University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Amanda Phillips

Assistant Professor, Art History, McIntire Department of Art

308 Fayerweather Hall

Project

"Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean: Silk and the Commerce of Fashion in the Early Modern Period"

Project Summary:  This project investigates the impact of the trade of silks from the Indian Ocean into the territories of the Ottoman Empire and specifically into Istanbul during the early modern period. Some South Asian silks brought to Istanbul were both novel and popular among Istanbulites, which in turn spurred local weavers to imitate them. In this way, both Ottoman artisans and consumers emerged into the global eighteenth century and participated in the fashion cycles shared between China, South Asia, and Europe, as well as those in west Asia. This research and its publication aim to balance existing scholarship on luxury textiles, which emphasizes the brisk commerce in goods and fashions in the Mediterranean exclusively, and to extend the period of study into the eighteenth century, which has been largely neglected. In doing so, it also addresses the larger historiographical problem of Ottoman decline, showing that craftsmen, merchants, and customers responded actively to challenges posed by changing political, economic, environmental, and social circumstances. 

Textiles were the second largest trade commodity, worldwide. In the Ottoman Empire, silks especially were the subject of edicts controlling their trade and use; their production, too, was regulated by associations of craftspeople and the central authorities. Due to both their beauty and high prices, luxury fabrics themselves left abundant traces in written sources including shipping manifests, customs registers, inventory lists, and even ledgers of diplomatic gifts. Perhaps the most important source, however, are the silks themselves, which attest inherently and inarguably to changes in technology and taste. This project uses these sources and others to show how the silk industries of the most enduring Islamic empire evolved over the longue durée, continuously adapting in unrecognized and often surprising ways.

Project Update/Summary:  I spent June of this year (2016) at archives in Istanbul looking for documentary evidence for silks from India arriving in the Ottoman Empire. Among the many relevant inventory lists, records of taxation and customs dues, shipping manifests, and descriptions of craft practice, I found a record from 1716 that gives the names, quantities, and prices of silks that an emissary named Hüseyin Bey brought from India to the imperial palace. The list intriguingly combines Ottoman and South Asian terminologies for textiles. Equally exciting, an early eighteenth-century file from another archive also contains two pieces of a new type of patterned silk and a berat (imperial license) that permits its production; this attests to weavers’ agility and their willingness to innovate in order to preserve their livelihoods.