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Volume 16, Number 2March/April 1965

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Pottery Points The Way

In the pattern and shapes of plates and tiles are important clues to the ebb and flow of culture...


Written by John Carswell

It took ancient man thousands of years to invent pottery and as soon as he did he made a second discovery—that it broke easily. This was unfortunate for him, of course, but not for his descendants. For them broken pottery has been invaluable, pointing the way to the accumulation of most of the archeological knowledge developed in the Middle East and elsewhere, and offering clear signposts in tracing the cultural currents of the past.

In some ways it is easy to see the role of pottery in the gathering of archeological information. Pottery may be fragile but it is also durable. As one archeologist put it, pottery may be easy to break but it's hard to destroy. That characteristic means two things: that a lot of it will have to be thrown away and that the fragments will not decay. And this, over the centuries, is just what happened. As pots, jars, tiles, plates and other utensils were made, used, broken and discarded in roughly the same area for hundreds of years, there accumulated great mounds of debris, layer upon layer, each reflecting the characteristics of the people who made, used, broke and discarded that particular layer.

More subtly, however, and in some ways more interestingly, pottery can also offer clues as to how ancient and even not-so-ancient peoples affected and absorbed each other's culture. If, for example, archeologists of the future were to excavate a small American community some day and find bits of Wedgwood china intermingled with fragments of Rosenthal china, they could reasonably surmise that the United States had some commercial contact with both England and Germany; and if the patterns on the Rosenthal and the Wedgwood were at all similar the archeologists could go on to assume that there had also been contact between England and Germany.

In exactly the same way, archeology can trace the movement of art through the Middle East at different times in history. By classifying fragments according to their form and decoration and by mapping out all the different sites where the same type of pottery is found throughout the Middle East, it is possible to follow closely the movement of artistic ideas from one country to another.

The primary value of pottery, of course, applies to those eras prior to the development of writing and the keeping of written records. Certainly from the rise of Islam onward, manuscripts become of paramount importance to the scholar concerned with the Middle East. Yet even in these later periods, pottery can offer valuable evidence about the tastes and cultural contacts of the era.

Chinese blue and white porcelain, for instance, was exported to the Middle East from the 14th century onward and was apparently so highly prized in Syria that Syrian potters began making imitations of it. This Syrian pottery, decorated with patterns based on Chinese prototypes, has been found in the ruins of the ancient town of Hama and elsewhere in Syria. Since the pottery was discovered below the layer of debris left from the burning and destruction which marks the sack of the town by the Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, in 1401, it must have come into fashion before this date.

Some beautiful Syrian tiles painted with undulating flowers and patterns in the Chinese style decorate to this day the early 15th-century tomb of al-Tawrizi, in Damascus. More extraordinary, the same—or very similar—tiles are found in the Murad II mosque at Adrianople, on the modern frontier between Greece and Turkey. This mosque was built by the Ottoman Turks in 1433 and the striking resemblance between its tiles and those in Damascus suggests that they were almost certainly made by imported Syrian craftsmen.

Although fierce warriors, the Ottoman Turks were also great patrons of the arts, and many foreign craftsmen were employed by them to satisfy their taste for splendid surroundings. Even before the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks had constructed magnificent buildings in their capital at Bursa. Inscriptions on the famous Green Mosque at Bursa indicate that the tiles used to enrich it were made by Persian craftsmen from Tabriz.

Imported Persian workmen were employed also in Jerusalem. When Sulayman the Magnificent—who led the troops of the Ottoman Empire to the gates of Vienna—began the restoration of the Dome of the Rock in 1545, he decided that the badly damaged Umayyad mosaics on the outside walls should be replaced by tiles. They were replaced and an inscription on one of the tiles, dated 1552, reads: " 'Abd Allah of Tabriz," clear proof that at least some of the tiles were made by Persians. To this deduction history adds some evidence with the story that, earlier, Sulayman had once visited Tabriz during a military campaign; perhaps he got the idea of employing craftsmen from Persia at that time.

Chinese porcelain has always been popular in the Middle East; it was even supposed to have magical properties and it was a general belief that it was possible to detect instantly the presence of poison by eating from a Chinese plate. In the atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue that prevailed at the Turkish court in that period this would have been a valuable asset, and it is not surprising that the Turks amassed great collections of such porcelain. Many collections came as gifts from the emperors of China and many pieces still survive in the Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, where, when one collection was being arranged in the 1920's, some of the china was found still in the packing cases in which it had arrived, centuries before. Naturally Chinese porcelain greatly affected the decoration of Turkish pottery. The lotus flower, for example, and certain other patterns were copied almost unchanged.

Another great collection of Chinese porcelain, now in the museum in Teheran, was once housed in the shrine of Shaikh San, at Ardebil in northwest Persia. Here a special porcelain room was constructed in 1611 to house it, each piece displayed in an elegantly-carved niche. (It still is one of the finest collections in the world of early Ming porcelain, and many pieces have the additional distinction of the name of Shah 'Abbas, the Persian emperor, engraved with a diamond on the underside.) Again, Persian pottery was affected in its turn by Chinese porcelain and in the 17th and 18th centuries many Chinese patterns occurred although subtle changes and a looser, free quality in the painting betray the influence of the Persian craftsmen.

In Isfahan, Shah 'Abbas the Great and his successor, Shah 'Abbas II, were responsible for building what must always remain one of the greatest capital cities in the world. Even contemporary European travelers were awed by its magnificence and splendor. The great facades of the mosques, often dating to an earlier period, were sheathed in walls of tiles which were also used to cover the curving surfaces of the great domes and cylindrical minarets. It is known that Shah 'Abbas transferred a large number of Armenians from Julfa, on the River Araks, to the new capital of Isfahan in the early 17th century. These Armenians were settled outside the town across the river, in a suburb called New Julfa, where they prospered as merchants. They had a monopoly of the silk trade, and Armenian agents were sent west as far as the Netherlands and Spain, and east to what are now India and Indonesia. As middlemen, they were responsible for much of the trade between Europe and the Far East. They owned many ships and in their own town of New Julfa built elegant houses and churches. Thirteen of these churches still survive, some built of brick with great onion-shaped domes, which seem to resemble mosques. Inside, the decoration is a mixture of east and west, a perfect testimony to their far-reaching mercantile interests in the 17th century. First, a frieze of tiles with floral and animal motifs in the Persian style; they are however less abstract than the more typical Safavid tiles in Isfahan itself, and even human figures and angels are included in the designs, as well as typically Chinese ornaments. These tiles also incorporate Armenian inscriptions and it has been suggested, partly because of their superior workmanship, that the main tile works in Isfahan were manned by Armenian craftsmen. Certainly the tiles in the churches must have been specially made for them, and it is hardly likely that Muslim workers would have consented to decorate a Christian church. Above these tiles in several churches is a frieze of oil paintings of Biblical scenes in pseudo-Flemish style, which introduces an oddly occidental note. These in turn are surmounted by carved and gilded stucco panels of purely Safavid floral decoration.

In the 18th century, the Turks also began to look westward; a short while after the secret of making porcelain was discovered in Germany, European porcelain began to be exported to Turkey. Fragile little Meissen coffee cups were made for export to the East, cups that were decorated with pseudo-oriental designs developed as a concession to local taste. In the harem quarters of the Seraglio, the old palace of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul, large quantities of Dutch tiles have been found, their delicate airy patterns forming an elegant background for the pretty inhabitants, but contrasting strangely with the ripe eastern flavor of the rest of the palace decorations.

Just how far cultural ideas travel, and how quickly, and how they develop and change can be seen in a motif used in a certain kind of Turkish carpet, a motif that can, as it happens, be traced to its origins.

The motif began as a small Dutch tile, bearing a landscape scene of a little house and a tree on an island. This tile found its way to the Far East at the end of the 17th century, probably through the intermediary of the Dutch East India Company. In China the design was copied, apparently by some mystified artist who, in trying to cope with this odd scene, changed the perspective of the house and gave to the tree a definite oriental look. This artist also added a typical flowered border. Used on Chinese tiles, the design was exported to the Middle East where it has been found in such places as a mosque near Scutari, the 'Azam Palace in Damascus, a Coptic church in Cairo and the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem. In Turkey, Armenian potters copied the design, again making changes, and that version can be seen in many 18th-century churches in the Levant. The final modification was what appears in the Turkish carpets—a design in which the Dutch island and tree have disappeared and only the house and a severely stylized border remain—a design that may have been once a Dutch cottage but is today, after a trip to China and back, unmistakably the Ka'bah, the central shrine of Islam in the Holy City of Mecca.

John Carswell, Associate Professor of Art at the American University of Beirut, is a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London. Before coming to Lebanon he spent four years as an archeological draftsman in Crete, Jordan and Turkey. He is the author of several articles on the applied arts in the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the March/April 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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