Exploring Islamic Art: Nishapur

Posted: 7th August 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Exploring Islamic Art: Nishapur

At Hull and East Riding Museum we have thirty pottery objects within our Islamic Art collection. They are from a variety of locations spanning Iran and Syria. Through a series of posts we’re going to take a closer look at this collection, exploring the objects and where they were made.

Today we’re focusing on Nishapur (Neyshabur) which is a city in north-eastern Iran. The city was founded in the 3rd century AD by king Shapur I (240-270AD) as a provincial capital in the Sasanian Empire. The city was named after him: Ni-shapur. Its name means ‘New City of Shapur’, ‘Fair Shapur’ or ‘Perfect built of Shapur’.

Over the next few hundred years, the city went through a series of changing rulers. In 750AD the Abbasid caliphate was in power and Nishapur became an increasingly important city. In the 9th century, the city was the capital under the Tahirid dynasty and operated within its almost self-autonomous regional province of Khorasan. Then after 50 years it was taken over by the Saffarid dynasty.

By the 10th century, Nishapur was under the rule of the Samanid dynasty and the city became prosperous. The Samanid dynasty’s origins were in Transoxiana, which in the modern day roughly covers the area of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and south-west Khazakhstan. The Samanid capital remained Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan). However, Nishapur also became wealthy and the population grew. Historical sources mention the buildings, bazaars and crafts (particularly weaving) that were being produced in the city as well as international trade such as merchants from Iraq and Egypt.

Under Samanid rule, Islamic art flourished in Nishapur – including pottery. This was due to the development of slip painting, where liquid clay is mixed with a colour and used to create a design. Using this method prevents the design from changing during the firing process.

Throughout the Medieval period the city flourished as a regional capital as well as a centre of scholarship, arts and crafts. At this time the city had a population between 100,000 and 200,000 people and covered about 6.5 square miles. Its importance as an economic centre was due to its position on the Silk Road.

The Silk Road was a trading route which ran from China to the Mediterranean Sea, crossing through Asia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Nishapur was positioned on this important trading route: in the 13th century Yaqut al-Hamawi called it ‘the gateway to the east’.

The city had a source of turquoise nearby which was traded along the Silk Road. It also was renowned for its cotton growing and textile production as well as fabrics incorporating silks. In addition, it had the unusual feature of edible earth that was believed to have healing properties too. Then, of course, there was its pottery industry. We have examples of this in our collection at Hull and East Riding Museum which we discuss in another post .

However, the city had a tumultuous history undergoing disasters and rebuilding. Through the 10th and 11th centuries it passed under the rule of other dynasties (Ghaznavids and Seljuks). It survived two earthquakes (in 1115 and 1145 AD) and was sacked by Oghuz Turks in 1153. After its sacking, the city’s residents moved to Shadyakh which became known as Nishapur.

The city’s ultimate downfall was at the hands of Genghis Khan and the Mongols in 1221. Genghis Khan’s son-in-law called Toquchar was killed in Nishapur. So Genghis Kahn’s daughter asked for revenge – she wanted every citizen in the city killed (approximately 190,000 people). Genghis Khan’s troops, led by his son Toluy, did this. Over 10 days the troops killed and beheaded everyone in the city. It is said that the troops piled up the skulls in pyramids.

After this the town was rebuilt again, in another location and its history continued with disasters and rebuilding in slightly different (but nearby) locations until its present location. The oldest part of present-day Nishapur was built in the 15th century after a severe earthquake in 1405 and the city still has a congregational mosque which was founded in 1493.

You can discover more and take a closer look at our collection of pottery from Nishapur here.

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