Against a deep blue satin ground, a cream-colored ogival vine scroll encloses lotus-blossom medallions—each one containing an almond-shaped form with an Arabic inscription announcing, "The sultan, the king." The anonymous ruler invoked by this inscription was likely one of the Mamluk sultans who reigned over much of Egypt and Syria from their capital, Cairo. Owing to the dry climate of this region, a number of textiles survive from this period.
Luxury textiles such as this one played a vital role in the courtly life of the Mamluk sultans. Contemporary historians document the bestowal of textiles by Mamluk rulers—including so-called khila‘, or robes of honor—at investiture ceremonies where such weavings served to confer promotions of rank and to reward service. Over time, a carefully coded sartorial hierarchy developed within Mamluk society, wherein dress indicated status. While it is difficult to align surviving examples with the textiles described in the historical accounts, silks like this, inscribed with the title of the sultan, may have counted among these highly treasured and politically charged gifts.
In terms of design, this example is similar in both pattern and palette to several silk textile fragments, thought to be of Chinese manufacture, found in the environs of Cairo. Some of these fabrics display an ogival pattern comparable to the Museum’s piece, while others exhibit designs incorporating swaying vines with almond-shaped medallions containing similar Arabic inscriptions. The medallions on the latter textiles refer to a specific Mamluk sultan, al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1294–1340, with interruptions).
Textile scholars note that in 1323 the Ilkhanid ruler Abu Sa‘id reportedly sent a gift of seven hundred specially commissioned "Mongol" textiles, woven with the Mamluk sultan’s name and titles, to al-Nasir Muhammad. It has been proposed that these silks bearing Arabic inscriptions naming al-Nasir Muhammad are survivals from that early fourteenth-century gift. While this connection remains to be proven, the strong correspondence between the Metropolitan’s textile pattern and the design of the related "Chinese" or "Mongol" silks suggests that imported fabrics inspired the weaver of our Mamluk textile. This would not be unexpected, as the use of chinoiserie elements in works in other media produced during the reign of al-Nasir Muhammad has already been noted. Thus, this textile speaks not only to the cosmopolitan taste of the Mamluk court in the fourteenth century but also to the continuum of trade and diplomatic contact stretching from China to the Mediterranean during this period.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. For more on the subject of Mamluk textiles, see Mackie 1984. Textiles similar to the Museum’s example may be found in Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (no. 95,153; see Wilckens, Leonie von. Mittelalterliche Seidenstoffe: Seidenstoffe des 5.–14. Jahrhunderts im Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum. Bestandskatalog des Kunstgewerbemuseum, 18. Berlin, 1992, p. 60, no. 99); Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels (no. Tx 395; see Errera, Isabelle. Catalogue d’étoffes anciennes et modernes. 3rd ed. Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, 3. Brussels, 1927, pp. 37–38, no. 26; and Raemdonck, Mieke van. "Isabella Errera and the Brussels Royal Museum." Hali, no. 148 (September–October 2006), pp. 74–79, p. 78); and Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no. 1896–333; see Kendrick, A[lbert] F[rank]. Catalogue of Muhammadan Textiles of the Medieval Period. Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Textiles. London, 1924, p. 41, no. 960, pl. 11). A number of other Mamluk textiles exhibit more distantly related inscribed patterns; see Washington, D.C., and other cities 1981–82, pp. 232– 3, no. 116. The Metropolitan’s piece has been published in Day 1950, p. 113.
2. See Petry, Carl F. "Robing Ceremonials in Late Mamluk Egypt: Hallowed Traditions, Shifting Protocols." In Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture, edited by Stewart Gordon, pp. 353–77. New York, 2001; and Mayer, L. 1952.
3. See Wilson, Verity. Chinese Textiles. London, 2005, pp. 21 – 22, figs. 17, 18, and a related textile in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Asian Art collection (acc. no. 46.156.20). Their overall ogival pattern is comparable to the present piece, but in place of an Arabic inscription these textiles contain the Chinese character for "longevity."
4. See Mackie 1984, pl. 21 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, no. 769.1898), and more recently Menshikova, Maria L. "Chinese Textiles for Islamic Countries." In Beyond the Palace Walls: Islamic Art from the State Hermitage Museum, pp. 94–97. Exhibition, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh. Catalogue by Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, Anton D. Pritula, and others. St. Petersburg, 2006, esp. pp. 96–97, no. 94 (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. EG-905).
5. For more examples of pieces inscribed with the name of al-Nasir Muhammad, see Atil 1981, pp. 224ff.
6. This event is reported by the Arab historian Abu’l al-Fida. One of the first references to this account in relation to these textiles is found in Kendrick 1924,(see footnote 1) p. 40. Citing an earlier 1870 article by Joseph Karabacek, Kendrick states that "the Arabic chronicler Abu el Fida . . . record[s] . . . that in 1323, Mongolian ambassadors brought to En Nasir 700 Mongolian stuffs, with the Sultan’s titles interwoven, on the backs of 11 Bactrian camels." Subsequent textile scholars make reference to this story, including Mackie 1984, p. 145 n. 40; Wardwell, Anne E. "Panni Tartarici: Eastern Islamic Silks Woven with Gold and Silver (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries)." Islamic Art 3 (1988–89), pp. 95–173, esp. pp. 101–2; Carboni and Komaroff 2002, p. 206 n. 36; and more recently Menshikova 2006 (see footnote 4), pp. 95, 97. For more on Abu’l al-Fida, see Atil 1981, pp. 15 and 224.
7. Ward, Rachel M. "Brass, Gold and Silver from Mamluk Egypt: Metal Vessels Made for Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad: A Memorial Lecture for Mark Zebrowski, Given at the Royal Asiatic Society on 9 May 2002." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 14, no. 1 (April 2004), pp. 59–73, esp. p. 66.
Mayer, L. A. Mamluk Costume: A Survey. Geneva: A. Kundig, 1952.
Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam : Art of the Mamluks (Nahadat al-fann al-islami fi al-ahad al-mamluki). Hartford, Connecticut: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. no. 116, pp. 232–33, related piece.
Mackie, Louise W. "Toward an Understanding of Mamluk Silks: National and International Considerations." Muqarnas vol. 2 (1984). p. 136, ill. pl. 15 (b/w).
Rossabi, Morris, Charles Melville, James C.Y. Watt, Tomoko Masuya, Sheila Blair, Robert Hillenbrand, Linda Komaroff, Stefano Carboni, Sarah Bertelan, and John Hirx. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353, edited by Stefano Carboni, and Linda Komaroff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 36, p. 206.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 115, pp. 166-167, ill. p. 167 (color).