A Yastik for My Divan

Silk Velvet Yastik, probably 17th c., though identified as 7thc (typo?), (photo courtesy Sadberk Hanim Museum, Istanbul)

The great migration of Turkic tribes from north-east Siberia into Central Asia began in the 6th c. AD and continued for centuries. The Seljuk tribe dominated beginning in the 11th century; at the peak of its influence, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Western shores of Turkey to the Punjab. Among other things, the Turkic peoples brought weaving and embroidery traditions with them into the conquered lands. Though only a few of Seljuk textiles have survived, their weaving traditions have lived on in the textiles of their successors. 

The Seljuk Empire was eventually subsumed by the Oshmans (Ottomans), an upstart tribe with ambitions.     In 1326 after a seige of nearly seven years, Orhan I, the second Beg (chief) of the Ottomans, captured the Byzantium city of Bursa and made it the capital of his expanding empire.  Given Bursa’s strategic location on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmar, this victory ultimately paved the way to the greatest prize, Constantinople. That fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans advanced rapidly over additional territories, until they controlled a vast swath of land, which stretched west into Europe, east to China and south to Morocco and Yemen.  The Ottoman Empire remained intact for nearly 600 years, until the Versailles Treaty of 1919 distroyed it.

Beyond its role in the march of empires, Bursa is important for another reason—silk. The Chinese were able to kept the method of silk production secret for centuries, but the vast trade network that was the Silk Route facilitated the smuggling of the secret west to the Byzantine Empire.  By the time of its conquest by the Ottomans, Bursa had long been a Byzantium center of sericulture, due to a climate favorable to the cultivation of mulberry trees (the leaves of which the silkworm must feed).  By the 14th century, it had become a principal market for world silk and its workshops handled not only the manufacture of silk for domestic Ottoman use, but also added value to silk products flowing from Persia to Europe, by way of the Italian cities of Genoa, Florence and Venice. By 1502 records reveal that Bursa had over 1,000 looms.The period between 1550-1650 was the heyday of Bursa’s economic activity; Sulieman was responsible for expansion of the fine and decorative arts at court and Bursa provided most of the textiles. Contemporary inventories list 91 types of fabric made there, although the city’s artisans were predominantly known for their lampas (woven cloths with ornamental designs) twill, seraser and velvet. Which brings me to the piece above. 

Combing silk threads from cocoons at rug factory near Ephesus, Turkey (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

There was no attribution, but a good guess would be that it was made in Bursa.  

Depending on whom you consult, velvet weaving originated in Egypt, China, Kashmir or Italy.  Velvet derives its sumptuous sheen from a special weaving technique, in which a second weft (the horizontal thread) is looped over a rod and then cut with special tool, causing the fibers to stand horizontal to the cloth. Until the Industrial Revolution created economical production, velvet was the exclusive domain of the court and aristocracy. Further, due to its high natural sheen, silk was the material of choice in making velvet until after the Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine how silk velvet would be an essential item in every sultan’s palace, for its opulence splendidly conveys the wealth of the court.  For seating, Turks have always favored the long low mattress-like seat called a divan (which derives from the Turkish word for government council, itself borrowed from the Persian for “book of accounts”).  Yastiks are the front side of the cushions used to bolster one’s back while sitting on a divan.

The yastik above sports an ogival pattern of stylized carnations. In comparison with other Ottoman and Italian velvets, this particular example of the diamond shape ogee (ogive) pattern is quite simple, and it strikes me that the weaver knew those big carnations could stand on their own without embellishment. Their stylized form evokes hand-held fans, a subtle reference to the leisures of court, perhaps?  In the cells at the top and bottom of the yastik is the stylized tulip motif, a perennial favorite of the Ottomans (probably because tulips originated in Turkey). Though I enjoy the intricacies of the more elaborate yastik designs—there’s palpable joy in tracing the interlocking lines of the patterns—I find the flat, regimented and bold character of this design quite majestic.

I’d like a yastik just like it for my divan, please. 

Want more?


“The Silk Road”: overview on silk making process

Christie’s—Ottoman Velvet


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

2 Responses to “A Yastik for My Divan”

  1. Louise kahler Says:

    I think this was a fascinating article – are you working on any more?

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