D. Pottery as Alchemy:
The beginnings of innovation
in Islamic pottery


From the above chronology, it seems that Chinese ceramics were arriving in the Islamic world in greater numbers from the early C9th. They were highly esteemed, not just in court contexts (the gift to Harun al-Rashid) but also in local markets in the Gulf (Hallett cites a passage in the historian Jahiz, which mentions a man in Basra whose house was filled with “shiny Chinese pottery”). The new Islamic pottery industry came to enjoy great commercial success, and its products were exported far and wide: examples have been found as far East and West as Thailand and Portugal, and as far North and South as Turkmenistan and Mozambique. Where, whence and how did this new industry come into being?


D.1. Centres of Innovation

Ibn Naji (circa 1016) says that “a man from Baghdad” was sent to Qairawan after the earthquake of 862 which devastated the mosque, to produce the lustre tiles for its refurbished mihrab. This evidence, as well as the fact that the new types of pottery were first excavated at Samarra, has led to the assumption that the Abbasid pottery industry was directly sponsored by the Abbasid Caliphs, and therefore located near the Court. However, there is a suggestion that the “man from Baghdad” might have settled in Qairawan, giving rise to a satellite industry there. According to Hallett, the sources also mention pottery production at Kufa. Petrographic analysis, conducted by Mason and Keall in (see Iran 29 [1991]), of wasters and firing supports taken from 9 kilns at the site of Old Basra, has determined that opaque white-glazed wares decorated with lustre and cobalt-blue are geologically comparable to Basran kiln material, ie. this confirms the location of a major pottery production centre in the Basra region.

This picture, then, is one of multiple centres, and this raises the question of whether the traditional assumption (that the pottery industry was directly related to the Court) is in fact correct. And if it is not, what then were the conditions that stimulated these technological innovations? Rather than the industry having come about by imperial fiat, perhaps the innovations – opacification of the glaze, decoration in cobalt blue –were made in a provincial port city?

For Hallett, Basra is the likeliest candidate, since it was a Red Sea port which thrived in the Abbasid period. It would thus have been the point of entry into the Islamic world for the Chinese wares which stimulated the innovations. Basra also features prominently in the historical sources as a centre of pottery production, and the petrographic analyses – mentioned above – provide convincing evidence. The kiln fabric found at Basra included a finely-potted bowl painted in cobalt blue and green, which confirms that this type of pottery was manufactured there.

In the case of lustrewares she says that no examples have been shown – by chemical or petrographic analyses – to be different enough in their composition to suggest that more than one centre of lustre production existed. We can also say that the two most important new decorative techniques (underglaze painting in cobalt blue and overglaze painting in lustre pigments) emanated from the same environment, because examples exist of lustre over a cobalt blue glaze (see Lane, p.14). That means that one single production centre was responsible for these important innovations.

Without similar analysis of kiln finds, clay samples and locally found white-glazed wares – as has been done at Basra – we cannot definitively rule out satellite industries at Samarra, Baghdad or Qairawan, but it seems convincing that the most important technological innovations are attributable to Basra.

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D.2. Influence from China

Again following Hallett’s thesis, scientific provenance studies have shown that it is precisely at places where T’ang pottery was offloaded from trans-oceanic trading ships, that the first wave of Chinese influence made the greatest impact on Abbasid pottery. Basra was one such port, which greatly benefited from the expansion of maritime trade in the Abbasid period. This statistic also suggests that the initial impetus for innovation was the need or desire for import substitution, since the Chinese porcelains were probably too costly to supply all the demand that they created.

T’ang period pottery [get pictures] consisted of a variety of high-fired wares, from stoneware to porcelain, which varied according to the composition of the body, and the duration and temperature of the firing. The essential requirements of porcelain are purity of the body materials and a firing temperature above 1250C, so that the kaolin clay vitrifies. Its most important qualities are hardness (like crystal, it will ring when tapped), whiteness and translucence. Stoneware is also high-fired, but it is light or dark in colour, and never translucent. These are the two extremes between which are ‘porcelaneous’ wares (hard, white, semi-transparent) and ‘whitewares’ (hard, light-coloured, opaque).

The earliest porcelaneous wares were produced in the Hebei and Henan provinces in Northern China in the C6th and C7th. Afterwards, there was a gradual progression to ‘true’ porcelain, which became fully realised in the classic Ding wares of the Song period.

Three kiln sites have been identified in Northern China as the principal producers of whitewares: the Xing and Ding kilns in Hebei, and the Gong Xian kilns in Henan. Their products were small in size and simple in form, so that they could be easily stacked for both firing and transport. For example, Ding wares (fine bowls of globular shape with very thin walls and a greyish/bluish glaze which rarely covers the base) have a wide distribution in the archaeological record, and are found as far West as Egypt.

Large quantities of Chinese whitewares and porcelaneous wares have been found on Abbasid-period sites near to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. These Chinese wares are also well-documented at Samarra, Siraf, Suhar, Minab, Akhtar, Fustat and Mantai (Sri Lanka). The shapes are mostly open bowls of rounded form, with rounded or flaring sides and a well-defined footring. The characteristic Chinese bowl found at Samarra can be associated with Xing or Ding production of the second half of the C9th: it is shallow and wide with a thickened rim and low wide footring.

The ‘Samarra-type’ therefore indicates the participation of Xing and/or Ding kilns in the Chinese export trade. However, after the An Lu-shan rebellion (in 756), the Gong Xian kilns appear to have dominated production for export, until at least the mid C9th. Fifty-seven pieces of Gong Xian whiteware have been found at Siraf, and this type is well-represented at Samarra and Fustat.

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D.3. The “Venture towards Replication”

The pure white surface of these Chinese imports, like a canvas for painting, must have suggested new decorative possibilities to Abbasid potters. Likewise, the immense prestige of Chinese wares encouraged Abbasid potters to experiment with their reproduction. China was regarded as having the best of the world’s artisans: al-Sirafi, cited in Hallett (p.91) said, “The people of China are the most skilful of Allah’s Creation, in designing and fabricating and all other types of work. They are not surpassed in this”.

The Gong Xian wares were most influential: direct visual references can be seen in contemporary Islamic wares, for example, the glaze extends on the exterior down to the foot and usually covers the base; the identical “syntax of form” – ie. the combination of flaring rims with wide footrings, or the combination of straight rims with wide recessed bases; the similar dimensions (6-7cm height, 8-10 cm at base), and contour angles of the body shapes (60 at rim, 30 at base).

Similarities can even be seen in the production techniques: the stiffness of Chinese clays means that it is easiest to mould them, whereas this is not necessary with local Iraqi clays. However, xero-radiograph studies of Abbasid bowls in the Freer Gallery (Washington) show that opaque white-glazed wares were manufactured using precisely the same method as the Chinese originals, ie. “jiggering”. The technique is outlined by Hallett as follows:

i) throw a vessel of approximately hemispherical proportions

ii) invert it over a convex mould (throwing approximate shape first gives a better fit than a flat pancake of clay would on a mould)

iii) trim back the clay on the exterior to produce a thin-walled vessel

iv) cut the base at a 30 angle

v) incise a raised footring

vi) remove the finished vessel from the mould (this is easiest to do using a parting agent such as slip or fine ash).

The fact that the technique used by Chinese and Abbasid potters was identical suggests that the Abbasid potters had a considerable knowledge of the techniques used in Northern Chinese workshops. This suggests direct contact between Chinese and Iraqi potters, and – as we have seen above – such contact may have occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Atlakh (circa 751), when Chinese papermakers and potters were among the prisoners of war brought back to Merv, where they may have instructed their Muslim captives in various artistic techniques.

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D.4. Types and techniques


a. Tin opacification of glazes

The first innovation was the introduction of tin oxides to the lead glaze, which formed a suspension and thus looked white in imitation of the imported Chinese whitewares. This device was first used by the ancient Egyptians and later adopted by the Roman glass industry. The Abbasid examples manifest a considerable degree of experimentation with the recipe: Hallett (p.119) describes glazes with variable concentrations of lead and tin. More tin causes greater opacity and therefore whiteness, whereas more lead enhances the optical properties of the glaze, giving a smooth, brilliant surface finish. Where an alkaline glaze was used, it was fired at a sufficiently low temperature to leave numerous unvitrified particles in suspension. This technique may have developed out of seeing opaque white patches on Sasanian-Islamic jars, where the vitrification had been incomplete.

In general, three different glaze recipes were used, and one of them (which is low in lead) is especially dominant in pots that are decorated with lustre. According to Hallett, this suggests two possible scenarios:

i) the presence of different workshops in one region which each use different glaze recipes (this she thinks is unlikely); or

ii) chronological developments in glaze technology within the same industry.

There is greatest variability of glaze composition in the wares with cobalt blue decoration. It seems that glazes of different chemistry were used on interiors and exteriors of bowls: ie. the glaze used on the interior usually has a greater visual impact, being whiter, more opaque, and containing higher concentrations of lead and tin than the glaze used on the exterior. Hallett suggests that this might have been a cost-cutting measure, since – due to the ingredients required – tin-opacified glazes are amongst the most expensive glazes to produce.

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b. Underglaze decoration in cobalt blue

The decoration on these new white-glazed wares is either plain – in direct imitation of Chinese porcelain wares, which have very little decoration as their beauty is inherent in their harmonious shapes – or has some simple decoration in a blue pigment made from cobalt, which was imported to Iraq from mines (which we know were operational in the Abbasid period) in Oman and the Northern Hijaz.

The early designs are characterised by boldness and simplicity, and Lane describes the tendency of the cobalt to melt into the glaze as having an effect like “ink on snow”. There is a limited range of designs, which consist of floral patterns, geometric forms and calligraphic or pseudo-calligraphic inscriptions. The general absence of human and animal forms is notable, though the Ashmolean is lucky to have some important examples in its collection: a shallow dish with fish, and a bowl with bird.

Hallett suggests that the potters took their inspiration from their immediate environment: for example, palm trees, water- and meadow-plants grew abundantly in Lower Iraq. The most prevalent compositions are a leaf or sprig around a central dot, and crescent-moon border on the rim; however, eight-petalled flowers, wreathes, half-palmettes, squares, diamonds and simple leaves with hatched decoration are also common. All of these designs have parallels in metalwork and on green/yellow-glazed reliefwares (find example in Ashmolean), and they anticipate the designs of pottery decorated in polychrome lustre. Often the decoration is embellished with splashes or dabs in green or brown pigment.

As for inscriptions, these fall into two categories:

i) the name of the maker, perhaps suggesting a new pride of the Islamic craftsman in his achievement; also, Chinese vessels bear signatures;

ii) blessings (such as baraka [blessing], ghibta [good fortune]).

Nearly two-thirds of the inscriptions on cobalt decorated bowls are centrally located, while the remainder are single lines placed asymmetrically to the far right or far left of the bowl, or following the curve of the rim. Multiple lines of texts are stacked vertically.

According to Hallett, there are two phases distinguishable in the decoration of this type of Abbasid pottery, which might indicate chronological development in the motifs:

i) a phase with close parallels to the Chinese prototype, characterised by more ‘naturalistic’ designs and a generation of potters who signed their names; its distinguishing motifs are the leaf and half-moon border;

ii) anonymous phase, characterised by an increased range of vessel sizes, painted designs with parallels in metalwork and yellow-glazed reliefwares, and a predominance of hatched designs and the half-palmette.

The latter phase also sees the use of a broader range of colours applied to the white decoration such as blue-green, green, yellow-brown and brown in addition to the original cobalt blue.

Abbasid-made white vessels with simple decoration applied in blue were re-exported to China, where they inspired a new tradition of ‘blue-on-white’. Today this is perhaps the most characteristic ceramic style associated with China, but originally the Chinese did not know the cobalt-blue pigment, which they called ‘Muhammadan blue’. Over the centuries, this ‘blue-on-white’ tradition brought Europe ‘chinoiserie’ (again through the medium of the eastern Islamic lands – the Safavids were very keen on it!), and ultimately the ubiquitous ‘willow pattern’.

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c. The invention of lustre

The third Abbasid innovation was the invention of the technique of decorating in lustre. This involves preparing pigments by blending silver or copper oxides with a carrier such as ochre, and then mixing this fine powder with vinegar or grape juice and a binding agent (such as some kind of gum). This pigment is then painted onto the glassy surface of a pot which has been glazed and fired once in a reducing atmosphere [see Technology Section for a more detailed description of these processes].

The silver ores used by Abbasid potters were probably brought overland from Khurasan or Najd, and the supplies of copper probably came from Sardan, on the border of Khuzistan and Fars. The geographer Muqaddasi mentions that Basra was a place of manufacture of antimony, verdigris and litharge (red lead) – all compounds commonly used in the preparation of lustre pigments [cf. Abu'l-Qasim's treatise (1301), which mentions the use in the Kashan pottery industry of verdigris [= green copper oxide] and lead oxide [= red lead or ‘litharge’], as well as silver, iron sulphate, red and yellow arsenic, gold and silver marcasites [= types of iron pyrite]].

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i. Origins: Lustre on glass:

In 1942, Ettinghausen published two glass lustre sherds, one from the Princeton Art Museum and the other from the Islamic Museum in Cairo, the latter of which was inscribed with the nisba ‘al-Basri’. He argued that this inscription was likely to refer to the maker, and he dated the sherds to the C9th in comparison with similar finds at Samarra. A third glass lustre sherd, in the Freer Gallery, is reported to have come from Basra in 1908. This clearly implies that there was a glass lustre manufacturing industry at Basra, which is also known from the historical sources: according to Ya’qubi, Basran glassworkers were among the artisans brought to work on Samarra by the Caliph al-Mu’tasim. At the very least, this evidence shows that Basran potters were familiar with glass of this type.

It seems that the earliest examples of glass lustre were made in Damascus, probably in the late C8th, and were painted in a bichrome palette. Hallett suggests that these Syrian glass-makers may have been encouraged to migrate to Iraq with the move of the Abbasid court from Raqqa to Baghdad circa 795.

Glass lustre fragments are widely distributed throughout the archaeological record, and have been found at Samarra, Fustat, Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, Mantai (in Sri Lanka) and other Indian Ocean sites. The best collection of glass lustre comes from the excavations at Fustat, which show a marked resemblance in the colour range (yellow, orange, amber) and decoration (which often includes small motifs like peacocks’ eyes, herring bones, polka dots) to lustre ceramics, especially those decorated with a bichrome lustre palette. This suggests the possibility that a glassworker may have come into a pottery workshop and decorated a ceramic piece in the same refined manner he would have decorated a glass one.

The visual effect of glass lustre is also close to bichrome lustre, in that it is not very lustrous. On glass, the ‘lustre’ is more of a stain, since it is not really metallic. The development of true lustre requires a reducing kiln, and though it would have been easy to adapt an Abbasid pottery kiln by clamping the vent and fire-box, it would not have been so easy to do this with a glass furnace: ie. true lustre could only really develop in the pottery industry.

In that case, the “lack-lustre” quality of bichrome lustre wares may reflect the historical development of the technique, ie. does bichrome constitute the first phase, characterised by experimentation with pigments borrowed from the glass industry, perhaps fixed in an oxidising atmosphere as the glass would be? Perhaps the discovery of reducing conditions was accidental.

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ii. Chronology: the development of lustre:

1. Bichrome:

Lustre wares decorated in a bichrome palette seem, therefore, to constitute the first borrowings into the pottery industry of the technique of decorating glass with lustre. The bichrome palette uses a very dark brown and a yellow pigment, and are decorated with patterns of linear strapwork filled with rigid gridwork, rosettes, cusped floral motifs – they owe little of their decorative vocabulary to any of the other lustre types. It may be that after this initial phase, continued experiments with lustre on pottery led to the discovery of reduction firing, and the subsequent invention of ‘true’ lustre.

Hallett thinks that the earliest ‘true’ lustre wares were those decorated with a gold-coloured lustre, similar to the pigment colour transferred from the glass industry, and a distinctive ruby-red (“ruby lustres”): both pigments are used frequently as ground colour, applied so densely as to conceal the opaque white glaze beneath. This ‘horror vacui’ may be consistent with the potters’ excitement at making this new discovery as well as a lack of confidence in decorating in the new technique. Ruby lustre is based on a pigment made from copper oxide, thus its ingredients would have been cheaper to obtain than silver oxides. Copper also produces a lustrous sheen more easily than silver-based pigments, and it could be that ruby lustre was thus one of the first ‘true’ lustre discoveries – again no doubt accidental.

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2. Polychrome:

This initial phase is followed – according to Hallett – by a more colourful polychrome palette, which used three, occasionally four, colours (brown, green, gold and yellow). Instead of covering the entire surface of the pot with pigment, it was applied in a design which left substantial areas of the white tin-glaze showing through – like a drawing on a blank canvas. As with the cobalt-decorated whitewares, the designs on these early lustre wares seldom include figures – rare examples are the bowl decorated with a bird in the Ashmolean collection, and the small group of lustre tiles from one of the Samarran palaces which are decorated with cockerels surrounded by wreathes. Instead, the early designs typically comprise loose renderings of palmettes, rosettes, beads, and a variety of foliate motifs. The contours of each element are drawn in a fine line, then filled in with repeat patterns of dabs, dashes, peacock eyes, herring-bone strokes, cross-hatching, and an assortment of loops and dots. Hallett characterises this repertoire as “free versions of late Roman and Sasanian ornament”.

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3. Monochrome:

After this polychrome phase, it seems that the potters settled on a monochrome palette, at first using a dark brown pigment with occasional addition of a manganese-derived purple lustre (such as on the Qairawan tiles), however they soon replaced this with the standard monochrome yellow (deriving from silver oxide) which – together with the polychrome wares – form the bulk of Abbasid lustre production as we know it today. Interestingly, this colour scheme transition is accompanied by a change in ornament: now lustre wares come to depict single human or animal figures, drawn in silhouette, set against a background of floating palmettes or contour panels outlined and filled with dashes and dots. The human figures are shown seated, standing or on horseback, carrying banners, weapons, flowers, or musical instruments – all activities associated with the courtly and religious life. Some of the animals, on the other hand, can be identified as zodiacal images or visual representations of animal symbolism – in other words, perhaps the subjects of the new monochrome repertoire are equivalents in figural imagery of the epigraphic messages of blessing and well-being on the cobalt-blue wares. The written word reappears in this type of monochrome lustre, as a border device around the rim or as a motif floating in a cartouche in the background.

The transition from a polychrome to a monochrome yellow palette may have come about because of several reasons – applying polychrome decoration was more laborious; acquiring ingredients for a variety of pigments was more costly than acquiring them for one pigment; combining different metallic oxides, with their different properties and levels of volatility, made a successful outcome less certain; the yellow pigment had a greater dependability in the firing and, perhaps most importantly, it resembled gold. However, achieving a high quality yellow-gold lustre is difficult, as well as expensive due to the silver oxides required; this pigment is susceptible both to under- and over-firing, ie. the lustre will not develop properly unless the firing conditions are exactly right. Perhaps, then, these questions of technology and economics suggest that the adoption of monochrome yellow marks the potters’ achievement of mastery over the lustre technique.

Just as tin-opacified glazes are amongst the most expensive glazes to produce (because of the ingredients required), so monochrome yellow lustres are the among the most expensive pigments. The use of a high quality white glaze on both the outside and inside of monochrome yellow lustrewares means that these vessels were the most costly of ceramic vessels.

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d. Other pottery types

Another type of pottery which begins to be produced in this period are the splash-glazed wares with incised decoration. Copper-green, manganese-purple and iron-browns were splashed onto a pot’s surface and then decorated with scratched designs based on a half-palmette. Lane says that such ‘sgraffiato’ wares were made “almost everywhere” in the lands east of the Caliphate, and were copied from mottled Chinese stonewares made in the T’ang period. Imitations of these wares have been found as far apart as Fustat, Samarra, Samarkand and Nishapur, which could suggest a single (imperial?) centre of distribution of either the Chinese originals (which were then imitated locally) or the Islamic imitations (made at the centre). However, according to Yolande Crowe, the splash-glazed wares, called san-ts’ai wares, produced by the Chinese were a special ceramic ware produced only for imperial tombs, whose production, furthermore, ceased after the rebellion of 756 AD. It seems unlikely that san-ts’ai wares were ever exported to the Islamic world. However, the technique of splashing a pigment onto a bowl and scratching a design through it is by no means a difficult one for a potter of any nationality to discover for himself – unlike the lustre technique – and it may not in fact be necessary to look for origins and prototypes in this case.

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e. Conclusion

What we see therefore in this period is a change in technology, inspired by the arrival of beautiful white porcelain wares from China: these were being imported into the Islamic world by the ninth-century, and enjoyed immense prestige among the wealthy. Initially the Islamic potters attempt direct imitation of Chinese porcelaneous wares, to meet the demand produced by the import of these wares into the Abbasid lands – a phase which may be called ‘revolution’, in strict etymological sense that it brought about a “complete change in method or conditions”. However, soon thereafter Abbasid potters began attempting modifications to produce their own ceramic idiom. In this they were incredibly successful, and innovations such as tin-opacified glazes, the application of ‘blue-on-white’ (which was re-exported to China and inspired a new tradition which brought Europe ‘chinoiserie’ – again via the eastern Islamic lands – and ultimately the ubiquitous ‘willow pattern’), and the invention of lustre. This second phase may be termed ‘evolutionary’, however the technical innovations made in this phase were in themselves mini-‘revolutions’.

In Crowe’s words, the “early Islamic potters were literally pushed into action by the first porcelains to reach them, although they soon found a very personal way of transforming the foreign impetus into their own creative statements in shape, colour and designs, as well as in techniques”. There is an important link between the ‘revolutionary’ changes ceramic technology and those in international trade, since this is what allowed the Chinese wares to arrive at Abbasid ports in the first place, creating the demand for imitation-Chinese wares, and leading to experimentation by Islamic potters. Thus, a new form of pottery was created which became standard in the Muslim world for the following centuries, and introduced new techniques to the world which are still in use today.

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D.5. Signatures on Abbasid pottery

Hallett devotes a whole chapter of her thesis to “the potters, glazers and decorators” (chapter 6, pp.227-234). In this chapter she gives a list of at least 12 names that are legible among the epigraphic examples of the cobalt-blue on tin-opacified white Abbasid pieces. Interestingly, the only other similar scale survival of signed pieces is on Fatimid lustre wares from the late tenth-century. Philon has suggested that the presence of signatures reflects differences in the economic value of the signed pieces (Hallett, pp.167-8), whereas Grabar thinks it reflects a snobbish taste which gives special importance to the maker (Hallett, p.188, n.24) – an early form of connoisseurship.

However, according to Hallett, there is no apparent relationship between the signatures on Abbasid blue-and-white wares and the vessel quality. The most elaborately painted pieces (for example, those decorated with a fish, a lighthouse, or palm trees) are not signed. She thinks it more likely, therefore, that it the signatures may be from master-craftsmen advertising their craft or their workshop, as well as a reflection of pride in their work, in having created a viable substitute for Chinese pottery. It is interesting to note here that names occur most frequently on those wares which are closest to Chinese originals in shape and size.

Only two signed Abbasid lustre pieces are known. Not a single inscription contains the name of the place of manufacture. However, one potter – named cAbawayh – whose name occurs on blue-and-white wares, signs himself ‘sanic [worker or craftsman] amir al-mucminin’: this indicates that he was probably working in a workshop environment, and was not a lone potter, but also that these ceramic wares – or at least some of them – were being produced in a court context, perhaps under the direct patronage of the Caliph.

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D.6. Decline and Diaspora


a. The Abbasid ‘International Style’

Just as the demand for prestigious fine Chinese wares had stimulated the production of cheaper, imitation wares made locally in the heartland of the Abbasid world, so by the tenth-century these innovative Islamic glazed wares were becoming the dominant class of finewares throughout the broader Islamic world, impelling its own schools of local imitation. A pure white surface with painted decoration in other colours came to serve as the inspiration for potters in more distant regions – for example, the Samanid epigraphic wares and coloured slipwares from Nishapur, both products of North Eastern Iran in the C10th; and the type of pottery known as ‘le vert et le brun’, after the copper and manganese pigments used in their decoration, produced in North Africa at the same time.

This process of import and imitation gave rise to an ‘International Style’, which further enhanced the cultural and imperial hegemony of the Abbasid world. The idea of an ‘International Style’ was established in a 1955 article by Ettinghausen (see bibliog): it was manifested in the vast distribution of Abbasid lustrewares and the emergence of provincial imitations; the widespread appearance of the ‘Bevelled Style’ in different artistic media; the correspondences between the mosques of Ibn Tulun and Samarra; and the spread of such architectural phenomena as the T-plan mosque, or the nine-bay mosque, found as far apart as Afghanistan and Spain. Baghdad was the “navel of the universe”, geographically located at the centre of a “latitudinal East-West cultural axis”, and the imperial material culture was disseminated from the Centre to the Periphery. Ettinghausen claimed that this characterised the Islamic world in the ninth-century, but was followed by the fragmentation into ‘Regionalism’ in the tenth- and eleventh-centuries, where local political entities and artistic styles became more dominant in distinct parts of the Islamic world than the influence of the Abbasid empire.

The phenomenon of an ‘International Style’ has also been claimed for other major Islamic empires, such as those of the Timurids and Ottomans, which covered vast geographical areas. They thus unified disparate cultures, fused different elements together into new forms of art, and disseminated them from one end to the other of their huge empires, stimulating in turn new processes of imitation at local centres.

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b. Migration West

In the second half of the tenth-century, political instability began to lead to a decline in Iraq’s economic fortunes. In 945, the Buyids – who came from the Daylam area to the south-west of the Caspian Sea and had been growing in independence since the 930s – occupied Baghdad, installed a puppet-caliph, al-Muti’, and took over the secular government of the empire. The Abbasid Caliph was still acknowledged as the religious leader of Islam, but now had very little political power. In-fighting among different members of the Buyid tribe meant, however, that strong central authority really only existed after cAdud al-Dawla’s coup in 975 (he ruled until 983). This period of instability caused many bureaucrats, administrators, businessmen, and even the Turkish ghilman – the Caliph’s personal guard – to abandon Iraq for Egypt, where the rise of the Fatimid court was seen as an attractive, alternate source of patronage. Hallett suggests that the Fatimids even actively encouraged the migration of artisans to Egypt.

It seems that, also at this time, the Abbasid industry producing opaque, white-glazed ware abandoned its major centre (probably at Basra), and moved west to Egypt, taking with it the technological expertise. Lustre production disappeared completely from Iraq by the end of the tenth-century, to reappear in modified form in Cairo not long afterwards. The Fatimid lustre technique used similar tin-opacified lead glaze technology, similar overglaze lustre pigments, and the same method – adopted from China – of shaping vessels by “jiggering” (trimming the pot on a rotating mould). In terms of decoration, this continuity from Iraq is also seen in the adoption of the monochrome yellow lustre palette; the trademark pattern of circles and dashes on the reverse of vessels; the emphasis (in the earliest pieces) on silhouette designs; and the influences of the ‘Bevelled Style’.

There are very few absolute dates to fix when the transition of the opaque white-glazed ware industry from Abbasid Iraq to Fatimid Egypt occurred. Nasir-i-Khusraw (who wrote in 1052) mentions the existence of a Suq al-Qaddahin (“cup-sellers’ market”) at Basra but doesn’t record seeing lustre there, which he did observe in Cairo. Secondly, the only two Fatimid lustrewares that can be accurately dated come from the Caliphate of al-Hakim (996-1021), which provides a terminus ante quem of the late tenth-/early eleventh-century for the emigration of the industry to Egypt.

According to Hallett (who discusses this migration in Part 3 of her thesis, “Potters, Patrons and Markets: agents of innovation and diffusion”, from p.316ff.), the nature of the industry changed in Egypt: the Abbasid phase had been characterised by radical experimentation, and this gave way to refinement and the re-working of old decorative techniques. Painting thus reached new heights of expression in Fatimid lustrewares, but the glazing and decorating technology remained unchanged. However, the replacement of the fine Abbasid body fabric by a coarse red body led to a decline in potting methods. The original influence from Chinese pottery was now barely visible, and it seems that the most pervasive influence on pottery at this time was from Islamic metalwork, giving rise to vessel shapes such as large platters and rimless bowls.

This pattern of the westward migration of trade is also apparent in other luxury industries, such as those reliant on imported raw materials: it is in precisely this period that the carving of rock crystal, Indian teak and African ivory begins to occur in Cairo, as well as the large-scale manufacture of glass lustre. These glasses were decorated in styles similar to the contemporary lustre ceramics being made in Egypt, with the trademark presence of scrollwork, animals, and even the word sa’d, suggesting that perhaps both ceramic and glass lustre were decorated in the same workshops.

The migration to Egypt also encouraged the diffusion of this technology further westwards across Mediterranean, and distribution patterns changed in the late tenth-/early eleventh-centuries: the wide distribution of Abbasid pottery in the ninth-century, from the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Seas, becomes reduced to the Mediterranean and central Islamic lands. There are no finds of Fatimid lustre from East Asia, though Cairo came to overshadow Baghdad: merchants from the Persian Gulf migrated to Aden and the Red Sea ports, establishing trading connections with traders on the East African coast and the Mediterranean. This shift in the orientation in sea borne trade is reflected in the numismatic record: for example, gold and silver issues from the mints of Basra and Siraf are plentiful until 969, but the upheavals of the late tenth-century coincide with the virtual cessation of coinage finds in the Gulf until the arrival of the Mongols.

As mentioned above, Hallett suggests that the Fatimid Caliphs actively encouraged these developments in trade and industry by means of Isma’ili propaganda in the Yemen, Baluchistan and North West India. Whereas the rise of elite craft industries in Iraq during the Abbasid period was encouraged by international trade and the emergence of new markets, in Egypt it appears to be down to imperial patronage: in relation to this, it is surely no coincidence that the earliest dated pieces of lustre pottery and rock crystal were in fact made for members of the Fatimid court.

Go to the section on Fatimid Lustre.

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