Dar Anahita

Near and Middle Eastern Textiles

A Few Fragments
from the 9th to the 14th centuries

Textiles were made for many purposes, of many different kinds of fibers, and in an amazing array of techniques in the Near and Middle East. Linen and wool are native to the whole region, cotton was grown in Arabia and the Levant, while silk was first imported from the Far East, then produced locally. The dyes of the region include indigo for blue and kermes and several other sources for brilliant reds.

For ordinary domestic consumption cloths were woven of linen and wool, and cotton in a few places, such as Yemen. Sometimes these were embroidered or ornamented with other techniques. They were used for clothing, mattress and pillow covers, rugs, wall and tent hangings, and yet more purposes. These were generally produced in home or village by women. A multitude of methods produced accessories such as socks in techniques such as naalbinding (also called needle netting), knitting, and sprang. Various cords were created by spinning, plying, braiding, and plaiting. Nomadic women wove tent bands of goat and camel hair. They also produced hangings for the tent's walls and cushions and rugs for the floors in various knotted and cut pile techniques, soumac, and other supplementary weft techniques. Unfortunately, few of these "humble" items survive.

What have been preserved more often are the elaborate and luxurious fabrics produced in specialized workshops for the caliphs and governors of various dynasties, from Central Asia to Andalusian Spain, and given as gifts to people important to the rulers. These are often of silk in complex brocade, satin, velvet, and tapestry weaves. Most often the products of these workshops were wall hangings and rugs, as well as some garments made of silk brocades and velvets whose use was restricted by law to caliphs, governors, and those receiving special rewards from the caliphs.

Textiles discovered in ancient sites in the last couple hundred years were cut up so more pieces could be sold to collectors and museums at first. They were often found by "grave robbers", not archaeologists. There was no documentation on where they were found or how they were disposed in situ. Thus sites were not properly excavated and fabrics were damaged and much information lost. This explains why so many fragments in museums are individual motifs or a repeat or two of a pattern often cut in a circle or rectangle. This is unfortunate as we can't always tell exactly where a textile is from; sometimes we only know general ideas of time and place by analyzing the decorative styles and textile techniques. Nor do we always know whether the fragment was part of a garment, a hanging, a pillow cover, etc. If a decorative band was on a plain linen garment, frequently the band was cut out and the remainder of the garment destroyed, which explains why so many Egyptian tapestry woven bands and roundels appear in museums as isolated pieces, matching sets often separated and spread through several museums.

The examples on this page are from:
Du Ry, Carel J. Art of Islam. Harry Abrams, Inc., New York: 1970 (now out-of-print)

  • 9th c. woven fragment with Lion and "Tree of Life" motifs, Turkic Central Asia
  • 10th c. woven fragment with Elephants, Camels, and Kufic Script, Turkic Central Asia
  • 11th c. woven brocade fragment with Cheetahs and Hawks, Egypt
  • 12th c. woven brocade fragment with Peacocks and Kufic script, Al-Andalus (Spain)
  • 12th c. "Tiraz" fragment with tapestry woven Kufic script and decorative bands, Egypt
  • 12th c. Embroidered Royal Mantle of Roger II, Palermo, Sicily
  • 13th or 14th c. fragment of embroidery, Egypt
I can't always tell what purpose the textile was meant to fulfill. Most shown here are brocades, but there were an enormous variety of textile techniques in use in the Near and Middle East - ranging from knitting, sprang, and naalbinding, to embroidery and open work, to brocades and velvets, to tapestry, soumak, and knotted piles.

Ninth Century
Fragment with Lion and "Tree of Life" Motifs
Central Asia

The book in which i found this mentions neither technique nor material. It is from Zandaneh, near Bukhara, in Central Asia and exhibits a mix of styles typical of many cities along the Silk Road, combining, among others, Persian and Chinese elements.
lion medallion brocade

Tenth Century
Fragment with Elephants, Camels, and Kufic Script
Central Asia

The book mentions only slightly more about this piece. It is woven of silk and appears to be from a hanging. It is from Khurasan, in Central Asia, made during the Buwaihid dynasty. Notice the 2-humped Bactrian camels in the band on the left. The Kufic script, the name for the rectilinear Arabic writing often used in decorative work and which appears upside down in this fragment, says "Glory and prosperity to Qa'id Abu'l-Mansur Bakht-tegin, may Allah perpetuate his happiness." Many such elaborate textiles were made to be given by caliphs and other rulers as gifts.
elephants and camels and Kufic script, oh my

Eleventh Century
Brocade Fragment with Cheetahs and Hawks

This fragment shows cheetahs, which were sometimes domesticated and used in hunting, wearing collars and leashes. The brocade weave in fine silk is from the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt. This dynasty, which began in the city of Constantine in Algeria in 909, founded the city of Cairo in Egypt as their capital, where they reigned until 1171.
collared and chained cheetahs and diving hawks

Twelfth Century
Brocade Fragment with Peacocks and Kufic Script
Muslim Spain

This fragment was made in Muslim Spain, the Kingdom of Al-Andalus, sometimes called Andalusia. It is a fine silk brocade. The peacocks' tails fan to form a medallion shape which encloses the birds at whose feet frolic deer, gazelles, or perhaps unicorns. Other birds form lines beneath bars of Kufic script. I don't know what this one says, but typically these "inscriptions" call on Allah by various epithets to preserve the reigning caliph - however, sometimes these letters have become mere decorative shapes.
peacock medallions and bands of Kufic script

Twelfth Century
"Tiraz" Fragment with Tapestry Woven Kufic Script and Decorative Bands

This fragment from Egypt consists of a base cloth of blue and natural linen warp stripes with weft-wise decorative bands of red and yellow silk. Although the book says they are embroidered, the bands are actually tapestry woven in (this isn't be the first time an art historian shows his unfamiliarity with textile techniques).

The term "Tiraz" is used to refer to several different things. Sometimes the term refers to woven or embroidered bands on the upper sleeves of important people. But it can also refer to the actual state-sanctioned textile workshops. And the term can refer to any textile from a court factory. The Kufic script identifies this fragment as being from a court factory. It may be from a garment, but could also be a cushion cover or hanging.

striped linen with bands of Kufic script and scrolls

Twelfth Century
Royal Mantle of Roger II

This amazing garment of red twill weave silk was made for the Norman King Roger II at Palermo in 1134. He founded the short-lived but culturally rich kingdom of Norman Sicily, where Christian and Muslims mingled cultures, arts, and trade. The almost Central Asian style lions attacking camels are embroidered in a mix of colored silk and gold wrapped threads.
Coronation Robe of the Norman-Sicilian King Roger in Palermo
click on image to see a larger version

Thirteenth or Fourteenth Century
Fragment of Embroidery

This embroidery is from the Bahri Mamluk dynasty, which lasted in Egypt from 1250-1390. It is black or dark blue silk on linen with openwork in white linen thread. The Bahri was followed by the Circassian Mamluk dynasty who ruled Egypt from 1382-1517, at which time Egypt was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. (Throughout the Near East, two different dynasties often ruled simultaneously in one region from different cities). During the Mamluk period, block printing on cotton also became popular in the Near East. Previously it was imported from India.
dark silk embroidery on linen

Back to
Al-Riyad, the Courtyard
at Dar Anahita

Suggestions, questions, comments, &c.?

all text this page copyright 1999, Lilinah biti-Anat,
known in the SCA as Anahita al-Qurtubiyya bint 'abd al-Karim al-hakim al-Fassi