Textiles of Central Asia from the 5th to the 9th Century: Riddles and Hypotheses.

Conference by Gilles Béguin, Honorary General Curator of Heritage, former director of the Cernuschi museum.

Map of the Silk Roads.

For about thirty years, textiles of various sizes have appeared on the art market, with very recognizable techniques and styles, their materials favoring silk.

This conference is only about samit, luxurious silk fabrics. Samit comes from the Greek hexamiton which means six threads, as each strand is made of six threads of silk twisted together. The samit are woven on complex looms, called pick-pocket looms, which require a lot of space and great technicality. These textiles have been present for a very long time and have been found in our churches since the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, wrapping relics such as the pheasant fabric of Jouarre which enveloped the relics of Saint Prix.

Pheasant fabric. 7th-8th c. ©Louvre Museum.

Loom pattern. Eastern Han (25-220). Tianhui.

Drawing of the caftan of the Sassanid sovereign from the bas-relief of Taq-e-Bostan. ©Tanabe.

Detail of a samit with beaded medallions adorned with simurgh. ©Victoria&Albert Museum.

Over the past twenty years, a very large number of fabrics have appeared on the art market, more numerous than those of our churches and much larger than our fragments. Two textiles from the Abegg Foundation, Switzerland, are of particularly notable size. The one adorned with a large medallion seems to have been bordered in its upper part with a leather braid, which suggests that it was hung inside a mobile or earthen architecture. According to ancient bibliography, the provenance of these textiles should be sought in Iran, although none have ever been found prior to the tenth century.

The origin of pickpocketing looms has given rise to various hypotheses. Some scholars believed it was Iranian in the 400s and the technique traveled down the Silk Road to China. In 2014, a model of a draw loom was found in a tomb dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) in Tianhui, Sichuan.

The motifs used favor beaded medallions and animals alone or faced in "mirror symmetry", betraying an oriental origin. Indeed, we see, on the Sassanid bas-reliefs (224-651), the king dressed in a garment decorated with roundels bordered with pearls. The beaded medallions found on the textiles have an almost perfect shape and are adorned with motifs directly inspired by the fantastic Iranian bestiary such as the senmurv ou simurgh (an animal with the protome of a dog, claws of a lion, equipped with a pair of wings and a tail rising vertically and becoming vegetated).

Detail of a kaftan with beaded medallions adorned with simurgh. Moschevajra Balka ©Hermitage Museum.

Leggings of a pair from Antinoé. The medallions are decorated with winged horses. 6th-7th. ©Lyon fabric museum.

Fragment with beaded medallions decorated with boar heads. ©Cleveland Museum.

These extremely precious and refined fabrics were used to make long caftans, ceremonial garments, such as those discovered at Mochtchevajra Balka in the Caucasus, today at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, or short caftans for riders like the one of the Cleveland Museum, but also to cover ceremonial saddles like that of the Abegg Foundation.

We must mention the excavations of Albert Gayet (1856-1916), sponsored by Émile Guimet (1836-1918), on the site of Antinoé (Antinopolis, located 300 km south of Cairo) where Sassanid fabrics were discovered. in some graves. They must have been senior Iranian officials during the time when this region was under Sasanian rule. These precious remains can be found in the Lyon fabric museum.

We know that under the Sassanids, trade was controlled by the state and heavily taxed. On the other hand, the bordering regions like Sogdiane made up of more or less independent kingdoms and governed for a long time by Hunnite dynasties (Hephthalites, then Kidarites). Sogdian merchants, very quickly, from 4th s., controlled the trade of the Silk Road from China to the shores of the Mediterranean. Sogdian will thus become the "lingua franca" of Central Asia. Not only, the Sogdian merchants financed transport by caravans, created counters and even banks all along the trade routes. Some also served as ambassadors on certain occasions.

Fragment decorated with a winged horse with modeling effects.

Detail of a caftan adorned with ducks holding the pativ in their beak.

mGar gTong-btsan-sgam-po figured on the painting after Yan Liben.

Tibetan Rider Kaftan. 7th c. ©Miho Museum.

The Iranian themes used on textiles can also evoke deities such as the simurgh, symbol of divinity, the boar's head, symbol of the Zoroastrian god Verethragna, the ram symbolizing the fern, concept of the Avesta meaning power, wealth, etc., the lion, winged or not, associated with Ishtar or Mithra, the winged horse, the duck holding a ribbon in its beak, the patient, symbol of royalty, etc. Similarly, the motif of animals confronting each other on either side of a tree dates back to Mesopotamian high antiquity. A subject which also enjoyed great success was that of the royal hunt.

It is interesting to note that these fabrics will continue to be used very late, in the Tibetan Empire, as evidenced by a painting after Yan Liben (600-673) depicting Emperor Taizong (626-649) giving audience to mGar gTong-btsan-sgam-po minister and ambassador of the empire of Tibet. The ambassador is dressed in a caftan adorned with beaded medallions. These patterns will continue in the Himalayan region until the 11th century as evidenced by some wall paintings in Alci, Ladakh.

Detail of a banquet scene showing the king dressed in a caftan adorned with beaded medallions. Painting from the monastery of Alci.11th c. Ladakh.

Detail of a beaded medallion adorned with a winged horse in the Tang style.

Detail of a beaded medallion illustrated with a royal hunt. Treasury of Shōsō-in. Narah.

This type of weaving requires large centers with political stability and great economic wealth. Several hypotheses located in Xinjiang are possible such as Khotan, Kuča or Tourfan; but recently, several specialists have suggested that Qinghai could also be a production center, an unlikely hypothesis. The T'u -yü-hun kingdom (329 – 663) covered a large part of this province crossed by a caravan trail allowing southern China to trade with Xinjiang. Large necropolises have been discovered in Qinghai where large numbers of such precious fabrics have been found – which does not mean that they were made there. Another center could be located in Sichuan because there is proof, in a correspondence, of a weaving workshop where it is requested to make fabrics in the Western style. During the revolt of An Lushan (705-757), this one will be very criticized because it will support the importation of foreign textiles to the detriment of the workshops of Sichuan while being based on Sogdian minorities. Its fall was to lead to xenophobic massacres. We can speculate on this Chinese production because there is an obvious sinicization of the motifs with a treatment of winged horses in the style of the Tang, typically Chinese flowered medallions and the multiplication of phoenixes rather than pheasants. An extremely refined and perfectly woven textile, deposited in the Shōsō-in of Nara, illustrating a royal hunt in beaded medallions, appears to be of Chinese manufacture although derived from an Iranian motif, the Hunt of Bahrâm-Gûr.

It should be noted that the fall of Persia and Sogdiana, in the seventh century, under the Muslim invasions will not spell the end of these textiles with beaded medallions any more than the type of silverware prized by the Sassanids. However, Muslim production features more repetitive patterns, less inventive and of lower weaving quality.

Detail of the so-called Charlemagne shroud depicting a quadriga in a medallion bordered with plant motifs. 8th-11th c.(?). Cluny Museum.

Medallion from the shroud of Saint Austremoine. 8th c. © Textile Museum. Lyons.

Shroud said to be of Saint Germain decorated with eagles and rosettes. 11th century. Saint-Germain d'Auxerre Abbey.

In the West, the Emperor Justinian (527-565), following the Roman emperors, concerned about the import trade of luxury goods which led to a flight of cash, created "gynecea" in Palestine, women's weaving workshops on the Iranian model. We weave a very beautiful production there, inspired by Iran, of high quality, as the shroud says by Charlemagne, kept in the treasury of Aix la Chapelle and the Cluny museum, or that of Saint Austremoine in the Lyon fabrics museum. Sicily then became an important center of weaving.

We see that it is very difficult to define exactly where all these very beautiful textiles with slightly metallic reflections, due to the weaving of silk, come from, and many studies remain to be done by examining the methods of weaving and the patterns.


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