The luxurious Assyrian Costumes. Ways, Manners and Dress.

Paul Louis de Giafferri, Assyria, luxurious, Assyrian, Costumes, Mesopotamia
The History of the Feminine Costume of the World. The Luxurious Assyrian Costumes. Paul Louis de Giafferri.

The Assyrians

by Paul Louis de Giafferri.

Plate 1. Fashionable Ladies.

Plate 2. Dresses.

Plate 3. Blouses and Ensembles.

Plate 4. Dresses, Coats and Shawls.

Plate 5. Skirts.

Plate 6. Sleeves.

Plate 7. Coiffures, Hats.

Plate 8. Materials.

Plate 9. Footwear.

Plate 10. Jewels, Adornments.

Marquis Paul Louis Victor de Giafferri was a costume historian and the author of works on the history of “textiles”. In the 1920s he described male costumes, but later especially those of women of all periods in France and various parts of the world, including Japan, China, Persia, Assyria, Greece, Egypt, India, the East, the countries of the North, the three Americas, and so on. The books were all published in France, only some were translated and published in English.


It is necessary, in order to understand the origin of Assyrian costume, and the influences and modifications which it has undergone, to study the way in which this vast empire was formed and to know above all the countries which have suffered from its ravages in the first place, and its influence afterwards.

Like the Turks, the Assyrians have above all been conquerors, invaders, and formidable warriors, with the consequence that, excepting the Amazons, their women have been doomed to strict seclusion and enforced inactivity. Later, as they became richer through their conquest, their wealth mad’e them grow calmer and they developed peaceful tastes. The Assyrian-Chaldean people built immense and splendid cities such as Nineveh and Babylon, of which only ruins now remain, although of great beauty. (The hanging gardens of Babylon are famous; the palaces and temples of Semiramis, queen of Nineveh are superb, and it is this queen Semiramis whom our operas have made famous who, in encouraging Assyrian art, has introduced the refined taste of woman.)

In ancient Assyria (of which the greater part, divided up and diminished, became Persian dominions) we have wished to include first of all Chaldea, a biblical land, inhabited by one of the oldest peoples in the world, among whom one finds all the personages of the Old testament (Abraham was born at Ur); and it was in Armenia, on Mount Ararat, that Noah’s ark touched ground. Assyria is also included in our Vol. V; Syria, or the country of Canaan, Palestine, the kingdom of the Jews, Phoenicia, Sidon, Tyre, and Biblos, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Mecca, and finally Susiana and the city of Susa, of which our archaeologist Dieulafoy found the ruins. Then we must say a few words about the Phoenician colonies such as: Sicily, Corsica, Genoa, Venice, Sardinia, etc.; from the point of view of greatest antiquity, but with which we will deal more extensively in the volume which is devoted to them separately.


The descendants of Ham inhabited the land afterwards known as Syria, and became the Canaanite race; while the sons of Shem founded the Assyrian and the Semitic races.

The Canaanites

The eleven tribes of Ham have played a considerable part in the history of humanity. They occupied the Mediterranean plains, the banks of the Tigris, and from Arabia extended to the Caucasus, according to the Bible; a fact which was noted some thousands of years later by Herodotus and Strabo.
We have the approximate date of: their existence recorded in an inscription in Egypt of about 2.400 years before our era, when an Egyptian officer was sent by Pharaoh Sephres into Syria to explore the country. No mention of those tribes is made in the report. On the other hand the Bible tells us that at the time when Abraham went to Palestine, that is to say about the 20th century B. C., the Canaanites were already inhabiting the country. The regions of Lebanon were thus occupied by them about the years 2300 or 2100 before the Christian era. The tribes were subdued in turn by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Hebrews, and the Romans, and left few traces of their artistic life.


Other Canaanites were mariners and took the name of Phoenicians. They were the true forerunners of commercial travelers. They established the union between the East and the West. Their mountains, covered with valuable forests, led them to construct vessels and their country became a veritable storehouse of merchandise. They were the first to construct houses of nine stores.

Their towns were like hives, in which women and workmen wove cloths, made them up, and all at once a swarm sallied forth on a cruise and settled at some point on the Mediterranean; thus we find them in colonies with their families at Tripoli, at Beirut, at Sidon, at Byblos. Traces of them are still found at Tyre. Their centre of operations was Tripoli, where there was no king invested with great authority, for a republican spirit prevailed in Phoenicia. Only their medals reveal the names and the profiles of these President-Kings.


The Phoenicians believed in the Sun-God Baal, principle of life, and another god was Astarte, or night. Their manners were dissolute, similar to those of modern Malabar.
At the fêtes of Astarte especially, women danced and gave themselves to the public. The court of the Phoenicians seems to have been closed to any generous emotion, and the courtiers sensible only to their interests, their own well-being, coquetry, and material enjoyments; the curse resting upon the children of Noah being affirmed in them, his descendants.


It must be pointed out that the arts of the Phoenicians are above all utilitarian. Their architecture is devoted to dykes, aqueducts, etc. It was they who commenced the construction of the temple of Jerusalem. Round their temples they placed long porticoes and enormous cylinders of stone, which are important as regards costume, because these blocks of stone were always adorned with bas-reliefs and human figures, in the style of the Vendome Column. As for their tombs, the walls of the chambers are ornamented with sculpture.
Their artisans executed an enormous number of statuettes in terra-cotta and in bronze, as well as household utensils of pottery etc. in great quantities, and exported them largely; but the real artists were chiefly the goldsmiths, engravers, and Phoenician decorators, weavers, and spinners.
Having colonized the island of Cyprus, the Phoenicians obtained copper from there for their utensils, ornaments, and the jewels of their women. M. de Vogue made some most interesting discoveries in that island.


The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, used for commercial transactions. The Phoenicians were then established at Thasos and exploited gold et silver mines in the islands to the South of Greece. They founded the cities afterwards known as Byzantium or Constantinople, and Phocea or Marseilles, and they established themselves in Cilicia, Rhodes, Crete, Corsica, Sicily, etc. In the third period, a conqueror from Tyre made an expedition, subdued Spain, passed into Gaul, founded Alesia and returned through Italy about the year 1100 B. C. But instead of shedding blood, this Phoenician spread civilization. The colonies of the 3rd period were founded between the 10th and 6th century B.C. They were veritable commercial exchanges which the Portuguese were to reorganize 25 centuries later. When we read in the Bible of the voyage of Jonah, it was in a Phoenician vessel that he embarked. All the facts above stated are supported by indisputable documents, and the results of explorations made in the various places.


One of their best colonies was Sicily, where they founded the city known afterwards as Irapanie. Then they established themselves in Sardinia, and founded Cagliari, and then in Corsica, founding, without doubt, Ajaccio, the city of Ajax; but six centuries before our era, only ruins remained of the towns they built on the heights. They had been expelled by the Phococeans (from Phococea, a Greek city of Asia Minor, destroyed by the Persians). The Phoenicians then, it is believed, founded Nimes, exploited the mines of Morvan, traversed Gaul, and appear to have established themselves at Karnack in Britanny. In Spain, however, most of all, they overran the country, exploited the mines, and increased their wealth. Eventually they established themselves at several points in North Africa.


While the ark, bearing within it the patriarch Noah, his sons, family, and domestic animals, touched ground at Mount Ararat, in Armenia, its occupents were far from imagining what would follow after their generation, that the water flowing under their feet would form the beds of two of the greatest rivers of the world, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which, descending from the snow-covered summits, would run eternally; at first side by side, then in two opposite directions, and eventually would join together to discharge their waters into the sea, at the Persian Gulf. So also peoples with different destinies such as the Hebrew tribes, were to follow the course of these rivers and eventually rejoin one another on the Mediterranean.


Between these rivers, an immense territory extends, the cradle of civilization, and which formed part of the empires of Chaldea and Assyria. This was Mesopotamia. The impetuous Euphrates leaps from waterfall to waterfall, and after leaving the mountains it flows widely and peacefully through Chaldea near to Babylon, now in ruins. The Tigris leaves its rocks from three springs forming lakes, and its course is rapid until it reaches the sea and is so deep that in our own times boats sail on it from Mosul, and steamers from Baghdad.

There the two rivers approach one another and intermingle through canals. The immense expanse of land between two rivers where they are parallel, is Mesopotamia, so called by the Greeks, and known to the Arabs as “the fertile island” or “Aldjezire”. All this land was prosperous when Europe was still barbarous, the Greeks eating acorns, and the ancestors of the Romans were not even in existence: while the women of Nineveh and Babylon
revealed in luxury.

Assyria forms another plain, surrounded by mountains and rocks, with the same climate and fertile soil as Chaldea and Egypt, thanks to an immense supply of labour and to their intelligent systems of waterworks. Some trees are found, walnut, plane trees, oaks, sycamores, the wood of which served to make boxes to hold clothing and jewels.


An important fact which seems to have only a far-off connection with costume, is that their quarries yielded soft sandstone, alabaster, and marble. These stones broke away in flat pieces, and on the tablets so formed the Assyrians cut bas-reliefs, thanks to which we can retrace their costumes. They had also copper, lead, and silver mines. We find all these metals in feminine adornments, in the
form of jewels and ornaments.

The Assyrian deserts shelter lions, leopards, gazelles, buffaloes, hares, bears, deer, wild goats, and skins of these animals are found in various parts of the costumes. They had ostriches which supplied feathers, and porcupines whose quills were used in weaving and in dresses.


A Chaldean legend says that according to their priests they had kings for 30,000 years; which is long, but undoubtedly it is one of the most ancient kingdoms of the world, and perhaps the earliest one. In any case, after explorations in the ruins dating from over three thousand years before the Christian era, one can find that the Chaldeans were growing wheat, made terra-cotta models, worked metals, made jewels.

They knew the art of writing, and how to draw, and if they had no spinning mills they at least had weavers at their homes. They wore very complete costumes, built towns and monuments, and in short were as civilized as w e are at the present day.


Houses and palaces were built of unburnt bricks, which disintegrated and left mounds of earth in many
places, and it is thus that explorers having had the idea of making searches there, discovered towns. They have thus reconstituted in the low er Euphrates a dozen of towns long disappeared, which we will mention as their names will often occur in this work. They are Our, Eridon, Ourouk, Larsam, Sirtella, and then between the Euphrates and the Tigris, Nippur, Sippar, Agade, and Babylon.


Each town had its temple and its high priest, who was at the same time governor or satrap. The most ancient town is Urea, where during two thousand years kings followed one another, as is shown on the Chaldean cylinders. Chaldea was conquered towards the 23rd century B. C. by the kings of Elam, which afterwards became Suziane, and later was invaded by the Kurds. A French explorer, M. de Sarzec *), discovered there in 1878 the ruins of a palace 53 meters long, 31 wide, with its women’s apartments, its towers, and its walls of bricks cemented with bitumen. The name of King Gudea is inscribed on each brick. Two tombs, and nine statues, were disinterred and permit us to form an exact idea of the costume of those times. These statues are of alabaster, ivory, bronze, and one of the women wears a large robe.

*) Gustave Charles Ernest Chocquin (who took the name Sarzec after buying the castle of Sarzec, in Montamisé, in 1880) was a French diplomat and archaeologist born in Rennes on 11 August 1832, died in Poitiers on 31 May 1901.


To the North of Chaldea is situated the kingdom of Assur, in the valley of the Tigris, cradle of the true Assyrians, a poor and warlike people. Into this empire there came, no one knows whence, but doubtless from the Caucasus, some extraordinary women knows as the Amazons, who, intermixing with the Assyrian women, may have made of the latter warriors equal to men.
Their city was Assur, or El Assar, midway between Nineveh and Babylon. In the remotest times, it was a king-priest who led them, a tributary of the kings of Babylon. He organized an army of foot-soldiers and called himself King of the Legions, and made conquest his business. Thus this epoch was almost devoid of any arts.


Then there came the legendary Semiramis, the beautiful queen of Babylon, and of king Ninus of Assyria. In 17 years, Ninus conquered all Asia as for as India, and had the strong city of Nineveh built.


But as the Bactrian people, at the west of the Indus, resisted him, be took the field with a million men. There he became acquanited with Semiramis, who it was said, was the daughter of a goddess, abandoned and then fed by doves. She became the wife of one of the governors of the army of Ninus and went on campaign with her husband, a first Joan of Arc, and Semiramis who must have belonged to the race of Amazons, mounts to the assault of the ramparts. Amazed, Ninus carries her off, her husband hangs himself in despair, Ninus marries her, and soon afterwards dies, leaving Semiramis queen of the country.


This energetic woman, who retained all the graces and artistic tastes of her birth, succeeds him, has Babylon reconstructed, and surrounded with 70 kilometres of ramparts, canalises the Euphrates, constructs the temple, lay s out roads, builds towns, goes to Egypt on pilgrimage, but conquers Ethiopia, and departs on an expedition to India. But the king of India, thanks to his elephants, obliges her to retrace her steps. She again cultivates the arts of peace, and one fine day she disappears, and is taken up into heaven in the form of a dove.


It is then that according to Chaldean tradition the pagan deluge occurred: the God Bel, angry at the Crimes of the world, decided to destroy it, but warned the king Xisuthros, who built a ship for himself and his family, painted it with the famous bitumen (called bitumen of Judea) which is found among the Assyrian constructions, and is used in dyeing. The king put his treasure into the vessel, and also specimens of the animals and plants existing, and when the rain ceased and all the w aters fell back, the vessel touched ground, on the summit of Mount Ararat, the king and his family came out, and descended the Chaboras and the Euphrates, to the place destined to become Babylon. They built the tower of Babel, or temple of Belus, of which the ruins still exist; at the place called Borsippa.


One of his successors is the famous Nimrod, a great hunter before the Lord, says the Bible. He was destined to lay low the foundations of Nineveh; he may h ave been the precursor of aviation, and in any case he became mad in trying to mount to the heavens on the wings of an eagle. His seat was the town of Ur, in the South of Chaldea, where Abraham was to be born (3000 B.C.). Not far from Nineveh is situated Nimrod, and the finest collection of objects found there is now in the British Museum, brought there by the English explorer, A. Layard. All the objects showing feminine costumes and adornments came from the palace of Ashurbanipal and date from about the year 662 B.C.


It was about the 13th century, in 1300 B. C. that a king constructed the first palace at Nineveh, and about the 7th century Sanherib (Sin-ahhe-eriba, son of Sargon II, was Assyrian king from 705 to 680 BC.) built another in which precious woods, such as cedar, sandal, ebony, were used jointly with enameled bricks covered with bas-reliefs and inscriptions. Shortly afterwards, Sanherib besieged Tyre, in Phoenicia, and invaded Egypt. Assyria then enjoyed two centuries of prosperity, and was the entrepôt of the world. Boats on the Tigres and Euphrates, and caravans, continually came with raw materials, which, transformed, were exported again. From their booty, the Assyrians brought back vases and furniture, and most of all clothing, carpets, stulfs and also carried olf all the best artisons. Far back as one can trace in their history the costume of their women, it is found almost the same as that of the men and the king and his wife are always attired alike.

The Assyrians were above all warriors, and their Empire comprised the Syrians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, and above all, the Chaldeans, who were the true apostles of industrial and habilitory arts. The Chaldeans were mainly cultivators of the soil, but in the cities there were a great number of Artisans who made fine stulfs, linen and woollen carpets, damascened jewelry, furniture of fine wood, inlaid with ivory, gold, and silver, and leather saddles and harness, also boots and footwear, which men and women wore indifferently.

Paul Louis de Giafferri, Assyria, Ancient, manners, dress, Mesopotamia,
The Assyrians. Ways, Manners and Dress.

The Assyrians. Ways, Manners and Dress.

JEWELS. – The Chaldeans liked above all to wear trinkets, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, they had long and waved hair, admirably dressed. Their principal garment was the long tunic. It is difficult to learn of the intimate life of well-to-do women, and of the wives of the kings, as they remained hermetically closed up in their palaces.

GODS. – The women worshipped at least a dozen gods, and especially the goddess Istar at Nineveh, as she was the divinity ruling battle and love. Their great occupation was astronomy and having their horoscopes drawn.

ZODIAC. – It was the Chaldeans who found the twelve signs, of the Zodiac, the sun-dial, measures and weights in usage among the peoples of antiquity, and of which we give separately a recapitulatory picture as it will serve in several of our volumes, their measures being in use among nearly all the peoples of antiquity.

SORCERY. – One other great feminine occupation, was sorcery, and this belief in magic words, in talismans, etc., led them to wear amulets, trinkets, and jewels of all sorts, destined to banish demons. These are the beliefs which they spread throughout Europe.

GYNAECEUM. – In the Assyrian palaces, whole wings of the buildings, veritable harems, were reserved for the women. These wings were of several floors, and the walls were covered with white stucco, painted with scenes and human figures. More than 3000 years B. C. the Chaldeans were able to read and write fluently. Their rich country, the sumptuousness of their lives, puts them in the front rank among the elegant Asiatics and Egyptians, and it is surprising that they are not oftener mentioned.

HEBREWS. – Towards the year 500 B. C. in the Assyrian Empire there were rumors of a nation being born and developing. These were the Hebrews, a troop of nomad shepherds, who travelled with their flocks, led by a patriarch and his family, with several wives. They lived in tents made of camel hide, had only chests for their wardrobes, as dresses only long coats dark and without jewels, except some necklets and bracelets. Their lives were simple, they lived on milk and meat and the well-of among them were attired in great folds of woolen material, and they reclined on mats of camel skin.

On their legs they wore bracelets also and a little ring in the nose. No rings on the fingers were worn, just as in the case of the Bedouins of Arabia.

The Palace of Aššur-bāni-apli and Nimrod.

LlBRARY. – This palace contained a famous library composed of thousands of works of a particular type, that is tablets of brick, of which the greater part were manuals, dealing with the dyeing of stuffs, preparing them, weaving them, putting garments together, etc.

BOTTA. – The first French archeologist, from whom we have borrowed much information, was the former Consul at Alexandria, Monsieur Lorsque M. Botta, who about 1842 discovered opposite Mosul the hillock Kuyunjik, and afterwards Dur Šarrukin (Khorsabad), the celebrated palace of 100 rooms of king Sargon II of Assyria, of Agadea, with the separate wings for women. This palace dates from about the year 3.500. Continuing his researches, he discovered the city of Dur Šarrukin, and he continued exploring until 1848. Anyone can see for himself the beauty of the costumes, which may be seen on the bas-reliefs of the Assyrian Museum at the Louvre. Monsieur Place continued to explore after 1848. Layard then discovered Kalak (Chalach) and eventually Nineveh, in 1851. A former Consul, Fresnel, an energetic man, attempted to trace in 1855 in Chaldea the ruins of Babylon. He loaded a part of his discoveries on lighters to float down the Tigris, but being badly loaded the barges turned turtle and were lost with all their cargo. Fresnel died at Bagdad in 1865 of fatigue and grief.

CUNEIFORM INSCRIPTIONS. – At Paris, experts tried to decipher characters impressed in clay, the angular character of which caused them to be called “cuneiform”, but it was an Englishman, Mr. Rawlinson who found the key and gave birth to Assyriology.

It was the English who during 30 years explored the Assyrian ruins, while a Frenchman, Mr. de Sarzec, Consul at the Persian Gulf, continued in 1878 the exploration so thoroughly that we can read the bas-reliefs like an open book. Scenes of the life of the king, occupations of the women, work of the artisans, etc., are depicted. Thus we know that certain monuments were flanked by towers, seven storeys high, painted in seven different colors, and that these colors were also found in the people’s dress. These frescoes were painted on white stucco or on enameled bricks.

This country of Assyria was dry and cold, rainy only in winter, warm from April onwards. The women shut themselves in dark rooms and rarely quitted their dwellings, which does not imply that they did not dress themselves with care. On the contrary, they had only too much time to devote to their toilette. In the middle classes, the woman was engaged in spinning and weaving. The darkness fo the dwellings had an important effect on manners and dress, the garments of the women were more ample, and of a kind not alfected by sun nor storm.

VEILED FACES. – The fertile plain is surrounded by a sandy desert, and when the wind blows this fine sand penetrates the nose and throat, which perhaps explains the coquetry of the women in only going out with a veil over the lower part ot the face, covering their noses and ears. Like the Nile, the floods of the rivers fertilized these empires, but later on the incapable Turks allowed the dykes to fall into ruins.

COLORS. – The English explorer A. Layard, who explored the country, left us excellent documents upon the manners and dress of the inhabitants, and perhaps we must follow him in concluding that vegetable and mineral dyes were used. He relates that when hounds ran through the high brakes and herbage after the inundation, they came out colored yellow, red, or blue, according to the colors of the flowers which they brushed against, or of the muddy earth itself.
It is these three primary colors which we find in the dress of Babylon. Herodotus says that wheat, millet, sesame, grew to immense size, that there were few trees except palms, date, and orange trees. All fine woods came from the Lebanon.

PALM-TREES. – The true tree of household supplies, one of the wonders of the world, says Herodotus, is the palm tree, and from it were obtained a sort of bread, wine, vinegar, sugar, and threads of which stuffs were woven and cords for belts and mats made, while from the trunks planks were obtained. From the date stones oil was expressed, and cattle were fed with them. A song enumerated in 360 couplets the uses of the palm.

SHEEP. – The rich pastures enabled cattle and sheep to be raised, and thus the Assyrians had leather and wool at hand. Feathers of geese and ducks, adorned some headdresses, while carp and barbel increased the variety of their foods. It is astonishing to think that during 30 centuries this country supported one of the most numerous populations in the world.

Source: Paul Louis de Giafferri. The History of the Feminine Costume of the World. The Luxurious Assyrian Costumes. Published: 1926.