B. Lustre in Egypt before the Fatimids:


The appearance of lustre painted ceramic vessels in Egypt probably occurred long before the Fatimid period. As we have seen in the section on ‘Abbasid pottery [link], production of lustre began in the C9th and was quickly imported all over the world: examples have been found from Spain to South East Asia. However, there is some evidence that lustre was already being produced in North Africa before the rise of the Fatimid dynasty.


B.1. Evidence from Qairawan:

As we have seen [abbasids.htm], lustre ceramics came very early to North Africa: the date of the tiling of the mihrab of the Qairawan mosque in present-day Tunisia (c.862-3) is the terminus ante quem most frequently cited for the invention of lustre. We know from the literary source Ma’alim al-iman (written by Ibn Naji, d.1494, drawing on an account by Abu Bakr ‘Atiq ibn Khalaf at-Tujibi, d.1031) that not only lustre-painted tiles were sent from Baghdad to Qairawan, but also a craftsman skilled in the production of lustre.

It is probable that this craftsman brought with him assistants, that he was perhaps the head of a lustre-producing atelier back in Baghdad, and that after they had finished the Qairawan job he and his companions settled in North Africa, there establishing a limited industry of lustre production. In fact, Ibn Hawqal who visited Ifriqiya c. 950 said that the lustre produced in Tunisia was as beautiful as that imported from Iraq.


B.2. Tulunids and Ikhshidids:

The next step, from the C9th production of lustre in the Iraqi style to the fully-fledged C11th Fatimid monochrome lustre style, is probably to be found with the Tulunids. This dynasty was established in Egypt in 868 by Ahmad ibn Tulun, the founder of the second most important mosque in Fustat after the mosque of ‘Amr, who came to Egypt from Samarra and so provides a direct connection between the Iraqi craft and the Egyptian.

Disturbances in southern Mesopotamia c.869-883 had uprooted the artists of Basra, which was probably the second most important production centre for Iraqi lustre after Baghdad and which was destroyed in 871 during a period of civil unrest: Schnyder in his article "Tulunidische Lüsterfayence" (Ars Orientalis, V (1963)) argues that these potters were encouraged to migrate to the rising artistic centre that was Tulunid Egypt. Ibn Tulun had been raised in Samarra and, as we can see in his mosque, was greatly influenced by the exciting cultural and artistic innovations made under the ‘Abbasids at this time; thus he may have offered refuge, work and patronage to the displaced Mesopotamian artists.

Though there is actually no evidence to support this theory, it may be that the large number of poly- and mono-chrome lustre sherds found in Fustat and Behnasa (in Upper Egypt) were manufactured there by Mesopotamian potters. Other scholars believe that all the C9th ceramics found in Egypt were imported from the ‘Abbasid empire: however, all agree that the lustre found in Tulunid Egypt is indistinguishable from that found at Samarra.

To read more about the Tulunids, click on the button below to proceed to Lecture 2: 'The Political Initiative for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo and its Relation to Samarra', by Mariam Rosser-Owen:

Click here to proceed to the lecture

The Tulunid dynasty prospered in Egypt until 905 when a long period of anarchy prevailed until the founding of the Ikhshidid dynasty in 935. This period would not have been conducive to a ceramic industry of any significance, and so we can postulate with a fair degree of certainty that there was no lustre production in Egypt for about 30 years, whether or not there had been an industry there before: lustre sherds discovered at Fustat from this period cannot therefore have been locally manufactured.

The founder of the Ikshidid dynasty, Muhammad ibn Tugh al-Ikshid, established this dynasty’s rule in Egypt in 935; they reigned for 35 years, until the peaceful transition to Fatimid rule in 969. Though little is known of the Ikshidid’s artistic activity, they perhaps attempted to recapture the luxury and splendour of the Tulunid period and may have imported craftsmen to help with this revival. By this time the economic conditions were poor in the ‘Abbasid empire, and so potters may have migrated willingly to Egypt. Once in Egypt, the potters would have continued to develop their style of decoration using the traditions around them and the Samarra heritage behind them; perhaps a slow change takes place in this period, where the potters increasingly incorporate the local decorative traditions, a mixture of Greek, Roman, Coptic, Byzantine, Spanish and Maghrebi inspirations.

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B.3. The Qal’a of the Banu Hammad:

Lastly, excavations at Qal’a Banu Hammad (founded 1007, destroyed 1152) in present-day Algeria have revealed kilns and wasters evidencing the local production of polychrome lustre (see Lucien Golvin: Recherches Archéologiques à la Qal’a des Banu Hammad, Paris 1965). This is very surprising at such a late date, since monochrome lustre dominates the trend from the late C9th: Fehérvári believes the only plausible explanation of this to be that "just as during the slave rebellion in the late C9th the rising Tulunid dynasty attracted the craftsmen of Basra into Egypt, so in the early C11th the new and prosperous Hammadid dynasty invited some of the descendants of these artists from Egypt to Algiers".


B.4. Theories of technology transfer:

How did the technology for lustre painting ever reach Egypt at all? As we have already seen above, in discussing the mosque of Qairawan, the evidence tells us a potter came from Baghdad to make the mihrab tiles: thus the technology was transmitted by the direct transfer of people from ‘Abbasid Iraq.

Mason outlines the traditional arguments for the direct transfer theory in the Fatimid period: the main one is the simultaneous cessation in Iraq and commencement in Egypt of a technology which is usually assumed to be the monopoly of a few who pass it down through generations: "the terminal Iraqi and initial Egyptian parallels are so close they represent continuation". The restricted nature of knowledge of the lustre technique also suggests that there is only one centre of production at any time in each region: for example in this case, Basra and Fustat.

The next argument is the very close stylistic similarities between late Iraqi lustre and early Fatimid lustre: copies of Iraqi products were widespread in C9th and C10th, but the first Fustat products are in some cases indistinguishable from Basra products. For example, the vessel shapes especially those bowls with a ringed foot based on the Chinese models from which the ‘Abbasid potters derived their inspiration; the motifs especially the palmette, and the arrangement of the decoration, particularly on the exterior.

Most recently, scientific studies have enabled scholars to draw new conclusions on technology transfer, by looking at similarities and developments in the production methods employed: for example, making white slip with crushed quartz, opacifying glazes with the addition of tin oxide, the addition of glass particles to the ceramic body leading eventually to the invention of stonepaste, which develops fully in Egypt and from there is transmitted to rest of the Islamic world.

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B.5. Diaspora:

So what is it that brought the potters from Basra to Fustat? There had probably been a market in Egypt since C9th, and as we have seen above there were disturbances in Mesopotamia in the late C9th which may have led Iraqi potters to seek patronage under the Tulunids. However, it must have been a more specific agency that caused a full-scale migration of the potters’ ateliers around the end of C10th, for example growing economic decline in Iraq, the increasingly prosperous Fatimid court an attractive alternative: but would ‘Abbasid pottery be tolerable in a Fatimid context, the dynasty who conspicuously built mosques without minarets to show their opposition to the ‘Abbasids? There are no finds of Fatimid wares in Iraq, Iran, or other parts of the Islamic world which still recognised the ‘Abbasid caliphs, so perhaps it was Shi’ism that attracted the potters. This compares neatly with the Shi’i potters of Kashan, who were probably the great-grandchildren of these first Iraqi settlers in Egypt.

The idea of a diaspora of potters makes sense of other ceramic industries which begin in Syria, Spain, Sicily and the Maghreb. At the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171, we assume that the potters migrated back towards their original homeland and settled in Kashan, but it is equally likely that breakaway groups settled elsewhere, and perhaps it is more likely that they settled in the Mediterranean region. We know there is contact between the Fatimid caliphs and their counterparts: Roger II and al-‘Aziz wrote each other letters and exchanged gifts, as did the caliph with the Byzantine rulers, and there is some suggestion of the direct transfer of technology as the painted ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo displays Islamic motifs, some of them very Fatimid in character, and was perhaps painted by Muslim craftsmen sent over from Egypt as a gift. Thus, only one or two individuals may have decided to branch away from the family business, moving to Syria to produce "Tell Minis" ware, ultimately developing into "Raqqa" ware; or settling in Spain and producing what ultimately became the lustre production of C14th Málaga, so popular with European royal houses.

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Compare with:
The Pottery of Spain and North Africa ||
"Tell Minis" Ware || Raqqa Lustre


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