Alan Caiger-Smith, Esfahan: an
unexpected pottery workshop,
May 10 2001: forthcoming in The Ceramics Review
The text of this article, which is not yet published, has been kindly lent by the author.
To read Abu'l-Qasim's treatise
(1301) on pottery production,
go to this article by James Allan: Abul-Qasims Treatise on Ceramics
[Note: the numbers in square brackets indicate the page numbers of the original printed article]
The workshop I will try to describe is in a side street just outside the western wall of the bazaar. It attracted our attention because it was quiet and peaceful while everywhere else was filled with activity. The potter is probably in his sixties, though at first sight he seems older. He was sitting on a stool in the street, pencilling a floral design on a vase in preparation for painting it. Beside him, steps led down into his subterranean workshop. There was very little inside, only the wheel and various tools, bags containing materials and a small group of tiles and pots of various kinds on the floor.
He invited us in, my son Martin and me and our Iranian friend Shahram, who interpreted for us. Unlike the other potters I had met, he used a white clay and his pots were quite small, nothing being more than about ten inches high. He said that this was the material his father had taught him to use and that he did everything just as his father had shown him. Clearly, he revered his father. He showed us the faded photograph on the wall with himself as a young man kneeling beside the bearded old master-potter. He proudly produced one of fathers jars, a fine pot decorated [in] underglaze with a simple classical floral design in several colours. The white clay of the unglazed foot showed that it was made from what is now known as siliceous paste. This was the synthesised clay body that was generally used for fine, glazed pottery in Persia centuries ago and was described by Abul-Qasim of Kashan in his Treatise of 1301. (Translated and annotated by J. W. Allan, Abul-Qasims Treatise on Ceramics, Iran XI, 1973). The clay can be thought of as a forerunner of soft paste porcelain. In its day it was a unique way of producing a hard white clay body with a good glaze fit at low temperature. Modern kilns and glaze materials have not exactly superseded it, but they have led to simpler alternative kinds of glazed ceramics. The paste is not easy to work with and it needs preparation. Hans Wulff found that it was still used by a few potters in the 1950s (Traditional Crafts of Persia, 1955, p.165) but I had supposed that by now it might have passed out of use.
When we asked more about the clay he said If you can wait a quarter of an hour I will prepare a little and make something on the wheel. He picked up two large pieces of flint and struck them together. These are the stones for making fire, he said. My father taught me to make powder from this stone for preparing the clay. He struck off some pieces on to a little pile that had already been prepared, crushed then on the floor with a flat stone, and sieved them. He made a small pile of the fine particles and added a white powder of ground glass. It comes from these, he said, lifting a cracked glass lamp out of the corner. Then, using a chunk of stone, he knocked a piece off a block of white material resembling limestone. He made me feel it and smell it. It seemed more like rock than clay. Its hard now, he said, but with water it becomes soft. This is Boté clay (gel-e-Boté). It comes from about three hundred kilometres north of Esfahan. I asked if it was the same as white Luri clay, which Abul-Qasim had written about. He didnt know, nor did Abul-Qasims name mean anything to him. (It might possibly be the same material  known by a different name, for Luristan is a large area in the north west of Iran).
For some while he squatted on the floor, kneading the flint, the glass and the white clay together again and again into a ball. I can throw this on the wheel for you now, he said, but it is really better if it is left till tomorrow. It swells overnight. (Abul-Qasim says exactly the same).
He mounted his wheel, turning the flywheel with his foot, and began to sing. Singing helps me to work better, he said. As he sang he centred the clay and slowly drew up a small cylinder which he then widened. He worked very carefully. One could see that it was a difficult material to fashion, unlike the earthenware clays used by other potters. I was delighted to follow enough of the song to recognise it. It was Omar Khayyams verse about visiting the potters house under the crescent moon, with the clay population standing round in rows.
He cut the form off the wheel and proceeded to make another form, much narrower. He cut this off in turn and placed above the first one. Tomorrow the neck can be joined, he said. With this material the pot cannot all be made in one piece. (This is exactly what one finds in the old pots made of siliceous paste. Hollow ware was often made by assembling several units, body, neck and foot, because the clay was not plastic enough to enable the whole form to be made from a single lump.) When I was a small boy, he said, I kept asking my father to teach me, but he wouldnt. Show me what you can do by yourself! he said. I worked very hard and eventually I managed to make something to show him. Good! he said, now you have made a beginning I can teach you. He was a wise man, my father.
We returned next day. The two thrown pieces were still by the wheel, by this time almost dry. The potter whittled down the neck with a knife till it fitted the rim of the little pot. I asked if was too dry join. It can still be joined, he said. I wet the clay and the pieces will fit together. (This would not apply to most clays, the white Boté clay is unusual and must behave differently).
From another kind of siliceous paste, firing a buff colour instead of white, he makes the small disks which are used in the mosque during prayers. They cannot be scratched or chipped, he commented, passing one to me to feel. It was as hard as fine granite.
Then he showed us the kiln. It was square sided, the walls being supported with light iron rods, but internally it was about two metres deep, a round updraught kiln, just as Abul-Qasim described. Most traditional kilns in Iran seem to be round. This one, however, had two flat, wide shelflike projections around the inside, one about two feet above the other, surrounding the central hole which went down the the bottom, at one side of which was the firemouth. The top a shallow dome, covered with a mixture of clay and hay. He demonstrated how the central aperture could be closed with large tiles during the firing, leaving a vent for the escaping fumes. There were also five or six other small vents spaced around the vault to equalise the pull of the draught. Since the workshop was built of stone and stucco it could not burn down. Nonetheless, the place must have been densely smoky when the kiln was firing, for there was no sign of any ventilation. The  walls were certainly very black. When I pack the kiln, he said, they lower me down on a rope. Before the pots go in I have to put in the pegs. Here they are. They go into the holes in the wall. I could hardly believe that I was really seeing a kind of kiln that I had read about in a book written seven hundred years ago. Now, he said, these small shelves are placed on the pegs and the pots sit on the shelves. Again, it was just as Abul-Qasim had described.
The firing is done with wood, mostly broken packing cases. How did he know when to stop the firing? You must know, he said, that at first the pots go all black because of the smoke. Then they get clean and after that the glaze begins to shine with heat. By the fireplace you can see two holes where the wood goes in. I start with the lower one, then later I use them both. After five hours the pots will be perfectly finished. He discoursed in a most animated way with Shahram about the process of firing, now laughing and making explanatory mime, now whispering conspiratorially as if communicating a secret, all with dramatic facial expressions. I missed much of this, but having often fired kilns myself I think I got the drift of it.
The pots are fired once only. The decoration is painted direct on the clay and it is then covered with the glaze, which is poured into or over the pots from a bowl. If it is uneven it can be smoothed down once it dries. When fired it is shiny and extremely smooth. He slid a sherd of glazed ware over my cheek to show how nice it feels. The glaze and the clay bind together more strongly than with other kinds of pottery, he said. Other glazes can be chipped off if you hit them with a stone. He demonstrated this with a piece of broken earthenware. But my glaze wont come away. He struck one of his own pots to prove the point. (The glaze-body interface is indeed very strong in siliceous paste vessels, despite the low firing temperature, because the glass in the body fuses with the glaze covering).
He does not prepare the glaze frit in the way Abul-Qasim described, by pouring the liquid melt into water with a sound like thunder, but uses a ground frit which he says comes from Europe. This realistic piece of modernisation was the only way in which his methods differed from past practice. He does not know what the material is, but it it probably an alkaline frit, similar to the material prepared in the past. He adds powdered glass to this frit, the same powder as is used in preparing the clay body. I do not undersand why, but it works and there is no crazing in the glaze surface. I dont think he understands why either. This is what his father told him to do and he keeps to it. His name is Haj Abbas Massoumzadeh. He is a simple man, and he is poor. He has an old book of Saadis verses (his fathers) but Shahram says he probably cannot read it. He sings with feeling and he seems to know much of Omar Khayyam and Saadi by heart and probably the mystical lyrics of Hafez and other poetry besides. There are no signs of his being a great potter: there were not many pots around at the time of our visit and, as he says, the best of them were made by his father. But he has deep enthusiasm and an engaging sense of humour. He knows his craft and is treated with affection and respect by his neighbours, several of whom came in and out during our conversations. What a fortunate encounter with an age-old tradition! It appeared to happen by chance, yet it was one of those events that seem to have been waiting to come about for a long time.
 If only his father had also been able to teach him about lustre (zarin fam) which Abul-Qasim called the enamel of two firings! Perhaps that tradition really has died out. If any reader knows any sign of its continuation in Iran today I should be grateful to hear of it.
|Slide Illustrations: Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions of these pictures|
|At the wheel||At the wheel||Trimming
into the kiln
|Two kiln pegs
with a shelf
To read Abu'l-Qasim's treatise (1301) on pottery
go to this article by James Allan: Abul-Qasims Treatise on Ceramics
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