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


Lecture Index:
Part One: Samanid Epigraphic Pottery
  Section Bibliography
Appendix: A Preliminary List of Proverbs
from Samanid Epigraphic Pottery
Link to
Part Two:
Poetry and Pottery in the
Late Seljuk Period
Back to Samanid Ceramics Index



A considerable proportion of art and artifacts produced in Islamic societies have a textual dimension. Inscriptions abound on all manner of material culture from architecture to textiles, conveying a great variety of messages. This prominence of writing could be related, at least in part, to the influence of the Koran and its recurrent emphasis on recording by the pen. The near omnipresence of inscriptions on works of art, ranging in scale from the monumental to the miniature, amounts to a wealth of historical and cultural information. These often include fundamental data about the maker, owner or patron, date, and place, providing essential clues for a correct attribution. Other, non-documentary, types of texts can constitute a gateway to understanding some of the meanings invested in a work through writing. The particular choice of Koranic inscriptions used on a public building such as a mosque, for example, may disclose the religious, political, or social concerns of its sponsor. This marriage between literary texts - religious or secular - and buildings has been recognized as a means to publicly assert ideas sanctioned by the polity behind the architectural enterprise.

The semantic connection between inscribed literary texts and less “monumental” works, however, largely remains to be investigated and appreciated. This is the case especially with ceramic objects from the greater Iranian world which, between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, were frequently inscribed with literary texts (typically consisting of expressions of good wishes, wise sayings, or poetry). This two-part essay explores the types and functions of such texts and seeks to understand the development of the relationship between literary text and ceramic object. The emphasis is therefore on the subject matter of the inscriptions which, almost surprisingly, has received little attention from scholars who have often treated these non-monumental writings as pedestrian or irrelevant. Such dismissive judgments have been misguided and unproductive. Here, the content of the inscriptions will be considered in connection with their particular physical context (the potentially utilitarian ceramic object) and, from the late twelfth century onwards, also with their pictorial context (the image with which the text may be juxtaposed). This preliminary examination of the various functions of literary epigraphy is based on the idea that a contextual examination of these inscriptions can provide us with a valuable conduit to the union of material culture, literary tradition, and pictorial representation.

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