Islamic Glazed Vessel Sherds and Their Possible Mamluk Origins

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The Islamic Glazed Vessel Sherds in the George Fuller Collection consist of an unidentified jumble of glazed ceramic pieces, shown by their differences in size, decoration and weight to have originated in a wide variety of ceramic mediums. Given that the pieces are only sherds, these identifications are guesses rather than certainties.  Without knowing the form of the original vessels, the extent that provenance can be determined is limited. Nevertheless, I am fairly confident that most of this collection dates from the late Mamluk and early Timurid eras of Islamic Art History.

Timurid Tilework from the Shah e-Zinda Necorpolis

Timurid Tilework from the Shah e-Zinda Necorpolis

The easiest piece of the collection to identify was the pale blue and yellow tile featuring a star design, which appears on the top left of Image 1. The colour scheme of this piece is consistent with that of Timurid tilework. The tile piece shares its colour scheme with that of Timurid tilework masterpieces, such as  the tombs of the Shah-e-Zinda Necropolis and Khanum Bibi Mosque, both in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The glazework on the tile fragment is identifiable as the Timurid specialty, known as Cuerda Seca (“dry cord” in Spanish). Individual Cuerda Seca tiles, usually star-shaped and featuring designs very similar to ours, were exported on mass from Central Asia and later from Safavid, Turkey from the mid-fourteenth century on. We can conclusively date the piece in the Islamic Vessel Sherds collection to having been created at some point after 1386, the year in which yellow began to be incorporated into Cuerda Seca tiles alongside the earlier palette of turquoise, white, and dark blue. The tile probably dates from some point between 1386 and 1400, at the height of the conquests of the Timurid Empire and towards the very end of the Mamluk Empire in Egypt.

Another common feature in Timurid Tilework is raised and textured ceramic designs, often of stylised calligraphy, and always in the characteristic turquoise blue of Timurid art. The three small fragments in the Islamic Vessel Sherds featuring raised, textured designs (in the centre of Image 2) clearly belong to this particular tradition of glazed, textured Timurid ceramics.

The collection also includes two fully intact hexagon shaped miniature tiles, which are glazed in the same shade of blue as these pieces. This identifies them as being also Cuerda Seca and Timurid.

Fascinatingly, all three of these – the star tile, the raised ceramics and the two hexagon tiles – can be at least tentatively linked to a single group of fourteenth century artists.

Known collectively as the Masters of Tabriz, this group of artisans were brought from Tabriz to Samarkand as prisoners of war by Timur, and there conscripted to labour on monuments like the Mosque of Bibi Khanum and Shah-e-Zinda Necropolis. After Timur’s death in 1405, the group went to Turkey in the company of a Turkish artist named Nakka Ali and began work on monuments like the Yezil Complex in Bursa and a number of structures in Edirne. This group was thus responsible for carrying the technique of Cuerda Seca to Anatolia and across the Islamic World; before Timur’s death, the tiles had been produced only in Central Asia.

As we know from the inclusion of the yellow in the Cuerda Seca star tile that it was produced after 1386, it could have been produced either in Central Asia or in Turkey. If it was produced in Turkey, it could well have been connected to this particular group. The same is true of the raised, textured pieces.

The two small hexagonal blue tiles in the collection also carry a link to this group of artists. Ceskin’s biographical article Timurid Tile Style in Anatolia and Footprints of the Master of Tabriz comments that:

Use of Hexagonal Turqoise Tiles in the Yezil Mosque Complex, built by the Masters of Tabriz.

Use of Hexagonal Turqoise Tiles in the Yezil Mosque Complex, built by the Masters of Tabriz.

“The interior wall surfaces of the mosque and tomb were decorated with mono-colored glazed tiles like Timurid structures as the tombs of Kusam ibn Abbas and Shirin Bika Aka in Shah-i Zinda Complex, Mausoleum of KhojaAhmed Yassawi, Gur-e Amir, The Great Mosque of Yezd and Mir Chaqmaq Mosque. The mono-colored glaze tile compositions, up to window panels, were formed by only turquoise, green or blue hexagons or turquoise hexagons combined with blue triangles.”

Though the above locations all use hexagonal turquoise tiles that are far larger than the two in our collection, it is evident that our own examples belong to the same artistic tradition.

Celadon Ware

Celadon Ware

The remaining pieces in the “blue collection” of sherds in Image 2 are too fragmented to be properly identified, but I would put forward that, based on their colour, that they may possibly be fragments of Chinese Celadon Ware, which was exported from the Chinese Longguan Kilns to the Middle East in large quantities from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, the same time period as the conjectured date of the rest of the collection.

Compared to the Cuerda Seca tile and related blue fragments, the beautifully glazed, mirror-like piece in the centre top of Image One remained and remains stubbornly elusive. Attempts to find a similar piece from any era of Islamic Art were so inconclusive I briefly looked into whether or not the sherd was in fact Japanese. One tiny clue finale appeared: a single pottery fragment excavated at ‘Ebbalon, Israel appears to have the same glazing technique (second from the top left in the following image).image10

Material found by the Israeli Antiquities Authority at ‘Ebbalon dates from several periods, but one of them is the Mamluk Era, from which I cautiously link this glazed piece to the others in the collection.

The source that provided the most positive identifications of the fragments in the Islamic Vessel Sherds collection was in fact a summary of the ceramics excavated at the Syrian Monastery of St Moses by the Royal Ontario Museum. Virtually all of the pottery covered in this report dates from the Mamluk period, and much of it is strikingly similar to our own collection.

Pottery Sherds from the Monastery of St Moses

Pottery Sherds from the Monastery of St Moses

Two pieces in the photo to the left are effectively identical to our own fragments. The scallop shell blue and white piece at the bottom centre resembles the scalloped piece second from the bottom left in Image 1, and the pale blue piece in the bottom right corner with the dark blue stripe resembles the “loop fragment” at the bottom right of Image 1. The report identifies the photo as “a selection of high-quality Mamluk period pottery from Deir Mar Musa… all are almost certainly made in Damascus”. I would wager the exception to this are the two pale blue-green pieces on the bottom and top right which resemble Raqqa Ware. Interestingly, the report also tells us that those pieces found at Deir Mar Musa which feature blue and white, like the scalloped piece at the bottom, date from between 1380 and 1400, between the introduction of Chinese Yuan Ware to Syria and the Timurid invasion.

If the blue fragment with the “loop” pattern is in fact Raqqa Ware as I conjecture it is, this adds a puzzling dimension to theoretically dating the collection. Thus far, all the pieces identified have fit the theorised date of the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Manufacture of Raqqa ceramics, however, ceased in 1265 after the Mongol Invasion. While this does not entirely dispute the possibility of the Islamic Vessel Sherds being discovered together (Raqqa Ware was highly prized after all and could have been passed down through several generations), it does make the story of how the collection was assembled into its current form slightly more puzzling.

…it does make the story of how the collection was assembled into its current form slightly more puzzling.

Another image from the same article provides a positive identification for the small sherd with a very faint green decoration, in the centre far right of Image 1. That piece looks like a fragment of these slip-incised lead-glazed ware vessels which were also excavated at the Monastery of St Moses.

image12

image13

Mamluk Slipware bowl

From the same image, we can also identify the small green and brown sherd in the collection as Mamluk slip-incised glazed-ware. That particular combination in green and brown is sufficiently widespread in Mamluk Slipware to identify the sherd as Mamluk even if it does not precisely match the fragments in the above image. The image to the right is another example of a green and brown Mamluk Slipware bowl which the fragment could have come from.

The small ceramic ball found in the collection is particularly puzzling. It could easily be some sort of gaming counter or marble. Interestingly, the Israeli Antiquities Authority had uncovered a nearly identical ceramic piece from an excavation in Ramla, which they identify as a toy rattle that would have been filled with stones or beads. The rattle is dated to the Ottoman Period, but much of the excavation at Ramla was focussed on the Mamluk era.

Unfortunately, the floral tile on the top right of the main image has remained utterly elusive. I have found no parallel to its pattern or colour scheme in any era of Islamic Art, Mamluk or otherwise. To me the pattern on the tile looks almost Umayyad/post-Sasanian in nature, but given that everything else in this collection has been dated to at most a century or two before or after the Timurid Conquest, this would seem a fairly drastic jump.

The George Fuller collection of Islamic Vessel Sherds has ultimately been fairly easy to date; there is sufficient evidence that the bulk of the collection dates from the second half of the fourteenth century, from the end of the Mamluk and the height of the Timurid period. Pinpointing the collection’s geographical origin, however, has been next to impossible, with nearly identical pieces to those in our collection appearing in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Perhaps this is what the collection best represents: the extreme diversity of ceramic art forms that flourished during this period, either before or even stemming from the mass disruptions of the Timurid Conquest.


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