ART IN IRAN, History of

viii. Islamic Central Asia

Under Islam the sculpture and mural painting previously displayed in Central Asia almost completely disappeared, and ornament took pride of place. In the 2nd/9th to 5th/12th centuries artistic handicrafts—ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, and textiles—flourished to an exceptional degree.

In the ceramics of that period, some types of artistic pottery were common to all Central Asia, but regional schools can also be distinguished, as in northern Khorasan, Ḵᵛārazm, Transoxiana (Mā Warāʾ al-Nahr) (Samarkand, Bukhara, and Ṭoḵārestān), and northern Turkestan (Šāš, Farḡāna, Semirechie). The main achievements of this artistic pottery were connected with the use of glazes (opaque and translucent), the introduction of color and polychrome painting, and the elaboration of distinct principles for the decoration of ceramics. Thus Central Asian glazed pottery evolved from uncomplicated, blurred green ornamental painting under a somewhat cloudy glaze, and the use of a three-hued, spreading, mottled coloring to the clear ornamental painting of the 4th/10th-6th/12th centuries. The paint was applied on a white background in brownish black, reddish, and pistachio green colors, or on a black background with thick white and red angob colors. Monochrome glazes of green (sometimes with an under-glaze, engraved design) or bright azure were used. The main ornamental motifs included auspicious Arabic inscriptions in a ceramic cursive variety of Kufic that gradually degenerated into ornamental pseudo-inscriptions; stylized plant motifs—a wavy or coiling tendril (eslīmī), tulip, pomegranate, palmette, or vine leaf; geometric interlace, and fantastic birds and beasts from the realm of folklore. The unglazed pottery of northern Khorasan (Nisa) was frequently decorated by engraving with a sharp point in obvious imitation of the motifs and technique of metalwork. In the 6th/12th century Marv was the center for the production of die (kelebe)-stamped ceramics. The motifs, occurring singly and in combinations, were extremely varied: geometric interlace, fronds and rosettes, zoomorphic images (birds, fish, the chase), and courtly scenes (enthronements, musicians, horsemen, and couples). With the discovery of silicate ( kašīn) baked clay in the 6th/12th century there appeared in Khorasan thin-walled bowls with milky and pale blue glazing and underglaze designs or graining. In Dahestān, luster ceramics of the Iranian type were produced, including gold luster and mīnāʾī with minute, stylized plant ornamentation, cursive inscriptions, and sometimes pictorial subjects. The post-Mongol period saw a different style of glazed ceramics with a black outline design under pale blue glaze, and another with dark blue and greenish-black abstract motifs on a white background. At the end of the 8th/14th-9th/15th centuries a completely new style evolved under the influence of Chinese porcelain: on a snow-white kašīn background, twigs, flowers, and fruit were painted with cobalt, and Khorasan ware often depicts birds, animals, and human beings. During the following centuries pottery products coarsened, kašīn was no longer used, and the ornamentation acquired an abstract, decorative character.

Medieval Central Asian metalwork, with its use of chasing, over-chasing, and punching, follows the general style of medium in the Muslim East. Dishes, jugs, kettles, lamps, stands, and other objects were fashioned, sometimes in precious metals but usually of bronze alloy. The ornamentation of these objects is disposed in concentric bands and rosettes; epigraphic motifs (Kufic and nasḵ scripts) alternate with stylized plant motifs. Extensive use was made of folkloric fairy-tale subjects in the representation of birds, griffins, sphinxes, hunting scenes, and quite frequently human beings.

Central Asian textiles were widely renowned in the Middle East. In the 4th/10th century particular fame was enjoyed by the ṭerāz from Marv and finely patterned textiles produced for export in the royal workshops of Bukhara. Regions inhabited by Turkmans were renowned for their carpets and were mentioned by Marco Polo in the 7th/13th century. Reproductions of carpets with a graphically clear geometrical design of deep reds, very close to the modern Turkman traditional carpets, can be found in Persian miniatures and in European paintings of the 9th/15th-10th/16th centuries. Apparently the practices observed in Kirghiz carpet weaving are no less deeply rooted.

The end of the 8th/14th-9th/15th centuries is marked by a revival of pictorial art in Central Asia. Details of landscape painting survive in the Samarkand mausoleums of Šīrīn-bika-āqā, Bībī Ḵānom, and Tūman Āqā. According to the historical literature, some of the Samarkand palaces of Tīmūr (e.g., Bāḡ-e Šemāl and Bāḡ-e Delgošā) were decorated with painted portraits of the ruler, his wives, sons, and companions-in-arms, and with battle and feasting scenes. Their style seems to have been very close to that of the miniature paintings.

The arts of the book began with the selection of paper, the best kinds of which were prepared from silk combings (Samarkand was particularly famous for its production), and embraced the work of calligraphers, illuminators, miniature painters, and binders. A distinct school of miniature painting evolved in Central Asia, and it is quite possible that some of the 8th/14th-9th/15th-century miniatures in the so-called Istanbul albums (Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, and the State Library, Berlin) are connected with the Turkic milieu. Under Tīmūr the miniaturist ʿAbd-al-Ḥayy was brought from Baghdad and put at the head of the Samarkand artists; also well known is the miniaturist Bāḡ-e Šemālī, who may have decorated the palace in the garden Bāḡ-e Šemāl near Samarkand with monumental paintings. Only a few examples of the 9th/15th-century school of Central Asian miniaturists have so far been found. While its style has much in common with that of Herat, its original traits include a Turkic orientation in costume and furnishings and the depiction of the Central Asian landscape. Typical examples include “Uluḡ Beg Surrounded by his Family and Courtiers” (ca. 1441-42, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.); “Mountain Scene” (Keir collection, London), illustrations to the Ḵamsa of Neẓāmī (1446-47, Topkapi Saray, Istanbul), executed by Solṭān ʿAlī Bāvardī and another artist; and miniatures for the Šāh-nāma (Institute of Oriental Studies, Leningrad), also the work of two artists. All of these miniatures exhibit outstanding professional craftsmanship.

The two trends in their style—the romantic and the genre—continue in the Central Asian (Transoxiana) miniature painting of the 10th/16th century cultivated at the courts of the Shaibanids in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Šāhroḵīya. There, local Central Asian masters and artists who had fled from the excesses of the Qezelbāš in Herat worked together during the first part of that century. The latter group remained faithful to the manner of Behzād; the fineness of their drawing, the vividness of the palette, and variations on traditional compositions are displayed in the miniatures to the Būstān of Saʿdī (1522-23, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Mehr o Moštarī (1523, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.), a Dīvān (1529, State Public Library, Leningrad), and Maḵzan al-asrā r of Neẓāmī with miniatures by Maḥmūd Modòahheb (1544, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). The artists of the local school show original traits of their own, such as economy of artistic means, static balance of compositions, strong line, and close attention to local realities and specifics of nomad life. These features can be seen in the illustrations to the Fatḥ-nāma (ca. 1507), Anwār-e Sohaylī and ),Tārīḵ-e Abuʾl-Ḵayr), (ca. mid-16th century; all at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Tashkent), the Ḵamsa of Navāʾī (State Public Library, Leningrad), and the Golestān (1547, Bodmer Fund, Geneva). During the second half of the 10th/16th century two trends emerged in the Bukharan miniature. One group of painters followed a hedonistic orientation toward a festive representation of events and personages, luxurious ornamentation, and wealth of figures and colors; this is illustrated by the miniatures of the Golestān of 1556-57 and the love scenes by the artist ʿAbdallāh in the Būstān of 1575-76 (both in Leningrad, State Public Library). The other group of miniaturists preferred naive genre scenes illustrating folk characteristics, as in the Toḥfat al-aḥrār of the 1670s (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and State Public Library, Leningrad).

Miniature art of the 11th/17th century, as practiced at the Astarkhanid courts, entered a new stylistic phase. In the early 11th/17th century, a certain Moḥammad Morād Samarqandī illustrated a Šāh-nāma manuscript (Institute of Oriental Studies, Tashkent). A somewhat austere landscape with few figures, a strong angular line, contrasting patches of color, and dynamic poses endow his miniatures with an epic force and an inner tenseness. Some painters turned to popular, fabulous, or didactic everyday subjects, working in a naive style. Such are the illustrations to the Šāh-nāma of 1602-03 (State Public Library, Leningrad) and Majles al-ʿoššāq (end of the 11th/17th or beginning of the 12th/18th century, Institute of Oriental Studies, Tashkent). Other artists developed a romantic style, endowing the miniatures with tenseness by the dynamism of the figures, an uneasy landscape, and contrasting colors as in the Šāh-nāmas from Samarkand (1628) and Bukhara (1664; both in Tashkent, Institute of Oriental Studies). A third group continued the classical “Behzād” style, found in Neẓāmī’s Ḵamsa (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin). Certain miniaturists, such as Farhād, show a tendency toward the style of the Indian miniature. The names of a number of 11th/17th-century miniaturists are known—Moḥammad Šarīf, Moḥammad Darvīš Samarqandī, who in 1616 illustrated the Būstān (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin), Moḥammad Ṣāleḥ, Ḵᵛāja Gadū, Āvāz Moḥammad, Moḥammad Amīn, and Behzād. The last three illustrated the Ḵamsa of Neẓāmī (1668-71, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin) in their respective manners. Some Central Asian artists were working at that time at the Mughal court in India, among them the above-mentioned Moḥammad Morād and Moḥammad Nāder Samarqandī, who had brought with them Central Asian traditions.

Early in the 12th/18th century, miniature painting degraded with the general decline of Central Asian culture. Certain styles revived in the early 13th/19th century, along with handicrafts. The works in wood and stone, pottery, metal, textiles and carpets, embroidery and gold embroidery are distinguished by expressive forms and diverse designs. Predominant motifs in ornamentation were stylized plants and abstract patterns; where color was used (textiles, carpets, ceramics), a lively and diversified color scale is found. Silk, cotton, and woolen textiles were embellished with rainbow or striped designs. An important part in the decoration of interiors was played by carpets and other weavings, and embroideries. Turkman and Kirghiz tribes became famous for their carpets woven with a strictly geometrical design, while the Uzbeg and Tājīk sūzanī were distinctive among embroidered wall hangings, embodying the idea of a blossoming garden in conventional multicolored forms. The traditions of popular applied arts continued to be handed down by craftsmen after the incorporation of Turkestan and Transcaspia by Russia, and have been preserved to this day in the republics of Central Asia.



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(G. A. Pugachenkova)

Originally Published: December 15, 1986

Last Updated: August 15, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 6, pp. 618-620