Imagine a towel that is a work of art. Galleys and boats sailing across the Bosporus, gardens with gazebos, mosques and houses, and flowers and garlands—all these images appear on embroidered luxury towels created in the Ottoman Empire.
Using shimmering silk, gold, and silver threads, highly skilled needleworkers created these towels that were prized as gifts and could be found in homes and harems. Often, they were made by girls who wanted a luxury item for their dowry.
These towels are part of an exhibition of Ottoman embroidery titled Embroidered Dreams, on display through the summer of 2011 at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem. The museum is just five minutes’ walk from my home and a true bridge across cultures. The day I visited this must-see exhibition, class after class of Arabic-speaking children toured the entire museum, learning about their culture from its multilingual guides.
If the towels on display were embroidered just on one side, they would still be astonishingly beautiful. But what is so striking is that both the front and the back have identical embroidered images. There are no visible knots or loose threads and there is no room for error. Anyone who has ever tried to embroider—and I admit that I never got beyond the simple cross-stitch—can appreciate the skill involved. Some of the designs are reproduced in striking place mats on sale in the museum.
The urban Ottoman aristocracy, which was familiar with the ornamentation of Chinese porcelain and Persian and Italian silks and velvets, initiated the use of embroidered textiles in the empire. Embroidered fabrics were used to cover bridal beds or as wall hangings and their popularity spread from the court to all levels of Ottoman society.
Until the middle of the seventeenth century, the sultans were avid patrons of the arts and architecture and employed gifted artisans. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red offers a glimpse into this world with his detailed description of the painting of miniatures.
The empire, at its peak, stretched from Iraq in the east to Vienna in the west, and to North Africa in the south. Every local culture contributed to the rich mix of patterns and colors in the embroideries. Tulips and carnations are among the flowers that appear often, and all colors of the palette are represented.
How long did it take to create these wonderful textiles, which are on loan from a family in Germany that asked to remain anonymous? Rachel Hasson, the museum’s artistic director and curator, could only guess.
“A towel could take a month or two, and a large piece could probably take about a year,” she surmised. “But we don’t really know.”
And although embroidery spread to the lower classes, Hasson said it was unlikely that a young woman in a poor family could have produced anything as skillful as the items on display.
“The materials—silk, gold, and silver threads—are expensive,” she said. These towels probably represent items made by or for the middle and upper classes, she added.
So there went my fantasy of a poor girl, bent over her needlework in the sooty light of a cheap candle, embroidering her dreams in a work of art that would one day find its way into a museum.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.