Headdress of Bibi Khanym

Issue #1 • 1775

Zuhra Rakhimova,
Art Critic

1Notes left by Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, envoy of the king of Castile, who visited Samarqand in 1403-1406 and recorded many of his remarkable observations of life and customs in the capital city and the state of Amir Timur, contain a particularly notable description of attire worn by the wives of the great commander, especially their headdress: On her head Kanyo, the senior of the wives (Sarai Mulk Khanym, or Bibi Khanum as she was often named), wore “a kind of a helmet of red cloth, similar to those worn at tourneys… The helmet was very tall, with a lot of large, light-coloured round pearls, many rubies, turquoise and various other gemstones very beautifully set. Veil [falling to the shoulders] was embroidered with gold and crowned by a splendid golden wreath with lots of gems and large pearls on top. The upper part was adorned by three rubies, measuring about two fingers: bright, exceptionally beautiful and lustrous. The headdress was topped by a large elbow-high plume, its feathers falling down, some to her face, to the eye level. The feathers were fastened together with a golden twine ending with a white feather tassel with gems and pearls; when she walked, the plume was flowing in all directions. Many noble women supported the “helmet” with their hands to prevent it from falling either way.” (1, p. 125)
Similar helmet-like female headdress can be found in paired portraits showing the wives of Mongol rulers in the miniatures from the Jami-al-Tawarikh manuscript kept in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, dated to the second half of the XIV century and presumably performed in Samarqand; as well as in a miniature depicting Ulugbek at hunting (Freer Gallery, Washington, DC): distinctive headdresses of his wives are similar to the description of headwear of Kanyo and other Timur’s wives offered by Clavijo.
The Clavijo’s description and similar images in the miniature suggest that Bibi Khanym and the wives of Ulugbek wore boktag, headdress of married Mongolian women, known to exist in the XIII-XIV centuries on the vast territory under the Mongol sway. Boktag hats worn by the Timur’s wives are mentioned by Sharafaddin Ali Yazdi in his famous work “Zafar-name” telling about the deeds of Timur: “In Kanighil, at a wedding of Iskander-mirza and Bekisi-Sultan, the Sahibkiran’s harem, each a Bilquis of the era, with ornamented boktag (bold is mine – Z. R.) on their heads, wearing gold-embroidered robes, shone like the sun, sitting on their thrones.” (2, p. 214).
2Mongolian female headdresses worn by women in the era of Amir Temur were first pointed out by Galina Pugachenkova who, following H. Goetz (3, p. 2227-2253), researched costume pictured in the miniatures of Iran and Central Asia (4, p. 89-90). In all subsequent studies this fact was noted but never discussed in detail (5).
Similar headdresses are found in the works of fine art dating to the XIII-XIV centuries in the Golden Horde, China, and the Chagatai ulus, which attests to their popularity in that time.
Headdresses of married Mongolian women (maidens’ hats are very different) are known as bogtag or bokto. (Europeans called them boka or bokka; the Chinese – gugu or guguguan). Their unique design always caught the eye of a traveller. Bogtak hats are described in detail in the books of Plano Carpini, Guillaume Rubruk, Ibn Battuta, Chang Chun, Clavijo and other authors (6, p. 27, p. 280-379, 300, 288).
Archaeological finds of recent decades confirm the existence of such a headdress in the large territory of the former Mongol empire (Mongolia, Tien-Shan, northern China, southern Caucasus, the Altai, the Volga riparian steppes), where to this point they found several dozen bokka fragments, most of which dating to the second half of the XIII and the XIV century, i. e. the time of the Golden Horde. Archaeological analysis of material from nomadic burials where the boktag hats were found suggests that the hats appeared on the territory of East European steppes not until the middle of the XIII century and had Mongolian origin (7, p. 156, 157). Besides, they confirm that in the late XIII and the first half of the XIV century, the time of the greatest strength and stability of the Genghiside powers, when all the elements of “imperial culture” (as defined by M. V. Gorelik) have evolved, Mongolian costume and its elements were in use everywhere (8), since in antiquity and the Middle Ages it was the headdress that most comprehensively reflected ethical, religious and aesthetic worldview of a nation, and its notions about phases of human life. Women’s headdress is particularly notable in this regard, as many researchers of ancient and medieval costume believe that its semantics and semiotic significance marked the woman’s social status, political function and biological age of its wearer, being an important symbol denoting ethnic and cultural identity.
Reconstructions of boktag made by archaeologists, as well as travellers’ notes and surviving specimens of the headdress demonstrate that bokka, boktag or bogto has rather complex vertical structure with a frame of wood and birch-bark covered by silk fabric of predominantly red colour. These were worn only with a kolpak hat (9, p. 45).
3Archaeological finds and boktag images in art of the XIII-XIV centuries suggest that there were several types of boktag, their overall similarity notwithstanding. The Tomsk-Altai variety, for instance, had a funnel-shaped pommel. Capital-like pommel belonged to the Mongol/Tien-Shan group that spread around the turn of the XIII-XIV centuries in a large area (Mongolia, Tien-Shan, northern China and a region in South Caucasus, which were then part of the Ilkhan state). The latter includes boktag pictured in the portraits of wives of the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty and well-preserved bokka from the Marjani collection (10, p.190-194).
Bogtaks from the Hulaguid Iran have different proportions from those of Tien-Shan: they are shorter, and, as noted by Plano Carpini and Rubruk, are topped with “one long rod made of stalks, feathers or thin reeds, decorated with feathers from drake’s tail; precious stones are sewn to a red hat hanging down to the shoulders; under the hat there is a red veil the covers shoulders and back.” Place where the hat joins the frame is daintily tied with strings of fabric in another colour, sometimes golden or deep-blue. The boktag hats of the Hulaguids could also have two circular ornaments of feathers resembling crowns sitting one above the other on the rod.
Whereas boktag worn by the wives of Timur, as described by Clavijo, had a tall “pipe” decorated with elbow-high peacock feathers, during Ulugbek’s time in Samarqand, judging by the pictures in the miniature, it was shorter, and the veil dropping to the back was coloured in red and deep-blue. The helmet-like headdress broadens at the top and is decorated on either side with short feathers arranged as a fan; the hat is more closely fitting the head and embroidered with gold. Perhaps this was the Central Asian version of boktag.
That boktag was worn by the wives of Timur and Ulugbek can be explained by the fact that Timur also seized the lands of Chaghatai. Timur (1336-1405) was the son-in-law of the last Mongol khan: his senior wife Sarai Mulk Khanym was Mongolian princess, daughter of Kazan-khan, the last legitimate ruler of the Chagatai ulus from the Genghiside dynasty. Besides, other women in the Timur’s harem, as can be inferred from their headwear, were Mongolian, or, as already mentioned, Mongolian princesses. It is known that one of Ulugbek’s wives named Oghe-begim was the daughter of Mirza Muhammad Sultan, with her maternal ancestry descending from the Golden Horde khan Uzbek (1312-1342). His other wife was Ak-Sultan Hanike, a Genghiside daughter of Mahmud-khan (11).
Boktag has an interesting symbolism that represents spiritual and aesthetic priorities of Turkic-Mongol nations, dimensionally reflecting their ideas about the world’s order. Boktag was usually upholstered in red cloth, the colour believed to be bringing good luck and vitality, and symbolising beauty, and safety and security of home. Red gemstones – ruby and coral – were a favourite material for making jewellery. Red also signified power and majesty; hence its social and political significance. Among the Mongols, only the khan, higher nobility, and women from the khan’s kin could wear red. To this colour people attributed healing properties and ability to protect from the evil eye and witchcraft.
Along with red colour, in the Central Asian bokka they also used dark-blue textiles; for Turkic- Mongol peoples this colour represented sky and water, symbolizing eternity, kindness, fidelity and constancy. The use of blue textiles to upholster the boktag of Ulugbek’s wives might indirectly refer to the ruler’s engagement in astronomy, as in no other regions this colour was used in boktag headdresses. Since Roman antiquity, peacock feathers were a mark of divinity; in Islam they represented spiritual inner eye; and a fully spread peacock’s tail denoted either a full moon or the sun at its zenith, which, again, could be interpreted as a symbol of power and prosperity.
Dimensional design of a boktag also had sacred meaning. Its vertical reflected the Mongolian notion about a three-tiered vertical structure of the universe, the headdress representing the upper world (the sky, the stars, the sun, and the birds) – hence the use of ornamental feathers. At the same time, the vertical structure of the boktag was a symbol of human soul. Women’s headdresses among the Buryats and Mongols were an essential attribute of procreation prayers and a symbol of fertility. As a sacred attribute, female headwear performed a protective function (12).
Thus, the exotic headdress of Bibi Khanym described by Clavijo, and the boktag worn by other wives of Timur, was a symbol of their gender and matrimony, as well as of their high social status and belonging to the house of Genghis.
After the Genghisides lost their power in Iran, Central Asia and China, for some time boktag remained important as a headwear of the ruling elite, but was eventually ousted by local traditions. At least already in the middle of the XV century, Central Asian miniatures and other works of art dating to that time and subsequent ages do not feature any images of boktag; neither is there any mention of it in the texts. Presently, modifications of boktag have survived as part of a female traditional costume of the Altai and Kazakh peoples, yet this would be the subject of another study.

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