Marwan tiraz

Fragment of the Marwan tiraz, inscribed with the name of the Caliph Marwan, 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 50.7 x 30.3 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Fragment of the Marwan tiraz, inscribed with the name of the Caliph Marwan, 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 50.7 x 30.3 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

It’s a daily occurrence for almost everyone—choosing what to wear. These are choices we’ve been making for millennia. Whether today or in the distant past, communicating status is key. Across much of Asia, Europe, and Africa, garments were markers of not just social and economic status but also of political prestige. From the first centuries before the common era, rulers gave honored subjects specialized ensembles, known as robes of honor. [1] When an individual wore such an outfit, they demonstrated their political connections and exclusive status.

Tiraz

As the new Islamic regimes captured territory and became a powerful empire after the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E., they followed precedent in providing robes of honor (known as khil’a in Arabic) to chosen subjects (sometimes marking an appointment to an important governmental position). Under the Islamic caliphates, robes of honor became known for including textiles with Arabic inscriptions, called tiraz. The word tiraz comes from the Persian word for embroidery. The word tiraz can refer to an entire inscribed textile or the inscription itself. The term tiraz also refers to the workshop in which inscribed textiles were produced. For clarity, this essay refers to inscribed textiles as “tiraz textiles” and the workshops in which they were made as “tiraz workshops.”

Traditionally, the inscriptions on tiraz textiles are formulaic. They say the name of the caliph, the date of production, and the location of the factory in which it was produced. Inscriptions could vary, however. For example, under the Shi’i Fatimid dynasty, tiraz inscriptions added characteristic Shi’i phrases such as “their pure ancestors.” These phrases emphasize that the caliph was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, a fact that was essential to their Shi’i beliefs. Tiraz inscriptions mention two types of workshops, the tiraz al-khassa (private) and the tiraz al-amma (public). While the precise differences between the two are unclear, both appear to have been government-run: the tiraz al-khassa may have been managed by the caliph directly, while an office of his government may have administered the tiraz al-amma. [2] When an individual wore a tiraz textile, they would show off their connections to the caliph who gifted them the textile, and whose name and government workshop was inscribed on it.

Textile with Coptic inscription, "This is... Misael [name?] use it in happiness", 810–1010, Egypt, wool tapestry weave, 63 x 31.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Textile with Coptic inscription, “This is… Misael [name?] use it in happiness”, 810–1010, Egypt, wool tapestry weave, 63 x 31.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Not all inscribed textiles, however, were produced in government workshops, or even for use as robes of honor. Because tiraz textiles were associated with power and prestige, many people wanted to wear them. Similar textiles were therefore widely produced in private factories, for use by the general public. These examples often shared similar compositions, iconography, and styles with tiraz textiles produced in government workshops. Variations, however, did occur. The clearest differences lay in their inscriptions. They are often adorned with general phrases of good will, such as “baraka” (blessing) and can even occur in languages other than Arabic, such as Coptic or Greek.

Fragments of the Marwan tiraz, 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 30.3 x 50.7 cm, 5.5 x 45 cm, 15.2 x 21.5 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Fragments of the Marwan tiraz, 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 30.3 x 50.7 cm, 5.5 x 45 cm, 15.2 x 21.5 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Digital reconstruction of the Marwan tiraz (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Digital reconstruction of the Marwan tiraz (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Marwan tiraz

An important tiraz textile is known as the Marwan tiraz. It is the earliest extant tiraz textile with an inscription specifying production in a government workshop. Various parts of the textile are held in at least four separate institutions: the Brooklyn Museum (New York), the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire (Brussels), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and the Whitworth (Manchester). [3] The fragments once formed a large and impressive cloth that emphasized the import, status, and connections of its wearer. Each element of the cloth accentuated its luxuriousness. The cloth was made of silk, the most precious fiber in the medieval world. The intricate pattern, comprised of white, yellow, and green on a vibrant red ground, recalled the abundance of flourishing gardens. Large roundels with vine-like garlands are filled with concentric circles and rosette motifs composed of leaves and hearts. Eight-lobed rosettes sit between the roundels, their geometric curves playing off the roundedness of the circular medallions. Parts of a border decorated with hearts and depictions of precious stones and pearls remain. These emphasize the opulence of the textile, as jewels were, like silks, costly, exclusive items.

But the materials and iconography were only part of what made the textile precious. The textile is woven together into a weft-faced compound twill weave, meaning it was made on a mechanical loom that reproduced patterns (often called a drawloom). In this period, most textiles were produced on simple looms with patterns inserted by hand. Mechanical looms allowed patterns to be repeated automatically. They were a new and expensive technology in the region at the time that the Marwan tiraz was made. Together with the luxurious silk material, the use of this type of loom indicates that the Marwan tiraz was an extremely fine object. Following the conventions of the composition of several extant medieval silks, the original textile was probably rectangular in shape, with a border on the short ends.

Fragments of Marwan tiraz inscription (although badly fragmented, the gold-colored inscription can be seen within the central light red band) reading "...[the servant of] God Marwan commander of the [faithful]... in the tiraz of Ifriqiya." 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 30.3 x 50.7 cm, 5.5 x 45 cm, 15.2 x 21.5 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Fragments of Marwan tiraz inscription (although badly fragmented, the gold-colored inscription can be seen within the central light red band) reading “…[the servant of] God Marwan commander of the [faithful]… in the tiraz of Ifriqiya.” 7th or 8th century, inscription embroidered in Ifriqiya, silk, weft-faced compound weave, 30.3 x 50.7 cm, 5.5 x 45 cm, 15.2 x 21.5 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

An inscription of yellow silk is embroidered atop the textile between the main field and the bejeweled border. The Arabic script reads:

(1) [the Servant of] God, Marwan, Commander of the Faith- (2) ful. Of what was ordered [8 cm.,…to be made by] al-R… [or al-Z…]. (3) in the tiraz of Ifriqiyah. [4]

The presence of the name “Marwan” and a tiraz workship in Ifriqiyah (modern day Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and western Libya) identifies the textile as having been produced during the reign of the caliph Marwan. Two caliphs known as Marwan ruled over Ifriqiyah, Marwan I and Marwan II. Scholars believe the textile was produced during the reign of Marwan II, the last Umayyad ruler. [5]

The tiraz workshop stated in the inscription is identified as being in Ifriqiya, a province of the Umayyad caliphate in North Africa, possibly in the city of Kairouan. [6] However, it is unclear whether the entire textile was woven in Ifriqiya or whether the inscription was merely embroidered there.

A global system

If the textile was not woven in North Africa, where was it produced? We can use the style, iconography, and technical features to help determine the textile’s original site of production. Because textiles are so portable, they were traded across wide distances, inspiring the production of textiles with similar iconographies across Afro-Eurasia. For example, in the medieval period, the repeated roundels forming the pattern of the Marwan tiraz were common across the Silk Roads, with similar examples produced from China to Europe.

The direction in which the threads were twisted in the Marwan tiraz is similar to examples believed to have been produced in the Eastern Roman “Byzantine” Empire or in greater Iran (the territory of the former Sasanian Empire). [7] In the specifics of the iconography—the vine-like roundels, the petals of the rosettes—the Marwan tiraz also point to close parallels to art produced in greater Iran. 

Tapestry-Woven Fragment, 8th century (found Egypt, possibly made in Iraq or Iran), wool, slit-tapestry weave with eccentric wefts, 59.1 x 24.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Tapestry-Woven Fragment, 8th century (found Egypt, possibly made in Iraq or Iran), wool, slit-tapestry weave with eccentric wefts, 59.1 x 24.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Marwan tiraz has similarities to a group of textiles seen in museums around the world, for example, a tapestry woven wool textile in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These textiles, which date to the late 7th to early 9th centuries, have a red background and roundels that are often composed of delicate wreaths filled with motifs such as birds, animals, humans, and plants. These textiles are of various levels of quality, indicating that people who could afford different levels of textiles wanted to use the same types of textiles. The finer examples have technical features associated with production in the western part of greater Iran—and more crude examples have features usually seen in textiles produced in Egypt. Perhaps the finer examples were produced in West Asia and brought to Egypt, with lower-budget alternatives produced in Egypt for members of the local market who could not access the imports. Silks produced on mechanized looms, like the Marwan tiraz, may have inspired these textiles. The Marwan tiraz can be seen as a part of a multi-continent aesthetic, perhaps originating in greater Iran, but which was popular in various regions and amongst different clienteles. [8]

Possible sites of production and discovery of the Marwan tiraz (underlying map © Google)

Possible sites of production and discovery of the Marwan tiraz (underlying map © Google)

Tracing provenience

Regardless of where the Marwan tiraz was produced and embroidered, the textile was almost certainly found in Egypt, where thousands of textiles of the 1st millennium have been preserved in graves wrapping bodies in the dry desert sand. Some of the fragments of the Marwan tiraz were said to have been excavated from the Upper Egyptian sites of Akhmim and Armant. It is important to note, however, that the exact findspot of early Islamic textiles from Egypt is often unclear; collectors commonly bought textiles from dealers in Cairo as well as at the archaeological sites themselves, and dealers often assigned textiles as coming from Akhmim because material from that site commanded a higher price. [9]

The Marwan tiraz may have been buried in a large center, such as Fustat (near Cairo), where such luxurious textiles were common. Perhaps the textile was brought to Egypt as a precious heirloom when the Fatimids moved their capital from Ifriqiyah to Cairo in 969. [10]

Perhaps the text on the cloth points not just to production during the reign of Marwan II, but to ownership by the caliph himself. The textile may have been woven in greater Iran and sent to Ifriqiyah where it was embroidered and then gifted to Marwan II. The caliph and his entourage may have brought the textile to Egypt where he died in battle. Perhaps he was buried with this precious textile, which was unearthed over a thousand years later. [11]

While the precise journey of the cloth remains unknown, there is strong evidence that the Marwan textile traveled a vast distance, from greater Iran, to Ifriqiyah, to Egypt. As such, it evinces a richly interconnected medieval world in which garments sent powerful messages about the status, prestige, and political connections of their wearers.

[1] Stewart Gordon, “A World of Investiture,” Robes and Honor: The Medieval World of Investiture (The New Middle Ages), edited by Stewart Gordon (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 1–22.

[2] Jochen Sokoly, “Towards a Model of Early Islamic Textile Institutions in Egypt,” Islamische Textilkunst des Mittelalters: Aktuelle Probleme, edited by Karel Otavsky (Riggisberg, Switzerland: Abegg- Stiftung, 1997), pp. 119–20. Louise W. Mackie, Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th–21st Century (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015), p. 86.

[3] Other fragments of the textile may be split amongst other collections, but comprehensive technical analysis has to be done to confirm this. Ana Cabrera-Lafuente and Mariam Rosser-Owen, “Following the Thread: Revisiting the Marwān ṭirāz,” The Textile Centre Akhmîm Panopolis (Egypt) in Late Antiquity: Material Evidence for Continuity and Change in Society, Religion, Industry, and Trade, edited by Rafed El-Sayed and Cäcilia Fluck (Wiesbaden: Reihert Verlag, 2020), p. 73.

[4] Florence E. Day, “The Ṭirāz Silk of Marwān,” Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld, edited by George C. Miles (Locust Valley, NY: J.J. Augustin, 1952), p. 40.

[5] Mackie (2015), p. 54.

[6] Mackie (2015), p. 54.

[7] Cabrera-Lafuente and Rosser-Owen (2020), p. 76.

[8] Elizabeth Dospěl Williams has identified this group of textiles and elucidated the attributes and meanings noted in this paragraph. Elizabeth Dospěl Williams, “A Taste for Textiles: Designing Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid Interiors,” Catalogue of the Textiles in the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection, edited by Gudrun Bühl and Elizabeth Dospěl Williams (Washington, D.C., 2019), who has identified the group and their key features.

[9] Cabrera-Lafuente and Rosser-Owen (2020), pp. 71–73, 81.

[10] Cabrera-Lafuente and Rosser-Owen (2020), p. 81.

[11] Mackie (2015), p. 55.

Ernst Kühnel and Louisa Bellinger, Catalogue of Dated Tiraz Fabrics, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid (Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1952).

Jochen Sokoly, “Textiles and Identity,” A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture Volume 1: From the Prophet to the Mongols, edited by Finbarr Barry Flood and Gülru Necipoğlu (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2017), pp. 275–99.

Arielle Winnik, “The Creation and Spread of Tiraz Textiles Across the Silk Roads,” The World of the Ancient Silk Roads (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 524–41.

Cite this page as: Dr. Arielle Winnik, "Marwan tiraz," in Smarthistory, June 4, 2024, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/marwan-tiraz/.