HISTORY OF ISLAMIC ART

ART AND ARCHITECTURE OF THE UMAYYAD PERIOD (661–750)


Dome of the Rock

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “After the death of Muhammad in 632, a series of four caliphs (Arabic: khalifa, "successor"), known as the Rightly Guided, succeeded. Under their command, the Arab armies carried the new faith from Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean and to the eastern reaches of Iran. However, following the assassination of cAli ibn Abi Talib—Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and fourth caliph (r. 656–61)—in 661, Mucawiya, the governor of Syria under the Rightly Guided Caliphs, seized power and established the Umayyad caliphate, the first Islamic dynasty (661–750). During Mucawiya's reign (661–80), the seat of Islamic power was transferred from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria. Under Mucawiya's successors, the important historic city of Damascus was transformed into the capital of an empire that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff metmuseum.org \^/]

“The Umayyad period is often considered the formative period in Islamic art. At first, even though Arabic became the official language and Islam the principal religion of the diverse lands unified under Umayyad rule, artists continued to work in their established manner. The main artistic influence came from the late antique classical naturalistic tradition, which had been prevalent on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This was also supplemented by the more formal modes developed by the Byzantines and Sasanians, a factor that especially affected metalwork, textiles, and the depiction of animal, vegetal, and figural motifs. With time, however, artists developed new techniques, forms, and decorative conventions that distinguished their works from earlier ones. Thus, through a process of adoption, adaptation, and creation, a new sense of artistic expression emerged that became distinctly Islamic in character shortly after the demise of the Umayyad dynasty.\^/

“As with the arts, the Umayyad period was also critical in the development of Islamic architecture. While earlier architectural traditions continued, the requirements of the new religion and customs of the new Arab rulers necessitated a different usage of space. In the case of religious buildings, the Umayyads often constructed their monuments on sites of historical or symbolic significance. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691), the first major Umayyad architectural undertaking completed under the patronage of the caliph cAbd al-Malik (r. 685–705), was built on a prominent site formerly occupied by Solomon's Temple and later associated with Muhammad's ascent to heaven. Other renowned religious buildings from the Umayyad period date from the reign of al-Walid (r. 705–15) and include the enlarged mosque in Medina (706–10), the former house of Muhammad. Also significant are the mosques of Damascus (706), where the site of the former Roman temple and fourth-century Byzantine church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist was transformed into the congregational mosque of the Umayyad capital, and of Jerusalem (709–15). In terms of secular architecture, Umayyad desert palaces such as Mshatta, Qasr cAmra (Jordan), cAnjar (Lebanon), Khirbat al-Mafjar (Palestine), and Qasr al-Hayr East and West (Syria) (all ca. 700–750), are a testimony to the wealth of their patrons and the creativity of Umayyad architects.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art, Architecture and Images: Islamic Art And Architecture spmarchitecture.com ; British Museum britishmuseum.org Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers museumwnf.org ; Architecture of Islam ne.jp/asahi/arc ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT dome.mit.edu ; Wikipedia article on Islamic architecture Wikipedia ; Islamic Finder islamicfinder.org/gallery/index ; Islamology Picture gallery islamology.com/gallery ; Islamic Images nooremadinah.net/IslamicImages/IslamicImages ; Islamic Images islamicacademy.org ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam wikiislam.net/wiki/Images:Quran ; Muslim Women zawaj.com/gallery-muslim-women-around-the-world-in-ramadan ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic calligraphyislamic.com ; Islamic Art Art History Resources witcombe.sbc.edu

Books: Creswell, K. A. C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Rev. and enl. ed. Aldershot: Scolar, 1989; Dodds, Jerrilynn D., ed. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992; Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Rev. and enl. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Online Resources: The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Art of the Umayyad Period in Spain (711–1031)


Andalus Qur'an

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “On July 19, 711, an army of Arabs and Berbers unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, through diplomacy and warfare, they brought the entire peninsula except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north under Islamic control; however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andalus by Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba. Of works of art and other material culture only coins and scant ceramic fragments remain from this early period of the Umayyad governors (711–56). [Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“When the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, the last surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain, establishing himself as Emir cAbd al-Rahman I and thus initiating the Umayyad emirate (756–929). cAbd al-Rahman I (r. 756–88) made Córdoba his capital and unified al-Andalus under his rule with a firm hand, while establishing diplomatic ties with the northern Christian kingdoms, North Africa, and the Byzantine empire and maintaining cultural contact with the Abbasids in Baghdad. The initial construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba under his patronage was the crowning achievement of this formative period of Hispano-Islamic art and architecture.\^/

“The Umayyads reclaimed their right to the caliphate during the reign of cAbd al-Rahman III (r. 912–61), who became the first Spanish Umayyad emir to declare himself caliph (929). Under the Umayyad caliphate (929–1031), Córdoba became perhaps the greatest intellectual center of Europe, with celebrated libraries and schools. Hispano-Umayyad art reached its apogee during the lengthy reign of cAbd al-Rahman III and his son al-Hakam II (r. 961–76) and the regency of the powerful cAmirids, particularly al-Mansur (978–1002), chamberlain to the nominal ruler, the child-prince Hisham II (r. 976–1013 with interruption). Despite their open rejection of Abbasid political authority, the Umayyads of Córdoba emulated the opulent palatial arts of the centers of Abbasid power, Baghdad and Samarra’. There was also influence from the Fatimid rulers, who had established an independent Shici caliphate in North Africa in 909 and occupied Egypt in 969. Perhaps in response to these eastern Mediterranean cultural impulses, which coexisted with a strong indigenous artistic component, there began to appear in Córdoba a revival of the Umayyad period, almost a nostalgia for the time when the Umayyads ruled the Islamic world from Damascus. Art patronage as a sign of kingship and authority is a theme that emerged from these creative appropriations from abroad and the past. Luxurious objects such as boxes of carved ivory and gilt silver, bronze animal statuary, and richly figured silks were commissioned for palaces decorated with ornate marble capitals, stucco wall panels, and marble fountains. cAbd al-Rahman III's palace city at Madinat al-Zahra’ set the standard for artistic taste in the caliphate, and al-Hakam II's addition to the Great Mosque of Córdoba marked the imposition of a palatial level of luxury and hierarchy on this religious monument.\^/

Books: Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.\^/

Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)


Diʻbil al-Khuzāʻī-Arabic Praise poetry on Ali al-Ridha-Tiling-Balasar Mosque

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “Under the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258), which succeeded the Umayyads (661–750) in 750, the focal point of Islamic political and cultural life shifted eastward from Syria to Iraq, where, in 762, Baghdad, the circular City of Peace (madinat al-salam), was founded as the new capital. The Abbasids later also established another city north of Baghdad, called Samarra’ (an abbreviation of the sentence "He who sees it rejoices"), which replaced the capital for a brief period (836–83). The first three centuries of Abbasid rule were a golden age in which Baghdad and Samarra’ functioned as the cultural and commercial capitals of the Islamic world. During this period, a distinctive style emerged and new techniques were developed that spread throughout the Muslim realm and greatly influenced Islamic art and architecture. [Source: Yalman, Suzan. Based on original work by Linda Komaroff. "The Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)" Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Since the style set by the capital was used throughout the Muslim world, Baghdad and Samarra’ became associated with the new artistic and architectural trend. As virtually nothing remains from Abbasid Baghdad today, the site of Samarra’ is particularly significant for understanding the art and architecture of the Abbasid period. In Samarra’, a new way of carving surfaces, the so-called beveled style, as well as a repetition of abstract geometric or pseudo-vegetal forms, later to be known in the West as "arabesque," were widely used as wall decoration and became popular in other media such as wood, metalwork, and pottery. In pottery, Samarra’ also witnessed an extensive use of color in decoration and, possibly, the introduction of the technique of luster painting over a white glaze. Admired for its glittering effect reminiscent of precious metal, luster painting, the most notable technical achievement at the time, spread in the following centuries from Iraq to Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Spain and eventually also contributed to the development of ceramic decoration in the Western world. In terms of architecture, along with the palace of Jawsaq al-Khaqani (ca. 836 onward), the mosques of al-Mutawakkil (848–52) and Abu Dulaf (859–61) in Samarra’ were important in setting the style that was emulated in regions as far as Egypt or Central Asia, where it was adapted to need and taste.\^/

“In the tenth century, Abbasid political unity weakened and independent or semi-autonomous local dynasties were established in Egypt, Iran, and other parts of the realm. Following the capture of Baghdad by the Buyids (932–1062) and Seljuks (1040–1194) in 945 and 1055, Abbasid caliphs retained little more than moral and spiritual influence as the heads of Orthodox Sunni Islam. The Abbasid realm witnessed a brief revival under caliphs al-Nasir (r. 1180–1225) and al-Mustansir (r. 1226–42), when Baghdad once again became the greatest center for the arts of the book in the Islamic world and the Mustansiriyya Madrasa (1228–33), the first college for the four canonical schools of Sunni law, was built. However, this burst of artistic vitality came to a temporary halt with the sack of Baghdad by the Ilkhanid branch of the Mongols in 1258. Though surviving Abbasids fled to Mamluk Egypt, these caliphs would only have nominal influence. The end of the Abbasid caliphate thus marked the end of the universal Arab-Muslim empire.” \^/

Art and Architecture of the Fatimid Period (909–1171)


Fatamid rock crystal ewer

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “In the tenth to twelfth centuries, an area including present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Egypt, and Syria came under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), an offshoot of a Shici sect from North Africa. The Fatimid rulers traced descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatima (hence Fatimid) via Ismacil, the seventh Shici imam, and thus presented a threat to the political and religious authority of the orthodox Sunni Abbasid caliph. The circular design of the city of al-Mansuriya, one of their first capitals, founded in 947, can be interpreted as a deliberate challenge to the round city of Abbasid Baghdad, the "city of peace" (madinat al-salam). This opposition became more significant following the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969. At this time, the Fatimids founded the city of Cairo (al-Qahira, "the triumphant") and established it as their new capital (973). While Egypt came to enjoy enormous prosperity primarily due to its intermediary role in the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean and India, Cairo soon rivaled the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Nearby, Old Cairo, known as al-Fustat, became a major center for the production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and rock-crystal, ivory, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created tiraz fabrics in the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, especially the Nile Delta. A novel, more refined style developed in pottery; bands with small animals and inscriptions now formed the major decoration in textiles; and rock-crystal carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves.\^/

“The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt and Syria. Some lusterware pieces from this period are signed by their makers, an indication of the esteem in which the craftsmen were held. Wood carving and jewelry were executed with equal skill and inventiveness. Fatimid artists created new decorative motifs and made greater use of figural forms, both human and animal. Figures were stylized but lively, while traditional vegetal and geometric decorations maintained their abstract quality.\^/

“In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar ("the splendid") founded along with the city (969–73), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Ismacili Shici. The Mosque of al-Hakim (r. 996–1013), an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph. Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque of al-Aqmar (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo's city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–94).” \^/

Books: Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. "Architecture of the Fatimid Period." In her Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, pp. 58–77. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989; Contadini, Anna. Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1998.

Art of the Almoravid and Almohad Periods (ca. 1062–1269)


Almoravid Koutoubia Mosque minaret in Marakesh

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Almoravid dynasty (al-Murabitun, ca. 1062–1150), a newly emerged Islamic power in North Africa, ethnically more Berber than Arab, conquered Morocco and founded Marrakesh as its capital in 1062. Led by Yusuf ibn Tashufin, the Almoravids entered al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) after the fall of Toledo in 1085 in response to the Ta’ifa leaders' pleas for help in repelling the Christian armies of northern Spain. They assumed control of al-Andalus in 1090, while maintaining their primary seat of government in Marrakesh. In this way, the Almoravids came to rule parts of the Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, and Spain and controlled important ports as well as trans-Saharan trade. [Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Repudiating the lack of piety and what they considered to be the decadence of the Ta’ifa kings, and following the conservative Malikiyya school of Islamic law, the Almoravids disdained as well the opulent arts of the Spanish Muslims. Although they began by sponsoring austere programs of architectural decoration, their later monuments and textile manufactory in Almería indicate that the Almoravids eventually succumbed to the luxury culture of al-Andalus. Especially spectacular from this period is the minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh, commissioned in 1137 by the last Almoravid sultan, cAli ibn Yusuf (r. 1106–42), for his congregational mosque. In North Africa, the mosques of Algiers (ca. 1097), Tlemcen (1136), and Qarawiyin in Fez (1135) are important architectural examples from this period.\^/

In the mid-twelfth century, the Almoravids were replaced by the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun, 1150–1269), a new Berber dynasty from North Africa. By 1150, the Almohads had taken Morocco as well as Sevilla, Córdoba, Badajoz, and Almería in the Iberian Peninsula. The Almohads made Sevilla their capital in al-Andalus, while retaining Marrakesh as their center of power in North Africa. Following the Almohad defeat by the combined armies of Aragon and Castile at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, a turning point in the peninsula's history, al-Andalus once again fractured into tribute-paying principalities, vulnerable to the depredations of Christian kingdoms. These principalities, except for Nasrid-ruled Granada, soon lost their sovereignty.\^/

“As religious reformation was integral to the Almohad establishment, their courts in Marrakesh and Sevilla became centers of Islamic learning. In Almohad arts, a rigorous style saw the increasing schematization of ornament and the continued use of geometric design. The Great Mosque and the minaret called La Giralda, which they built in Sevilla, are paradigms of Almohad style. In North Africa, architectural developments included the walls of Fez, Rabat, and Marrakesh and the mosques of Taza (1142), the Kutubiyya (Marrakesh, 1147–58), Tinmal (1153–54), the Qasba (Marrakesh, 1195), and Hasan (Rabat, 1199; unfinished).” \^/

Books: Dodds, Jerrilynn D., ed. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992; Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Art and Architecture of the Ayyubid Period (ca. 1171–1260)


Palmer Cup from the Ayyubid Period

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Ayyubid dynasty came to power under the leadership of the Kurdish Zengid general Salah al-Din (r. 1169–93), known in Europe as Saladin. After repulsing a Crusader army that had reached the gates of Fatimid Cairo and occupying Egypt on behalf of the Zengids (1160s), Salah al-Din declared the Fatimid caliphate to be at its end, and established the Ayyubid sultanate (1171). Soon thereafter, Salah al-Din also gained control over Yemen (1174) and Syria (1180s). The conflict with the Crusaders continued throughout the Ayyubid period; Jerusalem was captured by the Muslims in 1187, then, following a failed treaty, ceded until 1244, when the city was retaken for good. The sultanate depended on mamluks (slave soldiers) for its military organization, yet the end of the dynasty in 1250 was largely caused by Turkic mamluks themselves, who overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and founded the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517). [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff metmuseum.org \^/]

“In the arts, the Ayyubids are known especially for their works in inlaid metalwork and ceramics, particularly luster- and underglaze-painted wares. Some objects from this period, including a group of inlaid metalwork pieces, also have Christian scenes. Signatures of artists on refined and prized brass works inlaid with silver seem to indicate that the craftsmen were from Mosul (in present-day Iraq) and had fled from the approaching Mongol armies. In the case of ceramics produced in Syria, the influence of Seljuk Iran is prevalent. Among other arts, enameled glass rose to excellence in this period and carved wood was also esteemed by Ayyubid patrons. Techniques established and developed during this time formed the foundation of the arts in the Mamluk period.\^/

“The Ayyubids were also vigorous builders. Their generous patronage led to tremendous architectural activity in Egypt and especially in Syria, and their local courts revived the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The outstanding secular architecture from this period includes the fortified citadels of Cairo (1187) and Aleppo (early thirteenth century). Meanwhile, the establishment of madrasas, higher institutions for religious learning, such as the Zahiriya (1219) in Aleppo and that of Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (1243) in Cairo, exemplify the Ayyubid interest in Sunni education after the Shici interlude in the region under the Fatimids. Furthermore, the Madrasa al-Sahiba in Damascus (1233), built by Salah al-Din’s sister Rabia Khatun, as well as the Mausoleum of Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (1250), commissioned by his wife Shajarat al-Durr, reflects the importance of women as patrons of architecture under the Ayyubids. In terms of commemorative buildings and pious architectural initiatives, the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafici (1211) and the Tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs (1242–43) in Cairo are especially noteworthy. \^/

Books: Behrens-Abouseif, Doris "Architecture of the Ayyubid Period." In her Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, pp. 78–93.. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989; Raby, Julian, ed. The Art of Syria and the Jazira, 1100–1250. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.\^/

Art and Architecture of the Ilkhanid Period (1256–1353)


Ilkhanid tiles

According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Mongol invasions of the Islamic world began in 1221 with the conquest of eastern Iran. A more devastating wave of conquest, however, came with Genghis Khan's grandson Hülegü, when Mongol forces subjugated all of Iran and by 1258 had also taken Baghdad, thus bringing to an end the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258). Establishing rule over most of West Asia, including Iraq, Iran, Khorasan, the Caucasus, and parts of Asia Minor, Hülegü (r. 1256–65) assumed the title of "Il-Khan," meaning lesser Khan, subordinate to the Great Khan ruling in China. This branch of the Mongol dynasty, which became known as the Ilkhanids (1256–1353), centered its power in northwest Iran. [Source: Department of Education,The Metropolitan Museum of Art Based on original work by Linda Komaroff metmuseum.org \^/]

“Although Mongol conquests initially brought devastation and affected the balance of artistic production, in a short period of time, the control of most of Asia by the Mongols—the so-called Pax Mongolica—created an environment of tremendous cultural exchange. Following the conversion to Islam of the Il-Khan Ghazan (r. 1295–1304) in 1295 and the establishment of his active cultural policy in support of his new religion, Islamic art flourished once again. East Asian elements absorbed into the existing Perso-Islamic repertoire created a new artistic vocabulary, one that was emulated from Anatolia to India, profoundly affecting artistic production.\^/

“During the Ilkhanid period, the decorative arts—textiles, pottery, metalwork, jewelry, and manuscript illumination and illustration—continued along and further developed established lines. The arts of the book, however, including illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of religious and secular texts, became a major focus of artistic production. Baghdad became an important center once again. In illustration, new ideas and motifs were introduced into the repertoire of the Muslim artist, including an altered and more Chinese depiction of pictorial space, as well as motifs such as lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes. Popular subjects, also sponsored by the court, included well-known stories such as the Shahnama (Book of Kings), the famous Persian epic. Furthermore, the widespread use of paper and textiles also enabled new designs to be readily transferred from one medium to another. \^/


Ilkhanid ceramic

“Along with their renown in the arts, the Ilkhanids were also great builders. The lavishly decorated Ilkhanid summer palace at Takht-i Sulayman (ca. 1275), a site with pre-Islamic Iranian resonances, is an important example of secular architecture. The outstanding Tomb of Uljaytu (built 1307–13; r. 1304–16) in Sultaniyya, however, is the architectural masterpiece of the period. Following their conversion to Islam, the Ilkhanids built numerous mosques and Sufi shrines in cities across Iran such as Ardabil, Isfahan, Natanz, Tabriz, Varamin, and Yazd (ca. 1300–1350). After the death of the last Ilkhanid ruler of the united dynasty in 1335, the empire disintegrated and a number of local dynasties came to power in Iraq and Iran, each emulating the style set by the Ilkhanids.” \^/

Books: Carboni, Stefano, and Komaroff, Linda, eds. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002; Grube, Ernst J. Persian Painting in the Fourteenth Century: A Research Report. Naples: Istituto Orientale di Napoli, 1978; Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars: Studies in Honour of Basil W. Robinson. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000; Raby, Julian, and Teresa Fitzherbert, eds. The Court of the Il-Khans, 1290–1340. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; Safadi, Yasin Hamid. Islamic Calligraphy. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987; Soudavar, Abolala. Art of the Persian Courts: Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection. New York: Rizzoli, 1992; Wilber, Donald N. The Architecture of Islamic Iran: The Il Khanid Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.

See Mongols

Art of the Nasrid Period (1232–1492)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “Founded by Muhammad I al-Ghalib of Arjona (r. 1232–73), the Nasrid dynasty ruled Granada and neighboring Jaén, Almería, and Málaga in the southern Iberian Peninsula. The early period of Nasrid rule was characterized by insistent pressure from Christian armies from the north, which successfully conquered Valencia, Játiva, and Jaén and made the Nasrids tribute-paying vassals in 1243. The Nasrids formed tentative alliances with the Marinids of the Maghrib and kept uneasy peace with their Christian overlords. Despite its precarious political situation, for over two and a half centuries Granada served as a great cultural center of the Muslim West, attracting leading scholars and literati of the day. Severe political crises in the Maghrib in the fifteenth century, combined with the union of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon through the marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose avowed mission was the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, proved to be the downfall of the Nasrids. The last Nasrid ruler, Muhammad XII (called Boabdil by Spanish historians), was exiled to the Maghrib on January 2, 1492. The termination of Nasrid rule also brought to an end almost 800 years of an Islamic presence on the Iberian Peninsula. [Source: Department of Islamic Art,, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]


Nasrid curtain fragment from Granada, Spain

“During the fourteenth century, the Nasrid sultans dedicated themselves to the decoration of their splendid palaces. Their most singular artistic achievement was the famous Alhambra (al-qalca al-hamra), or the red castle, so-called perhaps because of the color of the walls and towers that surround the citadel. Situated on a hill overlooking Granada, the Alhambra was conceived as more than a well-fortified palace—it was a royal city. The creation of a succession of Nasrid rulers, in particular Ismacil I (r. 1314–25), Yusuf I (r. 1333–54), and Muhammad V (r. 1354–59, 1362–91), the Alhambra was a powerful image for a waning monarchy, a vast stage set for the diminishing power of the last Muslim rule on the peninsula. Work on the palace-city continued for nearly two centuries; the resulting architectural complex, with its intricate succession of rooms and courts, its rich interior facades, and its numerous gardens, fountains, and watercourses, is one of the most magnificent examples of Islamic architecture.\^/

“Nasrid arts grew from Almohad traditions but displayed far more variety and splendor than their precursors. Textiles recall the rich interior settings of the Alhambra. Also important are ceramics overglaze-decorated in luster, a technique dating back to ninth-century Iraq and dispersed to many parts of the Islamic world. Initially lusterware was manufactured in Málaga, Murcia, Almería, and possibly Granada, but by the fifteenth century, Manises, near Valencia, supplanted Málaga as the main center of luster production. These Spanish luster-painted wares, whether produced under Muslim or Christian patronage, had an important impact on the ceramic industry of Italy, where they gave rise to the development of maiolica. The finest military arts that survive from al-Andalus are also from this period; the Nasrid's luxury arms, which were probably never used in battle, offer examples of a rich craft used to support a public image.” \^/

Books: Dodds, Jerrilynn D., ed. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992; Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.\^/

Art of the Mamluk Period (1250–1517)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517) emerged from the weakening of the Ayyubid realm in Egypt and Syria (1250–60). Ayyubid sultans depended on slave (Arabic: mamluk, literally "owned," or slave) soldiers for military organization, yet mamluks of Qipchaq Turkic origin eventually overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Malik al-Ashraf (r. 1249–50) and established their own rule. Their unusual political system did not rely entirely on family succession to the throne—slaves were also recruited into the governing class. Hence the name of the sultanate later given by historians. Following the defeat of Mongol armies at the Battle of cAyn Jalut (1260), the Mamluks inherited the last Ayyubid strongholds in the eastern Mediterranean. Within a short period of time, the Mamluks created the greatest Islamic empire of the later Middle Ages, which included control of the holy cities Mecca and Medina. The Mamluk capital, Cairo, became the economic, cultural, and artistic center of the Arab Islamic world. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Mamluk history is divided into two periods based on different dynastic lines: the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) of Qipchaq Turkic origin from southern Russia, named after the location of their barracks on the Nile (al-bahr, literally "the sea," a name given to this great river), and the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517) of Caucasian Circassian origin, who were quartered in the citadel (al-burj, literally "the tower"). After receiving instruction in Arabic, the fundamentals of Islam, and the art of warfare, slaves in the royal barracks were manumitted and given responsibilities in the Mamluk hierarchy.” \^/

Books: Atil, Esin Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks. Exhibition catalogue.. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981; Behrens-Abouseif, Doris "Architecture of the Bahri Mamluks" and "Architecture of the Circassian Mamluks." In her Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, pp. 94–132 and 133–57.. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989.\^/

Art and Architecture under the Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382)


Mamluk horse armor

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Bahri reign defined the art and architecture of the entire Mamluk period. Prosperity generated by the east-west trade in silks and spices supported the Mamluks' generous patronage. Despite periods of internal struggle, there was tremendous artistic and architectural activity, developing techniques established by the Ayyubids and integrating influences from different parts of the Islamic world. Refugees from east and west contributed to the momentum. Mamluk decorative arts—especially enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles—were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, where they had a profound impact on local production. The influence of Mamluk glassware on the Venetian glass industry is only one such example. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“The reign of Baybars's ally and successor, Qala’un (r. 1280–90), initiated the patronage of public and pious foundations that included madrasas, mausolea, minarets, and hospitals. Such endowed complexes not only ensured the survival of the patron's wealth but also perpetuated his name, both of which were endangered by legal problems relating to inheritance and confiscation of family fortunes. Besides Qala’un's complex, other important commissions by Bahri Mamluk sultans include those of al-Nasir Muhammad (1295–1304) as well as the immense and splendid complex of Hasan (begun 1356). These structures were emulated by high-ranking officials and influential emirs who built similar foundations, such as the complex of Salar and Sanjar al-Jawli (begun 1303) and that of the emir Shaykhu (1350–55).” \^/

Art and Architecture under the Burji Mamluks (1382–1517)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Burji Mamluk sultans followed the artistic traditions established by their Bahri predecessors. Although the state was faced with its greatest external and internal threats in the early fifteenth century, including the devastation of the eastern Mediterranean provinces by the Central Asian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane; r. 1370–1405), as well as famine, plague, and civil strife in Egypt, patronage of art and architecture resumed. Mamluk textiles and carpets were prized in international trade. In architecture, endowed public and pious foundations continued to be favored. Major commissions in the early Burji period in Egypt included the complexes built by Barquq (r. 1382–99), Faraj (r. 1399–1412), Mu’ayyad Shaykh (r. 1412–21), and Barsbay (r. 1422–38). [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

In the eastern Mediterranean provinces, the lucrative trade in textiles between Iran and Europe helped revive the economy. Also significant was the commercial activity of pilgrims en route to Mecca and Medina. Large warehouses, such as the Khan al-Qadi (1441), were erected to satisfy the surge in trade. Other public foundations in the region included the mosques of Aqbugha al-Utrush (Aleppo, 1399–1410) and Sabun (Damascus, 1464) as well as the Madrasa Jaqmaqiyya (Damascus, 1421).\^/


Mamluk mosque lamp

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the arts thrived under the patronage of Qa’itbay (r. 1468–96), the greatest of the later Mamluk sultans. During his reign, the shrines of Mecca and Medina were extensively restored. Major cities were endowed with commercial buildings, religious foundations, and bridges. In Cairo, the complex of Qa’itbay in the Northern Cemetery (1472–74) is the best known and admired structure of this period. Apart from his own patronage, Qa’itbay encouraged high-ranking officials and influential emirs to build as well.\^/

Building continued under the last Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri (r. 1501–17), who commissioned his own complex (1503–5); however, construction methods reflected the finances of the state. At this time, the Portuguese were gaining control of the Indian Ocean and barring the Mamluks from trade, their richest source of revenue. Though the Mamluk realm was soon incorporated into the Ottoman empire (1517), Mamluk visual culture continued to inspire Ottoman and other Islamic artistic traditions.\^/

Islamic Art and Culture: the Venetian Perspective

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “Precisely because Venice remained so open to foreign cultures, all kinds of philosophical, scientific, religious, and literary texts circulated in the city throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. Mostly interested in Greek and Latin works, Venetian literati, however, understood that transmission occurred through Arabic texts. Venetian merchants and diplomats definitely developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes as works of art alongside objects from other periods and places. [Source: Stefano Carboni, Trinita Kennedy, Elizabeth Marwell, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“After printing presses were established in Europe in 1469, Venice's prolific publishing shops quickly multiplied the number of copies of Arab texts in Latin translation. Venetian publishers issued Ptolemy's astronomical work Almagest, Averroes' philosophical Destructio destructionis, and many other related texts. In the most luxurious editions, Venetian illuminators enhanced the text with images of learned turbaned men, who often wield astrolabes (Islamic decorative arts, such as mosque lamps, ceramics, and blazons.\^/

“What is perhaps most remarkable is the Venetian painters' intimate knowledge of Near Eastern costume. During his visit to Constantinople in 1479–81, Gentile Bellini made portraits of Sultan Mehmet II and figure studies of local men and women from different social groups, including soldiers and scribes; in each instance, he painstakingly described their costumes. He and his pupils later drew on his studies in their paintings, which accounts for their strikingly detailed representations of Ottoman turbans and dress. Later, the Bellini protégés Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti became veritable experts in Mamluk dress and its decorum, most likely as a direct result of increased Mamluk-Venetian diplomatic relations at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. For Venetian Renaissance painters, stock drawings, or simili, of Muslim figures became prized possessions, passed down from one generation to another and circulated among workshops for reuse.\^/


reliquary made of Islamic rock crystal in 1036, mounted in Venic in 1350

“By 1525, the last canvases painted in the Oriental mode for the Venetian confraternities were in place, many of the city's most important Orientalist painters had died, and the Ottomans had conquered the Mamluk empire. The Venetian tradition of setting large narrative scenes in the Islamic world had no followers in the late sixteenth century, when portraits of Muslims, most often Ottoman sultans, or the inclusion of a single Muslim figure in a religious scene were more characteristic.\^/

“During the second half of the sixteenth century, costume books emerged as a popular new genre and reflect a greater curiosity about foreign cultures derived from travels and new discoveries. Venice and the Veneto, where at least nine examples were published between 1540 and 1610, played a leading role in the costume book's early development. The most famous and important example is Cesare Vecellio's Degli abiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo of 1590, which became a model of the genre. It includes more than 500 illustrations and pays special attention to Venetian and Ottoman dress.\^/

“By the sixteenth century, Venice's relations with her Muslim neighbors became increasingly complex. Venetian merchants continued trading in the eastern Mediterranean, but Turkey's aggressive navy made travel more precarious. As a result, Venetians began representing Muslim subjects in less sympathetic ways. Turbaned men were frequently stereotyped as aggressive warriors or ridiculed as acrobats in Venetian paintings, drawings, prints, and even in wooden ship decorations.\^/

“Even in the changed political environment, the Islamic Near East continued to occupy a place in the collective imagination of Venetians. Wealthy patrons commissioned paintings with Muslim subjects, such as Turkish women relaxing in the sultan's harem, to decorate their private palaces. These scenes serve as an important prologue to the new Orientalism, a pan-European phenomenon, of the nineteenth century.”\^/

Collecting Islamic Art in Venice

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The presence of Islamic art in Venice can be documented from the Middle Ages until today. The earliest objects to arrive in the city—such as the luxurious relief-cut glass and rock crystal vessels from Fatimid Egypt in the Treasury of San Marco—can perhaps best be interpreted as spolia, or booty, rather than as a sign of an appreciation of Islamic art per se. Over the centuries, however, Venetian merchants and diplomats definitely developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes as works of art alongside objects from other periods and places. Perhaps no greater testament to the esteem of Islamic artifacts in Venice can be found than the portraits of Venetian patrician families with one of their most prized possessions, an oriental carpet. [Source: Stefano Carboni, Trinita Kennedy, Elizabeth Marwell, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org. March 2007 \^/]

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so much Islamic art had accumulated in Venice's palaces and churches that the city became an important destination for collectors of Islamic art, such as Wilhelm von Bode of Germany, wanting to make new acquisitions. Provenance research reveals that many Islamic art objects now in western European collections passed through Venice first. Major examples still remain in the city today, however, and the number of Venetian museums and churches with works of Islamic art is truly impressive; they include the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the Basilica and Treasury of San Marco, the Museo Civico Correr, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, and the Museo Franchetti alla Ca' d'Oro.\^/

Books: Campbell, Caroline, and Alan Chong, eds. Bellini and the East. Exhibition catalogue.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006; Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. Exhibition catalogue.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007; Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Raby, Julian Venice, Dürer, and the Oriental Mode. London: Islamic Art Publications, 1982.\^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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