Into a Lost Social Fabric: New Book Explores Ottoman Textiles


It is rare, or unprecedented, for English-speaking readers to find a comprehensive study of cultural artifacts designed and traded in some of the most politically sensitive areas in world history. In particular, the strip of land encompassing the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Levant and Mesopotamia, where ruins, people and local traditions have told tales of annihilation, conquest and perseverance since time immemorial. The reasons are many and include everything from postmodern colonialism to the natural age.

Within her vast base of object-based research, Amanda Phillips is an intersectional art historian of those pasts where earlier forms of multiculturalism spawned anomalies and hybrids of plural human expression, further decentralizing the fringes of the past. Western categorizations of department and discipline. Yet unwavering in the face of his decidedly adventurous approach, Phillips published a number of candid and well-substantiated propositions throughout his dense book that could upend the historiography of cultural work produced in the era when medieval became modern.

The upsurge of the Ottoman dynasty is at the center of Phillips’ remit, spanning the years 1200 to 1800, with important closing notes relating to the current environment. The geographies in question and the spheres of influence of their ruling societies existed beyond the limits of European Christendom and were strained by assumptions of classical philosophy largely via Arab-Muslim exegetes whose rule predated that of the Turks. owning land and titles throughout Anatolia.

Silk Studenica, with inscriptions naming Sultan Bayezıd, with silk and metal thread, a weaving of lampas, possibly from the Ottoman vilayet Bursa, 1389-1402. (Courtesy of Bolton Library and Museum Services)

The dominant socio-cultural context in which Ottoman society developed would be largely unrecognizable to a person today. Specifically, its rulers had an entirely different set of beliefs and tastes regarding images and text than that which has made its way into the current model of world primacy as prescribed by the now traditionally Christian bond. generally referred to as the West, whose maritime occupations gained irreversible traction in major international markets in the 18th century.

Along with technological change and the subjugation of masses of labor from the Indian subcontinent to the American hemisphere, the colonial empires of Western Europe were achieving supremacy one garment at a time. But while wearable clothing may have morphed to suit Western trends – in some cases retaining elements towards the east, especially in the Balkans – some customs have fallen through the cracks of the West. such a change of epoch. Textiles for ritual, decoration and everyday use are a distinctive and potentially very important key to opening the Ottoman world to the contemporary historical imagination.

To follow a thread

In retrospect, the primary role that figurative and mimetic imagery plays in modern culture was not won in advance in the Middle Ages. Early art history was largely dominated by religious set design and famous portraits before artists experimented with models that could remain anonymous, as the creative class came to control capital enough to commission painters. to make art for the sake of art. At the same time, however, the vast Asian continent had been shaped by a different kind of artwork, laden with precious metals and stitched together with less realism-oriented images. This was due to the nature of its basic material – textiles.

It is interesting to see the Ottoman textile production industry through the prism of art history. On the one hand, the objects were heavy with real value – arguably less abstract than money – given that gold and silver thread techniques were at the heart of textiles. In the later years of its trade as a commodity, when poorer members of society both produced and consumed traditional Ottoman textiles, the materials came to take on the appearance of what had become a culture. of decadence. The economic history of Ottoman textiles cannot be understated when compared to Western definitions of art and wealth.

Cushion cover with a vase of flowers, cotton, silk and metallic threads, çatma weaving, probably Bursa or Istanbul, 1700s. (Courtesy Sadberk Hanım Museum)

Cushion cover with a vase of flowers, cotton, silk and metallic threads, çatma weaving, probably Bursa or Istanbul, 1700s. (Courtesy Sadberk Hanım Museum)

If value is the result of what is exchangeable, the degree of exchange of a product is essential to define its value. For much of the textual investigation that informed his book “Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean”, Phillips looked at contractual agreements listing the qualities and attributes of textiles traded between buyers and sellers. sellers, who usually belonged to the heights. of social status, with a formidable wealth of palace archives showing exactly what each sultan has acquired. She found that the workers themselves kept worse records, if at all, likely due to illiteracy in a multinational empire where, for many, public education was a foreign import.

To bridge the wide and often vague knowledge gaps between the academic benchmark and the object-oriented scholarship of his methodology, Phillips examined the minutes of the Sharia courts that have presided over the legality of textiles. Among these, the sumptuary laws which attract interest for the exoticism of their application in relation to the myths of personal freedom enjoyed by Westerners. These regulations – which organize the wearing and banning of clothing based on religion, gender, class, ethnicity, and work – are a vital source for researchers interested in understanding how textiles have come to be. established social codes before the introduction of concepts relating to modernity. identity and its importance in politics and government.

To see the story first hand

Throughout his book, Phillips emphasizes and relates a key point in his argument that textiles represent their own historiographical source. Crucial support for his conclusions is the fact that the only product marketed more than textiles in the history of the world is grain. The fact that their importance is underestimated by West-oriented art historians is a significant gap in scholarship, which “Sea Change” begins to fill with clear prose delineations offering readers insight. meticulous of the pragmatics of textile craftsmanship and the inspirations of its creative flourishing classes and cultures.

Even a more discerning reader will be pleased with the comprehensive glossary, which includes designations common to the field, such as “sericulture”, to more obscure classifications such as a light silk variety known by the Turkish name “bürümcük”. Each chronological section of “Sea Change” is prefaced by epigraphs before Phillips clarifying texts explaining themes relating to technology, terminology, style, production, regulation, consumption, imitation and novelty. The first chapter begins with a Turkish proverb which also serves as an appropriate metaphor for the writing process: “With patience the cocoon on the mulberry leaf is transformed into a silk robe. “


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