Getting up close and personal with centuries-old Middle Eastern textiles and the mysteries they hold
Galleries in the museum’s Perelman Building remain closed, but the Costume and Textiles department continues to welcome groups for study. This spring, I shared a selection of medieval Middle Eastern textiles with three classes from Colgate University. Together we examined them and discussed the beliefs that imbued them with the power to protect their wearer or influence fate.
The Pseudo Inscription
Left: Textile Fragment (with Repeating Inscription), Islamic Egypt, ca. 900-1100, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1921-57-47; Right: detail of repeating inscription. Photos by Meredyth Lynn Winter
Even for a fragment, this piece is small. Measuring less than two-by-four inches in size, it was probably made around 900-1100 CE in Muslim-ruled Egypt. In truth, we have very few facts for this piece.
Its decoration, an inscription deemed illegible by previous scholarship, only adds to the enigma. But, as the students observed, the message comes across. The lettered pattern, they noted, resembled other inscribed textiles they had seen previously. Often adorned with embroidery or tapestry, such textiles often invoked God, or Allah. The design here featured vertical strokes separated by rounded forms, similarly to how Allah is written in Arabic ( الله ). But this inscription looked a bit off, as though missing the first letter. In addition, the decoration used a programmed design (plain weave with weft pattern floats) that could be efficiently repeated, unlike the more typical hand-patterning of embroidery and tapestry.
The speedy weaving process and the seemingly misspelt Allah made it clear: this textile was not official enough to have been made for the Caliph or the court. It had to be a cheaper knock-off for a broader market.
But why misspell God’s name? The students considered the difference between courtly and everyday uses of textiles, and a rationale presented itself. Courtly textiles would have had ceremonial or honorific uses. Those emblazoned with God’s name would have been carefully protected so that the sacred name was never exposed to insult or degradation. In everyday textiles, by contrast, God’s name (and by extension his blessing) would usually have been omitted for fear of subjecting the holy name to indignities. But with God’s name gone, so too were his blessings.
Leaving out just one letter, however, weavers could evoke God without actually risking offense to the sacred name. For the textile’s owner, who could still make out the intended word, the textile served as a reminder of God’s presence without sullying the name. This contradiction—inscribing what should not be written with what cannot be read—sparked discussion among the students. One student commented how fitting and even poetic it was for medieval Egyptians to evoke someone who could not be seen or fully fathomed by using a word not fully there. And in those moments of collective reflection, I saw the students glimpse the perspective of generations long past.
After seeing the power that unreadable words could have, we turned our attention to another pattern. In this instance, the power of the image stemmed from the weaving itself. This textile also comes from Egypt, but earlier, between 400 and 600 CE when Egypt was still part of the Byzantine Empire. The intricate knot designs evoke classical ideas of destiny as a thread manipulated by the fates. In Byzantine Egypt, tight knots represented in fine lines ensured a fixed, positive destiny. This sort of design is seen as apotropaic, or as protecting the wearer from ill-fortune by warding off evil.
The weaving itself underscores this symbolism. The tapestry features purple motifs on an off-white ground, while a white supplementary thread wraps itself in and out of the weft to form the protective knot designs. The fine lines of the winding, “knotted” thread mirrored the threads of fate and were thus seen to have talismanic powers.
The knot motif was widespread. The museum’s fragment, as the students observed, is itself comprised of pieces from two different weavings only assembled for modern sale. The prevalent use of this fine-line technique (or “supplementary weft-wrapping”) in protective knot designs reinforced late antique magical associations between knots and fate. These associations may have carried over into the Islamic period. In the Quran, mention of evildoers as “people who blow on knots” (Q 113:4) were interpreted in the medieval period as sorcerers, altering the threads of fate against nature’s plan.
But how would these woven talismans have been used? After all, the piece is only ten square inches. This question had no sooner been voiced than the students turned to another, much larger piece which helps explain.
This Egyptian tunic from the end of the Byzantine period or the early Islamic period (roughly 500-800 CE) measures thirty inches wide and nearly eight feet long. It would have been worn like a poncho, by passing the head through the neck opening and letting the front and back hang down. As one student observed during the group analysis, however, it would be difficult to fit a head through the small and inflexible neck opening.
The students’ first reaction was to question the piece’s authenticity, but I explained that modern dealers sometimes “improved” pieces before offering them for sale to make them appear more complete. The students looked again and noticed that the red fabric at the front and back of the neck could be of similar age, but stylistically did not seem to match the other decorative elements. A modern dealer likely added fragments from another early medieval garment, thereby narrowing the original neck, before the museum acquired the piece.
The students then noticed the applied tapestry decoration dotting the knees and shoulders and their similarity to the previous “knotted” piece. “So they’re just patches?” asked a student, obviously let down. But the answer is not so straightforward.
It is true that decorative elements were added in areas most exposed to wear. We also know that textiles were very costly and made up a significant portion of the medieval economy, so people kept their garments and repaired them. That said, this garment shows no sign of wear beneath the applied tapestry medallions. The decorations appear original to the design, although sewn on separately.
I reminded the students that areas where garments received the most wear (i.e., knees, shoulders) correspond to the most vulnerable areas of the body. Apotropaic designs (like the knots in the previous fragment) clad the wearer in a type of armor, shielding weak spots from harm with protective designs whose symbolic strength was reinforced by actual woven knots.
At this point, someone joked that the armor did not seem to have worked: the garment is, after all, from a burial. But perhaps, another student wondered aloud, it was specifically for the grave or afterlife that these protections were intended. A friendly debate ensued, although no clear consensus emerged.
Before their visit, I had given students background lectures, noting that photographs could not compare to seeing the textiles in person. Yet who, I thought, could know better the value of in-person experiences than these students who had endured the pandemic and the agony of Zoom-learning? Sure enough, their many thank-you notes marveled at the power of examining textiles up close.
Meredyth Lynn Winter is Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow in Costume and Textiles and a specialist of medieval Islamic art. She holds a PhD from Harvard University and an MA from the Bard Graduate Center.
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