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Zoroastrian Marriage Apron, World Stories: Young Voices Gallery

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My Name is Neda, and I came to the UK from Iran in 2010. I am researching some of the historic objects in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery which have not been on display before.

One of these objects is, according to the auction house it was purchased from, a Zoroastrian marriage apron.

It is a large flat textile, formed of a red silk background square with two side panels which have been sewn onto it. The red square is embroidered with different symbols such as sun-faces, couples beneath trees, animals (cat, fish, bird, etc),  flowers and cypress tree leaves. The cloth consists of five panels; the two side panels have a green background with a floral pattern. I have not seen anything like this before in Iran, but my research revealed that dresses were sometimes re-cut and fine embroideries were reused after their initial use. Rebecca Bridgman, Curator for Islamic and South Asian Arts for Birmingham Museums viewed the textile later and said that she thought the silk brocade green panels may date from the seventeenth or the eighteenth centuries, and the red panels attached later on.

According to Mr Jabbar Farshbaf, a painter and specialist in Persian rug design, this needle work is called Zoroastrian stitching (zartoshti doozi). The Zoroasters believed that decorated cloths protect them from surrounding evils, and the more decoration on the cloths the more protective they will be.

The symbols reflect enduring concepts in Persian culture and originally may have been understood to tell stories. For example the sun with the lion face may symbolise masculinity. Cats, on the other hand, are associated with femininity, and their tail in a circular ring shape gives them spirituality. All plants, especially the cypress trees, symbolise strength and fertility.

Zoroastrian stitching is a style that is still being practiced in some areas of Iran especially in Yazd and Kerman where most of the Zoroastrian population exist.  During my research I found out about a workshop held among textile students at Tehran Art University in 2010. The workshop aimed to teach traditional embroidery techniques. According to the educator, Shirin Mazdapoor, who graduated in Designing Fabric from Yazd University, Zoroastrian embroidery has been used for centuries. At the birth of every girl relatives would begin to make her wedding clothes. Thus this art can be evidenced in a bride’s dowries and in celebration costumes. Silk thread is usually used with bright colours such as red, green and white. Zoroastrians do not approve of dark colours such as black. The symbols used refer to nature and include plants, flowers and cypress trees, or animals such as fish, peacocks or cats. A design is first drawn on the cloth, and then the embroiderer follows the designs in thread.

What is Zoroastrianism?

Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion. In Zoroastrianism, ab (water) and atash (fire) are agents of ritual purity. According to Zoroastrianism water and fire are respectively the second and last elements to have been created. Religious scripture describes fire as having its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and are represented within fire temples. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire or source of light. Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained. Fire is regarded as a great purifier and a means of communicating with Ahura Mazda (God); the fire itself is not an object of worship. Water is considered the source of that wisdom. Zoroastrians have enormous respect for the environment and the elements: earth, wind, fire and water.

Neda Kahooker, Researcher, Iranian collections