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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 Fatimid period is of singular importance as the era when Egypt reached an outstanding position in the Muslim world, not only as the focal point of vast trading activities extending as far as Spain in the west and India in the east (as well as outside the Islamic regions) but also as a great manufacturing centre. The arts and crafts were so highly specialized during that epoch that it has been possible to establish no fewer than 210 different categories of artisans, compared to 150 in ancient Rome.54 Production for the lower and middle class was on a very large scale.55

Our most vivid and also most sumptuous picture of this period is provided by historical accounts, both contemporary and later, reporting on an event during the reign of al-Mustansir (r. 1036-94). In 1067-68 the great treasury of the Fatimids was ransacked when the troops rebelled and demanded to be paid. The stories of this plundering mention not only great quantities of pearls and jewels, crowns, swords, and other imperial accoutrements but also many objects in rare materials and of enormous size.56 Eighteen thousand pieces of rock crystal and cut glass were swiftly looted from the palace, and twice as many jewelled objects; also large numbers of gold and silver knives all richly set with jewels; valuable chess and backgammon pieces; various types of hand mirrors, skilfully decorated; six thousand perfume bottles in gilded silver; and so on. More specifically, we learn of enormous pieces of rock crystal inscribed with caliphal names; of gold animals encrusted with jewels and enamels; of a large golden palm tree; and even of a whole garden partially gilded and decorated with niello. There was also an immensely rich treasury of furniture, carpets, curtains, and wall coverings, many embroidered in gold, often with designs incorporating birds and quadrupeds, kings and their notables, and even a whole range of geographical vistas.57 Relatively few of these objects have survived,58 most of them very small; but the finest are impressive enough to lend substance to the vivid picture painted in the historical accounts of this vanished world of luxury.

There is no exception to the pattern we have been following now in our investigation, namely the cycle of adoption, adaptation and innovation, as regards the objects created for the Fatimids after their conquest of Egypt in 969. At first the artists working under the aegis of this dynasty seem to have continued to explore the possibilities inherent in forms long current in Egypt or more recently imported from the East. Only gradually do they seem to have introduced new decorative elements which had begun evolving in the western Islamic lands during the previous, Early Islamic, period under Umayyad, Abbasid, and indigenous influences. Once this innovative phase began, artistic problems were approached in an entirely new spirit.

As regards wood, treasured in Egypt because of its scarcity, early in the Fatimid period we can witness the continued popularity of the bevelled style first encountered in the Abbasid heartland and later in Tulunid Egypt [99]. The carved decoration on a tie-beam in the mosque of al-Hakim, dated 1003, is still based on the true Samarra Style C but it is also illustrative of a further development of that style in that the lines delineating the rather restricted number of motifs are wider, thus giving quite a different impression. Unlike the prototype, here the distinction between pattern and interstitial spaces is clearly defined.59 This feature is even more pronounced on the panels of a wooden door dated 1010, also inscribed to the caliph al-Hakim [313],60 where the individual bevelled patterns stand out clearly from a dark background. The major design elements are themselves decorated with small-scale surface patterns. The resulting textures, along with the contrast between light and dark, produce more varied, lively, and accented compositions than earlier on.61

By the third quarter of the eleventh century, however, a further evolution is discernible. The bevelled elements are reduced to thin, spiralling stems against a deeply carved background, and figural and animal designs begin to come to the fore. The early stages of this innovative trend are well illustrated by the panel [314]. Although the vegetal and figural designs can here be interpreted as being given equal treatment, the former motifs are beginning to be relegated to the background, and pride of place is moving toward the zoomorphized split palmette. Instead of starkly abstract, static, and purely sculptural qualities, there is now a dramatic interplay between abstract and more realistic parts, between elements conceived three-dimensionally and purely linear ones, and between light and shadow. In addition there is a new sense of movement.

This panel and another in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, are closely related to those comprising a fragmentary door believed to have come from the Western Fatimid Palace, built by the caliph al-'Aziz and completely renovated by al-Mustansir in 1058.62 Destroyed by the Ayyubid conqueror Salah al-Din (Saladin) in the late twelfth century, it was bought in 1283 by the Mamluk sultan Qala'un, who then proceeded to build his great complex consisting of a school, mausoleum, and hospital. These were completed in fifteen months, and in this hasty project the amir in charge of the project took advantage of the already existing woodwork and other material on the site. Were it not for this medieval recycling, this beautiful panel and many others - some of which will be discussed presently - would probably have been lost to posterity.

Particularly important among these is a series of horizontally oriented carved wooden boards - some with decoration organized in interlaced cartouches containing designs of animals and human figures all carved against a background of formalized vine scrolls in lower relief [315] and others with a symmetrically arranged animal decoration [316].63 The horse protomes seen on the contemporary door panel discussed earlier, because their outline was made to conform to that of a split palmette, appear very stiff when compared to the liveliness of the varied motifs on these friezes and the realism conveyed by them. Human figures predominate now, and the rich repertory of subjects includes a number of male and female dancers portrayed in animated postures. In keeping with the new taste for scenes from everyday life, a woman peers out through the open curtains of a palanquin on the back of a camel, which is escorted by a man. In another compartment a drinking party is in progress. Two turbaned figures grasp goblets, one of them pouring from a bottle. From one side a servant approaches carrying a large vessel, presumably in order to replenish the bottle. Although the roughness of execution means that details are not as clear as those on similar representations in other media, traces of red and blue pigment suggest that specifics of facial features, costume, implements, etc. may have been precisely delineated in paint. Similar wood-carvings, more refined in workmanship but reflecting even more strongly the late Fatimid taste for observation from life, are to be found in a Christian context in Cairo, in the Coptic convent of Dayr al-Banat.64

Probably dating from about the same time is the fragmentary panel [317], decorated with a bird of prey attacking a hare, which must have originally functioned as one of the sides of a chest.65 This is a simpler but equally beautiful example of the technique known as marquetry that had a long life in Egypt [98]. Both the latter, more intricate, version of this art and the particular adaptation seen here were to be adopted later by the Almohads in al-Andalus and the Maghrib.66

Although the earliest extant datable woodwork with figural decoration from Muslim Egypt is from the third quarter of the eleventh century, architectural elements with such ornamentation were being utilized in Fatimid Ifriqiya more than one hundred years earlier. The fact that the capital Sabra al-Mansuriyya, founded in 947, contained buildings adorned with carved wood decorated with birds and stucco sculpture in human, bird, and animal form may indicate that early Fatimid structures in Cairo which no longer survive were similarly decorated.67 Thus, the vogue for carved wooden architectural elements with figural decoration may have been concurrent with that for the vegetal decoration that was evolving from the bevelled style.

Ivory carvings attributed to Fatimid craftsmen show close parallels in style and iconography to wood, but here the workmanship demonstrates the greater refinement appropriate to so expensive a material. The openwork plaque [318] that apparently once sheathed a casket or other small object repeats a long-common motif: the scarf dancer, skipping, her draperies swirling about her twisted body, her arms gesturing sinuously.68 Particularly noteworthy on this panel is the grace of the performer, her weight convincingly distributed, her headdress precisely knotted. The naturalism of all the figures on such plaques is heightened by the refined technique. Although there are two main levels of relief, as on the wooden boards, here the frames and figures are so delicately modelled that they appear fully rounded as if they were actually emerging from the vegetal scrolls that constitute the background.69 A device that contributes to this three-dimensional effect is undercutting. Furthermore, the leaves project forward from the vine scrolls in the background so that the two planes of the carving seem interconnected. These ivories are distinguished by the care lavished on detail, for example in the rendering of textile patterns, the texturing of animal fur and bird feathers, and the veining of leaves.

Because of their highly developed style, these ivories and comparable pieces in Berlin and Paris have been dated to the late eleventh or early twelfth century. However there appears to be no reason why they could not be contemporary in date with the carved wooden panels from the Western Fatimid Palace [315, 316], i.e. datable to c.1050. When the paint was intact on the latter decorative elements, these panels could have been as highly developed in detail as the ornament on the ivories.

The stylistic development we have been able to follow in the carved decoration of wood during the Fatimid period can be observed also in the ornamentation of lustre-painted pottery. Early in the period the designs adorning ceramic objects are often based on the bevelled style, but the motifs that took on sculptural qualities in carved wood had here to be rendered two-dimensionally. The earliest datable lustre-painted object so decorated is a fragmentary dish [319] bearing the name of a commander-in-chief of the caliph al-Hakim who held the title for only two years - November 1011 to November 1013.70 At this time as well, we know that this particular type of vegetal decoration was sometimes combined with figural designs. A fine example of such a transitional work is the bowl [320] signed by Muslim ibn al-Dahhan, a very productive artisan whose period of artistic output is known to us by means of a fragmentary dish in the Benaki Museum bearing an inscription stating that it was made by the above-named ceramist for a courtier of al-Hakim (r. 996-102171 ). The winged griffin in the centre of the bowl illustrated here is rendered basically in silhouette, but parts of its body structure are clarified and emphasized by keeping certain interior articulations free of the overglaze lustre paint. This attention to naturalistic detail represents a further departure from the caricature-like quality of the animals and human figures on the Iraqi monochrome lustre-painted pottery vessels of the Early Islamic period [107], as do the greater grace and innate movement in the griffin's body.

Although there are numerous lustre-painted bowls from Fatimid Egypt that bear figural designs as their principal decoration, there is only one such vessel known to us which can be securely dated [321], employed as a bacino in the Church of San Sisto in Pisa, Italy, dating to the last quarter of the eleventh century. We can be certain that the style of decoration exhibited on this bowl was current at this time since it must be assumed that this and the many other bowls from Egypt and elsewhere that once graced or still adorn the façades of Romanesque churches and/or campaniles in Italy were installed at the time of the construction of these buildings. Two other bacini, in one instance adorned with an animal and in another with calligraphic designs, can be used to date another group of lustre-painted pottery [322]. On the basis of the evidence provided by these two bacini, this group, which has long been associated with Fatimid Syria, more specifically with Tell Minis - a village in the central part of the country - and dated to the middle of the twelfth century, must now be placed in the second half of the eleventh.73

The firmly datable bowl [321], however, appears to exhibit a somewhat different figural style from that found on the majority of the extant lustre-painted bowls with such decoration from Fatimid Egypt which are ornamented in a style closer to that found earlier at Samarra and in Ifriqiya. A dated or datable example of this latter category would be necessary before we could ascertain whether this type was contemporary with that exemplified by the bacino, or whether it preceded or succeeded that production.

Although the rendering of most of the faces and the coiffures on these so far not clearly datable vessels betrays descent from the Abbasid figural style - especially the large, round face, the staring eyes and small mouth, as well as the side curls - the animation of the body and exaggerated gestures of the limbs are illustrative, however, of an approach quite different from the frozen monumentality of even the most active figures in the wall paintings from Samarra [84]. As was the case vis-a-vis Fatimid woodwork from Egypt, the influence of the artists working under the aegis of this dynasty in Ifriqiya must be seen as an important inspiration for the new trends that can be documented in Egyptian pottery, foremost among them being an intensified interest in naturalistic representation of the human figure, which was always greater in the areas bordering the Mediterranean than in the eastern parts of the Islamic world.74

Whenever this innovation occurred on Egyptian ceramics, the craftsmen of this undated and so far not datable pottery group managed, by means of a number of devices, to achieve naturalistic effects quite far removed from the two-dimenslonal stylization of Mesopotamian lustre-painted designs, and even from the rather static vegetal and animal motifs [319, 320]. Among these devices were the use of an energetic line, off-balance poses, and dramatic gestures to convey a sense of movement and animation. In addition [323], greater attention was devoted to realistic details of costume, jewellery, and vessels. Furthermore, the ceramist of this bowl managed to accentuate the fullness of the arms, the grip of the fingers, and even the dissipation of the eyes.75 This group also explored the episodic nature of a theme, a convention we have already seen in the tile from Sabra al-Mansuriyya [141]; instead of human figures and animals presented singly or serially, some bowls in this category illustrate groups engaged in particular activities [324]. Here a lady with two female attendants reclines on a couch and the main protagonist seems to be taking up her lute or relinquishing it to the servant. In contrast to the ceremonious quality of courtly scenes on Spanish ivory boxes [145], the Fatimid pottery examples have the informal flavour of an event observed from daily life.76

Although the pottery decorated with lustre-painting was the most luxurious of the kiln production of Fatimid Egypt, it was not the only ceramic type manufactured during this period. The bowl [325] belongs to a type of pottery known as champlevé that until very recently was generally dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and usually attributed to Iran. However, following the excavation of ten vessels of this type from a shipwreck in Serce Limani, a small natural harbour on the southern Turkish coast just opposite Rhodes, we can now confidently date this category to c.1025 and place its production either in Fustat, Egypt, or in a manufacturing centre somewhere in the Fatimids' Syrian province.77 The decoration of such wares was created by first applying a slip of light-coloured clay to the interior and part of the exterior surfaces. When dry, the slip was partially carved away to leave the desired design in relief. Details were then incised in the slip and the vessel was finally covered with a transparent, clear or coloured, lead glaze.78

The second type of glazed pottery found in this shipwreck was a variety of splash-decorated ware. It, too, was previously vaguely dated - in this case as early as the ninth to as late as the twelfth century. Thanks to this chance find, at least wares in this category with similar designs and shapes can now be given a secure time frame as well as place in the history of Islamic pottery.79 The vase [326] seems not only to be a variant of this splash-painted type but also to be representative of the Egyptian version of a category that was so popular in the western Islamic lands during the Early Islamic period. This was the type that imitated the opaque white-glazed group manufactured in Basra, Iraq, under the Abbasids [141, 142].80

The potters working in Egypt and Syria during this period also produced monochrome glazed carved and/or incised ceramics, decorative techniques previously met with on pottery produced during the Early Islamic period [102]. The Egyptian version [327] is much closer to its boldly deorated antecedent than are representatives of the group made in Syria and associated with Tell Minis.81 The latter appears to exhibit for the most part a more delicate decorative style which seems to lead directly into that produced slightly later in Iran [265].82 The Tell Minis carved and/or incised category is datable to the middle of the eleventh century by means of a bacino.83 Since the so-called lakabi ('glazed') type of pottery [328] shares not only principal decorative motifs but body profiles as well as a peculiar rim design with the Tell Minis variety, this group must be attributed to the same period in Syria as well.84

Near the end of the first millennium or at the very beginning of the second, Islamic glassmakers in the central Islamic lands85 inaugurated a second period of innovation86 that brought them increasingly further from Roman imperial glass and culminated in superb relief-cut vessels. Without question, the most beautiful Islamic object of this type extant is the cameo-glass ewer [329]. The artisan initially formed a clear-colourless glass blank around which was blown a gather (or viscous and extremely ductile melted batch of ingredients) of turquoise-blue glass. The surface was then selectively cut away with a wheel, leaving the design in relief, with the highest point of the decoration representing the original, in this case turquoise-blue, surface. Considering the difficulty of working with such thin and brittle material, high-relief glass cutting is a remarkable achievement and often - as here - a real tour de force87 . Unlike its highly creative technique, a commonly found earlier shape was adopted for this vessel [92].

Another fine and famous example of the relief-cut technique is the bowl [330] executed in opaque turquoise-coloured glass and obviously meant to imitate a bowl carved from a mineral88, further supporting the hypothesis that the flowering of the craft of cut glass - especially relief-cut glass - was an offshoot of the technique for working precious or semi-precious stones, be they turquoise, emerald, or rock crystal. The close relationship between cut glass and cut stone, especially rock crystal, had been fully understood by medieval Muslims, for they are repeatedly listed together in reports of the Fatimid treasures in Cairo; and, we are told by a medieval Iranian author that Syria and the Maghrib were known for a type of green glass used to imitate emeralds.89

The ewer [331], bearing the name of the early Fatimid caliph al-'Aziz (r. 975-96) and exemplifying the finest quality of workmanship possible at the time, belongs to a group of highly important rock-crystal objects, several of which are firmly datable90 . This vessel and several others in the group share not only the same traditional shape with the cameoglass vessel just discussed but also many iconographic and stylistic features. However, whether the relief-cut glass objects led up to, were contemporary with, or were made in imitation of the rock-crystal ones is yet to be determined91 . In addition to this tour de force, the five other very similar extant pouring vessels92, and a small group of objects of comparable calibre in other shapes, there are a good many non-epigraphic and non-figural rock-crystal objects with decoration in the bevelled style. Were these also made near the turn of the millennium for a more conservative clientele? Or was there an extended earlier development in this difficult medium leading to the accomplished style of the inscribed works - a hypothesis supported by some pieces decorated in the Samarra Style C, which reached European church treasuries in the period from 973 to 982?93 An overlapping of styles is possible, but it is more likely that a slow, unilateral growth led up to the climax of this art in the eleventh century, a development following fairly closely that which we have already outlined in this chapter vis-a-vis the decoration of wood, ivory, and lustre-painted ceramics.94

Very shortly after the technique of wheel cutting reached its Islamic zenith in the relief-cut glass just discussed, its gradual simplification began. It was not long before a totally bevel-cut decoration often with no foreground or background had evolved, a stage beautifully exemplified by the vessel [332], decorated with finely executed lions, which was found in the Serçe Limani shipwreck previously mentioned in connection with the champlevé bowl [325] and is, therefore, firmly datable to the first half of the eleventh century.

The simplification of this lapidary technique as applied to glass was to reach its logical conclusion in totally plain but beautiful vessels with bodies faceted like gemstones.96

In addition to experimenting with wheel-cutting techniques, which could be employed after the glass had cooled, the glassmakers in the Medieval period continued to adapt techniques applicable only to a hot gather (viscous and extremely ductile portion of molten glass 'gathered' for use in glass-blowing) or parison (glass bubble): mould blowing and thread or coil trailing. The latter decorative device is beautifully exemplified in the Fatimid period by the cup [333] also excavated at Serçe Limani. The less time-consuming technique of thread trailing employed here in a boldly contrasting colour to set off the rim of the drinking vessel was often used at this time as well to imitate relief-cut designs.97

Glass products and glassmakers themselves moved from country to country. Documents from the Cairo Geniza mention that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries glassmakers from Greater Syria, fleeing the almost permanent state of war there, came to Egypt in such masses that they were competing with local artisans. Further, in a document dated 1011 it is noted that thirty-seven bales of glass were sent from Tyre, presumably to Egypt. Such emigrations and importations make precise attributions risky and international styles more likely. However, it is generally assumed that the ill-fated ship that sank in Serçe Limani took on its cargo at a port at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, thus indicating a Greater Syrian provenance for its contents.

The vessel [334] continues the tradition of lustre-painting on glass that we first met with in Egypt during the early Abbasid period [110]98 . While considerably simpler than the decoration found on Fatimid lustre-painted pottery, the style of the rinceau and the convention of setting off the ornamented bands with double (or single) plain lustre fillets, not to mention the shape of the vessel itself, are all familiar elements in the repertoire of the period.

Ample evidence for the importance of textiles during the Fatimid period is provided by the detailed descriptions of the dispersal of the imperial treasury in 1067-68 as well as by reports of contemporary geographers. These invaluable texts inform us as to the quantities and diverse origins of the numerous types of textiles being stored in various areas of the palace at the time of the catastrophe and the different types of textiles being woven in various parts of the Fatimid realm. We learn not only that this dynasty imported stuffs of many different kinds from al-Andalus, Mesopotamia, and Persia as well as from Byzantium, but that locally made products were also very highly valued both within and outside Egypt99 . The tiraz [335] was probably the back of an over-garment similar to modern 'abaya and belongs to a rare and deluxe group of Fatimid textiles datable to the reign of the caliph al-Mustali (r. 1094-1101) and to the factories of Damietta in the Delta100 . The decorative bands and ornamental roundels are tapestry woven in coloured silks and gold file (silk core wrapped with a gold wire) on a fine linen. This group has been associated with a type of textile called qasab described in 1047, by the medieval Persian traveller Nasir-i Khosrow, as being woven in Tinnis and Damietta for the sole use of the ruler.101 While the gazelles and prancing sphinxes reflect a figural style with which we have become familiar on other objects of this period executed in many different media, the layout as well as the style of the garment itself were adopted from the fashion of the Copts in pre-Islamic Egypt.

For the most part earlier and considerably more plentiful than the deluxe group just discussed were the group of Fatimid textiles adorned solely with epigraphic and narrow decorative bands [336]. This veil is particularly sumptuous and not only bears the name of the caliph al-'Aziz and the date of 373/983-84 but also informs us that it was made in the private tiraz in Tinnis. Its epigraphic ornamentation shows a continuation of the style begun under the last Abbasid ruler of Egypt, al-Muti' (r. 946-74), in which the hastae (vertical stems) of the letters of the large silk tapestry woven inscription bands end in very graceful half palmettes102 . These tirazes, like the group from the period of al-Musta'li just discussed, closely followed not only the layout and content of the decoration found on the textiles produced in pre-Fatimid Egypt but the styles of the earlier garments as well.

Growing out of a long tradition established during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods [100, 150], the vogue for small and large copper-alloy animal sculpture persisted in Egypt and the Maghrib at least until the end of the eleventh century. Representing griffins, stags, gazelles, lions, rabbits, eagles, and other types of birds, they were used as aquamaniles, incense burners, fountain spouts, padlocks, and possibly vessel supports, and they share not only a high degree of stylization, which, however, never impairs effective recognition of the subject, but also such secondary features as frequent all-over decoration and zoomorphic handles.103 The most famous as well as the most beautiful and monumental example of this tradition in the central Islamic lands is undoubtedly the celebrated so-called Pisa griffin [337], the immediate precursor of which is a quadruped from Ifriqiya.104 On this copper-alloy object (the orginal function of which is unknown) everything is formalized: not only the body and its parts but also the engraved decoration, which consists of roundels, inscriptions, and designs of small animals - none of them detracting, however, from the grandiose impression that this object, more than one metre high, makes on the beholder. Made under the Fatimid aegis most probably during the eleventh century, this object could very well have been part of the large booty taken by the Pisans after their successful invasion of the Zirid capital, Mahdia, in the summer of 1087.105

It is not yet possible to assign precise dates to these sculptures, and therefore it is not known whether or not the small, more realistic, copper-alloy hare [338] - which most probably served as a fountain spout - was contemporary with or made before or after the griffin.106 Whatever the style, the Fatimid works are impressive as animal sculptures. Furthermore, they seem to have served as prototypes for Romanesque pieces.107

Although we are informed that the Fatimid treasury contained silver articles with niello decoration, until recently we were at a loss as to the appearance of any of these items as none of them seemed to have survived. The box [339], therefore, bearing the name of a vizier of al-Mustansir who served only for three years - 1044-47 fills an important gap. As Geniza documents support the idea that large quantities of silver vessels were exported to the Maghrib and India from Egypt in the Medieval period, we can assume that this small container - most probably used as a box to keep jewels - was made in that country.108

Not only did Fatimid craftsmen excel in the making of objects of fine silver, as can be judged from contemporary sources and the above-mentioned object, but their goldsmiths' work was of the highest quality as well. The elements comprising the necklace [340], especially the biconical and two spherical beads near the centre of the ensemble that are totally fabricated from gold wire and decorated with granulation, were of a type known to have been executed during the first half of the eleventh century in either Greater Syria or Egypt and may very well have been of the variety described by the eleventh-century author Ibn Zubayr as 'unusual, very beautifully fashioned gold jewellery' that was sent to the Byzantine king Romanos I Diogenes in 1071.109

It has been suggested that the new imagery with its animation and fully realized observation of the details of everyday living that we have seen especially in the ornamentation of wood, ivory, and lustre-painted ceramic objects during the Fatimid period reflected developments that occurred first in painting.110 Unfortunately, only a few fragments of wall and ceiling painting and not many more drawings on paper survive from this era, none of which is dated or datable [341-3]. Therefore, it is impossible at this juncture of our knowledge to prove or disprove this suggestion.111

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