Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Fragment of a Carpet with Geometric Design

Object Name:
14th century
Attributed to Turkey
Wool (warp, weft and pile); symmetrically knotted pile
H. 12 in. (30.5 cm)
W. 9 1/2 in. (24.1 cm)
Mount: H. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm)
W. 17 in. (43.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1927
Accession Number:
Not on view

Selection of Furnishing and Clothing Textiles: MMA 27.170.91, 30.112.25, 30.112.41, 31.19.4

Although today many textiles are considered inexpensive, disposable objects, fabrics counted among the most valuable goods available for sale in the medieval marketplace. Current knowledge of textiles from this period is largely filtered through finds from cemeteries and rubbish piles in Egypt, where dry conditions helped to preserve these otherwise fragile items. Textual sources, too, aid in understanding textile production and trade, particularly when compared to objects from museum collections or excavation. Pieces like these four fragments suggest the range of textiles available in Jerusalem in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries.

Most scholarship on medieval textiles has focused on clothing, which can usually be identified through details like the cut of the cloth, fineness of weave, inclusion of seams, or overall quality of the cloth itself.[1]

One fragment, no. 31.19.4, is similarly woven in a combination of linen and silk, and its small size and fine details also suggest it was once part of an article of dress. Weaving precious silk with more quotidian linen was an economical choice for garments and other items intended for popular consumption. While pure silk was largely unobtainable for the average consumer, objects made partly of silk offered a similar effect at a much more accessible price. The survival of significant pieces of silk garments points to the material’s popularity in the eastern Mediterranean. Interestingly, Islamic trade manuals regulating marketplace practices (hisba) are concerned only with the relative purities of silk and are largely silent on the legitimacy of wearing it, a topic that normally arises in Islamic jurisprudence.[2] In addition, lists of Jewish women’s trousseaux and men’s estates from the Cairo Geniza include silk garments, highlighting sartorial use by both genders.[3]

Furnishing textiles, in contrast, have received much less attention in scholarly literature, despite overwhelming evidence of their central importance in day-to-day life. Although fragmentary, no. 27.170.91 can be identified as part of a rug, thanks to its knotted-pile technique and geometric design. Geniza documents employ a multitude of terms to describe carpets, which stresses their omnipresence and multiple uses in homes and places of worship, including the dwellings of the poor, palaces of the elite, and interiors of holy places, at times serving as wall coverings, bedding, or prayer rugs.[4] Curtains receive special attention in the textual sources and are indeed the most frequently cited object in the Geniza’s accounts and in Byzantine wills.[5]1 Curtains, too, served a variety of functions in interior spaces, acting as room dividers, doorways, bed curtains, and sanctuary screens, among other possibilities.

In many cases it is difficult to tell the exact purpose of a surviving fabric because it lacks clearly identifiable traits. Such uncertainty complicates efforts to identify its original function as clothing or household decoration. At the same time, however, overlaps between furnishing and dress fabrics are compelling because they signal continuities in the appearance of the clothed body and the decoration of the home, thus revealing clues about the broader visual culture of the medieval eastern Mediterranean. Textiles 30.112.25 and 30.112.41 illustrate this point. Large numbers of textiles created in a block-print technique on cotton were found in rubbish heaps in Fustat, just outside modern-day Cairo. Still more were found in port cities on the Red Sea, pointing to their trade through these places.[6] Technical details on these sorts of fabrics point to usages both as furnishings and dress. Carbon dating of several fragments in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, shows a date range from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, a testament to the enduring taste for block-print textiles in the Egyptian market. Yet the material, method of decoration, and designs indicate production in India’s Gujarat region, suggesting they were imported in large numbers to Egypt due to popular demand.[7] However, at the same time, the survival of block-printed pieces with Arabic inscriptions, including one made of linen possibly naming the Mamluk sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala’un, allude to the development of a local industry in Egypt.[8] Taken together, the range of textiles presented here provides an important contribution to our conception of the colorful clothing of Jerusalem’s citizens and the richly patterned interiors of their homes.

Elizabeth Dospěl Williams in [Drake and Holcomb 2016]


1. For background on Medieval dress in the Middle East see Ball, Jennifer. Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth- to Twelfth-Century Painting. New York, 2005; and Stillman, Yedida Kalfon. Arab Dress from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times: a Short History. Themes in Islamic Studies. 2, Leiden and Boston, 2000.

2. Ghabin, Ahmad. Hisba: Arts and Craft in Islam. Arabisch-Islamische Welt in Tradition und Moderne, 7. Wiesbaden, 2009, pp. 221–23. For a scholarly evaluation, see Steengaard, N. at al., "Harir." in EI2 1960–2009, vol. 3 (1971), pp. 209–21, plts. 1–8; Al-Bukhari, Muhammad. "Kitab al-Libas/The Book on Clothing)"in Sahih al-Bukhari, 2011 is typical of the traditions prohibiting the wearing of silk. (http:/

3. Goitein S[helomoh] D[ov]. A Mediterranian Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkely and Los Angeles, 1967–93, vol. 4, pp. 310–44, appendix D. docs.I–VI describe women's trousseaux; docs. VII–IX are from men's inventories. See especially docs. IX, VII, the inventory of the physician Abu 'l-Rida, dated to 1172.

4. Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 123–27.

5. A concise discussion of written sources is in Helmecke, Gisela. "Textiles for the Interiors: Some Remarks on Curtains in the Written Sources." In Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium A.D. from Egypt and Neighbouring Countries: Proceedings of the 5th Conference of the Research Group "Textiles from the Nile Valley", Antwerp, 6–7 October 2007, edited by Antoine de Moor, Cacilia Fluck, and Susanne Martinssen-von Falck, pp. 48–53, Tiel 2009. See also Goitein 1967–93 (note 3), vol. 4, pp. 117–22.

6. Barnes, Ruth. Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Oxford and New York, 1997. For recent work, see Wild, John Peter, and Felicity Wild. "Rome and India: Early Indian Cotton Textiles from Berenike, Red Sea Coast of Egypt". In Textiles and Indian Ocean Societies, edited by Ruth Barnes, pp. 11–16. Indian Ocean Series. London, 2005.

7. Machado, Pedro. "Awash in a Sea of Cloth: Gujarat, Africa,and the Western Indian Ocean. 1300–1800." In The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200–1850, edited by Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi, pp. 161–79. Oxford and New York, 2009.

8. Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, no. 8204.; see O'Kane, Bernard, et al. The Illustrated Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Cairo and New York, 2012, p. 297.

[ Joseph Abemayor, Cairo, until 1927; sold to H.E. Winlock for MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven," September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017, 9c.

Drake Boehm, Barbara, and Melanie Holcomb, ed. Jerusalem, 1000–1400: Every People under Heaven. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 9c, pp. 34-35, ill. fig. 9c.

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