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Object of the Month #6
A Made Up Monogram
Ottoman Wrapping Cloth (Bohça) (2013.01.152)
March 2015

This month we have what on first glance appears to be simply a scarf. It’s quite pretty, if faded and stained, with ornate off-white floral embroidery outlined in dark brown, on a tan ground. The cloth and embroidery are stable, with only minor fraying. It certainly looks old, but what else is there really to say about it?

And then you realize that the embroidery was done by hand. And that the brown outlines were executed in now-tarnished metallic thread, possibly real gold or silver. And that the elaborate designs in the corners aren’t curlicues, but highly stylized Arabic script (called a tughra, more on that below). What was once only a monochromatic scarf has become something intriguing that raises several questions.

The scarf is square with hand-sewn rolled hems, approximately 66 cm (26”) on a side.  The base fabric is undyed Z-spun linen in a balanced plain weave with occasional slubs.  The off-white embroidery thread is probably silk.  When examined with a microscope, you can see the construction of the metallic thread.  It has a pale silk core wrapped with a very narrow strip of metal, only a fraction of a millimeter wide.  Today the metal is tarnished, but in some places the original brightness shines through.  Gold doesn’t tarnish, and there are none of the green highlights you might expect from copper, so it’s most likely silver.  The embroidery is all chain stitched.  Chain stitching is a non-reversible stitch, meaning that the scarf has a distinct front and back.

 The scarf has a stylized floral design, with the exception of the script in the corners. The design includes roses, leaves, and palmate forms, possibly in the saz style, introduced to the Ottomans in the 16th century. The layout consists of a central medallion surrounded by a floral border with a single tughra in each corner, all identical. The embroidery shows reflection symmetry across vertical, horizontal, and diagonal axes, with the exception of the tughras, which instead exhibit 4-fold rotational symmetry. There are some minor variations in the embroidery, with the occasional missing petal and the like, but on the whole the symmetry is pretty exact. A very close inspection, especially of the tughras, reveals small areas where the embroidery infilling appears incomplete.

The tughras are so abstract that it took some time before I recognized them as writing. Essentially a very ornate Arabic monogram, tughras were used by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. For example, 16th century Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s tughra reads, “Suleiman, son of Selim Khan, ever victorious.” This formula, more or less, was used in all sultanic tughras. I had hoped to translate the NMH tughras to get a handle on the date of the scarf, only to discover they might not mean anything at all.

While I could identify a few individual letters and numbers (including “0125,” ٠١٢٥, at the center right, to which I still haven’t been able to assign any significance), I needed an expert to make sense of the whole thing. I contacted a modern tughra design company, and was surprised to learn that although the word for victorious (“muzaffer,” مظفر) might be present, the rest is probably decorative gibberish.

It’s also not really a scarf. It’s likely something called a bohça, a piece of fabric used as a wrapper to protect linens and clothing, and a common part of an Ottoman woman’s trousseau. This helps explain the elaborate decoration, because bohças, “exhibited the wealth of the bride and her family and her skill as en embroiderer.”[1] The metallic thread, as discussed above, as well as the tughras (even though only decorative) would have also implied wealth and status.

Wrapped in the bohça was a yellowed piece of index card reading, “Shawl over 100 years old, from / Near East, not China.” Assuming this is accurate, and conservatively guessing the card is from no later than 1980, the bohça would have a terminus ante quem of 1880 (i.e., made no later than 1880). My suspicion is that it may be several decades older. Unfortunately, we have no additional information about its origin or donor.

It’s very tempting to try to link the bohça to an alumnus/a, especially one living in Turkey in the mid-20th century. There are even a few reasonable candidates. However, the vagueness of the accompanying card is problematic. If you believe the donor personally procured the object at its place of origin, you would expect narrower identification than just “Near East, not China.” However, it is plausible to imagine the child of an alumnus/a knowing little of its origin, and donating it after his or her death, thus erasing previously known context.

These gaps in our knowledge aside, that’s not a bad account for a scarf that didn’t initially seem like it had much to say. If you’re interested in learning more about the NMH bohça, or hearing a more speculative hypothesis about the tughras, I hope you will come visit the Archives.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Krody, S. B. (2000). Flowers of Silk and Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroidery. London, Merrel: in association with the Textile Museum, Washington DC, p. 72.