Semantics of Turban

Issue #1 • 2109

On the History
of hen’s Head-dress
in the 15th-16th Century
Khorasan and Maverannakhr

Head-dress as part of traditional costume performs several functions: protective, guarding, cosmogonical and decorative; and it serves as indication of age, gender and status. It expresses personality of its owner. Typical medieval men’s head-dress in oriental Muslim countries was turban worn by people of all ages and groups of society. Turban was also an important detail in the attire of clergy. It became the most important exterior feature indicating confessional belonging of Muslims. Legends have it that the first person to wear turban was Prophet Adam. Historians link its origin to ancient Arabia: in the hot climate of desert it protected the heads of nomadic Semitic tribes from wind and scorching sun. Being included into a mandatory set of Muslim attire, turban has changed its semantics and turned into a sign showing devotion to Islam. Religious significance of this head-dress (amoma, imama in Arabic) was stipulated in a khadith: “Imama embodies dignity of the faithful”. Muslim lawyers, fakikh, dedicated special treatises discussing the rules of making and wearing of imama. In Arab Caliphate not only Muslims, but also people of other confessions were obliged

to wear turban. Its colour was officially determined and had to be different from Muslim turbans that were predominantly white. Christians could be distinguished by deep-blue turbans, Jews wore yellow and fire-worshipers red. With time the meaning of turban expanded: imama also became the sign of state power and was worn during enthronement or coming in office, and was included into the set of honorary attire.

With the adoption of Islam, imama became compulsory head-dress also for the nations conquered by Arabs, but at the beginning was considered to be an item that only senior clergy were privileged to wear.

Only in the 13th century, following a special decree of Mukhammed II Ala-Ad-Deen who ruled in Iran, Azerbaijan, Khorasan and other territories in 1200-1220, all his subjects were obliged to wear turban. Since then, turban “entrenched” itself among all segments of medieval feudal Muslim society in Middle Eastern region. It was not permitted to visit a mosque or a cemetery or to pray without wearing a turban. As boys turned to men, their children’s hats were replaced with a turban. Taking a turban off one’s head when meeting a sheikh demonstrated reverence and respect for the cleric (1, pp. 17-21). One was disgraced if his turban was taken away.

The 15th-l6th century texts from Khorasan and Maverannakhr offer different terms to name the headdress: amoma, imama, salla, dastor, futa… And these names determine its social association as well. Amo-ma/imama is the name used predominantly to refer to turban worn by senior clergy – sheikhs and imams (prayer leaders). Dastor is a parade turban worn on festive or formal occasions mainly by feudal nobility and rulers. Futa is a small turban worn by ordinary people – craftsmen, retail traders and ordinary townsfolk. It has to be noted specifically that turban in the 15th-16th century Khorasan and Maverannakhr was considered to be purely urban head-dress, whereas nomadic people preferred felt hats of different shape and ornamentation (except women who wore turban-like headdress from ancient times) (2, pp. 13-17).

Structurally, Khorasan or Central Asian turban consists of two parts: a small cone-shaped hat called tokiya or kulokha, the height of which varied depending on the current fashion and the length of turban itself -a long piece of fabric wrapped around the hat or kulokha. The manner of wearing a turban, its colour and size gave and indication of a person’s social status.

Representatives of secular nobility – khans, sultans, emirs and courtiers – wore a medium size turban that could be wrapped in several different ways. Their turbans were of two kinds: formal (dastor) and one for everyday (futa). “When they reported to Khoja Akhrar that his elder son Khoji Kalon arrived… he removed a futa from his head and replaced it with dastor, and when his son departed he put on his futa again” (3, p. 74).

In the 15 th century dastor was made of fine Indian muslin, silk or other fabric (brocade) of white colour arfd wrapped around a tokiya or kulokha in small puffed folds, with one end at the top hanging loose and resembling a fan. The fabric was wrapped around kulokha so as to cover two thirds of it. The number of turns and puffiness depended on fashion and personality. Sultan Khusain, a Temurid, the ruler of Herat, known for his sloppiness, “sometimes on holidays went to the prayer wearing a small flat turban, poorly wrapped in three turns with a heron’s feather stuck into it” (4, pp. 172-173), whereas Nizamaddin, Kazi of Khorasan, “persevered in the splendour of his turban and attire…, so that even the most intent eye could not make head or tail of the folds in his turban that reached extraordinary dimensions” (5, pp. 205-206). A contemporary and the teacher of Alisher Navoi and a prominent philosopher and poet Jami who was also a spiritual mentor of Herat society and a recognized Sufi sheikh, was modest in his daily and personal life. According to Vasifi, he wore a “khoja-ubaydi” hat, around which a turban of “the most negligible size” was wrapped. Modesty of his clothing even resulted in confusing and funny situations: once he was mistaken for his own servant (5, p. 463).

During the second half of the 15th century dastor was wrapped four times without folds, ends down (4, p. 33). In the 16th century Maverannakhr the shape of a turban became taller and neater, and the number of folds increased as people started using finer fabrics, predominantly striped, and a turban was wrapped in such a way that the fabric pattern created a chess design (6, Table 16, Fig. 37, 38). The art of wrapping a turban was complicated one and required certain skills; therefore there existed special servants called dastorbands who were on staff of noble people.

Turban of nobility was adorned with gems and plumage that served both to decorate and protect. Heron feathers were of particular high value, as they were also a symbol of power. Such turban with an egret-plume of heron feathers is pictured on the portrait of Sultan Khusain Bpkara wrought by the famous miniature painter from Herat Kamoliddin Bekhzad. Whereas dastor had to be white, in everyday life nobility could wear coloured futa. Descendants of the Prophet wore turbans of green silk. In the days of mourning people put on black or deep-blue turbans.

Turban made of valuable textiles (muslin, silk, taffeta) was presented as gift and the token of particular favour. Texts often mention that a khan or sultan, as a sign of his favour, presented somebody with a turban, along with other honorary pieces of attire such as gown and sash (Yadzi, Shami, Babur). For example, as evidenced by Nizami Aruzi Samarqandi, Abu Reikhan Beru-ni received from Sultan Makhmud, among other gifts, a brocade turban that had a status of an honorary gift. It was known as dastor-i-kasad.

Turban of senior clergy stood out by its large dimensions – it was significantly larger than turbans worn by people from other groups of society – and had to be glaringly snow-white. A Sufi saw Sheikh Sidi Omar ibn al-Farid in his dream wearing “a huge turban” (8, p. 208). Sufis associated white colour with Islam, as it, like imama itself, was semiotic “bi” – the sign of confessional affiliation, and at the same time was a symbol of purification and spiritual purity (9). In early Temurid period, judging by Herat miniature painting of Bay-sonkur period, clerical turban was wrapped in very voluminous folds around a short quilted cone-shaped kulokha, leaving it one third open at the top. The upper long end of the turban, aloka, was left loose on the right, wrapped around the neck, tucked through the lower turn and hang down on the shoulder. Turban was worn to leave part of the forehead and ears open.

Turban was part of dervish’s clothing. Some Central Asian Sufi orders exercised the rite of girdling called shadd, which signified initiation into the dervish brotherhood; the rite involved wrapping one’s head with a turban or body with a sash (7, p. 153). A turban on dervish’s head meant that he has mastered professional skills sufficiently well and is prepared for the life of a Sufi. Sufic turbans were colored to match the colour of a particular Sufi order. The miniatures of Herat and Maverannakhr show dervish’s turban wrapped in two turns around a short hat. According to Navoi, the hat was made of felt and turban of wool (1, p. 19).

The length of a turban should be at least 8 meters, as its other meaning was to serve as a shroud. Should death meet a traveler on the road, the turban fabric would become his cerement. Thus, turban is not only a sign of faith, but also a constant reminder of death and transience of existence.

According to the vakf document of Khusein Khorezmi, in the 15th century Samarqand the length of dervish’s turban was 5 zar and was made of taffeta (3, p. 72).

Ordinary people wore a small turban made of cotton, wool or coarse calico of different colours. In the 18th-19th centuries it could be made of checked fabrics or fabrics with other designs.

Due to its high value, a turban could serve as a collateral, for instance, in a drinking shop (Vasifi), and, according to the keen observation of A. Vamberi, function as a “toilet-bad” in which one could keep money, letters, medicines or keys: “He immediately produced the key to the upper room from his dastor” (5).

According to the ancient beliefs, human body was a symbolic representation of the idea of the universe, according to which the world is divided into three parts – the top, the bottom and the middle – accentuated in a costume by a head-dress, collar and belt. Based on these ideas, turban also symbolized the sky (cosmos), and it was no accident that its shape was dome-like.

Thus, in the costume of the 15 th-16th century Kho-rasan and Maverannakhr men’s turban was a multifunctional and polysemantic dead-dress, reflecting the entire spectrum of information about its wearer, his ideological, moral, aesthetic, social and age characteristics, Artistic and aesthetic image of turban was based on a balanced proportion between tokiya or kulokha and a fabric wrapped around it, its blinding whiteness and the shape of its folds, the form and outline of which had much in common with grooved dome surface of the beautiful architectural structures of Middle East, giving the Muslim attire a particular beauty and gracefullness.

Zukhra Rakhimova

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