As Syria’s archaeological gems are flattened and looted in the midst of war, one Syrian fashion designer is bringing the ancient civilization of Mari back to life on the catwalk.
Nozha Abdelmohsen creates robes and dresses inspired by the kings and queens of the royal Mesopotamian city of Mari, found along the banks of the Euphrates river in modern-day Syria near the border with Iraq. These royals lived over 5,000 years ago during the time of the Sumerian and Akkadian empires. Nozha hopes to keep the memory of their ancient civilization alive among Syrians, a cause that is close to her heart as she was born in Deir-ez-Zor, the province that now encompasses the ancient site.
Today, Deir-ez-Zor is overrun by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants. The ruins at Mari have been plundered, like so many other archaeological sites across this war-ravaged country. A report issued by the Syrian government’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums specified that most of the looting had taken place in the site’s Royal Palace, the Southern Gate, the baths, and the temples of Ishtar, Dagan and the Goddess of Spring as a result of 50 illegal excavations.
Nozha began the project five years ago, before the outbreak of the war, and organized her first fashion show inspired by the dresses worn by the royal court women in Mari. The show was held in Deir-ez-Zor.
The Syrian designer was undeterred by the violence that soon gripped much of the country, especially the northeast, and proceeded to conceive evermore elaborate pieces. They included imitations of the cloaks worn by the king of Mari, Zimri-Lim, and leather skirts donned by other kings. The designs were inspired by statues found at the site that are now housed in museums in Syria and all across the globe.
The excavation of the ancient city by French archaeologist André Parrot in 1933 is considered one of the most significant finds of the 20th century in illuminating our understanding of city planning and royal society in Mesopotamia, as well as cuneiform writing and art.
Nozha’s collection includes multi-layered garments inspired by the clothes depicted in graphite carvings in a scene of the king’s inauguration ceremony. The pieces are distinguished by their striking colors, as well as the men’s bare right shoulders and knee-length skirts. Another piece reproduces a skirt originally made out of animal hide, known as the the Kaunakes Skirt, worn by a temple worshiper.
Nozha has also tried her hand at recreating the jewelry of the era. “Having seen the pieces displayed in the museums of Damascus, Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor, and the important statues displayed there, especially the caches found in the Nini Zaza temple, I came to notice that the kings of the Mari kingdom did not wear rings,” Nozha says. “Yet, there is documented evidence that Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, used to import precious stones from kings of neighboring states to decorate the famous official seals.”
The use of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan, testifies to the early diplomatic relations that were formed between countries in the Middle East as early as the third millennium BCE. “Kings considered lapis the stone of wisdom and family happiness. This is why the eyes of the statues found in the kingdom’s excavations were made of the precious stone as well as from ivory imported from India and agate from Yemen,” explains Nozha.
The influence of this ancient civilization and its early fashion designers can still be seen today. “The loom, called the ‘jouma,’ and the simple weaver are both still in use in Deir-ez-Zor,” says Nozha. The memory of the great city of Mari, twice the capital of huge empires, will not easily be forgotten by the descendants of this land.