Life and Sole: Footwear from the Islamic World

British Museum

Based on an exhibition at the British Museum. Supported by Steven Larcombe and Sonya Leydecker

Studio portrait of models wearing garments and accessories from Damascus, Syria, during the Ottoman period, 1873. The woman on the right wears stilted qabqab.

Dating from the 1800s onwards, these objects represent the rich variety of designs, materials, and manufacturing techniques of a vast region, which includes North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.

These wooden bath clogs (nalın or qabqab) are inlaid with pewter and mother-of-pearl. The leather straps are covered in gold-embroidered velvet. At 26 cm high they lifted the wearer above the wet and dirty floor, but a personal attendant was needed for support. Their Arabic name, qabqab, derives from the clacking noise they made on the marble floors.

Making and selling mother-of-pearl inlaid shoes, Damascus, Syria, 1904.
Published by T. W. Ingersoll,
Holy Land Series, no. 556.
Collection of Jonathan Taylor.

Each of these bath clogs (nalın), inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is carved in the shape of a fish. Fish motifs are also etched on the clogs, symbolising fertility and good fortune. Within the bathhouse women scrutinised one another’s physical beauty and, equally, the splendour of their embroidered towels and footwear. The straps of these unfinished clogs would have been chosen by the individual client.

These exquisitely crafted indoor wooden clogs (qabqab) are covered in purple silk velvet and decorated with embossed and pierced metal plaques and bells. They belonged to an Armenian woman whose family migrated to Syria in the early 20th century. They had been part of her grandmother’s wedding dowry.

These red boots (yezmeh or zarabil) are made of camel leather dyed from natural pigments such as the madder plant or pomegranate peel.
The iron heels attached to the soles suggest that their owner came from a Bedouin family of horse or camel riders. The indigo-dyed tassels on the boots were meant to protect children against the ‘evil eye’.

A shoemaker selling his wares in Bethlehem market, Palestine, 1930s. Photo: Jan Macdonald.

These red shoes with metal thread embroidery were made for an affluent family in one of the urban centres of the Ottoman Empire. The toddler may have worn them for his circumcision ceremony or another important occasion.

Children at school, Algiers. Note the row of shoes along the foreground, as the teacher and his pupils are seated on carpet.

Each shoe is made from a single piece of leather that is gathered along its sides to fit around the foot. During the Ottoman period (1301–1922), this style of ‘peasant’s sandal’ was worn in rural areas of south-eastern Europe and Turkey with many regional variations and names. This strappy shoe with buckles is based on the Macedonian opanci and is still used today for traditional folk dancing.

The woman who owned these boots had an adventurous style. The toes with extreme points, the coloured leather appliqué, brass buttons and ornamental pierced tongues confirm this. She also rode a horse, judging from the iron heels on the soles.

These sparkly leather slippers (mojari or khussa) from India have upturned toes that are purely decorative. Embroidered with excessive amounts of gold and silver thread, the slippers signify wealth, status and high fashion. Developed in the Mughal royal courts (1526–1857), this style of slipper was eventually adopted by the wealthy. If these slippers had been made for a royal patron the green studs would have been genuine emeralds rather than glass. Worn by men and women, slippers like these can be seen in the Mughal paintings included here.

This portrait was painted two years after Maharaja Pratap Singh became the ruler of Jaipur (reigned 1778–1803) at the tender age of thirteen. He is wearing lavish robes and gold-embroidered Indian slippers (mojari or khussa) with curling, upturned toes. Symbols of wealth and status, these were the recognised trappings of royalty established two centuries earlier by the Mughal emperors.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58), patron of the Taj Mahal, stands resplendent with his sword, dagger and a sprig of daisies. He is wearing gold embroidered velvet slippers (mojari or moza) with floral patterns to match his ornate gown. When the emperor went on tour his footwear was guarded by the kafsh-bardar (keeper of shoes). The kafsh-ban was likewise responsible for looking after the footwear left by devotees outside mosques while they prayed.

Made in the former North West Frontier Province, these loafers are a fusion of eastern aesthetics with western shoe design.

If you look closely at the intricate gold-embroidered paisley patterns on these loafers you can see tiny stitches in green, pink, purple and blue silk threads. The leather insoles are decorated with delicate floral motifs as they were also admired when shoes were removed indoors.

Worn by a bride, these hand-stitched, red leather slippers (tarkasin) are richly embroidered with silk thread.

The tongues have been cut into the shape of a khamsa or ‘Hand of Fatima’ to protect her from the ‘evil eye’ or the ‘eye of envy’. The metal studs also distract and deflect harmful forces, keeping the bride safe.

These colourful leather slippers (tameskhert) with wool appliqué are worn by the Ait Hadiddu Berber women of the High Atlas Mountains, Morocco. They are also known as babouches, a French word derived from the Persian pa-posh, meaning ‘foot cover, shoe or slipper’. The flattened backs make it easy to remove them on entering the home or mosque.

Luxury begins the day a man starts wearing shoes. Tuareg proverb, North Africa.

Made for men and women these soft, light, indoor boots (ichigi or masi) have thin, flat soles. They are decorated with brightly coloured leather appliqué patterns that evoke the natural world such as beetles, rams’ horns and cat faces. Leather overshoes (kebis) are worn over ichigi to protect them from the dirt and moisture outside.

These boots were presented as a gift to a British doctor conducting a malaria survey in the Bashgul Valley region of Afghanistan in 1959. The custom of honouring important visitors with a pair of red leather boots dates back to at least the 1880s in this region. Unsurprisingly, the area is renowned for its leather workers and boot makers.

Making beautiful shoes
This painting of an Indian Sikh shoemaker and his wife shows some of the tools and processes involved when making embroidered leather uppers. Holding a long needle, the woman embroiders a red leather upper in gold thread whilst her husband constructs a shoe. The tools from Afghanistan shown in the next slide include an implement (awl) for piercing holes in leather and a knife similar to the one in this painting.

The knife is used to cut the leather to make the uppers and soles of shoes. A similar knife appears in the previous painting.

The needle-like awl is used to pierce holes in the leather for stitching.

زیبا بت کفشگر چو کفش آراید
هر لحظه لب لعل بر آن میساید
کفشی که ز لعل شکرش آراید
تاج سر خورشید فلک را شاید

When the lovely shoemaker decorates the shoe, at every moment, he presses his ruby lips upon it.
The shoe that is adorned with the sugar of his rubies deserves to be worn as the crown of the sun of heaven.

Mahsati Ganjavi (died around 1159), female Persian poet.

The distinctive shields on these men’s sandals have been designed to flap when worn to frighten away any snakes and scorpions that might be lurking in the desert. Made in Abyan in southern Yemen, the style is also popular in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The adjustable metal buckles seen here have replaced the leather lacing found on earlier versions.

Credits: Story

Curated by Fahmida Suleman, Phyllis Bishop Curator for the Modern Middle East

The Trustees of the British Museum thank all departmental staff and the following for their generous support and assistance in the creation of the exhibition ‘Life and sole: footwear from the Islamic world’

Steven Larcombe and Sonya Leydecker
Dominic Brookshaw
Peyvand Firouzeh
Paul Goodhead (map)
Joanna Hammond (online gallery)
Sunil Sharma
Shelagh Weir

Note on place names and the map:
The Middle Eastern place names used in the labels are contemporary with the objects’ production dates. The names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.