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


Part One: Samanid Epigraphic Pottery:

A well-known type of ceramic ware produced in eastern Iran and Central Asia between the ninth and eleventh centuries (corresponding approximately to the duration of the Samanid dynasty) and generally identified as “Samanid epigraphic pottery” constitutes the first substantial group of ceramic vessels consistently decorated with calligraphic writing. Inscriptions of Arabic proverbs and good wishes make up the main form of decoration on these finely potted earthenwares which have been excavated in the cities of Nishapur, Samarkand, as well as other sites in Khurasan and Transoxiana, with findings from as far east as Otrar in southern Kazakstan. The inscriptions are written in brownish or purplish black slip, sometimes with the addition of a tomato red, on a white slip background. There is a wide range of quality and style but all are remarkable for the rhythmic and bold effect achieved by the varieties of the Kufic calligraphy used for the inscriptions.

Many examples of Samanid epigraphic pottery are inscribed with expressions of good wishes that bestow blessings on the owner or amount to the general sentiment of “bon appetit”. While the former type of wishes conform to a generic expression used across all regions and periods of Islamic culture, the latter refers specifically to the potential function of these vessels as containers for food. The great majority of the inscriptions are, however, not expressions of good wishes but what may loosely be classified as wise sayings or proverbs. An attempt by the Iranian scholar Abdullah Ghouchani to trace the source of the inscriptions he collected in a monograph revealed that at least a small proportion is derived from hadith literature and the sayings attributed to the caliph cAli. This line of inquiry is indeed crucial for a full contextualization of this artistic phenomenon; however, for the purposes of this essay, concerned not with the sources but rather with the subject matter of the inscriptions, the term “proverb” will be used in its most general sense of a wise saying.

A preliminary survey of published examples of Samanid epigraphic pottery is a good starting point for discerning the themes of the proverbs chosen for inscription on these objects. A longlist of forty-one inscriptions (see Appendix) has been assembled by consulting major secondary sources (see Bibliography) to provide a representative - though certainly not exhaustive - collection of such proverbs. The main thrust of the themes addressed by the proverbs is the exhortation of virtuous conduct and the corresponding denunciation of depravity. Closer examination and classification reveal that the largest and relatively discrete group consists of sayings that revolve particularly around the theme of generosity (figs. 1and 2). Some of these proverbs praise the act of giving and urge the reader to do so while others warn against the danger of coveting material wealth. Still others glorify generosity and generous people and denounce greed and misers. Other themes found in the proverbs prescribe the virtues of various other forms of proper conduct (figs. 3, 4, and 5). Among these are proverbs that advise such virtues as modesty, patience, loyalty, learning, and deliberation before action; some others warn against talkativeness, undue self-satisfaction, and a lack of seriousness.

This initial survey of the subject matter of the inscriptions on Samanid epigraphic pottery reveals a distinct emphasis on codes of social and personal conduct. The majority of them prescribe behavior that would regulate and enhance communal norms. The large number of proverbs commending generosity as well as the large number of vessels inscribed with those proverbs are significant. They lend weight to the idea that the very function of such ceramic vessels in the offering and acceptance of food allowed them to have a prescriptive “voice” in defining the moral parameters of a basic form of human exchange. As yet, we do not have a sense of the chronology by which all of these proverbs were introduced as inscriptions on utilitarian vessels. But it may well be that the large number of proverbs devoted to the theme of generosity indicate a primary or initial association of the function of these inscriptions with the instruction of conduct in the offering and consumption of food. It may be that only in a secondary development, or by natural extension from this particular type of moral instruction into the wider realm of general ethical behavior, were proverbs on other sundry aspects of virtuous conduct introduced as inscriptions.

We may also contextualize these prescriptive vessels through medieval texts that discuss various aspects of personal conduct, social etiquette, and moral obligation. A well-known contemporary mirror-for-princes, the Qabusnama, for example, devotes one chapter to the etiquette of eating and another to wine drinking, followed by a chapter on hospitality and the duties of a host. The chapter on the etiquette of eating states that it is the “rule of Islam” that while eating in company, which is prescribed particularly for midday meals, one must take time from the consumption of food to converse with one’s fellow diners. The author then emphasizes the importance of generosity on the part of the host and moderation on the part of the guest.

A more systematic account of expected dining behavior can be found in the philosopher-theologian Ghazali’s late eleventh-century guide to religious and daily life, the “Revival of the Religious Sciences”. In the section entitled “Book of the Conventions of Eating,” Ghazali discusses the etiquette of dining, both alone and with company. He outlines seven points related to eating with companions. The first point stresses attention to rank and the second remarks on the importance of conversation during the meal. Here, Ghazali states that it is the custom of the cajam (non-Arabs) not to keep silent during a meal but to speak of morally-commendable topics, such as stories about well-known pious men. The other five points deal with ways of attending to one’s fellow diners, manners of offering and politely insisting, appropriate measures of consumption in company, and proper conventions of hygiene such as handwashing and the use of toothpicks.

In both of these accounts, produced in regions and by persons whose general cultural orientation was akin to that of the Samanids, it is made clear that proper conversation is a required component of eating in company. This is followed in both cases with explicit prescriptions of proper behavior toward one’s fellow diners, stressing acts of generosity, measured consumption, and courteous and informed interaction with others. These prescriptions tally remarkably well with the content and tone of the proverbs, allowing us to picture the ambience of settings in which Samanid epigraphic pottery would have been both suitable and welcome, literally, as “conversation pieces”. Taking stock of the content of the inscriptions also opens up to us the probability that Samanid epigraphic pottery derived from a cultural recognition of the particular social environment in which the physical object participates and from an aspiration to articulate that association verbally.

Although the production of Samanid epigraphic pottery seems to be a discrete phenomenon, the idea of inscribing objects in recognition of their function and participation in social experience and interaction was not limited to these ceramics from eastern Iran and Central Asia. In early tenth-century Baghdad, the belles-lettrist Muhammad al-Washsha’ composed an etiquette manual, entitled Kitab al-zarf wa’l-zurafa’ (“The Book of Elegance and Elegant People,” also known as the Kitab al-muwashsha’), the last twenty chapters of which he dedicated to a variety of verses deemed appropriate for inscription on books, clothing, and other objects of daily use, such as cups, bowls, bottles and even mosquito nets and fly-whisks. The listing of these verses is part and parcel of the author’s exposition of the required behavior, appearance, and paraphernalia of the would-be cultured individual. It is also much like a catalog of literary epigraphy, possibly designed to encourage conspicuous consumption of poetic expression and personal luxury items. The tenor and form of these prescribed inscriptions differ from the inscriptions on Samanid pottery insofar as al-Washsha’’s inscriptions are poetic and not morally prescriptive but, in general, rather indulgently descriptive of occasions when the objects would be put into use. On the other hand, they do seem to derive from a similar interest in verbally embellishing and articulating the social environment in which the object and its owner or user would participate.

Early examples of objects carrying literary inscriptions are extremely limited but not altogether absent, providing at least some evidence for both the poetic practice extensively illustrated by al-Washsha’ and the didactic one developed to a great extent slightly later in Samanid epigraphic pottery. A glass dish attributed to eighth- or ninth-century Egypt is inscribed with both good wishes and verses which may have been composed by cAliya bint al-Mahdi, the daughter of the Abbasid caliph (see Stefano Carboni, Glass of the Sultans [New York, 2001], cat. no. 104). A molded ceramic dish in the British Museum (1963 4-24 1) usually dated to ninth-century Baghdad and inscribed in Kufic with verses attributed to the poet Muhammad Bashir b. al-Khariji fits al-Washsha’’s bill quite well (fig. 6): “Do not abandon the hope, long though the quest may endure, that you will find ease of heart, if but to patience you cling”. Only two other inscribed ceramic objects of the same type are known and both of these seem to anticipate the character of Samanid epigraphic pottery: one is inscribed with a proverb about patience and the other with a proverb on generosity: “There is no good in wealth if it is not with a generous giving hand” (see Sotheby’s London auction catalog, Islamic and Indian Art, 25th April 1996, lot 38). We may thus trace the early practice of literary epigraphy on objects to Abbasid Iraq, and perhaps more particularly to a trend cultivated among the social circles of Baghdad addressed by al-Washsha’.

The extent of the early production of objects bearing literary inscriptions is unclear; this is probably just a matter of survival. The handful of extant objects - ceramic and otherwise - does at least indicate that the practice was not an invention of the Samanid period or regions. Nevertheless, Samanid epigraphic pottery represents a clear surge in the demand for inscribed objects executed in a discrete, almost uniform, style and the emergence of a specifically moralizing focus in the messages contained in the inscriptions. As such, these ceramic vessels may be thought to have succesfully combined the aesthetic and ethical aspirations of the societies of the eastern medieval Islamdom, articulating the fruitful tension between cultural continuity and autonomy in a fragmenting empire.

top of the page   top of the page




Atil, Esin         Ceramics from the World of Islam. Washington, D.C., 1973.
Blair, Sheila         Islamic Inscriptions. New York, 1998.
Bolshakov, O.G.         “Arabskie nadpisi na polivnoy keramike sredney azii IX-XII vv.” Epigrafika Vostoka 16 (1963): 35-55; 17 (1966): 54-62; 19 (1969): 42-50.
Bulliet, Richard W.         “Pottery Styles and Social Status in Medieval Khurasan.” In Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory, ed. A. Bernard Knapp. Cambridge, 1992.
          Calligraphic Ceramics from Eastern Iran. Exh. cat., University of Iowa Museum of Art. Iowa City, 1974.
Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad         Über die guten Sitten beim Essen und Trinken, trans. H. Kindermann. Leiden, 1964.
Ghouchani, Abdullah         Katibaha-ye sufal-i Nayshabur. Tehran, 1364/1986.
Grübe, Ernst J.         Cobalt and Lustre: The First Centuries of Islamic Pottery. London, 1994.
Kayka’us b. Iskandar         A Mirror for Princes: The Qabus Nama. Trans. Reuben Levy. New York, 1951.
Pinder-Wilson, Ralph         “A Lustre relief dish of the early Islamic period.” British Museum Quarterly 27/3-4 (1963-4): 91-5.
Raby, Julian         “Looking for Silver in Clay: A New Perspective on Samanid Ceramics.” In Pots and Pans: A Colloquium on Precious Metals and Ceramics in the Muslim, Chinese and Greco-Roman Worlds, Oxford 1985. pp. 179-204. Oxford, 1986.
          Terres secrètes de Samarcande: Céramiques du VIIIe au XIIIe siècle. Exh. cat., Institut du Monde Arabe. Paris, 1992.
Ventrone, Giovanna         “Iscrizioni inedite su ceramica samanide in collezione italiane.” In Gururajamañjarika: Studi in onore di Giuseppe Tucci. Vol. 1, pp. 221-32. Ed. Antonio Forte et al. Naples, 1974.
Volov, Lisa         “Plaited Kufic on Samanid Epigraphic Pottery.” Ars Orientalis 6 (1966): 107-34.
Al-Washsha’, Abu’l-??ayyib Muhammad         Kitab al-muwashsha’, ed. R. Brünnow. Leiden, 1886.
Wilkinson, Charles K.         Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period. New York, 1974.
top of the page   top of the page


Back to Samanids Section || Next to Appendix of Proverbs
Back to Main Menu