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.


Soon after Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the early 7th century, his followers began spreading the faith. Within one century, Islam had been carried across North Africa to Spain and across the Middle East to Central Asia. Great centers of civilization developed in the political capitals, such as Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, and later in Istanbul and Isfahan, accompanied by elaborate court ceremonies to promulgate their wealth and power. Imperial ceremonials were equivalent to theatrical settings, usually based on strict hierarchies and rigid protocol, in which luxurious textiles were vital symbols.

Four overt textile symbols of imperial wealth and power - throne covers, throne room carpets, red-carpet receptions, and robes of honor - will be considered here. All together, they provide insight into the original significance of extant Islamic textiles whose status, given the comparatively few archival tidbits, often challenges evaluation.

The documented ceremonial practices of the Ottoman Turks during their political and artistic height in the 16th and early 17th centuries provide an illuminating framework for condsidering other wealthy Islamic courts. The Ottomans preserved and documented one of the largest treasuries in the world in the imperial Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It contains, for example, numerous fabrics and more than three hundred and thirty imperial kaftans dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. About twenty percent of the kaftans are patterned, including foreign fabrics dominated by Italian velvets, and some eighty percent are plain (Figure 5). In addition, traveler's accounts and historical miniature paintings have been consulted. First, however, the significance of precious gems will be summarized.

When the Arabs conquered the Middle East, gemstones already symbolized imperial power and wealth, especially in Iran during the Sasanian empire (226-651). Pearls and rubies enriched clothing and carpets. Most renowned was the immense floor covering known as King Khosrau's spring garden carpet, which was made around 600 for the imperial audience hall at the palace in Ctesiphon. It contained paths covered with gemstones flanked by blossoming trees and fruits formed with gold, silver, and precious stones. Was it a knotted pile carpet or an embroidery?