Sogdian manipulation of Textiles

Posted by Roddy Yazdanpour on

The Sasanids, the pearl roundel design and its influence on the West

The lands of Persia were ruled by the Sasanid Dynasty from 224 to 651 AD. It was a dynasty that not only promoted art, music and creativity; but it was also renowned for its military skill and strategies, excellent foreign relations strategies and ceremonies at the royal court. The dynasty enjoyed favourable relations with China and India because all of them benefited and relied on the Silk Road for their economic growth and naturally these cultures influenced each other’s arts.

The Sasanid dynasty was well known for its silk textiles produced with very fine images and one of the images that stand out above any other is the pear roundel. It was a repetition of medallions encircled with a border of 20 pearl shapes. It generally had two figures (mainly griffins or winged lions) inside mirroring each other with a tree of life dividing the two halves. In the Sasanid Empire, where Zoroastriasm was the main religion, this symbol was of high significance because the medallion represented the sun image as a statement to one god (the ring of pearls symbolized light radiated by the sun). The griffins or winged lions were a symbols of protection and regal power, or to be chosen by God. The tree of life is one of the major symbols in both Eastern and Western art. It defines the formal and substantial organization of the Universe. In different cultures the tree was understood as a model of the world, it’s centre, a vertical axis of power, and a basis of all vital processes, symbolizing growth, health, happiness, fertility, etc. These textiles with the pearl roundel design became a great and very popular export item for the Sasanids.

In between the Sasanid dynasty and China lived an Iranian tribe called the Sogdians who became very experienced merchants because they were based on the Silk Road and many goods passed through. They were also expert craftsman and weavers and realizing the popularity of the Sasanid pearl roundel textiles, they too started producing it. Due to their relations with Europeans, they realized that the pearl roundel appeals to all religious denominations, not for religious values but for secular class values. So, they adjusted the design a little to make it more secular and commercial assuring a wider customer base. The lion (without wings) was introduced in the medallion because a lion, the king of beasts, is often used both in the East, and in the West, personifying power and prosperity. It is one of the most used symbols of force throughout thousands years. Wearing clothes with the figure of a lion was understood everywhere as a personification of supreme power and glory. We can assume that the popularity of the lion in European flags and coats of arms, came from this initiative of the Sogdians.

Next, the ram was introduced in designs. In Zoroastriasm it is a divine sign, and means benefit, good luck, imperial glory, power, charisma, magnificence, etc. Thus, the ram became the divine entity bringing wealth and might, an embodiment of majestic force. The Zoroastrian concept of the ram was alien to Christians, therefore the image of a ram corresponded with the concept of the Holy or sacrificial Lamb (that is the pure victim), the allegorical image of Christ. Carrying clothing with figures of a ram testified that their owner was chosen by God and became popular in the ruling elite

So, the Sogdians literally exploited a subject of elitism, stability and power in their fabrics’ decor, playing on the hidden and obvious desires of their powerful trading partners. The Christian Byzantine Empire, which had not left yet its "eastern" heritage, willingly adapted Sogdian symbols, transferring them further to the west. The images of predators and signs of power were not simply decor, they were the symbols meant to increase the power of clergy, military and feudal nobility, supporting their political ambitions. Sogdians produced symbols of the epoch that were in great demand and thus were widely distributed in any cultural and confessional environment. The universality of the Sogdian fabric design made these textiles key factors in symbolizing the political climate of this epoch.

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