Assassins Creed Origins – An Egyptian History and Cosplay Primer

At E3 Ubisoft confirmed that their next Assassin’s Creed game will go back to the Origins of the Creed. It also takes us back to one of the cradles of civilization, Egypt.

In one of the first released promo images, Bayek (the game’s protagonist) was shown squaring off against a Roman Legionnaire (you can’t miss those helmet brooms), which would set this long after the building of the Pyramids of Giza or even the life of King Tut.  (Another clue to the later time period was the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)

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Image Courtesy of Ubisoft.

In the subsequent summer months, Ubisoft has revealed more about the world Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Of particular interest to a history nerd like me, it will be set around 49 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, aka B.C.) during the twilight of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the rise of the Roman Empire.

I am an archaeologist by training and I wrote my thesis on expressions of multiculturalism in the Ptolemaic Period. My first handmade costume was an Egyptian deity based on papyri illustrations like the ones below. I’m incredibly excited for this game and the costume potential. While I don’t have immediate plans to build a costume based on the game, I do have a unique cross section of expertise to offer fabric suggestions based on Egyptian history.

EgyptianCostume

First, if you are planning to cosplay characters from this game, make sure you check out the detailed cosplay guides released by Ubisoft.

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Bayek Cosplay Guide, via Ubisoft
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Cleopatra Cosplay Guide, via Ubisoft

They will likely release more in the coming months as more characters and story points are revealed after the game’s release. I expect Ptolemy XIII and Julius Caesar will be in the future.

They also have released a number of concept art images that depict settings and people in Egypt, some of which are shared in this post.

Ptolemaic Egypt

Knowing the history that inspired game designers (or movie makers) helps me understand what fabrics are best suited for a costume. While this game is “set in Ancient Egypt”, the Egypt that many people think of – King Tut, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx – is a couple millennia old. This period starts with when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Ptolemy, a general under Alexander, took control of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. His descendants include Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra, characters in Assassins Creed: Origins.

Here’s a quick rundown of Egyptian History:

Dates Period Notable People, Events
3100 – 2600 BCE Early Dynastic Period Unification of Egypt
2600 – 2160 BCE Old Kingdom Great Pyramids of Giza & Sphinx are built
2160 – 2040 BCE 1st Intermediate Period Provincial administration
2040 – 1795 BCE Middle Kingdom Reunification and border expansion. Trade w/ Asia
1795 – 1500 BCE 2nd Intermediate Period Kings with short reigns;  Hykos rulers
1500 – 1070 BCE New Kingdom Queen Hatshepsut, Ahkenaten, King Tut,  Ramses the Great
1070- 600 BCE 3rd Intermediate Period Fragmentation: Nubian, Assyrian rulers; more open to foreigners
600 – 332 BCE Late Period Persian rule
332 – 30 BCE Hellenistic Period Alexander the Great; Ptolemy dynasty; Cleopatra; Rosetta Stone is carved
30 BCE – 395 CE/AD Roman Egypt ROW11 COL3 CONTENT

(based on Egypt, Greece and Rome by Charles Freeman)

 

Make no mistake, those last two are colonial periods. The campaigns led by Alexander the Great resulted in Greek (aka, Hellenistic) conquests of vast territories. The generals he left in command spread Greek culture through their colonies.

The game is set during the transition between Ptolemaic Egypt and Roman Egypt. Both Egypt and Rome are experiencing civil wars of their own. Cleopatra was forced to flee Egypt for Syria in 49 BCE. Her advisors turned against her. She allied with Julius Caesar to reclaim her rule. Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE and oversaw the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

The Assassins Creed team pick a dynamic year for their game.

Egyptian Textiles and Clothing

Throughout Egyptian history, class distinctions could be made based on fabric quality (Survey of Historic Costume: 24), how it was draped, and the presence or absense of jewelry.

Durign the Ptolemaic Period, Greek clothing styles were docuemnted on the rulers (even though art shows them protrayed as the Old Kingdom pharaonic styles).

Gillian Vogelsand-Eastwood (1993) Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing

Linen

Linen was the most used textile fiber in Egypt, so the base fabric of your costume will likely be linen. Cotton and linen are two different fibers. Cotton is from the cotton plant, and linen is from flax. (You can have a linen knit fabric, though most of us think of a rougher woven fabric for pants or loose tunics in summer.) Linen is usually a looser weave than cotton. Linen fabric generally has a noticeably slubbed texture, giving it a very natural look. This is because the yarn fibers are made from long stems.

Linen is hard to dye different colors, and it would seem that Egyptian dyers didn’t know how to keep linen colors to stay, so most textiles were off-white or white. This is consistent with what we see inside tombs.

Linen comes in different thicknesses with different stiffness. All linens will soften with washing, so if your linen is too stiff for your liking when you buy it, just wash it a couple times.

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Ivory Semi Sheer Stripe Lightweight 100% Linen, Cali Fabrics

Natural fiber fabrics do tend to cost more, so if you are on a budget some loose-weave polyester-blend fabrics can you a similar look. Usually this will be called “linen look” and it is referred to the “slubbed” weave where some threads are thicker than others, portraying a more natural, handmade process. Or you may find a linen-polyester blend fabric.

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White Sheer Linen Look, from Cali Fabrics

Some differences between 100% linen and faux linen:

Linen creases, which can be an asset if you want a garment that looks lived in. It can also mean that when you sit on your costume, it wrinkles over the course of the day. A polyester-blend linen-looking fabric won’t wrinkle as much. But it also won’t press as cleanly, so your seams may not be as crisp. It really depends on what you are going for.

I made my Egyptian deity dress from a polyester-blend linen-look fabric. It has remained crease-free and smooth for nearly 15 years, which I think helps me look like the papyri paintings. It also gets warmer than one might expect for a sleeveless dress.

Linen will breath better than polyester or a polyester-blend. Polyester is made from petroleum, or oil and it can make you sweat. Thankfully, many of the garment shapes in this game (and during this time period) were designed to keep people cool in the desert heat. More on that below.

Cotton & Silk

Silk and cotton cloths were not widely used until after Egyptian power declined. So it is possible that they were present in Ptolemaic Egypt, but most likely not until the Romans or after.

Because Assassins Creed: Origins takes place after Egypt has started extensive trade with Greece and Rome, it is not unreasonable to find cotton garments in Egypt at this time.

And silk? Allegedly, Cleopatra had an affinity for silk. The royal and elite classes would have had greater access to imported silks from Asia and likely would have worn them on occasion.

Wool

Wool may have been worn in Egypt, but not by anyone associated with religious rituals, as it was considered “unclean”. (Survey of Historic Costume: 26). Most of us in the northern hemisphere think of wool as a textile that keeps us warm, but wool can be woven into varied thicknesses. A thin wool garment can allow enough air flow to keep you cool and it has the added bonus of having natural antibiotic properties that keep sweat odor to a minimum.

Wool also has nice looking weight or drape, regardless of weave thickness. If you want to have flowing garments, wool may be worth considering.

That said, wool is even more expensive than linen. I’ve never used wool for a costume, even if I think it would look great for Ezio. If you want to cosplay Caesar or Mark Anthony, a burgundy or purple wool toga or a wool overcloak would give your costume some serious gravitas.

Greco-Roman Textiles and Clothing

The majority of the people living in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Dynasty were Egyptian and the every day person probably wouldn’t have drastically changed their traditional clothing. Those of higher status would have more cause to incorporate Greek or Hellenistic elements into their clothing in an attempt to emulate the ruling class. Although, even the rulers of Greek descent maintained some of the Egyptian stylist traditions in their tombs, sculptures, and rituals.

Greek textiles involved a lot of woven wool. If you have ever visited Greece you may know that there is lots of sheep herding. Spinning and weaving textiles were an important part of Greek culture. Athena is the goddess of the loom (in addition to warriors). Penelope in that small epic poem The Odyssey spends her days weaving a shroud for her lost husband.

For the Greeks, linen only became part of their wardrobes after the 6th cent BCE, imported from Egypt and the Near East. Likewise silk came from trade with Persia (who traded with China). The Survey of Historic Costume (pg 49) notes that Greek weavers would unravel the silk textiles and then interweave it with linen to make the silk go farther.

One major difference to note is Greeks used color in their fabrics. Those marble statues we know were once painted very bright colors, using plants, minerals, and shellfish.. Their garments sometimes had patterns woven into them or embroidered on. The Romans also dyed their fabrics. The most important dye was purple, which was used for the edges of togas and the stoles.

Romans used the same textiles as Greeks, but produced them in different ways. Cotton fibers were sometimes combined with linen and wool. Wool was the most common textile as it came from their sheep. Linen, cotton, and silk were imported and reserved for higher class individuals. (So if you are planning to cosplay that Roman solider, go for wool or wool-like materials.)

Unlike Greece where women did most of the weaving at home, Rome eventually had more of textile industry based around artisan families. This specialization of skills is something anthropologists see in more complex social systems. Romans togas, like the Greek clothing, were wrapped and draped around the person. Very little sewing was done. (I expect the cosplayers to be rejoicing.)

 

 

 

Bayek Fabric Recommendations

You are probably here to get suggestions for which fabrics you need to buy for your Assassin’s Creed: Origins cosplay. So lets get to it!

First, let’s consider Bayek’s role in society. According to the University of Chicago (and I trust them) the Medjay were originally a group of people who lived in the eastern deserts toward modern day Sudan and the Red Sea. They were herdsmen and warriors who occassionally served as hired foreign soliders in the military ranks of Egypt. Over thousands of years, Medjay became a term that referred more to a job class of law enforcement/para-military force regardless of cultural or ethnic background. This is, I believe where Bayek’s story comes into play.  (If you are interested, I found a 700-page dissertation on the history of the Medjay.) Bottom line: Bayek is coming from a utilitarian social position.

Seriously, if you are cosplaying Bayek I don’t think you need to formally sew anything. You might need to do some embroidery or some textile dying or distressing. But each of these four fabric sections are likely long rectangles draped around the body.

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Look at that slubbed linen texture!
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You can see the full 360-turnaround in the cosplay guide

 

It is most likely that his hood and “skirt” are made from linen. Just look at that texture on the hood images.

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Mid-weight linen – Denver fabrics

 

 

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Textured linen – Mood Fabrics

I am curious about the orange patterned fabric (it could be wool or linen) as it does not look like the representations of Greek or Egyptian clothing that I have seen thus far. However, given that the Medjay were included people of different backgrounds, perhaps this is something that represents his home culture or perhaps is a souvenir form his service around the Egyptian empire.

The red sash – the icon of Assassins Creed costumes – looks like it could be Greek in origin or influence. It is a thicker material than the linen cowl and appears to have gold embroidery. I would likely choose a wool-blend for this.

Cleopatra Fabric Recommendations

Cleopatra VII (though we know her as THE Cleopatra) ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her two younger brothers and then with her son) for almost three decades. – She’s like Cersei in a way: a queen with ambition, but bound to the patriarchal traditions of Greek culture and thus forced to share rule with the men in her family.

Her garments will be made of more refined or rare fabrics, including silks, wool, or cotton blends.

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Cleopatra Cosplay Guide, courtesy of Ubisoft

Um, wouldn’t this fabric just be gorgeous for Cleo?

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Linen-Cotton blend with gold thread, Mood Fabrics

 

 

If you wanted a silk option:

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Ivory Silk with woven texture, Mood Fabrics
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Wool-silk blend, mood fabrics (golden-olive-silk-wool-pv9900-s40-11.jpg)

A more affordable option for her gold sash would be a polyester silk/satin lining:

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Gold lining fabric, From Denver Fabrics

 

Or polyester charmeuse:

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Dark Gold Charmeuse, Denver Fabrics

Ancient Egypt is a place I have always wanted to explore and with the open-world mechanics it looks like Assassin’s Creed Origins is going to grant my wish. I look forward to seeing how they have interpreted and depicted this era of Egyptian history. It was a time of change for three major cultural and political powers in the Mediterranean.

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I am so excited to see what the cosplayers in the Assassin’s Creed community do with these characters. Good luck with your cosplay!

I’ll be at PAX West this weekend if you want to geek about about fabrics and costume history.

 

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3 thoughts on “Assassins Creed Origins – An Egyptian History and Cosplay Primer

  1. Wow. This is overwhelmingly full of goodness and information. Ubisoft cosplay guide! I know what job I WANT now! I am curious to know how many women were at PAX this year (that you saw). And of course. what you wore.

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