A Legacy of Beauty

Islam has nourished a rich tradition in the decorative arts.


"In Islamic calligraphy, the point is not to show traces of hand movement. The writing should look infinite, immutable, and reflect the divine," says Blair. "There is no quiver of the pen, only smooth, undulating lines."

Muslim calligraphers often take as their subject matter verses of the Koran. One of the largest and fanciest copies ever made of the text is the work shown on Page 45. It was copied by Ahmad al-Suhrawardi and illuminated by Muhammad ibn Abdallah between 1302 and 1308 in Baghdad. As with other elaborate manuscripts, it was made in 30 volumes so one part could be read each day of the month of Ramadan. The calligrapher, one of the most famous of his day, toiled with the illuminator for six years to produce the work. Notably, they used few lines of text per page. "[It is] a conspicuous waste of space, or showing off, by leaving lots of blank paper," says Blair. "The ink is black and carbon based, and the large, smooth paper is some of the finest ever produced."

Blair says the page was saved for the gold and the signature of the calligrapher. "It reflects a reverence for religion. . . . The writing looks flawless," Blair says. For colors, the artists have used a brilliant blue lapis ground up to make ultramarine—the most expensive pigment next to gold.

The page also represents a unique period in Islamic history, reflecting the polyglot culture of the 14th century. "There's a Mongol ruler who speaks Mongolian, his court speaks Persian, and he's commissioning a manuscript in Arabic. And at the time, the prime minister [who oversaw the production of the manuscript] was a converted Jew."


Many of the loveli-est artifacts from Islamic life that are now found behind glass cases in museums were not commissioned by royal patrons. Carefully decorated and embellished, these pots, bowls, and tiles were ordinary objects that served daily middle-class needs.

In Islamic society, locally produced ceramics never attained the high status of imported Chinese ceramics, says Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle East at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. But in the case of Iznik pottery, he says, the patronage of a powerful ruler influenced the art. In the late 1400s, Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror began to invest in ceramics for his court, leading to a vast improvement in the quality of pottery. In the town of Iznik, craftspeople began making earthenware that imitated Chinese porcelain. By the end of the 15th century, Iznik potters were creating white ceramic "fritware," made from finely ground pebbles and sand, which looked like porcelain. The new material led to vessels of remarkable size and refinement, and they are now considered one of the highest achievements of Islamic art.

"Ottoman artisans could produce extremely large, technically proficient objects, which were beautifully decorated in accomplished patterns," says Stanley.

In the early 16th century, potters expanded their use of colors to shades of blue, green, and purple, set off by a brilliant white ground. Later, the colors increased in clarity and expanded to include a vibrant red, obtained by using special clay, diluted and applied to the ceramics before glazing and firing.

The use of the bowl pictured at left is unknown. It has no religious significance, although people may have used it to wash before prayers or before or after meals. The plate below shows the remarkable colors created by 16th-century artisans.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the ceramics industry in Iznik was in collapse, and ceramics produced in Europe started to set artistic trends.


Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of Islamic art than the hand-knotted Orien-tal rug. Carpet-weaving in the Islamic world is practiced in all levels of society, from nomadic tents and village cottages to urban workshops and specialized ateliers. No one knows exactly when the first rug was woven, but a popular theory is that nomadic tribes of Central Asia began knotting carpets as early as the fourth century. The nomads made small rugs, which they used for floor coverings, curtains, and saddlebags. They then spread their art to Turkey, Persia, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere.