Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from the Early Islamic Period

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  • Tiraz with medallions
  • Tiraz fragment
  • Tiraz fragment
  • Tiraz textile fragment from an ikat shawl
  • Tiraz fragment from an ikat shawl
  • Textile fragment
  • Tiraz textile fragment
  • Textile fragment with inscription
  • Fragment
  • Ikat Fragment
  • Shirt of mail and plate

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Inscribed textiles were highly valued in the early Islamic period and were produced until the fourteenth century in both caliphal and state-run public factories. They were given as robes of honor to courtiers and ambassadors in the khil‘a ceremony, where they served as a symbol of individuals’ loyalty to the caliphate. Often inscribed with the rulers’ names, as well as with dates and sites of production, these textiles provide a window into the political and religious life of early Islam.

The word tiraz is derived from the Persian word for embroidery and can refer to the textiles themselves, to the bands of inscription that were embroidered onto them, or to the factories in which they were produced. The earliest examples of tiraz, however, were uninscribed and decorated with colorful medallions, animals, or other motifs marking a gradual transition from Sasanian, Coptic, and Byzantine traditions (1974.113.4). Later tiraz with similar attributes demonstrate a revival of these styles in eleventh- and twelfth-century Fatimid Egypt (27.170.67).

The two types of tiraz factories were those of the caliph (khassa, meaning private or exclusive) and those of commercial or state production (‘amma, meaning public). Tiraz produced in private factories were intended for the caliph and his court (29.179.13), while those woven in public factories were made for both the aristocracy and the wider public (32.129.2). Because a range of materials and techniques were used in tiraz from both khassa and ‘amma factories, and because both could be inscribed with the name of the caliph, the institutional affiliation of a particular tiraz textile cannot always be identified from its inscriptions or technical quality alone.

Tiraz vary widely in materials and appearance depending on when, where, and for whom they were produced. Most were made of linen, wool, cotton, or a fabric called mulham that was composed of a silk warp and cotton or other weft (31.19.2; 31.106.27). Most Yemeni tiraz (29.179.9) were resist-dyed in the ikat technique to create a striped lozenge pattern, usually in a palette of greens, browns, and yellows. In Egypt, this technique was sometimes imitated in linen (27.170.28), although most tiraz were left undyed and embroidered with inscriptions in red or black thread. Throughout the Islamic world, tiraz inscriptions were written in kufic or floriated kufic script, and later, in naskh or thuluth. They often include the Bismillah, the name of the caliph, and the date and place of manufacture (29.179.13). In some cases, embroiderers altered the forms of the letters to create a rhythmic pattern in the text, which was valued for aesthetic qualities in addition to its religious and political content (31.106.56a). Inscriptions were sometimes used primarily for decoration (29.179.10), and the text might be illegible or contain errors, indicating that the mere presence of writing was sometimes as important as its content.

Under the Fatimid caliph al-Mu‘izz, the khil‘a ceremony gained importance and the technical quality of tiraz garments came to reflect the wealth and influence of their recipients. In this ceremony, which can be traced to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the caliph would bestow robes of honor upon deserving subjects. The epigraphic bands on many of these textiles documented new allegiances, confirmed loyalty to the caliph and to God, and marked the recipient with honor. In Fatimid Egypt, silk robes woven with gold tiraz bands were reserved for the vizier and other high-ranking officials, while the general public wore linen. As the political situation shifted and some nobles lost their wealth, they sold their luxurious robes on the open market. None of these fine silk textiles survive, although they are known through textual sources. Other tiraz served as currency or investments and were traded and sold.

Fragments of many linen tiraz have been found in Egyptian tombs, where they were used as shrouds and preserved due to the arid climate. Blessings (baraka) attained through the khil‘a ceremony and subsequent use during prayer imbued these textiles with special qualities that made them especially suited for this funerary purpose. Patches of stains indicate places where the textiles came into contact with decomposing bodies, helping scholars understand burial practices of the time. Tiraz textiles were often wrapped around the head of the deceased with the text covering the eyes, which attests to the religious significance of these inscriptions. The use of burial garments passed along by religious leaders in Islam dates back to Muhammad, who bequeathed his own mantle to be used as a shroud.

Textiles continued to hold high status in later Islamic societies, although the production of tiraz produced in caliphal factories declined around the thirteenth century. Under the Safavids, Mughals, and Ottomans, textiles were highly valued by the court and the elite. Unlike tiraz, however, these objects were primarily valued for the sumptuous materials and intricate designs employed in their production, although some items of clothing also retained their significance as protective objects (2008.245).

Maryam Ekhtiar
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Julia Cohen
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

July 2015


Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Julia Cohen. “Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from the Early Islamic Period.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tira/hd_tira.htm (July 2015)

Further Reading

Baker, Patricia L. Islamic Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Bierman, Irene A. "Art and Politics: The Impact of Fatimid Uses of Tiraz Fabrics." PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1980.

Colburn, Kathrin. "Materials and Techniques of Late Antique and Early Islamic Textiles Found in Egypt." In Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th Century, edited by Helen C. Evans and Brandie Ratliff. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. See on MetPublications

Fluck, Cäcilia. "Inscribed Textiles." In Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th Century, edited by Helen C. Evans and Brandie Ratliff. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. See on MetPublications

Folsach, Kjeld von, and Anne-Marie Keblow Bernsted. Woven Treasures: Textiles from the World of Islam. Copenhagen: The David Collection, 1993.

Golombek, Lisa, and Veronika Gervers. "Tiraz Fabrics in the Royal Ontario Museum." In Studies in Textile History: In Memory of Harold B. Burnham, edited by Veronika Gervers. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1977.

Rogers, Clive, ed. Early Islamic Textiles. Brighton: Rogers & Podmore, 1983.

Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Sokoly, Jochen A. "Between Life and Death: The Funerary Context of Tiraz Textiles" and "Towards a Model of Early Islamic Textile Institutions in Egypt." In Islamische Textilkunst des Mittelalters: Aktuelle Probleme. Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 1997.

Stillman, Yadida Kalfon. Arab Dress: A Short History: From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times. London: Brill, 2000.

Walker, Daniel, and Aimée Froom. Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from Islamic Workshops. Exh. notebook. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.

Additional Essays by Maryam Ekhtiar

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