The textile trade was part of a network that encompassed an entire world system. It is certain that at least from the 10th century onwards Indian Ocean navigation held together a network of social, economic, and religious links that extended from Fustat (Old Cairo) in the West to Java in the East, and that allowed goods and artifacts to be exchanged from China to East Africa. Historical sources mention the pivotal role Indian textiles had in the economic structure of Islamic, Indian, and South-East Asian maritime trade. Marco Polo told of the trade of textiles from present-day Gujarat to Egypt, and the Portuguese Tomé Pires - writing from Malacca around 1515 - remarked on the wealth of textiles traded from India to South-East Asia. Our fragments must be seen in this context.
The different regions served by the Indian textile trade sometimes developed a taste for specific designs. The first piece displayed below is an example for a pattern that was probably created for the Mediterranean market. According to the textile historian Mattiebelle Gittinger, it represents, in debased form, a Late Antique or Byzantine interlace. The specialization of markets surprised the early European traders in Asia, and it could happen that they were cought out with the wrong goods, for which they found only reluctant takers. just before 1615, a merchant wrote from a Malay port:
A great oversight hath been committed in the bespeaking of the foresaid Malay's cloth...for they have all of them a little narrow white edge, and the upright [correct] Malay cloth must be without it...if I had not now found it by experience, I had never believed it, that so small a fault should cause so great an abatement in the price.
Peter Floris, His Voyage to the East in the Globe, 1611-1615.
However, there also is conclusive evidence that many designs were acceptable in widely different context and societies, and were in use over centuries in virtually unchanged form. Some of the patterns of the 13th-century finds from Quseir al-Qadim have exact parallels in certain large textiles that have come to light in Sulawesi (eastern Indonesia), geographically at the opposite end of the trade network. The cloths from Sulawesi clearly have the same Indian origin as the Egyptian fragments. They are sometimes stamped with a VOC (Dutch East India Company) mark that date them to the 17th or early 18th Century. The continuous use of designs highlights the difficulty of establishing a chronology for the textiles, but it also emphasizes the range of the textile trade over time and space.
The latter point is made by the small fragment shown below. Representations of geese are commonly found among the Indo-Egyptian textiles, either as a border, as seen here, or in a wide, continuous field, where the same birds are shown circling around around a central medallion: exactly as they appear on the large textile, which was collected on Sulawesi. The cloths served different functions in these two separate destinations, though. While they were put to a primarily utilitarian purpose in Egypt, in Sulawesi the cloths took on a ceremonial role during certain linage and family rituals and were carefully preserved over generations.
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