29 January 2009

VCUQatar Presents ‘Threads of History’ Lecture

Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar’s Gallery Director and Assistant Professor in Art History, Dr. Jochen Sokoly delivered a lecture entitled ‘Threads of History: Textiles of the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates’ on 28 January 2009 at the atrium in VCUQatar.

The lecture focused on a group of inscribed textiles from Egypt and the Central Islamic lands commonly known as tiraz textiles, which were part of the subject of Dr. Sokoly’s thesis for his doctorate. The lecture was well attended and the audience participated in discussions soon after.

The term tiraz, although subject to some scholarly debate, refers to an inscription that contains historical content referring to an official commission by an Islamic ruler or one of his representatives. It usually lists the name of the ruler, and his titles, as well as administrative information relating to the object’s manufacture. It is the historical content of these textile inscriptions which makes them a valuable resource for historical research into the Caliphal administration of the early Islamic period. Apart from the content of the inscriptions, this group of textiles is significant archaeologically, as it offers a glimpse into the burial practices of the early Islamic period in Egypt.

The lecture elaborated on the different kinds of textiles, from silk and linen to weave mats, and the diverse styles of the embroidered inscriptions which originated from Egypt, Iran, Palestine and Yemen. For instance, the workshops in Egypt produced tapestry weaving where the weave was locked into the base fabric. This technique was used in Coptic workshops, thereby proving that the Fatimid caliphs who over threw the Abbasids to conquer Egypt, commissioned work in the indigenous style.
The shrouds used in burials mostly came from Khorasan which specialized in silk embroidery and were gifted by caliphs to loyal servants like viziers and other officials. There are a few instances of this practice which prove the Fatimid rulers saw themselves as intermediaries for believers because of their lineage (as descendants of the Prophet Mohammed p.b.u.h.) and so believed with the gift of clothing also gave their loyal servants their baraka (blessings).

During the lecture Dr. Sokoly continued to present examples of tunics, trousers, tapestries, turbans and even paintings, ceramic and metal bowls that carried inscriptions and the significance they held. They continue to be an indispensable reserve on the early Islamic period.

Dr. Jochen Sokoly received his doctorate in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford where he specialized in the History of Islamic Art and Architecture. He has been a research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. Dr. Sokoly has worked as a UNESCO curatorial consultant for the Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum, Kuwait and he is preparing the publication of the museum’s collection of early Islamic textiles. He has organized a number of exhibitions and lectures while at his current post at VCUQatar.


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