Suzani comes from the Persian word for "needle," and the word refers to embroidered hangings or fabric coverings, generally a meter and a half wide (4-5') but sometimes much more. The birthplace of suzanis is in what is now Uzbekistan, the area along the Silk Roads that interconnected the cultures of Europe, Turkey and China with the Muslim world. Islam came to this area in the eighth century, and over time splendid cities arose there: among them Bukhara, Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and Khiva.
Central Asia has always been a land of textiles. The lives of nomads and settled peoples alike have always been hard, and the landscape is often bleak, but women have long decorated every object they could—prayer rugs, saddlecloths, cradle covers, mirror cases, yurt bands, tent flaps, salt bags and gift wraps—with weaving, embroidery and applique in wool, silk, cotton or felt.
As children, nomad and village girls alike began putting together dowries to show the community their skill and industriousness, and throughout their lives their textiles were a principal means of expression and of control of their immediate environment, be it a house, a tent or a yurt. The textiles were also, if needed, an economic resource, for fine pieces could be sold, and city people often commissioned work from the village women.
Homes became veritable cocoons of splendid textiles that were not only functional and beautiful, but also served as status
symbols and links to history. Many patterns that are now largely abstract, or so stylized as to seem abstract, have very old roots, for they can be seen on finds in the tombs of Pazyryk, in the permafrost of the High Altai, which date back to the first millennium BC.
Throughout Central Asia, individual regions developed their distinctive designs, for this part of the world is a human as well as a topographical patchwork: Khazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Lakai and Arabs live there and, within those groups, each tribe had its gol, or crest, with colors and motifs that were recognizable at a marketplace or on pilgrimage. Client tribes placed the gol of their protector more prominently than their own and, as with western heraldry, in these crests could be read the past history and the present "pecking order" of the steppe.
Most of the suzanis surviving today, however, are village or urban works, and though scholars often divide them into "eastern" and "western" on the basis of design and color, less is known about suzanis than about other textiles from the region. Except at a few museums, suzanis have been little studied because, traditionally, they were made in the home for personal use and thus rarely appeared in the written records of merchants or travelers.
The oldest surviving suzanis are from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it seems likely that they were in use long before that. Writing at the beginning of the 15 th century, the Spanish ambassador to the court of Timur (Tamerlane) left detailed descriptions of the royal tents, with their hangings and embroideries, that agree precisely with the scenes depicted in miniature paintings of the period. (See "The Ambassador's Report," page 10.) Some of the textiles the envoy saw were surely the forerunners of the suzani, particularly the densely worked pieces from Bukhara and Shakhrisabz, some of which have much to say to the medallion carpets of the Timurid period that are associated with Herat, to the south in Afghanistan.
It is interesting that in the 1780's, the time of the first surviving suzanis, Haji Murad, the emir of Bukhara, decided to revive the silk industry by planting mulberry trees north of the city and bringing in skilled workers from the Merv oasis to the
west. This may well have resulted in renewed suzani production and given rise to the pieces known to museums and textile historians today.
The motifs on the suzani go back much further, however, and they are linked to trade. The wealthy families of the cities of the Silk Roads and of the Khanates of Bukhara and Khokand had long had contact with the textiles of India, China and Persia, as well as decorative motifs from the West. Since the time of Alexander, Hellenic influences have reached well into Central Asia, and from there, Hellenic motifs moved along the Silk Roads to appear in embroidered hangings found in many oasis towns and, finally, in the ceramics of Ming China. The vine pattern that, highly stylized, meanders along the border of so many suzanis was quite likely inspired by the scrolls of grapes found across the Hellenic world on stone, ceramics and textiles. Equally old and well-traveled is the palmetto, a fan- shaped, stylized botanical motif from the Mediterranean that may also have been introduced in the wake of Alexander's conquests in India and Afghanistan.
Other flowers that appear on suzanis, including tulips and wild hyacinths, are not unlike those on Iznik plates, suggesting a Turkic origin. Sometimes there is a frilly flower often called a carnation, but it is more probably a pomegranate blossom, or a much-stylized lotus whose meaning as a Buddhist symbol has been forgotten in the centuries since the conCentral Asia to Islam.
These motifs are common among the western group of suzanis, which often show the influence of textiles imported from Mughal India through Kashmir. Curiously enough, some of these patterns were also exported westward in the 17th century, where they became the basis for English Jacobean embroideries.