This Week’s Featured Object: Echoes of a Very Different Middle East – Clothing from Iraqi Kurdistan

Our featured object this week hearkens back to a time when the Middle East was quite different demographically than it is today. For more than 400 years, large parts of the Near and Middle East were governed by the expansionist Ottoman Empire. Under the Empire’s authoritarian rule, the many ethnic and religious minorities of the region, particularly in the border areas of modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, coexisted though not always peacefully.

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All of these groups, including Kurds, Turkomans, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis and others, were strongly influenced by Ottoman culture. This was certainly true of fashion. The satin and silk embroidered waist jacket for a girl or young woman featured here this week is a good example of this. Using a technique known as Sarma, which made extensive use of metallic thread for embroidering, this item was acquired around 1930 in Iraqi Kurdistan by a Christian Iraqi family that later emigrated to the United States in the 1960s. This style of embroidered clothing was adopted in the later part of the 19th Century by ethnic and religious minorities throughout the region described above. Even after the Ottoman Empire collapsed following the First World War, its cultural influence remained and this style of clothing remained popular for decades, only gradually fading as the European colonial powers that had stepped into the Ottoman power vacuum relinquished their grip in the face of rising local nationalism.

Clio Ancient Art, Clio Antiquities

It is difficult for most modern viewers, without the benefit of learning the region’s complex history, to think of the Middle East as anything but a monolithic Islamic region. The horrors of the Armenian Genocide, the less well known Assyrian genocide, the huge population transfer of Greeks out of what is now Turkey following more than 2,500 years there, all unleashed by the emergence of post-Ottoman Turkish nationalism, were huge events that fundamentally transformed the region and made it much less diverse than it had ever been. Compounding those events of a hundred years ago are the population shifts seen since the rise of Islamic State, with many Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and others deciding to seek a better life in Europe, Canada, Australia or the US. Our little jacket is a reminder of a more diverse, complex and perhaps even happier side of life in the Middle East early in the previous Century.

Below are a few recommended works to help readers investigate further the diversity and complex relationships among different groups in the Near and Middle East during and just after the last decades of the Ottoman Empire.

  • Aboona, Hirmis, Assyrians, Kurds, and Ottomans: Intercommunal Relations on the Periphery, 2008
  • de Bellaigue, Christopher, Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, 2010
  • Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis, eds.Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. 2 vols., 1982.

This item may be found in our Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/507209757/womens-or-girls-hand-made-embroidered?ref=shop_home_active_3

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Every Coin Tells a Story…Some More than Others

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Cilician Kingdom of Armenia. Levon I, AD 1198-1218. Silver Tram

The silver coin pictured here, a “Tram” of the Cilician Armenian ruler Levon I, is a survivor from a rather remarkable episode in the Medieval history of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Our story begins far to the east, with the conquest of much of the Middle East by the Seljuk Turks. Fleeing their original homelands in what had been the ancient Kingdom of Armenia, long a pawn in the conflicts between the Roman and Persian Empires, thousands of Armenians established a principality in what today is the southernmost coastal region of Turkey and the northernmost coastal region of Syria. During the final quarter of the 11th Century, under the first King of the Rubenid Dynasty, they declared independence from the Byzantine empire. Our coin was issued by Levon I, perhaps the most successful ruler during this initial phase of the Kingdom’s history.

Although the new Kingdom prospered economically due to its geography, which included an arc of high mountains providing some degree of protection and a narrow but fertile coastal plain that featured several good ports for trade, it was always at risk and short on allies. Nearly surrounded by hostile Islamic states, at various times it allied itself with the new Mongol rulers of Iran, Mesopotamia and Syria, the Ilkhanids, who were not yet fully converted to Islam, occasionally with the Byzantine Empire to the north and especially with the European Crusader states that sprang up along the Levantine coast shortly after its own birth.

One outcome of the Crusader alliance was extensive marriage between the new Crusader aristocracy and the 2 Armenian ruling families, the Rubenids and Hetumids. The Hetumids later formed a close marriage based alliance with the Frankish Lusignan Dynasty, who ruled the nearby Island of Cyprus. On our coin, this western influence is clearly visible, even during the Kingdom’s early years. On the reverse is the Armenian rampant lion while the obverse includes a forward facing seated king holding a sceptre topped with the Frankish fleur-de-lis.

Conducting business in any of the Cilician ports or towns during the Kingdom’s almost 300 year history would have involved a bewildering array of currency. In addition to the silver and bronze coinage issued by the official mints of Armenian Cilicia, accepted forms of currency included Venetian, Genoese and Pisan coinage, Islamic Dirhems issued by the Mamluks, Ilkhanids and other local dynasties, and coins issued by the various Crusader principalities. While all of these had a rough, easy to understand relationship to one another based on weight of precious metal, implementing this in actual practice would have called for both good math skills and shrewd bargaining skills.

Despite intermarriage with the Lusignans, the Cillician Armenian Kingdom could not survive onslaughts from the powerful Mamluk rulers based in Egypt, who had effectively halted the Mongol advance. By the early 14th Century, the Mongol rulers of the Middle East had converted to Islam and the Crusader states along the coast of Palestine had all fallen or been abandoned, thus depriving the Armenians of key allies. The Kingdom fell in 1375, and the last King of Cilician Armenia died in exile in Paris in 1396.

This relatively minor but fascinating chapter in history serves to remind us of the religious, political and philosophical complexities of that part of the world, as we should be very much aware from recent news. The improbability of this chapter also reminds us that truth is always stranger than fiction.