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2023  N11-12(225-226)
There are very rare exhibits in large and small museums of Turkmenistan that can tell a lot about the world of people who lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Time is merciless, and there have been preserved only small fragments of cultures from the distant past – more in some places and less in others – that succeeded each other on this earth in different eras. However, there is a story behind every fragment, every archaeological find. Turkmenistan’s academician Vadim Masson once said that one can write a big article or even a book about any ancient artifact, even seemingly the most unsightly one. Yet, this requires great erudition and special knowledge that undoubtedly comes with diligent reading and practical experience.
Delving deeper into a given scientific problem, a researcher often makes discoveries that change the existing picture and make people have a new look at familiar things. Nevertheless, habitual stereotypes stemming from ignorance remain in our minds for long.
For example, many believe that Islamic art is purely decorative, consisting only of ornaments, intricate arabesques, rejecting images of living beings. Is it really so? One needs to walk through the museum halls dedicated to the Muslim Middle Ages to see the opposite. Images of people and animals, including fantastic ones, even after the Arab conquest of the Christian East, Zoroastrian Iran and pagan Central Asia, are depicted on the facades of walls in the interiors of palaces and rich homes, on expensive dishes – ceramic, bronze, copper, even glass, on musical instruments, censers, weapons, fabrics, carpets and much more. Finally, figurative painting adorned numerous handwritten books in Arabic and Persian, but not all of them. Naturally, all these images are very different from those that existed before. They lack naturalism inherent in the ancient art of the West and East, yet they are not primitive at all, as it might seem at first glance. Here’s why.
In the art of peoples converted to Islam, there is a clear division between sacred and secular. It originated in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors – the first caliphs, who inherited hostility towards images of living beings from the Jewish ban on idolatry. As modern Lebanese researcher Assifa al-Halab writes, “we do not find in the Koran an absolute prohibition of images of living beings, and the very concept of a man-made image is interpreted in different ways. Only idol worship is categorically condemned. Creation of idols is equated to an attempt to create a twin of God, which is impossible since it contradicts the monotheism of Islam. On the other hand, an image of an object of luxury or embodiment of beauty for admiration is acceptable.”
Many Islamic scholars emphasize that it would be a mistake to interpret the phenomenon of figurativeness in Islamic art as a voluntary or involuntary violation of a religious ban. In the hadiths (legends) about the words and deeds of Muhammad, he is presented as condemning images of humans and animals. His statement about artists or sculptors who will be called to account at the Last Judgment is significant in this regard. “Like God you created figures, but you could not, like Him, bring them to life.” But the hadiths also note that when the Kaaba was cleansed of idols, Muhammad ordered that the image of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus should be preserved on one of the columns. He also allowed the use of images where they could not be objects of respect – for example, on embroidered pillows.
Yet, in the following years, even centuries later, orthodox Muslim theologians declared any images anywhere sinful, encouraging their destruction, and fine art did not disappear altogether. It only acquired a different form, more conventional and even abstract one, just as at the beginning of the twentieth century when realism in European painting was replaced by various modernist movements: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and so on.
In the 12th–13th centuries, there flourished precisely those types of subject painting that were considered acceptable even in the eyes of theologians of that time, such as a book miniature, painting on ceramics, enamel painting on glass. But who was it meant for? Scientists have long noticed that Islam’s refusal to visually propagate its ideas led to the narrowing of the circle of those who could see works of painting and sculpture. If in Christian or Buddhist countries they were available to the entire population through icons, paintings in temples or statues, then in the Islamic world it was available only to the elite. “So, the images turn out to be associated with the life of the ruling class, with the culture of feasts, festivities and pampered luxury,” Russian Arabist Mikhail Piotrovsky said.
Book miniatures are a striking example of the connection between figurative painting, wealth and nobility. They adorned luxuriously designed handwritten books in expensive bindings. They were extremely highly valued and difficult to obtain. Many of them are well preserved. They can be also found in the collection of the Institute of Language, Literature and National Manuscripts named after Magtymguly of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan. In the 15th century, in the Turkmen states of Garagoyunly and Akgoyunly, the court school of miniature painting was famous with its own style, distinguishable from other schools in the Middle East. A century later, there emerged the no less famous Bukhara school. It boasts one of the miniatures to Nizami’s poem “Treasury of Secrets”. It illustrates a parable about an encounter on the road of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar with an old woman who had been seriously offended by the local governor. Not heeding her complaint, the powerful Sultan soon lost power.
Faces on book miniatures, as well as on ceramics, are always conventional, devoid of individual features. In this regard, Swiss philosopher Titus Burckhardt noted that Islamic art always avoided naturalism because the anathema against artists who sought to imitate the work of the Creator remained in force. And it was not naivety or lack of skill that prompted the masters of drawing and painting to ignore perspective, which creates the illusion of three-dimensional space, or not to attach importance to the light-and-shade modeling of human and animal figures. While remaining within the Islamic doctrine, they deliberately avoided verisimilitude – a task similar to that undertaken by twentieth-century modernists.
Books were illustrated mainly for rulers and those close to the court, but images of people and animals, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden behind ornaments, spread and gradually penetrated the decor of fabrics, forged and pottery utensils, thus becoming accessible to other layers of society.
Conventional images of animals, mainly birds, are also found on Turkmen carpets of the 18th–19th centuries. These images are organically woven into the carpet ornament, just as it was done before, in the Seljuk era. We see this in the monumental epigraphy of the 12th century, fragments of which were recently discovered during excavations near the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv. These are ceramic tiles with text in relief, covered with a blue glaze, and there are figures of horsemen between the letters in low relief. Even more expressive are the numerous star-shaped tiles with images of human figures, animals, especially birds and even dragons. They decorated the walls of a variety of buildings, secular and spiritual, such as, for example, the mausoleums of Sufi sheikhs. Even on the facades of mosques and madrassas one could find dragons, like on the portal of the mosque in Anau near Ashgabat, or tigers with goitered gazelles against the backdrop of a human-faced sun, like on the Shir-Dor madrasah in Samarkand.
A relatively intact watering bowl painted with black and honey-yellow paints was found during recent excavations of the early Islamic castle at Great Kyz-Kala in Merv. The technique of execution and traditional way of decorating the bowl in the form of a floral ornament make it possible to confidently date this product to the second half of the 9th or 10th century. The round medallion at the bottom of the bowl depicts a woman on horseback, both characters drawn with a confident hand in clear linear graphics that convey the expression of both images. The horsewoman holds a high round shield in one hand and, apparently, a sword in the other hand. A partially erased layer of paint does not allow us to see this part of the painting, but the short blade of the sword is clearly highlighted in yellow.
There is even older but no less rare sample of glazed ceramics with a similar theme dated 12th-early 13th century – a nine-part facing tile – stored at the Kunjaurgench Museum, which was presented at the Seljuk Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 2016. Who is immortalized on these tiles?
More than a thousand years ago, Tomiris, the queen of the Massagets was the most common mythological image of a female warrior among the Oguzes and Kipchaks. Herodotus also wrote that the Massagets were nomads who fought on foot and on horseback, and their horses wore armor on their chests, and all their utensils and weapons were made of copper and gold. Fighting against them, the founder of the Achaemenid state, King Cyrus, died, defeated by Queen Tomiris. A wide yellow stripe on the chest of the horse depicted on the Kyz Kala bowl can represent these golden or copper armor. It is also no coincidence that the sword is shown in yellow. In full agreement with the statement of Herodotus, the chest of the horsewoman herself and the gold-like shield in her hand suggest the image of Tomiris.
Here comes a question. How did a character from the pre-Islamic history of the ancient world end up on expensive dishes during the era of the Arab Caliphate? Obviously, the ancient local tradition of depicting Tomiris, as well as mythical characters and goddesses of old pagan cults, such as Anahita, the most popular among the people, was so strong that in the products of ceramic artists, even after the adoption of Islam, the images of full of life heroes continued to appear for several centuries.
A scene of tearing of an ungulate animal by a predator was a much more popular plot in that era. It was embodied on a variety of metal and ceramic products and perceived as a double symbol – a sign of spring revival and a royal emblem, dating back to ancient times. It was in the third millennium BC at a minimum that Mesopotamian stargazers noticed a cyclical change of some constellations. In the spring, during the beginning of field work, the constellation of Leo with the bright star Regulus (royal) stood at the zenith in the sky, and the constellations of Pleiades, called the star of the Bull, and Cassiopeia, called the Deer Star, disappeared beyond the horizon. This astral phenomenon began to be depicted in art as a scene of a lion or a tiger victory over a bull or a deer, and the composition was interpreted as a symbol of spring revival of nature.
And now, centuries later, this and many other themes and characters of pagan antiquity migrated to the secular art of Muslims. They became part of the ornament and followed its canons and rhythms. The ornament included plants and animals, figures of horsemen, feasting courtiers and musicians. Scenes from the life of nobility merged into the overall ornamental picture of the world created by God. Benevolent inscriptions on earthenware plates, bronze jugs or silver bowls were applied along with drawings as amulets. Sometimes the dishes acquired a sculptural appearance. This is how water jugs, eagle-shaped censers, a cat, a pheasant and many other representatives of the fauna appeared, including a whole bestiary of fantastic creatures. All this decorated a rich meal and gave pleasant liveliness to the palace life.
The fine art of Muslim society is naturally inferior to purely decorative, non-objective art, virtuoso interweaving of geometric figures and monumental epigraphy. The superiority of Arabic calligraphy and ornamental design is undeniable, and it is these forms that constitute the essence and glory of Islamic art. They have lived to this day, while medieval figurative painting and sculpture did not survive the clash with Western civilization and quickly fell into decline in the 19th century. But they existed, all these artistic images were created with lines, paints, carving, sculpting, casting, printing or embroidery, without which the world culture would have lost such a wonderful part of its wealth.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005