Tiraz: Nine Early Islamic Textiles
- Dates: October 28, 2005 through July 10, 2006
- Collections: Arts of the Islamic World
- Location: This exhibition is no longer on view on the 2nd Floor
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Tiraz: Nine Early Islamic Textiles
Textiles play a vital role in Islamic society, historically and today. In the most basic sense, textiles provide clothing, shelter, and warmth at all levels of society, whether as a villager’s robe, a nomad’s tent, or a city dweller’s carpet. Textile trade fuels commerce and stimulates design across disparate Islamic lands. Textiles also connote status, as demonstrated by the royal practice of bestowing lavish robes of honor upon favored officials. The Ka‘ba in Mecca—the most sacred Islamic shrine—is covered with a black textile called a kiswa, which is a great honor for rulers to supply.
Tiraz, the subject of this installation, are an important type of textiles popular in the early and middle Islamic periods (the seventh through thirteenth centuries). Particularly through the tenth century, examples of tiraz textiles from North Africa demonstrate a remarkable continuity with the artistic forms of the Greco-Roman period, as can be seen in the concurrent exhibition Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire on the first floor of the Museum.
Although the term tiraz can be traced to the Persian word meaning “embroidery,” its use in Arabic and Persian covers a wide range of definitions. Tiraz can refer to the calligraphic, banded decoration of garments and furnishing fabrics, many of which survive in fragmentary form. The calligraphic inscriptions often contain important historical information such as the names and titles of a ruler and a date. An example is the Tiraz Textile Fragment Inscribed with the Name of Caliph al-Muti‘ (67.201.2), shown in this gallery. Tiraz can also refer to the uninscribed, exquisitely ornamented bands or roundels achieved in a variety of techniques on textiles, including tapestry weave (of which several examples are on view here), block-printing, and painting. Additionally, the word has been used to identify the factories (or Dar al-Tiraz) where these textiles were made.
The Brooklyn Museum’s most important tiraz textile, Silk Tiraz Fragment of Caliph Marwan II (41.1265), is on view in this exhibition. It belongs to a group of red silk fragments that comprise the earliest datable Islamic textile.
How have these textiles managed to survive over so many centuries?
Most of the extant examples of tiraz textile fragments are from Egyptian burial sites in Cairo (although tiraz textiles were produced in public and royal factories throughout the Islamic world). Their survival can be attributed to several factors: The Egyptian climate and soil are particularly favorable to the preservation of organic materials, and the thriving textile industry in Egypt in the early and middle Islamic periods (the seventh to thirteenth centuries) ensured that weavers had the skills to produce large amounts of fine-quality textiles.
How did Greco-Roman artistic forms become incorporated into Islamic tiraz designs?
The seventh-century Arabs who conquered Egypt encountered an indigenous textile industry that had been passed down from as far back as Pharaonic times to the Greco-Roman era, and later, to Coptic weavers (third- to twelfth-century Christians). These Arabs introduced Islamic motifs into the artistic vocabulary of North Africa at this time, such as Arabic calligraphy and certain geometric designs.
Some early Islamic textiles exhibit Late Antique and Coptic-style motifs, among them human and animal figures, forms of decoration that were in certain contexts disfavored by Muslim rulers and religious thinkers. Other early examples of tiraz textiles made by Coptic weavers actually pair pre-Islamic motifs with Arabic geometric decoration. Curiously, some of these textiles also include illegible interpretations of the Arabic script, as in Textile Fragment with Figural and Floral Motifs and Inscriptions (57.120.3).
Design Synthesis in North Africa
Alongside the tiraz textiles included in this installation of early Islamic textiles are three examples of non-tiraz weavings (Bird in a Medallion, 84.270; Textile Fragment Depicting a Speckled Deer, 86.227.96; and Textile Fragment Depicting a Hare, 86.227.97). These three fragments demonstrate the influence of pre-Islamic, specifically Greco-Roman, motifs on textiles dating to the governorship of Egypt by the Tulunid family (868–905), and contain images of animal figures placed within roundels. Such animal designs have antecedents in the arts of Roman-period Tunisia, as seen in the mosaics of the Tree of Paradise exhibition. Similar depictions of animals are also incorporated into later Islamic tiraz textiles of the Fatimid period (909–1171) on display in this room, such as Tiraz Textile Fragment (86.227.98).