© 2021 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Opening a Tent Flap for a Unique View of Middle Eastern Culture

Louise Mackie

Louise Mackie is curator of textiles and Islamic art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

She recently pulled off quite a coup. She made the rare find of a royal Persian tent.

“It belonged to a ruler in the 19th century in Iran, Muhammad Shah. He ruled during the Quajar Dynasty from 1834 to 1848.” 

Rich on silk
The silk trade made the Shah fabulously wealthy. His portrait, with diamonds on his armbands and emeralds on his sword and dagger, hangs in the museum’s textile gallery next to this magnificent tent, one of thousands he owned.

It’s made of wool, 12 feet high and 13 feet in diameter, with a plain red cotton exterior that shows some wear and tear.  

“It’s been used,” says Mackie. “It has patches.” 

But the elaborately decorated wool interior, every inch of it covered in silk thread embroidery, is remarkably intact.

Soft lighting brings out the colors, in many shades of green, red, tan, ivory, royal blue and pale yellow.

Cleverly installed
Wooden struts that held up the tent centuries ago are long gone, so the museum created a metal cantilevered framework. It's support cables and peripheral guy lines are hidden from view. 

“We were surprised,” says the curator, “pleasantly surprised that this is really sturdy. It’s had very little conservation treatment. We do have low light levels on it. We certainly don’t want to fade what we have.” 

Back in Muhammad Shah’s day, the royal tent had 14 radial panels. Only half have survived, "which from the point of view of display is alright,” says Mackie, “because when you walk into the gallery you can see directly into the tent.”

Pheasants and flowers
You see recurring motifs of game birds and flowers blanketing the wall panels.  Embroidered pheasants and partridges are perched on branches and posed beside vases filled with leaves and blossoms.

The intricacy of the stitching dazzles museum visitor Jan Terradotter.

“The amount of time that had to be put into, I mean, even just a few inches is just hard to imagine.”

Curator Mackie says the Shah probably used this round one-pole tent for entertaining guests. 

“A pleasure tent that could have been set up in a garden. In Persian paintings, often miniature paintings, there will frequently be tents shown in gardens with people seated, often with fruit or something to drink.” 

Pleasure tents were smaller, but royal tents came in all shapes and sizes: “Some as large as castles.”  

Symbols of power
Beyond their utility, Mackie says tents were also an important part of Islamic art and culture.  

“In a climate which is very warm, people always needed shelter and shade. So tents served that function, but

royal Persian tent
Credit CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART / Cleveland Museum of Art
Royal Round Tent Made for Muhammad Shah (ruled 1834–48) (detail). Iran, Rasht, Qajar period (1779–1925). Interior: Plain weave: inlaid work, wool; embroidery: chain stitch, silk; tape, leather, rope. Exterior: Plain weave: cotton; iron ring, rope; h: 360 cm, diam: 400 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2014.388.

they served an additional function. They were symbols of wealth, symbols of power.” 

Rulers would take out dozens of larger tents at a time for ceremonies, for surveying their properties and for military campaigns. 

“In those contexts they were basically moveable cities.”

Mackie says it’s highly unusual for an American art museum to obtain a tent like this one.

“This wasn’t even on my wish list. It’s very common for curators to have things they hope that they can get. But it never entered my mind.”  

She discovered the tent by chance.  She’d phoned a London dealer to inquire about 19th century Persian textiles.

“And she said ‘Well, I’m about to get a tent,’ and I said ‘ A tent, a tent!’”  

It came from Rasht, a major silk-trade center on Iran's Caspian Sea coast.

Only in Cleveland and St. Louis
Mackie says tents of this style are rarely seen.

“The only other one that’s known is in the St. Louis Art Museum in this country, and there aren’t any that are known in Europe.”    

It’s a prize acquisition as a work of art, but Mackie also sees it as a bridge to understanding. “It’s seeing something that we’ve never imagined. The beauty that has been created that people in Iran have enjoyed in the past.” 

Eye-opening and mind-opening
Visitors Jane and Kevin Payne came from Peninsula for what turned out to be a thought-provoking experience. 

“Really amazingly beautiful,” says Jane.   

game birds and flowers
Credit CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART / Cleveland Museum of Art
Recurring motifs of game birds and flowers blanket the tent's wall panels.

“Aesthetically it’s just very pleasing," says her husband. “My only thought was anything that sort of helps Americans relate better to things in the Middle East from a non- confrontational, non-political thing is good in my mind.”

Muhammad Shah’s royal Persian tent remains on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art until the end of June.