Wednesday 29 September 2010

A Mameluke Sampler at Christies - the Caucasian Circle of Motifs

There is a theory that some early sampler motifs arrived in England from North Africa via Sicily and mainland Spain. One of the largest North African empires was the Caliphate centred on Cairo in Egypt. This is a Mameluke sampler that will be auctioned at Christies on 8 October in London. It is dated between 10 - 13 century and belongs to a period when the Caliphate in Egypt depended on imported slaves traded by the Turkish. Mameluke simply means 'owned'. What is interesting is that many slaves, particularly women, were abducted from the Black Sea, Danube Basin, and Sea of Azov areas of Greater Europe - Circassian women from the North West Caucasus were the most prized. So, they would have brought their traditional needlework repertoire with them and this repertoire would have percolated into the culture to which they had been forced. Local fashion in their new land would have demanded the women also learn new motifs and the two cultures, so meeting, would have become combined over time to create new needlework designs and motifs. But it is worth remembering that when these motifs were transferred north to England, they entailed a circle of threads leading back to the mountains of the Caucasus and perhaps even to those early prehistoric needlework cultures of the Altai in Southern Siberia.
While this sampler looks like a band sampler, if you turn it on its side you can see that a liitle more is happening here than mere recording of border designs. Here you can see a tunic front with a decorated central placket and designs along the shoulders. Was this a trial run for making a tunic front? Or was it intended as a tunic front which either failed or was rejected, and was later used for other stitching - or something else?


  1. This is so interesting. Many of the motifs, especially those in the right hand vertical band are very similar to those of the Ndebele and the Zulu, as seen in their beadwork and the walls of their houses. The Zulu and the Ndebele are major tribes in Southern Africa.