Russian State Museum of Oriental Art (Gosudarstvennyi Muzei Vostoka) has an extensive collection of Central Asian suzani—a type of richly embroidered textile that once served as wedding embroidery to protect the bride and groom from hostile forces, as well as attract good luck. The floral and vegetal patterns that young girls stitched on white canvas for their future dowries symbolized their hope for a new and better life of love and beauty.
Embroidery is one of the most ancient and revered forms of decorative art among the peoples of Central Asia. Especially prized was silk embroidery, which first appeared on the territory of modern Uzbekistan in the 4th – 5th centuries AD. Central Asian embroidery is first mentioned in the diary of the Castilian envoy Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who visited the court of Timur in 1404. He was impressed by the emir’s palaces, essentially tents made of and embroidered with silk, gold, and silver threads.
Senior researcher, Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia and Far North Department of the Russian State Museum of Oriental Arts, curator of the “Textiles of the Caucasus and Central Asia” fund. Specializes in textiles and embroideries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The art of embroidery never ceased to exist, passed down by generations of hardworking needlewomen. By the 19th century, suzani (Tajik “needle-sewn,” “needle-shaped”)—large embroidered panels intended for the bride’s dowry—became popular among the region’s farmers, namely Tajiks and sedentary Uzbeks.
Suzani Wedding Decorations
Every family made embroidered covers and hangings before the wedding of their daughter. These varied in size and purpose: a large suzani might cover the newlyweds’ bed or a wedding bedsheet, a smaller one might serve as a case for pillows, another might be used as a prayer rug or curtains for room niches. Beautiful embroidery in mesmerizing patterns was the prime decoration for the wedding ceremony and had deep symbolism in the newlyweds’ room.
Unlike gold sewing, where all work was done by men, silk needlework was a women’s craft. As soon as a girl was born, the mother began to collect her dowry, and later the grown-up daughter joined in the needlework, making large embroidered pieces and a variety of dresses and robes intended for her wedding celebration. The composition of the dowry changed depending on the locality and the wealth of the parents. If the family did not have time to prepare the necessary embroidery, the bride’s mother could ask for the help of relatives, neighbors, or girlfriends at a chokduzon (literally “sewing tailor-made”), an event devoted to completing the work quickly together.
Suzani played an important role in the wedding ceremony: the bride could be wrapped in it or it could be held over her like a canopy while leading the groom to the house. The place where the bride was seated during the wedding was fenced off with a curtain—not a plain piece of textile but a rich suzani. The entire space where the celebration took place was hung with many embroideries and carpets. After the wedding, suzani remained the main decoration of the newlyweds’ room. Embroidered covers and hangings decorated living rooms not only on holidays, but also on weekdays. They hung over wall niches to hide bedding items and the walls between them during the day. The wall opposite the windows was decorated with the largest hangings, sometimes combined with small ones.
Until the end of the 19th century, embroiderers used silk threads colored with natural dyes, which gave them deep, soft, unique tones. Handmade white cotton fabric (karbos), woven from local threads, served as the base. The patterns were drawn by a specially invited draftswoman (kalamkash), a craft passed down from mother to daughter in a mandatory rite of passage. She would draw the contours of the ornamentation by hand with a sharpened reed pen (kalam).
After the pattern was drawn on, the narrow strips of fabric would be embroidered separately. Only after the completion of the work were they sewn together into a single panel. Therefore, in finished products, the pattern at the seams often does not line up and the details are embroidered with threads of different shades, since different artisans did the embroidery.
Kalamkash had to memorize a large number of ornaments. Sketches and patterns were collected in albums. In the process, new versions of old patterns and compositions would be created. Some of them would become popular and fashionable. The most beloved and most frequently used of the traditional stitches were several varieties of one-sided stitching and chain stitch. The embroidery technique allowed the craftswomen to create textures that gave extraordinary artistic expression to every embroidered piece, from a luxurious cover to a modest skullcap.
The Russian State Museum of Oriental Art has a significant collection of large wedding covers and hangings from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection, numbering over 270 samples, includes ancient embroidery from all the key centers of this art form: Bukhara, Nurata, Shakhrisabz, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Khojent. The patterns of the suzani were predominantly floral/vegetal and often richly filled the entire visible surface of the fabric, which included a central field and a border.
The famous Bukhara embroidery was distinguished by its regal and amazing decoration—no wonder, as Bukhara was a wealthy city. The inner chambers of the houses of the aristocracy were also decorated with tiles and picturesque paintings on ganch, as well as magnificent Persian carpets, which were highly valued in local markets. Bukhara embroidery was no less luxurious.
The clearest example of this style is the pillow cover (takyapush) shown in Figure 1. Its most recognizable decorative features are luxurious and varied terracotta-crimson rosettes framed by graceful vegetation. Such rosettes are very typical of Bukhara. Bukhara suzani are breathtaking, with incredibly imaginative detail and decoration; compositions are often divided into concentric circles, sectors, stars, flowers and complex figures.
Suzani from Nurata (Figure 2), a large village on the border with the steppe that was part of the Bukhara Emirate, are also worthy of attention. In the 19th century, some of the best embroidery in the region came from Nurata. One of the main features of local covers is airy patterns, not overcrowded by dense decorations, with finely embroidered flower branches and bouquets. The sample below stands out for its beautifully balanced ornament that has become the hallmark of local embroidery: a flower star in the center and unusually lush, large bouquets-bushes in the corners of the field. This composition is known as chor shokh u yak moh (“four branches and one moon”). In addition to detailed floral and vegetal patterns, embroidered images of household items—namely, jugs hidden among the “rays” of the star and bouquets—catch the eye. The water jug (aftoba) motif was a favorite one, symbolizing the purity and ritual ablutions prescribed by Islam, as well as life-giving fluids.
Covers and hangings from Shakhrisabz, with their white background, were undoubtedly heavily influenced by the aforementioned two cities, replicating in many respects their patterns and motifs. Local craftswomen also preferred the motifs of rosettes, palmettes, and sometimes blooming bouquets. But Shakhrisabz embroideries had their own features too. On the suzani below (Figure 3), we see big, bright orange rosettes with a detailed core and palmettes framed by wide leafy rings. They decorate the entire space of the central field. The border that frames the pattern—known as chor-chirog (“a lamp with four wicks”) is very typical of this city. This pattern undoubtedly goes back to Zoroastrianism, where the lamp symbolized a sacred fire. In folk art, it is the strongest amulet and symbolizes protection and purification. Indeed, in the wedding ceremony, it was fire that purified, dispersed the darkness, and guarded the newlyweds.
The pillow cover from Samarkand (Figure 4) clearly demonstrates the main stylistic features of this craft center. Unlike the suzani of Bukhara, Nurata, and Shakhrisabz, with their certain elitism, the embroidery of Samarkand gravitated more toward folk traditions. This was due to the difficult political and economic situation in Samarkand throughout the 18th century. The old artistic tradition was interrupted and a new one arose from scratch in the 19th century, focusing on a wider stratum of the population and reflecting fairly mundane tastes. The style of Samarkand is a distinct and laconic pattern; there is no room for unnecessary details. As we can see, large round rosettes of a cold pomegranate-crimson hue framed by rather wide turquoise-green shoots are lined up both on the field and on the border in an ornament already familiar to us from Shakhrisabz: chor-chirog, which was also very popular in Samarkand. Thanks to precisely selected colors, the Samarkand craftswomen achieved a clear and articulate composition, even if the motifs themselves were nothing unusual and their drawing was somewhat angular. Nevertheless, this gave local embroidery its own unique look.
Wedding suzani from Tashkent bore the local name palak (from the Arabic falak—”sky”) and were known for their laconic geometric decor. Without a doubt, their decorative features are so unique that they immediately attract attention and stand out from all other artistic embroidery of Uzbekistan.
Huge dark red circles, called oy (“moon”) densely fill the entire visible space of the central field, creating the main pattern of Tashkent embroidery. The palak showcased at the State Museum of Oriental Art (Figure 5), where non-ornamented rosettes are lined up in two rows, was the most popular type of local suzani in the 19th century. Such embroideries, with many rows of rosettes-circles, were known according to the number of such circles: palak with six moons, palak with twelve moons, etc.
The name palak (“sky” or “firmament”) is quite telling. These large round rosettes were associated with the moon’s femininity, but also with fire, stars, and the sun. Craftswomen believed that such ornaments would provide magical protection for newlyweds, as well as bestow good offspring on them, as the celestial bodies also possessed power over fertility.
Suzani from Khojent (Figure 6), a city located on the territory of Northern Tajikistan, are in terms of style and composition very close to the embroidery from Tashkent. This similarity is expressed in strict rows of rosettes-circles in a wide leafy frame. But on closer inspection, the distinctive features become more noticeable: a rosette-star in the center; large floral palmettes, very popular here; and a much greater variety of floral and vegetal forms. The main feature of these suzani is their color, a combination of a calm, cold burgundy-purple for the rosettes and black-dark blue for the palmettes of vegetal crowns.
As mentioned above, almost all of the presented suzani have vegetal ornaments. Their lush decor was undoubtedly associated in the minds of the craftswomen with the idea of the abundance of life and the splendor of nature, but it also expressed the folk idea of the Garden of Eden. But above all, these wedding embroideries were supposed to protect the bride and groom from hostile forces and attract good luck. Floral and vegetal patterns hid rich symbolic content: many of them were considered a sign of fertility or served as magical protection. Equally important was the white background of the suzani on which the ornaments were embroidered, because according to ancient tradition, white carried protection and ensured the future well-being of the young couple.
To complement the patterns, which were filled with ancient magic, craftswomen tried to increase the magical power of embroidery in other ways. Often, the finished suzani had misshapen contours or blank spaces, as though someone had accidentally forgotten to embroider there. But the astucious craftswomen deliberately made this “mistake” to protect against the evil eye. In any case, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, suzani were a necessary component of the life of any woman. Weddings and holidays could not be held without them and it was impossible to imagine decorating a living room without them.
All photos by
Russian State Museum of Oriental Art