Opulent silks with bold patterns were appreciated by the Sasanian ruling elite in the centuries preceding the advent of Islam in Iran. Rock carvings at royal tombs and other important Sasanian dynastic sites display carefully executed depictions of figures wearing garments cut from such cloth. These carvings, along with rare surviving textiles, offer a glimpse into the sartorial taste of the period, which tended toward costume featuring staggered rows of large pearl-bordered roundels, multipetaled rosettes, and sprouting floral medallions. At the time, fabrics bearing these motifs were widely traded from China to the Mediterranean, as attested by excavated examples. The international exchange of such cloths along the Silk Road and beyond gave rise to locally woven variations; weavers active in the early centuries of Islamic expansion were no doubt familiar with these luxury trade goods—and, perhaps, looked to them for inspiration.
Sasanian silks often were created using drawloom technology, in which the design was "programmed" into the loom in advance, permitting a more rapid replication of the pattern during the weaving process. The present textile, however, was produced in the more time-consuming tapestry-weave technique. And, unlike the lightweight silks that probably served as its models, this textile has a heavier texture that suggests it was intended to serve as a floor covering or as furnishing fabric.
While the design of the present piece may emulate patterns favored by Sasanian weavers, the Museum’s textile has been dated to the early period of Islamic expansion. Comparing it to a group of related silk textiles with inscriptions dating to the reign of the Umayyad ruler Marwan II (744–50), scholars have attributed the Metropolitan’s fragment to the mid-eighth century. Other wool tapestry-woven fragments, exhibiting nearly identical floral forms, color palette, and weave technique, also have been dated to the eighth century. Many of these early pieces are attributed to Iran or Iraq, yet the presence of S-spun wool in some examples has led scholars to posit a third possible production site—Egypt, where the utilization of counterclockwise spun wool was a characteristic of textile production for centuries. Regardless of their place of production, these skillfully woven fragments are a testament to the continuity and adaptability of the tapestry weavers’ art during the early centuries of Islamic expansion in these regions.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. New York 1978. The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire. Exhibition, Asia House Gallery, New York. Catalogue by Prudence Oliver Harper and others. pp. 119ff. Also Fukai, Shinji, and Kiyoharu Horiuchi. Taku-i Busutan/Taq-ibustan. Vol. 4. Report, Tokyo University Iraq- Iran Archaeological Expedition, 20. Tokyo, 1984, esp. pp. 80ff. and related plates.
2. For a discussion of the spread of motifs and weaving techniques along the "Silk Road," see When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles. Exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Catalogue by James C. Y. Watt, Anne E. Wardwell, and Morris Rossabi.New York, 1997, esp. Chapter 1: "Early Exchanges: Silks from the Eighth through the Eleventh Century," pp. 20–51; and also Feng, Zao, The Evolution of Textiles Along the Silk Road." In China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D., pp. 66–77. Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Catalogue by James C. Y. Watt and others. New York, 2004.
3. For example, see the overall designs of a silk samite textile excavated in Qinghai Province and attributed to the eighth–ninth century, (Feng, Zao, 2004, p. 75, fig. 74, see also footnote 2), and that of a tapestry-woven fragment attributed to eighth-century Iran or Iraq (New York 1978, p. 138, no. 62, see also footnote 1).
4. See Walker, D. 1995–96. For the entry on the present fragment, see pp. 14, 28. Early writings on the Marwan silks include Guest, Rhuvon, and A[lbert] F[rank] Kendrick. "The Earliest Dated Islamic Textiles." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 60, no. 349 (April 1932), pp. 185–87, 191 and Day, Florence E. "The Tiraz Silk of Marwan." In Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld, edited by George C[arpenter] Miles, pp. 39–61, pl. 6. Locust Valley, N.Y., 1952. (Day argues for an even earlier dating, assigning it to the reign of Marwan I). For color reproduction of some of the pieces, see Baker, P. 1995, p. 39.
5. Some are published in Tissus d’Égypte: Témoins du monde arabe VIIIe–XVe siècles: Collection Bouvier. Exhibition, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. Geneva and Paris, 1993; see esp. p. 51, no. 6.
6. See ibid