Report on the SFBARS talk by Dr. Murray Eiland III on Syrian rugs and Textiles, June 14th, 2003 By Hillary Dumas

Nearly 30 Bay Area Rug Society members met at Fort Mason to hear a lecture by Murray Eiland III on the subject of Syrian and Mamluk rugs and textiles. Dr. Eiland received his Ph.D. in Oriental Archaeology from Oxford University. He is the author of many articles on rugs, including an important article in Hali titled "Archaeological Evidence of Early Carpets in Georgia" [Hali 99, 1998, pg 57]. In this article he illustrates several 14th Century fragments of rugs excavated by Nodar Bakhtadze, from the Muguti Caves in Georgia. He has been working in Syria on a Fulbright grant.

In his lecture to SFBARS, Dr. Eiland stressed that from an archeological point of view, the absence of archeological textile evidence does not necessarily indicate the lack of a weaving tradition. Relying on surviving fragments of textiles, pottery design and architectural embellishments, he managed to make a convincing case that there has been a continuous weaving tradition of a wide variety of textiles in Palmyra, Syria. Especially interesting are fragments with tartan-like patterns found used as burial cloth. These Eiland surmised might be either social or tribal indicators.

Ornately embroidered textiles seen on reliefs (c. 130-270 AD) suggest that a wide range of fabrics were used by the pre Mamluk peoples of Palmyra. He noted that weaving apparently was so important to the area that many reliefs and statues depict women holding weaving instruments. (Men are shown holding scrolls, pointing to the importance in the culture of male literacy). Considering that Palmyra was an important town on major trade routes, it is likely that weaving continued in Palmyra throughout the next several centuries, since textiles were major items of trade. The Mamluks controlled the city of Palmyra from 1260 to 1392. Despite the fact that no Mamluk rug fragments have turned up in archeological digs in Syria, Eiland stated that since the ceramic work of the era changed dramatically, arriving, as it were, fully developed, it is a likely supposition that weaving did likewise. This would allow for the possibility that complexly designed textiles such as Mamluk rugs were being woven in Syria during this period. Eiland pointed to an interesting correlation existing between the Palmyran use of roundel forms in ceramic designs as well as architectural ornamentation and the roundels we see in Mamluk carpets.

A lively discussion arose between Eiland and members of the audience as to what the medallions might signify. Eiland suggested that they might be place markers for eating bowls. Others suggested that they were garden oases, and yet others spoke of Buddhist iconography, or the universal idea of mandallas. Dr. Eiland also postulated that because many of the forms on the Mamluk rugs can be seen interpreted to be disguised crosses, it is possible that the rugs were woven in the ornate Mamluk style by Palmyran Christians. Eiland brought with him a number of surprisingly varied rugs and flat weaves bought in Syria, a variety that can be explained by the various ethnic groups--Arabs, Kurds and Armenians--who have settled in Syria. One rug displayed a round central medallion on a dark brown shaggy wool field. One can only hypothesize that Mamluk rugs might well have been woven in Syria given the strong predilection of depicting round figures and the strong weaving tradition in the area.


There is evidence of the practice of spinning in Syria since Neolithic times:

In 1999 excavations near Damascus uncovered weights and spindles dating to 2000 BC in a house near the ruins of a royal palace.

For more on Palmyra see

The author Carol Miller quotes Strabo [c. 63 BC-18AD] "'that the merchants there [Palmyra?] transported goods from China, Persia, India and Arabia, bound for the voracious markets of Rome, for in their hunger for luxury - gems, rare essences, leather, rugs, wild beasts, eunuchs, ivory, ebony, sandalwood, indigo, pearls, onyx, amethyst, carbuncle, diamonds, iron products, cosmetics, wine, metals, purple (murex), pepper and other spices -- the Romans import more from Syria and India than any other country except Spain.' As for silk, both raw and manufactured, the Romans, says Strabo, thought it was a vegetable product combed from trees and valued it at its weight in gold."

The people of the area were once sun/moon worshipers: the Temple of Bel in Palmyra still bears evidence of this worship.

On Egyptian Costume, from "They Walked in Beauty" by Roberta Shaw, From "Rotunda" the magazine of the Royal Ontario Museum: "Newly imported Syrian technologies-tapestry, card weaving, and embroidery-were applied to tunics. The campaigns of Thutmose III (c. 1450 BC) brought back hundreds of Syrian weavers and their "needling" wives to supply the king and his friends with new marks of distinction. A multi-coloured card-woven sash of Rameses III (c. 1175 BC) is some 5 metres (16H feet) in length, and the tapestry and embroidery bands in a tunic belonging to King Tutankhamun incorporate both Egyptian and Syrian motifs in red, blue, green, and yellow. The sudden explosion of colour in fabrics probably also reflects imported technology. Although some coloured fabric-usually blue or grey-is known from before the New Kingdom, it was used sparingly, suggesting great effort or expense."

Mamluk carpets were long thought by carpet scholars to have been of Syrian or "Hispano-Mooresque" manufacture before Kurt Erdmann, called them Egyptian.

Robert Pinner and Michael Franses in their article in Hali 4 #1 "The East Mediterranean Carpet Collection" in note 43 quote R.B. Serjeant Islamic Textiles, History up to the Mongol Conquest, Beirut 1972 p. 117 cited a reference by Makrizi to: a tiraz factory in Damascus as well as in Cairo and Alexandria in the Mamluk period, and (p 118) an earlier mention by Yakut to carpet manufacture in A'nak, in the Hauran district of Damascus.

1526 "Tapedo a la damaschina" are mentioned in Venetian inventories. See Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies II 'Carpets in the Mediterranean Countries 1450-1550' Michael Rogers.

Robert G. Irwin in his article "Egypt, Syria and Their Trading Partners," in Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies II writes, "It is possible that Damascus was another centre of carpet production. According to the late 15th century manual on 'hisba' (market inspection) by Ibn cAbd al-Hadi there were at least ten different kind of carpet weavers in Damascus." A footnote states "H. Zayat (ed.). 'Kitab al-Hisba', al-Mashriq, XXXV (1937), p. 386; the early 14th century encyclopaedist, al-Nuwayri, refers to what may be a tax on carpet production in Syria in his Nihayat al-Arab, Cairo, 1923, VIII, p. 261." Irwin continues, " the late 15th century the style and technique of the 'Cairene' carpet may have become internationalised to some extent, and it is evidently possible that 'Mamluk' carpets were by then being produced in Tunisia, Morocco and elsewhere."

He writes: "While there is a great deal of evidence of trade of carpets from Turkey and N. Africa to Egypt and from Turkey to Syria...neither Egypt or Syria was noted as an exporter of carpets." Irvin also cites evidence that wool and silk carpets were woven in Egypt by the mid 14th century. Perhaps these were too prestigious and valuable to export.