Silk is one of the most desirable fabrics. Ever since the Chinese discovered the strength, sheen and malleability of silk threads in the 4th millennium B.C.E. silk has been the textile of privilege. Although silk is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, finds from ancient times are scarce. Organic materials break down with time and do not survive for archaeologists to find them. The drier regions of Israel, however, have an ideal climate for the survival of organic finds.
During Byzantine times, with prosperity in the Negev and open trade routes, there are a few surviving fragments. Christian pilgrims traveling to holy sites from Egypt brought silk fragments to Nitzana where 4 fragments of this rare cloth were found. In Avdat, the Nabatean Byzantine city, one fragment was found dating from before the destruction of the city in 636 C.E. This fragment’s pattern was discernible and resembles patterns of tunics found in Egypt from this same time period. Nahal Omer in the Arava Valley yielded 3 silk fragments from among 250 textiles found there from the 7th-8th century C.E. The location of the spice route from Petra to Gaza led to the opulence of these locations and the existence of people who had the means to acquire silk garments.
There is another place in Israel where silk has been found which is not associated with the spice route – Qarantal, above Jericho. In Cave 38 beneath Qarantal fortress (today known as the Mount of Precipice), were found 800 textile fragments from the 9th-13th century C.E. Many of them are compound silk fragments – silk woven in with other less expensive threads. All of these 800 fragments were used and most were from repaired garments.
Who was storing old clothes in a cave above Jericho? In antiquity, clothing was used and patched until it was beyond repair, and only then discarded. Researchers believe that this was not a giant trash heap but rather a horde of raw materials for another purpose. During this time, new technology came to the Middle East. A cheap substitute for parchment or papyrus was available. Developed and streamlined in China in the 2nd century C.E., paper-making made its way on the trade routes. Using wood pulp for paper would only be invented in 1843, and ancient paper production was from fabrics. Quality paper would be made from quality textiles, like silk, which could provide durable fibers.
Writing started circulating on this paper. Silk, which started as a product of worms, became at the end of their journey, substrate for words. Worms to words.