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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press


The medieval arts of Iraq, the Jazira, Syria, and Anatolia do not lend themselves to simple and easy generalizations. Because of its historical and ideological associations, the patronage of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad still had wide repercussions all over the Islamic world, but the rest of the area was governed by the twin powers of feudal military rulers loosely organized into dynastic families and by an urban middle class of merchants and landowners. Both groups invested heavily in the building of what may be called Sunni 'Islamic' cities, with many mosques, madrasas, and other establishments reflecting the social piety of the times. Non-Muslims were part of the picture, especially Christian communities, which witnessed a considerable artistic revival (to be sketched in Chapter 8). Princes also built citadels, usually better preserved than palaces, while rulers as well as the middle class profited from a network of fancy khans or caravanserais for local and international trade.

Both groups of patrons were served by an inlaid metalwork with nearly identical iconographic programmes, while the most original book illustrations of the Maqamat were restricted to the literate Arab middle class. In objects and manuscripts as well as in architecture, there was a fair amount of ostentation. Frontispieces in books or ornate portals in buildings are both instances of a concern for display, possibly illustrating rivalries between patrons and artisans. Families and even dynasties of artisans, best known among metalworkers, probably travelled from city to city or court to court, wherever there was an opportunity for lucrative commissions. In general, while, thanks in part to archeological work, it is possible to identify some of the regional differences in the arts of the object, it is the similarities that seem to overwhelm, especially in the art of inlaid metalwork and in the art of the book. But these preliminary conclusions must be tested against further research. In short, there was a distinctive patronage within central Islamic lands and a shared supply of craftsmanship as well as a common vision of a structured urban environment and of the implements needed for a satisfying life.

When we move to forms, matters become more complicated. Syria (including Palestine in the thirteenth century) and Anatolia are two well-defined artistic spaces, comparable to but different from each other. The comparison is particularly striking in architecture. The same pious or secular functions are translated into buildings, primarily in stone, utilizing the same vocabulary of structural and decorative forms (portals, iwan, court, portico, etc.). Syria exhibits an almost classical sobriety and purity in the treatment of stone, with a sharply defined geometry of decoration, and a preference for elegant but restrained ornament and writing. Anatolia, on the other hand, shows much more variety, more inventiveness in ways to build and decorate, and fewer inscriptions. Some of the portals exhibit a baroque virtuosity and probably illustrate individual experiments or reflections of some unique circumstances. Brick occurs as well as stone, and Syrian forms cohabit with Iranian ones. Anatolian peculiarities can be explained by the fact that it was a newly Islamized province at a major frontier between Islam and the Christian world, with many non-Muslim or recently converted groups, with a fluid sociey of immigrants from many parts of the rest of the Muslim world, even with sectarian communities at the edge of Muslim orthodoxy. Most of the Anatolian development is also later by a generation or two than the Syrian one and depended in part on the latter's achievements. Some scholars have also sought to explain Anatolian art through the introduction of practices and ideas brought by Turks from Central Asia. Less clearly delineated than their Syrian counterparts, objects made in Anatolia illustrate most of the techniques found elsewhere, with a possible tendency to greater complexity in design.

The two remaining provinces comprising the central lands - Iraq and the Jazira - remain, with one exception, less clearly focused. Their architectural monuments are not well preserved, and whatever remains can easily be related to those in Syria or Iran. The spectacular 'Mosul' school of metalwork is a relatively late phenomenon and could be interpreted as reflecting the needs of a social class - the feudal rulers and the wealthy patricians - more readily than the practices of a region. Only the art of book illustration seems to have appeared in these provinces much more frequently than elsewhere, for reasons which are not really clear. It is possible that, just as geography has divided the Jazira into many discrete independent zones, so the arts of this area will eventually be defined through the study of smaller and physically separate regions.

But there is yet another way to look at the arts of the central Islamic lands and of defining their character and their evolution. Following a pattern begun by Turkish scholars dealing with Anatolia and, to a smaller degree, by other scholars involved with Syria, one can argue in primarily dynastic terms. One could thus identify an Artuqid art (primarily in the first half of the twelfth century) centred in the northern Jazira, with features borrowed from many surrounding areas and with relatively less formal cohesion in architecture than in other arts. A late Abbasid flowering occurred around Baghdad in the thirteenth century, identifiable simultaneously by the Mustansiriyya, the calligraphical systematization attributed to Yaqut al-Mustasimi, and the illustrations of the Maqamat. Zangid art could be seen in the area of Mosul in the middle of the twelfth century and then in Syria at the time of Nur al-Din, an art that led directly into that of the Ayyubids, with many major accomplishments in Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt after the defeat of the Fatimids and of the Crusaders. The rich memory of Late Antiquity in Syria was adapted to new functions and new tastes. Finally, the Saljuqs of Anatolia, as well as a few secondary Anatolian dynasties established in the area, created an unusually original art in a newly Muslim area, bringing together functions and forms from Syria, Iraq, or Iran and mixing them with the rich heritage of Byzantium, Armenia, and Georgia, not to speak of an Anatolian Late Antique.

There was, of course, much that all these dynasties shared, ideologically as well as in terms of taste, and all of them profited from the accrued wealth of urban trade and manufacture, but there were many differences between them. The latter are most visible in architecture, because architecture has been better studied than other arts, but it should be apparent as well in ceramics after the many archaeological enterprises have put their information together, and in metalwork or the art of the book. It should be added that Muslim patronage was never alone. There was a significant Christian component within the Muslim empire, but, more importantly, this was a time of constant contacts with the Christian worlds of the Crusaders and of Byzantium or of other eastern Christian realms. It was a time when the Christian and Jewish population of Syrian and Anatolian cities profited from the general prosperity. Altogether, just as with the Fatimids (although perhaps less obviously), it may well be a common Zeitgeist which inspired the astounding creativity of the times.

Finally, it is worthwhile to ponder about the art of these centuries throughout the Muslim world between Central Asia and India to the east and present-day central Algeria to the west. This vast area, united by comparable social, political, linguistic, cultural, ideological, and political changes, was also connected by the functions and forms of its arts. However blurred the distinctions between them may be, a patronage of cities coexisted throughout with that of princes. Everywhere, but at different rhythms, representations appeared on objects and in books; an iconographic language came into being to illustrate or to adorn ambitions at many levels of society. The Arabic language still dominated, but Persian became a major vehicle for expression, and the writing of both acquired a sophistication of form which was hitherto unknown. But perhaps the most important achievement of these centuries was to have created social and economic conditions as well as a creative energy which led to the invention and spread of technical means to produce a true art of objects in all media and accessible to large segments of the population.

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