Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th–21st Century

This review originally appeared in the Vol. 22 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2016 issue of West 86th.

Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th–21st Century
Louise W. Mackie
Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.
520 pp.; 493 color and 20 b/w ills.
Cloth $85.00
ISBN 9780300206098

Louise Mackie’s Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th–21st Century provides experts and enthusiasts with a gorgeous volume that at once celebrates, describes, and analyzes some of the most sumptuous examples of art from the old world. At more than five hundred pages in length and with more than five hundred photographs, diagrams, and figures, it engagingly and thoroughly introduces the objects—from embroidered cottons to dazzlingly intricate silks—while also providing an overview of their local and wider historical contexts. Complete with an illustrated glossary and a bibliography divided by subject matter, Symbols of Power will also serve as a research tool for curators and scholars alike. In addition, it is an important survey of the state of the field, which moves the study of Islamic textiles substantially forward.

The structure of Symbols of Power is not significantly different from that of the last English-language survey, Patricia Baker’s Islamic Textiles (1995).1 However, while the earlier publication considered a wider range of fabrics, including those of a less-than-luxurious nature, it was also shorter, and for this reason less thorough. Also worthy of note is the fact that the twenty-year interim has not seen any exhibitions focusing on the category as a whole. Instead, there have been several international offerings of the textile arts, which have sometimes focused on geographical subcategories or included Islamic examples in larger discussions. For instance, The Interwoven Globe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art incorporated Islamic textiles into a discussion of world trade, while The Fabrics of India at the Victoria and Albert Museum focused on the subcontinent, Islamic and otherwise. At the same time, research about some regions has also advanced. Style and Status at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC, limited itself to the Ottoman Empire, as did The Sultan’s Garden at the Textile Museum, while the Institut du monde arabe in Paris featured an exhibition of Andalusian silks from a collection in Madrid. An exhibition at the Prato Museo del Tessuto, Intrecci Mediterranei, focused on cross-cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, while the Musée des Tissus in Lyon has often included Islamic objects in gallery rotations, as does the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. Books based on Istanbul exhibitions and museum collections were published in some number during the city’s tenure as European Capital of Culture (2010). The resulting catalogues have in many cases featured publication and photography of previously unknown objects, new analysis of material and structure, and scholarly essays, as well as suggesting other ways in which to frame their respective topics. Surveys, however, are still largely lacking. Louise Mackie’s new book has come to fill the gap.

As well as serving as a survey, Symbols of Power works in part as a catalogue of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection of Islamic textiles, of which just fewer than two hundred are included. The volume’s publication also comes after a major reinstallation of the objects at the museum. This is itself an important endeavor, given the fact that many museums include proportionately few textiles as part of permanent displays or gallery rotations (with the several exceptions noted above). The problem is due in part to the expense of preparing often large and fragile objects for exhibition, and in part to the fact that, when on display, textiles require low light and limited time in the galleries. In this way, too, Symbols of Power stands alone, for no other American or western European museum has published its Islamic textile collections as effectively in recent decades, if at all.

The category of “Islamic textiles” presents its own difficulties for those attempting surveys. As well as the enormous ranges of arts and crafts encompassed by the term Islamic (an issue discussed below), a number of different skills are required of historians of such long and diffuse traditions, especially those writing surveys. Mackie notes in her introduction that textile studies are uniquely rewarding (12), but the same factors that make this study enriching also make it difficult. Historians of textiles work at the confluence of histories of technology, trade, and politics, as well as social and economic history, using sources ranging from archaeological reports to travelers’ accounts and local histories, to palace inventories, to paintings. Many employ such comparanda as ceramics, metalwork, and architectural decoration, all forms of evidence discussed in this volume. Perhaps most importantly, however, textile historians use as evidence the objects themselves, which demand not only the traditional formal descriptions characteristic of art historical practice, but also a variety of technical investigations, such as carbon dating, metal and dye typing with spectrometers, and detailed microscope-aided analysis of their structures. These skills require formal training and practice. Moreover, authors focusing on the premodern period, as Mackie is here, are also faced with problems of the survival of primary and secondary material, and the interpretation of the sources that do remain. Drawing these strands together in a cohesive narrative is no mean task, and Mackie has managed it with remarkable finesse.

The volume’s organization is mostly apparent in the table of contents. Its focus progresses chronologically through the centuries, but also moves clearly between different geographies, in order to better emphasize regional developments in materials, technologies, and tastes. Each chapter sets out the historical context in several introductory pages, and each also highlights an object, usually of exceptional workmanship or historical importance, or both.

The first and last chapters, however, are exceptions to this rule. Sensibly, the first covers textile technology in general, as well as the history of textiles in the broader Islamic context. Overarching categories and concerns, such as robes of honor, traditions of imperial tent making, and the coverings crafted for the Kaaba at Mecca, are introduced here. Here, too, the author has brought out a telling element present in many historical accounts about textiles across the Islamic world: the fact that quality, much more than style, pattern, or palette, was the most pressing issue in the minds of most writers (31). The contextualization is crucial, because it helps correct one of the ways in which twentieth- and twenty-first-century concerns are projected back in time. This much said, however, the book is also an unapologetic celebration of the most beautiful textiles that survive, using equally gorgeous photos. The second section of the introduction also uses to great advantage seven images taken in high resolution and in very tight focus. With these photos, Mackie shows the reader differences in the structure of the textiles, from tapestry weave to samite, to lampas, to velvet. Accompanying the photos is a concise description of the loom technology, emphasizing the precise repetition and the speed permitted by the drawloom and pattern harness, as well as how materials—silk, cotton, wool, or linen—play their roles in finished textiles.

By contrast, the last chapter makes a survey of the later nineteenth century, covering Turkey, Iran, India, and Morocco. Some of the objects are impressive, others less so: the industrial revolution impacted unevenly on the Islamic world, and most textile production declined in terms of quantity as well as quality, particularly in the case of luxury goods. This much said, the discussion of the post-1800 period is all the more welcome because it is so often neglected by surveys of Islamic art and architecture. The chapter concludes with several sections on contemporary textile making, such as that practiced by Rahul Jain and his workshop in New Delhi, who were short-listed for the Jameel Prize 3 in 2013.2

The nine other chapters form the bulk of the volume, taking the reader from the seventh century onwards, and in many cases reflecting the trajectories of Islamic art as a larger field. The first of these chapters outlines the world into which Islam and its arts emerged around 650. Weaving practices in Byzantine, Coptic, Sasanian, and Sogdian areas were well established, and many continued without obvious disruption as these regions were brought under Islamic rule. Here Mackie emphasizes one of the most popular textile formats: symmetric roundels arranged in rows, often with enclosing paired animals and often with inscriptions. This layout is shared between early Islamic textiles and their pre- and non-Islamic counterparts. The highlight of the chapter is a prince’s costume, which combines trousers in a subtly patterned Tang Chinese twill damask with a jacket in a brilliantly hued eastern Iranian or Sogdian samite, containing motifs of confronted ducks in medallions made of pearls.

This chapter also tacitly addresses the problem of Islamic textiles as a category and introduces at this early stage the immense importance of connections with east Asia. The first matter—the definition of Islamic textiles and Islamic art more generally—is worth a brief discussion here, as it shapes Symbols of Power as well as other works in the field. Most readers will immediately recognize that the term Islamic lands and its definition pose difficulties: neither is it a single geography, nor can it be confined to a single period, or even millennium. Moreover, as the author notes earlier, many of its arts, including textiles, have little to do with devotional practices. For these reasons, as well as others, the category has no parallels in other art historical fields, regional or otherwise.3 Mackie’s use of Islamic lands acknowledges the awkwardness of the field, while also signaling to the reader that not all the objects here were made or used by Muslims, but rather by other groups living and working in the Islamic world. Because of the immensity of the geography, and because she realizes that each chapter might appeal to a slightly different audience and therefore needs to stand on its own, the brief introductions to each chapter are all the more necessary. That Mackie is able to make sense of such a vast continuum of time and space is a testament to her own scholarly ability and experience in crafting meaningful overviews of such complex topics.

The third chapter considers tiraz. This is a word now used to describe both royal inscriptions on garments and the workshops that made them; however, the historical definition is a bit more slippery. The assertion that all luxury textiles were made in centrally sponsored workshops, and are therefore encompassed under the definition of tiraz, is perhaps an overstatement. Regardless of definitions, however, embroidered, printed, and tapestry-woven textiles with inscriptions are the focus here, as are their symbolic and real roles in parades, processions, and other political ceremony. The temptation with tiraz (or any fabric with writing) is to focus on the style and content of the text to the neglect of the object. Happily, Mackie resists and provides fascinating technical details: embroiderers pulled threads to guide the placement and proportions of their work, and workers used small wheels to press lines into the textiles for the same purpose. Here, too, excellent photography is a prominent feature: for example, two linen plain-weave fabrics show how the twist, width, color, and density of the threads make the structurally identical textiles vastly different in texture and appearance. Fustat, an early Islamic site that served as a medieval garbage dump, is discussed, both for its archaeological potentials (and problems) and for what it reveals about the use of tiraz in death.

In the fourth chapter, devoted to the technical achievements of the tenth to fourteenth centuries, Iran and Iraq come to the fore. Lampas, a compound weave in which two simple structures are combined, makes an entrance in the eleventh century, if not in Iran then perhaps under the aegis of Iranian weavers (136).4 Enthusiasts for technology and structure might wish for a longer discussion but will find solace in the footnotes, which refer to formidable but not always easily accessible studies.5 This chapter also discusses the scholarly controversy surrounding silks found in and near the ruined Iranian city of Rayy (the so-called Buyid silks) and their twentieth-century imitations. In the chapter’s highlight, the author assembles for the first time the authenticated Rayy silks, excluding those of dubious provenance. Unsurprisingly, the former are united by common features of weave and material as well as high quality. This case study corrects earlier categorization and, as Mackie writes, is meant to help scholars and curators with further research—another important task of the book in general.

The fifth chapter focuses on Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) and its highly accomplished silks. Chronologically, the chapter spans the tenth through fifteenth centuries. It therefore leapfrogs over developments elsewhere in the Islamic world and Mediterranean, such as the introduction of the Ilkanid international style, which the Andalusian silks would come to share. Again, this is a peril of the field for which the author cannot be faulted. The drawloom and pattern harness combination is discussed at greater length, which serves the chapter’s contents well but is also relevant to the discussions of technology found elsewhere. In terms of the textiles themselves, the most striking examples of silks combine crimsons, greens, and yellows in geometric configurations as well as stripes, a feature shared with Mamluk silks of the same period (discussed in chapter 7). The section on textile industry and exchange is especially rich, as the Iberian Peninsula had different trade networks and consumption patterns, many of which involved the region’s substantial Christian and Jewish populations. In this way, too, the volume successfully moves between general and specific. The fate of the Muslims and Jews of Spain meant that silk weaving there eventually became the preserve of Christian artisans, although technologies and tastes in some cases persisted.

Chapter 6 considers a single century in Iran and Iraq, during which the area was under the rule of the Mongols (specifically, their Middle Eastern branch, the Ilkhans) and their successors (1256–1353). Drawing on Thomas Allsen’s arguments about the Mongol penchant for sumptuous textiles, and Anne Wardwell’s work on central Asian silks, Mackie charts the development of cloth of gold, or nasij, so beloved by ruling elites.6 This chapter includes some of the most beautiful and technically accomplished objects in the volume, one of which also serves as the book’s cover image. Beyond nasij, weavers under the Ilkhans also developed styles that incorporated Chinese, Iranian, and central Asian motifs, often in asymmetrical formats with sinuous, elegant lines. This new style marks a radical departure from the neatly stacked roundels and mirror symmetries that had prevailed into this period (first seen in chapter 2). These new styles became international almost immediately. The last section of the chapter discusses these similar silks, made in China, central Asia, Iran, Egypt, Italy, and Spain, and considers how to distinguish one from another. It is brief but thorough, and could only have been written by someone with extensive experience of hundreds of these objects.

Egypt and Syria under the Mamluk dynasty are the focus of the seventh chapter, which returns to a familiar but necessary discussion of ceremonial. Here we have one of our last encounters with tiraz, which faded from importance with the end of the Mamluk Empire in 1517. The pithy, crystal-clear historical introduction discusses the sultans’ emphasis on ceremony and their elaborate clothing, much of which followed detailed sumptuary codes. Though drawloom and pattern harness weaving was apparently reintroduced into the area by Iraqi and Iranian weavers only in the early fourteenth century, the number of compound structures used by Mamluk weavers surpasses those of other times and places. It includes not only damask and lampas, but double and triple cloths, taqueté, and plain weaves with both supplemental warp patterning and supplemental weft patterning. It is a fascinating abundance, attesting above all to the skill and ingenuity of the artisans who made these textiles. In the face of these riches, the bibliography on Mamluk textiles is thin, sadly reflecting the state of the field.7 Nonetheless, this chapter presents a thorough summary, with some new findings and directions for future research.

Chapter 8 focuses on Ottoman weaving, which by contrast is well documented in primary and secondary sources. These include a groundbreaking volume coauthored by Mackie herself.8 Perhaps for this reason, the introductory section is substantial and reflects two of the main preoccupations of scholars of Ottoman art: the history of labor and guilds, and that of the court and its systems of patronage. The chapter focuses largely on the two first centuries of Ottoman rule from Istanbul, as well as on production in that capital city and Bursa, which was an important silk center. With the Ottomans, the large-scale trade in both goods and styles with Italy is reintroduced, as is cloth of gold, often used for robes of honor—the same category of garments that had previously incorporated tiraz. Although some Ottoman styles incorporated the asymmetrical formats and delicate motifs of the international Ilkhanid style, others emphasized their pattern repeats, making use of massive, bold motifs. Mackie also moves beyond her previous publications in this chapter, including a gorgeous and unexpected yellow-ground embroidery depicting a bunch of boughs tied in a bow with a distinctively European flourish. Cross-cultural relations clearly continued to thrive even after their acknowledged high point in the sixteenth century.

Iran and central Asia in the early modern period are the subject of chapter 9. The chapter focuses less on the social and economic history of the Safavid textile industry, perhaps because of the destruction of relevant written sources. Here, the emphasis is on royal workshops and crafts, especially the relationship between the arts of the book and textiles with figural depictions, and occasionally even narrative scenes. One of these, depicting the capture of Georgian prisoners, is perhaps the most explicit use of textiles as propaganda since tiraz inscriptions had fallen out of use a century or two earlier. Weavers in Persia also developed a type of figured velvet that used an ingenious method of warp substitution to effect a multicolored pile, a technique weavers would also take to workshops in the Mughal Empire. The chapter concludes with a section about central Asia in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with illustrations of ikat silks and the large-scale embroideries known as suzanis. The section itself ends with photos of a massive nineteenth-century tent in the State Hermitage Museum, which is not often illustrated in English-language publications.

Mughal India is the last geographic area covered in the volume, and here Symbols of Power departs from Baker’s Islamic Textiles and makes a welcome and necessary addition. Needless to say, the subcontinent had immense and varied textile production before the Mughal period (1526–1858). Printed and painted cottons dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were found in the same Fustat excavations that were discussed in chapter 3. However, the role of imperial workshops was crucial to the spread of the drawloom and pattern harness combination, as well as the development of a distinctive Mughal style. This adapted Persian figural forms into massive portrait-silks in structures of both lampas and velvet. South Asia was also a major exporter of textiles, both east and west. Here Mackie has introduced recent research showing that textiles were woven for markets from Tibet to Iran to western Europe, the last case illustrated by the rage for Kashmir shawls in the late eighteenth century. Enthusiasts for structure are rewarded in this chapter’s highlight, which discusses the differences between Indian and Iranian silks.

In its nine middle chapters, the book covers territory from Spain to Bengal. One might, however, choose to quibble with the lack of Southeast Asian or sub-Saharan African textiles. But as noted above, the category of Islamic art presents inconveniences to all those attempting surveys of its art and architecture, and equally has problems inherent to its very definition. Those who choose to find fault may misunderstand not only the nature of field, but also the history of the collecting of Islamic art and textiles; for better or worse, these geographic areas and their objects are most often excluded. Moreover, the book’s subtitle should alert us to the fact that the focus is luxury textiles, a category that necessarily excludes some of the fascinating everyday products made across the Islamic world, however defined.

Another lacuna is perhaps less easy to explain, and concerns wool-pile carpets. From the fourteenth century at the latest, they were made on court commission as well as for the market. They appear in Persian manuscript paintings and Italian oils, and gorgeous examples are now held in collections across the world. According to inventory and price lists from the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires in the early modern period, they commanded prices equaling those of silks. Without a doubt, carpets were objects of luxury and became potent signifiers of wealth and importance, as briefly discussed and illustrated in the first chapter (21). In addition, wool-pile carpets are almost exclusively a product and technology of the northern Islamic world, stretching from Spain to central Asia. One of the premier objects, the Ardebil Carpet, is the literal and figurative centerpiece of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s gallery of Islamic art. Given their historical and historiographical importance, one might wish the author had brought her expertise to bear on the topic.

One might make the same wish for two other topics, which Mackie herself mentions: the Timurid period in Iran and central Asia (ca. 1370–1507), and the origins of silk pile-warp velvet, which may be found in the Islamic world. In the case of the former, Mackie notes at the outset the “egregious vacuum” and attributes it in part to the difficulty of secure attributions (34), compounded by especially poor survival. By contrast, velvet is present across four chapters, beginning with that on the Ilkhans, followed by a brief but tantalizing summary of the role of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Tabriz and the possible transfer of the technology to Italy. Velvets are also found later on, with the chapters on the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, and in the first case, illustrated with two photographs showing the complexity and opulence of the fabric (fig. 8.12). The question of origin, however, is left open, and perhaps the author will return to it in more specialized publications.

While noting these omissions—the less often discussed regions, the wool-pile carpets, the Timurids, and the velvets—we should remind ourselves that even a comprehensive survey of such a large topic must rely on judicious trimming to be effective. Both the nature and the goals of this book preclude the type of speculation necessary to discuss the Timurids and the velvets. For in both cases, the state of the field is only slowly evolving, and evidence is widely dispersed. As the volume already stands at some length and considerable depth, the reader must also be grateful that the author was restrained, and chose to cover only briefly topics on which discussion might distract rather than add anything of importance.

Mackie’s career in the field of Islamic textiles has already borne considerable fruit. This volume is in many ways a culmination of the practices of analyzing, categorizing, and clarifying that have been a requirement and asset of her career to date. Well beyond that, however, the book is also a triumph made possible by her immense proficiency, built over a lifetime, and the assurance and authority that this expertise and experience can bring to bear on the subject at hand. Best of all, this magnificent publication gives Islamicists, art historians, and textile experts of all sorts something over which to pore and exclaim, and equally important, provides a potent means of reaching wider audiences of students, museumgoers, and the general public.

Amanda Phillips is an assistant professor in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia.


  1. 1. Patricia L. Baker, Islamic Textiles (London: British Museum Publications, 1995).
  2. 2. The Jameel Prize is an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by the Islamic tradition. It is awarded every two years by the Victoria and Albert Museum in conjunction with the Jameel Foundation.
  3. 3. The category and its definition are under almost constant debate; for several recent articles on the field and its formation, practitioners, and discontents, see Moya Carey and Margaret S. Graves, eds., “Islamic Art Historiography,” special issue, Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012).
  4. 4. There are competing theories about the origins of lampas, however, one of which places it in al-Andalus.
  5. 5. Perhaps most saliently, that of Dr. Regula Schorta, director of the Abegg-Stiftung in Switzerland and a great expert on central Asian and Chinese textiles, and of Dr. Sophie Desrosiers of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHSS) in Paris.
  6. 6. Thomas T. Allsen, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire: A Cultural History of Islamic Textiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); James C. Y. Watt and Anne E. Wardwell, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997).
  7. 7. Maria Sardi’s forthcoming “Mamluk Textiles in Context” (PhD diss., University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2016) is one of the few, if not the only example of, recent works or works in progress known to this author.
  8. 8. Nurhan Atasoy, Walter B. Denny, Louise Mackie, and Hülya Tezcan, İpek: The Crescent and the Rose: Imperial Ottoman Silks and Velvets (London: Azimuth Editions on behalf of TEB İletis̨im, 2001).

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