Pomegranate is the Colour Red: Behind the Palestinian Thobe

Fast fashion stitched together under unethical conditions clothes a large majority of the developed and developing world’s population. In search for skilled and original design vintage clothing has seen a resurgence in the UK market, whilst others with fuller pockets turn to luxury fashion houses for access to exclusivity and ‘originality’. The internet has globalised trends and to the benefit and partial detriment of traditional craft, has succeeded in popularising and keeping it alive. The kaffieh enjoyed a brief moment as a fashion trend and is still printed in a plethora of colours to make a quick buck for market traders.

A more obscure form of Palestinian clothing is the thobe; an ankle-length robe commonly worn in the Arabian Peninsula and neighbouring countries. The materials, dyes and patterns used to create the thobe are emblematic of Palestinian history and daily life. Similarly to traditional dress across the globe, clothing patterns and prints are infused with folklore, religious imagery, local nature, and serve as a record of cross-cultural interaction.  Thobes were embellished with ornate designs specific to each region. This practice faded during the 1950s as a result of a particularly turbulent moment in Palestinian history. Many were fleeing their homes and many more lived in camps leaving little time or money to create anything unnecessary to their immediate survival. In 1967, a trend developed which continued into the next decade.  Patriotism began to weave its way into the thobe via nationalistic symbols such as the Palestinian flag and the Dome of the Rock.

Bethlehem 1880s, Bethlehem pre 1918,  Ramallah 1929-1940
Bethlehem 1880s, Bethlehem pre 1918, Ramallah 1929-1940

The majority of thobes were made of linen, cotton, wool, and silk, handwoven in factories across Palestine. Some materials had to be imported from Egypt, Syria, Europe and India if they could not be produced at home. The dyes shrouding each thread were also garnered from Palestinian nature; red from pomegranate skins, indigo from a plant found in the Jordan valley (Indigofera tinctoria), yellow-green from sumac, black from walnut skins and yellow from vine leaves. Motifs varied from region to region, but some of the most popular included the eight-pointed star of Bethlehem stemming from a Sumerian tradition representing the Canaanite goddess, Astarte. Many other embroidered motifs symbolised elements of daily life including; palms, cypress trees, the damask rose, kohl bottles and cauliflowers. One would be able to recognise where another lived by these motifs. For example, Beit Dajan was popular for its orange orchards, therefore orange blossom was a popular pattern of choice. The zig-zag or ‘S’ pattern has been interpreted as a leech, horse’s head, a mark made by a urinating goat and even the staircase Astarte descended to rescue her husband from the god of death.

Moon of Bethlehem, Damask rose, Cows eye, Snake and serpent
Moon of Bethlehem, Damask rose, Cows eye, Snake and serpent

The thobe and its patterns were also present in a woman’s grieving process. Rather than pack away their vibrant outfits, some Palestinian women would dye their thobes black and over time this dye would fade once more revealing its original colours. This practice allowed for an unforced process that would gently notify others whilst avoiding upsetting conversations. It is unlikely that the Palestinian thobe will cease to exist in the near future. It is still worn by women all ages and although the method of production may have altered, its popularity and visual prominence in resistance has ensured its future on the loom.


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