The fez, a red cylindrical cap flat at the top often giving a truncated conical appearance when worn, and often with a black tassle at the top, was evidently an introduction from Ottoman Turkey and its Arab dependencies and caught on among the Moors during the latter part of the nineteenth century. This headgear though popularized by the Turks is thought to have originated from the city of Fez in Morocco from which it takes its name. Nevertheless, the Moors have traditionally known it as the Turukki toppi or ‘Turkish hat’. It is generally believed that it was the famous Egyptian nationalist leader Arabi Pasha who was exiled to the island by the British in 1883 who introduced this form of headgear to the country. Ponnambalam Arunachalam (The Census of Ceylon 1902) states that the presence of the Egyptian militant Arabi Pasha and his fellow Egyptian exiles in Ceylon has had the effect of stirring up the Moorish community and has led to “the adoption of the dress of European Turks”. In the photographs of the Egyptian exiles reproduced in Ceylon in 1903 by John Ferguson, all including Arabi, Yacoub, Toulba, Ali Fehmi, Mahmoud Fehmi, Mahmoud Sami and Abdul are shown wearing fez caps.
We may gather from this that it was largely, if not solely due to the influence of Arabi Pasha and his fellow exiles that the fez caught on among the Moors and eventually came to be regarded as their traditional head-dress. What must also be borne in mind is that the fez was the head-dress of the Turkish Sultan who was regarded as the Caliph or leader of the Islamic world, a fact which would have given it added importance in the eyes of local Muslims.
Robert Walsh gives an interesting account of the origins of the headgear in his Historical Account of Constantinople (1838) which deals with the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39). Says Walsh: “A distinguishing characteristic of the turban was a small red cap, called a fez, which covered the crown, and round which the turban was wound. When this pondrous head-dress was laid aside by the Sultan, the fez was retained, as a remnant of orientalism, but as its circumference was less than that of a saucer, its border was enlarged till it reached the ears, and it became the adopted and distinguishing covering of the head under the new regime”. Walsh also gives the following account of the manufacture of the headgear as it prevailed in his day: “It was originally manufactured at Tunis, and cost the government such immense sums, that the Sultan resolved to establish a manufactory of it at home, and extensive edifices were erected for the purpose. A number of African workmen were invited, and they succeeded in everything except the vivid colour, the preparation of which was kept a profound secret at Tunis. At length the process was discovered by an intelligent and enterprising Armenian; and the establishment, now complete in all its parts, exceeds, perhaps, that of any in Europe. Nearly one thousand females, of all persuasions, Raya as well as Turk, assemble here, and receive the wool weighed out to them. This they knit into caps of the prescribed form, and then return them. They are next subject to a process of fulling, and teazel heads, to raise the knap, then to clipping with shears, and finally pressed under a screw, till at length the texture becomes so dense as to obliterate all trace of knitting, and appears like the finest broad cloth. When it has attained this state, it is dyed by the newly- discovered process, and assumes a hue of rich dark scarlet or crimson. The altered shape of the cap is now a cylinder with a flat top, from the centre of which a thrum of purple silk-thread depends”.
It would appear that the fez had already made its influence felt by the turn of the nineteenth century. In a group photo of Ceylon Moors taken in 1901 on the occasion of the Birth Anniversary of Sultan Abdul Hamid and reproduced in the MICHS (1983) we already come across a few individuals attired in the fez while in a photo of a gathering at Hameedia School Building in New Moor Street, Colombo, to celebrate the opening of the Hejaz Railway to Mecca from Medina by the Turkish Government (1stSeptember 1908) also reproduced in the same work, we find a majority of persons, especially young persons wearing the fez. Here, the peculiar beehive cap could still be seen worn by a few older individuals. This is corroborated by Willis (1907) who notes that the younger generation of Moormen affect the fez and comments “It is to be regretted that this importation seems likely to supersede the silk toppi which is distinctive of the Ceylon Moormen”. Indeed, the Moors of the eastern districts who do not seem to have ever known the Surat toppi, certainly knew the Turukki toppi which attests to its widespread popularity among the Moors of all parts of the country.
The fez cap though a Turkish headgear was at the time considered to be a symbol of Muslim identity as is suggested by the so-called ‘fez controversy’ of 1905-1906 when the noted Moor leader and advocate M.C.Abdul Cader was prohibited from entering court with the fez. Pursuant to a notice published in the local newspapers by the Fez Committee, a largely attended representative mass meeting of the Muslims of Ceylon was held on Sunday the 31st of December 1905 at 4.00 pm in the open air at the Maradana Mosque Grounds, Colombo, to protest against the action of the Supreme Court of the island which prohibited Mr.Abdul Cader from appearing in court with his usual “Mohammedan head-dress – the Fez”.
The Times of Ceylon of the 1st of January 1906 had this to say of the meeting: “The clannish cohesion of Mohamedans on questions of their faith, or on questions affecting it, is remarkable and the esprit de corps of the community is an object of admiration and imitation to men of other persuasions. It was that esprit de corps which gathered together over 30,000 men on the grounds of the Maradana Mosque yesterday. From noon, a stream of men was noticeable converging from all parts of the city and massing in their thousands and tens of thousands about the Mosque. As the appointed hour fixed for the meeting drew near the Mosque became almost inaccessible for a distance of a quarter of a mile. Arrived at last on the grounds of the Mosque, the visitor was confronted by a gathering, which in variety of garb, in density, in numbers, in orderliness and in enthusiasm has seldom, if ever, been seen in one spot in Colombo, since the demonstration on the Galle Face on the death of Queen Victoria. The variety of garb was only equaled by the variety of race. The Moormen of Ceylon, of course preponderated. Quite 20,000 of the 30,000 people congregated were Ceylon Moors. The Coast Moors mustered in strength, which comprised the large majority of the remaining 10,000. But among the Ceylon Moors and the Coast Mohamedans there stood fair-skinned Turks, grave Persians, tall Afghans, stalwart men of Arab blood, men of African origin, Mohamedans from Asia Minor, Sikhs from Northern India and Malays from the Farther East. There were Mohamedans in frock-coat and the sober European garb – with fezes on. There were Tambies clad in the costume characteristic of their community. Their priests and foreign Mussulmans in long, graceful, flowing robes of bright crimson pink, dazzling green, dull brown, gorgeous magenta, men in turbans, in caps, in fezes, men with cloth head-gear, and men in hoods. The diversity of type, race, costume, language and nationality was, however, merged in the unity of faith and unanimity of purpose. It was a great gathering, a concourse of men impressive and even magnificent. That they will achieve the object for which they organized yesterday’s demonstration seems hardly to admit of doubt”.
Intensive agitation and massive demonstrations in Colombo and in other parts of the island finally resulted in a decision of the Supreme Court permitting the wearing of the fez in court. Today the Fez figures mainly in Moor weddings as part of the traditional attire of the bridegroom. It is still very much considered an indispensable appendage of the wedding attire of the Moor male.