Exploring Islamic Art: Pottery from Nishapur

Posted: 7th August 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Exploring Islamic Art: Pottery from 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.

In this post we’re focusing on pottery from the city of Nishapur (Neyshabur) which is in the North-East of Iran. If you’d like to discover more about the history of the city, you can find out more in this post about the History of Nishapur.

We have four bowls in our collection from Nishapur which were bought by Hull Museums in 1964 at a Sotheby’s auction. The bowls are from the Samanid dynasty which ruled over Nishapur in the 10th century AD. At this time the city was a great cultural centre for pottery production. 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. This allowed potters to create bold, coloured and patterned designs. After the design had been applied, it was covered in a thin, clear lead glaze.

Nishapur’s location on the major trading route, the Silk Road, meant that this pottery could be traded. Examples of pottery made in Nishapur have been found in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

This bowl was covered in a thin white slip and the decoration was applied in a brown/black coloured slip. It was then covered in a clear, thin lead glaze. The presence of chrome in the dark decorative pigment caused the clear glaze to stain yellow – creating the different shades of yellow inside of the bowl. The decoration inside of the bowl is typical of pottery at this time. It has a ‘saw-tooth’ patterned border on the internal side of the rim, then underneath this there is a band of decoration running around the entire circumference of the bowl. This decorative pattern is known as ‘pseudo-calligraphic’ and it is meant to look like writing. It copies the style of Kufic Arabic, where the letters are angular with long horizontal lines and rectangular forms.

The pattern at the bottom of the bowl is a four-leafed floral motif or cross-like form. It’s possible that this pattern originates from a pattern of four grape leaves which is also seen on green glazed pottery from Susa in South-West Iran (9th century). There are also cross-like motifs on bowls of this type from Nishapur that look similar to the floral motif on this bowl. The cross-like form also appears in a 9th century Greek and Arabic text from Sinai.

Inside the bowl there are marks which show where a tripod would have been placed when the bowl was fired. These marks show that the bowl had kiln furniture placed inside it which allowed another bowl to be stacked on top of this one when it was in the kiln.

This bowl has been decorated on its inside and outside. The slip has been coloured white, black, yellow and green, then painted on. The interior has been divided into four sections. The same decoration is used in opposite quarters. The exterior surface of the bowl is decorated with a quartered circle and vertical coloured stripes. The whole of the bowl is covered in a colourless lead glaze.

As you can see, this bowl has been covered in a white slip, decorated with a black slip and coated in a colourless lead glaze. The black pigment has elements of brown in it, suggesting it was made with iron. The black decoration is written Arabic. This type of decoration, known as black on white ware, was used on pottery in all of the important cities in the eastern Islamic Empire (from the 9th century – 11th century).

The use of written Arabic is significant. After the Arab conquest of the 7th century AD, Arabic script became dominant throughout Muslim states such as the Persian Empire. This was because the Quran (the main religious text of Islam) was revealed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. Therefore Arabic became important in all aspects of life.

The Arabic writing on pottery is calligraphy – an artistic style of writing. This meant that letters were modified to improve their visual quality and make them fit with the artistic design. Often this means that the letters cannot be read or understood because they look almost nothing like the original letter they were meant to be. For example, letters might be written backwards or marks where there shouldn’t be.

It’s also possible that the people making the bowls were not able to read or write Arabic – they were copying the look of the writing so the shape of the word looked similar to a popular saying. This can make it difficult for archaeologists and historians to work out what these markings represent or what word it is. However, it is possible that this was the same at the time the bowls were produced – that no one could read what the bowl said. Popular sayings that are clearly marked on bowls from the same time period are barakeh meaning blessing, yumn meaning happiness and a typical phrase used on pottery from Nishapur is ahmad meaning ‘may he do that which is praiseworthy’.

Bowl with brown dashes on the outside under the rim and decorated inside with a yellow background, green dashes and brown outlined shapes filled with a cross-hatched pattern This bowl is decorated on its outside and inside. The interior has a yellow background with irregular shapes outlined in brown and filled with a cross-hatched (criss-cross) pattern. There are also thick green vertical dashes covering the inside of the bowl. On the outside there are brown vertical lines or ‘claw-shapes’ coming down from the rim. Similar decoration has been seen on other bowls found in Nishapur.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about our pottery bowls from Nishapur, discover more about the history of the city of Nishapur or explore more of our Islamic Art collection on the Hull Museums Collections website.

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