

Other Kimeshek-Like Garments
The Qazaq Kimeshek
The Uzbek Lyachek
The Tajik Lachek and Kuluta
The Turkmen Esgi, Lechek and Chember
The Kyrgyz Elechek and Ileki
The Khimar and Similar Islamic Veils

Part 4

Previous Ideas on Kimeshek Origins
A Short History of Veiling up to the 16th Century

Part 5

The History of the Kimeshek
Where to see Karakalpak Kiymesheks

Previous Ideas on Kimeshek Origins

Professor Sergey Tolstov, the pioneering archaeologist who founded the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition, saw direct parallels between the material culture of the Karakalpaks, Qazaqs, Uzbeks, and Tajiks and that of the much earlier 2nd – 7th century Zoroastrian civilization of Ancient Chorasmia. The first phase of excavations at Topraq qala, a royal and religious summer palace located close to present-day Biruniy city, had just begun in 1947 and it is possible that Tolstov's excitement over the newly revealed wall paintings and ceramics simply got the better of him. In 1948 he wrote:
"So the roots of modern folk art of the successors of the ancient civilization of Central Asia go back to extreme antiquity."
In 1952 Tolstov made direct comparisons between the cut of Karakalpak national clothing, including female head wear, and the costume depicted in the wall paintings at Topraq qala. In particular he saw close similarities between the embroidery decoration on the qızıl kiymeshek and the patterns on the various female breast adornments, including one on an image of the goddess Anahita:

Tolstov's comparison
Comparison of decorations from Topraq qala (left) with those embroidered on a Karakalpak kiymeshek (right).
From Tolstov, 1952.

Tolstov also saw similarities between the Karakalpak aq kiymeshek and the red decoration on the white dress of a woman depicted on another fresco discovered during those excavations. This picture is titled the "spinner" since the woman appears to be spinning a thread. We see no connection whatsoever, apart from the fact that the colours are similar.

The spinner
The spinner from a mural recovered at Topraq qala.
From Rapoport, Nerazik, and Levina, In the Lower Reaches of the Oxus and Jaksartes, Indrik, Moscow, 2000.

It is hard to see how a confederation of Turkic tribes, formed in the vicinity of the lower Syr Darya in the 16th century, could have had its culture determined by a civilization that was obliterated by the Arabs in the 7th century. The costumes of the Khorezmian ruling elite depicted at Topraq qala are a strange combination of male Saka and female Persian attire, with Hellenistic and Kushan influences, and even Mesopotamian and Indian overtones, none of which are reflected in early 20th century Karakalpak costume.

Anna Morozova proposed an alternative link to the ancient civilization of Sogdia in her 1954 discussion of the kiymeshek. She saw similarities to the kiymeshek depicted on moulds for making terracotta statuettes found during excavations of Afrosiab, dated at that time to the Kangui and Kushan periods (4th century BC to 4th century AD):

"The study of archaeological finds of Uzbekistan gives us the possibility of tracing ancient forms of this old clothing among the population of Ancient Sogdia. Among the moulds for statuettes mentioned on page 129 there were specimens of women figurines wearing a cloak with a breastplate which looked like a kiymishek."

Anahita statuette
The statuette with a cape and head cover cited in Morozova's 1954 thesis.

Such figurines represented Anahita, the Avestan goddess of the heavenly waters and fertility, which were deliberately broken and replaced every Navrus. Such cults were almost completely eradicated by the later Arab invasion.

In the absence of any explanation of how these two objects and cultures are connected across an expanse of two thousand years, we consider Morozova's comment to be naïve.

Morozova went on to argue that at the time of Gladyshev and Muravin's visit in 1740, Karakalpak married women were wearing their shevkeli above a broadcloth cape, which she clearly saw as an early form of the kiymeshek:

"The further description [of Muravin] leads us to conclude that women wore this headgear above their cover or cloak, which covered the chest and hung down the back with the corner pointing downwards ..."
When commenting on Rossikova's observations about a qızıl kiymeshek in 1901, Morozova concludes that the kiymeshek: "had transformed from a heavy broadcloth cloak to a light cover from silk which more closely resembled headgear than outer clothing."

In fact Muravin's description relates to an uramal, not a cloak. In discussing Qazaq and Karakalpak women's costumes he makes it clear that they placed an uramal above the shevkeli and the kasava, which was wound down under the chin and then hung back in the manner of a kasynya. Unfortunately Muravin does not describe the latter item of Russian costume. In modern Russian, a kosynka is a kerchief that covers the head and shoulders. However he does not suggest that the uramal covered the chest or that it had a pointed kiymeshek-like tail.

Nina Lobacheva has recently argued that many items of Karakalpak and Qazaq costume, including the kiymeshek, might be traced back to the Qipchaqs, a western branch of the Turkic Qimek confederation. Lobacheva is a Russian academician who studied under Tolstov and Zhdanko and specializes in Central Asian costume. The Qipchaqs arrived in the Aral region from the Irtysh River region of western Siberia in the 10th century and eventually assimilated all of the other neighbouring tribes. Many Qipchaqs continued migrating westwards, settling in southern Russia and the Ukraine as well as Hungary.

The Rus referred to the Qipchaqs who migrated into southern Russia and the Ukraine in the 12th century as Polovtsy or Polovets. The latter left behind many stone statues, which have been studied in detail by Svetlana Pletneva, a specialist in Polovets history. Some statues depict women wearing early forms of cone-shaped saukele-type headdresses with a rear tail or plait cover, and others with a cape covering the upper breast and arms. Lobacheva has proposed that the folk belief that a woman could be harmed through her hair may have originated with the Qipchaqs and that these early capes and plait covers may have eventually evolved into the Qazaq and Karakalpak kiymeshek, as well as other similar garments.

Illustrations of various Polovtsy babas showing shoulder capes.
From Pletneva, 1974.

The Polovets stone statues or babas provide important evidence about the widespread use of plait covers, elaborate headdresses, and tunics by the inhabitants of the southern Russian steppes west of the Volga in the 12th century. Yet the idea that the Polovets shoulder cape would eventually evolve into the kimeshek seems far from convincing.

Polovets babas
Polovtsy stone babas displayed at Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky, Kyiv Oblast, The Ukraine.

We must remember that the Polovets costume depicted in these statues is that of a localized and possibly derivative culture, formed through ethnic mixing between the Qipchaqs, who entered the region in the 10th century, and the endemic population of Alans, Bulghars, Pechenegs, and Oghuz, under the influence of the Kievan Rus. Rabinovich has previously noted that the custom of a bride completely covering her hair was already prevalent among the southern Rus as early as the 9th century.

We already have clear evidence that high-status women in nomadic societies wore headdresses that concealed the hair, but not the face, as early as the Scythian and Saka from 4th century BC archaeological finds in the Ukraine and the Altai – see Origins of the Sa'wkele. We also know from an early miniature illustration in the Radzivill annals that the Polovets (Qipchaq) warriors who battled against the Rus in the 10th century wore a bashliq cap, somewhat similar to the Saka felt cap with ear and nape covers. It possibly indicates a remarkable degree of continuity in nomadic costume over this period.

However female head veils seem to have gone out of fashion among the western Asian nomads during the first millennium, as witnessed among the Jety Asar, direct descendants of the Apasiaks. This is particularly noticeable following the arrival of the Turks. In the early 10th century, Ibn Fadlan found that Oghuz and Bashkir women went unveiled. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Western observers such as Pian di Carpini and William of Rubruck recorded no such costume among the nomads occupying the Qipchaq steppe. When ibn Battuta visited Anatolia in 1330 he found that the wives of the Seljuk Turks did not practice veiling. In 1334 he too travelled across the Qipchaq steppes to visit Őzbeg Khan on the Volga and discovered that:

"... the womenfolk of the Turks do not veil themselves. Not only royal ladies but also wives of merchants and common people will sit in a wagon drawn by horses. The windows are open and their faces are visible."
If we want to find an origin for the kimeshek, perhaps we need to look at developments in the settled rather than the nomadic world.

A Short History of Veiling up to the 16th Century

It is likely that the ritual of covering the head or hair of women of childbearing age with cloth has pre-historic origins – perhaps it was introduced by the early linen weavers of the Fertile Crescent. Fadwa El Guindi has recently pointed out that on anthropological grounds, the practice may well have developed independently in different societies at different times. The reasons behind this ritual seem to be many - to communicate high social status, marriage, sexual non-availability, sexual submission, sexual innocence, religious devotion, religious submission, seclusion, individual privacy, and protection from envy.

Having said this, there does seem to be a major Near Eastern locus concerning the evolution of head veiling. The ritual of covering the head and hair of a bride with a veil appears to have been first recorded in Mesopotamia. Evidence gathered from a string of cuneiform texts shows that the marriage ceremony in third millennium BC Sumeria involved the groom covering or veiling the bride with a piece of cloth. The same act of veiling could also be used to renew or reaffirm a marriage. Indeed, the Sumerian verb for covering or veiling, d u l, eventually developed the same meaning as to marry.

Seated woman with veil
Miniature sculpture of a seated woman wearing a head veil, dated around 2350 - 2250 BC.
The veil drapes over the shoulders and back and may have been typical for women of status in ancient Syria.
Recovered from the Ebla Palace at Tel Mardikh and now held in the Idlib Museum, Idlib, Syria.

The rite of veiling the bride (known as pussumu) was also an important part of the marriage ceremony in Babylonia, as evidenced by Karel Van der Toorn.

In the second millennium the neighbouring Hittites may have adopted the same practice. Two Old Hittite teracotta relief vases found at Inandik and Bitik, close to Ankara, depict possible marriage ceremonies. In the first a bride and groom sit on the marriage bed as the husband raises his hand to remove the bride's veil. In the second a cloaked man and woman sit inside a portico, the man having just offered the woman a drink before lifting her veil with his hand.

Detail from the Bitik vase
Unveiling detail from the Bitik teracotta vase, 17th century BC.
Anatolian Civilizations Museum, Ankara.

Maurits van Loon has concluded that in ancient western Asia, "the public part of a wedding probably culminated in the removal of the bridal veil".

Veiling also seems to have been widespread among higher status women in Assyrian society and eventually became regulated under Tiglath Pileser I (1115-1073 BC). German archaeologists discovered his Middle Assyrian Code at Assur in Iraq in 1903, inscribed on 15 clay tablets. Otto Schroeder finally translated these in 1920. The code made it obligatory for women of marriageable age, mothers, and other free women to cover their head with a veil in public, or indeed at home in the presence of non-related males. By contrast prostitutes or unaccompanied slaves were forbidden to veil themselves and penalties for breaching the code were severe. The veil was therefore partly a symbol of status and partly a symbol of a woman's sexual non-availability.

In ancient Greece veiling in public or in the presence of unrelated males ceased to be a practice confined to the elite but extended to women of varying social strata. Girls were veiled from the age of puberty, but at the time of marriage they would don a bridal veil, or kredemnon, which was generally reddish in colour. At the completion of the marriage ceremony the bride was revealed to the wedding party through the ritual known as the unveiling or anakalypteria.

Priestess with kredemnon
Drawing of a priestess wearing a kredemnon.
From a statue in the Giustiniani Gallery, Rome.

In Persia early female fashions are hard to study because of a severe shortage of historical figurative material - official monuments such as Persepolis do not include representations of women. However a number of Achaemenid relief sculptures discovered at the mausoleum or temple of the local Lydian satrap at Daskyleion, close to modern Ergili in Anatolia, show a procession of women on horseback, possibly part of a funeral procession. The women are dressed in a long overgarment which veiled the head and neck but left the face exposed in a similar way to a modern chador:

Achaemenid head veil and cloak
Female rider with cloak-like head veil. Achaemenid period, possibly 5th century BC.
From Mary Houston, 2002.

The so-called "satrap sarcophagus" from Sidon in southern Lebanon, which dates from the late 5th centuty BC, depicts the wife of another local satrap at a banquet, also wearing an all-enveloping cloak covering all but the face:

Achaemenid female cloak
The wife of the satrap on the end panel of the marble "satrap sarcophagus".
Acheamenid period, late 5th century BC. Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul.

Images of women also appear on numerous Achaemenid seals, statues, and figurines. These show some women clothed with partial veils and others crowned without a veil. For example, a 5th century BC chalcedony seal shows an enthroned woman wearing a veil surmounted by a turreted crown. It appears that the Achaemenid veil was not a universal requirement for married women but was a symbol of the status of aristocratic women. A tapestry recovered from a 3rd century BC Pazyryk burial, thought to be Achaemenid, shows a repetitive motif of four women gathered on either side of an incense burner. All four wear pointed crowns, the two in the foreground having long veils suspended over the very back of the crown, falling down their backs to reach their thighs.

Textile from Pazyryk
Four women standing in front of a censer wearing Assyrian costumes, two with long head veils.
From a woollen textile excavated from the Pazyryk tombs in the Altai. Claimed to be 5th century BC, possibly later.

Early Roman costume was influenced not only by the Greeks but also by the Etruscans from southern Italy. From the latter they inherited the tebenna, a rectangular or semicircular shawl that eventually evolved into the toga. This was originally made from coarse undyed wool, but eventually became lighter and decorated with a contrasting border. It seems to have been an almost universal item of costume for women (and for men), worn with one end wrapped over the head.

The tebenna
Women veiling the head with the tebenna.
From a 5th century BC fresco.

In Roman culture a bride was dressed for her wedding in a mantle, part of which was draped over the top of her head. Several Herculanium statues depict this palla or large mantle, draped to cover the back of the head. In the later Imperial Period, 44 BC to 410 AD, the Roman bride wore a large rectangular saffron yellow flammeum. Married women were expected to cover their heads in public as a sign of their marital status. The Roman verb for marrying, nubo, is related to nubes, a cloud, literally "I veil myself". From this comes nupta, a married woman, nova nupta, a bride, nuptiae, the wedding, and of course the English word nuptial. Removal of the veil was seen as a symbol of withdrawing from the marriage and an unveiled married woman received less protection from the law in the event that she was raped or molested.

The ritual of veiling the hair of a married woman became incorporated into both early Jewish and Christian cultures during the period of Roman rule.

Veiled musician
Hellenistic style limestone carving of a veiled Asian female musician from Bactria, Kushan period, approximately 1st century AD.
Excavated from Airtam, Termez, southern Uzbekistan and now in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Tybl hypogea
Sculptures of veiled women in the hypogea or underground necropolis of the Tybl family.
The semi-autonomous Greco-Roman trading city of Tadmor, Palmyra oasis, Syria. 113 AD.

The Byzantine Empire, which evolved out of the Roman Empire, its capital city having been founded by the Emperor Constantine, inherited Roman dress culture along with the practice of veiling. As Dawson has recently pointed out, the history of Byzantine costume is still far from clear, although it does seem that veiling the head with various types of scarves was commonplace at different social levels, although the practice remained entirely voluntary. The veil even became a symbol of sexual innocence or abstinence, placed over the heads of young girls and images of the Virgin Mary.

In Parthian Iran (250BC-224AD), women were also rarely represented in reliefs or sculptures. From the limited material available, women are depicted wearing a Hellenistic style of dress. For example, the "Goddess of Nisa", recovered from the Parthian capital on Nisa, is dressed in a chiton and peplos with a scarf across her chest:

Goddess of Nisa
The white marble "Goddess of Nisa", carved in Hellenistic style from the Parthian capital of Nisa, 2nd century BC.
National Museum of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat.

In other instances women are shown with a veil covering just the back of the head.

Under the Sasanians (224-651AD), the head veil continued to be worn but was far from universal. Women are depicted on silverware plates and flasks wearing a smaller veil or scarf falling in narrow folds to just below the shoulder blades or simply draped around the neck like a collar. In the 3rd century AD wealthy and powerful women as well as ordinary commoners are depicted wearing head shawls either fastened at the shoulder or draped over the head. However many women are shown with their hair uncovered.

Sasanian harpist mosaic
Unveiled female harpist. Sasanian floor mosaic from the Iwan of the palace of Shapur I, Bishapur, Iran.
Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Musée du Louvre, Paris. About 260 AD.

Unveiled woman on Sasanian vase
Unveiled woman on a Sasanian painted clay vase. It is not clear if the figure behind is veiled.
Excavated from the Buddhist Stupa, Merv. Probably 5th century AD. National Museum of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat.

One popular female fashion that emerged during the Sasanian period was the bandeau, a pair of long, flowing ribbons fastened to the back of the head with a very large knot.

Sasanian plate
Dish with women wearing head veils and prominent flowing bandeau. Sasanian Iran, possibly 8th century.
Found in Russia at some time before 1843, probably in the Urals. Published by Smirnov. Now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

The emergence of Islam in the 7th century led to major political and economic changes throughout western Asia, including the creation of a huge geographic zone of common culture and international trade. In time it would also lead to the emergence of an almost general style of Islamic dress, albeit with certain regional variations. In the short term however, it had little effect on female costume and veiling.

The Prophet Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca in Arabia in 570. In the last 20 years of his life, before his death in 632, he was inspired by divine messages and visions from which he laid down the foundations of the Islamic faith. These were later encoded in Arabic as the Qur'an, or Recitation (of God), under the supervision of Abu Bakr, the first caliph.

Following Arab unification, Abu Bakr ordered his forces to invade Byzantine Syria before embarking on a major campaign against Sasanian Iran in 633. By 637 Mesopotamia and Iraq were under Arab control and in 642 the main Sasanian army was routed in western Iran. Arab armies moved on to take Seistan before sweeping through Khurasan, progressively taking Nisa, Saraqs, Herat and Merv. Attempts to conquer Byzantium, however, never succeeded. The momentum to subjugate Central Asia took longer to gather, but by 714 the Arab caliphate had extended its rule over both Khorezm and Transoxiana, the Arabs referring to the latter as Mavara'l-nahr or Mawaran-nahr, the lands beyond the river, in other words the Amu Darya. There was strong resistance to Arab rule and to the imposition of Islam throughout these new territories, resulting in a century of rebellion and uprisings. Despite these struggles, local elites were gradually won over and converts were rewarded with tax and other incentives. By 850 most of the towns of Mawaran-nahr and Khorezm had converted to Islam.

Despite the enormous current publicity relating to Islam and veiling, the phenomenon of face veiling seems to have emerged several centuries after the death of Muhammad. In line with neighbouring regions late 6th century Arab custom required both men and women to cover their heads as a mark of modesty and respect, especially when at prayer. This was achieved in a simple manner, either with scarves or by raising a body wrap or mantle over the head.

The Qur'an makes a number of brief comments about dress code. In one it refers to the khimar, instructing female believers to use it to cover their bare breasts. At that time the khimar was probably no more than a headscarf with its ends crossed under the chin and thrown back over the shoulders. The Arabic word khimar simply means cover and its plural is khumur. Verse 31 of the 24th surah of the Qur'an, Surah an-Nur, reads:

"And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their khumur to cover their juyub [breast cleavage], ..."
It seems likely that the khimar may have already been in existence for at least one or two centuries beforehand, since the rayt, a nickname for the khimar, is mentioned in at least one pre-Islamic poem - written by Imru al-Qays, who died in about 550.

The Prophet Muhammad set a higher standard by demanding that his own wives, concubines, and daughters, as well as believers in general, should be veiled to preserve their dignity and status. Verse 59 of the 33rd Surah Al-Ahzaab reads:
"O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their jilbab [long shirtdress] over their persons [when abroad]: that is most convenient, that they should be known [as such] and not molested."
However it seems that it took several centuries for this recommendation to gain widespead support throught the Islamic world. The late Yedida Stillman recently reviewed the phenomena of veiling during the early Islamic period, observing that:
"... strict veiling practices probably evolved as the norm for middle and upper class women over the first two centuries of the Islamic era in the cities and towns of the caliphate, ..."
Unfortunately, there is a major shortage of detailed evidence to track changing fashions over this and subsequent periods up to the 18th century. The majority of surviving written records concentrate on military conquests, religion, geography, and trade, with only minimal references to textiles or costume. We have to rely mainly on examples of figurative art, which is of course subject to artistic licence and was not only produced for the social elite but frequently depicted their life at court and at play. Only rarely do we get a glimpse of the common people. The use of such material is based on the assumption that the costumes portrayed represent the age in which they were painted.

The most serious problem is that we almost face a vacuum of information concerning the fashion of Central Asia prior to the 16th century, probably because of the destruction wrought upon the region by the Mongols, and later on Khorezm and the Golden Horde by Timur. This vacuum not only covers the major centres such as Gurganj, Bukhara and Samarkand, but also extends to the surrounding nomads. Once we reach the 16th century we can refer to the miniature paintings of Mawaran-nahr, produced in Bukhara for the Uzbek Khan Shaybani and his successors. The assumption, at least for the settled population, is that up to this time western Central Asian fashions were probably not radically different from those in Khurasan, which was seen as the regional arbiter of good taste and fashion.

Located in Damascus the Umayyad caliphate, 656-750, was heavily influenced by the culture of Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Muslim elite quickly abandoned the Prophet's commitment to austerity and modesty in favour of a life of luxury and indulgence, with a lifestyle modelled on the imperial culture of the Sasanians and Byzantines. The few surviving images of women during this period - for example in the Byzantine murals at Qusayr 'Amra in Jordan - show them in various stages of dress and undress, with only a few wearing headscarves and only a minority face veils. However it is likely that many of the more exposed women are dancers or slave girls depicted in the Dionysian tradition:

Fresco from Qusayr 'Amra
Bare-breasted and unveiled female depicted in a fresco at Qusayr 'Amra. First half of the 8th century.
The desert castle was commisioned by the Umayyad caliph, the frescos possibly having been painted by Coptic artisans.

However other female figures depicted in the frescos wear full length dresses and head veils that fall below the shoulders:

Fresco from Qusayr 'Amra
A more conservatively dressed woman with a head veil depicted at Qusayr 'Amra.

To what extent these latter fashions represent the costumes actually worn throughout the wider caliphate is impossible to judge. However the frescoes at Qusayr 'Amra do point towards a much more liberal mentality among the ruling elite of the time. Nonetheless stricter forms of female veiling had clearly not disappeared. One indication is provided from the palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi in Syria, south-west of Palmyra, and redeveloped by the caliph Hisham in 727. It contains murals combining Sasanid, Byzantine, and Syrian styles. One depicts a woman's headdress consisting of a turban wound with a length of material surrounding the face, which could also serve as a veil. We can find no similar example among the limited number of depictions of Sasanian women dating from that period.

Veiling seems to have become a far more established practice for high-status women under the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), which relocated to Baghdad in 762. As such, the caliphate came under the increasing influence of Sasanian Iran, although it still maintained cultural contacts with Egypt and Byzantium. However the emphasis on veiling still seems to have taken some time to emerge.

Female dancers from Jausaq al-Khagani
Painting reconstructing the image of unveiled female dancers depicted in a fresco from Jausaq al-Khagani, Samarra, Iraq.
Early Abbasid period, about 836-839. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul.

During the 9th and 10th centuries the court of the caliphate became increasingly fashion-conscious - a trend that became even stronger in neighbouring Egypt under the Fatimid dynasty. Al-Muqaddasi noted that the people of al-Iraq like to dress well. The Baghdad writer Abu i-Tayyib Muhammad al-Washsha, who died in 936, published Kitab al-Muwashsha' aw al-zarf wa-l-Zurafa', the "Book of Ornamentaion on Elegance and Elegant People" describing the outdoor clothing of a fashionable woman. This included the mi'jar, a cloth wrapped around the head, and the miqna' or miqna'a, a simple rectangle or semicircle of netting covering the face and falling to the shoulders, in some cases being gathered below the chin. He was particularly impressed with the miqna'a face veils of Nishapur.

This trend towards increased veiling was not a phenomena restricted to the Islamic world since it also occurred across Christian Europe. The popularity of head veiling steadily increased from the 7th century onwards. In the 10th century the headrail became fashionable, a long shawl that was draped over the head, wrapped around the neck and passed over the shoulder. The wimple or couvrechef is first recorded in the 12th century and was worn under a large rectangular head veil. The barbette and the gorget neck cover appeared about the same time. By the 13th century the rectangular veil or peplum worn over a wimple had almost become universal. Possible reasons for these common trends were the strong influence of Byzantine fashion on both the West and the Near East and, after the 11th century, descriptions of Muslim fashions brought back to Europe by the returning crusaders.

Early Medieval European women's head veils
European female headdresses from the mid-13th century.
Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, a Hebrew version of the Old Testament, probably painted in Paris in about 1250.
The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

The creation of the semi-autonomous Samanid state in 900, with its capital in Bukhara, marked the end of Arab rule in Central Asia and created closer ties between Khurasan and Mawaran-nahr that lasted throughout the entire 10th century. The Samanids created a strong, partly centralized, partly federal state that provided stability and encouraged craftsmanship and trade. In 921 it was possible for an Islamic embassy representing the caliph Muqtadir to pass from Baghdad, through Khurasan to Bukhara and then into Khorezm before venturing on to the Volga. The King of the Volga Bulghars wanted to create an Islamic state as a bulwark against the Khazars and required assistance. Ahmed ibn Fadlan, the secretary to the embassy, coped well in Bukhara and Gurganj apart from the cold. However he recorded that the nomadic Turks between Khorezm and the Volga, such as the Oghuz and the Bashkirs, showed little modesty and that their women went unveiled. On the Volga he bemoaned that his unceasing attempts to encourage the women to veil themselves in public proved fruitless. Sadly he left no account of the veiling fashions of the women of Bukhara or Gurganj.

The 10th century authors provide some indication of the widespread production of kerchiefs, shawls, and veils throughout the Islamic world, including parts of western Central Asia. Al-Muqaddasi recorded that Merv, Jurjan in northern Iran, and al-Askar in Khuzistan specialized in the production of silk veils, some for export to Baghdad and the Yemen. In Khorezm they produced veils of malham as well as cowl head covers. Veils also came from Ramla, the capital of Palestine, Nishapur, and Siraf in Fars, the latter making them from linen. The Hudûd al-Âlam (982) records that burqa' were made in the borough of Baylaqan in Arran, today part of Azerbaijan. Writing sometime before 1224, Yakut mentions Sarakhs as another important centre.

Records discovered in Egypt suggest that there were by now a whole plethora of different types of head coverings and face veils. During the last century some 750 bridal dowry lists that were once appended to marriage contracts were restored from fragments discovered in the geniza or storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) and the cemetery of Basatin. They have provided us with a rich source of information on the costume of Jewish newly wed brides, and by inference, Egyptian middle-class women in general.

Geniza dowry list
A dowry list from the Cairo geniza.

They mainly date from the Egyptian Fatimid (909-1171) and Ayyubid (1171-1250) periods. More than half of the names of the items of costume listed relate to veils and head coverings. Admittedly the majority are face veils, the most common being:

  • niqab, one of the most common items for outdoor wear, a mask-like face veil that covered the whole face with two holes for the eyes,
  • miqna'a, a black net or mesh, covering the entire face,
  • qina', a wider version of a miqna’a,
  • burqu’, a cloth which covered the face below the eyes,
  • sha'riyya, a short horse-hair or goat wool net, covering the upper face to just below the eyes,
However there were also many head veils, named according to how they were draped or wound. Two were arranged so that they appeared like a wimple- or cowl-like garment, covering the hair, shoulders and breast:
  • mandil, a kerchief or head veil,
  • mi'jar, a piece of cloth to be wound around the head,
  • khimar, a headscarf that was crossed below the chin,
  • bukhnuq, a wimple-like cape, covering the hair, shoulders and breast,
  • waqiyya, a headband to hold the hair in place.
The late Shelomo Gotein observed that the cost of a set of these bridal headdresses was between three to five times higher than the cost of the finest costumes.

However such veiling may not have been universal. An image from a Persian ceramic bowl dating from the early 13th century depicts five unveiled women (along with one man) with long plaited hair. They wear only narrow head bands or diadems with a central teardrop-shaped ornament:

Detail of a lustre-painted fritware bowl
Detail of a lustre-painted fritware bowl, Iran, 1211-12.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Fortunately from the 13th century onwards we finally gain access to manuscripts produced in Iran and Iraq with miniature paintings that depict some of the garments listed above, although the terms used to describe them are never given. However this was a crucial time when the whole region was thrown into chaos by the Mongol conquest. Before viewing some of these images we first need to consider the impact of Mongol rule on costume and culture.

Chinggis Khan overwhelmed Mawaran-nahr and Khorezm in 1221, leaving their governance after his death to Chaghatay and Jochi's son Batu respectively. Later, in 1258, Chinggis's grandson Hulägu gained overall control of northern Iran and Iraq , although the emerging power of the Mamluks in Egypt prevented him from securing Syria.

As we have already shown in our work on the sa'wkele, female headdresses at the nomadic Mongol court of the Khanate of Qipchaq on the Volga were very different from anything previously seen in the court of the caliphate. Mongol aristocratic married women never veiled themselves, although they did completely conceal their hair under the boghtaq headdress. In 1253-55 William of Rubruck observed that on the day after a woman was married she shaved off her hair from the middle of her head to her forehead. She gathered the rest of her hair in a knot and stuffed it into the top of the bogtagh. Ibn Batutta witnessed the same headdresses in 1334 at Sultan Őzbeg's court, also on the Volga.

The court of the Golden Horde maintained its Mongol heritage for over a century by isolating itself from the surrounding sedentary centres. Yet in the cities and wider steppes of Central Asia the indigenous populations retained their pre-Mongol traditions. Thus when ibn Batutta journeyed from the Volga to Khorezm, in the eastern part of the Khanate of Qipchaq, he encountered the Amir Qutlugh Timur's wife in the open wearing not a boghtaq but a veil across her head. It is likely that the women of Khorezm were influenced not by Mongol but by neighbouring Khurasan fashions, although the Mongols did introduce Chinese textiles and Chinese motifs.

Our one insight into Central Asian female costume at this time is provided by Li Chih-chang, the follower of an elderly Taoist monk K'iu Ch'ang Ch'un, who travelled from China to Samarkand in 1221 accompanied by 18 other disciples following an invitation to meet Chinggis Khan. Li Chih-chang observed that both the men and women of Ho chung (Samarkand) braided their hair. High-status women enveloped their heads with a black or dark red gauze, five to six feet long, frequently embroidered. Ordinary women covered their heads with linen [probably cotton] and other stuff, "and thus bear some resemblance to our [Buddhist] nuns."

Over time the Mongol aristocracy that remained in Central Asia became inevitably assimilated into local Turkic culture, adopting Islam along the way. Although Ruy Gonzÿlez de Clavijo witnessed the Great Khanum wearing a headdress of ridiculously large proportions clearly modelled on the Mongol bogtagh when he visited Timur in Samarkand in 1403, it is likely that this was no more than a piece of theatre designed to reinforce Timur's claims of Chinggisid decent. This would not have been an item of costume worn by the wealthy women of Samarkand.

Likewise the Mongol Il-Khanate of Iran ruled from a nomadic court, upholding Mongol law and customs. Fourteenth century illustrations show that the boghtaq was worn extensively by aristocratic Mongol women. We know for example that Arghun Khan (1284-91) signalled his acceptance of Tudai Qatun as his wife by placing a boghtaq on her head. However over time the aristocracy of the Il-Khanate were converted to Islam and encouraged to adopt traditional Persian ways, sometimes leading to internal tensions. In fact Persian urban culture rebounded quickly after the initial Mongol destruction, enjoying a strong revival and in some cases adopting imported East Asian themes. The subsequent conversion of the Mongol hierarchy to Islam led to a renewed commitment to traditional Persian religion and culture.

In the field of fashion Hermann Goetz believed that 13th century Iranian women's costumes and head veils remained essentially unchanged from pre-Mongol times, except that more parts of the body were covered using more garments, including an all-enveloping cloak. One feature of the period was that the headscarf was closely drawn about the chin and the shoulders.

One of the earliest illustrations of female face veils shows a row of wealthy women, in the gallery of a mosque, wearing niqab and miqna'a-like garments, with their colourful cloaks pulled over their heads and wrapped tightly around them:

Listening to the theologian
"Listening to the theologian" by Maqamat al-Hari, probably Iraq, dated 1237.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Manuscript Arabe 5847, f.58v.

Another early illustration referred to by Jennifer Scarce is from a mid-13th century miniature showing scenes of daily court life, with men and women wearing both indoor and outdoor dress. Inside the court the women wear their hair in four or more long thick plaits, their hair uncovered apart from striped or plain round-topped head wrappers. Outdoor pictures show the women covered in cloaks with brightly coloured shawls wrapped around the top of their heads and then drawn over their lower face to be tucked in at the side, leaving only an opening for the eyes:

Detail taken from the Frontispiece of the Kitab al-diriyak
Detail taken from the Frontispiece of the Kitab al-diriyak, Mosul, Iraq, mid-13th century.
Ősterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Scarce also refers to a 13th century illustration from al-Tabari's Annals of the Apostles and Kings, showing three women wearing white, khimar- or bukhnuq-like cloaks, worn over a white veil extending from nose to chin. They cover the head and wrap tightly around the face, falling over the shoulders and arms.

An early 14th century miniature from Tabriz in northern Iran shows fine details of a number of similar khimar-like head veils, made from long rectangular scarves with decorated or fringed ends. One end is pulled across the breast, wound tightly around the head, crossed again under the chin and then folded over the head so that the other end hangs over the shoulder like a cape. The result is remarkably similar in appearance to a modern kimeshek, although it is not of course a tailored garment:

Detail from the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad
Detail from the "Birth of the Prophet Muhammad", miniature from the manuscript of the Jami' al-Tavarikh,
or Compendium of Chronicles, by Rashid al-Din, Tabriz, c. 1314/15.
Edinburgh University Library.

Another illustration from the same period, this time from Shiraz in the southwest, shows the same garment, although in this instance modelled by a man!

Bahram Chubina wears the woman's clothes sent by Hurmuzd
"Bahram Chubina wears the woman's clothes sent by Hurmuzd",
from a copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), Shiraz, 1333.
National Library of Russia, St Petersburg.

This style of headdress seems to have been particularly popular in Iran in the 14th century. A second example from Shiraz shows two women wearing headscarves with a decorative border, although the milkmaid wears just a plain white one:

Bahram Gur in the peasant's house
"Bahram Gur in the peasant's house", from a copy of the Shahnama made by al-Mawsili, Shiraz, 1341.
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

A third example shows a woman in public with the headscarf wound so that it covers not only the sides of the face but also the mouth and chin:

Rustam Saves Bizhan from the well
"Rustam Saves Bizhan from the well", copy of the Shahnama by Ali b. Husayni Bahmani, Shiraz, 1330.
Location unknown.

A popular style of khimar during the first half of the 14th century involved the use of a translucent shawl, revealing the hair, neck, and upper bosom. Such head veils were only used inside the home. A miniature from Tabriz shows three khimar-like veils made from transparent gauze, so thin that the women's plaited hairstyles and necklines of their coats can be plainly seen. Of course this is a domestic scene with no need for public veiling. It depicts Sindukht, the queen of Kabul, with her hand raised in reproach against her kneeling daughter, Rudaba. The maid stands at the back, dressed in black.

Sindukht becoming aware of Rudaba's actions
"Sindukht becoming aware of Rudaba's actions", from another copy of the Shahnama, probably Tabriz, 1330s.
Arthur M. Sacker Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

A slightly earlier example, also from Tabriz, clearly shows one edge of the head veil hanging down from the head and falling over the part that is stretched across the breast. Both head veils are surmounted by frontal headbands:

Jacob's two wives: Leah and Rachel
"Jacob’s two wives: Leah and Rachel", from the famous copy of Rashid ad-Din's Jami' al-Tawriikh, Tabriz, dated 1314-15.
The Nasser David Khalili Collection.

The transparent head veil seems to have maintained its popularity into the 15th century, as this miniature from the controversial Jules Mohl copy of the Shahnama shows:

Haftvad's daughter spinning in the garden
"Haftvad's daughter spinning in the garden", Jules Mohl Manuscript of the Shahnama, possibly Delhi Sultanate, 1438.
The British Library, London.

Our final 14th century illustration shows a different wimple-like style of head veiling, with just a short scarf wrapped under the chin, surmounted with a turban-like head wrapper.

Zahhak Enthroned
The serpent-shouldered "Zahhak Enthroned", from a copy of Firdausi's Shahnama, copied in Shiraz, 1352.
Present location unknown.

During the Timurid period a new feature emerged around the middle of the 15th century – the head veil became secured by a type of bandeau tied around the forehead, with the ends tied behind the head and left hanging loose down to the neck:

The birth of Iraj's daughter
"The birth of Iraj's daughter", Salik b. Sa'id copy of the Shahnama, Lahijan, Gilan Province,1494.
Turk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi, Istanbul.

Later the veil became shorter, covering only the top half of the back of the head, held in place by a double bandeau. As the century progressed the head veil slowly went out of fashion, women preferring to go bare-headed, at least indoors.

Interestingly most of the paintings we have seen so far show women with their heads covered but their faces unveiled. It seems that in Mamluk Egypt the face veil was more common. During the reign of Sultan Ibn Qalawun in the early part of the Mamluk period, 1250-1517, veiling the head, face, and body was a symbol of status and respectability for all upper and middle class urban women. The niqab, miqna'a and qina' were essential items of dress and even commoners wore the niqab and burqu'. Costumes for the elite were lavish and high-status women wore the finest veils. According to Leo Mayer the sight of a woman in public without a face veil was seen as a sign of great distress. He classified face veils into three types: a black net covering the face, the same but with holes for the eyes, and a white or black veil covering the lower face up to the eyes.

Three 14th/15th century Mamluk veils have been excavated from the Red Sea port of Quseir al-Qadim and the Nile site of Qasr Ibrim in southern Egypt. One resembles the burqu', consisting of a headband and a lower face veil suspended so as to leave openings for the eyes and a ridge over the nose.

We can conclude that the khimar-like head veil, along with many other related garments, seems to have been remarkably common and widespread in Iran, Iraq, and Egypt for a quarter of a millennium up to the end of the 15th century. Changing fashions have meant that the style of wearing the head veil, and the textiles used for it, have progressively evolved, but the basic structure and overall appearance has remained the same.


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Visit our sister site, which uses the correct transliteration, Qaraqalpaq, rather than the Russian transliteration, Karakalpak.

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