The Arabisation of the Christian Bible

In paintings, children’s Bibles and Hollywood films, the Palestinians of biblical times often walk around in Arabian-style clothing. The Arabisation of the Bible was a process that took centuries. In older paintings the biblical figures still wear European or fantasy clothes. Rembrandt already had a chest with Turkish clothes at hand to dress his Abraham, for instance, in a proper oriental style (1). Isaac’s servant by Benjamin West (2) is convincingly dressed like a Turk. As a matter of fact, he travelled by camel (2, 3).

Of course, people were aware that the biblical stories had taken place in Palestine, Egypt, Babylonia and Persia, in the so-called Orient, but not all types of oriental fantasies could be used. The splendour and the sensuality of the imagined Orient were omitted. In the 19th century, the figures from the New Testament were dressed in modest robes that were supposedly worn by Palestinian peasants and fishermen at that time. Typical Arabian head coverings are often used, although rarely in the case of Jesus, because such headgear would conceal his charismatic wavy hair (5, 6). Thus we see a cheap version of the Orient. Only in the story of the Magi or Three Wise Men (7) do the splendours of the East get a chance, and of course in the story of Salome. Moreau’s painting (8) shows an oriental despot and a dancer in precious, almost translucent material.

Most of the artists and illustrators had no clue about what people had worn in the Near East so many centuries ago, so they resorted to flights of fancy. Some nineteenth-century illustrators, however, did have some information about ancient Egyptian or Babylonian dress. It is interesting to see that in their history-conscious pictures the Israelite or Jewish figures are dressed like Arabs rather than wearing the Old Testament simlah, a woollen, sometimes linen wrap that reached from the neck to the knees and had short sleeves or none at all. In the picture of David and Saul (9), the king is wearing a European crown, whereas David wears an Arabic keffiyeh. On some pictures (11, 12), Joseph adopted ancient Egyptian fashions, whereas his brothers are dressed like Arabs.

Perhaps the long, Arabian-style cloaks were welcomed by the later biblical illustrators because they contained so much cloth. The simlah left much leg visible and the short Greco-Roman tunic of New Testament times did so even more. Maybe the Victorians considered it inappropriate to imagine Jesus and other biblical figures in such scanty garments? Or did they want to emphasise the oriental character of the Jews?

Back to Table of Contents