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Volume 27, Number 3May/June 1976

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The World of Islam

Its Nomads, Its Cities

Written by John Sabini
Photographed by Peter Keen

One of the most imaginative exhibits at the World of Islam Festival, on view at the Museum of Mankind until the end of 1976, reproduces a full-scale Bedouin encampment as well as a street of shops and houses to help explain the interwoven relationship of nomad and city in the Muslim world.

Geographically the World of Islam is a patchwork of the desert and the sown. The great cultural centers of Islam, though usually found in fertile regions, are never far from the vast empty spaces of these areas.

The symbiosis between the sedentary and the nomad is nowhere more apparent than in the ancient trade patterns of the Arabian Peninsula. The cities of southern Arabia—Mar'ib, San'a, Aden—were from time immemorial the commercial centers for trade between the East and the West. The southern Arabs transported gold, precious stones, silk and spices from India and the Far East across the seas to their home ports and then enlisted the services of their northern neighbors, the Bedouins, to transship the goods by camel caravan across the deserts to the Mediterranean world. Similar trade arrangements between settled communities and nomads existed in Central Asia, Persia and North Africa, to the mutual benefit of all.

Reliance on animals was the principal means by which nomads survived in a hostile environment. The Mongolian nomad is, in a sense, a parasite on the horse. The Arabian Bedouin is largely dependent on his goats, sheep and camels for food, shelter and transport. It is the constant search for grazing land in a harsh and arid terrain that imposes the nomadic way of life on the people.

But, as the Festival displays suggest, nomadism is more than a question of survival: it has developed its own spiritual values. The nomad considers his own way of life superior to that of the town dweller or farmer. Free of material constraints, he feels himself more independent, manlier and braver, for where life is hard and necessities scarce, only constant struggle increases one's share. But nomadic life also imposes responsibilities. Loyalty to family and tribe is essential for survival. Hospitality to strangers, within certain bounds, is a necessity where anyone may find himself far from home and in need of food and shelter.

The townsman, on the other hand, represents stability and continuity. By amassing excess wealth he is able to support art and education and the institutions of justice and religion. But institutions grow old and decay, and the interaction between nomad and sedentary has historically played a major role in the renewal and strengthening of Islamic culture.

The interaction is not always peaceful. The pressure for survival drives the nomads out of their deserts and steppes into the fertile regions and when the sedentary population is weak the nomads conquer it by force of arms. The advent of the Arabs into the Mediterranean world was perhaps the most dramatic instance of this. The Arab empire was in turn conquered by waves of nomads—Turks, Mongols, Berbers—who became the elite of succeeding civilizations. As each conqueror settled down and lost its warlike character it was in turn conquered and ruled by a new wave of nomads.

Although the invasions were often destructive, they were also sources of renewal, like forest fires that devastate and fertilize at the same time. Each wave of conquerors brought with it artistic preferences and themes which enriched the Islamic arts. The Arabs brought the language and poetry of the Bedouin, considered even today to be the purest form of Arabic, and gave to Islamic civilization the primacy of the Word. The Mongols brought art forms from as far away as China and were responsible for the flowering of miniature painting in Persia and India. The Turks brought their fondness for the dome and the kiosk, derived probably from the yourt, or round tent, of the steppes of Asia.

The most important contribution of the nomads to Islamic art is the knotted carpet, found almost wherever nomads wander, from Morocco to Afghanistan. The materials of weaving, the hair of sheep and goats and more rarely camels, is the stock in trade of nomadic life. A display at the Museum of Mankind shows how tribal carpets are woven in narrow strips (often later sewn together), which are the width of a portable loom worked by one or at most two people, usually women. The designs are geometrical, straight-lined and repetitive, because of the simple looms and because the designs are committed to memory. Above all, weaving is indispensable to nomadic life, for it provides saddlebags, blankets, heavy clothing, furniture and even shelter in easily portable form.

But carpets also became primary features in the urban life of Islam. Traditionally, Muslims sit, eat, sleep and pray on carpets, which are kept clean by the estimable custom of removing street shoes on entering a building. The carpet is the principal furniture and ornament of both houses and mosques. But once they moved into town, carpets were transformed. A city carpet can be made much bigger than its country cousin, as it is woven on a permanent loom worked by many hands in the home or factory. As the designs are written down and read off to the workers by an overseer, they are usually more complicated and contain more sophisticated motifs. Finer wools (even silk) and a greater variety of dyes are used, permitting more subtle effects, with curving lines, shading, flower and cloud forms. If the typical nomadic carpet design is repetitive and infinitely expandable like the desert or the steppe, that of the urban carpet resembles a garden set in an architectural frame.

Although architecture, the most stable of the arts, is incompatible with nomadic life, nomadic taste did affect Islamic building. Many Muslim buildings are constructed of rough brick or stone and then "clothed" in tiles or stucco as if draped with hangings. Many of the tile patterns on Persian, Indian and Moroccan mosques might have been transposed from carpet designs. But as is clear from the London Festival, other Islamic arts have also been affected by the flat, repetitive, extensible designs of weaving. The arabesque has affinities with the geometrical designs of nomadic rugs and interlacement resembles nomadic leatherwork. Bedouin taste is also reflected in Islamic metalwork, although the objects themselves—storage containers, coffee pots, brass horse fittings, jewelry for the women and daggers, swords and firearms for the men—are made by craftsmen in the towns and are one of the prime items of trade between townsmen and nomads.

The gardens which appear again and again in Islamic art, in carpets, tiles, miniature paintings and poetry, and which are themselves an Islamic art form, depend on the stability and continuity of sedentary life. Yet the very intensity of the desire for gardens—an earthly symbol of paradise—may be a nomadic legacy. For who can better appreciate the coolness and shade, the running water and the wealth of fruit and flowers than those who remember the heat and dust and thirst of desert and steppe?

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the May/June 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1976 images.