Persian and Islamic Art




Abbasid Art

The year ad750 signalled the accession of the Abbasid dynasty and the shift of central imperial power to Mesopotamia. In ad762, Baghdad was chosen as the new capital by Caliph al-Mansur. Although nothing has survived of the foundations of the circular city on the Tigris, a series of monuments and artefacts have been excavated that demonstrate the opulence of contemporary Muslim art. The Great Mosque at Samarra, built in ad847, exhibits a design common to other religious constructions of the time: its large, open, central courtyard is surrounded by an arcade and a prayer hail, with many columns supporting the roof and divided into aisles. The adjacent minaret is virtually unique in its design. Based on an ancient ziggurat, a Sumerian temple in the shape of a pyramidal tower with an ascent around the outside of the structure, it has a circular base and an exterior ramp climbing in a spiral to the top. It was the inspiration for the minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo (ad876-79), although here the base is square. Cairo, culturally close to the heart of the empire but effectively independent of the Abbasid caliphate from the Tulunid dynasty onwards (ad868), was to be the hub of an enduring artistic culture. When Samarra, the seat of the early Abbasid caliphs, was abandoned, the court was permanently transferred to Baghdad, seat of power until the city was sacked and destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, ending the caliphate itself as an institution. Archaeological excavations have not yet brought to light any quantity of monuments or objects that could compare with the finds of the previous period. What is certain, however, is that from the year 1000 and for at least three centuries more, Baghdad, together with Mosul and probably Basra and Kufa, would give rise to a school of miniatures that was to produce works of extraordinary refinement. Some were of a religious nature (the most famous being the Koran produced in Baghdad and now in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin) and others secular.

Seljuk bowl from Persia, glazed painted earthenware,
late 12th-early 13th century.
Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.


Stuccowork in the Ambassadors' Room of the colossal palace of Medina Azahara in Cordoba, Spain.
Built in ad936 by Caliph Abd er-Rahman III, it was destroyed in 1010, but was partially reconstructed.



Great Mosque of Ibn-Tulun, Cairo. Besides the prayer hall,
a mosque complex will also include a fountain for ritual cleansing prior to worship,
a women's prayer area, and perhaps a portico, school, hospital, and hostel.



Every civilization has its own particular architectural nuances and clues as to how its society functioned. Islam, as an all-embracing faith that organizes and controls every activity of the individual's life, has its own characteristic features. The centre of the populated area (whether a village, a town, a city, or a neighbourhood) is the mosque, place of prayer and at the same time of political assembly. As a rule, the mosque consists of a spacious courtyard surrounded on three sides by an arcade and on the fourth by the prayer hall that faces the direction of Mecca. The buildings may vary slightly according to the lay of the land, or other local restrictions, but they generally adhere to this plan. The faithful pray in a state of ritual purity achieved by means of ablutions and, consequently, in earlier times, an essential building was the hammam (public baths). Today, too. the suk or bazar (market) remains an important centre of commercial activity, with buildings allocated to different arts and crafts, as in medieval times. The sovereign's palace, on the other hand, was of minor importance, partly because of the nomadic origins of many sultans.

Remains of Hammam al-Hallabat.
Baths were a Roman-Byzantine
structure popular in Turkey
and inherited by Islam.



Rock crystal is a transparent, colourless quartz that in antiquity was one of the most sought-after semiprecious materials. The skill needed to work such a hard mineral, combined with the exceptional beauty and shine of the finished product, gave it a value even higher than gold. The amounts produced were considerable (sources mention thousands of pieces) but restricted to the Fatimid period in Egypt (late 10th and 11th century). Favourite objects were brooches, bottles, and small flasks for cosmetics and perfumes. Many of the surviving examples, numbering fewer than two hundred, form part of the treasuries of European cathedrals, such as St Mark's in Venice and the Abbey of St-Denis outside Paris. For Christians, their transparent purity symbolized divine grace, and the fact that Arabic inscriptions frequently appeared on them did not diminish their worth: many, indeed, became reliquaries. Their arrival in the West, as a result of barter or as booty from the Crusades, helped to feed the myths of a wealthy and exotic Orient.

Rock crystal jug with flower and bird
decoration and inscription, AD992-1011.
Museum of Silverware, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.



Persian and Seljuk Islam

Persia occupied quite a different position to that of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt in the panorama of the early centuries of Islam. The inhabitants of the region were non-Arabic and the country was, in fact, more closely linked to the regions to the north, Turan, and to the east, central Asia, and was heir to the Sassanid culture and tradition. Furthermore, the land was broken up into a number of separate kingdoms ruled by independent dynasties, at least until the Seljuk conquest of Khurasan in 1040.
The Seljuks were a semi-nomadic Turkish dynasty from central Asia. They were skilled builders, and their original, baked-brick monuments form an important part of Persian art history. The Seljuks built domes of extreme elegance, both in their exterior and interior proportions and their decorative design. The brick ornamentation of the domes of the Masjid-i-Jami in Isfahan (1088) is regarded as one of the most glorious examples of architecture, not only in Persia, but all over the world. On some buildings the brick is covered by a layer of stucco or ceramic, a material in which local artists excelled, both in terms of variety of technique and in the quality of the finished product. Not much metalwork has survived from the Seljuk period, however, although known specimens, particularly the bronzes of Mosul, show a highly refined technique that was probably influenced by objects produced in eastern Persia. The construction of a fairly large group of buildings is attributed to the Seljuks of Rum, a branch of the dynasty whose advance westward was triggered by its defeat of the Byzantines in 1071 at Manzikert. They settled in Anatolia, creating a state that was destined to last until the beginning of the 14th century. The buildings in question were mostly built of stone, using a technique inherited from the local Christians, and decorated with rich, elaborate inlays or, less frequently, with ceramic coating. They were mainly Koranic schools and mosques, but also caravanserais, or bans, which were used as resthouses for those travelling along the major highways. A network of well-preserved bans from the Seljuk period can still be seen today at intervals on the road from Kayseri to Konva in Turkey.



The ancient Egyptians had already introduced a technique of metallic lustre painting on glass, but the application of this form of decoration to earthenware was also characteristic of the Islamic world. From the ninth century onwards, the Muslims of Egypt, Syria, Persia, and Spain were able to produce potter)" with an iridescent metallic decoration ranging in colour from brilliant golden-yellow to dark brown. This was obtained by means of a double firing in special kilns. The results of this complex process produced lustre ware in the form of vases, bowls, and tiles, highly prized both in the East and the West. Examples include those from the ninth-century mosques of Kairouan and Samarra and the 13th—14th-century Mosque of Kashan, in Iran. Spanish products (from Malaga, Manises, and Paterna), including Alhambra vases and majolica jars and dishes, greatly influenced contemporary Italian pottery.


Persian metallic lustre tile,
intended for use with others of a similar shape.
Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.


Persian metallic lustre tile in the shape of an eight-point star, with floral decoration and Koranic script, Kashan, 13th-14th century. Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.


Metallic lustre bowl with animal and
calligraphic designs.
Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.



Mosaic in glass-paste tiies from the Mihrab
of the Imami medersa, Isfahan, 1325.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Western Islam

In the West, the swift advance of the Muslim army was eventually halted on the frontiers of France and Spain. The Iberian peninsula was to provide the stage for the development of a totally original form of Islamic art and culture that has accurately been described as Hispano-Moorish. In Cordoba, capital of the Andalusian kingdom, work began on the Great Mosque in ad785. Today it survives as a glowing example of the use of the Moorish, horseshoe-shaped arch. Typical of Hispano-Moorish decoration was coloured stucco, which was a cheap but effective substitute for marble. Another characteristic art form was the fine, woven textiles produced in all the major Andalusian towns. However, the most noted product of Hispano-Moorish art was inlaid ivory.
In these early centuries of the Abbasicl caliphate, the whole coastal belt of North Africa enjoyed relative autonomy. The main cities, although recognizing the overall authority of the sovereign in Baghdad, were ruled by local dynasties. Kairouan, capital of the Aghlabids in Tunisia, was an important city, judging by-its many splendid monuments and mosques, especially the Great Mosque founded by Hisham in AD724. By ad902 the Tunisian dynasty had conquered Sicily, which became an extremely active centre for the manufacture of textiles and ivory. After the Norman conquest, products still remained typically Islamic in style. For example, the ceiling paintings of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, executed in 1154, a century after the end of Arab rule on the island, are very similar to the art works of the Fatimids. This dynasty governed Egypt for two centuries (AD969-H71), and founded Cairo as their capital, where their fortifications and religious buildings, such as the al-Azhar Mosque (founded ad970) and the al-Hakim Mosque (ao990-1013) can still be seen todav.

Brass jug from Khorasan embossed with stiver and copper iniay. Galleris Estense, Modena, Italy. The body of the jug is multifoiled and decorated in high relief with nine couples of harpies. The neck bears a couple of falconers, and the lid is topped by a lioness and her cubs.



Detail of decoration in wood from the medersa, or school, of Misbahiya, mid-14th century. Fez, Morocco.


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