C.1. "Black on white" epigraphic pottery:


a. Introduction:

Khurasan province had always been a thorn in the side for the Muslims, and in the C9th successive dynasties governed it independently of the Caliphs in Baghdad, first the Tahirids then the Samanids. The latter was the most distinguished of these clients of the ‘Abbasids, ruling for over 100 years (874-999) with their capitals at Bukhara and Samarqand. They are now best known for their patronage of the "Persian Renaissance" whereby Persian instead of Arabic was adopted as the official language of the court. They also sponsored a literary revival recalling the glory of past Persian heroes, which culminated in Firdawsi’s epic, the Shah Nameh, scenes from which were represented repeatedly in manuscript illumination and pottery decoration. This "renaissance" has been interpreted in a number of ways, but is seen principally as a reaction against the Arabic culture imposed on this ancient civilisation by the Islamic conquests.

Out of this culture developed a peculiar kind of ceramic type, now known as "Samanid" because they have been found at the Samanid capital Samarqand (sometimes called Afrasiyab), and at all the important cities of the Eastern Islamic world during the period of Samanid dominance, such as Tashkent, Gurgan, Nishapur and Rayy, to which they must have been imported. These vessels are like no other type of pottery that is produced anywhere in the Islamic world before or since the Samanid period, and they bear no aesthetic relation to the major pottery types that coexisted with them.

The only other type of pottery whose decoration is purely epigraphic is the monochrome blue on white ‘Abbasid type, but their use of epigraphy is utterly different, as the inscriptions are never concentric, while they are nearly always concentric on Samanid vessels. The writing on ‘Abbasid vessels can be blurred and illegible, while the early Samanid epigraphy is crisp and clear; moreover, the content of ‘Abbasid inscriptions is usually confined to single-word blessings for the owner, in contrast to the Samanid inscriptions which are often complex aphorisms. Besides the epigraphy, the technologies used are completely different, though it could be argued that the white slip and colourless glaze of the Samanid pots try to imitate the opacified ‘Abbasid ones; however, there are no similarities in shape, as the ‘Abbasid bowls draw their inspiration from Chinese wares.

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b. Description:

The Samanid vessels are either deep bowls with straight flaring walls or circular flat-rimmed platters, often very finely potted though they vary in quality. The vessels are entirely covered with a thick white slip and then glazed with a transparent, usually colourless, lead glaze. The white slip forms the ground for some beautiful painted decorations, usually in a black pigment derived from manganese (so it can look purplish) or iron (so it can look red). Occasionally the decoration is applied in reserve (as on the Ashmo pot [1967.183], and sometimes decorative features in a tomato-red slip is added for variety.

The decoration is purely epigraphic, using the Kufic Arabic script, and develops from very simple through to a highly decorated and abstracted form which can be totally illegible. The inscription is usually the only decoration that there is on a vessel, and these vessels show "a refreshing appreciation of empty space" (Volov): this is a stark contrast to the vessels from Nishapur where horror vacui seems to be the surpassing characteristic. The inscription is usually on the flat rim of the vessel with the baseline of the letters towards the edge, forming a concentric circle around the edge, however there can also be isolated words or phrases at certain pivotal points around the bowl, or even a straight line of inscription across the diameter of the plate without heed to its circular shape. There is either one word endlessly repeated, which may say something like "baraka", blessing; or a continuous sentence containing some sort of moralising aphorism. A continuous inscription on the Ashmolean dish [1956.126] reads: (check translit of Arabic) "Luck, power, honour, prosperity." Occasionally a supplementary motif, such as a rosette, occurs at the centre of a dish, like the pivot for the spokes of a wheel. The most common motif of the few pots with figural representation is a small bird.

Lane (EIP p18) said of this pottery, "Its beauty is of the highest intellectual order; they hold the essence of Islam undiluted", while Raby thought them "among the most majestic achievements of the Islamic potter." Volov tries to establish what is actually Islamic about these vessels, and agrees that the lack of figural decoration and the use of the Arabic alphabet seems to conform with the traditional Islamic aniconic strictures, as seen on the reformed coinage of ‘Abd al-Malik. However, the "Islamic" nature of these plates thus contradicts the political background from which they emerge: as described in the History of the Region this is a period of strife between the new Arab and the old Persian aristocracies.

Volov suggests that the utter contrast between the Nishapur and Samarqand wares may reflect different clienteles, for example the austere Samanid wares with their decoration evocative of the Qur’an could be favoured by the "highly moralistic class of Arab frontier warriors serving as Defenders of the Faith on the borders of the Dar al-Islam", which Volov suggests as a possible market. Similarly Bulliet’s interpretation is along the lines of elitist group versus populist group in aesthetic preferences. These issues will be discussed below, and for the time being we shall concentrate on the decoration and techniques of these Samanid vessels, relating them where possible to examples in the Ashmolean collection.

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c. Chronology suggested by Volov:

Volov’s article is the clearest and most detailed study of the development of epigraphy on these vessels, and she uses the internal evidence of the pots themselves together with numismatic and monumental uses of epigraphy to suggest a chronology. She believes the development occurred in three stages which are linked to the ways in which the letter forms become transformed and stylised. Generally speaking, simplified and legible forms are earlier than the complex and sophisticated abstract and illegible inscriptions.

Volov defines the Kufic alphabet as a set of Basic Forms, which reduce the 28 letter alphabet to 5 groups of related forms, such as vertical and rectangular letters, round letters and letters whose tail goes below the line. The first stage in the development of epigraphy on these vessels involves no radical change in the Basic Form, but rather a "natural transformation": the most common feature is elongation, where the staffs of vertical letters and the horizontal parts of rectangular letters are extended at measured intervals around the inscription so that it takes on a rhythmic quality. Elongation of the vertical staffs is seen on the Ashmo pots [1956.126] and [1956.162] whereas some elongation of the horizontal is seen on [1978.2115] – not brilliant eg. These inscriptions usually retain their diacritical points making them fairly easy to read.

Stage 2 sees the first introduction of various non-epigraphic motifs into the decorative scheme, though the changes occur internally within the letters. Thus the elongated staffs of letters begin to terminate with geometric and vegetal finials, and the first hints of interlacing are detected. For example, initial alifs may have a sweeping curve to their right, which gracefully fills in the space in front of a new word, and letters such as waw which have a tail below the line may adopt a "rising tail" which might terminate in some sort of decorative finial. The earliest interlaced effect occurs in the horizontals of rectangular letters (such as dal, dhal, kaf etc) where two horizontal bars may twist together once or, exceptionally, twice.

By comparison to coins and other metalwork, Volov concludes that this effect is designed to grab the observer’s attention, because it is an extraordinary device amidst all that unembellished Kufic script. Coins with this device may also help to date the pottery. The earliest coin with an interlaced rectangular letter is a Samanid coin of al-Muqtadir (908-932) where the interlace is confined to the Prophet’s name, MUHAMMAD. It next occurs on a highly decorative dinar minted in Rayy in 935, where it is again used for the "ha" in Muhammad. As die-cutters for coins tend to be conservative, Volov suggests the interlace could have been adopted in the last decades of the C9th/early C10th, which means the first series of Samanid epigraphic pottery would date even earlier.

In the third series the compositions range from purely epigraphic, to abstract ornamental inscriptions, to the total filling of the central area. The palette is much more varied in this stage, and the vessels that adopt tomato-red are known as "polychrome"! Within the epigraphy itself there are a wealth of new ornaments all based on the geometric and vegetal, but rather than occurring as internal distortions of the Basic Form, these are superimposed and additive ornaments confined to the upper zone of the inscription, to the extent that the Basic Form becomes unimportant. Thus the inscriptions of the 3rd stage are often illegible, as it becomes almost impossible to determine which parts of the inscription are actual letters. The "Swan’s Neck Curve" is a distinctive feature of this stage, as seen on (??) the Ashmo pot [1978.1758]. Volov would date this third phase to the first years of the C11th, on comparison with the tomb-tower at Radkan (c.1020) which has an inscription using a very advanced form of this ornamental Kufic, thus providing an upper limit for its date.

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d. Some inscriptions:

Some of the inscriptions that Volov publishes in the appendix to her article are quite amusing:


1. Brooklyn Museum (L56.9)
  "Planning before work protects you from regret;
  Patience is the key to comfort."
2. Brooklyn Museum (L56.3.2)
  "Peace is that which is silent and only his speech
  will reveal the man with faults."
3. Foroughi Collection, Tehran
  "Knowledge is the noblest of virtues and Manliness
  is the most intricate of lineages. Blessings."
4. Freer Gallery (54.16)
  "Preserve for yourself your modesty, for only modesty
  points out the action of a noble man."


If you want to read some more inscriptions from Samanid Epigraphic Pottery, click here to go to Oya Pancaroglu's Appendix, which features some 40 proverbs collected from these dishes.

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