Fragile pottery pieces, old master paintings, elaborate jewelry, ethnic clothing and ancient manuscripts spanning thousands of years and dynasties are mainstays of museums. But how often does one see antique carpets that have survived the times?
Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India, an unique temporary exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, offers a new perspective to three major dynasties. The cultural exchange between these Islamic world empires led to the creation of some of the world’s most beautiful works of art.
The artistic collection and interwoven connection of these dynasties – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – are highlighted through their handmade rugs, motif tiles, manuscripts and ceramics primarily from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was commonplace for these empires to exchange artistic and material treasures – and cultures – whether as diplomatic gifts or objects of warfare.
There are 25 historic carpets on display in three sections, divided by bridges, some of which have glass floors with the carpets beneath them for up close viewing, with each section focusing on a specific dynasty. The carpets – some well preserved while others show significant wear – serve as the centerpiece of the entire exhibition.
“We wanted this exhibition to look very special and different,” Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, exhibit curator, told Doha’s Peninsula newspaper in an interview. “Each of the three sections has glass floor features because we wanted people to see how the carpets looked like in the palaces, not on the walls as they are usually seen in museums, but on the floor. We wanted visitors to have an idea how grand the palaces would look decorated with various objects and beautiful designs.”
Focusing on the Timurid period in Iran and Central Asia (1370-1507), the Imperial Threads exhibit detailed artistic practices that were shared amongst the three succeeding and neighboring dynasties.
The Timurids conquered portions of Iran and Central Asia in the 14th century bringing with them their semi-nomadic traditions. According to exhibit storyboards, the Timurids played an important role in sharing the trade and diplomatic development of the three empires. They also are credited with introducing new artistic styles and practices.
Ottoman Dynasty in Turkey
The Ottoman world took hold at the turn of the 14th century, but the arts scene didn’t begin to flourish until Sulayman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566).
As the dynasty expanded geographically and economically, according to a storyboard, this expansion “set the ground for cultural and artistic development that continued until the 19th century.”
When the Ottomans occupied Northern Persia, one of those cities was Tabriz, an important weaving center that provided direct influence on artistic carpet production that included the transfer of motifs and craftsmanship from Iran to Turkey. Tabriz rugs are woven by highly skilled craftsmen using only the finest material and are widely renowned and sought after in collections of Persian rugs.
This first section of the exhibit showcases carpets and other mediums characteristic of local tribal designs that were merged with outside Iranian influences.
The different motifs prominent in carpets and other objects on display include cloudband, medallion, animal, cintamani, saz, lotus flower, lattice and flower motifs. Cintamani and saz tile motifs became characteristic of Ottoman materials trending away from geometric designs toward the use of central medallions and the introduction of the saz motif as a principal pattern. These motifs appear in the various pieces produced by artists in the three empires revealing the connection between the neighboring dynasties.
The saz style combines a twisting serrated leaf with other motifs, which can be floral or figural. Artist Shad Quli, head of Sulayman the Magnificent studio workshop, introduced this motif and became well known for his drawings that combined a stylized leaf with dragons.
The wavy ribbon-like cloudband motif forms the shape of a horseshoe. Originally derived from Chinese art, the cloudband is found on a variety of media from the Islamic world including the illuminated Quran and ceramic bowl, both on display. The Mongols introduced this motif in the 13th century.
Safavid Dynasty in Iran
The Safavid Empire (1501-1736) showcases works from the royal manuscripts workshop, as well as artistic motifs. During this period, books and manuscripts witnessed profound development primarily due to royal court patron support. Textiles and carpets were also produced in great numbers. They played a major role in the sharing and transfer of artistic practices as traveling artists.
Manuscript illustrations often featured court scenes with palace interiors depicting great detail. “With the representation of colored pavilions, carpets and other fabrics, paintings demonstrated the use of objects manufactured at the royal court workshops in their original and historical contexts,” explains a storyboard. “The meticulous work and the rich patterns and colors used by the painter reveal the attention given to these textiles, and the patterns used to illustrate them may have been adapted from contemporary carpets or other objects with shared motifs.”
Black and turquoise-glazed hexagonal tiles with floral motifs from a Tabriz carpet from the 15th to 16th century were a popular style.
Between war, diplomatic relations and inevitable political changes, “previous objects were transferred across borders whether as diplomatic gifts or war booty, and artists pursued careers from one workshop to another,” reads another storyboard.
Gifts were commonly offered to celebrate a new ruler’s ascent to the throne, the circumcision of a ruler’s son, or simply to promote strong diplomatic relations. Common gifts included textiles and manuscripts – always luxury objects – between the three dynasties. This cross-cultural gift interaction explains how styles spread between different courts and influenced neighboring dynasties’ artistic production.
Animal motifs, long time depiction in Islamic and pre-Islamic art, were common on ceramics, textiles, stone work and in manuscripts. In Islamic times, these motifs had a secular context, not religious, and were ornamental architectural elements of palaces or display objects for royal settings.
Combat scenes in particular, depicting strong animals such as lions attacking weaker prey, were commonly portrayed serving to remind the viewer of the valor and courage their ruler held over his enemy.
Due to the development of firearms during the period of these three great empires, they are commonly referred to as the “gunpowder empires”. Highly decorated weapons manufactured in the royal workshops demonstrate the pageantry function of such objects that would have been made for ceremonial use rather than for battle.
On display are a Turkish-made shield and axe from the late 16th to early 17th century. The cane shield is constructed of iron and copper alloy that is decorated with gold floral motifs, woven silk border, and geometric motifs on a yellow background.
Mughal Dynasty in India
The third section of the exhibit highlights the Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). It was during this period that European prints were introduced to the Mughal libraries. Based on patterns from these books, Mughal artists began creating their own patterns. During this time, Islam was gaining popularity in India and Mughal artists created a new style based on European prints and Islamic subjects.
The Mughal Empire also features the culmination of artistic styles that integrate Safavid, Ottoman and local traditions.
One of the important artistic styles coming out of this time period was detailed floral designs that were prominent in carpets and jewelry. On display is a silk and pashmina pile carpet that features millefleurs, distinguished by their floral motifs and vivid colors. The carpet design clearly shows a flowering vase at the base and is an early 18th century product.
Nearby are stunning examples of a 19th century enamel and gold necklace incorporating a floral motif, a 17th century jar made of gold, silver, diamonds and mother of pearl, as well as an 18th century ruby and enamel perfume sprinkler.
The lattice motif was made popular in the early to mid 16th century and was not only incorporated into carpets, but also on marble decorations for palaces. The interlaced criss-crossed pattern incorporates natural flowering plants and blossoms arranged in rows against a plain background.
Cuerdo seca tiles were also popularized in the 17th century. These types of tiles were used both to decorate palace or tomb walls, and show the use of realistic floral designs. Originally derived directly from its use in the Safavid Dynasty, the strong colors recall the miniature paintings of the same era.
Geometric designs were popular in the 16th and early 17th century in India. Carved sandstone of white marble and red sandstone were used for carved, pieced stone screens known as jalis. These screens were used in Indian architecture prior to the Mughal period.
Coming full turn and standing the test of time, these ancient motifs continue to be evident in carpets and other objects produced today. Liken it to the cultural exchange during these three major empires, if you will, and transferring that interaction today with the exhibition’s sharing knowledge of the arts.
As visitors enter and leave, an eye-catching spherical LED display projects colorful patterns in succession duplicating the motifs on exhibit.