Buildings within a human context can have multiple functions. These constructions can be viewed as statements of power, authority, wealth or timelessness of individuals or institutions. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the practical aspects of the building in its common or private usage, as well as the statement it makes about the people to whom it applies. In our studies on the growing and developing urban character of the various Islamic empires, the mosque as a necessary addition to preexisting settlements or a central feature of newly established urban centers has been at the fore. It functioned as a place of gathering for believers to fulfill their religious obligations, as a medium for rulers to address and reinforce their relation to their subjects, as well as a statement of the dominance of Islam as the official religion. For the purpose of this inquiry, I will be looking at the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and Madrasa of Fez as an expression of the origins of the city of Fez, and as the center of scholastic Islam for centuries to come, attracting scholars and students from across the Mediterranean.
In the dusty Balqa region of eastern Jordan there sits a modest structure of roughly hewn stone, set until the early part of the 20th century amidst a charming grove of terebinth and pistachio trees. Now starkly surrounded by gravel, dust, and a visitor’s center, the building appears unusual unless you are familiar with the type (Figures 1 & 2). It consists of a large hall, some fourteen by ten and a half meters, capped by three longitudinal barrel vaults (Figure 3 & 4). Directly off this hall at a right angle are three more, significantly smaller rooms, with an additional room beyond the last, only accessible from the outside. The second and third rooms beyond the hall have deep depressions in their floors. Beyond its construction, which is clearly designed for a specific purpose, the feature of this building that has attracted the attention of scholars, from its first discovery for the West by the colorful adventurer/academic Alois Musil in 1896, is its vibrant wall paintings, 450 m2 of dancers, entertainers, mythological scenes, hunters, builders, naked women, and kings (Figures 5, 6, & 7).
The palace-city of Madina al-Zahra in Spain was built in 936 CE under the Caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III in a hillside at the base of the Sierra Morena. This location, some distance from Cordoba in a lush and well-watered landscape, lends to the complex being functionally more diverse and self-sufficient than its predecessors. Though excavations at the site began in 1910, still only about 10 percent has been properly explored. It is a significant site as one of few royal palace-cities that were not built over in later years (Ruggles 2002 pp. 53).
The Hagia Sophia is by far one of the most astounding beacons of art and architecture in history. Its walls have seen the reigns of some of the strongest empires of the past, and this rich political and religious history resonates to this day. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia has been a precious gem in the world of architecture. Located in modern-day Istanbul, it is situated at the crossroads of two powerful empires, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. It is the grand representation of two great faiths, and now serves a secular purpose in educating its visitors about the rich history it contains.
Objects and artifacts, far from being inanimate creations, exert an agency imbued by their creators depending on the purpose of the creation. These can have multiple functions, be it for symbolic or practical use, or a combination of both depending on the circumstances of the objects usage, and how exactly its representation is interpreted. Materials such as gold and silver are deemed precious, yet functionally are less valuable than copper or steel in their practical usage. Similarly, symbols of kingship and religion, such as saintly relics, affirm legitimacy and exert agency far beyond the material value of the objects, and such value changes overtime with shifts in cultural and material perceptions. For the purpose of this blog, I will be using a simple terracotta oil lamp as an example of an artifact reflecting cultural values and norms of its context. This will include a brief description of the object, and how the matter, form and aesthetics of the object reflect the cultural milieu of its use.
The artifact I have selected is a lightweight and very attractive earthenware vessel of unknown provenance. Its design lends to the idea that it was used by an individual of high social standing, possibly for the consumption of wine or some other beverage. It was most likely wheel-formed given its symmetry and the thinness of the fabric, also indicating skilled craftsmanship.
This is an ornate bronze lamp, dating back to somewhere between the 12-14th centuries, most likely of Iranian origin. It is clear that the body, handle, base, and lid were cast separately by the presence of the welding marks between each individual part. The handle has a thumb rest at the top, with the figure of a mythical hybrid of a woman and bird, which was in typical fashion of oil lamps from the region of Khorasan. There are intricate geometric designs of a different metal engraved onto the surface of the lamp. These designs are fairly common of Islamic art, which use intricate geometric figures and symmetrical designs. With closer examination, however, one can see the form of a bird hidden in the geometric and linear design on the sides of the lamp. At the top of the lamp is a line of pseudo-Kufic script, which compliments the geometric and linear designs found all over the body and base. Though it is a dark, aged green color now, the lamp at the time of its use would have been a magnificent, gleaming bronze.
Ceramics has evolved greatly over time, not just technologically but also symbolically and artistically. Although we tend to look at ceramics from a purely art historical lens, archaeologically, ceramics have become a way to examine the process of globalization and the expansion of the global trade networks of the modern era. Demand for these has driven economies and formed identities, while also inspiring imitative traditions, that more often than not, take their own shape and form, developing into a major creative force with new directions. This can be seen when looking at the rise and fall of “China” in the Ottoman Empire.
At the height of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century, many Ottoman ceramics were greatly influenced by the import of Chinese porcelains during this time. Iznik wares were typically based on elaborations of themes appearing in Chinese porcelains and were considered a good alternative to expensive imports. From the mid-Fifteenth through Sixteenth century, Iznik was the most important center for high quality ceramic production and distribution. Chinese porcelain was a luxury that only the elite could afford and ceramics were created in their likeness as Ottoman artisans created a uniquely Ottoman style based on their characteristics. Due to their high quality, Ottoman wares were also considered exotic, prestigious oriental wares in and of themselves. They were maintained as a symbol of power relationships such as status, wealth and rank throughout the Empire as the state and elite highly supported the industry during this time. Thus, our current understanding tends to focus on types used by and made for the elite class. Outside this relatively small circle the distribution and manufacturing of ceramics is largely unexplored.
An example of this can be found in the Minassian Collection, which resides in Brown University. Above we find a blue and white ceramic on an earthenware body displaying a floral motif. Cracks seen all over the body can be attributed to the low quality of the firing process, while the centrality and flatness of the design can be attributed to a low quality imitation of Iznik pottery. The unelaborated quality of the design is not consistent, seemingly done quickly by freehand. This was a common practice as tradition and appeal was so great that any quality of Chinese porcelain imitations were considered desirable. Chinese influence was in the concept rather than the detail of the works themselves. The Minassian piece portrays a tightly introverted arabesque style that can be interpreted at any point as a single element or a connected whole. The size and shape of the bowl indicates that it was a decorative element rather than a functionary one. The emergence of low quality pottery emerged due to market demand, where many potters deviated from court styles, adopting more freehand styles, which were sold on the market and exported out. However, towards the end of the Sixteenth century, unable to maintain these high standards due to a decline in state support and patronage, craftsmen found it difficult to obtain supplies, and potters at Iznik began to produce wares in increasingly debased style similar to the one seen below. Production shifted from elite ceramics to wares that became more heavily associated with inexpensive ceramics consumed by middle and peasant classes.
Carroll, Lynda. Could’ve Been a Contender: The Making and Breaking of “China” in the Ottoman Empire. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 1999), pp. 177-190
Denny, Walter. Blue-and-White Islamic Pottery on Chinese Themes. Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol. 72, No. 368 (1974), pp. 76-99
Among the ceramics in the Joukowsky’s collection is a mostly complete bowl—the entire base and roughly two-thirds of the sides remaining. The bowl is glazed beige with brown details. The inside bottom contains the most complex design. Many spirals about a centimeter in diameter cover the majority of the bottom. Two opposing wisp shapes are left uncovered, and, extrapolating as a little of the original work has been lost to corrosion, 6 disks a little bigger than the spirals are filled in. The design on the inside bottom is roughly radially symmetric, i.e. every slice along the diameter is symmetric with respect to the origin.
This item is a circular terracotta stamp, roughly 13 cm in diameter, possibly for leaving an image upon bread. Cast from a mould, it has a sunken figural image in the center, and a banded rope frame around the central image, with another geometric motif along the outer edge (Fig. 1). When pressed into bread, before the leavened loaf would have risen, a relief design would have been left as indicated by the picture of a cast made from the stamp below (Figure 2). The reverse is crudely molded by hand, with several finger prints remaining, and a small square handle was affixed. The central image shows a large bearded figure being grasped around the midriff by a smaller man who appears to be running. A satyr stands in the background holding what appears to be a club.