Textiles were the heavy industry of medieval Muslim regions

In the medieval Muslim regions, the manufacture of textiles was one of the principal luxury industries; these textiles were immensely valuable not only in the Muslim lands but also across the globe; many fragments are housed in museums around the world.

Tiraz containing an  Arabic inscription in kufic script extending blessings to the Prophet and the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah (r. 953-975).
Tiraz containing an Arabic inscription in kufic script extending blessings to the Prophet and the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah (r. 953-975). Image: Aga Khan Museum

The creation of textiles was among the most important of the arts in the medieval Muslim society. The production of dyes, fibers, and other goods needed to weave textiles was the heavy industry of medieval times similar to the modern industries of steel and iron. The importance of textiles in the medieval Islamic society is clear from the number of words for textiles that have passed from Arabic and Persian into European languages; some terms have been derived from the site where a specific fabric was thought to have been woven. Thus, damask derives from Damascus, the capital of Syria; muslin from Mosul, a city on the upper Euphrates. Other textile terms are modifications: for example, mohair comes from the Arabic word mukhayyir meaning choice; taffeta is from the Persian word taftan, to spin.

Textiles served various functions: they were used for clothing as well as for furnishings – floor coverings, curtains, sacks, pillows, and spreads. Royal garments were inscribed with the caliph’s name and came to be known as tiraz – from the Persian tirazidan, to embroider. The term later came to describe a line of embroidered or woven inscription, and then the weaving institution itself. In the medieval Muslim regions, the manufacture of textiles was one of the principal luxury industries; these textiles were immensely valuable not only in the Muslim lands but also across the globe; many fragments are housed in museums around the world.

Cairo, the Fatimid capital founded by Caliph Imam al-Muizz in the tenth century, became a major centre for the production of valuable artifacts, supplying the daily needs of a prosperous sector of the population. Furniture and textiles made in Cairo had a particularly high reputation and were exported to the entire Mediterranean area. Initially taken to Europe by merchants and travellers and then preserved as relics in church treasuries, Fatimid textiles are still prized by curators and collectors for their creativity and high quality. The most famous examples of Fatimid textile are the Veil of Saint Anne, in the Cathedral of Apt, Provence, dating to the end of the eleventh century; and the ‘Shroud of Cadouin’ preserved in a monastery in Perigord in France.

Textiles were also important to understand the history of art. Until large sheets of paper to make patterns became readily available in the fourteenth century, motifs and designs were often circulated through textiles, as they were readily portable and easily transported over vast distances. The mechanical weaving on a loom also encouraged the use of symmetrical, repeating, and geometric designs that characterize much of Islamic art.

References:
Tiraz Textile, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom, Islam: Art and Architecture edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Cologne. Konenmann, 2000

Research by Nimira Dewji


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