Islamic Art

The ‘Cloth of Gold’ Which Provides a Rare Glimpse into an Ancient Civilisation

By Sotheby's

One of the highlights of the upcoming Arts of the Islamic World auction (London, 25 April) is a magnificent silk shirt, woven more than 1,000 years ago in the Sogdian Empire, an ancient civilization centred on modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

At the time, silk was prized not only for the intrinsic value of the material itself but also for its portability for use in trade, and the very best silks could be found in China. Positioned as they were on the famed Silk Road, the Sogdians were able to establish an extensive trade network with all their neighbours, including a notable exchange with China, which granted them access to this silk.

The condition of the shirt is remarkable and very few examples in a similar state of preservation exist. It is made of honey-gold silk samite and decorated with designs in shades of blue depicting ducks wearing flowing scarves, symbols of the Sassanian royal household. The garment would have been considered a true “cloth of gold”, which was prized by the Sogdians and its neighbours, and was reserved for the elite.

An indicator of wealth and rank, this shirt would have served an important function in the context of trade and diplomacy. Today, it provides a rare glimpse into an important civilization that left an imprint on empires spreading over multiple continents and for many subsequent centuries.

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