"...the principle riches consist chiefly of silk and cotton stuffs, wherewith everyone from Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot."
Francois Pyrard de Laval, writing from Goa in the early 17th century.
"Every year ships arrive from Gujarat on India's West coast, each worth fifteen, twenty, and thirty thousand cruzados, and from Cambay a ship put into port worth seventy to eighty thousand, carrying cloths of thirty different sorts."
Tomé Pires writing about Malacca, ca. 1515.
"Aden itself is the port to which all the ships from India come with their merchandise...In this port they transfer their goods to other small ships, which sail for seven days along a river. At the end of this time they unload the goods and pack them on camels and carry them thus for about thirty days, after which they reach the river of Alexandria; and down that river they are easily transported to Alexandria itself."
Marco Polo on the trade from India to Egypt, ca. 1294.
These comments by early European travelers to Asia have one thing in common: they note the importance of the Indian trade in the economies of Asia, in which textiles played a foremost role. Indian textiles were already famous in antiquity, when it was in particular the production of cotton cloths that was commented on. Indian craftsmen excelled in the weaving and dyeing of cotton, and by the time Europe became directly involved with the maritime trade of Asia early in the 16th century, India was supplying a market that reached from Egypt to Java, from East Africa to China. It became obvious to the first Portuguese, English, and Dutch merchants that they needed to have access to the textile trade if they wanted to survive economically, let alone dominate the commerce. The riches of Asia, the precious stones and metals, the sandalwood and spices had attracted them initially: now they realized that textiles were a primary currency of the Indian Ocean market. To control their distribution became a main objective to the European merchant companies. The textile trade was the key to success and the foundation of wealth.
What was the particular attraction of Indian cloth? Apart from the luxurious appearance of silk and the light, yet durable quality of cotton, it was the quality of dyes used in decorating the fabrics. The brilliance and colourfastness of the designs was unrivalled at the time. The fragments in this exhibition can prove the point: they are the remains of cloths that were used and reused until the fibers wore out, yet their designs have survived, in some cases in surprising clarity. Of course textiles disintegrate with time, unless under unusual climatic and chemical circumstances, as found in the dry soil of Egypt. It is for this reason that the major evidence we have for the early Indian textile trade, prior to European involvement, comes from that country. Recent discoveries of Indian textiles in eastern Indonesia prove, however, that the trade with very similar fabrics had a vast geographical span.
During the first several decades of this century, numerous block-printed cotton textile fragments surfaced for sale, in particular in Cairo, where they were connected with the site of Fustat, the old city centre to the south of the capital. The fragments were definitively identified as Indian by the textile scholar R. Pfister, who related them in particular to archaeological ornaments of Gujarat in India. He used this relationship of design similarities as a guide to dating the fabrics to the 14th or 15th century. Pfister's identification has generally been accepted, although his dating of the material needs considerable refinement.
The Kelsey Museum's collection was aquired from a Cairo dealer during the 1930's and early 1950's, but the 1993 exhibition researched and organized by Dr. Ruth Barnes, "From Riches to Rags," marked the first time the material was displayed in its entirety. Now, in this virtual re-installation of that exhibition, examples of these medieval trade cloths are again made accessible.
Back to 'From Riches to Rags'
Ahead to next section-'The Site of Fustat'