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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Colourful Industry

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) H. Zell; Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) Kurt Stüber - (

Enter Jaffa Gate, walk straight down and turn left into Christian Street, and there among the shops and stalls is one selling cloths: standing rolls of colourful brocades, folded sheets of patterned linen, cotton and synthetics and fine bolts of silk. They come from all over; from Europe, India, the Far East. Syrian silks flash with golden threads, there are oranges, yellows, greens. There are coarse pieces, others are exquisitely fine, diaphanous. Some are modern, others traditional, some are garish, many are aesthetically pleasing, some, by their subdued tones make their neighbours appear more splendid still. It is a shop that must have had its equals in the twelfth century just a few minutes away in two streets recorded in the Old French text known as La Citez de Jherusalem:

"Coming to this exchange [the Syrian Exchange on the ancient Cardo], you found on the right a covered street, vaulted over, along which people went to the Sepulchre church. Syrians sold their fabrics on this street...Adjacent... were three streets leading to the Exchange of the Latins. One was called the Covered Street, where the Latins sold their cloth..."*

The cloths sold in these markets were perhaps as varied as those found in the Christian Street today, no synthetics of course, but imported and locally manufactured linen and cotton fabrics, from France and Italy perhaps, brought to Acre by the Italian merchants, silks from China, India, Byzantium and the Islamic countries, white silk from the Venetian quarter of Tyre, cotton and silk from Beirut where silk worms were cultivated on locally grown mulberry trees, silk and brocade from Antioch, camlet (camelot) and silk from Tripoli, a city famed for its 4,000 weavers. Some textiles were perhaps manufactured in Jerusalem itself; certainly, some were dyed here.

Dyes, notably madder and indigo, were grown in the crusader states, indigo in the Jordan Valley and madder in the valley of the Orontes. The purple dye extracted from murex shellfish was still being collected by Jewish fishermen from Alexandria along the Levantine coast. And Jews were frequently involved in the dyeing industry. The Spanish Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, who systematically recorded the occupations of Jews in the cities he visited in the 1170s, described the small Jewish community of Jerusalem as being involved in the dyeing of cloth:

It [Jerusalem] contains a dyeing-house, for which the Jews pay a small rent annually to the king, on condition that besides the Jews no other dyers be allowed in Jerusalem. There are about 200 Jews who dwell under the Tower of David in one corner of the city”.**

Perhaps remnants of this very "dyeing-house" have been found in excavations. In 2000-2001 excavations were carried out within a nineteenth century structure built against the southern side of the citadel of Jerusalem, so indeed, "under the Tower of David". Among the many remains dating as far back as the ninth century BC was a complex of twelfth century AD date, which consisted of eight constructed installations, basins with hydraulic plastered interiors and finds including a stone roller and a grinding stone.*** The excavator identified these installations as used for tanning or dyeing. The former use can probably be ruled out, as tanning, an industry that produces unpleasant smells would hardly be located adjacent to David's Gate, the main entrance to the city, to the Tower of David which served in the early years as the royal palace and subsequently as its main citadel, and to the new royal palace built directly adjacent to this site in the 1160s. And, in any case, a large tanning complex already existed in a far more appropriate area to the southeast at the Tanners' Gate near the present Dung Gate. The Jewish dyers' complex, which was recorded by Benjamin of Tudela as having been located here, entirely fits the bill.

* Janet Shirley, trans., Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century. The Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre with part of the Eracles or Acre text, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, p. 19.

** The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, trans. Marcus Nathan Adler, London, 1907, pp. 35-36.

*** Amit Re'em, The Qishle Excavation in the Old City of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 2018, pp. 29-33, 237-38, 277, 280.

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