Silk in Ancient Israel

Though no silk remains have yet been found in Roman period contexts in the region of Roman Palestine, the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to argue that it was a luxury fiber used by people living in the region.

By William Mierse
Department of Art and Art History
University of Vermont
February 2013

No remains of ancient silk have yet been found in archaeological contexts in ancient Israel. The closest finds are those from Palmyra in the Syrian Desert and Egypt (Schmidt-Colinet, Stauffer, Al-As‛ad 2000. Good 1995: 966). There are, however, two biblical references to silk. In the Book of Revelation, the author lists silk (serikon) among the items that define the wealth of the Babylon (Revelation 18.12). If, as is now generally accepted, the Book of Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian and the author may have been a refugee from Palestine, a Jewish Christian, escaping from the destruction of the first Jewish Revolt (Mays et al. 1988: 1300; Collins 1981: 377-403), then the silk referenced must have been an eastern import such as John would have known from the markets of the eastern Mediterranean port cities. By the late first century C.E., Chinese sourced silk from the bombyx mori silk moth which was reeled from the complete cocoon after the developing larva was killed by boiling, was in demand as a luxury product throughout the Roman world. If we can assume that John’s intended audiences for the Book of Revelation included not just the newly emerging Christian communities of the Mediterranean but also the Christian communities of Palestine, then the silk had to make as much sense as a sign of excess to readers in Roman Palestine as elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

The use of the word σηρικόν (serikon), which is derived from Σήρ (Ser), the Greek designation for China, to describe the fabric makes clear that this is the silk from the bombyx mori moth which was only obtained from the Chinese. Writers of the Imperial Age wrote of sericae or serikon, though Pausanias (6.26.6), in a possibly corrupt passage (Forbes 1956: 53), thought that the term ser refers to the caterpillar. For all of these authors, silk was an eastern product brought to Mediterranean markets. Pliny knew of the Chinese (Seres) (NH 6.54) and that they were famous for a textile item, though he does suggest that the production of suitable cloth for Roman markets from the fiber had to be done in western and not Chinese workshops. His description of the process by which the fibers are obtained seems more likely to refer to cotton or kapok than silk (Liu 2010: 20). When he does discuss silk (NH 11.75-76) he identifies it as a product of Assyria not China. While Pliny may be confused about the source of the silk, he does know that the purchasing of the luxury item is beginning to bleed the financial resources of the Empire, in one passage speaking of 50 million sesterces (NH 6.101) leaving the Empire per annum to feed the luxury trade with the East. Therefore, John’s decision to include silk as a recognized luxury item resonated anywhere where the fiber had gained a following.

Chinese silk either as woven fabric or as floss was most likely entering the Roman world of the eastern Mediterranean through caravan routes that began in China, ran west to modern day Xinjiang province where they then split into northern or southern routes around the Taklamakan Desert (Poinsotte 1979: 443-449). The finds of wooden tablets from Xuanquanzhi that record merchants and embassies from the West traveling in and out of Imperial Han China show that by the first C. CE the Han government had established a formal system for dealing with these visiting westerners (Kim 2011: 10-20). There was certainly active trade at China’s western gate. The two roads joined together again at modern Kashgar and moved west either going north of the Caspian Sea and accessing Roman territory at the Black Sea or heading south of the Caspian where they passed into the Parthian Empire and emerged into Roman lands in modern Syria. However, it should be noted that this neat layout for the trade network after Kashgar has little historical or archaeological support at this moment, and the trade may have been more sea-borne than caravan based (Millar 1998: 527) which seems to be confirmed from the trade pattern evidence from Palmyra itself (Gawlikowski 1996: 139). There is a possibility that workshops developed at Antioch, Berytos, Tyre, and Gaza that served the Roman market by unraveling the plain weave (tabby) silk textiles (Day 1950: 108) and then reprocessing the yarn by redyeing it, incorporating threads of gold, and reweaving it into damasks (Wenying 2012: 119 quoting the Chinese source Pei Songzhi’s commentary on San guo zhi (History of the Three Kingdoms) “Biographies of the Western Rong Tribes” in a chapter entitled Wei lüe (Brief Account of the Wei Dynasty), though whether most Chinese silk textiles were reworked in this manner is debated (Wild 2003b: 108). Later Sui and Tang dynasty terracotta representations of Bactrian camels ready for caravan depict cloth in bolts and hanks of yarn or floss loaded onto the camels, and so the silk textiles of the eastern Mediterranean workshops could easily have been produced from the silk floss rather than unraveled textiles.

The silk textile fragments recovered from the tombs at Palmyra date between 9 BCE (Towertomb 7, Atenatan) and 103 CE (Towertomb 13, Elahbel) (Schmidt-Colinet, Stauffer, and Al-As‛ad 2000: 99-190; Maechen-Helfen 1943: 358). Among the fragments are weavings that were clearly the products of Han Chinese workshops. The last twenty-five years of Chinese archaeological excavations throughout China and particularly in Xinjiang province have yielded a wealth of early silk textile remains, enough to offer a good understanding of the changing technical and aesthetic aspects of Chinese and Central Asian silk weaving from the Neolithic to the Medieval periods (Kuhn 2012: 1-64). These Chinese finds allow for stylistic comparisons to be made with the Palmyrene finds. The warp-faced, three-color polychrome fragment from Towertomb 44 (Klitot, 40 CE) (Schmidt-Colinet, Stauffer, and Al-As‛ad 2000: no. 223) looks quite similar to Han fragments of three color warp-faced, polychrome jin textiles of the type known as animal-and-cloud patterns (yunqi dongwu wen) (Wenying 2012:142-156, nos. 3.34a-c) and must be the surviving remains of a larger coverlet that was brought from China to Palmyra.

The Palmyra find demonstrates that some woven Han period Chinese cloth was coming to the far West where it was valued enough to be included among the burial objects. The Dura Europos excavations unearthed silk fibers identified as the anatheraea mylitta species of wild tusseh silk (Pfister and Bellinger 1945: n. 264). Since the Chinese floss and textiles were produced from the silk of the domesticated bombyx mori moth, the wild silk must have come from India. Unlike Chinese silk thread which was plied from strands of fiber unraveled in a single long strand from the cocoon of the bombyx mori moth, tusseh silk was a raw silk processed from cocoons collected from the forest after the various moths had emerged. Since the moth breaks the silk to escape it was impossible to unravel a complete strand from a cocoon. The silk filaments and woven textiles had a different texture from the Chinese products. The Indian trade into the Roman world was extensive and of economic significance and came via the Red Sea, Alexandria, and possibly the caravan routes of the old incense network from Arabia (Tomber 2008: 68). Two ports on the Arabian Peninsula that serviced the India trade, Leuke Kome and Kane/Qana , have yielded some evidence for resident Jewish communities (Tomber 2008: 61, 103) which could have had ties to Roman Palestine. Wild silk has shown up in eastern Roman contexts (Wild 2003b: 108) indicating that Indian silk was an import item alongside Chinese silk.

Though no silk remains have yet been found in Roman period contexts in the region of Roman Palestine, the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to argue that it was a luxury fiber used by people living in the region. Silk fabrics of Han Chinese manufacture, perhaps coming from the northern end points of the land caravan routes, and Indian silk floss, moving up the old incense trade network, could probably have been found in the markets of the major metropolitan centers like Jerusalem or Sepphoris. Placing silk among the riches of Babylon would have made complete sense to Christians residing in Palestine, especially since silk was one of the exotic imports so significant in the Roman market economy (Mays et al. 1988: 1316).

The second biblical appearance of silk is in the Hebrew bible, Ezekiel 16:10 and 13. In this extended metaphor Jerusalem, representing Israel, is cast as the adultress wife of Yahweh (16:1-43a). The passages with silk refer to Yahweh’s generosity to the young wife, Jerusalem. He made her famous for her beauty (16: 9-14) (Mays, et al. 1988: 673-674). Again, silk is employed to indicate riches and is integrated into a listing of items of wealth that are used to ornament the young wife: leather footwear, fine linen, along with gold and silver bangles. Here the word for silk is meshi (mešî) at least in the massarotic rendering of the passage (which Forbes 1946: 78 n. 467: doubts is silk). The Talmudic term for silk is sērkīōn, coming from the Greek, at least after the establishment of a distant eastern place for its origin (Ser). However, the Septuagint translators used τριχάπτω (trichapton) (having to do with hair) perhaps meaning woven of hair, to gloss whatever word was used in original ancient Hebrew. However, meshi, which is perhaps derived from mashah (to draw or extract), does seem to indicate something different from fine linen (shesh) which is placed in apposition in the text; so here silk seems the reasonable gloss and that it was probably the same in the original version. (Douglas 1962: sv silk; A. E. Day NETBible: sv silk; silkworm)

The passage does suggest that silk was known in ancient Israel long before the arrival of Indian or Chinese silk in large quantities during the Roman period. There is some evidence for Chinese silk in far western contexts before the Roman period, two fifth century B.C. burials in the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens, two Hallstatt D1 period burials at Hohmichele Tumulus and Hochdorf-Eberdingen, and a fifth century BC burial at Altrier in Luxemburg (Good 1995: 964-966). There also remains a silk thread found in the hair of a mummy from a 21st dynasty burial at Deir al Medina (Lubeck, Holaubek, Feldi, Lubec, and Strouhal 1993: 25). None of these finds indicates massive trade in finished textiles or even floss but does indicate that some of the eastern fabric was making its way to the West. Even though movement along what would become the caravan routes of the later Silk Roads was extremely difficult before the period of the Han Dynasty, there is still evidence that trade moved both east and west along the land routes albeit, on a quite modest scale (Kim 2011: 6-7). However, this would not have been enough to have allowed the textile by name to be a reference for luxury. There needed to be a more commonly available fabric to allow for its use in this manner in the text.

Herodotus (1. 135; 3. 84; 7. 116) and later Xenophon (Cyropaedia 8. 1. 40) speak of Median garments, which are considered luxury items, both precious and beautiful, and it has been proposed that these were silk (Forbes 1956: 52), though this is reading beyond what either author actually says. It is the Byzantine writer Procopius who identifies the garments as of silk (History of the Wars 1, 20. 9-12). There is no evidence for silk production in Achaemenid Persia, and so most likely if the garments were of silk, then the fiber must have been tusseh silk from India. Persian conquests under Cyrus, Cambyses, and later Darius extended Achaemenid control to northwest India (Allchin 1995:130-132), and so Indian goods were making their way to the Persian court, and among those tribute and trade items must have been wild silk. In court workshops it could have been processed into Median garments. A Persian source for the silk reference in Ezekiel will not fit. Ezekiel’s work has strong internal dating evidence that allows for it to be placed in the first half of the sixth century B.C. (Mays et al. 1988: 652), at least half a century too early to have been influenced by any Persian sources.

However, there was a possible alternative source for silk which may actually have been available in the Babylon of the early sixth century BCE which is probably where Ezekiel was active (Mays et al. 1988: 65-653). Aristotle provides a somewhat convoluted description of silk in his History of Animals (5.19.551b. 13) and identifies the island of Cos in the Aegean as the place where the women process this fiber, and Pliny knows this story as well (NH 11. 76-77). This would have been a raw silk processed from the cocoons after the moth had escaped, and so like the Indian silk, quite distinct from Chinese silk, which is probably why Pliny does not identify it as the same fiber coming from China, but which he may actually be describing as the product of the Assyrian silkworm (HN 11. 25-26). Roman authors wrote of vestae Coae, indicating that there was something special about garments from Cos even into the early Imperial period. Richter (1929: 27-33) has argued that famous Amorgian fabric, much of it dedicated to Artemis Brauronia (Cleland 2005: 96-112 ), was in fact silk from the island of Cos already being used for luxury garments in the fifth century BCE. The word Amorgis may well have been the early Greek word for silk. The island of Amorgos is in the same island grouping as Cos, and Richter suggests that it was probably a stopping point for a major trade route between the Levant and the Greek mainland. A silk product from Cos but easily available on Amorgos came to be associated with that island during the six through the fourth centuries BCE. Oppenheim thought that he had evidence for the penetration of this Coan silk via the port city of Tyre into the heartland of Neo-Babylonian Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. In two cuneiform documents from Uruk which record the business activities associated with overland trade that Oppenheim thinks was in the Levantine region, he argues that one of the items being brought to Mesopotamia was silk from the West, very likely Coan silk or Amorgis (Oppenheim 1967: 248-253). By Roman time its seems that both tusseh silk and the finer Chinese silk were both available in the marketplace, and tusseh silk was represented by both indigenous silk and imported Indian silk, but in the sixth century it is much more likely that Ezekiel had in mind Aegean wild silk, still a luxury fiber, with which he had Yahweh drape the young wife. If indeed the documents from Uruk are indicative of a larger scale trade between Mesopotamia and the port cities of Lebanon and if indeed the fine textile item being carried is Aegean silk, then the markets in Babylon must have contained this expensive and rare fabric which the Jewish community would have known but probably could not access. Thus having Yahweh gift it to the young wife makes it an appropriate item to express open-handed generosity.

Though the actual finds of silk in the contexts of ancient Judah or later Palestine are non-existent, the two biblical passages and the evidence for silk in nearby settings permits us to see that silk was a known luxury fiber. It had assumed the same privileged position in the societies of Roman Palestine and earlier in the Judah of the period of Babylonian captivity that it has elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Because the audiences for these biblical passages associated silk, whether wild or domesticated, with wealth and luxury, it was the perfect fiber to reference when trying to heighten the sense of value being stressed.


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Comments (1)

Thank you for this informative article. I was looking for evidence to understand whether or not the silk mentioned in the Hebrew text is silk as we know it today or possibly something else. I'm getting from this that you feel it is essentially the same. Something I read/heard suggested that silk ,as we know it, might not be a "kosher" fiber as it is from an unclean insect...any thoughts. Thank you

#1 - Wendy Ide - 07/21/2018 - 00:01

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