Lecture 3 (b):
"Functions of Literary Epigraphy on
Medieval Islamic Ceramics"
by Dr Oya Pancaroglu


Lecture Index:
Part Two: Poetry and Pottery in the
Late Seljuk Period
  Section Bibliography
Link to
Part One:
Samanid Epigraphic Pottery
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Part Two: Poetry and Pottery in the Late Seljuk Period:

It was towards the end of the twelfth century that the impetus for embellishing objects with literary inscriptions revived, this time on ceramics produced in a variety of techniques in Kashan and possibly elsewhere in Iran. This late Seljuk period artistic trend may be related to Samanid epigraphic ware, which petered out sometime in the eleventh century, in terms of its comeback on the relatively affordable ceramic medium and, as we shall see, in terms of its general ethical significance. Rather than proverbs in Arabic, however, this wave of literary epigraphy consisted almost exclusively of poetry in Persian, allowing us to associate the phenomenon, on the modal level at least, with the catalog of inscriptional poetry in al-Washsha’’s handbook. Nevertheless, in certain respects this later development of literary epigraphy seems to reflect not just the abiding demand for inscribed vessels in the medieval Islamic world but also particular artistic trends which distinguish the late Seljuk period.

Although there is no abundant evidence for a continuous demand for poetic epigraphy throughout the medieval Islamic periods, it would be wrong to assume that there was a total hiatus between the Abbasid and the Seljuk periods or that the practice was exclusive to ceramic objects. A penbox dated 1148 in the Hermitage—the earliest dated inlaid metalwork—for example, bears several poetic inscriptions. One of these poems portrays the relationship between the pen and the inkwell in erotic terms and another relates the symbolic association between the writer and his utensils. The practice of inscribing poetry for the fundamental task of “giving voice” to a potentially utilitarian object in accordance with both its function and its metaphorical participation in related human activity and behavior also extended to architectural contexts. The audience hall of the palace of the Ghaznavid sultan Mas’ud III (r. 1009-1115) in Ghazni was inscribed with Persian verses in the epic style that must have served to enhance the royal character of the ceremonial space in which the sultan held audience. In a different tone, Arabic poetic inscriptions written as graffiti on architecture were collected in the tenth century by an anonymous author in Iraq into an anthology called the Kitab al-ghuraba’ (“Book of Strangers”). These verses of nostalgic and frequently melancholic content are attributed to pensive travelers searching for consolation in the face of temporary homelessness.

The overwhelming majority of poetic epigraphy on late Seljuk ceramics is in the form of the rubaci (quatrain), in Persian, most frequently treating the subject of love. The rubaci is an epigrammatic expression which consists of four hemistiches and its own metrical scheme of Persian origin. As a succinct and predictable mode of poetic expression, it served frequently as a poetic interpolation in prose composition, both oral and written. Its popularity allowed the rubaci to be embedded not only into other textual contexts but also into visual or material contexts in the form of inscriptions. This latter remarkable function of the rubaci in the late Seljuk period has been largely unappreciated, as art historians, into whose research domain the inscribed rubacis fall, have often dismissed and sometimes even belittled these compositions. At best, these poetic inscriptions have been seen as potential signifiers of popular taste even if irrelevant to a fundamental art historical analysis of the object on which they appear. And, at worst, they have been compared, in a recent survey of Islamic art, to “greeting card doggerel of the order: Roses are red, violets are blue”. To-date only two scholars, both Iranian, have made an effort to read and publish these poetic inscriptions but neither was concerned to contextualize or explain the phenomenon.

Whatever one may think of their literary worth, the remarkable presence of these poems on ceramic objects and tiles merits an unbiased consideration. The inscription of rubacis as the sole or primary form of decoration on objects, as we see on many examples, must have been a compelling and direct invitation to engage with and read the writing on the object (fig. 1). And it should not be too farfetched to presume that the act of reading in all probability resulted in the contemplation of the contents of the poem on the topic of love. Like its Samanid predecessors, engagement with epigraphic Kashan pottery yielded ethical insight through recognition of the values communicated by the writing. However, these poetic inscriptions are not directly didactic as the earlier proverbs were. Rather, they require a primary awareness of verses on the topic of love serving as a conduit to an appreciation of the ethical exigencies of the experience of love. Furthermore, the poems’ significance resides not so much in socially-oriented messages embedded into social norms as with the proverbs but is instead aligned on the level of the individual, exploring the psychological dimensions of the experience of love.

Thus, a typical rubaci, one that was very frequently inscribed on luster ware, reads:

In the world of love, grief is no less than joy;
Whoever is not glad to grieve, is not happy.
However wide the wilderness of calamity may be,
I have seen that, for the foot of love, it is not even a step.


Here, and in the great majority of the other inscribed rubacis, the plaintive yet resigned voice of the lover speaks of his recognition of love’s demand for self-sacrifice and his quest for happiness only within the agonizing confines of his loverhood. Personal ethical insight is to be gained from the idea that the quest for love is the ultimate test of character. The primary means of achieving righteousness is through the practice of virtues required of the lover in his unconditional loyalty and service to the beloved. Objects on which such sentiments are inscribed in the form of poetry thus became a portable, material medium for the contemplation of ethical values that were part and parcel of the experience of love. But the nature of the epigraphic practice was more complex than that and this becomes evident with objects and tiles that carry not only poetic inscriptions but figural imagery as well.

Three bowls painted in the mina’i technique from the 1180’s signed by the potter Abu Zayd are decorated with a particular iconography which can be interpreted as a recitation scene consisting of a figure set asymmetrically off to one side reciting before an audience of possibly courtly individuals (fig. 2). All three of these bowls are inscribed with poetry, both on the interior and on the exterior where it is followed by the peculiar signature of Abu Zayd. The signature on the bowl dated 1186 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, reads: “Its narrator (qa’iluhu) and writer/author (katibuhu) is Abu Zayd after (bacda ma) he made it (camilahu)”. This identification of Abu Zayd as not just the potter of the ceramic bowl but also as both “narrator” and “writer/author” of the verses points in the direction of an artistic production where text and image merge in meaning by means of recognition of the role of the artist. Here, it is unclear whether Abu Zayd himself composed the verses since the word katib could be interpreted either as author or scribe. But his qualification as “narrator” at the end of the inscriptional program sets up a semantic parallel between text and image as the latter portrays the scene of narration before an audience.

The earliest extant star tile by Abu Zayd, dated to 1203, depicts four figures seated outdoors and surrounded by three lines of an undeciphered poem in Arabic, a partially intact rubaci in Persian, and the signature of the artist (see Ghouchani, Ashcar-i Farsi, p. 1). This last element of the inscription, following the poetry, reads: “Belonging to its scribe (li-katibihi), Abu Zayd, after he made it (camilahu) and decorated it (sanacahu) on Wednesday eve of the end of Safar of the year 600 of the Arab Hijra”. This signature presents Abu Zayd as maker and decorator of the tile and, additionally through the phrase “belonging to,” assigns to him the role of authorship of the verses he inscribed on the tile. Similar to but more forcefully than the signatures on the bowls, the signature on this tile indicates that text and image were conceived and coordinated by a single artist.

It is on the basis of such signatures that we may interpret text and image juxtapositions as integral components of a complete composition, rather than as disjointed elements. Thus, in similar asymmetrical recitation compositions of seated figures surrounded by love poetry, the identification of the one figure set off to one side takes on a special dimension. This figure, whose position and hand gestures convey the notion of an oral recital, could be linked to the voice of the poet of the surrounding verses even in the absence of an explicit signature. Such a conceptual linkage would have been primarily informed by the analogous natures of the lover-beloved relationshipon the one hand and the poet-audience/patron relationship on the other hand. In this framework, the idea of an integrated text-image composition is bolstered by the poet-audience imagery giving a pictorial context to the lover-beloved relationship expressed in the poetic text. Conversely, we may regard the poetry providing the verbal context for the imagery.

The proliferation of figural imagery between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries coincided with a new wave of literary inscriptions. More than just a happy coincidence, these visual and verbal representation worked in tandem with each other to enhance the potential of the artistic composition to speak to both aesthetic and intellectual aspirations of contemporary society. Potters such as Abu Zayd expanded the horizons of an artistic tradition which realized the potential of the felicitous marriage between the utilitarian—and relatively affordable—ceramic vessel and the ethics contained in the inscribed proverb or love poem. Recognizing this potential brings us one step closer towards a better understanding of the union of material and literary culture in medieval Islamic societies.

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Bahrami, Mehdi         “La reconstruction des carreaux de Damghan d’après leurs inscriptions.” In IIIe Congrès International d’Art et d’Archéologie Iranien: Memoires, pp. 18-20. Leningrad, 1939.
Bahrami, Mehdi         Gurgan Faiences, reprint. Costa Mesa, Ca., 1988.
          The Book of Strangers: Medieval Arabic Graffiti on the Theme of Nostalgia. Trans. Patricia Crone and Shmuel Moreh. Princeton, 2000.
Elwell-Sutton, P.,         “The ‘Rubaci’ in Early Persian Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 4, pp. 633-57. Cambridge, 1975.
Ghouchani, Abdullah         “Sufalinaha-ye zarrinfam va naqqashi-shoda-ye zir-lacab.” Majalla-ye Bastanshenasi va Tarikh 1 (1366/1987): 30-41.
Ghouchani, Abdullah         Ashcar-i Farsi-ye Takht-i Sulayman. Tehran, 1371/1992.
Ghouchani, Abdullah         “Sufalgaran-i Kashan va shicr-i Farsi.” Nashr-i Danesh 14/6 (1373/1994): 31-40.
Grube, Ernst J.,         Cobalt and Lustre: The First Centuries of Islamic Pottery. London, 1994.
Gyuzalian, L.T.,         “The Bronze Qalamdan (Pencase) 542/1148 from the Hermitage Collection. Ars Orientalis 7 (1968): 95-119.
Meisami, Julie Scott         Medieval Persian Court Poetry. Princeton, 1987.
Pancaroglu, Oya         “‘A World Unto Himself’: The Rise of a New Human Image in the Late Seljuk Period (1150-1250). Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2000.
Watson, Oliver         “Documentary Mina’i and Abu Zaid’s Bowls.” In The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia, ed. R. Hillenbrand, pp. 170-80. Costa Mesa, Ca., 1994.
Watson, Oliver         Persian Lustre Ware. London, 1985.
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