Garments of Assyria: Documenting and Safeguarding an Endangered Tradition

Assyrian folk garments or traditional clothes are tangible cultural assets that are rich in symbolism and constitute integral elements of the rich tapestry of Assyria’s cultural heritage. For many Assyrians, these garments are not simply functional or ornamental but are valued carriers of indigenous identity and continuity, as well as a form of cultural expression. Assyrian weavers, as well as dyers, and artisanal makers have traditionally employed cotton, silk, wool, and other natural fibres in a variety of techniques and treatments to produce textiles, such as, garments and rugs, of distinctive and exceptional merit. Decorative motifs, and artistic elements, such as, embroidery, are commonly inspired by the landscape, flora, fauna, historical and sacred contexts— as well as storytelling.

The Bridge Between Generations and Peoples

Traditional garment making can be seen as a form of cultural inheritance, and thus, a product of intergenerational transmission, that is, knowledge and experiences that are passed down from generation to generation. It is important to highlight that, Assyrian garments are infused with unique elements or characteristics. These cultural assets, vary, depending on region, clan affiliation, and have historically influenced and been influenced by neighbouring dominant societies as well. Contrasting geo-political conditions have also influenced the evolution of such garments, fostering a variety of colours, patterns, and styles dating back to the days of the Silk Road.

An Endangered Tradition

By the nineteenth century, several factors prompted the decline of traditional garment making. This was most probably a result of the Ottoman Empire’s economic trade agreements with European markets that popularised mechanised tools and imported materials. Such agreements, unfortunately, came with devastating consequences to laborious textile crafts. For instance, the number of textile looms in the empire decreased exponentially, particularly in major cities where most Assyrians and other population groups were concentrated. Traditional textile making was further crippled by the poignant aftermath of genocide, persecution, and oppression in the ensuing centuries. These circumstances not only provoked the uprooting of the Assyrians and the dispossession of their native lands, but also led to loss of local resources, traditional knowledge, skills, and materials— the effects of which are felt to this day.

Today, traditional garment making is confronted with new challenges, namely, globalisation and its homogenising influence on indigenous societies. On the one hand, globalisation may bring about new opportunities, however, on the other, it may also atrophy cultural uniqueness, identity, and memory. This is particularly true for those traditional communities which are exposed to rapid modernisation and urbanisation policies based on outside models and not adapted to their unique cultural contexts. Indeed, a society's culture is neither static nor unchanging. In fact, culture is in a constant state of flux, influencing and being influenced. Prioritising the documentation of Assyrian folk garments and traditional garment making is not to confine it conservatively, but to invest in the social and economic development of indigenous Assyrians, as well as maintain this rich heritage for present and future generations.

Project: Garments of Assyria

Project Title: Garments of Assyria

Project Year: 2022–2023

Project Amount: $6,000

Project Summary: Garments of Assyria is the title of a forthcoming initiative spearheaded by ACSYA Inc. The objective of this initiative is to produce an e-book that shall serve as a visual repository— illustrating the rich tapestry of Assyria’s cultural heritage. This work shall present traditional articles of clothing, including embellishments, historical images, and diagrams. The images shall consist of professional studio photography, on-location imagery of indigenous Assyrians in their traditional environments, as well as museum-style shots of jewellery and other accessories. This project shall consist of three phases: acquisition, documentation, and publication. The final product shall be published online and will serve as a frame of reference for archivists, researchers, and traditional garment makers.

Status: Pending

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