The History of Art and Architecture in the Islamic World

Great Mosque at Damascus (Photo: G. Lewis)

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.12.2017

A Beginner’s Guide

Introduction to Islam

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis
Assistant Professor, Graduate Center of Liberal Studies
City University of New York

Origins and the life of Muhammad the Prophet

Islam, Judaism and Christianity are three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths. They share many of the same holy sites, such as Jerusalem, and prophets, such as Abraham. Collectively, scholars refer to these three religions as the Abrahamic faiths, since Abraham and his family played vital roles in the formation of these religions.

Islam was founded by Muhammad (c. 570-632 C.E.), a merchant from the city of Mecca, now in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Mecca was a well-established trading city. The Kaaba (in Mecca) is the focus of pilgrimage for Muslims.

The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, provides very little detail about Muhammad’s life; however, the hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, which were largely compiled in the centuries following Muhammad’s death, provide a larger narrative for the events in his life. Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in Mecca, and his early life was unremarkable. He married a wealthy widow named Khadija. Around 610 C.E., Muhammad had his first religious experience, where he was instructed to recite by the Angel Gabriel. After a period of introspection and self-doubt, Muhammad accepted his role as God’s prophet and began to preach word of the one God, or Allah in Arabic. His first convert was his wife.

Muhammad’s divine recitations form the Qur’an; unlike the Bible or Hindu epics, it is organized into verses, known as ayat. During one of his many visions, in 621 C.E., Muhammad was taken on the famous Night Journey by the Angel Gabriel,  travelling from Mecca to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem, from where he ascended into heaven. The site of his ascension is believed to be the stone around which the Dome of the Rock was built. Eventually in 622, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for the city of Yathrib, which is known as Medina today, where his community was welcomed. This event is known as the hijra, or emigration. 622, the year of the hijra (A.H.), marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is still in use today.

Between 625-630 C.E., there were a series of battles fought between the Meccans and Muhammad and the new Muslim community. Eventually, Muhammad was victorious and reentered Mecca in 630.

One of Muhammad’s first actions was to purge the Kaaba of all of its idols (before this, the Kaaba was a major site of pilgrimage for the polytheistic religious traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and contained numerous idols of pagan gods). The Kaaba is believed to have been built by Abraham (or Ibrahim as he is known in Arabic) and his son, Ishmael. The Arabs claim descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. The Kaaba then became the most important center for pilgrimage in Islam.

In 632, Muhammad died in Medina. Muslims believe that he was the final in a line of prophets, which included Moses, Abraham, and Jesus.

After Muhammad’s death

The century following Muhammad’s death was dominated by military conquest and expansion. Muhammad was succeeded by the four “rightly-guided” Caliphs (khalifa or successor in Arabic): Abu Bakr (632-34 C.E.), Umar (634-44 C.E.), Uthman (644-56 C.E.), and Ali (656-661 C.E.). The Qur’an is believed to have been codified during Uthman’s reign. The final caliph, Ali, was married to Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and was murdered in 661. The death of Ali is a very important event; his followers, who believed that he should have succeeded Muhammad directly, became known as the Shi’a, meaning the followers of Ali. Today, the Shi’ite community is composed of several different branches, and there are large Shi’a populations in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The Sunnis, who do not hold that Ali should have directly succeeded Muhammad, compose the largest branch of Islam; their adherents can be found across North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in Asia and Europe.

During the seventh and early eighth centuries, the Arab armies conquered large swaths of territory in the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Central Asia, despite on-going civil wars in Arabia and the Middle East. Eventually, the Umayyad Dynasty emerged as the rulers, with Abd al-Malik completing the Dome of the Rock, one of the earliest surviving Islamic monuments, in 691/2 C.E. The Umayyads reigned until 749/50 C.E., when they were overthrown, and the Abbasid Dynasty assumed the Caliphate and ruled large sections of the Islamic world. However, with the Abbasid Revolution, no one ruler would ever again control all of the Islamic lands.

About Chronological Periods

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Studying the art of the Islamic world is challenging, partially because of the large geographic and chronological scope of Islam. Islam has been a major religion and cultural force for over fourteen centuries and continues to be so today. At present the Arts of the Islamic World Section is organized into three chronological periods: Early, Medieval and Late. These chronological divisions are modern creations that help scholars to organize information and works of art to interpret them better. It also helps students to understand how works of art and architecture relate to each other in time and space. There were dynasties and empires that controlled different lands and whose periods of rule stretched across these chronological divisions.

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra), Umayyad, stone masonry, wooden roof, decorated with glazed ceramic tile, mosaics, and gilt aluminum and bronze dome, 691-2, with multiple renovations, patron the Caliph Abd al-Malik, Jerusalem (photo: Orientalist, CC BY 3.0)

Early period (c. 640-900 C.E.)

After Muhammad’s death in 634, there were four caliphs later referred to by the Sunni as “rightfully guided,” who succeeded Muhammad. However, from 656 there were conflicts over succession, and two civil wars (656-661 and 680-692) broke out within the community of Muslims. Out of these wars emerged the Umayyad Dynasty, whose capital was Damascus in modern-day Syria. Responsible for the first great monuments of Islamic art and architecture, Umayyad rulers built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Damascus, and the so-called Desert Palaces in Syro-Palestine . The Umayyads ruled as caliphs until 750 C.E., when they were overthrown by the Abbasids. The Abbasids, like the Umayyads before them, ruled as caliphs over much of the Islamic world until 861. Their capital was at Baghdad, and later they ruled from the palace-city of Samarra in Iraq for parts of the ninth century. After 861, the Abbasids lost control of large parts of their empire through a series of uprisings in which provincial governors asserted their independence. A series of local dynasties, such as the Aghlabids (800-909) and Tulunids (868-905) in North Africa, and the Buyids (945-1055) in Central Asia, emerged and ruled, developing regional artistic styles.

Medieval period (c. 900-1517 C.E.)

Court of the Lions, The Alhambra, Sabika hill, Granada, Spain, begun 1238 (Photo: Jim Gordon)

By the tenth century, there was fragmentation and individual dynasties sprang up. These dynasties had varying degrees of control over different parts of the lands where Islam was the dominant or a major religion.

In North Africa and the Near East, certain major dynasties, such as the Fatimids (909-1171), emerged and ruled an area that includes present-day Egypt, Sicily, Algeria, Tunisia, and parts of Syria.  It is also at this time that some of the major Turkic dynasties and people from Central Asia came to the forefront of politics and artistic creativity in the Islamic world. The Seljuqs were Central Asian nomads who ruled eastern Islamic lands and eventually controlled Iran, Iraq and much of Anatolia, although this empire was short-lived. The main branch of the Seljuqs, the Great Seljuqs, maintained control over Iran.

It was also the time of the European Christian crusades, which aimed to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims. A series of small Christian Kingdoms emerged in the twelfth century, as did Muslim dynasties, such as the Ayyubids (1179-1260), whose most famous leader, Salah al-Din (r.1169-93), known in Europe as Saladin, ended the Fatimid dynasty. Eventually the slave soldiers, upon whom the Ayyubid dynasty depended for their military protection, overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in 1249/50. These slaves, known in Arabic as mamluk, literally meaning “owned,” became known as the Mamluks and they controlled Syria and Egypt until 1517.

The Mamluks also had to face one of the greatest threats to their reign early on: The invading Mongols. The Mongols and their great leader, Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227), are almost always associated with blood-thirsty conquest and destruction, but his legacy included the Yuan dynasty in China (1279-1368), the Chaghatay khanate in Central Asia (c. 1227–1363), the Golden Horde in southern Russia, extending into Europe (ca. 1227–1502), and the Ilkhanid dynasty in Greater Iran (1256–1353). The Pax Mongolica (“Mongolian Peace”) includes a great flowering of the arts.

The Ilkhanids, who ruled over Iran, parts of Iraq and Central Asia, oversaw great artistic development in manuscripts, such as those that recounted the Shahnama (or Book of Kings), the famous Persian epic. They were important patrons of architecture. The Ilkhanid dynasty disintegrated in 1335 and local dynasties came to power in Iraq and Iran.

In 1370, the last great dynasty emerged from Central Asia: the Timurids (c. 1370-1507). They were named for their leader, Timur (also known as Tamerlane), who conquered and controlled all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. The Timurids were outstanding builders of monumental architecture. Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, became the capital and cultural center of the Timurid empire.

While artistic production and architecture flourished in Asia under different Islamic dynasties, it also bloomed in the western Islamic lands. The most famous of these dynasties is probably the Nasrids (1232-1492) of the southern Iberian Peninsula and western North Africa, whose most important artistic achievement is the remarkable Alhambra, a palace-fortress complex in Granada, in present-day Spain.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo: David Castor)

Later period (c. 1517–1924 C.E.)

This period is the era of the last great Islamic Empires. The Ottoman Empire, which had started as a small Turkic state in Anatolia in the early fourteenth century, emerged in the second half of the fifteenth century as a major military and political force. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453 and the Mamluk Empire in 1517. They dominated much of Anatolia, the Balkans, the Near East and North Africa until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottomans are famous for their domed architecture and pencil minarets, many of which were built by the great architect, Sinan (1539–1588) for Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–66). This period is considered the peak of Ottoman art and culture.

The Safavids, who established Shia Islam as the dominant faith of Iran, ruled from 1501–1722 and were the greatest dynasty to emerge from Iran. Architecture, paintings, manuscripts and carpets all flourished under the Safavids. Shah Abbas (r. 1587–1629) was the greatest patron of the arts and the Safavid Dynasty’s most outstanding ruler. In the eighteenth century, a period of turmoil in Persia, the Qajar dynasty  (1779–1924) rose to power and established peace and their rule saw the beginning of modernity in Iran.

The other great dynasty that oversaw a remarkable artistic and architectural output was the Mughals. Founded by Babur, the Mughals (c. 1526–1858) ruled over the largest Islamic state in the Indian subcontinent. While there had been earlier sultanates in what is today northern Indian and Pakistan, the emperors of the Mughal dynasty were patrons of some of the greatest works of Islamic art, such as illuminated manuscripts and painting, and architecture, including the Taj Mahal.

Arts of the Islamic World

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo: David Castor)

What is Islamic Art?

The Dome of the Rock, the Taj Mahal, a Mina’i ware bowl, a silk carpet, a Qur‘an; all of these are examples of Islamic Art. But what is Islamic Art?

Islamic Art is a modern concept, created by art historians in the nineteenth century to categorize and study the material first produced under the Islamic peoples that emerged from Arabia in the seventh century.

Today Islamic Art describes all of the arts that were produced in the lands where Islam was the dominant religion or the religion of those who ruled. Unlike the terms Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist art, which refer only to religious art of these faiths, Islamic art is not used merely to describe religious art or architecture, but applies to all art forms produced in the Islamic World.

Thus, Islamic Art refers not only to works created by Muslim artists, artisans, and architects or for Muslim patrons. It encompasses the works created by Muslim artists for a patron of any faith, including Christians, Jews, or Hindus, and the works created by Jews, Christians, and others, living in Islamic lands, for patrons, Muslim and otherwise.

One of the most famous monuments of Islamic Art is the Taj Mahal, a royal mausoleum, located in Agra, India. Hinduism is majority religion in India; however, because Muslim rulers, most famously the Mughals, dominated large areas of modern-day India for centuries, India has a vast range of Islamic art and architecture. The Great Mosque of Xian, China, is one of the oldest and best preserved mosques in China. First constructed in 742 C.E., the mosque’s current form dates to the fifteenth century C.E. and follows the plan and architecture of a contemporary Buddhist temple. In fact, much Islamic art and architecture was—and still is—created through a synthesis of local traditions and more global ideas.

View of the Great Mosque of Xi’an (photo: chensiyuan, Wikimedia Commons)

Islamic Art is not a monolithic style or movement; it spans 1,300 years of history and has incredible geographic diversity—Islamic empires and dynasties controlled territory from Spain to western China at various points in history. However, few if any of these various countries or Muslim empires would have referred to their art as Islamic. An artisan in Damascus thought of his work as Syrian or Damascene—not as Islamic.

As a result of thinking about the problems of calling such art Islamic, certain scholars and major museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have decided to omit the term Islamic when they renamed their new galleries of Islamic art. Instead, they are called “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,” thereby stressing the regional styles and individual cultures. Thus, when using the phrase, Islamic Art, one should know that it is a useful, but artificial, concept.

In some ways, Islamic Art is a bit like referring to the Italian Renaissance. During the Renaissance, there was no unified Italy; it was a land of independent city-states. No one would have thought of one’s self as an Italian, or of the art they produced as Italian, rather one conceived of one’s self as a Roman, a Florentine, or a Venetian. Each city developed a highly local, remarkable style. At the same time, there are certain underlying themes or similarities that unify the art and architecture of these cities and allow scholars to speak of an Italian Renaissance.


Similarly, there are themes and types of objects that link the arts of the Islamic World together. Calligraphy is a very important art form in the Islamic World. The Qur’an, written in elegant scripts, represents Allah’s (or God’s) divine word, which Muhammad received directly from Allah during his visions. Quranic verses, executed in calligraphy, are found on many different forms of art and architecture. Likewise, poetry can be found on everything from ceramic bowls to the walls of houses. Calligraphy’s omnipresence underscores the value that is placed on language, specifically Arabic.

Geometric and vegetative motifs are very popular throughout the lands where Islam was once or still is a major religion and cultural force, appearing in the private palaces of buildings such as the Alhambra (in Spain) as well as in the detailed metal work of Safavid Iran. Likewise, certain building types appear throughout the Muslim world: mosques with their minarets, mausolea, gardens, and madrasas (religious schools) are all common. However, their forms vary greatly.

View of the minarets of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul (photo: Graham Bould)

One of the most common misconceptions about the art of the Islamic World is that it is aniconic; that is, the art does not contain representations of humans or animals. Religious art and architecture, almost from the earliest examples, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa Mosque (both in Jerusalem), and the Great Mosque of Damascus, built under the Umayyad rulers, did not include human figures and animals. However, the private residences of sovereigns, such as Qasr ‘Amra or Khirbat Mafjar, were filled with vast figurative paintings, mosaics, and sculpture.

Minarets of Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt (photo: Ahmed Al.Badawy)

The study of the arts of the Islamic World has also lagged behind other fields in Art History. There are several reasons for this. First, many scholars are not familiar with Arabic or Farsi (the dominant language in Iran). Calligraphy, particularly Arabic calligraphy, as noted above, is a major art form and appears on almost all types of architecture and arts. Second, the art forms and objects prized in the Islamic world do not correspond to those traditionally valued by art historians and collectors in the Western world. The so-called decorative arts—carpets, ceramics, metalwork, and books—are types of art that Western scholars have traditionally valued less than painting and sculpture. However, the last fifty years has seen a flourishing of scholarship on the arts of the Islamic World.

Arts of the Islamic World

Here, we have decided to use the phrase “Arts of the Islamic World” to emphasize the art that was created in a world where Islam was a dominant religion or a major cultural force, but was not necessarily religious art. Often when the word “Islamic” is used today, it is used to describe something religious; thus using the phrase, Islamic Art, potentially implies, mistakenly, that all of this art is religious in nature. The phrase, “Arts of the Islamic World,” also acknowledges that not all of the work produced in the “Islamic World” was for Muslims or was created by Muslims.

Note on organization from the contributing editor

We have organized the material in this section into three chronological periods: Early, Medieval and Late. When starting to learn about a new area of art, chronological organization often enables students to grasp the material and its fundamentals before going on to more complex analysis, like comparing building types or styles. Within each of these chronological groups, we have focused on creating geographic groups or groupings to organize the material further. The Islamic World was only unified very briefly in its history under the Umayyads (661-750 CE) and the early Abbasids (750-932 CE). Soon various dynasties or rulers simultaneously commanded sections of territory, many of which had no cultural commonalities, aside from their religion.

We are also planning to upload a series of introductory essays on major types of art and architecture from the Islamic World, including carpets and mosques, in addition to essays and videos about specific works of art and architecture. These are forthcoming.

Arabic, Persian and Turkish are complex languages whose transcription from their respective scripts to English has changed considerably over time. For the sake of ease, we have used the most common forms today, omitting the vocalizations. While we have aimed for consistency, we have also tried to use the simplest forms for those who are new to the arts of the Islamic World.

The Five Pillars of Islam

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Almost as soon as the Arab armies of Islam conquered new lands, they began erecting mosques and palaces, as well as commissioning other works of art as expressions of their faith and culture. Connected to this, many aspects of religious practice in Islam also emerged and were codified. The religious practice of Islam, which literally means to submit to God, is based on tenets that are known as the Five Pillars (arkan), to which all members of the Islamic community (Umma) should adhere.

Shahada (photo: mus, Flickr, Creative Commons)

1. The profession of faith (the shahada)

The profession of Faith (the shahada) is the most fundamental expression of Islamic beliefs. It simply states that “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” It underscores the monotheistic nature of Islam. It is an extremely popular phrase in Arabic calligraphy and appears in numerous manuscripts and religious buildings.

2. Daily prayers (salat)

Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. This does not mean that they need to attend a mosque to pray; rather, the salat, or the daily prayer, should be recited five times a day. Muslims can pray anywhere; however, they are meant to pray towards Mecca. The faithful are meant to pray by bowing several times while standing and then kneel and touch the ground or prayer mat with their foreheads, as a symbol of their reverence and submission to Allah. On Friday, many Muslims attend the mosque near mid-day to pray and to listen to a sermon (khutba).

3. Alms-giving (zakat)

The giving of alms is the third pillar. Although not defined in the Qu’ran, Muslims believe that they are meant to share their wealth with those less-fortunate in their community of believers.

4. Fasting during Ramadan (saum)

During the holy month of Ramadan (the ninth month in the Islamic calendar), Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk. While there are exceptions made for the sick, elderly, and pregnant, all are expected to refrain from eating and drinking during day-light hours.

Photograph of Hajj in 2011 (photo: @ifatma)

5. Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca

All Muslims who are able, are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and the surrounding holy sites at least once in their lives. Pilgrimage focuses on visiting the Kaaba and walking around it seven times. Pilgrimage occurs in the twelfth month of the Islamic Calendar.


From The British Museum

Muhammad Sadiq Bey, View of the Sanctuary at Mecca, c. 1880 (Victoria and Albert Museum, PH.2132-1924). This view is from the east of the holy mosque with the city of Mecca in the background. Muhammad Sadiq Bey (1832-1902), the Egyptian army engineer, surveyor and a pioneer of photography, probably took this photograph from one of the minarets of the holy mosque.

Mecca and the Ka’ba

One of the five pillars of Islam central to Muslim belief, Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in their lifetime if they are able; it is the most spiritual event that a Muslim experiences, observing rituals in the most sacred places in the Islamic world. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. The sanctuary there with the Ka‘ba is the holiest site in Islam. As such, it is a deeply spiritual destination for Muslims all over the world; it is the heart of Islam.

At the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca lies the Ka’ba, the cube-shaped building that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. It was in Mecca that the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations in the early 7th century. Therefore the city has long been viewed as a spiritual centre and the heart of Islam. The rituals involved with Hajj have remained unchanged since its beginning, and it continues to be a powerful religious undertaking which draws Muslims together from all over the world, irrespective of nationality or sect.

Even before Islam, Mecca was an important site of pilgrimage for the Arab tribes of north and central Arabia. Although they believed in many deities, they came once a year to worship Allah at Mecca. During this sacred month, violence was forbidden within Mecca, allowing trade to flourish. As a result, Mecca became an important commercial centre. The revelation of Islam to the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) restored the ancient religion of the One God to the Arab people and transformed Mecca into the holiest city in the Islamic world.

The Rituals

Hajj involves a series of rituals that take place in and around Mecca over a period of five to six days. The first of these is tawaf in which pilgrims walk around the Ka‘ba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction. Muslims believe that the rituals of Hajj have their origin in the time of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). Muhammad led the Hajj himself in 632, the year of his death. The Hajj now attracts about three million pilgrims every year from across the world.

Map showing major Hajj routes highlighted in the exhibition, Matt Bigg © Trustees of the British Museum

The Journey

From the furthest reaches of the Islamic world, pilgrims have made the spiritual journey that is the ambition of a lifetime. As Hajj needs to be performed at a designated time, historically pilgrims moved together in convoys. In the past the journey could be extremely dangerous. Pilgrims often fell ill or were robbed on the way and became destitute. However, pilgrims do not fear dying on Hajj. It is believed that those who die on Hajj will go to heaven with their sins erased. Today, pilgrims can get on an airplane to reach Saudi Arabia, making the journey in contrast with the past quick and less arduous.

The Qur’an states that Hajj should take place “in the specified months,” and these are the last three months of the Muslim calendar, known as Miqat Zamani (fixed times). Although the main acts of the Hajj take place in five days during the twelfth month, a pilgrim can start going into consecration (ihram) for Hajj earlier, from the beginning of the tenth month (Shawwal). The Muslim calendar is lunar, which means that the Hajj takes place progressively across all four seasons over time rather than in the full heat of summer every year. On foot, by camel, boat, train or airplane, going on Hajj is a spiritual endeavor that begins at home and culminates in Mecca; in going, arriving, and returning, the pilgrim is mindful of the magnitude of the journey and the reward in this world and the hereafter.

When pilgrims undertake the Hajj journey, they follow in the footsteps of millions before them. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over 70 nations arrive in Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year, completing a journey faster and in some ways less arduous than it often was in the past. Those traveling overland by camel and on foot congregated at three central points: Kufa (Iraq), Damascus (Syria) and Cairo (Egypt). Pilgrims coming by sea would enter Arabia at the port of Jedda.

The Kaaba

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

The Kaaba, granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631-32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: The Kaaba in the Masjid el Haram, 2010 Tab59, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Prayer and Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to a holy site is a core principle of almost all faiths. The Kaaba, meaning cube in Arabic, is a square building, elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil. Located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it is the holiest shrine in Islam.

In Islam, Muslims pray five times a day and after 624 C.E., these prayers were directed towards Mecca and the Kaaba rather than Jerusalem; this direction (or qibla in Arabic), is marked in all mosques and enables the faithful to know in what direction they should pray. The Qur‘an established the direction of prayer.

All Muslims aspire to undertake the hajj, or the annual pilgrimage, to the Kaaba once in their life if they are able. Prayer five times a day and the hajj are two of the five pillars of Islam, the most fundamental principles of the faith.

Upon arriving in Mecca, pilgrims gather in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram around the Kaaba. They then circumambulate (tawaf in Arabic) or walk around the Kaaba, during which they hope to kiss and touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), embedded in the eastern corner of the Kaaba.

View of pilgrims performing Tawaf (circumambulating) the Kaaba from the gate of Abdul Aziz (photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GNU version 1.2 only)

The History and Form of the Kaaba

The Kaaba was a sanctuary in pre-Islamic times. Muslims believe that Abraham (known as Ibrahim in the Islamic tradition), and his son, Ismail, constructed the Kaaba. Tradition holds that it was originally a simple unroofed rectangular structure. The Quraysh tribe, who ruled Mecca, rebuilt the pre-Islamic Kaaba in c. 608 C.E. with alternating courses of masonry and wood. A door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters.

Muhammad was driven out of Mecca in 620 C.E. to Yathrib, which is now known as Medina. Upon his return to Mecca in 629/30 C.E., the shrine became the focal point for Muslim worship and pilgrimage. The pre-Islamic Kaaba housed the Black Stone and statues of pagan gods. Muhammad reportedly cleansed the Kaaba of idols upon his victorious return to Mecca, returning the shrine to the monotheism of Ibrahim. The Black Stone is believed to have been given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel and is revered by Muslims. Muhammad made a final pilgrimage in 632 C.E., the year of his death, and thereby established the rites of pilgrimage.


The Kaaba has been modified extensively throughout its history. The area around the Kaaba was expanded in order to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims by the second caliph, ‘Umar (ruled 634-44). The Caliph ‘Uthman (ruled 644-56) built the colonnades around the open plaza where the Kaaba stands and incorporated other important monuments into the sanctuary.

During the civil war between the caliph Abd al-Malik and Ibn Zubayr who controlled Mecca, the Kaaba was set on fire in 683 C.E. Reportedly, the Black Stone broke into three pieces and Ibn Zubayr reassembled it with silver. He rebuilt the Kaaba in wood and stone, following Ibrahim’s original dimensions and also paved the space around the Kaaba. After regaining control of Mecca, Abd al-Malik restored the part of the building that Muhammad is thought to have designed. None of these renovations can be confirmed through study of the building or archaeological evidence; these changes are only outlined in later literary sources.

Reportedly under the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (ruled 705-15), the mosque that encloses the Kaaba was decorated with mosaics like those of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus. By the seventh century, the Kaaba was covered with kiswa, a black cloth that is replaced annually during the hajj.

Under the early Abbasid Caliphs (750-1250), the mosque around the Kaaba was expanded and modified several times. According to travel writers, such as the Ibn Jubayr, who saw the Kaaba in 1183, it retained the eighth century Abbasid form for several centuries. From 1269-1517, the Mamluks of Egypt controlled the Hijaz, the highlands in western Arabia where Mecca is located. Sultan Qaitbay (ruled 1468-96) built a madrasa (a religious school) against one side of the mosque. Under the Ottoman sultans, Süleyman I (ruled 1520-1566) and Selim II (ruled 1566-74), the complex was heavily renovated. In 1631, the Kaaba and the surrounding mosque were entirely rebuilt after floods had demolished them in the previous year. This mosque, which is what exists today, is composed of a large open space with colonnades on four sides and with seven minarets, the largest number of any mosque in the world. At the center of this large plaza sits the Kaaba, as well as many other holy buildings and monuments.

The last major modifications were carried out in the 1950s by the government of Saudi Arabia to accommodate the increasingly large number of pilgrims who come on the hajj. Today the mosque covers almost forty acres.

The Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque, 2008 (photo: Al Jazeera English, CC: BY 2.0)

The Kaaba Today

Today, the Kaaba is a cubical structure, unlike almost any other religious structure. It is fifteen meters tall and ten and a half meters on each side; its corners roughly align with the cardinal directions. The door of the Kaaba is now made of solid gold; it was added in 1982. The kiswa, a large cloth that covers the Kaaba, which used to be sent from Egypt with the hajj caravan, today is made in Saudi Arabia. Until the advent of modern transportation, all pilgrims undertook the often dangerous hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in a large caravan across the desert, leaving from Damascus, Cairo, or other major cities in Arabia, Yemen or Iraq.

The numerous changes to the Kaaba and its associated mosque serve as good reminder of how often buildings, even sacred ones, were renovated and remodeled either due to damage or to the changing needs of the community.

Only Muslims may visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina today.

Stories of the Modern Pilgrimage

From The British Museum

Every year, 25,000 British Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca. As part of the exhibition, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, the British Museum asked what this journey is like. Video © Trustees of the British Museum.

The Complex Geometry of Islamic Design


Video from TED-Ed. Speaker: Eric Broug.

Introduction to Mosque Architecture

By Kendra Weisbin
Art Historian
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mimar Sinan, courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque, İstanbul, 1558

From Indonesia to the United Kingdom, the mosque in its many forms is the quintessential Islamic building. The mosque, masjid in Arabic, is the Muslim gathering place for prayer. Masjid simply means “place of prostration.” Though most of the five daily prayers prescribed in Islam can take place anywhere, all men are required to gather together at the mosque for the Friday noon prayer.

Mosques are also used throughout the week for prayer, study, or simply as a place for rest and reflection. The main mosque of a city, used for the Friday communal prayer, is called a jami masjid, literally meaning “Friday mosque,” but it is also sometimes called a congregational mosque in English. The style, layout, and decoration of a mosque can tell us a lot about Islam in general, but also about the period and region in which the mosque was constructed.

Diagram reconstruction of the Prophet’s House, Medina, Saudi Arabia

The home of the Prophet Muhammad is considered the first mosque. His house, in Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia, was a typical 7th-century Arabian style house, with a large courtyard surrounded by long rooms supported by columns. This style of mosque came to be known as a hypostyle mosque, meaning “many columns.” Most mosques built in Arab lands utilized this style for centuries.

Common features

The architecture of a mosque is shaped most strongly by the regional traditions of the time and place where it was built. As a result, style, layout, and decoration can vary greatly. Nevertheless, because of the common function of the mosque as a place of congregational prayer, certain architectural features appear in mosques all over the world.

          Sahn (Courtyard)

The most fundamental necessity of congregational mosque architecture is that it be able to hold the entire male population of a city or town (women are welcome to attend Friday prayers, but not required to do so). To that end congregational mosques must have a large prayer hall. In many mosques this is adjoined to an open courtyard, called a sahn. Within the courtyard one often finds a fountain, its waters both a welcome respite in hot lands, and important for the ablutions (ritual cleansing) done before prayer.

Mihrab & minbar, Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo, 1356-63 (photo: Dave Berkowitz, CC BY 2.0)

          Mihrab (Niche)

Mihrab, Great Mosque of Cordoba, c. 786 (photo: Bongo Vongo, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another essential element of a mosque’s architecture is a mihrab—a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which all Muslims pray. Mecca is the city in which the Prophet Muhammad was born, and the home of the most important Islamic site, the Kaaba. The direction of Mecca is called the qibla, and so the wall in which the mihrab is set is called the qibla wall. No matter where a mosque is, its mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca (or as near that direction as science and geography were able to place it). Therefore, a mihrab in India will be to the west, while a one in Egypt will be to the east. A mihrab is usually a relatively shallow niche, as in the example from Egypt, above. In the example from Spain, shown right, the mihrab’s niche takes the form of a small room, this is more rare.

          Minaret (Tower)

Mimar Sinan, Minaret, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, 1558

One of the most visible aspects of mosque architecture is the minaret, a tower adjacent or attached to a mosque, from which the call to prayer is announced.

Minarets take many different forms—from the famous spiral minaret of Samarra, to the tall, pencil minarets of Ottoman Turkey. Not solely functional in nature, the minaret serves as a powerful visual reminder of the presence of Islam.

          Qubba (Dome)

Most mosques also feature one or more domes, called qubba in Arabic. While not a ritual requirement like the mihrab, a dome does possess significance within the mosque—as a symbolic representation of the vault of heaven. The interior decoration of a dome often emphasizes this symbolism, using intricate geometric, stellate, or vegetal motifs to create breathtaking patterns meant to awe and inspire. Some mosque types incorporate multiple domes into their architecture (as in the Ottoman Süleymaniye Mosque pictured at the top of the page), while others only feature one. In mosques with only a single dome, it is invariably found surmounting the qibla wall, the holiest section of the mosque. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, in Tunisia (not pictured) has three domes: one atop the minaret, one above the entrance to the prayer hall, and one above the qibla wall.

Because it is the directional focus of prayer, the qibla wall, with its mihrab and minbar, is often the most ornately decorated area of a mosque. The rich decoration of the qibla wall is apparent in this image of the mihrab and minbar of the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, Egypt (see image higher on the page).


Mosque lamp, 14th century, Egypt or Syria, blown glass, enamel, gilding, 31.8 x 23.2 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There are other decorative elements common to most mosques. For instance, a large calligraphic frieze or a cartouche with a prominent inscription often appears above the mihrab. In most cases the calligraphic inscriptions are quotations from the Qur’an, and often include the date of the building’s dedication and the name of the patron. Another important feature of mosque decoration are hanging lamps, also visible in the photograph of the Sultan Hasan mosque. Light is an essential feature for mosques, since the first and last daily prayers occur before the sun rises and after the sun sets. Before electricity, mosques were illuminated with oil lamps. Hundreds of such lamps hung inside a mosque would create a glittering spectacle, with soft light emanating from each, highlighting the calligraphy and other decorations on the lamps’ surfaces. Although not a permanent part of a mosque building, lamps, along with other furnishings like carpets, formed a significant—though ephemeral—aspect of mosque architecture.

Mosque Patronage

Mihrab, 1354–55, just after the Ilkhanid period, Madrasa Imami, Isfahan, Iran, polychrome glazed tiles, 343.1 x 288.7 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most historical mosques are not stand-alone buildings. Many incorporated charitable institutions like soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools. Some mosque patrons also chose to include their own mausoleum as part of their mosque complex. The endowment of charitable institutions is an important aspect of Islamic culture, due in part to the third pillar of Islam, which calls for Muslims to donate a portion of their income to the poor.

The commissioning of a mosque would be seen as a pious act on the part of a ruler or other wealthy patron, and the names of patrons are usually included in the calligraphic decoration of mosques. Such inscriptions also often praise the piety and generosity of the patron. For instance, the mihrab now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bears the inscription:

And he [the Prophet], blessings and peace be upon him, said: “Whoever builds a mosque for God, even the size of a sand-grouse nest, based on piety, [God will build for him a palace in Paradise].”

Süleymaniye Kulliyesi (view of kitchens and caravanserai), Istanbul

The patronage of mosques was not only a charitable act therefore, but also, like architectural patronage in all cultures, an opportunity for self-promotion. The social services attached the mosques of the Ottoman sultans are some of the most extensive of their type. In Ottoman Turkey the complex surrounding a mosque is called a kulliye. The kulliye of the Mosque of Sultan Suleyman, in Istanbul, is a fine example of this phenomenon, comprising a soup kitchen, a hospital, several schools, public baths, and a caravanserai (similar to a hostel for travelers). The complex also includes two mausoleums for Sultan Suleyman and his family members.

Common Types of Mosque Architecture

By Kendra Weisbin

Since the 7th century, mosques have been built around the globe. While there are many different types of mosque architecture, three basic forms can be defined.

The Hypostyle Mosque

Diagram reconstruction of the Prophet’s House, Medina, Saudi Arabia

It makes sense that the first place of worship for muslims, the house of the Prophet Muhammad, inspired the earliest type  of mosque – the hypostyle mosque. This type spread widely throughout Islamic lands.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia, is an archetypal example of the hypostyle mosque. The mosque was built in the ninth century by Ziyadat Allah, the third ruler of the Aghlabid dynasty, an offshoot of the Abbasid Empire. It is a large, rectangular stone mosque with a hypostyle (supported by columns) hall and a large inner sahn (courtyard). The three-tiered minaret is in a style known as the Syrian bell-tower, and may have originally been based on the form of ancient Roman lighthouses. The interior of the mosque features the forest of columns that has come to define the hypostyle type.

Sahn and minaret, Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia, c. 836-75 (photo: Andrew Watson, Wikimedia Commons)

The mosque was built on a former Byzantine site, and the architects repurposed older materials, such as the columns—a decision that was both practical and a powerful assertion of the Islamic conquest of Byzantine lands. Many early mosques like this one made use of older architectural materials (called spolia), in a similarly symbolic way.

Ancient capitals (spolia), Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia (photo: Jaume Ollé, Wikimedia Commons)

On right hand side of mosque’s mihrab is the maqsura, a special area reserved for the ruler found in some, but not all, mosques. This mosque’s maqsura is the earliest extant example, and its minbar (pulpit) is the earliest dated minbar known to scholars. Both are carved from teak wood that was imported from Southeast Asia. This prized wood was shipped from Thailand to Baghdad where it was carved, then carried on camel back from Iraq to Tunisia, in a remarkable display of medieval global commerce.

Maqsura, Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia (photo: Prof. Richard Mortel, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The hypostyle plan was used widely in Islamic lands prior to the introduction of the four-iwan plan in the twelfth century (see next section). The hypostyle plan’s characteristic forest of columns was used in different mosques to great effect. One of the most famous examples is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which uses bi-color, two-tier arches that emphasize the almost dizzying optical effect of the hypostyle hall.

Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, 8th-10th centuries (photo: Timor Espallargas, Wikimedia Commons)

The Four-Iwan Mosque

Just as the hypostyle hall defined much of mosque architecture of the early Islamic period; the 11th century shows the emergence of new form: the four-iwan mosque. An iwan is a vaulted space that opens on one side to a courtyard. The iwan developed in pre-Islamic Iran where it was used in monumental and imperial architecture. Strongly associated with Persian architecture, the iwan continued to be used in monumental architecture in the Islamic era.

Iwan, Ctesiphon, Iraq, c. 560 (photo: Edwin Newman Album AL4-B, page 3, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

In 11th century Iran, hypostyle mosques started to be converted into four-iwan mosques, which, as the name indicates, incorporate four iwans in their architectural plan.

Plan of the Great Mosque of Isfahan, Iran, showing iwans opening onto the sahn (court)

The Great Mosque of Isfahan reflects this broader development. The mosque began its life as a hypostyle mosque, but was modified by the Seljuqs of Iran after their conquest of the city of Isfahan in the 11th century.

Like a hypostyle mosque, the layout is arranged around a large open courtyard. However, in the four-iwan mosque, each wall of the courtyard is punctuated with a monumental vaulted hall, the iwan. This mosque type, which became widespread in the 12th century, has maintained its popularity to the present.

View of three (of four) Iwans, Great Mosque of Isfahan, Iran, 11th – 17th centuries, looking toward the south (qibla) iwan (photo: reibai, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In this type of mosque the qibla iwan, which faces Mecca, is often the largest and most ornately decorated, as at Isfahan’s Great Mosque. Here, the mosque’s two minarets also flank the lavish qibla iwan. The Safavid rulers refurbished these walls with new tiles in the 16th century.

Iwan, Great Mosque of Isfahan, Iran (photo: reibai, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Though it originated in Iran, the four-iwan plan would become the new plan for mosques all over the Islamic word, used widely from India to Cairo and replacing the hypostyle mosque in many places.

The Centrally-Planned Mosque

While the four-iwan plan was used for mosques across the Islamic world, the Ottoman Empire was one of the few places in the central Islamic lands where the four-iwan mosque plan did not dominate. The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299. However, it did not become a major force until the 15th century, when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, the capital of the late Roman (Byzantine) Empire since the 4th century. Renamed Istanbul, the city straddles the European and Asian continents, and, having been a Christian capital for over a thousand years, had a wholly different cultural and architectural heritage than Iran. The Ottoman architects were strongly influenced by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the greatest of all Byzantine churches and one that features a monumental central dome high over its large nave.

Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, 537, Istanbul

Many Ottoman mosques in the late 15th and early 16th centuries referenced Hagia Sophia’s dome; however, it was not until the masterful work of Mimar Sinan, the greatest Ottoman, if not Islamic, architect, that the domes of Ottoman mosques competed with and arguably surpassed that of Hagia Sophia. Sinan experimented with the central plan in a series of mosques in Istanbul, achieving what he considered his masterpiece in the Mosque of Selim II, in Edirne, Turkey. Built for Selim II, son of Suleyman during the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, it is considered the greatest masterpiece of Ottoman architecture. It represents a culmination of years of experimentation with the centrally-planned Ottoman mosque.

Mimar Sinan, Dome interior, Selimiye II Mosque in Edirne, Turkey, 1568-74 (photo: CharlesFred/Charles Roffey, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sinan himself boasted that his dome was higher and wider than that of the Hagia Sophia, highlighting the sense of competition with the earlier Byzantine building. In the Selim Mosque, Sinan distilled previous ideas about the central plan into a simple and perfect design. The interior octagonal space was made more spacious by 8 massive piers that pushed back into the walls, and a rhythmic harmony was created through apertures of small and large arches framed by joggled voussoirs, filling the large space with light and color.

Mosque Architecture around the World

Minaret, Bahasa Indonesia: Masjid Menara Kudus Jawa Tengah, Indonesia, 1549 (photo: PL09Puryono, Wikimedia Commons)

The three mosque types described above are the most common, and most historically significant, in the Islamic world. Despite their common features, such as mihrabs and minarets, one can see that diverse regional styles account for dramatic differences in the colors, materials, and the overall decoration of mosques. The bright blue and white tiled mihrabs of fourteenth-century Iran are a world apart from the muted colors and stone inlay of an Egyptian mihrab of the same century.

Even more regional differences appear when one looks beyond the central Islamic lands to the architecture of Muslims living in places like China, Africa, and Indonesia, where local materials and regional traditions, sometimes with little influence from the architectural heritage of the central Islamic lands, influenced mosque architecture.

The minaret at Kudus, Indonesia, for instance, reflects the influence of Hindu architecture. The Djingarey Berre Mosque of Timbuktu, in Mali, similarly responds to the pre-Islamic traditions of its own region, utilizing a unique West African style and using earth as the primary building material.

Djingarey Berre Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, 1327 (photo: MINUSMA/Marco Dormino, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

An early mosque in Xian, China, uses a very clearly Chinese style of architecture (below, left), but also incorporates more typical Islamic elements, like squinches and a distinctly Islamic-style arched mihrab (below, right).

Great Mosque of Xi’an, China, 1392 (photo: chensiyuan, Wikimedia Commons)

Contemporary Mosque Architecture

Mihrab, Great Mosque of Xi’an, China, 1392 (photo: Syed Husain Quadri, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Contemporary mosque architecture often represents a remarkable blending of styles, drawing from diverse architectural traditions to create something recognizably “Islamic,” that fulfills all the architectural requirements of a communal mosque and is contemporary in style. In Pakistan, the King Faisal Mosque, 1986 blends contemporary architecture with visual references to traditional forms. The building is strikingly modern, yet plays with the form of the tent structures of Bedouin nomads. This large mosque also incorporates Ottoman-influenced pencil-thin minarets into its modern design.

Vedat Dalokay, Shah Faisal Masjid, Islamabad, 1986 (photo: Fraz.khalid1, Wikimedia Commons)

Early Period

Arts of the Early Islamic Caliphates

By Glenna Barlow
Manager of Engagement
Columbia Museum of Art

The umbrella term “Islamic art” casts a pretty big shadow, covering several continents and more than a dozen centuries. So to make sense of it, we first have to first break it down into parts. One way is by medium—say, ceramics or architecture—but this method of categorization would entail looking at works that span three continents. Geography is another means of organization, but modern political boundaries rarely match the borders of past Islamic states.

A common solution is to consider instead, the historical caliphates (the states ruled by those who claimed legitimate Islamic rule) or dynasties. Though these distinctions are helpful, it is important to bear in mind that these are not discrete groups that produced one particular style of artwork. Artists throughout the centuries have been affected by the exchange of goods and ideas and have been influenced by one another.

Umayyad (661-750)

Four leaders, known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs, continued the spread of Islam immediately following the death of the Prophet. It was following the death of the fourth caliph that Mu’awiya seized power and established the Umayyad caliphate, the first Islamic dynasty. During this period, Damascus became the capital and the empire expanded West and East.

The first years following the death of Muhammad were, of course, formative for the religion and its artwork. The immediate needs of the religion included places to worship (mosques) and holy books (Korans) to convey the word of God. So, naturally, many of the first artistic projects included ornamented mosques where the faithful could gather and Korans with beautiful calligraphy.

Dome of the Rock, 687, Jerusalem (photo: Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis)

Because Islam was still a very new religion, it had no artistic vocabulary of its own, and its earliest work was heavily influenced by older styles in the region. Chief among these sources were the Coptic tradition of present-day Egypt and Syria, with its scrolling vines and geometric motifs, Sassanian metalwork and crafts from what is now Iraq with their rhythmic, sometimes abstracted qualities, and naturalistic Byzantine mosaics depicting animals and plants.

These elements can be seen in the earliest significant work from the Umayyad period, the most important of which is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This stunning monument incorporates Coptic, Sassanian, and Byzantine elements in its decorative program and remains a masterpiece of Islamic architecture to this day.

Base of the dome, Dome of the Rock, 687, Jerusalem

Remarkably, just one generation after the religion’s inception, Islamic civilization had produced a magnificent, if singular, monument. While the Dome of the Rock is considered an influential work, it bears little resemblance to the multitude of mosques created throughout the rest of the caliphate. It is important to point out that the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. A more common plan, based on the house of the Prophet, was used for the vast majority of mosques throughout the Arab peninsula and the Maghreb. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the Great Mosque of Córdoba (784-786) in Spain, which, like the Dome of the Rock, demonstrates an integration of the styles of the existing culture in which it was created.

Abbasid (750-1258)

The Abbasid revolution in the mid-eighth century ended the Umayyad dynasty, resulted in the massacre of the Umayyad caliphs (a single caliph escaped to Spain, prolonging Umayyad work after dynasty) and established the Abbasid dynasty in 750. The new caliphate shifted its attention eastward and established cultural and commercial capitals at Baghdad and Samarra.

The Umayyad dynasty produced little of what we would consider decorative arts (like pottery, glass, metalwork), but under the Abbasid dynasty production of decorative stone, wood and ceramic objects flourished. Artisans in Samarra developed a new method for carving surfaces that allowed for curved, vegetal forms (called arabesques) which became widely adopted. There were also developments in ceramic decoration. The use of luster painting (which gives ceramic ware a metallic sheen) became popular in surrounding regions and was extensively used on tile for centuries. Overall, the Abbasid epoch was an important transitional period that disseminated styles and techniques to distant Islamic lands.

Bowl, 9th century, Susa, Iran, Earthenware, metal lustre overglaze decoration, opaque glaze

The Abbasid empire weakened with the establishment and growing power of semi-autonomous dynasties throughout the region, until Baghdad was finally overthrown in 1258. This dissolution signified not only the end of a dynasty, but marked the last time that the Arab-Muslim empire would be united as one entity.

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra)

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra), Umayyad, stone masonry, wooden roof, decorated with glazed ceramic tile, mosaics, and gilt aluminum and bronze dome, 691-2, with multiple renovations, patron the Caliph Abd al-Malik, Jerusalem (photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Flickr, CC BY 2.0))

The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.

—Ibn Battuta (14th century travel writer)

A Glorious Mystery

One of the most iconic images of the Middle East is undoubtedly the Dome of the Rock shimmering in the setting sun of Jerusalem. Sitting atop the Haram al-Sharif, the highest point in old Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock’s golden-color Dome and Turkish Faience tiles dominates the cityscape of Old Jerusalem and in the 7th century served as a testament to the power of the new faith of Islam. The Dome of the Rock is one of the earliest surviving buildings from the Islamic world. This remarkable building is not a mosque, as is commonly assumed and scholars still debate its original function and meaning.

Interior of the Dome of the Rock (photo: Robert Smythe Hitchens, public domain)

Between the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 and 691/2, when the Dome of the Rock was completed, there was intermittent warfare in Arabia and Holy Land around Jerusalem. The first Arab armies who emerged from the Arabian peninsula were focused on conquering and establishing an empire—not building.

Thus, the Dome of the Rock was one of the first Islamic buildings ever constructed. It was built between 685 and 691/2 by Abd al-Malik, probably the most important Umayyad caliph, as a religious focal point for his supporters, while he was fighting a civil war against Ibn Zubayr. When Abd al-Malik began construction on the Dome of the Rock, he did not have control of the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam, which is located in Mecca.

The Dome is located on the Haram al-Sharif, an enormous open-air platform that now houses Al-Aqsa mosque, madrasas and several other religious buildings. Few places are as holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. It is the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish second temple, which the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed in 70 C.E. while subduing the Jewish revolt; a Roman temple was later built on the site. The Temple Mount was abandoned in Late Antiquity.

The Rock in the Dome of the Rock

At the center of the Dome of the Rock sits a large rock, which is believed to be the location where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Ismail (Isaac in the Judeo/Christian tradition). Today, Muslims believe that the Rock commemorates the night journey of Muhammad. One night the Angel Gabriel came to Muhammad while he slept near the Kaaba in Mecca and took him to al-Masjid al-Aqsa (the farthest mosque) in Jerusalem. From the Rock, Muhammad journeyed to heaven, where he met other prophets, such as Moses and Christ, witnessed paradise and hell and finally saw God enthroned and circumambulated by angels.

K.A.C. Creswell, Sectional axonometric view through dome, ©Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, Image courtesy of Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library

The Rock is enclosed by two ambulatories (in this case the aisles that circle the rock) and an octagonal exterior wall. The central colonnade (row of columns) was composed of four piers and twelve columns supporting a rounded drum that transitions into the two-layered dome more than 20 meters in diameter.

The colonnades are clad in marble on their lower registers, and their upper registers are adorned with exceptional mosaics. The ethereal interior atmosphere is a result of light that pours in from grilled windows located in the drum and exterior walls. Golden mosaics depicting jewels shimmer in this glittering light. Byzantine and Sassanian crowns in the midst of vegetal motifs are also visible.

The Byzantine Empire stood to the North and to the West of the new Islamic Empire until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks. To the East, the old Sasanian Empire of Persia imploded under pressure from the Arabs, but nevertheless provided winged crown motifs that can be found in the Dome of the Rock.


Wall and ceiling mosaics became very popular in Late Antiquity and adorn many Byzantine churches, including San Vitale in Ravenna and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Thus, the use of mosaics reflects an artistic tie to the world of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a period from about 300-800, when the Classical world dissolves and the Medieval period emerges.

Mosaic detail from the Dome of the Rock (public domain)

The mosaics in the Dome of the Rock contain no human figures or animals. While Islam does not prohibit the use of figurative art per se, it seems that in religious buildings, this proscription was upheld. Instead, we see vegetative scrolls and motifs, as well as vessels and winged crowns, which were worn by Sasanian kings. Thus, the iconography of the Dome of the Rock also includes the other major pre-Islamic civilization of the region, the Sasanian Empire, which the Arab armies had defeated.

A Reference to Burial Places

The building enclosing the Rock also seems to take its form from the imperial mausolea (the burial places) of Roman emperors, such as Augustus or Hadrian. Its circular form and Dome also reference the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The circular Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was built to enclose the tomb of Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock have domes that are almost identical in size; this suggests that the elevated position of the Dome of the Rock and the comparable size of its dome was a way that Muslims in the late 8th century proclaimed the superiority of their newly formed faith over Christians.

The Inscription

The Dome of the Rock also contains an inscription, 240 meters long, that includes some of the earliest surviving examples of verses from the Qur‘an – in an architectural context or otherwise. The bismillah (in the name of God, the merciful and compassionate), the phrase that starts each verse of the Qu’ran, and the shahada, the Islamic confession of faith, which states that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet, are also included in the inscription. The inscription also refers to Mary and Christ and proclaim that Christ was not divine but a prophet. Thus the inscription also proclaims some of the core values of the newly formed religion of Islam.

Below the Rock is a small chamber, whose purpose is not fully understood even to this day. For those who are fortunate enough to be able to enter the Dome of the Rock, the experience is moving, regardless of one’s faith.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

By Shadieh Mirmobiny
Associate Professor of Art History
Folsom Lake College

Great Mosque of Cordoba from the Air, Cordoba, Spain, begun 786 and enlarged during the 9th and 10th centuries (photo: Ulamm, Wikimedia Commons)

Known locally as Mezquita-Catedral, the Great Mosque of Cordoba is one of the oldest structures still standing from the time Muslims ruled Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia including most of Spain, Portugal, and a small section of Southern France) in the late 8th century. Cordoba is a two hour train ride south of Madrid, and draws visitors from all over the world.


The buildings on this site are as complex as the extraordinarily rich history they illustrate. Historians believe that there had first been a temple to the Roman god, Janus, on this site. The temple was converted into a church by invading Visigoths who seized Corboba in 572. Next, the church was converted into a mosque and then completely rebuilt by the descendants of the exiled Umayyads—the first Islamic dynasty who had originally ruled from their capital Damascus (in present-day Syria) from 661 until 750.

A New Capital

Following the overthrow of his family (the Umayyads) in Damascus by the incoming Abbasids, Prince Abd al-Rahman I escaped to southern Spain. Once there, he established control over almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and attempted to recreate the grandeur of Damascus in his new capital, Cordoba. He sponsored elaborate building programs, promoted agriculture, and even imported fruit trees and other plants from his former home. Orange trees still stand in the courtyard of the Mosque of Cordoba, a beautiful, if bittersweet reminder of the Umayyad exile.

Hypostyle hall, Great Mosque at Cordoba, Spain, begun 786 and enlarged during the 9th and 10th centuries

The Hypostyle Hall

The building itself was expanded over two hundred years. It is comprised of a large hypostyle prayer hall (hypostyle means, filled with columns), a courtyard with a fountain in the middle, an orange grove, a covered walkway circling the courtyard, and a minaret (a tower used to call the faithful to prayer) that is now encased in a squared, tapered bell tower. The expansive prayer hall seems magnified by its repeated geometry. It is built with recycled ancient Roman columns from which sprout a striking combination of two-tiered, symmetrical arches, formed of stone and red brick.

Mihrab, Great Mosque at Cordoba, Spain (photo: jamesdale10, CC BY 2.0)

The Mihrab

The focal point in the prayer hall is the famous horseshoe arched mihrab or prayer niche. A mihrab is used in a mosque to identify the wall that faces Mecca—the birth place of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia. This is practical as Muslims face toward Mecca during their daily prayers. The mihrab in the Great Mosque of Cordoba is framed by an exquisitely decorated arch behind which is an unusually large space, the size of a small room. Gold tesserae (small pieces of glass with gold and color backing) create a dazzling combination of dark blues, reddish browns, yellows and golds that form intricate calligraphic bands and vegetal motifs that adorn the arch.

The Horseshoe Arch

The horseshoe-style arch was common in the architecture of the Visigoths, the people that ruled this area after the Roman empire collapsed and before the Umayyads arrived. The horseshoe arch eventually spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and is an easily identified characteristic of Western Islamic architecture (though there are some early examples in the East as well).

The Dome

Mihrab dome, Great Mosque at Cordoba, Spain (photo: bongo vongo, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Above the mihrab, is an equally dazzling dome. It is built of crisscrossing ribs that create pointed arches all lavishly covered with gold mosaic in a radial pattern. This astonishing building technique anticipates later Gothic rib vaulting, though on a more modest scale.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba is a prime example of the Muslim world’s ability to brilliantly develop architectural styles based on pre-existing regional traditions. Here is an extraordinary combination of the familiar and the innovative, a formal stylistic vocabulary that can be recognized as “Islamic” even today.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan

By Dr. Colette Apelian
Professor of Art History
Berkeley City College

Sahn (courtyard) and minaret, Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia c. 836-75 (photo: Andrew Watson, Wikimedia Commons)

A New City

Seventh-century North Africa was not the easiest place to establish a new city. It required battling Byzantines; convincing Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, to accept centralized Muslim rule; and persuading Middle Eastern merchants to move to North Africa. So, in 670 CE, conquering general Sidi Okba constructed a Friday Mosque (masjid-i jami` or jami`) in what was becoming Kairouan in modern day Tunisia. A Friday Mosque is used for communal prayers on the Muslim holy day, Friday. The mosque was a critical addition, communicating that Kairouan would become a cosmopolitan metropolis under strong Muslim control, an important distinction at this time and place.

Rendering of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia. From left to right: zoom on the south wall (seen from the outside), global view of the mosque, zoom on the minaret seen from the court (graphic: Tachymètre, Wikimedia Commons)

Known as the Great Mosque of Kairouan, it is an early example of a hypostyle mosque that also reflects how pre-Islamic and eastern Islamic art and motifs were incorporated into the religious architecture of Islamic North Africa. The aesthetics signified the Great Mosque and Kairouan, and, thus, its patrons, were just as important as the religious structures, cities, and rulers of other empires in this region, and that Kairouan was part of the burgeoning Islamic empire.

The Aghlabids

During the eighth century, Sidi Okba’s mosque was rebuilt at least twice as Kairouan prospered. However, the mosque we see today is essentially ninth century. The Aghlabids (800-909 C.E.) were the semi-independent rulers of much of North Africa. In 836, Prince Ziyadat Allah I tore down most of the earlier mudbrick structure and rebuilt it in more permanent stone, brick, and wood. The prayer hall or sanctuary is supported by rows of columns and there is an open courtyard, that are characteristic of a hypostyle plan.

Great Mosque of Kairouan prayer hall facade (photo: Damian Entwistle, Wikimedia Commons)

In the late ninth century, another Aghlabid ruler embellished the courtyard entrance to the prayer space and added a dome over the central arches and portal. The dome emphasizes the placement of the mihrab, or prayer niche (below), which is on the same central axis and also under a cupola to signify its importance.

Mihrab (left) and minbar (right), Interior view of the dome, Great Mosque of Kairouan

The dome is an architectural element borrowed from Roman and Byzantine architecture. The small windows in the drum of the dome above the mihrab space let natural light into what was an otherwise dim interior. Rays fall around the most significant area of the mosque, the mihrab. The drum rests on squinches, small arches decorated with shell over rosette designs similar to examples in Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad Islamic art. The stone dome is constructed of twenty four ribs that each have a small corbel at their base, so the dome looks like a cut cantaloupe, according to the architectural historian K. A. C. Creswell.


[LEFT]: Interior view of the dome above the mihrab, Great Mosque of Kairouan (photo: Richard Mortel, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
[RIGHT]: Exterior view of the mihrab dome in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia (photo: Chuck Moravec, Wikimedia Commons)

Other architectural elements link the Great Mosque of Kairouan with earlier and contemporary Islamic religious structures and pre-Islamic buildings. They also show the joint religious and secular importance of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Like other hypostyle mosques, such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the mosque of Kairouan is roughly rectangular. Wider aisles leading to the mihrab and along the qibla wall give it a T-plan. The sanctuary roof and courtyard porticos are supported by repurposed Roman and Byzantine columns and capitals.

View of lustre tiles that surround the mihrab (photo: Richard Mortel, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The lower portion of the mihrab is decorated with openwork marble panels in floral and geometric vine designs. Though the excessively decorated mihrab is unique, the panels are from the Syrian area. Around the mihrab are lustre tiles from Iraq. They also feature stylized floral patterns like Byzantine and eastern Islamic examples.

Prayer Hall, Great Mosque of Kairouan (photo: Citizen59, Wikimedia Commons)

Since it was used for Friday prayer, the mosque has a ninth-century minbar, a narrow wooden pulpit where the weekly sermon was delivered. It is said to be the oldest surviving wooden minbar. Like Christian pulpits, the minbar made the prayer leader more visible and audible. Because a ruler’s legitimacy could rest upon the mention of his name during the sermon, the minbar served both religious and secular purposes. The minbar is made from teak imported from Asia, an expensive material exemplifying Kairouan’s commercial reach. The side of the minbar closest to the mihrab is composed of elaborately carved latticework with vegetal, floral, and geometric designs evocative of those used in Byzantine and Umayyad architecture.

Minaret, Great Mosque of Kairouan (photo: Tab59, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The minaret dates from the early ninth century, or at least its lower portion does. Perhaps inspired by Roman lighthouses, the massive square Kairouan minaret is about thirty two meters tall, over one hundred feet, making it one of the highest structures around. So in addition to functioning as a place to call for prayer, the minaret identifies the mosque’s presence and location in the city while helping to define the city’s religious identity. As it was placed just off the mihrab axis, it also affirmed the mihrab’s importance.

The mosque continued to be modified after the Aghlabids, showing that it remained religiously and socially significant even as Kairouan fell into decline. A Zirid, al-Mu‘izz ibn Badis (ruled 1016-62 CE), commissioned a wooden maqsura, an enclosed space within a mosque that was reserved for the ruler and his associates. The maqsura is assembled from cutwork wooden screens topped with bands of carved abstracted vegetal motifs set into geometric frames, kufic-style script inscriptions, and merlons, which look like the crenellations a top a fortress wall. Maqsuras are said to indicate political instability in a society. They remove a ruler from the rest of the worshippers. So, the enclosure, along with its inscription, protected the lives and affirmed the status of persons allowed inside.

Maqsura, Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia (photo: Richard Mortel, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the thirteenth century, the Hafsids gave the mosque a more fortified look when they added buttresses to support falling exterior walls, a practice continued in later centuries. In 1294, Caliph al-Mustansir restored the courtyard and added monumental portals, such as Bab al-Ma on the east and the domed Bab Lalla Rejana on the west. Additional gates were constructed in later centuries. Carved stone panels inside the mosque and on the exterior acted like billboards advertising which patron was responsible for construction and restoration.

An Intellectual Center

The Great Mosque was literally and figuratively at the center of Kairouan activity, growth, and prestige. Though the mosque is now near the northwest city ramparts established in the eleventh century, when Sidi Okba founded Kairouan, it was probably closer to the center of town, near what was the governor’s residence and the main thoroughfare, a symbolically prominent and physical visible part of the city. By the mid-tenth century, Kairouan became a thriving settlement with marketplaces, agriculture imported from surrounding towns, cisterns supplying water, and textile and ceramic manufacturing areas. It was a political capital, a pilgrimage city, and intellectual center, particularly for the Maliki school of Sunni Islam and the sciences. The Great Mosque had fifteen thoroughfares leading from it into a city that may have had a circular layout like Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire during Kairouan’s heyday. As a Friday Mosque, it was one of if not the largest buildings in town.

Exterior of the Qibla Wall, Great Mosque of Kairouan (photo: Gavinother, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The Great Mosque of Kairouan was a public structure, set along roads that served a city with a vibrant commercial, educational, and religious life. As such, it assumed the important function of representing a cosmopolitan and urbane Kairouan, one of the first cities organized under Muslim rule in North Africa. Even today, the Great Mosque of Kairouan reflects the time and place in which it was built.



Video from UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai

Founded in 670, Kairouan flourished under the Aghlabid dynasty in the 9th century. Despite the transfer of the political capital to Tunis in the 12th century, Kairouan remained the Maghreb’s principal holy city. Its rich architectural heritage includes the Great Mosque, with its marble and porphyry columns, and the 9th-century Mosque of the Three Gates.

Medieval Period

Arts of the Islamic World in Medieval Caliphates

By Glenna Barlow

For many, the Muslim world in the medieval period (900-1300) means the crusades. While this era was marked, in part, by military struggle, it is also overwhelmingly a period of peaceable exchanges of goods and ideas between West and East. Both the Christian and Islamic civilizations underwent great transformations and internal struggles during these years. In the Islamic world, dynasties fractured and began to develop distinctive styles of art. For the first time, disparate Islamic states existed at the same time. And although the Abbasid caliphate did not fully dissolve until 1258, other dynasties began to form, even before its end.

Fatimid (909-1171)

The Fatimid Caliphate at its peak, c. 969

In the tenth century, the Fatimid dynasty emerged and posed a threat to the rule of the Abbasids. The Fatimid rulers, part of the Shi’ia faction, took their name from Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, from whom they claimed to be descended. The Sunnis, on the other hand, had previously pledged their alliance to Mu’awiya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. At the height of their power, the Fatimids claimed lands from present-day Algeria to Syria. They conquered Egypt in 969 and founded the city of Cairo as their capital.

The Fatimid rulers expanded the power of the caliph and emphasized the importance of palace architecture. Mosques too were commissioned by royalty and every aspect of their decoration was of the highest caliber, from expertly-carved wooden minbars (where the spiritual leader guides prayers inside the mosque) to handcrafted metal lamps.

The wealth of the Fatimid court led to a general bourgeoning of the craft trade even outside of the religious context. Centers near Cairo became well known for ceramics, glass, metal, wood, and especially for lucrative textile production. The style of ornament developed as well, and artisans began to experiment with different forms of abstracted vegetal ornament and human figures.

This period is often called the Islamic renaissance, for its booming trade in decorative objects as well as the high quality of its artwork.

Saljuq (1040-1157/1081-1307)

The Saljuq Empire in 1092

The Saljuq rulers were of Central Asian Turkic origin. Once they assumed power after 1040, the Seljuqs introduced Islam to places it had not been heretofore. The Seljuqs of Rum (referring to Rome) ruled much of Anatolia, what is now Turkey (between 1040 and 1157), while the Seljuqs of present-day Iran controlled the rest of the empire (from 1081 to 1307).

The Saljuqs of Iran were great supporters of education and the arts and they founded a number of important madrasas (schools) during their brief reign. The congregational mosques they erected began using a four-iwan plan: these incorporate four immense doorways (iwans) in the center of each wall of a courtyard.

Mihrab (prayer niche), c. 1270, Konya, Turkey, now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin (photo: Glenna Barlow)

The art of the Anatolian Saljuqs looks quite different, perhaps explaining why it is often labeled as a distinct sultanate. The inhabitants of this newly conquered land in Anatolia included members of various religions (largely Buddhists and Shamen), other heritages, and the Byzantine and Armenian Christian traditions. Saljuq projects often drew from these existing indigenous traditions—just as had been the case with the earliest Islamic buildings. Building materials included stone, brick, and wood, and there existed a widespread representation of animals and figures (some human) that had all but disappeared from architecture elsewhere in Islamic-ruled lands. The craftsmen here made great strides in the area of woodcarving, combining the elaborate scrolling and geometric forms typical of the Arabic aesthetic with wood, a medium indigenous to Turkey (and rarer in the desert climate of the Middle East).

Mamluk (1250-1517)

The name ‘Mamluk’, like many names, was given by later historians. The word itself means ‘owned’ in Arabic. It refers to the Turkic slaves who served as soldiers for the Ayyubid sultanate before revolting and rising to power. The Mamluks ruled over key lands in the Middle East, including Mecca and Medina. Their capital at Cairo became the artistic and economic center of the Islamic world at this time.

Mosque lamp, Syria, 13th-14th century (Brooklyn Museum)

The period saw a great production of art and architecture, particularly those commissioned by the reigning sultans. Patronizing the arts and creating monumental structures was a way for leaders to display their wealth and make their power visible within the landscape of the city. The Mamluks constructed countless mosques, madrasas and mausolea that were lavishly furnished and decorated. Mamluk decorative objects, particularly glasswork, became renowned throughout the Mediterranean. The empire benefitted from the trade of these goods economically and culturally, as Mamluk craftsmen began to incorporate elements gleaned from contact with other groups. The growing prevalence of trade with China and exposure to Chinese goods, for instance, led to the Mamluk production of blue and white ceramics, an imitation of porcelain typical of the Far East.

The Mamluk sultanate was generally prosperous, in part supported by pilgrims to Mecca and Medina as well as a flourishing textile market, but in 1517 the Mamluk sultanate was overtaken and absorbed into the growing Ottoman empire.

The Great Mosque (Masjid-e Jameh) of Isfahan

By Dr. Radha Dalal
Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture

Courtyard, The Great Mosque or Masjid-e Jameh of Isfahan (photo: reibai, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Most cities with sizable Muslim populations possess a primary congregational mosque. Diverse in design and dimensions, they can illustrate the style of the period or geographic region, the choices of the patron, and the expertise of the architect. Congregational mosques are often expanded in conjunction with the growth and needs of the umma, or Muslim community; however, it is uncommon for such expansion and modification to continue over a span of a thousand years. The Great Mosque of Isfahan in Iran is unique in this regard and thus enjoys a special place in the history of Islamic architecture. Its present configuration is the sum of building and decorating activities carried out from the 8th through the 20th centuries. It is an architectural documentary, visually embodying the political exigencies and aesthetic tastes of the great Islamic empires of Persia.

Street view of the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan with the Great Mosque dome in the distance (photo: Saif Alnuweiri, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another distinctive aspect of the mosque is its urban integration. Positioned at the center of the old city, the mosque shares walls with other buildings abutting its perimeter. Due to its immense size and its numerous entrances (all except one inaccessible now), it formed a pedestrian hub, connecting the arterial network of paths crisscrossing the city. Far from being an insular sacred monument, the mosque facilitated public mobility and commercial activity thus transcending its principal function as a place for prayer alone.

The mosque’s core structure dates primarily from the 11th century when the Seljuk Turks established Isfahan as their capital. Additions and alterations were made during Il-Khanid, Timurid, Safavid, and Qajar rule. An earlier mosque with a single inner courtyard already  existed on the current location. Under the reign of Malik Shah I (ruled 1072-1092) and his immediate successors, the mosque grew to its current four-iwan design. Indeed, the Great Mosque of Isfahan is considered the prototype for future four-iwan mosques (an iwan is a vaulted space that opens on one side to a courtyard).

Plan of the mosque from Monuments modernes de la Perse mesurés, dessinés et décrits, éd. Morel, 1867

Linking the four iwans at the center is a large courtyard open to the air, which provides a tranquil space from the hustle and bustle of the city. Brick piers and columns support the roofing system and allow prayer halls to extend away from this central courtyard on each side. Aerial photographs of the building provide an interesting view; the mosque’s roof has the appearance of “bubble wrap” formed through the panoply of unusual but charming domes crowning its hypostyle interior.

Great Mosque, Isfahan, imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe. Map data ©2014 Google

This simplicity of the earth-colored exterior belies the complexity of its internal decor. Dome soffits (undersides) are crafted in varied geometric designs and often include an oculus, a circular opening to the sky. Vaults, sometimes ribbed, offer lighting and ventilation to an otherwise dark space. Creative arrangement of bricks, intricate motifs in stucco, and sumptuous tile-work (later additions) harmonize the interior while simultaneously delighting the viewer at every turn. In this manner, movement within the mosque becomes a journey of discovery and a stroll across time.

View of the south iwan from the prayer hall (photo: Alan Cordova, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Given its sprawling expanse, one can imagine how difficult it would be to locate the correct direction for prayer. The qibla iwan on the southern side of the courtyard solves this conundrum. It is the only one flanked by two cylindrical minarets and also serves as the entrance to one of two large, domed chambers within the mosque. Similar to its three counterparts, this iwan sports colorful tile decoration and muqarnas or traditional Islamic cusped niches. The domed interior was reserved for the use of the ruler and gives access to the main mihrab of the mosque.

Muqarnas, South Iwan (Photo: Fulvio Spada, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The second domed room lies on a longitudinal axis right across the double-arcaded courtyard. This opposite placement and varied decoration underscores the political enmity between the respective patrons; each dome vies for primacy through its position and architectural articulation. Nizam al-Mulk, vizier to Malik Shah I, commissioned the qibla dome in 1086. But a year later, he fell out of favor with the ruler and Taj al-Mulk, his nemesis, with support from female members of the court, quickly replaced him. The new vizier’s dome (below), built in 1088, is smaller but considered a masterpiece of proportions.

Interior decoration of Taj-al-Mulk (north) dome (photo: Matt Werner, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When Shah Abbas I, a Safavid dynasty ruler, decided to move the capital of his empire from Qazvin to Isfahan in the late 16th century, he crafted a completely new imperial and mercantile center away from the old Seljuk city. While the new square and its adjoining buildings, renowned for their exquisite decorations, renewed Isfahan’s prestige among the early modern cities of the world, the significance of the Seljuk mosque and its influence on the population was not forgotten. This link amongst the political, commercial, social, and religious activities is nowhere more emphasized than in the architectural layout of Isfahan’s covered bazaar. Its massive brick vaulting and lengthy, sinuous route connects the Safavid center to the city’s ancient heart, the Great Mosque of Isfahan.

Folio from a Qu’ran

By Alexander P. Brey
PhD Student in Art History
Bryn Mawr College

Qu’ran fragment, in Arabic, before 911, vellum, MS M. 712, fols 19v-20r, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

 The Qu’ran: From Recitation to Book

The Qur’an is the sacred text of Islam, consisting of the divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic. Over the course of the first century and a half of Islam, the form of the manuscript was adapted to suit the dignity and splendor of this divine revelation. However, the word Qur’an, which means “recitation,” suggests that manuscripts were of secondary importance to oral tradition. In fact, the 114 suras (or chapters) of the Qur’an were compiled into a textual format, organized from longest to shortest, only after the death of Muhammad, although scholars still debate exactly when this might have occurred.

This two-page spread (or bifolium) of a Qur’an manuscript, which contains the beginning of Surat Al-‘Ankabut (The Spider), is now in the collection of The Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Other folios that appear to be from the same Qur’an survive in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin), the Topkapı Palace Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (Istanbul), and the National Museum of Syria (Damascus). One page includes an inscription, which states that ʿAbd al-Munʿim Ibn Aḥmad donated the Qur’an to the Great Mosque of Damascus in 298 A.H. (July, 911 C.E.), although we do not know where or how long before this donation the manuscript was produced.

Qur’an fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, MS M.712, fols. 19v–20r, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

A Roadmap for Readers

The main text of the mushaf (pronounced muss-hoff), as manuscripts of the Qur’an are known, is written in brown ink. Arabic, the language of the divine word of Islam, is read from right to left. Several consonants share the same basic letterform, and these are usually distinguished from each other by lines or dots placed above or below the letter. Short vowels such as a, u, and i, are not normally written in Arabic, but in order to avoid misreadings of such an important text it quickly became standard to include vowels in the Qur’an. In this manuscript, these short vowels are marked with red circles positioned above, next to, or below the consonants, depending on the vowel.

Sura, Qu’ran fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, MS M.712, fols. 19v–20r, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

The text of each sura is further divided into verses by triangles made up of 5 gold circles located at the end of each verse (left).

The title of each sura is written in gold ink, and surrounded by a rectangle, filled here with an undulating golden vine (below). Combined with a rounded palmette extending into the margin of the folio, it allows readers to quickly locate the beginning of each sura.

Sura title, Qur’an fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, MS M.712, fols. 19v–20r, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

Because figural imagery such as human or animal forms was considered inappropriate for the ornamentation of sacred monuments and objects, artists relied on vegetal and geometric motifs when they decorated mosques and sacred manuscripts. Vines and palmettes like the ones that surround the sura heading here appear alone in sacred contexts, but they also accompanied animal and human forms in the secular decoration of palaces and textiles.

Planning the Proportions of the Page

The art of producing a mushaf began well before a pen was ever dipped into ink. The dimensions of each page were calculated before the parchment was cut, and the text was carefully situated relative to the edges of the pages. Each page of costly parchment (or vellum) in this Qur’an is larger than a standard sheet of printer paper, and contains only nine lines of calligraphy. These materials suggest both the dignity of the sacred text and the wealth of its patron, who was probably a member of the aristocratic elite.

Diagram of proportions, Single folio, Qur’an fragment, in Arabic, before 911, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

In addition to the high quality and large quantity of materials used, the deliberate geometric planning of the page conveys the importance of the text that it contains. As in many of the mushafs produced between 750 and 1000 C.E., the pages of this manuscript are wider than they are tall.

The text-block of this manuscript has a height-to-width ratio of 2:3, and the width of the text-block is approximately equal to the height of the page. The height of each line of text was derived from the first letter of the alphabet, alif, which was in turn derived from the width of the nib of the reed pen used by the calligraphers to write the text.

Interlines, Single folio, Qur’an fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

Each line was further divided into a set number of “interlines,” which were used to determine the heights of various parts of individual letters. There is no ruling on the parchment, however, so scribes probably placed each sheet of the semi-transparent parchment on a board marked with horizontal guidelines as they wrote. Memorizing and producing the proportions of each pen stroke, however, must have been part of the training of every scribe.

Kufic script in folio from a Qur’an, c. 900-950 C.E., gold leaf, silver and ink on parchment with indigo, 28.5 x 37.5 cm, probably made in Tunisia, Qairawan (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Kufic Script and the Specialization of Scribes

Writing in the tenth century C.E., the Abbasid court secretary Ibn Durustuyah noted that letters of the alphabet were written differently by Qur’anic scribes, professional secretaries, and other copyists. The calligraphic style used by these early scribes of the Qur’an is known today as Kufic. Only two or three of the more than 1300 fragments and manuscripts written in Kufic that survive contain non-Qur’anic content.

Kufic is not so much a single type of handwriting as it is a family of 17 related styles based on common principles, including a preference for strokes of relatively uniform thickness, short straight vertical lines and long horizontal lines, and a straight, horizontal baseline.

Various types of kufic were popular from the seventh century C.E. until the late tenth century C.E. Scribes used a wide reed pen dipped in ink to write. In some letters the angle of the pen was adjusted as the scribe wrote in order to maintain an even thickness throughout the entire letterform, but in others the angle could be held constant in order to produce both very thick and very thin lines. Although letters and even entire words at first appear to consist of a single stroke of the pen, in fact individual letters were often formed using multiple strokes.

Qur’an fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, 23 x 32 cm, possibly Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

The regularity and precision of the penmanship in the fragment from The Morgan Library reveals the skill of the scribes who produced it. Each of them deliberately imitated a single style in order to produce a unified finished product.

Scribes also had some freedom in composing a page. They could emphasize individual words and balance the widths of lines of different length by elongating certain letters horizontally (a technique known as mashq). They could also adjust spacing between words and letters, and even split words between two lines, in order to balance positive and negative space across the page.

Graphic showing negative space, Qu’ran fragment (detail), in Arabic, before 911, vellum, 23 x 32 cm, possible Iraq (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

In this mushaf, the spaces between non-connecting characters within a word are as wide as the spaces that separate different words (sometimes even wider!). For readers unfamiliar with the text, it is therefore difficult to figure out which letters should be grouped together to form words. This deliberate obfuscation would have slowed down readers, and it suggests that anyone who read aloud from these manuscripts had probably already memorized the text of the Qur’an and used the lavish manuscript only as a kind of mnemonic device.

Pyxis of al-Mughira

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Pyxis of al-Mughira, possibly from Madinat al-Zahra, AH 357/ 968 CE, carved ivory with traces of jade, 16cm x 11.8 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris) (photo: Steven Zucker, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A pyxis is a cylindrical box used for cosmetics. Now, imagine a room in a palace where this beautifully carved ivory container is given a central place. The luxurious box sits open. Inside are small silver containers of perfume, also left open so that their sweet-smelling aromas could waft through the room, gently scenting the air. This particular pyxis was a gift to the then-eighteen-year-old al-Mughira, the son of a caliph, perhaps as a coming-of-age present.

Pyxis of al-Mughira

The Pyxis of al-Mughira, now in the Louvre, is among the best surviving examples of the royal ivory carving tradition in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). It was probably fashioned in the Madinat al-Zahra workshops and its intricate and exceptional carving set it apart from many other examples; it also contains an inscription and figurative work which are important for understanding the traditions of ivory carving and Islamic art in Al-Andalus.

Carved Ivories in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain)

Al-Andalus, the lands on the Iberian Peninsula (today, Spain), which were controlled by Muslims from 711 to 1492, are home to some of the most remarkable monuments of Islamic art. These include the Great Mosque of Cordoba, constructed by successive Umayyad Caliphs, and the Alhambra Palace, built by the final Islamic dynasty that controlled Al-Andalus, the Nasrids. As stunning and impressive as the architecture of Al-Andalus was, the luxury arts, specifically the exquisite textiles and intricately carved ivory artifacts, produced in in royal workshops, also flourished.  One of the best examples of this tradition is the Pyxis of al-Mughira.

Since the twilight years of the Roman Empire, carved ivory objects had been important elements of the artistic canon of the Mediterranean. Ivory was durable, smooth, elegant, and easily carved, making it highly desirable for the creation of diptychs, pyxides (the plural of pyxis), and icons that could serve as single panels or could combined into diptychs or triptychs during the Byzantine Empire. Highly portable, they were often given as gifts. Although ivory carving was practiced in Constantinople, Syria and Egypt, it was a new arrival in Al-Andalus, and there are no examples of ivory carved caskets before the reign of the Umayyad caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r. 929-61).

Pyxis of al-Mughira, possibly from Madinat al-Zahra, AH 357/ 968 CE, Carved ivory with traces of jade (Musée du Louvre, Paris) (photo: University Libraries, University of Washington)

The Pyxis of al-Mughira is decorated with four eight-lobed medallions which are surrounded by figures and animals that include falconers, wrestlers, griffons, peacocks, birds, goats and animals to be hunted. Each medallion has princely iconography.

This medallion (left) shows two men collecting eggs from the nests of Falcons, a symbol of Umayyad legitimacy.

For Whom were They Made?

In Al-Andalus, ivory objects, including Pyxides, were bestowed upon members of the royal family, specifically sons, wives and daughters on important or memorable occasions, such as a marriage, birth or coming of age; later they were given as Caliphal gifts to important allies, such as the Berbers, who are the indigenous peoples of North Africa, many of whom converted to Islam and swore their allegiance to the Umayyad Caliphs in Spain.

A surprising number of these royal ivory objects survive in their entirety, and these are spread throughout the museum collections today (see the links below). Typically, these objects were carved out of solid ivory. Many caskets and pyxides held perfumes or cosmetics. While many pyxides were given to women, many were also given to men, including this one, which was given to al-Mughira, the youngest son of the deceased caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III, when he was eighteen years old in the year AH 357/ 968 CE.

Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail) (photo: University Libraries, University of Washington)

This medallion centers around a lute player flanked by two figures, one of whom holds the braided specter and flask of the Umayyads, while the other holds a fan. Presumably the man with the specter and flask symbolizes the Umayyad Caliph, and the figure with the fan, the Abassids.

The Decoration

Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail) (photo: University Libraries, University of Washington)

The pyxis was probably cut from the cross-section of an elephant’s tusk and it was adorned in highly specific, royal iconography. There are also traces of inlaid jade. Jade and other precious and semi-precious stones were used in the decoration of these boxes.

Remember, Islamic art is not strictly speaking aniconic (aniconic = the absence of human figures). Human and animal figures played a vital part in iconography. We see them here in this pyxis, which some scholars (including those at the Louvre), have interpreted as expressing the political authority and legitimacy of Umayyad Caliphs (as opposed to the Abbasid Caliphs, who ruled in Baghdad).

Another medallion shows lions attacking two bulls. As in Arabic poetry, these lions symbolize the victorious (in this case, perhaps the Umayyads).

Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail) (photo: Steven Zucker, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The final scene shows men on horseback date-picking. The date-palm, found primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, may allude to the lost lands of the East (the lands under Abbasid control). This too was a theme of Umayyad poetry. The use of visual imagery which is also found in the poetry of the era demonstrates that these two art forms were in communication.

An Arabic inscription in the kufic script runs around the base of the lid and reads: “God’s blessing, favours, joy, beatitude to al-Mughira son of the Commander of the faithful, may God have mercy upon him, in the year 357.”

Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail) (photo: Steven Zucker, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Some inscriptions on other ivory carvings also mention the name of the workshop and craftsman who made these exceptional pieces.

The iconography may have had a further specific message to al-Mughira. After the death of his brother, al-Hakam II, al-Mughira may have been a threat to Hisham II (r. 976-1013) and he was executed (along with his supporters). While al-Mughira met an unfortunate end, the beauty of his pyxis ensured its survival.

Dado Panel, Courtyard of the Royal Palace of Mas’ud III

By Elizabeth Kurulik Mercuri
Graduate Student in Art History
City University of New York

Dado Panel from the Courtyard of the Royal Palace of Mas’ud III of Ghazni, 1112 C.E., marble, 28 1/8 x 12 13/16 x 3 1/2″ (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

The dado panel from the Courtyard of the Royal Palace of Mas’ud III is a fine example of the artistic preferences of the Ghaznavid dynasty, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from 977 to 1186 C.E. A dado panel is a two to three foot lower part of a wall, typically decorated in a variety of media. This dado panel formed part of a larger dado, found within the courtyard of the Palace of Mas’ud III, just south of Kabul, Afghanistan, and it is currently located in the Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of the Islamic World collection. Although the panel was not found in-situ, it closely resembles other panels found within the palace’s courtyard.

Kufic script in folio from a Qur’an, c. 900-950 C.E., gold leaf, silver and ink on parchment with indigo, 28.5 x 37.5 cm, probably made in Tunisia, Qairawan (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The panel can be broken up into three registers (below left). The top register contains a Kufic inscription, which would have been part of a continuous inscription that encircled the entire courtyard across the tops of multiple adjacent panels. Kufic script is a style of writing Arabic popular from the seventh century C.E. until the late tenth century C.E., as seen in the page from the Qur’an above. The central register of the dado panel is a large sequence of trefoil (tri-lobed leaf) elements with a vegetal motif, and the bottom register consists of two scrolls interlaced with each other. The panel would have been painted blue and red as well as gilded. It shows signs of wear, with markings and discoloration, most likely from exposure to various elements over time.

Dado panel with three registers

Uncovering a Palace

The Ghaznavids were of Turkish origin, and they preferred a fusion of Iranian and Arab stylistic influences, along with a strong interest in Persian art and poetry. Their capital, Ghazni lied on an important trade route, resulting in influences from around the region. The Palace of Mas’ud III provides the best evidence for the social, cultural and artistic nature of the Ghaznavid Dynasty. The construction date is unknown but it was completed towards the end of the dynasty. It was built of a combination of baked and unbaked brick with pressed clay. It sits on a quadrangular plan organized around a central courtyard with four iwans.

Minaret constructed near Royal Palace of Mas’ud III of Ghazni, 12th century, Afghanistan (photo: kabulpublicdiplomacy, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The two excavations that were carried out between 1957 and 1966 produced a number of finds, including a long dado frieze in the courtyard. About forty-four panels were found in-situ and about four hundred dado fragments were also recovered. It is believed that there were about five hundred panels in all. They are made of marble, which came from a marble quarry found near Ghazni. The Ghaznavids used a large amount of marble throughout the city, during a time where brick and stucco were favored for décor purposes. The influence of the city of Baghdad, which was also built up heavily with marble by the Abbasids possibly explains the popularity of the medium at this time. Ghazni has only recently attracted scholars with the discovery of a great-stylized minaret, also dating to Mas’ud III’s reign (above).

Persian Poetry

Dado Panel with inscription in upper left corner, 10th century, Iran, stucco; carved, with some cast plaster elements, 68 5/8 x 92 3/4″ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)Although the Kufic inscription on this panel has not been translated, translations of other sections of the frieze contain a Persian poem that praised the Ghaznavid rulers. There is no author or written text to accompany the work, but scholars believe that the poet was someone associated with court life who probably wrote the poem for this specific purpose. This particular inscription, from the twelfth century, is one of the oldest uses of Persian in place of Arabic. It is likely that the inscription was commissioned in conjunction with the completion of the building, a practice that is also seen in Sicily and Alhambra. In Persia, it was common practice to adorn sacred and secular buildings with inscriptions (see the example from Iran, above).

Part of a Larger Whole

The dado panel from the Brooklyn Museum is part of a much larger work of art and a representation of the very essence of the Ghaznavid Dynasty. It is evident that the Ghazavids were deviating from the artistic and architectural norms of the time with the construction of the palace dado frieze. Not only did they follow the Abbasids’ use of marble for decorative purposes, but they also used Persian within the dado inscription, which was unique at the time. The use of the inscription on the dado as a commemorative display to honor the leaders of the dynasty and mark the construction of the building was also unusual. The use of Persian terms in place of Arab letters might have been a result of their expanding empire, of the dynasty’s influential origins, or of an appreciation for Persian literature. The dado panel at the Brooklyn Museum is a rare work of art from a period of creative nonconformity, and it is representative of the Ghaznavids’ signature artistic style.

Two Royal Figures (Saljuq Period)

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Two Royal Figures, Iran (Saljuq period), mid 11th – mid 12th c., painted and gilded stucco (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Coronation Mantle

From Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Coronation Mantle, 1133/34, fabric from Byzantium or Thebes, samite, silk, gold, pearls, filigree, sapphires, garnets, glass, and cloisonné enamel, 146 x 345 cm (Neue Hofburg, Vienna)

This was likely made for the Norman ruler Roger II in 1133/34 in the royal workshop in Palermo, using fabric from Byzantium or Thebes, Samite, silk, gold, pearls, filigree, sapphires, garnets, glass, and cloisonné enamel. The Kufic script reads:

This mantle was worked in the most magnificent clothing workshop and is connected with the desire and hopes, felicitous days and nights without cease or change, with authority, with honor and felicity, assurances of trust, reverent care, protection, good destiny, freedom from harm, triumph and livelihood in the capital city of Sicily in the year 528 [or 1133/34 in the Gregorian calendar].

The Alhambra

The Alhambra, Spain (photo: Mirari Erdoiza, CC BY-NC 3.0)

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is distinct among Medieval palaces for its sophisticated planning, complex decorative programs, and its many enchanting gardens and fountains. Its intimate spaces are built at a human scale that visitors find elegant and inviting.

The Alhambra, an abbreviation of the Arabic: Qal’at al-Hamra, or red fort, was built by the Nasrid Dynasty (1232-1492)—the last Muslims to rule in Spain. Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr (known as Muhammad I) founded the Nasrid Dynasty and secured this region in 1237. He began construction of his court complex, the Alhambra, on Sabika hill the following year.

Plan of the Alhambra and Generalife

Plan of the Alhambra and Generalife

1,730 meters (1 mile) of walls and thirty towers of varying size enclose this city within a city. Access was restricted to four main gates. The Alhambra’s nearly 26 acres include structures with three distinct purposes, a residence for the ruler and close family, the citadel, Alcazaba—barracks for the elite guard who were responsible for the safety of the complex, and an area called medina (or city), near the Puerta del Vino (Wine Gate), where court officials lived and worked.

The different parts of the complex are connected by paths, gardens and gates but each part of the complex could be blocked in the event of a threat. The exquisitely detailed structures with their highly ornate interior spaces and patios contrast with the plain walls of the fortress exterior.

Three Palaces

The Alhambra’s most celebrated structures are the three original royal palaces. These are the Comares Palace, the Palace of the Lions, and the Partal Palace, each of which was built during 14th century. A large fourth palace was later begun by the Christian ruler, Carlos V.

Tilework, El Mexuar (photo: MCAD Library, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

El Mexuar is an audience chamber near the Comares tower at the northern edge of the complex. It was built by Ismail I as a throne room, but became a reception and meeting hall when the palaces were expanded in the 1330s. The room has complex geometric tile dadoes (lower wall panels distinct from the area above) and carved stucco panels that give it a formality suitable for receiving dignitaries (above).

The Comares Palace

Comares Palace façade (photo: Jeff and Neda Fields, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Behind El Mexuar stands the formal and elaborate Comares façade set back from a courtyard and fountain. The façade is built on a raised three-stepped platform that might have served as a kind of outdoor stage for the ruler. The carved stucco façade was once painted in brilliant colors, though only traces remain.

Court of the Myrtles (photo: david_totally, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A dark winding passage beyond the Comares façade leads to a covered patio surrounding a large courtyard with a pool, now known as the Court of the Myrtles. This was the focal point of the Comares Palace.

The Alhambra’s largest tower, the Comares Tower, contains the Salón de Comares (Hall of the Ambassadors), a throne room built by Yusuf I (1333-1354). This room exhibits the most diverse decorative and architectural arts contained in the Alhambra.

Hall of the Ambassadors, Alhambra (photo: Jeff and Neda Fields, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The double arched windows illuminate the room and provide breathtaking views. Additional light is provided by arched grille (lattice) windows set high in the walls. At eye level, the walls are lavishly decorated with tiles laid in intricate geometric patterns. The remaining surfaces are covered with intricately carved stucco motifs organized in bands and panels of curvilinear patterns and calligraphy.

Palace of the Lions

Court of the Lions, Alhambra (photo: Jim Gordon, Wikimedia Commons)

The Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions) stands next to the Comares Palace but should be considered an independent building. The two structures were connected after Granada fell to the Christians.

Muhammad V built the Palace of the Lions’ most celebrated feature in the 14th century, a fountain with a complex hydraulic system consisting of a marble basin on the backs of twelve carved stone lions situated at the intersection of two water channels that form a cross in the rectilinear courtyard. An arched covered patio encircles the courtyard and displays fine stucco carvings held up by a series of slender columns. Two decorative pavilions protrude into the courtyard on an East–West axis (at the narrow sides of the courtyard), accentuating the royal spaces behind them.

Muqarnas Chamber, Alhambra (photo: Vaughan Williams, Wikimedia Commons)

To the West, the Sala de los Mocárabes (Muqarnas Chamber), may have functioned as an antechamber and was near the original entrance to the palace. It takes its name from the intricately carved system of brackets called “muqarnas” that hold up the vaulted ceiling.

Ceiling, Hall of the Kings, Alhambra (photo: Guacamoliest, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Across the courtyard, to the East, is the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings), an elongated space divided into sections using a series of arches leading up to a vaulted muqarnas ceiling; the room has multiple alcoves, some with an unobstructed view of the courtyard, but with no known function.

This room contains paintings on the ceiling representing courtly life. The images were first painted on tanned sheepskins, in the tradition of miniature painting. They use brilliant colors and fine details and are attached to the ceiling rather than painted on it.

Ceiling, Hall of the Ambassadors, Alhambra (photo: amyhsk, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are two other halls in the Palace of the Lions on the northern and southern ends; they are the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (the Hall of the Two Sisters) and the Hall of Abencerrajas (Hall of the Ambassadors). Both were residential apartments with rooms on the second floor. Each also have a large domed room sumptuously decorated with carved and painted stucco in muqarnas forms with elaborate and varying star motifs.

The Partal Palace

The Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace) was built in the early 14th century and is also known as del Pórtico (Portico Palace) because of the portico formed by a five-arched arcade at one end of a large pool. It is one of the oldest palace structures in the Alhambra complex.


Court of the Long Pond, Generalife (photo: Darren, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Nasrid rulers did not limit themselves to building within the wall of the Alhambra. One of the best preserved Nasrid estates, just beyond the walls, is called Generalife (from the Arabic, Jannat al-arifa). The word jannat means paradise and by association, garden, or a place of cultivation which Generalife has in abundance. Its water channels, fountains and greenery can be understood in relation to passage 2:25 in the Koran, “…gardens, underneath which running waters flow….”

In one of the most spectacular Generalife gardens, a long narrow patio is ornamented with a water channel and two rows of water fountains. Generalife also contains a palace built in the same decorative manner as those within the Alhambra but its elaborate vegetable and ornamental gardens made this lush complex a welcome retreat for the rulers of Granada.

Interior and Exterior Re-Imagined

To be sure, gardens and water fountains, canals, and pools are a recurring theme in construction across the Muslim dominion. Water is both practical and beautiful in architecture and in this respect the Alhambra and Generalife are no exception. But the Nasrid rulers of Granada made water integral. They brought the sound, sight and cooling qualities of water into close proximity, in gardens, courtyards, marble canals, and even directly indoors.

The Alhambra’s architecture shares many characteristics with other examples of Islamic architecture, but is singular in the way it complicates the relationship between interior and exterior. Its buildings feature shaded patios and covered walkways that pass from well-lit interior spaces onto shaded courtyards and sun-filled gardens all enlivened by the reflection of water and intricately carved stucco decoration.

More profoundly however, this is a place to reflect. Given the beauty, care and detail found at the Alhambra, it is tempting to imagine that the Nasrids planned to remain here forever; it is ironic then to see throughout the complex in the carved stucco, the words, “…no conqueror, but God” left by those that had once conquered Granada, and would themselves be conquered. It is a testament to the Alhambra that the Catholic monarchs who besieged and ultimately took the city left this complex largely intact.

Mohammed ibn al-Zain, Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis)

From Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Mohammed ibn al-Zain, Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis), c. 1320-40, brass inlaid with silver and gold, 22.2 x 50.2 cm, Egypt or Syria (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Mihrab from Isfahan (Iran)

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Mihrab (prayer niche), 1354–55 (A.H. 755), just after the Ilkhanid period, Isfahan, Iran, polychrome glazed tiles, 135-1/16 x 113-11/16 inches (343.1 x 288.7 cm) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf), Ilkhanid Dynasty

By Jane Yantz
Professor of Art History
Rowan College at Burlington County

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf) (detail), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

s Bahram Gur’s men faced the Karg, a monstrous horned wolf that had been terrorizing the countryside, they cried, “Your majesty, this is beyond any man’s courage…tell Shangal this can’t be done….”

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg is a book illumination depicting one of the many stories from the Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings. Though this particular image was painted in the fourteenth century by artists in the Mongol court in Persia (present-day Iran), the text of the Shahnama was composed by a poet named Firdawsi four hundred years earlier, around 1000 C.E. The Shahnama incorporates many older stories once told orally, chronicling the history of Persia before the arrival of Islam and celebrating the glories of the Persian past and its ancient heroes. The Shahnama is, in fact, still taught in Iranian schools today, and is considered to be Iran’s national epic—to know or recite the stories of the Shahnama is to express pride in the country’s glorious past. The illustration Bahram Gur Fights the Karg depicts one such story of the brave deeds of a Persian king, Bahram Gur, who singlehandedly defeated the monstrous Karg (horned wolf). It is much more than just an exciting tale, however; the Mongol artists who created this work were fulfilling their patrons’ strong desire to identify with the noble, virtuous, and powerful warrior-kings of ancient Persia.

Who was Bahram Gur and What is a Karg?

Plate with a hunting scene from the tale of Bahram Gur and Azadeh , c. 5th century, Sasanian, silver, mercury gilding, 20.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Bahram V was a king of the Sasanian empire that ruled Persia from the third to the seventh century, just prior to the arrival of Islam. His nickname, Bahram Gur, refers to a “gur” or onager—a type of wild ass which is one of the world’s fastest-running mammals. The word “gur” may also mean “swift.” He was known as a great hunter of onagers, a favorite game animal in ancient Iran, and he was renowned for his talents in warfare, chivalry, and romance. On a trip to India, according to the Shahnama, the king of India, a ruler named Shangal, recognized Bahram Gur’s abilities and sought his help in ridding the Indian countryside of the frightening and fierce Karg.

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf) (detail), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

Some translations of Firdawsi’s work describe the Karg as a rhinoceros, some as a wolf, and some, as we find here in Bahram Gur Fights the Karg, as a combination of the two—a ferocious horned wolf. When Bahram Gur and his men found the lair and saw the beast, his men beseeched, “Your majesty, this is beyond any man’s courage…tell Shangal this can’t be done….” The hero, of course, went forward alone, first using his bow to weaken the Karg with arrows, then using his blade to cut off the Karg’s head to present to Shangal.

The Mongol Court and the Art of the Book

The Sasanian empire fell in the seventh century, and it was not until well after this that the Mongols invaded Persia. They came from the eastern Asian plains, where open grasslands had encouraged a nomadic lifestyle of herding, horsemanship, and fierce warfare. They first became a serious force under the leadership of Genghis Khan in the early thirteenth century, and later, under his grandson Hulagu, the Mongols expanded their reach all the way to the Mediterranean.

Map of the Ilkhanid state, 1256-1353 (map: Ahmed Hafez, Wikimedia Commons)

Settled in Persia, the Mongols fostered the growth of cosmopolitan cities with rich courts and wealthy patrons who encouraged the arts to flourish. The rule of Hulagu’s dynasty, which lasted until 1335, is commonly known as the Ilkhanid period. Book illustration thrived under the Ilkhanids and became a major art form for both religious and secular texts. Since the Mongols began as, and largely remained, nomadic peoples (moving from place to place during the year to satisfy the needs of their herds), artworks tended to be small and portable. Their long nomadic history also meant that the Mongols developed strong oral traditions of storytelling, which gave them an appreciation for narrative art—especially manuscripts with paintings to accompany the stories. Illustrated manuscripts were also prestige items, created in very sumptuous formats suitable for kings, princes, and members of the court.

It was within this environment of lavish artistic book production that the manuscript depicting Bahram Gur Fights the Karg was created, probably in a court workshop. The artists who crafted it used silver and gold accents over ink and opaque watercolor. While we do not know the name of the patron, scholars suggest that it may have been the court vizier, a high-ranking official. The full page, or folio, is relatively large for a hand painted book, and because of its size, the manuscript is also referred to as the Great Mongol Shahnama. It was most likely a prestige item intended to express the owner’s power and wealth, and it is the most luxurious of all the Ilkhanid painted books that survive. In its original form, scholars believe this complete manuscript probably comprised about 280 folios (pages) with 190 illustrations painted by several different artists, bound into two separate volumes. Today, however, only 57 folios are known to have survived. Like many other manuscripts, the Great Mongol Shahnama was taken apart by an early twentieth-century art dealer so that the pages could be sold separately.

The Illumination as a Stylistic Blend

Six Horses, 13th–14th century, China, ink and color on paper, 47.1 x 647.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This manuscript was likely completed at the Mongol court in Tabriz, a rich and cosmopolitan urban center (in what is today northern Iran). By the time the book was produced, the Mongols had settled into their role as refined rulers with international contacts, and their lands were secure enough to ensure the safe exchange of both goods and ideas throughout the empire. The increased availability of paper, invented in China in the eighth century, also encouraged the diffusion of artistic ideas. Consequently, Ilkhanid art had an international flavor. Landscape elements, for instance, often show influences from China, incorporating motifs seen on imported Chinese scrolls (above) and ceramics. In Bahram Gur Fights the Karg, the worn and twisted trees, overlapping forms that create spatial recession, rapidly brushed foreground vegetation, and a taste for asymmetry all suggest eastern Asian influences.

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf) (detail), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

Local influences are also apparent: Persia had a long artistic tradition of depicting heroes, kings, and hunters riding horses over slain opponents. Bahram Gur is depicted in this tradition. Shown on horseback, he wears kingly garb, with a golden crown, luxurious garment, and an elegant gold and pearl earring visible in his right ear. But he is also clearly a warrior, holding a mace over his shoulder, and with a bow, sword, and arrows covered in a leopard skin hanging from his waist.

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

The result is a dynamic, energy-filled image with a monumental figure almost bursting out of the frame: Bahram Gur is cut off slightly at the top, trees and landscape details are truncated at the edges, and the horse is captured in mid-motion with one leg raised above the Karg. The Karg’s head, very close to the viewer, is centrally placed and dripping blood, while the splayed length of the Karg’s battered body pulls the viewer’s eye toward the left. The focus returns to the hero, however, because a visual circuit is created around him. Our eyes travel along the horn of the Karg, to the continuous arc of the tree branch, and up to Bahram Gur, whose glance leads our eyes back down across the vegetation and the body of his horse.

Calligraphy (detail), Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

The page surrounding Bahram Gur Fights the Karg is covered with calligraphy, but we do not know what originally appeared on the page adjoining the painting because the book pages are dispersed today. Calligraphy is the most highly regarded form of Islamic art, and it can be highly stylized, showing off an artist’s personal flare and skill. Ideals of beauty in Islamic culture draw on calligraphy’s inherent harmony and balance, spacing, proportion and compositional evenness on the page, and these aesthetic values are also visible in the painting style of the Great Mongol Shahnama.

Old Heroes for a New Regime

There is a tradition within Islam that strongly discourages the visual representation of human or animal figures. In practice, however, figurative representations can very often be found in secular and private Islamic contexts, such as the Ilkhanid court, where it was acceptable—even desirable—to create splendid figurative artworks for private consumption.

This was true of the Shahnama, which was a favorite subject at the Mongol court, eagerly enjoyed by wealthy and sophisticated courtiers. The painters who illustrated the Shahnama were drawn to dramatic subjects such as battles or encounters with astonishing beasts such as the Karg. However, images like Bahram Gur Fights the Karg were not just meant as illustrations of simple, enjoyable fairy tales, but contained deeper meaning and significance for the Mongol nobility. Here, Bahram Gur symbolizes just rule and civilized society triumphing over chaos and disorder, represented by the Karg. In simple terms, this means good defeating evil, but it also implies that a good and stable social order is based upon kingship, and that warrior-kings like Bahram Gur are moral and courageous models to be emulated by the readers of the book. The Shahnama therefore also provided a teaching tool, subtly incorporating moral stories and illustrating desirable behaviors for future kings and nobles.

Bahram Gur Fights the Karg (Horned Wolf) (detail), from the Great Mongol Shahnama, c. 1330-40, Iran, ink, colors, gold, and silver on paper, folio 41.5 x 30 cm (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

Many scholars also believe that the new Mongol rulers in Persia wanted to link themselves to the great heroes and kings of Persia’s past, a link which would enhance their authority. The Mongols and the ancient Persians had a shared respect for the manly arts of fighting, hunting, feasting, and courtship, and it is not a coincidence that Bahram Gur rides a horse as he defeats the Karg: the story is Persian, but the hero is shown as a great Mongol horseman.

The Shahnama is filled with magical tales of courtly life, including kings and heroes who fight, hunt, and live life to the fullest, as illustrated in the story of Bahram Gur Fights the Karg. But the Shahnama is also somewhat fatalistic, presenting a hostile world filled with fierce foes like the Karg. The book even ends with the defeat of the Persians by the Arabs. The stories, however, teach about the importance of courage and ethics while traveling through such a threatening world, and they provide guidance for readers confronting questions about death, love, honor and just rule.

Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House, Ilkhanid Dynasty

By Gioia Stevens
Special Collections Cataloger
New York University Libraries

“The Combat of Rustam and Ashkabus,” Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), c. 1330-40, ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper, 8 x 5 3/16 inches, Iran (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Illustrated books were an especially important art form in Iran from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. They flourished during a cultural revival that took place under the Ilkhanids, the Mongol dynasty which ruled Mesopotamia and Iran from 1258 to 1336 C.E. The Ilkhanids were the descendants of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü who conquered Iran in 1258 C.E. They ruled as foreigners in a conquered land and they employed the power of words and images to support their right to rule. The Ilkhanid court commissioned luxury manuscripts as didactic works of art in which they identified themselves with the kings and heroes of Iranian history, primarily those of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings (above).

Shahnama or Book of Kings

The most popular illustrated text of the period was the Shahnama or Book of Kings (above), an epic poem written by poet Abu al-Qasim Firdausi in about 1010 C.E. In the Shahnama, Firdausi recounts the myths, legends, and early history of Iran. We can interpret the text as a series of adventure stories and romances, but also as a guide to ethics, a chronicle, and a manual for royal conduct.

There are ten surviving illustrated Shahnama manuscripts datable from approximately 1300 C.E. to 1350 C.E. The scholar Robert Hillenbrand has noted a concentration of illustrated Shahnamas during the first half of the fourteenth century, that may be attributed to the Ilkhanids’ desire to adopt this powerful symbol of Iranian kingship for their broader educational or propagandist mission.

Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House

“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” Folio from the so-called “Second Small Shahnama,” early 14th c., ink, opaque watercolors, gold on paper, 6 5/16 x 5 11/16″, Ilkhanid Dynasty (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” a folio from the so-called Second Small Shahnama, is an illustrated manuscript page in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (above). The “Small Shahnamas” are a group of three small, dispersed, and undated manuscripts which were created in Iran in the first half of the 14th century. The painting illustrates the Shahnama story of the ruler Bahram Gur visiting the home of a peasant in disguise. Bahram Gur overhears the conversation of the peasant and his wife who is milking a cow in the background. The cow refuses to give milk and the woman attributes this to Bahram Gur’s tyrannous rule in the country. When Bahram Gur hears this, he resolves to become a just and merciful ruler and the milk immediately begins to flow.

Bahram Gur looking toward peasant and woman on the right (detail), “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” folio from the so-called “Second Small Shahnama,” early 14th c., ink, opaque watercolors, gold on paper, 6 5/16 x 5 11/16″, Ilkhanid Dynasty (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

Women in Ilkhanid Iran

Bahram Gur is resplendent in his gold robe at the center of the painting, but both he and the peasant are looking at the woman in the far right corner. She sits with her back turned as she milks the cow, but she is clearly the focus of attention. The scholar Sheila Blair has argued that the depiction of women in illustrated manuscripts from the Ilkhanid period indicates an upgrade in their status in the society. This painting shows that a woman of low social status can reform a tyrant.

Seljuk Painting Style

“Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess,” Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), c. 1300-30, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 6 3/8 x 5 1/4″, Iran or Iraq (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” is quite similar to another folio, “Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess,” from the “First Small Shahnama” in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (above). They are both examples of the continuation of the style developed by Seljuk (Turkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origins) artists in Iran during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The influence of the earlier Seljuk style can found here in the use of delicate, subdued tones against a plain gold background. The Ilkhanids may have chosen to adopt the Seljuk painting style as an additional way to integrate Mongol rule into indigenous cultural traditions.

The Influence of the Ruling Court in Painting Styles

“Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” Shahnama, 1341 C.E., ink and pigments on light beige paper, 14 3/8 x 12″, Injuid Dynasty, Iran (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Shahnama manuscripts were also made in areas which were outside direct Mongol political control. The Injuids began as vassals of the Ilkhanids in southern Iran and later established themselves as the independent rulers of the cities of Shiraz and Fars. Qawam al-Dawlah wa-al-Din Hasan, vizier (a high executive officer) to the Inju governor in Fars province, commissioned a Shahnama manuscript in 1341, and its folio of “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” is now located in The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (above). The Injuids commissioned their own Shahnama manuscripts in an effort to establish the legitimacy of their own rule, but they did so in a style which was very different from the Ilkhanids.

Detail, “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House,” Shahnama, 1341 C.E., ink and pigments on light beige paper, 14 3/8 x 12″, Injuid Dynasty, Iran (Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore)

The art historian Stefano Carboni has described Injuid style as “simple, almost naïve compositions [displaying an] absence of refined detail [in] the rigid postures of figures, the oversize trees and plants, and rapid, imprecise brushstrokes.”* The dissimilarity between the Walters and the Brooklyn “Bahram Gur in a Peasant’s House” underscore the differences between Injuid and Ilkhanid styles and also illustrates how clearly the role of the ruling court can be seen in artistic production. The Injuids did not seek to continue the earlier Seljuk style as way of legitimizing their rule and instead developed a new style which bears little resemblance to earlier work done under the Ilkhanids.

*Stefano Carboni, “Synthesis: Continuity and Innovation in Ilkhanid Art,” The Legacy of Genghis Khan, ed. Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni. New York : [New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press], 2002, p. 217.

Mamluk Qu’ran

By Mark Guranaccia

Folio from a Qur’an, 14th century, ink on paper, 13 1/5 x 5 1/5″ (The Brooklyn Museum)

The Art of Calligraphy

Of the many stunning architectural and artistic achievements that have come down to us from the Islamic world, one of the most incredible is the art of calligraphy.  Forbidden from illustrating holy texts with images of human figures (images that are common in many Christian religious books), the Islamic world transformed writing itself into an art form.  A great many examples have survived to the present day.  Additionally, because of the beauty and centrality of calligraphy to Islam, there has been a great deal of scholarship written on the subject and spectacular Qur’ans are proudly displayed in some of the world’s most famous museums. That said, given the quantity of Qur’an manuscripts which have been passed on to us, much of what has survived is not as well studied and documented.

One such example is a double folio (two pages) from a Mamluk Qur’an, currently housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (the Mamluks ruled over key areas of the Middle East, including Mecca and Medina between 1250 and 1517).  The double folio was likely produced sometime during the 14th century in either Egypt or Syria and contains the end of sura (chapter) 32 of the Qur’an known as as-Sajdah (the prostration) and the beginning of sura 33, al-‘Ahzab (The Combined Forces).  There are many distinct styles of calligraphy, known as scripts, and this particular Qur’an is written in a script known as nashki, which was one of the most popular of the Mamluk period.  As an illustration of the abilities of Mamluk calligraphers, it is excellent. It is not the quality of the calligraphy that differentiates this double folio from its better-known peers, but rather the quality of the decoration.

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, calligraphy by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, illumination by Muhammad ibn Mubadir and Aydughdi ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Badri, Cairo, 1304 (British Library Add. MS. 22406), ff.2v-3

Take, for instance, the most famous Mamluk Qur’an, that of the high official (and later sultan) Baybars al-Jahangir. This Qur’an, produced between the years 1304 and 1306, exemplifies the extraordinary level of ornament that grace the pages of many Mamluk Qur’ans. The borders of the page are wonderfully detailed with the vegetal patterns known as arabesques which completely enclose the calligraphy.  The ends of each aya (verse) are marked by small, exquisite golden rosettes and the outside edge of each page contains meticulously detailed medallions, and even within the text box, regularly spaced dots in gold ink fill the blank spaces between the calligraphy.

Detail, Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, calligraphy by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, illumination by Muhammad ibn Mubadir and Aydughdi ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Badri, Cairo, 1304 (British Library Add. MS. 22406), ff.2v-3

In comparison with the Qur’an of Baybars, the Brooklyn Museum’s double folio is virtually devoid of decoration.  A single small medallion, vertically placed, marks the outer edge of each page, and rosettes, which are no match for the virtuosity of the rosettes from the Baybars Qur’an, represent the extent of the decoration.  Furthermore, the double folio is written in dark blue or black ink with sura headings written in gold.  By contrast, the entirety of the Baybars Qur’an is written in gold ink, except for the sura headings which are written in a brilliant red ink.

Folio from a Qur’an, 14th century, ink on paper, 13 1/5 x 5 1/5″ (The Brooklyn Museum)

Practical, Not Ceremonial

Not surprisingly, the Baybar’s Qur’an garners far more attention and study than does the Brooklyn Museum’s double folio.  However, in many ways, this obscure double folio is more interesting than the famous Baybars Qur’an.  We know a great deal about the history of the Baybars Qur’an. We know when it was written and that it was intended as a waqf (charitable endowment) for his khanqa (a form of monastery or prayer house for Sufis). By way of contrast, we know virtually nothing about the Qur’an from which the Brooklyn Museum’s double folio came, and that is a large part of why it is so fascinating.  The double folio has an unusual feature. It is written with six lines per page. Generally speaking, Qur’ans throughout the Islamic world are written in odd-numbers of lines per page. We do know, that there is a Syrian tradition of producing Qur’ans with six lines per page. It is possible that the calligrapher, or the patron was Syrian. There is another possibility. The Baybars Qur’an was also written with six lines per page. Perhaps the patron of the Qur’an had seen the Baybars Qur’an and wished to emulate it. We cannot know for certain, and their are enormous range of possibilities to explore.

From the perspective of studying the double folio and others like it (there is a very similar folio in the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian) they hold one additional advantage over the Baybars Qur’an and its ilk.  These Qur’ans were almost certainly meant to be used as everyday items.  The Baybars Qur’an was, at its core, intended not as a practical object, but rather as a public demonstration of power, wealth and piety.  On the other hand, the Qur’an of the double folio could have been commissioned as someone’s personal Qur’an or for their child to use as a student at a madrasa (school), or it may have been intended as a gift.  Regardless, it was probably something that real people in the 14th century interacted with on a daily basis, not only on formal occasions and that, when combined with the beautiful calligraphy is what makes such objects truly special.

Art of the Islamic World in the Later Period


By Glenna Barlow

What does the Taj Mahal have to do with the Tamerlane? What do Persian carpets have to do with Turkish tiles? Quite a bit, as it turns out. By the fourteenth century, Islam had spread as far East as India and Islamic rulers had solidified their power by establishing prosperous cities and a robust trade in decorative arts along the all-important Silk Road. This is a complex period with competing and overlapping cultures and empires. Read below for an introduction to the later Islamic dynasties.

Ottoman (1300-1924)

At its earliest stages, the Ottoman state was little more than a group formed as a result of the dissolution of the Anatolian Seljuq sultanate. However, in 1453, the Ottomans captured the great Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and in 1517, they defeated the Mamluks and took control of the most significant state in the Islamic world.

Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque built for the Sultan Süleyman the Lawgiver, 1558 (Istanbul)

While the Ottomans ruled for many centuries, the height of the empire’s cultural and economic prosperity was achieved during Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign (r. 1520-1566), a period often referred to as the Ottoman’s ‘golden age.’ In addition to large-scale architectural projects, the decorative arts flourished, chief among them, ceramics, particularly tiles. Iznik tiles, named for the city in Anatolia where they were produced, developed a trademark style of curling vines and flowers rendered in beautiful shades of blue and turquoise. These designs were informed by the blue and white floral patterns found in Chinese porcelain—similar to earlier Mamluk tiles, and Timurid art to the East. In addition to Iznik, other artistic hubs developed, such as Bursa, known for its silks, and Cairo for its carpets. The capital, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), became a great center for all matters of cultural importance from manuscript illumination to architecture.

Iznik tiles in Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, 1561-63 (Istanbul)

The architecture of the period, both sacred and secular, incorporates these decorative arts, from the dazzling blue tiles and monumental calligraphy that adorn the walls of Topkapi Palace (begun 1459) to the carpets that line the floors of the Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-1558). Ottoman mosque architecture itself is marked by the use of domes, widely used earlier in Byzantium, and towering minarets. The Byzantine influence draws primarily from Hagia Sophia, a former church that was converted into a mosque (and is now a museum).

Timurid (1369-1502)

Timurid Dynasty at its greatest extent

This powerful Central Asian dynasty was named for its founder, Tamerlane (ruled 1370-1405), which is derived from Timur the Lame. Despite his rather pathetic epithet, he claimed to be a descendent of Genghis Khan and demonstrated some of his supposed ancestor’s ruthlessness in conquering neighboring territories.

After establishing a vast empire, Timur developed a monumental architecture befitting his power, and sought to make Samarkand the “pearl of the world.” Because the capital was situated at a major crossroads of the Silk Road (the crucial trade route linking the Middle East, Central Asia, and China), and because Timur had conquered so widely, the Timurids acquired a myriad of artisans and craftspeople from distinct artistic traditions. The resulting style synthesized aesthetic and design principles from as far away as India (then Hindustan) and the lands in between.

Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, 15th-17th centuries

The result can be seen in cities filled with buildings created on a lavish scale that exhibited tall, bulbous domes and the finest ceramic tiles. The structures and even the cities themselves are often described foremost by the overwhelming use of blues and golds. While the Timurid dynasty itself was short-lived, its legacy survives not only in the grand architecture that it left behind but in its descendants who went on to play significant roles in the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires.

Safavid (1502-1736)

The Safavids, a group with roots in the Sufic tradition (a mystical branch of Islam), came to power in Persia, modern-day Iran and Azerbaijan. In 1501 the Safavid rulers declared Shi’a Islam as its state religion; and in just ten years the empire came to include all of Iran.

The art of manuscript illumination was highly prized in the Safavid courts, and royal patrons made many large-scale commissions. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Shahnama (or ‘Book of Kings,’ a compilation of stories about earlier rulers of Iran) from the 1520s. While painting in this context did not have the same prominent and longstanding tradition as it does in Western art, the illustrations exhibit masterful workmanship and an incredible attention to detail.

The Ardabil Carpet, Maqsud of Kashan, Persian: Safavid dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per sq. inch), 1539-40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Trade in carpets was also important, and even today, people understand the appeal of Persian carpets. These large-scale, high-quality pieces were created as luxurious furnishings for royal courts. The most famous—perhaps of all time—is a pair known as the Ardabil Carpets, created in 1539-1540. The carpets were nearly identical, perfectly symmetrical and enormous. Every inch of space was filled with flowers, scrolling vines, and medallions.

The empire began to struggle financially and militarily until the rule of Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629). He moved the capital to Isfahan where he built a magnificent new city and established state workshops for textiles, which, along with silk and other goods, were increasingly exported to Europe. The mosque architecture made use of earlier Persian elements, like the four-iwan plan and building materials of brick and glazed tiles reminiscent of Timurid architecture, with its blues and greens and bulbous domes. Even in such far-removed lands, the connections between these dynasties are evident in the art they created.

Mughal (1526-1858)

Though Islam had been introduced in India centuries before, the Mughals were responsible for some of the greatest works of art produced in the canons of both Indian and Islamic art. The empire established itself when Babur, himself a Timurid prince of Turkish and Central Asian descent, came to Hindustan and defeated the existing Islamic sultanate in Delhi.

Tracing their roots to Central Asia, the Mughals produced art, music and poetry that was highly influenced by Persian and Central Asian aesthetics. This is evident in the style and importance given to miniature paintings, created to illustrate manuscripts. The most grandiose of these was the Akbarnama, created to record the conquests of Akbar, widely regarded as the greatest Mughal emperor. The art and architecture created during his reign demonstrate a synthesis of indigenous Indian temple architecture with structural and design elements derived from Islamic sources farther West. The Mughals developed a unique architectural style which, in the years after Akbar’s reign, began to feature scalloped arches and stylized floral designs in white marble. The most famous example is the Taj Mahal, constructed by Shah Jahan from 1632-1653.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: Mathew Knott, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Mughal dynasty left a lasting mark on the landscape of India, and remained in power until the British completed their conquest of India in the nineteenth century.

Although historians generally agree that the major Islamic dynasties end in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Islamic art and culture have continued to flourish. Muslim artists and Muslim countries are still producing art. Some art historians consider such work as simply modern or contemporary art while others see it within the continuity of Islamic art.

Hagia Sophia as a Mosque

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles (architects), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 532-37

This video focuses on Hagia Sophia after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453.

Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, completed 1558, Istanbul, Turkey

Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey, 1568–75 (photo: grcnysll, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Elegant stacked domes, reaching to the heavens, and towering, slender pencil minarets characterize Ottoman mosque architecture. Few mosques, however, are as visually stunning and architecturally significant as the Selimiye Complex in Edirne built by the greatest of all Ottoman architects, if not one of the greatest of architects to ever live: Sinan.


Selimiye complex was located in Edirne rather than the capital, Istanbul. It was built by the Sultan Selim II, the son of Süleyman the Magnificent, between 1568 and 1574. Edirne was one of Selim II’s favorite cities. He was stationed here as a prince when his father campaigned in Persia in 1548 and he enjoyed hunting on the outskirts of the city.

Edirne was selected not only because of Selim II’s fondness of the city, but also for its historical and geographic significance. Located in the Balkans, within the European lands of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne had been a capital of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century before Istanbul and was effectively the second city of the Empire through the 17th century.

View of the Süleymaniye Mosque complex designed by Sinan, 1550, from the Golden Horn, Istanbul (photo: Matthew & Heather, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edirne was the first major city that Europeans traveling to the Ottoman Empire reached—so building a large complex here offered the Sultan an opportunity to use architecture to impress the Ottoman Empire’s greatness upon visitors. Furthermore because Edirne was not Istanbul, whose Golden Horn and many hills were already home to monumental mosque complexes, it also offered an opportunity to build a mosque that would dominate the city. Built in an area of the city once known as Kavak Meydani, the modern designs of the Selimiye complex overshadowed Edirne’s more traditional architecture.

The complex is huge. It measures 190 x 130 meters (or more than the length of two football fields) and is composed of a mosque, two symmetrical square madrasas (one of which served as a college for studying the hadiths, or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and there was a row of shops (arasta) and a school for learning the recitation of the Quran located to the west and added during the reign of Sultan Murad III, whose rule followed Selim II. It is likely these additions were planned by Sinan.

View of the north façade of the mosque from porticoed courtyard, Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey, 1568–75 (photo: İhsan Deniz Kılıçoğlu, Wikimedia Commons)

The Mosque

Dome, 31.22 m in diameter, 42.25 m high, Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey, 1568–1575 (photo: Charles Roffey, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The ethereal dome seems weightless as it floats above the prayer hall. All of the architectural features are subordinated to this grand dome. The dome rests on eight muqarnas-corbelled squinches that are in turn supported by eight large piers.

Muqarnas are the faceted decorative forms that alternately protrude and recess and that are commonly used in Islamic architecture to bridge a point of transition—in this case, the broad base of the dome above and the slender piers below. Note that the muqarnas steps outward it rises, creating a corbelled effect, and allowing for a more open space below. The squinches are the architectural support, decorated by the muqarnas, transition from the dome down to the eight piers.

Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey, 1568–1575 (photo: Basak Buyukcelen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

They allow the round base of the dome to join octagon formed by the piers. A complex system of exterior buttresses support the east and west piers and do most of the work to hold up the massive weight of the dome. These buttresses are artfully hidden among the exterior porticos and galleries. In the interior, galleries fill the spaces in between the walls and the piers. The Qibla wall (the wall that faces Mecca) projects outward further emphasizing the openness the interior space. Sinan completely departed from the screen walls and supporting half-domes he had employed in his earlier design for the Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul.

Müezzin mahfili, Mosque of Selim II, Erdine, Turkey (photo: Janisjr, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The placement of the muzzin’s platform (müezzin mahfili), under the center of the dome is very unusual. From this platform, the muzzins who lead prayers, chant to the congregation. Gülru Necipoğlu, a leading Ottoman art historian, has compared its placement to that of a church’s altar or ambo, a raised stand for biblical readings in a church. She notes that while this innovation disrupts the space below the dome, it reflects Sinan’s interest in surpassing Christian architecture. The position of the platform also creates a vertical alignment of square, octagon, and circle, using geometry to refer to the earthly and heavenly spheres.

Iznik tiles in the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne (photo: Orhan Bilgin “Zargan” Wikimedia Commons)

The original appearance of the interior’s decoration was different from what we see today. The interior has been repainted through the centuries and was extensively restored in the 20th century. However, the brilliant, polychrome Iznik tiles, the epitome of Ottoman decoration, and whose motifs include iconography such as saz leaves and Chinese clouds, remain largely untouched since the 16th century.


The mosque’s epigraphic program—its inscriptions, was developed after the devastating defeat that the Ottoman fleet suffered at Lepanto in 1571 against the navies of the Christian Holy League. This loss prevented further Ottoman expansion along the European coast of the Mediterranean. The mosque’s inscriptions focus on a central difference between Islam and Christianity—mainly that Allah (God) is indivisible and that the prophet Muhammad is God’s human messenger. Certain passages from the Hadiths were included to emphasized Muhammad’s position as a messenger both and intercessor.

Façade, Mimar Sinan, Mosque of Selim II, Edirne, Turkey, 1568–1575 (photo: Charles Roffey, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The unified, open plan of the mosque is matched by the artful stacking of volumes on the exterior. Unlike many other earlier Ottoman mosques and the early Byzantine church, Hagia Sophia (then converted to a mosque and now a museum), the exterior is clearly not an artistic afterthought but rather an elegant, architectural shell vital to the overall composition. The placement of the pencil minarets at the four corners of the prayer hall focus attention on the volume of the Dome. Polychrome exterior is composed of stone mixed with brick that compliments the geometric volumes that define the exterior forms of the building.

Mausoleum of Il-khan Öljeitü, Soltaniyeh Iran, 1302-12 (photo: Zenith210, Wikimedia Commons)

The dome’s octagonal shape was probably influenced by the tomb of Öljeitü in Soltaniyeh, which Sinan had seen while on Süleyman’s Baghdad campaign. The tomb had a large octagonal dome of 25 meters, which at one time was surrounded by eight turrets, which we can see echoed at Edirne. Sinan’s dome, at just over 31 meters, is larger than Hagia Sophia’s. The architect had wanted to disprove claims that no architect could match Hagia Sophia. Selim II funded his project with booty taken from the Ottoman campaign against Cyprus, a Christian island. Sinan sought to build a monument for the Sultan that expressed Islam’s triumph. His achievement—building a mosque that surpassed Hagia Sophia—was recognized as soon as the mosque was complete. Evliya Çelebi, a 17th century writer who traveled extensively across the Ottoman Empire, praised the mosque in his ten-volume Seyahtname, (or “Travelogue”).

Mimar Sinan was a product of the Devşirme, a practice of the Ottoman authorities from the fourteenth through early eighteenth century, where young, talented, Christian men were taken from their families to serve in the military or the civil service. Sinan was one such boy; he served during Süleyman’s campaigns, learning engineering and siege warfare before becoming one of history’s great architects.

Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Beth Harris

Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, 1561-63

Tughra (Official Signature) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent from Istanbul

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tughra (Official Signature) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, ca. 1555–60, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 25 x 30″ / 63.5 x 76.2 cm) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Video from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Raised to a high art form within the Ottoman chancery, the tughra served as the official seal of the sultan. Affixed to every royal edict, this stylized signature is an intricate calligraphic composition comprising the name of the reigning sultan, his father’s name, his title, and the phrase “the eternally victorious.” Its bold, gestural line contrasts with the delicate swirling vine-scroll illumination used to ornament the seal.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)

By Dr. Radha Dalal

Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), completed 1617 (photo: Tim O’Brien/Oberazzi, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A Young Sultan

Imagine yourself as a young sultan in charge of an empire spanning parts of three continents—Asia, Europe, and Africa—your ancestors brought together through conquests. You are 13 years old and are enthroned in the capital city, Istanbul. You are confronted with the legacy of great rulers before you such as Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmet the Conqueror. And yet, you are neither a renowned warrior nor an able administrator. How do you leave your mark on the fabric of the city that your forbears coveted and conquered? You commission one of the finest mosques in the heart of the imperial city.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, was completed in 1617 just prior to the untimely death of its then 27-year old eponymous patron, Sultan Ahmet I. The mosque dominates Istanbul’s majestic skyline with its elegant composition of ascending domes and six slender soaring minarets. Although considered one of the last classical Ottoman structures, the incorporation of new architectural and decorative elements in the mosque’s building program and its symbolic placement at the imperial center of the city point to a departure from the classical tradition innovated under the famous 16th-century master architect, Mimar Sinan.

A Symbolic Location

Hagia Sophia (left) and the Blue Mosque (right) (photo: Black.Dots., Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The mosque’s site is politically charged. Unlike other Ottoman imperial mosques, which were placed farther away from the city center to encourage urban development and to take advantage of Istanbul’s hilly topography, the Sultan Ahmet mosque is nestled in between the Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Hippodrome near the Ottoman royal residence, Topkapı Palace.  In fact, the choice of location caused some consternation since it required the demolition of quite a few established palaces owned by Ottoman ministers. But prestige outweighed the enormous cost in coin and real estate. Constructing large mosque complexes for the benefit of the public was part of the imperial tradition denoting a pious and benevolent ruler. Placing the mosque adjacent to the Hagia Sophia also signified the triumph of an Islamic monument over a converted Christian church, a matter of great concern even 150 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453.

The rivalry between the two monuments is difficult to ignore as you alight from the tram and walk towards them today. Both buildings overwhelm with their massive proportions and their individual claims on the city’s history. But the Sultan Ahmet mosque is distinct from the 6th-century church. The mosque features two main sections: a large unified prayer hall crowned by the main dome and an equally spacious courtyard. In contrast to earlier imperial mosques in Istanbul, the monotony of the exterior stone walls is relieved through numerous windows and a blind arcade. Huge elevated and recessed entrances penetrate three sides of its precinct to provide access to the sacred core. The courtyard’s inner frame is a domed arcade, which is uniform on all sides except for the prayer hall entrance where the arches expand.

Dome and pendentives

Inside, the central dome rests on delicate pendentives (triangular segments of a spherical surface) with its weight supported on four massive fluted columns. In order to extend the prayer space beyond the span of the central dome, a series of half-domes cascade outwards from the center to ultimately join the exterior walls of the mosque. Of the six minarets (towers traditionally built for the call to prayer), four are positioned on the corners of the mosque’s prayer hall while the other two flank the external corners of the courtyard. Each of these “pencil” minarets has a series of balconies adorning its lean form.

Blue Mosque minaret (photo: Radha Dalal)

Six minarets were unusual even for an imperial mosque—they implied equality with the multi-minareted mosques of Mecca leading to considerable resistance from the local population. The solution? Legend has it that in an attempt at appeasement, a seventh minaret was added to the mosque in Mecca, proving its primacy over any imperial mosque in Istanbul or elsewhere. But evidence to support this claim is thin since some believe the seventh minaret already existed prior to the Blue Mosque’s construction while others cite a much later date for the seventh minaret’s addition.

The Interior

View of the quibla wall with the niche center, the minbar right, and the sultan’s platform far right, Blue Mosque; note the massive piers at the far left and right

The prayer hall itself is punctuated with several architectural features including the sultan’s platform and an arcaded gallery running along the interior walls except on the quibla wall facing Mecca. A carved marble niche set into the center of this wall guides the faithful to the correct direction for prayer. To its right is a tall and thin marble pulpit (mimbar) capped with an ornamental turret.

Tilework and Stained Glass

Upper sections of the mosque are painted in geometric bands and organic medallions of bright reds and blues, but much of this is not original. Rather, the careful choreography of more than 20,000 Iznik tiles rise from the mid-sections of the mosque and dazzle the visitor with their brilliant blue, green, and turquoise hues, and lend the mosque its popular sobriquet.

View of Iznik tiles

Traditional motifs on the tiles such as cypress trees, tulips, roses, and fruits evoke visions of a bountiful paradise. Sultan Ahmet requisitioned these specifically for the building. The lavish use of tile decoration on the interior was a first in Imperial Ottoman mosque architecture. The intensity of the tiles is accentuated by the play of natural light from more than 200 windows that pierce the drums of the central dome, each of the half-domes, and the side walls. These windows originally contained Venetian stained glass.


Stained glass windows, Blue Mosque (photo: Radha Dalal)

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is particularly remarkable in that it was conceived and built during a time of relative decline. In the past, grand mosques were constructed as markers of prosperity and political strength. Even though Ahmet I showed promise when he first assumed the throne, he is now seen as a weak and incompetent sultan. A few short years into his reign, he conceded autonomy to the Habsburg rulers and freed them from paying tribute. His inability to control and sustain a stable administration inaugurated an era of malaise and contributed to the reversal of Ottoman fortunes. In spite of these troubles, his legacy remains cemented in the breathtaking beauty of the Blue Mosque.

Introduction to the Court Carpets of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires

By Kendra Weisbin

Detail, Medallion Carpet, The Ardabil Carpet, Maqsud of Kashan, Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile, 1539-40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria & Albert, London)

Detail, Medallion Carpet, The Ardabil Carpet, Maqsud of Kashan, Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile, 1539-40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria & Albert, London)

Carpet Weaving in the Islamic World

Carpets are woven works of art that were produced at every level of society in the Islamic world. Women have been weaving for centuries in villages and nomadic encampments all over the Middle East, Anatolia, and Central Asia, each woman passing down her techniques and designs to her daughters. These women created carpets both for sale and for their own personal use, and this tradition continues today.

Carpet (Ottoman) with cintamani motif, c. 1550, Cairo, Egypt, wool, 79 x 48″ (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Carpets were also made in the royal courts of the Islamic world. These carpets were not just functional floor coverings, they were ornate works of art that indicated the status and wealth of their owners. Court carpets were used on the floors in reception halls, audience chambers, and at court-supported religious institutions. They were also presented as impressive gifts to other rulers. Manuscript paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries suggest smaller rugs were often layered on top of larger carpets and also show that many carpets were used in outdoor pleasure pavilions and palatial parks.

Rulers had access to expensive materials, such as silk and metal-wrapped threads, and employed the most highly skilled designers and weavers in their empires to create enormous and luxurious carpets. Because of their quality, design, and skilled execution, court carpets are among the finest examples of art from the Islamic world. Court carpets are often very different from the carpets made in commercial workshops or villages. Rather than solely utilizing centuries-old traditional motifs, court carpets often share designs found on a range of media, such as bookbinding and manuscript painting.


Cintamani motif detail (left) and border detail (right)

Although carpets were made in many royal courts, the Ottoman (1281–1924), the Safavid (1501–1732), and the Mughal (1526–1858) Empires provide some of the richest examples of royally produced carpets.

Ottoman Court Carpets

Prayer Carpet (Ottoman), 1575-90, likely Istanbul, silk (warp and weft), wool (pile), cotton (pile), 68 x 50″ (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Ottoman Empire originated in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and was one of the largest and longest lived in the Islamic world. It controlled territories that reached from North Africa to Eastern Europe from 1299 until 1923. Anatolia has a long tradition of carpet weaving, but from the 16th century onward Ottoman court carpets utilized a set of specific designs created by the artists of the Ottoman court workshops, designs that were also used on the court ceramics, paintings, bookbindings, and textiles.

Among the most popular of these was the “saz style,” which is characterized by long sinuous leaves, and stylized flowers (see below). Court artists also developed the “floral style,” where we see more naturalistic depictions of flowers such as tulips, roses, carnations, and hyacinths, among others. The floral and saz styles were sometimes used alone and sometimes used together, along with other motifs like the cintamani pattern (usually a combination of pearl-like circles accompanied by wavy lines sometimes called “tiger stripes”), on a huge variety of objects designed by the court, including ceramics, silks, carpets, and manuscripts.


[LEFT]: Border detail (note the long curving saz style leaves, a pair of white tulips facing downward, and branches of small white hyacinth blossoms
[RIGHT]: Floral style detail showing carnations and tulips

Both the saz and floral styles appear on this rare Ottoman court prayer rug. The jagged-edged saz leaves gracefully undulate in the border amongst carnations, tulips, and other flowers. The arch at the center of the carpet identifies this as a prayer rug, and symbolizes both amihrab (from mosque architecture) and a gateway to paradise. Such rugs were, and are, used by Muslims during the five daily prayers prescribed in Islam. Though one can go to mosque during the prayer times, prayer can take place anywhere so long as there is a clean surface (provided by the rug) and water for ritual cleansing. A luxurious prayer rug like this would have belonged to a very wealthy court patron.

The design of this remarkable carpet, the prototype for later designs, may be based on the slender-columned architecture of Muslim Spain. When Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many exiles settled in the Ottoman Empire, bringing with them their own visual culture, which, in turn, influenced Ottoman art. This dual-columned design spawned an entire genre of architecturally-inspired prayer rugs across Anatolia.

Ottoman miniature showing a Safavid dignitary before Ottoman sultan, Sultan Murad III, n.d. (Topkapi Museum, photo: Walter Denny)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Ottoman court carpets is their unusual structure. Unlike all other Turkish carpets, Ottoman court carpets use S-spun wool, which is typical only of carpets woven in Egypt. Scholars attribute this unusual feature to the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, after which the Ottoman court commissioned carpets from Egyptian workshops and had Egyptian weavers and Egyptian wool sent to Turkey for their own use.

Contemporaneous manuscript illustrations shed light on how carpets were used at the court. Though we must remember that paintings are not photographs, and that artists may have invented much in their scenes, paintings like this can nevertheless tell us about the status of carpets in the court. In this painting, ordered by Sultan Murad III, a Safavid dignitary is presented to the Ottoman sultan against the backdrop of a magnificent red and blue Ushak medallion carpet. The painting shows how carpets were used as decorative and symbolic backdrops to Ottoman court rituals. Not only does the carpet provide a sumptuous setting for the ceremony, it also sends a message to the Safavids (political rivals of the Ottomans) about the wealth of the Ottoman court. We can imagine how such a carpet was used to demonstrate to visitors the power, culture, and artistic accomplishments of the Ottomans.

Safavid Court Carpets

The Safavids ruled Greater Iran from the early 16th to the 18th century and were avid patrons of the arts. Safavid court carpets are noted for their detailed precision, sumptuous materials, and ornate designs.

Carpet (Safavid), 16th century, Iran, probably Kashan (depicts animals, some invented and of Chinese origin), silk, 94-7/8 x 70″ (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Carpets intended for religious settings, like the Ardabil carpet, display non-figural decoration such as scrolling vines, flower motifs, calligraphy, and shamsas (sunbursts). Carpets made for secular settings, like the court’s palaces and pleasure pavilions, display a wider range of motifs, encompassing the designs found on carpets like the Ardabil, but also sometimes including animals, hunting scenes, human figures, and even angels.

The carpet left is a remarkable example of a secular Safavid court carpet. It was woven entirely of silk, and its bright field is filled with animals—some real, like lions and rams, and others entirely fantastical. The animals, some of which are engaged in intense combat, are set amoungst a lush backdrop of stylized flowers and trees. The popularity of animal and hunting scenes was well established in Iran; hunting was considered a princely pastime in Iran even before the advent of Islam, and continued as a widely used subject in Safavid art.


[LEFT]: Detail of animals fighting
[RIGHT]: Detail, Safavid court carpet with animals and hunting scenes (Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris)

Large scale carpets were produced by court workshops, often with similar subjects and motifs. The fragment left displays the type of central medallion seen in the Ardabil carpet, but its field and borders are filled with birds, roaming animals, and naturalistic landscape elements. Carpets like this fragment are appropriately called “paradise carpets,” reflecting their lush designs and fantastical subjects.

“Zal Expounds the Mysteries of the Magi,” Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp Abu’l Qasim Firdausi, attributed to Qadimi, c. 1525, Tabriz, Iran, opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper, 18-1/2 x 12-9/16″ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As with Ottoman paintings, Safavid manuscript illustrations provide insight into the use of carpets at court. In this illustration from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, a ruler is depicted seated atop a small but luxurious carpet in an outdoor pleasure pavilion. Court carpets would be used for outdoor gatherings like this, as well as within the palaces of the Safavid shahs.

Mughal Court Carpets

Carpet with bird couples in a landscape, Lahore, c. 1600, cotton, wool, 233 x 158 cm (The Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna)

The Mughals controlled much of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1858, ruling a largely Hindu population with cultural traditions foreign to their own.

It is likely India had no indigenous carpet weaving tradition prior to the arrival of Muslim conquerors. The Mughals, who traced their lineage to the Mongol dynasties in Iran and Central Asia, soon established weaving workshops at their courts.

The early Mughals employed Persian artisans, and for this reason early Mughal carpets utilize largely Persian designs. Eventually, a uniquely Mughal visual repertoire emerged in the court carpets, as well as in miniature painting and other arts.

This pictorial carpet depicts a variety of bird species in a botanically lush and naturalistic setting. The scene has direct parallels in manuscript illustration, such as the margin illumination from the album page shown above. Detailed depictions of plants and animals appear widely in Mughal art, reflecting the Mughal emperors’ interest in the natural world.

Border detail, Shah Jahan Album, c. 1620, India Ink, watercolor, and gold on paper, Mughal, period of Jahangir (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Other Mughal carpets favor an all-over flower and lattice pattern as well as other floral designs. Botanically naturalistic floral designs can be found on a wide range of media from the Mughal court, peaking in popularity during the reign of the Shah Jahan who is best known as the patron of the Taj Mahal mausoleum which incorporates similar floral designs into its architectural decoration.

The Ardabil Carpet

By Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis

Medallion Carpet, The Ardabil Carpet, Unknown artist (Maqsud Kashani is named on the carpet’s inscription), Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per sq. inch), 1539-40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Old, Beautiful, and Important

The Ardabil Carpet at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ardabil Carpet is exceptional; it is one of the world’s oldest Islamic carpets, as well as one of the largest, most beautiful and historically important. It is not only stunning in its own right, but it is bound up with the history of one of the great political dynasties of Iran.

About Carpets

Medallion Carpet, The Ardabil Carpet, Unknown artist (Maqsud Kashani is named on the carpet’s inscription), Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per sq. inch), 1539-40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Carpets are among the most fundamental of Islamic arts. Portable, typically made of silk and wools, carpets were traded and sold across the Islamic lands and beyond its boundaries to Europe and China. Those from Iran were highly prized. Carpets decorated the floors of mosques, shrines and homes, but they could also be hung on walls of houses to preserve warmth in the winter.

Ardabil and a 14th-Century Saint

The carpet takes its name from the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran. Ardabil was the home to the shrine of the Sufi saint, Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334 (Sufism is Islamic mysticism). He was a Sufi leader who trained his followers in Islamic mystic practices. After his death, his following grew and his descendants became increasingly powerful. In 1501 one of his descendants, Shah Isma’il, seized power, united Iran, and established Shi’a Islam as the official religion. The dynasty he founded is known as the Safavids. Their rule, which lasted until 1722, was one of the most important periods for Islamic art, especially for textiles and for manuscripts.

Made for a Shrine

Plan of the shrine at Ardabil, showing where the carpets were situated (permission, Victoria and Albert Museum)

This carpet was one of a matching pair that was made for the shrine of Safi al-Din Ardabili when it was enlarged in the late 1530s. Today the Ardabil carpet dominates the main Islamic Art Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, while its twin is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The carpets were located side by side in the shrine.

Ardabil carpet detail

The pile of the carpet is made from wool, rather than silk because it holds dye better. The knot-count of a carpet still directly impacts the value of carpets today; the more knots per square centimeter, the more detailed and elaborate the patterns can be. The dyes used to color the carpet are natural and include pomegranate rind and indigo. Up to ten weavers could have worked on the carpet at any given time. The Ardabil carpet has 340 knots per square inch (5300 knots per ten centimeters square). Today, a commercial rug averages 80-160 knots per square inch, meaning that the Ardabil carpet was highly detailed. Its high knot count allowed for the inclusion of an intricate design and pattern. It is not known whether the carpet was produced in a royal workshop, but there is evidence for court workshop in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Design and Pattern

The rich geometric patterns, vegetative scrolls, floral flourishes, so typical of Islamic art, reach a fever pitch in this remarkable carpet, encouraging the viewer to walk around and around, trying to absorb every detail of design.

Ardabil carpet detail

That the design of the carpet was not arbitrary or piecemeal, but was well-organized and thoughtful can be seen throughout. Considering the immense size of the carpet—10.51m x 5.34m (34′ 6″ x 17′ 6″)—this is impressive. A central golden medallion dominates the carpet; it is surrounded by a ring of multi-colored, detailed ovals. Lamps appear to hang at either end.

The carpet’s border is made up of a frame with a series of cartouches (rectangular-shaped spaces for calligraphy), filled with decoration. The central medallion design is also echoed by the four corner-pieces.

Detail of lamp, Ardabil Carpet

Art historians have debated the meaning of the two lamps that appear to hang from the medallion. They are of different sizes and some scholars have proposed that this was done to create a perspective effect, meaning that both lamps appear to be the same size when one sat next to the smaller lamp. Yet, there is no evidence for the use of this type of perspective in Iran in the 1530s, nor does this explain why the lamps were included. Perhaps they were included to mimic lamps found in mosques and shrines, helping the viewer to look deeply into the carpet below them and then above them, to the ceiling where similar lamps would have hung, creating visual unity within the shrine.

An Inscription

Ardabil carpet detail

The Ardabil Carpet includes a four-line inscription placed at one end. This short poem is vital for understanding who commissioned the carpet and the date of the carpet.

The first three lines of poetry reads:

Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world.
Except for this door there is no resting-place for my head.
The work of the slave of the portal, Maqsud Kashani.

Maqsud was probably the court official charged with producing the carpets. By referring to himself as a slave, he may be presenting himself as a humble servant. The Persian word for a door can be used to denote a shrine or royal court, so this inscription may imply that the royal court patronized the shrine. The carpets would have probably taken four years to make.

The fourth line of the inscription is also important. It provides the date of the carpet, AH 946. The Muslim calendar begins in the year 620 CE when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina; this year is known as the year of the Hijra or flight (in Latin anno hegirae). AH 946 is equivalent to 1539/40 CE (the lunar Muslim calendar does not exactly match the Gregorian Calendar, used in the west).

The design of the Ardabil carpet and its skillful execution is a testament to the great skill of the artisans at work in north-west Iran in the 1530s.

How the Carpet Came to the V&A

Many great treasures from around the world have legally made their way into the collections of western museums. Many objects were legally purchased by collectors and museums in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, many works of art are still illegally exported and sold. British visitors to the shrine in 1843, noted that at least one carpet was still in situ. Approximately thirty years or so later, an earthquake damaged the shrine, and the carpets were sold off.

Ziegler & Co., a Manchester firm involved in the carpet trade purchased the damaged carpets in Iran and “restored” them in fashion typical of the late nineteenth century. Selections of one carpet were used to repair the other, resulting in a “complete” carpet and one lacking a border. Vincent Robinson and Co, a dealer based in London, put the larger carpet up for sale in 1892 and persuaded the V&A to purchase it for £2000 in March 1893.

The second carpet was secretly sold to an American collector, J.P. Getty, who donated it to the LA County Museum of Art in 1953. Unlike the carpet in the V&A, the carpet in LACMA is incomplete. Throughout the twentieth century, other pieces of the carpets have appeared on the art market for sale.

The Court of Gayumars

By Dr. Nancy Demerdash
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
Wells College

Whole page left, and detail, right: Sultan Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c.1522, 47 x 32 cm, opaque watercolor, ink, gold, silver on paper, folio 20v, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I (Safavid), Tabriz, Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto)

The Shahnama

This sumptuous page, The Court of Gayumars (also spelled Kayumars— see top of page, details below), comes from an illuminated manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings)—an epic poem describing the history of kingship in Persia (what is now Iran). Because of its blending of painting styles from both Tabriz and Herat (see map below), its luminous pigments, fine detail, and complex imagery, this copy of the Shahnama stands out in the history of the artistic production in Central Asia.

The Shahnama was written by Abu al-Qāsim Ferdowsi around the year 1000 and is a masterful example of Persian poetry. The epic chronicles kings and heroes who pre-date the introduction of Islam to Persia as well as the human experiences of love, suffering, and death. The epic has been copied countless times—often with elaborate illustrations.

Safavid Patronage

The Imam Mosque (formerly Masjed-e Shah) was built for a later Safavid ruler during the 17th century, Isfahan, Iran. photo: Ladsgroup, GNU Free Documentation License

Depicting Figures

It is often assumed that images that include human and animal figures, as seen in the detail below, are forbidden in Islam. Recent scholarship, however, highlights that throughout the history of Islam, there have been periods in which iconoclastic tendencies waxed and waned.1 That is to say, at specific moments and places, the representation of human or animal figures was tolerated to varying degrees.

Detail, Sultan Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1522, 47 x 32 cm, opaque watercolor, ink, gold, silver on paper, folio 20v, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I (Safavid), Tabriz, Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto)

There is a long figural tradition in Persia—even after the introduction of Islam—that is perhaps most evident in book illustration. It is also important to note that, unlike the neighboring Ottoman Empire to the west who were Sunni and in some ways more orthodox, the Safavids subscribed to the Shi’i sect of Islam.

Two Centers of Culture

Nasta’liq (detail), Sultan Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1522, 47 x 32 cm, opaque watercolor, ink, gold, silver on paper, folio 20v, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I (Safavid), Tabriz, Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto)

Although it is widely recognized that the conventions of what is sometimes termed “classical”2 Persianate painting had become established by the fourteenth century, it is in the reign of Shah Tahmasp I that we see the most dramatic advancements in illumination and the arts of the book more generally.3 His patronage of this specific art form is in part due to his own painting studies in Herat (in the western region of present-day Afghanistan) and Tabriz (in the northwestern region of present-day Iran), under Bihzad and Sultan Muhammad, respectively.4 Both cities were major centers for the production of manuscript illuminations. While the entire manuscript of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I consists of approximately 759 illustrated folios and 258 miniatures all produced over the span of several years,5 this particular miniature is attributed to the workshop of Sultan Muhammad, according to Dust Muhammad, an artist and historian from this period.6 In 1568, this lavish Shahnameh was given as a gift by Shah Tahmasp I to the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II.7

King of the World

King Gayumars (detail), Sultan Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1522, 47 x 32 cm, opaque watercolor, ink, gold, silver on paper, folio 20v, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I (Safavid), Tabriz, Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto).

There are several interpretive issues to keep in mind when analyzing Persianate paintings. As with many of the workshops of early modern West Asia, producing a page such as the Court of Gayumars often entailed the contributions of many artists. It is also important to remember that a miniature painting from an illuminated manuscript should not be thought of in isolation. The individual pages that we today find in museums, libraries, and private collections must be understood as but one sheet of a larger book—with its own history, conditions of production, and dispersement. To make matters even more complex, the relationship of text to image is rarely straightforward in Persianate manuscripts. Text and image, within these illuminations, do not always mirror each other.8 Nevertheless, the framed calligraphic nasta’liq (hanging)—the Persian text at the top and bottom of the frame (image above) can be roughly translated as follows:

When the sun reached the lamb constellation,9 when the world became glorious,
When the sun shined from the lamb constellation to rejuvenate the living beings entirely,
It was then when Gayumars became the King of the World.
He first built his residence in the mountains.
His prosperity and his palace rose from the mountains, and he and his people wore leopard pelts.
Cultivation began from him, and the garments and food were ample and fresh.10

Dense with Detail

In this folio (page), we can see some parallels between the content of the calligraphic text and the painting itself. Seated in a cross-legged position, as if levitating within this richly vegetal and mountainous landscape, King Gayumars rises above his courtiers, who are gathered around at the base of the painting. According to legend, King Gayumars was the first king of Persia, and he ruled at a time when people clothed themselves exclusively in leopard pelts, as both the text and the represented subjects’ speckled garments indicate.

King Gayumars, Siyamak, and Hushang (detail), Sultan Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1522, 47 x 32 cm, opaque watercolor, ink, gold, silver on paper, folio 20v, Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I (Safavid), Tabriz, Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto)

Perched on cliffs beside the King are his son, Siyamak (left, standing), and grandson Hushang (right, seated).11 Onlookers can be seen to surreptitiously peer out from the scraggly, blossoming branches onto King Gayumars from the upper left and right. The miniature’s spatial composition is organized on a vertical axis with the mountain behind the king in the distance, and the garden below in the foreground. Nevertheless, there are multiple points of perspective, and perhaps even multiple moments in time—rendering a scene dense with details meant to absorb and enchant the viewer.

Sutra Box with Dragons amid Clouds, c. 1403-24 (Yongle period, Ming dynasty), 14 x 12.7 x 40.6 cm, red lacquer with incised decoration inlaid with gold; damascened brass lock and key (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One might see stylistic similarities between the swirling blue-gray clouds floating overhead with pictorial representations in Chinese art (image above); this is no coincidence. Persianate artists under the Safavids regularly incorporated visual motifs and techniques derived from Chinese sources.12 While the intense pigments of the rocky terrain seem to fade into the lush and verdant animal-laden garden below, a gold sky canopies the scene from above. This piece—in all its density color, detail, and sheer exuberance—is a testament to the longstanding cultural reverence for Ferdowsi’s epic tale and the unparalleled craftsmanship of both Sultan Muhammad and Shah Tahmasp’s workshops.


1. See Christiane Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nūr): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting,” Muqarnas 16 (2009), pp. 229-260; Finbarr B. Flood, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin 84, 4 (December 2002), pp. 641-659; Christiane Gruber, “The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet,” Newsweek (January 9, 2015).

2. For a helpful analysis of the historiographic ascription of the term ‘classical’ to Persian painting and the cultural hierarchy that was established largely by scholar-collectors in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, see Christiane Gruber, “Questioning the ‘Classical’ in Persian Painting: Models and Problems of Definition,” in the Journal of Art Historiography 6 (June 2012), pp. 1-25.

3. David J. Roxburgh, “Micrographia: Toward a Visual Logic of Persianate Painting,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 43 (Spring 2003), pp. 12-30.

4. Sheila Canby affirms Stuart Cary Welch’s estimate that it took Sultan Muhammad and his workshop three years to complete the Court of Gayumars illustration. Sheila Canby, The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501-1722 (New York: Abrams, 2000), p. 51.

5. David J. Roxburgh, “On the Brink of Tragedy: The Court of Gayumars from Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’), Sultan Muhammad,” in Christopher Dell, ed., What Makes a Masterpiece: Artists, Writers and Curators on the World’s Greatest Works of Art (London; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010), pp. 182-185; 182. The text was subsequently possessed by Baron Edmund de Rothschild and then sold to Arthur A. Houghton Jr, who in turn sold pages of the book individually.

6. Roxburgh, “Micrographia: Toward a Visual Logic of Persianate Painting,” p. 19. “In the Persianate painting, however, image follows after word in a linear sequence; the text introduces and follows after the image, but it is not actually read when the image is being viewed…In the Persian book the act of seeing is initiated by a process of remembering the narrative just told. Moreover, that text does not prepare the viewer for what will be seen in the painting.”

7. This expression denotes the beginning of spring.

8. I am grateful to Dr. Alireza Fatemi for generously providing this translation.

9. Roxburgh, “On the Brink of Tragedy,” p. 182.

Illustration from the Akbarnama

By Katrina Klaasmeyer
Professor of Art History
California State University, Northridge


“Emperor Akbar on an elephant hunt,” Basawan and Chetar, illustrations from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, each page 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

In these small, brilliantly-colored paintings from the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar), a rampaging elephant crashes over a bridge of boats on the River Jumna, in front of the Agra Fort. He is so out of control that his tusks, trunk, and front leg burst through the edge of the frame (see image below). Several nearby men scramble to get out of the way, clinging to the edges of their boats or leaping into the water for safety. The accompanying right page shows a swirling mass of onlookers, each expressing distress and astonishment at the event unfolding before their eyes.

“Ran Bagha crossing the River Jumna” (detail), Basawan and Chetar, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The scene is a royal elephant hunt where the Mughal emperor, Akbar, has mounted Hawa’i—an elephant known for its wild and uncontrollable disposition—to fight the equally fierce elephant Ran Bagha, who leads them on a wild chase across the river. The most prominent onlooker is the Prime Minister Ataga Khan, who holds his hands in prayer for a peaceful resolution to this chaotic scene. In the midst of the turmoil, we see Emperor Akbar, upright and unfazed, riding barefoot on the royal elephant—the very embodiment of majestic strength, courage, and faith in divine protection (below). These illustrations encapsulate, both symbolically and literally, the significant achievements of this remarkable man as told in the Akbarnama, the book he commissioned as the official chronicle of his reign.

Basawan and Chetar, “Akbar” (detail) from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Akbar the Great

Abū al-Fatḥ Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Akbar was the third emperor of a new dynasty, the Mughals, a Muslim empire established in India in the early sixteenth century by Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan. (The name itself, Mughal, attests to this legacy, as it is the Persian and Arabic word for “Mongol”). Upon Babur’s death in 1530, the new empire was left to his 22-year-old son, Humayun, who quickly lost control of the majority of his domain as sultans fought to regain their land. In 1543 Humayun was forced to flee India and leave his young son Akbar in the care of his family at Kandahar.

Emperor Humayun, 18th century, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor on paper, 18.3 x 11.1 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

These events could have led to the end of both the fledgling empire and their lives, yet circumstances took a turn that had a profound impact on the destiny of the Mughals, and in particular that of Akbar. The Safavid Shah Tahmasp I welcomed Humayun to his court in Persia (present-day Iran), not as a fugitive, but as an equal, granting him protection and military support. Immersed for two years in the refinement and splendor of the arts and culture there, Humayun was exposed to an opulence and sophistication unlike anything he had ever seen in his father’s military encampments. As a result of his stay in Iran, the original language of the Mughals was abandoned in favor of Persian, monumental architectural forms were adopted and refined, and an imperial workshop of painters in the Persian miniature style was founded. Reunited with his son in 1545, Humayun eventually regained control of India before dying suddenly in 1556. When Akbar inherited the Mughal territories at 13 years old, he was surrounded by rivals on all sides: there was no stable government, no art the empire could call its own, and not much hope for a future. However, within less than 50 years, Akbar created all of these things and succeeded in bringing together the diverse peoples and cultures of India to form an unprecedented, cooperative whole. Akbar was instrumental in the formation of a powerful empire that lasted over 200 years.

“Emperor Akbar chasing Ran Bagha across the River Jumna,” Basawan and Chetar, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Across many cultures and time periods, a ruler’s control over the natural world is a defining symbol of noble power, and Mughal India was no exception. Akbar’s regal authority, military prowess, and personal courage are visibly celebrated in this painting through his complete control of an elephant—an animal with a long history in Indian culture as the embodiment of majesty, power, and dignity. Yet this illustration shows us Akbar’s great triumphs in more than just the subject matter: the innovations in the work’s artistic style are also reflective of the acute intelligence, voracious curiosity, and enthusiastic artistic sponsorship for which Akbar is remembered.

Mughal Painting under Akbar the Great

Akbar was a champion of new styles in literature, architecture, music, and painting. Although he was illiterate, at the time of his death in 1605 the imperial library contained 24,000 volumes, and the number of painters in the imperial workshop had expanded greatly. Much like his political policies, which encouraged tolerance, Akbar’s court included artists from all regions of India, creating a melting pot of techniques and styles. As a result, Mughal painting under Akbar the Great is known for its unique blend of indigenous Indian, Persian, and Western traditions.

“King Siddhartha Listens to an Astrologer Forecast the Conception and Birth of His Son, the Jina Mahavira,” from a Kalpasutra manuscript, late 14th century, India, opaque watercolor on paper, 8.6 x 35.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This page from a Kalpasutra manuscript from the fourteenth century beautifully illustrates the basic qualities of the Indian tradition, with its use of bold primary colors and its horizontal format. The visual emphasis is on the text, which occupies roughly two-thirds of the page. Although the illustration (which shows King Siddhartha speaking to an astrologer who will foretell his son’s birth) takes up the smallest portion of the page, the size of the figure is very large in relation to the picture plane, with the king’s form filling up the space of the frame.

“The Concourse of the Birds,” from Habiballah of Sava, Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds), c. 1600, Iran, ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper, 25.4 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In contrast, the Persian tradition (above) preferred a vertical format, with greater emphasis on landscape and decorative elements. In “The Concourse of the Birds,” an illustration of a mystical poem made around 1600, the color palette is much more subdued, with a preference for pastel colors like pinks, soft blues, and soft greens. The figures in the painting are relatively small, completely embedded within a scene that is rendered with painstaking detail. The subject matter of this type of manuscript—typically poetry or the pleasures of courtly life—was meant to illustrate the elegance and refinement of the ruler. How could it be possible to blend two such disparate artistic traditions?

“Lovers in a Landscape,” Mir Kalan Khan, 1760-70, India, miniature pasted on an album leaf, 22.2 × 15.2 cm (The David Collection, Copenhagen)

To further complicate matters, Western missionaries made contact with Akbar in the late sixteenth century, bringing with them European artworks and religious texts illustrated with engravings. Akbar and his expansive atelier of painters were intrigued by the illusion of depth achieved through linear perspective, as well as by novel visual attributes such as halos on religious figures. Some scholars have characterized these Western artistic traditions as the ultimate goal to which Akbar and his painters aspired; however, many Islamic artists instead integrated this new visual vocabulary into their own rich traditions. In “Lovers in a Landscape” (above), a miniature made by Mir Kalan Khan in the eighteenth century, the two figures on the left are distinctly Persian in style, with three-quarter views of their faces, slender, swaying bodies, and densely patterned clothing. By contrast, the woman on the right is seen in profile, with hints of Western-style depth and volume such as the gentle folds of drapery. Through the balance of seemingly contradictory styles, the artist has created a scene with two levels of reality: it is as if the female musician on the right, reciting a traditional Persian love story, is singing the fictional couple into physical existence.

The Elephant Hunt: A Blend of Styles

“Ataga Khan and onlookers praying for a peaceful resolution” (detail), Basawan and Chetar, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The artists in Akbar’s atelier were equally proficient at blending elements from Indian, Persian, and Western traditions, while developing a distinct style of their own. In the illustration of the elephant hunt from the Akbarnama, they have retained the vertical format favored in Persian painting, as well as its traditionally intricate patterning of nature, seen in the rhythmic pulsing of the waves. In the right panel, the onlookers express fear and awe through the standardized Persian gesture of lightly pressing a finger to the lips. Yet many other figures are seen with their arms thrown overhead in distress, or with their bodies positioned off-balance, demonstrating the artists’ independence in choosing whether or not to utilize standard gestures.

The vibrant hues, on the other hand—especially the deep reds and yellows—call to mind the Indian tradition and its preference for saturated primary colors. The scale of the figures in relation to the picture plane is also much larger than in the Persian style, demonstrating a preference for the Indian tradition’s emphasis on the human form. Elements from Western artistic traditions are also present, most notably the indication of depth and distance achieved by rendering the boats and buildings as increasingly small as one looks to the top of the page.

Clearly, these artists enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom to experiment and develop new artistic amalgams under Akbar’s patronage. Akbar’s court historian, Abu’l Fazl, noted the intense personal interest taken by Akbar in his workshop, where he personally commissioned specific subjects and conducted regular viewings of new work each week. In the illustrations of the elephant hunt, we can see his preference for depictions of heroic personal feats. From the sharp diagonal placement of the elephants upon their precarious bridge of boats, to the depiction of the thrilling story at its climax, this scene is full of vigor, action and excitement.

Left: “Hunting a cheetah,” La’l and Kesav Khord, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 33 x 20 cm (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London); Right: “Prison Break,” illustration from a Hamza Nama manuscript, 1562-77, Imperial Mughal school (Brooklyn Museum)

Other examples of such themes abound in Mughal art, such as a hunting scene from the Akbarnama which shows the decisive moment the cheetah tears into its prey (above left), or the scene of a prison break from the Hamza Nama manuscript, with blood spurting from the necks of those recently beheaded (above right). Yet the elephant hunt illustration is also more than a dynamic illustration of a charismatic emperor. In it we can see the new, innovative style distinct to Akbar and his court, where the personality of the ruler and a cosmopolitan blend of styles resulted in art that was unmistakably Mughal.

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings

By Roshna Kapadia
Art Historian

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

Seizer of the World

Emperor on a pedestal (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

When Akbar, the third Emperor of the Mughal dynasty, had no living heir at age 28, he consulted with a Sufi (an Islamic mystic), Shaikh Salim, who assured him a son would come. Soon after, when a male child was born, he was named Salim. Upon his ascent to the throne in 1605, Prince Salim decided to give himself the honorific title of Nur ud-Din (“Light of Faith”) and the name Jahangir (“Seizer of the World”).

In this miniature painting, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, flames of gold radiate from the Emperor’s head against a background of a larger, darker gold disc. A slim crescent moon hugs most of the disc’s border, creating a harmonious fusion between the sun and the moon (thus, day and night), and symbolizing the ruler’s emperorship and divine truth.

Jahangir is shown seated on an elevated, stone-studded platform whose circular form mimics the disc above. The Emperor is the biggest of the five human figures painted, and the disc with his halo—a visual manifestation of his title of honor—is the largest object in this painting.

Jahangir Favors a Holy Man over Kings

Jahangir faces four bearded men of varying ethnicity, who stand in a receiving-line format on a blue carpet embellished with arabesque flower designs and fanciful beast motifs. Almost on par with the Emperor’s level stands the Sufi Shaikh, who accepts the gifted book, a hint of a smile brightening his face. By engaging directly only with the Shaikh, Jahangir is making a statement about his spiritual leanings. Inscriptions in the cartouches on the top and bottom margins of the folio reiterate the fact that the Emperor favors visitation with a holy man over an audience with kings.

From top to bottom, in order of importance, Ottoman Sultan, King James I of England, and the artist Bichitr (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

Below the Shaikh, and thus, second in the hierarchical order of importance, stands an Ottoman Sultan. The unidentified leader, dressed in gold-embroidered green clothing and a turban tied in a style that distinguishes him as a foreigner, looks in the direction of the throne, his hands joined in respectful supplication.

The third standing figure awaiting a reception with the Emperor has been identified as King James I of England. By his European attire—plumed hat worn at a tilt; pink cloak; fitted shirt with lace ruff; and elaborate jewelry—he appears distinctive. His uniquely frontal posture and direct gaze also make him appear indecorous and perhaps even uneasy.

Last in line is Bichitr, the artist responsible for this miniature, shown wearing an understated yellow jama (robe) tied on his left, which indicates that he is a Hindu in service at the Mughal court—a reminder that artists who created Islamic art were not always Muslim.

Shaikh’s bare hands and the bejeweled hands of Jahangir (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

This miniature folio was once a part of a muraqqa’, or album, which would typically have had alternating folios containing calligraphic text and painting. In all, six such albums are attributed to the rule of Jahangir and his heir, Shah Jahan. But the folios, which vary greatly in subject matter, have now been widely dispersed over collections across three continents.

During Mughal rule artists were singled out for their special talents—some for their detailed work in botanical paintings; others for naturalistic treatment of fauna; while some artists were lauded for their calligraphic skills. In recent scholarship, Bichitr’s reputation is strong in formal portraiture, and within this category, his superior rendering of hands.

Jahangir and the Shaikh

Clear to the observer is the stark contrast between Jahangir’s gem-studded wrist bracelets and finger rings and the Shaikh’s bare hands, the distinction between rich and poor, and the pursuit of material and spiritual endeavors. Less clear is the implied deference to the Emperor by the elderly Shaikh’s decision to accept the imperial gift not directly in his hands, but in his shawl (thereby avoiding physical contact with a royal personage, a cultural taboo). A similar principle is at work in the action of the Sultan who presses his palms together in a respectful gesture. By agreeing to adopt the manner of greeting of the foreign country in which he is a guest, the Ottoman leader exhibits both respect and humility.

King James

King James I of England (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

King James’ depiction is slightly more complex: Bichitr based his image of the English monarch on a portrait by John de Crtiz, which is believed to have been given to Jahangir by Sir Thomas Roe, the first English Ambassador to the Mughal court (this was a way to cement diplomatic relations and gifted items went both ways, east and west). In Bichitr’s miniature, only one of King James’s hands can be seen, and it is worth noting that it has been positioned close to—but not touching—the hilt of his weapon. Typically, at this time, portraits of European Kings depicted one hand of the monarch resting on his hip, and the other on his sword. Thus, we can speculate that Bichitr deliberately altered the positioning of the king’s hand to avoid an interpretation of a threat to his Emperor.

A Self-Portrait

Angel’s at Jahangir’s pedestal (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

Finally, the artist paints himself holding a red-bordered miniature painting as though it were a prized treasure. In this tiny painting-within-a-painting, Bichitr replicates his yellow jama (a man’s robe)—perhaps to clarify his identity—and places himself alongside two horses and an elephant, which may have been imperial gifts. He shows himself bowing in the direction of his Emperor in humble gratitude. To underscore his humility, Bichitr puts his signature on the stool over which the Emperor’s feet would have to step in order to take his seat.

Putti and Other (More Mysterious) Figures

Crying putto (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

Beneath Jahangir’s seat, crouching angels write (in Persian), “O Shah, May the Span of Your Life be a Thousand Years,” at the base of a mighty hourglass that makes up the pedestal of Jahangir’s throne. This reading is a clear allusion to the passage of time, but the putti figures (borrowed from European iconography) suspended in mid-air toward the top of the painting provide few clues as to their purpose or meaning.

Facing away from the Emperor, the putto on the left holds a bow with a broken string and a bent arrow, while the one on the right covers his face with his hands. Does he shield his eyes from the Emperor’s radiance, as some scholars believe? Or as others suggest, is he crying because time is running out for the Emperor (as represented in the slipping sand in the hourglass)?

Kneeling figure at base of footstool (detail), Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 18 x 25.3 cm (Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art)

Also cryptic is the many-headed kneeling figure that forms the base of Jahangir’s footstool. Questions remain as to who these auxiliary figures are and what they or their actions represent.

Allegorical portraits were a popular painting genre among Jahangir’s court painters from 1615. To flatter their Emperor, Jahangir’s artists portrayed him in imagined victories over rivals and enemies or painted events reflecting imperial desire. Regardless of whether Jahangir actually met the Shaikh or was visited by a real Ottoman Sultan (King James I certainly did not visit the Mughal court), Bichitr has dutifully indulged his patron’s desire to be seen as powerful ruler (in a position of superiority to other kings), but with a spiritual bent. While doing so, the artist has also cleverly taken the opportunity to immortalize himself.

Spherical Hanging Ornament (Iznik)

By Vanessa Troiano
Professor of Art History
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Süleymaniye Mosque (Ottoman), 1558, Istanbul (composite photograph)

Imagine yourself in the vast prayer hall of an Ottoman mosque during the height of its empire in the 16th century. As you bask in the splendor of the sacred space, you notice that suspended above your head are hundreds of glowing oil lamps, and attached to these lamps are lavishly decorated spherical ornaments. What do you make of these ornaments? Do they have a particular meaning or function? What can be discerned from their shape and painted decorations?

Caveat Videtor (Viewer Beware!)


[LEFT]: Spherical Hanging Ornament (upside down), Iznik, Turkey (Ottoman), c. 1575-85 (Brooklyn Museum)
[RIGHT]: View of lower half, Spherical Hanging Ornament, Iznik, Turkey (Ottoman), c. 1575-85 (Brooklyn Museum)

Photographs can be deceiving, a warning you should heed especially when looking at images of the Spherical Hanging Ornament in the Brooklyn Museum. Can you guess how big it is? Or how much it weighs, or what kind of material it is made of? If you stood in front of the object you would realize that it is as large as a basketball, and if you could lift it up, it would weigh about the same. Composed of fritware (a clay-based medium made of quartz), this sphere is extremely fragile, and hence quite precious, since only four others like it exist in the world today.

Detail of right side up, Spherical Hanging Ornament, Iznik, Turkey (Ottoman), c. 1575-85 (Brooklyn Museum)

The sphere is actually displayed upside-down on the museum pedestal, stabilized by a support in an opening at its top, so that its decorated bottom-half faces upward for easy viewing. The design consists of a whimsical garden scene with five pairs of lively red tulips. The tulips alternate with elaborate palmettes comprised of symmetrical floral motifs, including green lily pads that sprout white lotus flowers. The stems of the tulips originate from the base of the lamp, the center of which holds a metal fixture that fills a small hole. The sphere’s red pigment is slightly raised, lending a subtle texture to the ornament, which is also coated in a transparent glaze, giving it an all-over shine.

A Brief History of Ottoman Ceramics

Left: Scrolling lotus flask, Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen, China, 1426-1435; Right: Mosque Lamp, c. 1510, fritware, Iznik, Turkey; both: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ottoman pottery made in nakkashanes (imperial workshops) was strongly influenced by Chinese porcelain, especially floral Ming porcelain. Comprised of petuntse, a rare mineral found mostly in China, porcelain is white and hard—like glass.

Twelfth-century Persian ceramicists attempted to imitate porcelain, but since they only had access to quartz, they developed fritware instead, which is hard like porcelain, but lacks its glassy quality. By the sixteenth century, most Ottoman pottery centers, such as Iznik, used fritware. Early Iznik frtiware resembles blue and white Chinese porcelain, especially with its designs of intertwining vines and hatayi blossoms. The term hatayi in Turkish translates to Cathay, which references the Chinese origins of the flowers’ style.

Mosque Lamp made for the renovation of the Dome of the Rock, 1549, polychrome glazed pottery, Iznik, Turkey, 38 cm high © The Trustees of the British Museum

As the Ottoman Empire expanded, the demand for ceramics increased, prompting the development of a more efficient under-glazing technique. Similar to porcelain decoration, underglazing fritware involves painting designs onto a post-fired white-slipped vessel, upon which a transparent glaze made out of a lead flux is then applied. When fired, the vessel acquires a glossy complexion. This technique flourished during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, who undertook a series of large building projects.

By 1550, Ottoman ceramicists developed a turquoise pigment and a chrome-based black color, that was used to draw thin lines, as can be seen in a mosque lamp made for the renovation of the Dome of the Rock (left). This lamp has been linked to a spherical hanging ornament in the Benaki Museum, indicating that the Brooklyn Museum’s Spherical Hanging Ornament likely hung in a sacred space too.

Within the next decade, a thick, red, iron-rich glaze and an emerald green color made from copper were invented. Such advances allowed artists to create extravagant decorations that were more eye-catching, like those on the Brooklyn sphere.

Tile with “Saz” leaf design, c. 1545-55, Iznik, Turkey, stone paste, polychrome painted under transparent glaze, 30.2 cm high (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Around 1540 Ottoman artists broke away from Chinese models, led by court artist Shah Qulu, who created a turbulent world of agitated, serrated, featherlike leaves known as the Saz style (left). His most talented pupil, Kara Memi, later developed a more naturalistic representation of flora, creating virtual spring gardens known as the Quatre fluers style, as four types of flowers (tulips, carnations, hyacinths, roses) generally, although not always, appear in these designs. Quatre fluers became the hallmark of Ottoman art, and it is this style that is seen in the Spherical Hanging Ornament.

Unfortunately, by 1600, ceramic production suffered from a generalized decline in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, it seems likely that the Spherical Hanging Ornament was produced between 1570 and 1600.

The Purpose of a Spherical Hnaging Ornament

Aside from giving aesthetic pleasure, the function of the Spherical Hanging Ornament is ambiguous. Smaller ornamental spheres are known to have hung with ceramic mosque lamps. A ceramic mosque lamp is technically a misnomer, since its opaque body renders it useless as a light source, and so it would not have functioned as a lamp. It seems more likely then that ceramic spheres and lamps had primarily symbolic purposes.

Mosque Sphere, early 16th century, Iznik, Ottoman, gilt on fritware with underglaze blue decoration, 13 cm high (The Walters Art Museum)

Glass mosque lamps are often understood to represent God’s divine light, as the Koran makes such an analogy in its “Light Verse,” which is often inscribed on mosque lamps. The hadith (inscription) on the Walter’s Museum sphere (above) also quotes the prophet Muhammad, “The world is only one hour, so hasten to prayer before dying and hasten to repent before death,” implying that the sphere represents the orb of heaven, which might have been the purpose of the Brooklyn sphere as well. Within a religious setting, its sumptuous floral decorations would have alluded to the gardens of paradise.

Lamps, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (photo: _skynet, Flicker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Such imagery could also evoke fertility, and in Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim sanctuaries, similar, ableit oval and smaller, hanging ornaments are placed alongside lamps today. Some of these smaller ornaments, which are suspended on the same chains as the lamps, function to keep the chains organized, as without them, the chains could become entangled when servicing the lamps.


[LEFT]: Spherical Hanging Ornament with Inscriptions, first half of the 16th century, Ottoman, Iznik, Turkey (Victoria and Albert Museum)
[RIGHT]: Mosque Lamp from the Suleymaniye Complex, Istabul, Turkey, c. 1557, Ottoman, fritware, polychrome underglaze painted, glazed (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The four other large Ottoman spherical hanging ornaments, which can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, The British Museum and Benaki Museum, are similar to the Brooklyn Museum ornament in that they bear resemblances to the designs of some ceramic mosque lamps. However, it is not known whether such large ornaments were suspended directly above the lamps or alongside them. On the neck of a late 16th century Iznik mosque lamp (left) are four miniature versions of spherical ornaments, which further suggests a relationship between the spheres and mosque lamps. Present-day photographs of the Sulimaniye mosque (above) also show large, red ornaments hanging from the center of the mosque’s chandeliers, so perhaps the Brooklyn ornament was intended to do the same.

Iznik Ewer

By Ortal Bensky
Art Historian

Iznik ewer, 2nd half of the 16th century (Ottoman), fritware, painted in black, cobalt blue, green, red under transparent glaze, 17-7/8 x 15-1/2″ / 45.4 x 39.4 cm (photo: Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0)

Iznik ceramics give us a wonderful opportunity to glimpse into both the thriving Iznik ceramic industry and a 16th century Ottoman home. The ewer shown on the left is a type of jug that is shaped like a vase. It was a common utensil used daily for carrying water from the kitchen to the dining area, and for serving family and guests. This particular ewer was made in Iznik, the Ottoman center of ceramic production.

Iznik Ware

The town of Iznik was an important production center during the fifteenth, sixteenth and part of the seventeenth centuries that manufactured ceramics for both the court in the capital, Istanbul, and for the open market. The ewer was only one form of ceramic kitchenware that was produced in Iznik workshops. Other products included dishes, bowls, tankards, and bottles.

Similar Iznik ewer, last quarter of 16th century, fritware, underglaze-painted, 8 1/2 x 5 1/4″ / 21.59 x 13.34 cm (photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Due to the absence of petuntse (a variety of feldspar rock), used in Chinese porcelain, true porcelain did not come to the Middle East until the modern era. Nevertheless, twelfth-century Islamic potters in Persia were able to produce a  strong white clay that in many respects resembled Chinese porcelain. This mixture of potter’s clay, ground quartz, and glassy frit, is called fritware. This porcelain substitute, together with the under-glaze painting technique used to decorate the ceramics, was used for centuries. It is not only seen in surviving kitchenware, but also in beautiful tiles covering the interior and exterior of important Ottoman buildings.

Color, Iconography, Shape

Iznik ceramic production initially used blue-and-white decoration. However, by the second half of the sixteenth century, Iznik pottery saw was the gradual addition of new colors as pigments were developed. The Brooklyn ewer is painted in black, cobalt blue, green, and red under a transparent glaze.

Dragon-handled ewer with inscription, late 15th– first quarter 16th century (present-day Afghanistan, probably Herat), metal, 14.3 x 15.6 x 8.6″ (photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The ewer’s round body shape with the narrow neck and the round handle is similar to the shape of metal jugs from the Islamic world of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was also influenced by blue-and-white ceramic pot-bellied jugs produced by Chinese potters of the Ming period (1368-1644). This form became especially popular in Central and Western Asia after the Mongol conquests and under the Timurid and Safavid dynasties.

Tankard with a dragon-shaped handle, 1403-24, Ming Dynasty, blue-and-white porcelain, 14 cm high (photo: © Trustees of the British Museum)

Metalsmiths of this period often used bands to separate areas of their vessels—the base from the body and the body from the neck. Similarly, the potter that created the ewer above employed decorative patterns to give an effect of visual separation similar to the metal bands. The simplicity of these bands, as opposed to the more complex motifs found on the metal jug, is repeated in the decorative floral imagery found on the larger surfaces—the body and neck of the ceramic ewer. The patterns that form the “bands” are common in Iznik ewers from the second half of the sixteenth century (see image above, “Similar Iznik Ewer”).
The base is decorated with black hatched lines and at the neck there are leaves alternating blue and green. An additional band of black lines separate this surface from the neck of the vessel. A black spiral called “the snail” is repeated just below the mouth of the ewer.

Detail, Iznik ewer, 2nd half of the 16th century (Ottoman), fritware, painted in black, cobalt blue, green, red under transparent glaze, 17-7/8 x 15-1/2″ / 45.4 x 39.4 cm (photo: Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0)

The body is decorated in the saz style. This style was introduced to the Ottoman court by the sixteenth century Iranian painter, Shah Qulu, who moved to Istanbul at the beginning of the century. He and his followers created the saz style, a name that derives both from the Ottoman term for the marsh reed out of which the artists’ pens were crafted and from the enchanted forest of Turkic mythology. Another name for this style, hatayi, recognizes the Chinese origins of many of its elements, such as the lotus flower and the Chinese-style dragon. The saz style was adapted to many different media for the Ottoman court. Tiles with saz style drawings, for example, were used for the restorations to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace after 1574 (see “Tile” image). Note how the long, serrated, saz style leaf on this tile resembles the leaf on the ewer in both shape and color—blue with a narrow red line in the center.


[LEFT]: Saz leaf (detail), Iznik ewer, 2nd half of the 16th century (Ottoman), fritware, painted in black, cobalt blue, green, red under transparent glaze, 17-7/8 x 15-1/2 inches / 45.4 x 39.4 cm (photo: Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0)
[RIGHT]: Tile with floral and cloud-band design, c. 1578 (Ottoman, Iznik), stonepaste; polychrome painted under transparent glaze 24.9 x 25.1 x 1.7 cm (photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One of Shah Qulu’s pupils in the nakkashane (royal atelier), the Anatolian Kara Memi, developed another popular style seen on the ewer. Shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century, Kara Memi introduced a set of motifs that is a virtual garden of stylized flowers, but most emblematic are the long, elegant tulips. These flowers constitute one of the most distinctive and familiar aspects of Ottoman style art and we can identify them as well as leaves and additional garden flowers on the body and neck of the ewer.

Adopting the Aesthetics of the Aristocracy

The fading, bleeding colors on the vessel indicate that it was not made for the royal court though it was produced from fine materials and its drawing imitates the court style. It was most likely made for the merchant class, subjects of the empire who were not aristocracy but were not slaves. The owners of the ewer adopted the aesthetics of the aristocracy and purchased their own ceramics in a style similar to that found in the royal court.

The Ottomans themselves accepted the influence of various cultures in to their art. Their artistic strength comes from adaptation of influences such as Chinese and Iranian, together with local innovations to create what was eventually identified as an Ottoman style.

Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs

By Faris Al Ahmad
Lecturer, Arabic Language
Hunter College, CUNY

Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs, mid-16th century, copper alloy (brass), engraved with repoussé center, 3 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2″ / 9.5 x 21.6 x 21.6cm (The Brooklyn Museum)

Iranian metal bowls have a variety of shapes, decoration themes, and uses during the Safavid period (1501-1736). The Iranian Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs today in the Brooklyn Museum is decorated with unusual themes—a blend of religious, superstitious, and Persian historical motifs. The practice of fāl (divination, or seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) during the Safavid period was facilitated by the use of divine text but it was also influenced by ancient Greek astrology.

Ancient Symbols Made New

The exterior of the divination bowl is covered with both inscriptions and signs of the zodiac. Some of the zodiac signs are represented with traditional figures, but others are more unusual.

Leo the Lion (detail), Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs, mid-16th century, copper alloy (brass), engraved with repoussé center, 3 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2in. / 9.5 x 21.6 x 21.6cm (The Brooklyn Museum)

Leo for example is represented by a lion figure as one might expect, but here with the sun behind it, illustrated as a semi-oval human face in the background. This figure resembles the historical Persian symbol of Širo Xoršid, “the Lion and the Sun,” which eventually became an national emblem and represents, among other things, the ancient history of Persia.

The historical Persian symbol of Širo Xoršid

The Lion and the Sun symbol was represented on Iranian metalwork in earlier centuries. Scholars suggest that the reason for using this symbol on some Iranian metalwork is to illustrate the triumph of the light over darkness. One can also see the Širo Xoršid as a combination of this traditional Persian symbol and contemporary Shiite religious inclinations. In other words, the lion could be interpreted in relation to the Shiite tradition of representing Imam ‘Ali as a lion since he was historically called Assaduallah (The Lion of God) (Imam ‘Ali is believed by Shia to be Muhammad’s successor in the Caliphate).

Scholars have proposed that zodiac signs were used on Iranian metalwork as early as the second half of the twelfth century and became popular in Islamic art in the thirteenth century. However, some of the images developed by the Greek astronomers were transformed in the Islamic world, bringing them closer to Iranian Shiite culture and theology. For example, there is an association between the twelve zodiac figures and the twelve Shiite Imams. Shiite thought and culture also associates the number twelve with holiness—as there are twelve months of the year and twelve zodiac signs, there are twelve Imams.

Interior (detail), Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs, mid-16th century, copper alloy (brass), engraved with repoussé center, 3 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2in. / 9.5 x 21.6 x 21.6cm (The Brooklyn Museum)

Around the convex hemispherical boss in the bottom of the interior (above), there are three verses from the Qur’an. These are divided with circular panels that also include zodiac signs. These verses are from Surat An-NaS (Chapter 110) of the Qura’n, verses one, two, and three. These Qur’an verses are usually interpreted as God talking to Muhammad, promising him victory over his enemies, the people of Quraish. God is also promising Muhammad that he will conquer Mecca and the city’s disbelieving inhabitants will convert to Islam. The content and the revelatory occasion of these verses is a prophecy of victory and glory. Reciting these verses in a prayer or divination practice could be a channel to seeking victory, glory, and a happy life. We might assume that these are the reasons why these verses are inscribed on the bowl (if it was in fact used for divination).

The other two verses from the Qur’an inscribed on the bowl are inside the bottom ring on the exterior. These are verses 87 and 88 from Surat Al-Ànbyâ (Chapter 21). However, both of these verses are quoted only partially. The verses are often interpreted as the miraculous story of a believer, Yūnus (Jonah),  who was saved by God for his true faith. These verses were likely inscribed on the bowl because it was believed that they have supernatural power. It is still widely believed among Muslims (both Sunnis and Shiites), that reciting certain verses or making some du‘aā (prayer) will help guide you to the right path and help you seek God’s support.

Exterior (detail), Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs, mid-16th century, copper alloy (brass), engraved with repoussé center, 3-3/4 x 8-1/2 x 8 1/2″ / 9.5 x 21.6 x 21.6cm (The Brooklyn Museum)

Shiite divine text is also present on the bowl. For instance, the most visible inscription, on the neck of the bowl going all around under the rim, is a lavishly done Arabic inscription of the Shiite prayer for Muhammad and the twelve Shiite Imams. The prayer starts with Muhammad, then Imam ‘Ali and lists all other Imams accordingly.

Bottom, Divination Bowl with Inscriptions and Zodiac Signs, mid-16th century, copper alloy (brass), engraved with repoussé center, 3 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2″/ 9.5 x 21.6 x 21.6cm (The Brooklyn Museum)

Around the bottom ring, there is another Shiite prayer calling the Imam ‘Ali for help. The inscription reads, “Call upon ‘Ali who causes wonders. All anguish, all sorrow will disappear. Through your state of friendship with God. Oh ‘Ali, Oh ‘Ali, Oh ‘Ali.” This Shiite prayer is inscribed on other Iranian bowls as well. According to the Shiite tradition, such prayers are recited when a person needs help and guidance in achieving a goal, healing an illness or seeking treatment. Additionally, for Shiite Muslims, the twelve Imams have extraordinary abilities so reciting their names in prayers is a blessing.

Scholars have observed that in the Safavid period, when this bowl was made, the practice of fāl (divination) was on the rise. It is believed that a number of verses and suras (chapters) in the Quran were (and still are) believed to hold special khawass (qualities) such as being efficacious in curing illness or in protecting oneself against an enemy. Therefore, the Qur’anic verses that are inscribed on the vessel could be considered some of these Qur’anic text that have special khawass. But as we have seen, associating miraculous abilities and holiness with a divine text was not limited to passages from the Qur’an but also included the blessing of the twelve Shiite Imam’s names.

The escalation of divination practice during the Safavid Empire period helps us understand the mix of these different motifs on a single bowl.

The Taj Mahal

By Roshna Kapadia

Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: Mathew Knott, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Shah Jahan was the fifth ruler of the Mughal dynasty. During his third regnal year, his favorite wife, known as Mumtaz Mahal, died due to complications arising from the birth of their fourteenth child.  Deeply saddened, the emperor started planning the construction of a suitable, permanent resting place for his beloved wife almost immediately. The result of his efforts and resources was the creation of what was called the Luminous Tomb in contemporary Mughal texts and is what the world knows today as the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal and Yamuna River (photo: Louis Vest, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

In general terms, Sunni Muslims favor a simple burial, under an open sky.  But notable domed mausolea for Mughals (as well as for other Central Asian rulers) were built prior to Shah Jahan’s rule, so in this regard, the Taj is not unique. The Taj is, however, exceptional for its monumental scale, stunning gardens, lavish ornamentation, and its overt use of white marble.

The Location

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in Agra, where he took the throne in 1628. First conquered by Muslim invaders in the eleventh century, the city had been transformed into a flourishing area of trade during Shah Jahan’s rule. Situated on the banks of the Yamuna River allowed for easy access to water, and Agra soon earned the reputation as a “riverfront garden city,” on account of its meticulously planned gardens, lush with flowering bushes and fruit-bearing trees in the sixteenth century.

Paradise on Earth

Entrance, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53

Entry to the Taj Mahal complex via the forecourt, which in the sixteenth century housed shops, and through a monumental gate of inlaid and highly decorated red sandstone made for a first impression of grand splendor and symmetry: aligned along a long water channel through this gate is the Taj—set majestically on a raised platform on the north end.  The rectangular complex runs roughly 1860 feet on the north-south axis, and 1000 feet on the east-west axis.

Aerial view from Google Earth, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53

The white-marble mausoleum is flanked on either side by identical buildings in red sandstone.  One of these serves as a mosque, and the other, whose exact function is unknown, provides architectural balance.

The marble structure is topped by a bulbous dome and surrounded by four minarets of equal height.  While minarets in Islamic architecture are usually associated with mosques—for use by the muezzin who leads the call to prayer—here, they are not functional, but ornamental, once again underscoring the Mughal focus on structural balance and harmony.

Cenotaphs, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: Derek A Young, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The interior floor plan of the Taj exhibits the hasht bishisht (eight levels) principle, alluding to the eight levels of paradise. Consisting of eight halls and side rooms connected to the main space in a cross-axial plan—the favored design for Islamic architecture from the mid-fifteenth century—the center of the main chamber holds Mumtaz Mahal’s intricately decorated marble cenotaph on a raised platform.  The emperor’s cenotaph was laid down beside hers after he died three decades later—both are encased in an octagon of exquisitely carved white-marble screens.  The coffins bearing their remains lie in the spaces directly beneath the cenotaphs.

Qur’anic verses inscribed into the walls of the building and designs inlaid with semi-precious stones—coral, onyx, carnelian, amethyst, and lapis lazuli—add to the splendor of the Taj’s white exterior.  The dominant theme of the carved imagery is floral, showing some recognizable, and other fanciful species of flowers—another link to the theme of paradise.

Carving and inlaid stone, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: Martin Lambie, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Some of the Taj Mahal’s architecture fuses aspects from other Islamic traditions, but other aspects reflect with indigenous style elements. In particular, this is evident in the umbrella-shaped ornamental chhatris (dome shaped pavillions) atop the pavilions and minarets.

And whereas most Mughal-era buildings tended to use red stone for exteriors and functional architecture (such as military buildings and forts)—reserving white marble for special inner spaces or for the tombs of holy men, the Taj’s entire main structure is constructed of white marble and the auxiliary buildings are composed of red sandstone. This white-and-red color scheme of the built complex may correspond with principles laid down in ancient Hindu texts—in which white stood for purity and the priestly class, and red represented the color of the warrior class.

The Gardens

Stretching in front of the Taj Mahal is a monumental char bagh garden. Typically, a char bagh was divided into four main quadrants, with a building (such as a pavilion or tomb) along its central axis. When viewed from the main gateway today, the Taj Mahal appears to deviate from this norm, as it is not centrally placed within the garden, but rather located at the end of a complex that is backed by the river, such as was found in other Mughal-era pleasure gardens.

View from the Mahtab Bagh, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: Steve Evans, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

When viewed from the Mahtab Bagh, moonlight gardens, across the river, however, the monument appears to be centrally located in a grander complex than originally thought. This view, only possible when one incorporates the Yamuna River into the complex, speaks to the brilliance of the architect. Moreover, by raising the Taj onto an elevated foundation, the builders ensured that Shah Jahan’s funerary complex as well as the tombs of other Mughal nobles along with their attached gardens could be viewed from many angles along the river.

The garden incorporated waterways and fountains. This was a new type of gardening that was introduced to India by Babur, Shah Jahan’s great great grandfather in the sixteenth century. Given the passage of time and the intervention of many individuals in the garden since its construction, it is hard to determine the original planting and layout scheme of the garden beds at the Taj.

From the outset, the Taj was conceived of as a building that would be remembered for its magnificence for ages to come, and to that end, the best material and skills were employed. The finest marble came from quarries 250 miles away in Makrarna, Rajasthan. Mir Abd Al-Karim was designated as the lead architect. Abdul Haqq was chosen as the calligrapher, and Ustad Ahmad Lahauri was made the supervisor. Shah Jahan made sure that the principles of Mughal architecture were incorporated into the design throughout the building process.

What the Taj Mahal Represents

Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1632-53 (photo: LASZLO ILYES, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

When Mumtaz Mahal died at age 38 in 1631, the emperor is reported to have refused to engage in court festivities, postponed two of his sons’ weddings, and allegedly made frequent visits to his wife’s temporary resting place (in Burhanpur) during the time it took for the building of the Taj to be completed. Stories like these have led to the Taj Mahal being referred to as an architectural “symbol of love” in popular literature. But there are other theories: one suggests that the Taj is not a funeral monument, and that Shah Jahan might have built a similar structure even if his wife had not died. Based on the metaphoric specificity of Qur’anic and other inscriptions and the emperor’s love of thrones, another theory maintains that the Taj Mahal is a symbolic representation of a Divine Throne—the seat of God—on the Day of Judgment. A third view holds that the monument was built to represent a replica of a house of paradise. In the “paradisiacal mansion” theory, the Taj was something of a vanity project, built to glorify Mughal rule and the emperor himself.

If his accession to the throne was smooth, Shah Jahan’s departure from it was not.  The emperor died not as a ruler, but as a prisoner. Relegated to Agra Fort under house arrest for eight years prior to his death in 1666, Shah Jahan could enjoy only a distant view of the Taj Mahal.  But the resplendent marble mausoleum he built “with posterity in mind” endures, more than 350 years after it was constructed, and is believed to be the most recognizable sight in the world today. Laid to rest beside his beloved wife in the Taj Mahal, the man once called Padshah—King of the World—enjoys enduring fame, too, for having commissioned the world’s most extravagant and memorable mausoleum.

Qa’a (The Damascus Room)

From Dr. Elizabeth Macauley-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Reception Room (Qa’a), Ottoman period, 1119 a.h. / 1707 C.E., Damascus (Syria), poplar, gesso relief with gold and tin leaf, glazes and paint; cypress, poplar, walnut, black mulberry, mother-of pearl, marble and other stones, stucco with glass, plaster, ceramic tiles, iron, brass, 22′ 1/2″ high x 16′ 8-1/2″ deep x 26′ 4-3/4″ long (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Damascus Room (1707) served as the reception area within a Syrian home of the Ottoman period. Extensive conservation and historical research were carried out by the Metropolitan Museum in preparation for the opening of the new galleries on November 1, 2011. This video courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing

By Corey Rice

Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, From Pictorial Cycle of Eight Poetic Subjects, mid 18th century, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 88.9 cm, Shiraz, Iran (Brooklyn Museum)

On the bank of a cool spring in a lush meadow, a beautiful princess swoons at the sight of a young prince who has stumbled upon her bathing. To an eighteenth century audience, the pair would have been immediately recognizable as Shirin and Khusraw, two of the most famous lovers in the history of Persian literature. Although rendered in oils with a palette indebted to the European Renaissance, the canvas immediately betrays its Islamic origin in its carefully rounded top—it was designed to fit into the window-shaped niches common in Persian architecture of the period. Putatively titled Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, the work emerges from a cycle of eight paintings that share a similar style and scale, depicting scenes of hunt as well as events drawn from biblical, Qur’anic, and poetic narratives.

For the Love of Images

The content of the painting derives from Nizami’s Khamsa, an immensely popular quintet of poems compiled in the thirteenth century. Of the stories recounted, the tale of the love shared between Shirin, a Lebanese princess, and Khusraw, a Sasanian prince, was most celebrated for its romantic appeal and poetic rendering. Nizami’s telling of the story emphasizes the power of words and images to inflame the passions of the two lovers. The story is set in motion when Khusraw, aroused by the vivid description of Shirin’s beauty by his court painter, Shapur, sends the artist off to lure the princess into his kingdom.

Shirin Examines the Portrait of Khusraw (miniature from the manuscript Khamsa by Nizami), 1431, gouache, 23.7 x 13.7 cm, Timurid Dynasty, Iran (Hermitage Museum)

Upon arriving in Lebanon, Shapur baits the princess by planting paintings of Khusraw in her path over the course of three days. At first Shirin’s handmaidens destroy Khusraw’s image and burn rue (an herb) to break the painting’s spell. However, on the third day, Shirin falls in love with the man in the painting and learns of his identity from Shapur. A tremendously popular subject for illustration, Shirin’s enchantment by the image of Khusraw underscores the esteemed position held by figural imagery in Persian culture.

Setting the Seen

Heart aflutter and with the aid of Shabdiz, her aunt’s famously fast horse, Shirin abandons her companions at the next day’s hunt and departs for Persia. Meanwhile, because of conspiring adversaries, Khusraw is forced to flee his palace in disguise and sets a course for Armenia to find Shirin.

What follows is Nizami’s account of the fated meeting of the lovers depicted in the present painting:

For fourteen days and fourteen nights she [Shirin] traveled. Then she came upon an emerald field in which there gleamed a gentle pool… When she had satisfied herself that she was quite alone, she tethered Shabdiz and prepared to bathe. Beautiful was the whiteness of her skin against the blueness of the water. She loosed her braids and washed her long black hair, and the moon-like reflection of her face was caught in the shallows of the pool (Chelkowski, 25).

Meanwhile, Khusraw’s rapid departure from his palace brings him into the vicinity of the princess.

[H]e ordered his attendants to feed their horses while he rode on alone. Suddenly, he came upon the pool in the emerald field and saw Shirin sitting in the water like a lily. At the sight of her his heart caught fire and burned; he trembled with desire in every limb. Softly he rode toward her and whispered to himself how he would like to have such a beautiful maiden and such a black horse as hers…Suddenly, Shirin looked up. Startled, she gathered her black hair about her like a cloak, emerged from the pool, dressed, and mounted her horse. At the touch of her heel, Shabdiz carried her off into the shadows of the late afternoon (Chelkowski, 26).

Narrative Infidelities

Beyond the inclusion of Khusraw in the vicinity of the bathing Shirin, very little of the painting corresponds to Nizami’s telling of the event. Khusraw appears in royal attire, undisguised, while the queen’s famous black horse is rendered in silver and brown.  While these minor contradictions to the text perpetuate errors common in earlier miniatures, the  addition of three extraneous figures  complicates a story that hinges upon the intimacy established by the isolation of the characters from their retinue.

Shirin (left) and Khursaw (right) (details), Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing, From Pictorial Cycle of Eight Poetic Subjects, mid 18th century, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 88.9 cm, Shiraz, Iran (Brooklyn Museum)

Shirin and her attendant appear to notice Khusraw’s approach before he sets his sight on the princess. Both women look up toward the prince, guiding the viewer’s attention toward his presence in the center of the canvas. Khusraw and his companion appear unaware of the princess and her attendant. Khusraw, gesturing to his face and looking to the sky, appears in a state of distracted reverie. A contrary reading of the painting might interpret the rosy cheeks of Khusraw and his partner as indicating their awareness of the bathing Shirin. Khusraw’s gesture transforms into the coy reaction of a voyeur who has been caught looking.

Blending Traditions

Persian painting prior to the introduction of European oil on canvas techniques survive primarily as wall murals or as manuscript miniatures. Consequently, the aesthetic appreciation of a painted narrative was either extremely intimate or communally shared. Easel painting, the dominant mode operating in Europe in the 18th century, offered a productive middle ground. Painting on canvas permitted greater flexibility in size and portability while loosening the physical connection of images to textual description.

Shaikh Zada, Khusrau Catches Sight of Shirin Bathing, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami, c. 1524-25, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, page: 32.1 x 22.2 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The muted palette and chiaroscuro used by the painter of Khusraw Discovers Shirin Bathing shows the influence of European conventions. Nevertheless, the absence of perspectival space and subsequent flattening of figures in the painting are indebted to the Persian manuscript tradition. The artist’s contact with European art was likely one of technical innovation rather than pictorial convention. Such superficial integration of foreign aesthetics by Persian artists is characteristic of a broader, global blending of regional styles due to increased trade contacts and political conflict during this period. It would not be until the early nineteenth century that Persian painters were sent to Europe to be trained in this mode.

The installation of arch-topped canvases within architectural niches extended the tradition of mural painting on walls of palaces into a broader social sphere. Historical records confirm that earlier mural paintings depicting scenes from Nizami’s poetry were supplemented by panels of explanatory text. Such an addition would certainly temper the artistic liberties taken by the painting’s creator. The subjects depicted in the cycle from which the present painting comes suggest that the paintings were hung in a room used for entertaining guests either in a home or pavilion. Here, the paintings would serve to stimulate conversation among educated visitors.