Copts And Moslems
( Originally Published 1930 )
EVER and ever the art of the East thrusts itself upon our notice in textiles. If the moment comes when one impatiently asks why our great European civilization went elsewhere for inspiration, there is but one way to find the answer, and that is to take a run over the history of the early centuries of our era. I imply haste in the glance because the history of those times is so fascinating and absorbing that textiles might well be forgot in observing the deep swing of race movements.
One cannot study textiles without knowing of the people who designed and wove and used them. It may be a blow to pride to accept the fact that Europe hung far behind in arts and letters during the centuries of the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages. That period of retrogression and stagnancy was Europe's alone, hard as it is to acknowledge. The glorious East had no such period. It went on from century to century without falling into darkness. Centers of government changed, and types of rulers, but learning and cultivation were ever present.
The best remains of the weaver's work that is not hopelessly effaced by time is the Coptic. If one were to choose a race to love and investigate, perhaps it would not be the Copts, that people who lived in Northern Egypt until Rome fell, and until the Caliphs of Islam came and ruled over them with the usual gentle ways of the conqueror.
But we cannot avoid giving them our best attention, because of the place they occupy in the world of textiles. To them and their mortuary customs we are indebted for the earliest specimens of weaving. It is unthinkable that their fabrics were the best in the world for the first centuries of our era, but theirs are almost the only ones that have not perished under the grinding foot of Time.
Accounts of marvelous hangings, of cushions, of clothing are not wanting. Greece and Rome have pictured theirs on vases, ancient literature tells of the luxury of stuffs in Babylonia and Persia while in India and China cave paintings are eloquent of drapings.
But of what practical use to us except as an interesting legend? All of this gorgeous wealth of weaving and embroidery disappeared centuries ago, but the Coptic textiles remained, if only in small pieces, be-cause such were enclosed in enduring sarcophagi and neatly committed to the sand.
To the museum let us go and make friends with the Copts in a human sort of way. They kindly left their portraits, which we may gaze at with some degree of admiration and sympathy. With their friendly dark eyes and general youthfulness they excite a degree of interest, until Copt becomes a word that we possess as our own. These are of the people who wove designs Hellenic, Christian or Islamic according to the decree of their successive rulers.
Egypt is a natural museum because of the dry sands which have preserved the objects committed to their care. So when we slip among the aisles and ponder over the cases of our museums, we see the tunics and even the hangings that were tucked in among the wrappings of some athletic youth or lovely lady when they were comfortably laid away to await the day when the impish curiosity of the archeologist should expose these bits of textiles to the light. It is odd we are so shameless about this display. Will the day come when the burial places of New England will be critically dissected in the name of Puritan wedding rings, for instance? Were I an Egyptian I should hotly though humorously protest against my ancestors being exposed as specimens and their burial clothing as human documents.
Coptic weaves then give us the best of such treasures as are left from ancient days. Greece had her hangings and her flowing robes, but time has abolished them all. Rome the same, and China led them all with her silks, but scant are the remains left by wear and climate. A few bits of China's fabrics were buried under the sands of Chinese Turkestan's desert waiting for Sir Aurel Stein to dig them out with heart-thrills.
The Coptic weave for the best designs is the same as that used centuries later by weavers of tapestries in Europe, but executed with a fineness of texture never employed in European wall-hangings. These early pieces are always small, most frequently only ornaments to be sewn on a linen garment of some simple weave, but they are of a quality that represents patience beyond praise. They were executed during the Roman Empire probably by the slaves which were attached to a landed rich man's possessions.
It was from the Second to the Seventh Centuries that most of the Coptic pieces were made which are displayed in museums for the delectation of those who like to dig among the roots of the subject of weaving. Many of the Copts foreswore the old gods and goddesses of Roman myth and followed the Christ. But in the weaving of the marvelous bits of fabric that have recently been unearthed, the designs show some-times the Hellenistic influence of Rome, as well as the symbols of the Christian, and also of the Moslem.
They must be seen in the hand that their technique and their beauty be revealed. The earliest ones were of but one color, dark blue, purple, brown, the pattern delicately outlined with a fine thread of white. Among these bits of solid color with outlined pattern are the interlaced geometric designs that have ever been associated with Saracen art.
Colors of many kinds were first used in the Third Century. Coptic fabrics in multicolor show the highest perfection in weaving and a technique that would have astonished French, Italian and Flemish weavers of tapestries in their highest moments of perfection. Shades melted into each other with the expedient of "hatching" until designs lost their look of flatness and took on the effect of having the three dimensions of length, breadth and especially of thickness. In other words modeling had appeared in woven figures.
Hellenistic designs came to the Copts as a part of the Roman culture of the day, and among these are figures of flying cupids, of the human figure, of lions, and of meanders and reciprocal borders like to those seen in the mosaics of a Roman palace floor.
These were made in the time when great religious confusion reigned, for the Roman Emperor ruled all of the Western World, Europe and even England. Christianity was gradually changing the thought of the rulers, and the new religion influenced the arts of the time. Christian art succeeded Roman, still carrying on Roman tradition, until the conquest of Islam and the invasion of the Northern Barbarians gave different impulse.
Our first Coptic pieces are Egyptian, of that late Egypt which had such close associations with the late Greek and newer Roman ideals. Indigenous they were nevertheless. At this time a coarse weave prevailed, of looped threads, not unlike our Turkish toweling when done in the garments of linen or cotton, but Coptic ornamental weaving being usually in wool the effect of the loops was not unlike that in fine hooked rugs.
The second evidence bore the mark of the civilization across the Mediterranean which was now in possession of the country of the Copts. It is hard not to attribute these designs to Rome or to ancient Greece, but as Rome ruled all of the so-called Western World which included North Africa, it is but natural that Roman art had come with Roman legions. And there was Alexandria, that acme of classic cultivation established on Egyptian soil.
The time when the Copts were weaving their suave and colorful wool was one of the most worshipful of all the world's history. To look now at a map of the Roman Empire during the first centuries is to feel how simple and peaceful must political life have been with but one government over all of Europe, North Africa, Near East and Britain.
The Emperor was the undisputed ruler. There were, to be sure, many millions of persons without drawing-room speech and manners, but it was cleverly arranged that teachers of the Greek and Latin classics abounded in every large town from end to end of the Empire. Thus the elect had a common language and common subjects of interest. And the man whose home was in Mesopotamia made instant friends with men met in London—provided his life was long enough to make the journey from the Euphrates to the Thames on horseback. All were citizens of a Roman world, and there could be no quarreling 'about buffer states and boundaries.
The Roman dominance went on for nearly five hundred years, this great political unity of all the world of Europe and beyond. Greek and Latin learning and art prevailed as the ideal of culture. Then new thoughts came in, a stiffening of old models when the Empire set up a capital in Byzantium, and the Near East was thus brought closer to Rome. Then came a division of power with two capitals, and then came the great movement of the Mohammedan conquest, then of the Barbarian Invasions which in course of time overthrew the Roman Empire and produced the suppression of learning which in turn produced the Dark Ages of Europe.
But lest we of European blood think only of Greco-Roman culture, turn again for a moment to the East, whose vitality never failed, whose luxury and riches encouraged lightness of life in the folk of Damascus, of Bagdad, of Persia—not forgetting the great Mohammedan leaders sweeping over from Arabia. Northern Barbarians were not riding down upon them from in-exhaustible hordes. The people of the East were hunting and romancing just as ever, poignantly vicious, beautifully daring, ingeniously tyrannic.
The Arabian Nights Entertainment never fails to entertain. Even those who have no patience with history absorb it in these tales all unwittingly, for they are the myth and truth of centuries of Eastern culture. And among all these folk both mythical and real were the merchants ever carrying Oriental textiles from city to city, from inland to coast on long trains of camels.
The story of Mohammed seems unavoidable; there-fore we rustle its pages and in so doing attach more romance to our textile designs. Not having been born in the atmosphere of Islam, we can take it lightly by eliminating the religious aspect and by looking upon Mohammed solely as a political leader and Empire builder of astounding force. He was but a humble young Arab when he listened to divine words in the desert which he was crossing with packs of merchandise on a slow-moving camel-train. Yet in but a short time he was established in sacred Mecca, so powerful and rich that his enemies—after the manner of such—sought to kill him.
He then made his flight to Medina, the Hegira. This date is 622, and was elected to be the year one in Islam's calendar. Perhaps it was this forced retirement from the city of wealth, perhaps it was a remembrance of his camel-train days when he became aware of the riches of other countries as shown by their merchants, but however it was, Mohammed decided to gather his men about him and embark on a series of conquests. It seemed a magnificent project, to give the countries of the East a new ruler who should in conquering give them the true religion.
In pursuit of territory and glory his hunger grew. Syria was the first bite, then Egypt, Asia Minor, Sicily, and at last all of Northern Africa reaching to where it took but one leap of the seven-league-boots to spring over to Gibraltar, and so on through rugged smiling Spain.
The Saracens—as the Arabs were called in Europe—took Spain when it was wild and undeveloped, made of it a Caliphate of Cordova and flooded it with culture and beauty, vide the Alhambra still left on Granada's hill. As for the university and library at Cordova, history alone can tell of them, for the rich and intellectual town of the Mohammedans is gone over to sadness and poverty—all save the gorgeous mosque to enter which is to wander in a forest of Allah, so like a mystic wood is the crowd of pillars holding its low arches. Before condemning all this as extraneous to the matter in hand, think further and note the effect of this bit of history on design, which includes designs for textiles.
Long before Spain was securely under the Moslem's dominance, Egypt was in his hand. The Arabs there fell into a magnificent luxury which had immense influence on the Coptic weavers. First was the effect on design to which allusion has been made. Mohammed was over-meticulous about design, and forced it into an elaboration of geometrics, forbidding representations of animate forms. But the Coptic weavers had these last already in their repertory and at their able finger-tips, so notwithstanding the command of new masters they continued some of the old Christian and Hellenic conventions.
There was attached to the law an uncomfortable proviso, that in case a Mohammedan wore a garment, or used a hanging displaying the objects offensive to Mohammed's taste, he was to be at once dispatched to another world where he might meditate on his sins during aeons of torture. Human imagination ever seems to display this sort of invention at times of great religious fervor. The figures forbidden were those of mankind and other animate life as well as portraits.
But when the able weavers of Egypt produced such magnificent cloths as the conquerors had never seen, many bearing the offense against the Prophet, a way out had to be found, for to burn such noble furnishings were unthinkable. Christians in those days being quite accustomed to suffering, Islam made new decrees whereby the designs of the fabrics should bring the tortures of hell upon the weavers and not the owners.
Thus the caliphs accept such pieces of weaving as are preserved by history, though unhappily the eye will never see them more.
Tents and their hangings, they were, the houses and furnishings of great men who traveled in those climes and in those days. We hear of one tent so large that seventy camels were needed for its transport. It was entirely lined with silks. Alexandria fell to the Caliph Omar in 641 and we can fancy the treasure there.
When the Mohammedans found their capital Medina too small a city, in too arid a country, for the capital of a conquering nation, Damascus was occupied, and after that Bagdad. And here again are names to conjure with, names that dazzle with their jewels, that bring out princesses, houris, thieves, lovers, tyrants, all the inspiring puppets of Eastern tales to make us their happy slaves in meditation. Persia itself was not exempt. By the year 75o A.D. the Mohammedan Conquest reached from India to the Atlantic. If one has a firm hold on mental clarity, one can think of the effect which this great conquest of the East and West had on Islamic art.
As time went on the Coptic figures underwent a slow decadence. Outlines were feebler and motives became fretted with useless details, while animals grew unbeautifully grotesque. And in all of this was historic reason. Damascus, that great Islamic center of trade, was supplying merchants of the West with goods brought there from Persia, and the strange designs were distantly copied and mutilated in the Coptic weaving. They can sometimes be recognized by the use of the figures, Persian figures, the tree-of-life and the altar of fire. Besides this was the introduction of hunting scenes, represented usually with' a mounted hunter and a single animal. All of these are traced to Persia.
The uses of these Coptic fabrics? As said before they are of use to us only in the enchantment of connecting history with the art of woven designs. On the day when these delicious bits were in actual use, they rep-resented the adornment and decoration of succeeding races in North Africa.