Samarkand Ceramics

Issue #3-4 • 4478

In Samarkand, the largest center of pottery craft, manufacturing of enameled ceramics got development from the end of the 8th century. Excavations at the ancient settlement on the Afrasiab hill have given magnificent samples of ceramic pieces, which decorate many museums of the world. The local style reflected characteristic art tradition of the whole epoch, known as “Muslim Renaissance” (the early 13th c.) and having influenced many centers of ceramic production. The archeological artifacts from Afrasiab give the evidence for existence of the whole quarters, where potters made both ordinary products and unique art pieces.

Afrasiab’s slipware differs by its high art and technological characteristics – good quality of clay, enamels and paints, perfection of forms and decor. Slipware had open and closed forms. The first group included jugs and pot-shaped bowls, the second – various dishes (lyagan, kosa, shokosa). Elegance and fine feeling for colour are characteristic for their decor. Decorative elements were put on a body or spout by horizontal belts. Mainly, it was floral or geometrical ornament, sometimes, stylized pictures of birds, animals and people, which symbolically reflected local world vision and folklore concepts. The amount of slipware of open forms, significantly surpasses jug-shaped pieces.

Epigraphic ornament basing on the Arabian script became a new phenomenon in Central Asian ceramics, as well as in Muslim ceramic production in general. Inscriptions were made on a white background – the artist-potter paid much attention to inscriptions, performed in brown – black and less often – in a red paint. Inscription decorating bowls and dishes were concentrically placed along the edge or crosswise on the bottom, sometimes belting a vessel at diameter.

There are three major styles of scripts, which make possible to trace evolution of decor: simple Kufi with strict geometric and clear letters; later flowering Kufi, is rarer and differed from analogous calligraphic style in architectural epigraphy (where letters grow into vegetative curls and fretwork) by claws on thickened edges of letters. In the 10th century and later, wide spread became ceramic italics, which is marked by ovality of letters with thickenings and declination of tops.

In matter, the inscriptions can be subdivided into two groups. The first includes good wishes. The most numerous were baraka – blessing, aliumn – well-being and some others. Another group – edifying inscriptions: “Roots of studying are bitter, but results are sweeter than honey”, “Generosity goes from inward of pious people”, “Generosity is a guard of honour and property”, “Patience is a key to pleasure and happiness”, etc. (1, p. 23-38; 2, p. 41-43; 3, p. 53-56). The best samples of ceramics with epigraphic ornament captivates by beauty of letters and their smooth silhouettes. Aesthetic features were determined by original handwriting of this or that inscription, acting as a decorative element. Later, in the 12th – early 13th centuries, epigraphy gave up the place to geometrical motifs, what the scholars connect with changes in the ethnic structure (2, p. 140). Geometrical figures from minor decorative elements turned into major ones and formed either general ornament, or some ornamental unit. In the whole, Afrasiab ceramics demonstrates a particular style, basing on creative use of earlier ornamental elements added by new patterns and epigraphic inscriptions as well as search for new compositional solutions and colour.

In the 13th – 14th centuries, after consequences of the Mongolian invasion had been overcome, the graphic and ornamental motifs in Samarkand enameled ceramics gave up the place to stylized and fractional vegetative pattern. New blossoming of enameled ceramics was connected with the epoch of the Temurids. At that time, Samarkand remained the largest center of ceramic production in the region. The new decorative style was being formed here, in the capital, which decisively influenced slipware manufactured at the other centers – Tashkent, Bukhara, Shahrisabz, Merv and Nisy. Unlike Afrasiab ceramics with prevalence of epigraphic and geometrical motifs, the new style was characterized by domination of realistic motifs. Perfect pictures of birds and plants decorated the bowls and dishes. The colour had also changed – blue-white palette or black silhouettes under bright blue enamel substituted white, red, dark brown, green colours under rather dim enamels.

Changes in decor and colour at the end of the 14th – 15th cc. , in some extent, reflected Chinese influence. At that time, contacts with China were very stable. Moreover, Chinese fashion dominated in the Temurid society. The Chinese export included kaolin clay giving snow-white surface with painting in cobalt. Instead of kaolin, Central Asian masters used porous silicate material – kashin, which was applied in ceramics from the 12th century, and by the end of the 14th century – in architectural mosaics. After the Chinese, they used cobalt as a pigment, but often used the other dyes giving black-green, a later – manganese-violet colour.

Import of the Chinese porcelain caused numerous imitations of its texture and colour, popular Chinese ornamental motifs and symbols, such as lotuses and chrysanthemums, double peaches, stylized clouds, phoenix, storks, etc. Some samples of the Temurid slipware demonstrated direct Chinese influence. However, in the course of time, local masters refused the imitations and created own style, introducing new original motifs. Well-verified patterns give the obvious evidence for existence of professional artists engaged in ceramics painting.

At the same time, the samples of Temurid ceramics bore pure local features – compositionally simple crosswise motifs reflected national painting traditions. Picturesque realistic style became another evidence for Renaissance tendencies in the Temurid period causing actual rise of arts (4, p. 22). The Samarkand slipware in the epoch of the Temurids was varied in form. These are two types of dishes – deep, on ring-shaped leg, with flat bent-up edges and shallow, with a low flat edges as well as different jugs. Some their variants are rare and have no close analogues. Probably, they were manufactured to order. It is easy to notice, that almost all types of existing porcelain-like products were developed in that period.

Thus, changes of ceramic decorative style (Afrasiab, Temurid) reflected the historical processes, which touched all sides of Movarounnahr’s art culture. In the 16th century, the Samarkand slipware still kept traditions of previous century, but by the end of the 16th – early 17th centuries, imported and expensive cobalt was substituted by dyes of worse quality, kashin material gave up the place to clay. In the 18th – 19th centuries, production of art ceramics concentrated in the separate local centers, developing own styles. Distinctions of these styles are very deep, as they concern not only forms and pattern, but, sometimes, have different origin and ancient roots.

At the end of the 19th – early 20th century, within conditions of industrial progress, traditional art crafts survived a decline, first of all, in big cities. For example, in Samarkand, there were just 14 potter’s workshops (5, p. 35). We know the names of famous masters – Usta Sultan khodja, Usta Safarbai, Usta Abdugafar, and Nur-Mahmat, which applied enamel for covering of shokosa (bowls), kugacha (jugs), kulkulcha or kumcha (big jugs for water) and togora (bowls for dough). Slipware was painted in paints and ornamented by simple floral patterns. However, in Samarkand, the tradition of painting had been almost forgotten and the masters from Rishtan and Khodjent frequently came to paint utensils (5, p. 37). The technology of ceramic production was primitive, and the masters wanted to improve manufacture and to have better equipment in order to survive in competition with factory-made products (6, p. 37). Nevertheless, in conditions of industrial production, traditional craft of Samarkand slipware declined, and by the mid-1970s – 1980s had been fully revised – the masters turned to small modeled products instead of slipware. Famous Samarkand master U. Djurakulov, previously manufacturing traditional ceramics, founded a new direction – small decorative modelling, which successfully develops in Samarkand (7, p. 64). The most popular among Samarkand artists are small terracotta compositions on subjects from daily national life, customs and holidays.

After long and difficult development, the Samarkand ceramics has accumulated the richest historical potential. Unfortunately, the traditions, which made Samarkand slipware famous, have been forgotten. Their revival is one of the topical tasks of contemporary folk art.

Author: Surae Alieva

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