Ηats of the Ancient Near East
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Today’s post is all about cool f**king ancient hats. I’ve been reading way too many anally retentive fanboy arguments recently about exactly which sword would be used by the Seleucid Argyraspides and how many tonnes of hay Hannibal’s elephants would have required to cross the Alps. I loathe the way that uninteresting footnotes of military history are given precedence over, ooh, entire populations of ancient people. So today is all about the hats.
One specific hat in particular: the kyrbasia.
And in fact the kyrbasia is important to understanding both soldiering and power in the Ancient Near East. So there.
To call a kyrbasia a hat, however, is like calling a Land Rover a little runabout.
The basic pattern doesn’t vary much across time or place. It combines a pointed hood part with a long neck-guard or veil at the back and two even longer wide flaps at either temple:
This pattern comes from a brilliant page on the kyrbasia/ kidaris by a re-enactor called Dan D’Silva. I hope he doesn’t mind me reproducing it here (he offers it as a downloadable pattern to copy) and he has some really nice photos illustrating the various ways you can tie it, which I’ll touch on in a moment.
A lot has been made of the deeper origins of the kyrbasia. It’s a popular theory that these hats were so important to ancient Iranian peoples because they were associated with horsey nomads like the Scythians. The Persians themselves were distantly descended from nomadic horsepersons. In the Persian and Western mind alike, it became synonymous with Achaemenid military prowess.
However much that symbolic importance may have been true, I think it overlooks how incredibly practical this headwear is and was. And how much of a badass it makes you look.
You can wear this hat a million different ways, depending on the conditions around you and what you’re up to. You can wrap the flaps around your face to keep dust or cold winds off (very practical for a horseman on the Iranian plateau or the Anatolian steppe).
You can use them as a handy beard net.
You can tie them around your head if you want to keep the sun off your head and the back of your neck but fancy some fresh air.
You can just leave them hanging loose for that relaxed, athleisure look.
You can wear it under helmets, over other hats, with or without a headband to keep it in place. You can make it out of loose, thin material to keep the sun off you and the air circulating, or you can make it out of double thick, stiff felt. You can cover it in cool f**king stuff to make you look awesome, or you can hide behind it like a modern balaclava.
Headgear was an important way to signal your identity in the Ancient Persian world, and in the art of the era different ethnic groups tend to be distinguished by their clothes. Anatolians like the Phrygians, Cappadocians and Lycians were known for their distinctive riff on the basic kyrbasia format. Closer-fitting and with smaller lappets at the cheeks, they had a slightly bulbous end to the hood part of the hat:
At least one scholar, Gèrard Seiterle, has succeeded in making a very convincing-looking Phrygian cap out of the tanned skin of a bull’s scrotum. Personally, I find the idea of stuffing my head into a cured cow bollock a bit icky, but it does create a very plausible leather cap with bulges (ahem) in all the right places.
It’s been suggested this is how they were all made to begin with, and it was only later that the hats were made out of other things. The idea is that there was some sympathetic magic going on there, and that the potency of the bull would seep into the wearer. Whatever the reason for the iconic shape of these hats, they were imitated in Greek helmets from quite early on, and were particularly associated with cavalry right into the Roman period.
A kyrbasia or some variation on it is an intensely practical piece of clothing if you live somewhere that’s very cold half the year and very dry and dusty the other half. It’s no wonder it became a powerful symbol of ethnic identity inside and outside the ancient Iranian world. It wasn’t so obvious, perhaps, that it would become a symbol of elite power.
From hat to crown
The language Greek sources use to talk about the nuances of Persian headgear is frustratingly limited. There are three terms associated with the type of thing I’m covering here – the tiara, the kidaris and the kyrbasia – and in different times and even between different authors there was a lot of slippage between them. It is also perfectly possible that many of these sources didn’t know what they were talking about, or there was no easy way to describe customs around head-dresses in a language and culture that generally avoided them.
We know that the Persian King tied a ribbon – in Greek the diadem - around the kyrbasia, and Xenophon claims that only the King’s kinsmen were allowed to wear one of these tied around their heads or their own headgear as a sign of their high status. It’s thought it may be where Alexander the Great’s iconic diadem came from.
In the later Achaemenid and early Hellenistic period, the kyrbasia became a standard part of the iconography of satraps, the governors of Persian administrative regions. Their headgear is distinctive, in that it’s neither floppy like the utility versions of the kyrbasia, but nor is it stiffened into an upright tower like the royal version. Instead they seem to be made of a stiff but not rigid material, perhaps leather or felt, and the hood part tends to be squashed forwards into a sort of peak cap or to the side like a beret. It’s not easy to know to what degree the shape of kyrbasias we see on satrapal coins was something that was tightly socially regulated or a snapshot of the fashion from a particular time and place. They were found on coins throughout Anatolia and modern Iran though.
Kyrbasias of different kinds remained common across the greater Iranian world. This blog focuses on Anatolia and the Black Sea, however, and in this part of the world the iconography of political and spiritual power continued to lean on kyrbasias even long after Alexander’s conquest. This early coin of Mithridates the Great of Pontos shows him wearing a stiff but not rigid kyrbasia like his satrapal ancestors:
Again, in this case it’s hard to know to what degree Mithradates’ choice was simply stylistic tradition or whether it was a reflection of contemporary dress codes. We’ve little access to the context in which these coins were produced. We do know that Mithradates pivoted towards a more Hellenised, Alexandrian diadem in the coins from last two thirds of his reign. And because his earlier kyrbasia was an aristocratic but not royal head-dress, it almost certainly wouldn’t be what the crown of Kappadokia Pontika would have looked like (assuming there was one: there are no surviving coins of a Mithradatid wearing a royal “crown” other than a diadem).
We do have better evidence for neighbouring states. The crowns of Armenia and Commagene were highly stylised royal kyrbasias, known in Greek as the tiara orthe. In the case of the Commagenian version the traditional earflaps were narrowed into long strips and wound around the rim of the hat. After all, heavily embroidered stiff kyrbasias were ancient symbols of authority and royalty. Xerxes had presented one to the people of Abdera in Thrace as a diplomatic gift, for example.
A hat for all seasons
Even if it was worn by kings, kyrbasias remained a hat of the people. Ordinary soldiers and workers went on wearing the floppier, more adaptable kinds of kyrbasias as well as the stiffer Phrygian caps across the former Persian Empire and into the Caucasus. The Sarmatian and Scythian tribes also wore variations on these hats for many centuries.
During the later Classical and Hellenistic periods Asian hats started to creep into Greek fashion, much to the dismay of the sort of man who thought it was barbaric to cover your head. Sometimes women adopted them first, as in the case of the mitra (basically a scarf wound around the head), which did nothing to help the bad press. Headgear was a potent symbol of ethnic identity, but in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world it could also indicate other things: allegiance to a cause or to a lifestyle, for example. Hats in particular seem to have travelled well.
Looking at Tigran the Great or Antiochus of Commagene’s sumptuously embroidered kyrbasias, it’s easy to forget that these hats were folk costume first and foremost. Long after the satrapal and royal versions of them had died out local folk variations on the kyrbasia have lived on under various names.
Descendants of the kyrbasia can be found in contemporary folk dress throughout the Caucasus, the Black Sea coasts and into Iran and Central Asia. They often go by a name that is a variation on the Turkish bashlyk (a derivative of the word baş, meaning “head”). The roomy felted version in the Ukraine was associated with the Cossacks and briefly became fashionable throughout Russia in the middle of the 19th Century.
Isabella Bender-Weber argues that the stiffened ceremonial Near Eastern version, the tiara orthe, influenced the design of later ceremonial head-dresses, notably those of the various Orthodox churches:
Traditional Pontian men’s dress still includes kyrbasias today. They’re called “pashlik”, from the Turkish bashlyk. And they look badass. Pontian traditional dress in general was designed with badassery in mind:
There are all sorts of bits and bobs that are different and the emphasis is today firmly on the ornamental possibilities of pashliks. Nevertheless, it is amazing how little the basic design of this Pontian headgear has changed from the time of the Persian satraps.