A Note About the Mummies of 'Asi-l-Hadath

When the Mamluks attempted to take over the crusader County of Tripoli in the late 13th century, they found their advance hindered by the Maronite Christian community settled in the area’s mountains and valleys. When they attacked the village of al-Hadath in 1283, the residents took refuge in an almost inaccessible cave, starting a seven-year siege that only ended by trickery.

Over 700 years later, in 1990, the mummified body of an infant was found in the nearly inaccessible 'Asi-al-Hadath grotto, believed to be the site of the siege. The discovery followed two years of secret exploration by a diverse group of speleologists, including a chemist, a dentist, a hydro-engineer, an archeology student and a commercial attaché at the British embassy.

Because of the ongoing war in Lebanon, further investigation continued as before with a series of three-day weekends where the participants arrived and departed separately and at intervals to conceal their common destination. Coins and other artifacts showed that the finds did in fact date to the late 13th century. A total of 5 infants, 3 adult women, a fetus and a male skull were uncovered. The mummies and other finds were smuggled out with the help of a monk, and then stored in a basement until the political situation calmed down and the Beirut National Museum finally reopened in 1995.

The most fascinating part of the find is the textiles. The bodies were clothed in multiple layers of well-preserved clothing, some of it heavily embroidered, and some additional fragments were found as well. Most of the embroidered garments are tunics with embroidery placed on the sleeves, and often in a panel on the upper chest as well . There are also two baby’s jackets, open down the front, that are especially interesting because they were each pieced together from four or five embroideries in several different techniques. Other embroidered items that can be identified are a couple of coifs and a drawstring pouch.

Unfortunately, the only book published on the finds is in French, and apparently the authors were more interested in proving a connection with Christian art of the period than in comparing them with other known embroideries. The items are described in very general, and often incomplete, terms. The only stitch information is given when describing a group of fragments as being “most often executed in cross stitch”. However, other types of counted thread embroidery are clearly also present. At least three tunics, the coifs and a couple of fragments appear to be done in pattern darning, and another fragment appears to be double running stitch, worked in a typically Egyptian bird-and-branch design. Brown and red, either singly or in combination, are by far the most commonly used colors. Cotton is usually used as the ground fabric. Since the cotton seems to have been produced in the Baalbek region, and the silk used for the embroidery is also believed to have been a local product, it suggests that the embroideries, if not actually made in al-Hadeth itself, were at least produced nearby.

Further information:

Momies du Liban: Rapport préliminaire sur la découverte archéologique de ‘Asi-l-Hadat (XIIIe siècle). Groupe D’Études et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban. France: Edifra, 1993.
ISBN 2904070729 / 9782904070723
LC BR133.L4 H334 1994
Ordered from Chapitre.com in France, cost 35 euros(?)
The earliest publication, better books for information on the textiles are now available.

Baroudy, Fadi et al. Asi-l-Hadath, Lebanon: History of a Grotto . Kaslik, Lebanon: PUSEK (Phoenix Center for Lebanese Studies), 2014.
Massive book about all the finds, not just the textiles.

Hourani, Guita G. The Mummies Of The Holy Valley Of Qannobine In Lebanon. Chungará (Arica). [online]. ene. 2000, vol.32, no.1, p.103-109.
ISSN 0717-7356.
Also here

Khal, H. 1989 Mysterious Mummies. Lebanon Daily Star, August 1, 1998.

The Mummy Rescue Mission.
Article about conserving the mummies for display.

Peter, Michael. Le Dernier Habit : Découvertes Funéraires de la Grotte d'Assi el-Hadath au Liban. Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2023.
Catalogue of an exhibition held after the textiles were conserved at the Abegg-Stiftung in Switzerland. Also available in German as Das letzte Gewand Grabfunde aus der Höhle Assi el-Hadath im Libanon. Available directly from the museum website. Small but excellent book, loaded with with high quality detail photographs.

Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World. London; New York: Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
Chapter 13, pp. 114-124, discusses these embroideries.

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