Tantalizing Tiraz

It is not just handwoven carpets that were highly valued and sought after in the ancient world, but textiles too played a very big role. The Tiraz is an Islamic textile/armband/band with Kufic inscriptions embroidered on it given as garments of honor to those worthy of it. It played an immensely important role in the Islamic Umayyid courts (and after) and also in dimplomatic relations with other empires and regions. The word itself is derived from Persian meaning embroidery or inscription adopted by the Arab invaders during the Islamic conquests of Persia. The word ‘Tiraz’ is used for the textile as well the factory that produced it.

“Textiles, and especially silk, were very important in Islamic life. The prophet Muhammad himself was a cloth merchant, with agents in Egypt, North Syria, and South Arabia; he paid as much as fifty gold dinars (over $200) for one red cloak; he wore silk garments and had figured hangings and curtains in his house. Within a few years of his death the textile industry was so important that special royal weaving factories (tiraz) were, like the coinage, a prerogative of the caliphate. The special fabrics, also called tiraz, were inscribed with the name of the caliph, the place and date, and all the official formula. Thus it is no surprise that the earliest known Islamic silk was made in the factory in Ifriqiyya (now Tunis), that the main design is the pre-Islamic all-over roundel pattern, with a border combining the Sasanian pearl band and the heart-shaped petals of the Hellenistic Dura flower, and that in beautiful, severely proportioned Kufic letters it bears the words. "

In early Islamic times the easiest way to distinguish Muslims from Non-Muslims were done through dress code. The Arabic Muslims wore certain clothing and non-Muslims wore different attire. The Jews and Christians (People of the Book and thus protected under Islamic law) also wore different attire than those who practice pagan religions. During the Umayyid era Persian style coats and kaftans became very popular for the Arabs, even though it was banned to be worn by certain classes, and towards the end of the Umayyid era Persian clothing was completely integrated into official wear. From the earlier Sassanid and Byzantine textile motifs, the tiraz was later adapted to include the Kufc inscriptions. “Tiraz garments were produced in state-owned factories. At the caliphal and emiral palaces, there were tailors who worked away from the center, in tiraz factories. Officials controlled by the 'master of the tiraz' were empowered to enroll tailors, in return for a decent wage, to work for the state in these factories Tiraz garments were presented by rulers as robes of honor at formal ceremonies. Fragments of linen tiraz have been found in Fatimid Egyptian tombs where they were used as shrouds to the body. Blessings attained through the earlier khil'a ceremony, as well as the Quranic inscriptions written on them, made them especially suited for funerary purposes. Tiraz usually covered the eyes of the dead person and wrapped around the head, attesting the religious significance of the tiraz inscriptions.”

They were also given as gifts and even as gifts, the quality of Tiraz determined the importance of the recipient to the court. “In 1618, the Transylvanian ambassador Thomas Borsos wrote, "We went to say farewell to the [Ottoman] Sultan, but were not received in great honour. We were given very poor kaftans and were not offered food." In contrast, Borsos observed that a Persian ambassador was given "a very beautiful kaftan, the kind worn by the Sultan himself," and members of his delegation also received about sixty "good kaftans." In his text, Borsos identified three qualities: "very poor kaftans," "very beautiful kaftan, the kind worn by the Sultan himself," and "good kaftans." Such evaluations reveal that ambassador Borsos understood the overt symbolism conveyed by the quality of robes of honor bestowed as imperial gifts. Presumably both the quality and quantity were defined by a government document, as occurred in Iran. There, a hierarchy of robes of honor, composed of cloth of gold for the highest rank and plain silk fabrics for the lowest, plus the ordering procedure, was recorded in a court administration manuel in about 1725.”

References and extracts: