1. Silk Fabric and Social Ties in Syria
  2. Seidenstoff und soziale Bindung in Syrien
  3. الأقمشة الحريرية والروابط الاجتماعية في سوريا
  4. تاريخ النسيج في سوريا
  5. Syrien, eine historische Textilgeschichte
  6. Syria, a Textile History
  7. صناعة الحرير بأيد عائلة دمشقية
  8. A Family of Damascene Silk Manufacturer
  9. Eine Damaszener Seidenherstellerfamilie
  10. The Art of Syrian Textile Production
  11. A Felt Carpet from al-Bab
  12. The Threads of Life: Syrian Textile Ornamentation
  13. Hidden Figures: The Women behind the Beautiful Craft of Aghabani
  14. The Ink That Lasts Forever: Textile Printing in Syria
  15. From Animals and Plants: Textile Raw Materials
  16. A Peek into Syria’s Sericulture World
  17. Insights into Syria’s Centuries-Old Silk Craft
  18. What Remains of the Silk Road?
  19. People of the Desert: Bedouin Clothing
  20. Carpets from Raqqa: A Memory
  21. Traditional Textiles: An Endangered Tradition
  22. Unforgotten: The Fragrance of Memories

by Florence Ollivry

For more than 5,000 years, people have regarded the combination of warp and weft threads (woven textiles) as a metaphor for marriage: on his wedding day, Gilgamesh (a hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology) wore a belt that symbolized of what is tied together. In Mesopotamian tradition, weaving as a metaphor of life is present in all the scenarios from the beginning of a process (stretching, spinning, warping) to its end (weaving and folding).

Sea silk is traditionally obtained from the treads of the fan mussel (pinna nobilis)
Sea silk is traditionally obtained from the treads of the fan mussel (pinna nobilis) | John Hill (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The oldest silk woven in Syria was sea silk (byssus), traces of which dating more than 2,000 years old have been documented. The fibres are produced by large molluscs of the genus Pinna and are used by the creatures to cling onto rocks. Rare and difficult to harvest, Byssus silk was a very luxury material that was reserved for high-ranking people.

As for the silk worm moth (Bombyx mori), its appearance accompanied the rise of Islam in Syria. The region over which silkworms were bred coincides approximately with the 40th parallel in the Northern Hemisphere: these latitudes offer the climatic conditions required for growing mulberry trees and thus for breeding silkworms. The mountains, valleys, and coasts of Syria which border this parallel are among the areas suitable for the establishment of silkworm breeding. 

The demand for luxury textiles that developed in the big cities at the time of the Caliphs led to intense activity in the weaving mills, especially in Damascus. Consequently, the cultivation of mulberry trees and production of silk (sericulture) flourished. 

Silk was used early on in Islam to furnish and cover the sanctuaries of the saints and religious edifices themselves, such as the Kaʿba in Mecca, as if they were holy bodies. The cloth that covers the Ka’ba is referred to as the kiswa. Under the Umayyads, the Ka’ba was covered with white brocade, and under the Abbasids with black brocade and coloured threads in gold and silver. The cloths of the kiswa, which were produced in the Caliphs’ workshops, changed their colour along with the current masters and allowed for a “political” language. The honour of providing the kiswa became a symbol of Islamic sovereignty.

The brocades for the Kaʿba were woven in the Caliphs’ ṭiraz – the weaving mills inside their palaces. Initially the word ṭiraz referred to a ribbon with embroidered inscriptions on the rulers’ robes. These inscriptions were considered a propaganda tool for the ruling dynasty, especially when they were reproduced on the cloth of the Kaʿba. In the year 661 Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad Empire, and in 665 the first workshop of a ṭiraz was established there.

Silk cover of the Kaaba in Mecca (kiswa) woven in Cairo in 1606 AD (1015 AH)
Silk cover of the Ka’ba in Mecca (kiswa) woven in Cairo in 1606 AD (1015 AH) | Khalili Collections (CC-BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The custom of offering luxurious clothing as gifts had a political function. In 1260 the Damascene offered the Mongols large amounts of precious silk. The work done in the Damascenes’ weaving mills constituted an expansion of the Byzantine factories. These silks were mainly intended for pilgrims who wanted to take a few precious Syrian fabrics back to their homeland after visiting the holy sites. 

Syria, a Textile History
Painting detail of „Madonna and Child“ by Cima da Conegliano, showing pseudo-Arabic writing on the stitching, 1495 | Public domain

European artists, especially Italians, discovered these fabrics and, admiring them, depicted them in their paintings. They clearly had no knowledge of Arabic, as the borders of ṭiraz were embroidered in honour of the Prophet Muhammad and the Caliphs, and expressed blessings or Koranic verses.

Fascinated by this Arabic calligraphic inscriptions, the Christian artists found them beautiful without understanding their meaning and integrated a pseudo-Arabic writing into Christian art (for example artists such as Duccio di Buoninsegna, Giotto, Cima da Conegliano, Gentile de Fabriano, Masaccio, and others).

The history of Islamic silk which is kept in the treasures of the churches of Passau, Trier, Cologne, Milan, Prague, Rome, St. Josse sur Mer, Aix, Sens, Nancy, Apt, and Cadouin is frequently linked to the history of the of pilgrimages and Crusades. The incorporation of Muslim textiles in the cult of relics in the medieval West is an important phenomenon: without knowing the religious meaning of these fabrics, they were considered beautiful, and the relics of saints and bishops were wrapped in them.

As Jocelyne Dakhlia writes, the memory of this exchange makes us realize that “we also share the same history, woven from the same threads, warped by the same men and women” (Dakhlia 2009, p. 18). The conflict “must not keep us from understanding and seeing the lines of continuity and joint legacies which signify that, on both sides, we are also part of the same history, of a history of the same facts and events” (Dakhlia 2009, p. 22).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a Syrian stole (a type of shawl). Woven around 1336, the monks put a lengthwise slit in this blue silk batrashil, which they extended on the back as well as the front. Inscriptions in the manner of the Muslim ṭiraz were embroidered onto the edges of the stole. It bears the name of Athanasius Abraham Yaghmur, bishop of al-Nabk, and scribe at the monastery of Mar Musa.

Carpets, veils, curtains, cushions, bracelets, liturgical vestments – woven fibres are a sign of fervour, of piousness. Fabric woven together from fibres connects the human element to the divine, embodies this “religious” bond and materializes the sacred. The carpet is an underlay that separates the believer from the ground and replaces a piece of land with another, sacred space and ensures extraterritoriality. With this prayer, the men, kneeling closely side by side, form a cloth, a carpet.

And for the veil which materializes the distance between the profane and the sacred, the visible and the invisible, the human and the divine, the accessible and the inaccessible, that which is hidden and that which has been revealed; it is on the one hand the heritage of Byzantine Christianity, where icons and the choir are veiled, and on the other that of the Sassanid tradition and the Persian realm. 

Since the beginnings of Islam, the Kaʿba in Mecca has been covered with its kiswa, the shrines have been enveloped in precious fabrics, the dead have been wrapped in a shroud, and the carpet has served as support for prayers: the fabric materializes the transition from a temporal to a spiritual dimension. 

Prayer rug made in Turkey in the first half of the 16th century
Prayer rug made in Turkey in the first half of the 16th century, exhibited in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin 2013 | Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (CC-BY-NC-SA)
Part of the liturgical silk stola of the Bishop of an-Nabk,
Part of the liturgical silk stola of the Bishop of an-Nabk, Athanasius Abraham Yaghmur, on which stages of Jesus’ life are depicted, 14th century (Metropolitan Museum New York) | Public domain

In the Muslim world, textile fibres constitute the interior furnishings, especially those of the reception and rest areas, which are appointed with benches, sofas, cushions and carpets that are spread out on the floor or hung on the walls. 

At the end of these considerations, borrowing an expression by Maurice Lombard, who characterizes the Arab-Muslim world as a “textile civilization” (Lombard 1978, p. 253), we are – in view of the fate of textile fibres in Syria – fully justified in characterizing Syrian history as a “textile history”. 

Seating area consisting of textiles in a rural living room in the Euphrates valley
Seating area consisting of textiles in a rural living room in the Euphrates valley | Karin Pütt (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Featured image: Silk Brocade woven at Mattini company in Damascus | Florence Ollivry (CC-BY-NC-SA)


Published by Florence Ollivry: In Syria, Florence Ollivry was interested in the history of food and sericulture. She holds a doctorate in religious sciences (University of Montreal; EPHE-PSL) and her research currently focuses on the mystical dimension of Islam.

Published by Hiba Bizreh

Archaeologist and urban researcher from Syria. Working for Syrian Heritage Archive since 2018

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