Folk crafts

The embroidery of Shahrisabz

  By the end of the 19th century, a number of local schools of embroidery had developed in Uzbekistan. On the one hand, they had much in common as regards the nature of their compositions and ornamental decor; on the other, they differed because of their own, unique features and the variety of ways in which decorative motifs and colouring were handled. The embroidery of Shahrisabz (Kashkadarya Region), one of the oldest towns in Central Asia, is of particular interest. It was given its name, which means “green town” “thanks to the abundance of greenery and eye-dazzling flowers” (1, p.20). Shahrisabz was the property of the Barlas clan, to which Amir Timur belonged. The town’s famous architectural monuments – the Oq-Saroy palace, the Dorus Saodat family vault of the Timurids and the Kok-Gumbaz mosque – indicate that it was a major administrative and cultural centre of Movarounnahr in the 14th and 15th centuries. Amir Timur brought a large number of artists and craftsmen from various countries in the Muslim East to the town, and this helped to turn it into a major craft centre.

In the 19th century, Shahrisabz was the centre of a bekship of the Emirate of Bukhara, where trade and crafts continued to flourish. It was mainly the households of the beks and amirs that commissioned and purchased embroidery, so that the women of Shahrisabz would embroider small items for themselves and large ones, e.g. syuzane, robes and horsecloths, for the aristocracy. The embroidery of Shahrisabz reflected the aesthetic preferences of an urban environment, which were, in turn, based on the output of the artists and craftsmen operating in workshops attached to great households. It is not surprising that one can find a great deal in common between embroidery designs and the decor of mediaeval architecture: they were reflections of a single ornamental style in Islamic art, the classical expression of which was a refined foliate decor full of floral palmettes and rosettes, smoothly twisted leaves and spiral motifs. But the traditions of folk design played a no less important role in the origins of the ornamentation of urban embroidery. As a result, designs arose that were a synthesis of professional ornamental compositions and a folk interpretation of forms.

The distinctive feature of urban syuzane is that they have compositions involving a large medallion in the form of a floral rosette in the middle of the main panel, an abundance and wealth of floral motifs and a carefully decorated wide border. The border generally consisted of three parts – a main central one and two additional, narrow ones – but was just as wide as the syuzane’s middle panel. Such compositional treatments were also typical of carpets, which often served as examples for the seamstresses to imitate.

Home-made cotton or silk fabric and silk or woollen thread were used in embroidery work. It should be said that urban embroidery showed a higher quality of workmanship. The seamstresses of Shahrisabz preferred the kanda-khayol stitch, but also used the basma, yurma and iroki stitches. Researchers have noted repeatedly that the embroidery of Shahrisabz is similar to that of Bukhara and Nurata in possessing an abundance of floral decor. This is no mere coincidence. Bukhara was the capital of an emirate and set the standard for other towns. Others strove to copy it in everything, including the art of embroidery, for which the city was famous. Shahrisabz embroidery shows less variety in composition than that of Bukhara. As for Nurata, its decorative finish involved an empty panel, which gave its floral patterns a refinement and an exquisite subtlety. But in Shahrisabz embroidery either the panel was continuously worked or the decoration was distributed with an even degree of density, leaving only small areas of the toned background of the fabric empty. Large ornamentation motifs, complemented by smaller ones (flowers, branches, leaves), filled the whole surface of the linen, leaving no empty spaces.

Both the main and the supplementary motifs of Shahrisabz embroidery are marked by a wealth and a variety of form. The endless patterns of leaf shoots and floral palmettes symbolised the idea of abundance, spring, life and the splendour of nature. They seemed to embody the beauty of Shahrisabz, which, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful places. “In the spring, the lustre and profusion of the greenery on its slopes reach such a pitch that a heavenly carpet seems to have been laid here. and anemones and other flowers grow on the roofs of the houses and on the walls,” Mahmud ibn Wali wrote (1, p.20).

Floral palmettes and rosettes form the basis of the ornamentation of Shahrisabz syuzane, and the seamstresses take particular care with them. They are generally large, elaborate shapes representing a view of a flower in longitudinal section or the view of the flower from above. No one flower is like any other and is usually drawn inside a frame formed by a wide ring of leaves, which gives it a more monumental, rich appearance. This device, incidentally, was also borrowed from the professional artists. The flower motifs give rise to many other versions of the design. Another favourite motif in Shahrisabz decoration, for example, is the flowering bush, decorated with a profusion of small flowers, which is popular in both folk and courtly art, as is shown by its frequent use in the architectural decor in Shahrisabz. Although motifs that are popular throughout the Muslim East are normally used as the basis for Shahrisabz embroidery, they differ in they way they are handled, which makes them works of art in their own right. No element repeated any other, but was unique by virtue of the specific features of its decorative treatment.

Many of the floral motifs in Shahrisabz embroidery can be seen not just in architectural decor, but in other kinds of art too. The chahar-chirag (four lights) motif, used mainly in the border, is typical of Shahrisabz embroidery. The motif was so named because of its similarity to a common form of lamp that was in everyday use. It is a floral rosette (seen from above) of average size, from which palmettes of the same size, representing the longitudinal section of the flower, each surrounded by leafy rings, protrude on four sides on thin branches. This motif is frequently encountered on ceramics of the Timurid period, where it functions as the main embellishment of a dish. Quite often the border design takes the form of an alternation between a large floral palmette and the chahar-chirag motif. Another frequently occurring border design is the Herat motif, a large floral palmette flanked on two sides by a jagged branch. Appearing in the 15th century, when the court workshop of Herat, the capital of the Timurid Empire, was the leader of the artistic process, this design came to be one of the most popular carpet and fabric motifs throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Analysis of even a small number of ornamental motifs allows one to note that the art of the Timurid period played an important role in the further development of Shahrisabz embroidery.

Graphic motifs are also found in the embroidery of Shahrisabz: there are qumg’ons (washing jugs), cockerels and pomegranates, indistinguishable at first glance amid the abundance of floral decor. An example of this is provided by a late 19th – century syuzane in the collection of the State Art Museum in Tashkent, which is mentioned by just about every article or piece of research about Shahrisabz embroidery. It is interesting not only because of the variety of decorative and graphic design, but also because of the presence of a wish inscription executed in ornamental Arabic script and enclosed in cartouches that run along the perimeter of the middle panel in an additional narrow edging. The inscription is addressed to the girl for whose wedding the embroidery was made. Furthermore, it gives a description of the actual embroidery, “a remarkable syuzane that delights the heart” (2, p.35). The embroidery is executed in silk thread on dark violet-coloured silk. The syuzane’s composition is classical: there is a large central medallion, formed by a wide branch around a small circle, and elongated palmettes at the corners of the middle panel. The broad edging features alternating large floral rosettes framed by leafy rings. Various picture motifs – depictions of cockerels and qumg’ons – are arranged around a small central circular medallion, along the narrow sides of the middle panel and on the border. No representation repeats any other in terms of design or decoration.

The syuzane is also noted for the decor’s deep semantic content. The cockerels around the central rosette are small, stylised figures of birds with a forked tail and a trident crest on their heads and a similar trident on their backs. This trident is simply a stylised depiction of the lamp that, by ancient Zoroastrian tradition, was fixed on the backs of birds. In early times, small sculptures of sacred birds were placed in ossuaries and served as the base for a small lamp in which a fire was lit. This tradition is so archaic that, basically, it has survived only in types of art that possess more conservative forms. Such small lamps are found in depictions of birds on Turkmen yomud carpets, on Turkmen jewellery and on the clay toys made by Khamro Rahimova, a craftswoman from Uba. The survival of this motif in Shahrisabz embroidery is a unique example of the persistence of folk tradition. Its meaning had long been forgotten, but what remained was the idea of protection associated with a bird carrying a lamp on its back. Cockerels have, since ancient times, been regarded as a symbol of the sun and were linked with the idea of fertility. Taking this meaning as the starting point, it is not hard to conclude that the central circle around which they are arranged in the syuzane is simply a picture of the sun. The flowers in the border are decorated along their diameter by bodom (almond) motifs, which make them look like a whirling rosette, another sun symbol. Even the multi-petalled rosettes themselves served to denote the sun among many Eastern peoples. So it becomes clear why all these designs, the symbolic meaning of which is connected with the ideas of life, the sun and fertility appear on a syuzane that was embroidered for a wedding. Its whole composition reveals a meaning that is connected with wishes for a happy future life.

A wealth of decoration and high-quality workmanship were the hallmark of Shahrisabz robes, from which one can form an idea of aristocratic tastes and the fashion of that period. The robes usually had a continuously worked background, which conveyed an impression of solidity, luxury and wealth, while a combination of contrasting colours, often yellow (in the background) and red (the main motifs), gave the robe an eye-catching brightness. Large floral palmettes, motifs of flowers in a vase or bodoms on a thick stem decorated with transverse stripes of contrasting colours formed the basis for robe decoration. It is interesting to see how the bodoms were handled. They are motifs with a shape recalling the almond, a tongue of flame or an elegantly folded leaf. (This is a polysemantic element, popular among many Eastern peoples, with origins that call for a separate description). Great care was taken over its decorative treatment. For instance, the leaf is divided in half, with one part consisting of red and yellow strips, while the other retains a white background, on which smaller, red bodoms are arranged. Similar ornamental motifs are characteristic of popons (bedspreads), which are often executed in the same way as the robes, forming a kind of set with them. Traditionally, horses too were carefully embellished. An eyewitness, the German scholar and traveller Von Schwarz, wrote at the beginning of the 20th century: “The gold-embroidered popons are among the most luxurious I have ever seen. Beneath the rays of the Turkestan sun, the richly attired horses make an absolutely staggering impression. As for the effective selection of colours and precious fabrics, the people of Central Asia far outdo European artists, who have grown accustomed to their leaden sky” (3, p.174). Certainly, the colours of the embroidery were marked by a vivid range, which reinforced its decorative qualities. Using just a few colours, the seamstresses sought variety of colour expression by combining them in contrast.

The most popular combinations included raspberry red with dark or light blue and bright red with yellow. The spread of aniline dyes in the late 19th century was detrimental to the quality of Shahrisabz embroidery. Although the range of colours gained a considerable variety of shades – violets, turquoises, pinks and greens – the embroidery lost its genuine soft and harmonious combinations of natural colours. The late 19th – century embroidery of Shahrisabz is not just splendid works of folk art; it also testifies to the high standard of the traditional culture that had survived in that town since the Timurid period. It occupies a worthy place in the material and spiritual legacy of the Uzbek people.

Author: Elmira Gyul

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