Many theories have offered insights into the obsession with stylish shoes, often attributed to the allure of the female gender or the effects of modernity and the consumer culture. Nonetheless, luxury shoes are not a modern phenomenon, and the use of shoes as status symbols is as old as time, beginning centuries before footwear designer Christian Louboutin considered dying his soles red.
Evidence of the phenomenon’s origins in antiquity was discovered more than 50 years ago in a cave in the Judean Desert − a piece of leather with golden ornaments, which remained a mystery until recently.
Guy Stiebel of Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology believes the relic discovered in the “Cave of Horrors” is actually part of a sandal that was worn by an aristocratic Jewish woman at the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). If his assumption is correct, the wearer of the shoe suffered a tragic fate after fleeing with the Ein Gedi elite to refuge caves in the area of Nahal Hever, where the shoes were eventually found by Roman Legion soldiers.
According to Stiebel, the stylish sandal from the desert was the only piece of luxury footwear from the period found in Israel, and one of a few specimens ever discovered worldwide. “Roman soldiers’ sandals were found in Israel, but these were functional, not luxurious. Another such shoe was never found. There are precious few examples of findings of remains of such luxurious shoes, and in this case we can even place the shoe in its historical context.”
‘Declaring her high class’
How did such a luxurious item reach the heart of the desert some two thousand years ago? “At the time, Judea was a cosmetics superpower, due to the persimmon perfume, which was considered very expensive in the ancient world. Ein Gedi was a prosperous village at the time, and its residents could afford such a luxurious item,” Stiebel explains, adding that the owner of the shoe used it as a status symbol, “declaring her high class.”
The goat leather, cut in a V shape and sporting gold ornaments, was discovered in the 1960s. Following rumors of the looting of caves in the Judean Desert, and the sale of relics in markets in Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists embarked on a campaign to explore the Judean Desert caves. Among other sites, Tel Aviv University Prof. Yohanan Aharoni explored the “Cave of Horrors,” which got its name due to the numerous skeletons found there.
Years later, when writing his Ph.D in London, Steibel came a across a book with a leather shoe on its cover. The shoe was discovered in the remains of a Roman camp in the north of England and was miraculously preserved. Scholars concluded that it belonged to the wife of a Roman commander of the first century. The top part of the shoe, covering the foot, was constructed of a V shaped leather cutting, similar to the finding in the Judean Desert.
Since gold was not to be had locally, the shoe, Stiebel believes, was imported, probably from Egypt. Such a luxury import in the ancient world was probably very expensive, but in this case it probably also bore sentimental value. The tale of this ancient shoe, and of the production of luxury shoes in the ancient world, will be recounted Thursday at a conference sponsored by the History and Theory Department and the Jewelry and Fashion Department of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.