From the Collections: An Ottoman bowl (Aly Abouzeid)


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.

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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