Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


"The perfection of execution, the rendering of figures, garments and faces is as magnificent as the best embroidery work of any period and any nation." (Kouymjian 1992, 59)


The assessment of Armenian embroidery offered by Kouymjian in his publication The Arts of Armenia is reflected in a collection of textile objects housed in the treasuries of the 33 Armenian Apostolic Churches and the Patriarchate (the official residence of the Patriarch) in Istanbul, Turkey. The textiles, many donated by devout members of the Church community, are still used in celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. The collections contain examples of the brilliant splendor associated with religious celebration, the depth of piety of the lay community, especially women, and a sense of attachment to the historical and cultural traditions of Christianity.

From baptism and the beginning of life to the last rites in death, cloth played an important role in the domestic and religious culture of Armenian life. The religious textiles in the collections are a visible reflection of high artistic achievement attained by household-based and professional needle artists who labored in an effort to produce spectacular images in cloth and thread. They stand as a rich expression of individual talent and deep spiritual conviction. Colophons or inscriptions found on many of the pieces indicate that their makers or contributors hoped for salvation and honor by successive generations through donations of the textiles to the Divine Liturgy. In addition, the textiles augment the formality and static nature of the physical structure of the church by providing a mobile art that connects the lay community to the living context of the Divine Liturgy.

The churches were the physical anchors of the Armenian community. Their material culture visibly projected social cohesion, pride and an emotional attachment to the core of beliefs that defined Armenian Christianity.


Armenians. The Armenian Apostolic Churches of Istanbul were extremely important in maintaining the social identity and cultural heritage of the Armenian population of the city from the late medieval to the modern period. By the end of the sixteenth century, Armenians were part of a minority non-Muslim population that outnumbered Muslims. By the end of the nineteenth century, Istanbul's Armenian population was between 17 and 22 percent of the total population of the city (Karpat 1985, 95-106; Kouymjian 1997, 26; Sanjian 1965, 34). At this time 55 apostolic churches existed in the city (Tuğlacı 1991). During the Ottoman Empire Armenians held high positions among the Ottoman authorities, as regional administrators and diplomats as well as accomplished artists and artisans (Barsoumian 1982, 171 ff; Tuğlacı 1991; Davison 1982, 327).