Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.



In a red world bathed in shimmering gold light, a man sits with his head in his hand as wild beasts encircle him. He is emaciated, has unkempt hair, and wears only a waistcloth—but he has a dreamy smile on his face. Nearby, a camel bears a palanquin carrying a stately woman, her head tipped to one side, arm outstretched from the window of her traveling abode toward her lover. Beneath her, the signature “Work of Ghiyath” is woven in Kufic script inside an eightpointed star on the palanquin (Fig. 1).

This depiction of the literary characters Layla and Majnun is one of a small group of figural textiles from the cache of fine luxury silks produced in Safavid Iran (1501-1722 CE). The red lampas metal-ground silk resides in the permanent collection of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. The designer of the textile, Ghiyath al-Din Ali of Yazd, was a Safavid court favorite whose fine silks were donned by the Iranian aristocracy at the turn of the seventeenth century. Additional Layla and Majnun textile designs include a second satin lampas by Ghiyath al-Din, as well as unsigned works whose techniques include double weave (Fig. 2) and velvet, in rich reds and metal-wrapped thread. All of the Layla and Majnun textiles known are dated 1580- 1625, corresponding with the reign of the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629).

The Safavids: Sufi Kings and Dervish Silk

The appearance of these particular textiles during the reign of Shah Abbas is an indicator of the philosophy within the Shah’s court. Shah Abbas actively sought diplomatic alliances with European heads of state, and strove to present an exterior façade representing the wealth and power of his court. According to travelogues from Western visitors, the court of Shah Abbas in the capital city of Isfahan was resplendent with silk carpets and gold brocade textiles used for everything from soffreh cloths to garments and turbans.