One of the most ancient kinds of decorative-applied art, ceramics, was very common on the entire territory of Central Asia. Having evolved from ordinary kitchen utensils to immaculate pieces of high art, by the 9th-11th centuries it reaches its heyday owing to technological progress and the appearance of slip glaze. Chach, an ancient oasis of sedentary farming, was among interesting ceramic manufacturing centres of that time; it spanned across the territory of contemporary Tashkent and Tashkent Oblast (province). The capital of medieval Chach was the town of Binket, which, according to some scientists, was situated in the place of the present old part of Tashkent. Numerous towns and settlements earned Chach the name of the land of thousand cities.
Commerce thrived in Binket, and its residents engaged in cottage industry and agriculture. Its advantageous location on transit trade routes connected the town to different centres in the countries of the East. Maksidi, listing tradable items delivered from Chach, specifically mentioned Chach crockery (1). Numerous finds made in the process of contemporary construction in the old part of Tashkent provide excellent proof of intensive development of pottery manufacturing in Binket.
Creative ceramics in the 9th-11th century Binket develops in keeping with an overall rise of ceramics manufacturing on the territory of Movarounnahr in the process of formation and perfection of expressive forms of crockery and the mastering of new technological devices in the use of engobe and glazing at the time when the main decoration principles evolve, the most characteristic types of ornaments develop, and the main colour gamut is established.
However, with an apparent commonality between Binket ceramic specimen and the items created in the lead centres such as Samarqand and Khorezm, Chach crockery also features clearly traceable local peculiarities in style. These are the prevalence of white engobe that provides main background for subsequent painting and serves as one of the key elements in crockery decorum, and the presence of local ornamental motives (stellar composition). Particularly noticeable in ceramics ornamentation is the abundance of zoomorphic motives reflecting close proximity of sedentary and nomadic cultures of Chach oasis.
Zoomorphic themes have already been discussed both in monograph publications about Chach ceramics and in separate articles on the subject. Based on the previous research one may notice that the world of living creatures prevailed in medieval ceramics: birds and fishes, gazelles and frogs, rams and camels, lions and snow leopards. This article focuses on the analysis of recent finds discovered on the territory of old part of Tashkent.
Of special attention, due to good preservation, is small bowl (picture No.1) of late 9th – early 10th century found during the reconstruction of A. Kadyri Park. At the bottom of the bowl (26 cm in diameter) there is an image of a bird that resembles a dove, which, according to ancient beliefs, is a symbol of good fortune and luck. The bird stands fast and proud, tail fanned out, at the centre of a complex ornamental composition, all elements of which emphasize the spherical form and at the same time clearly accentuate the principal image. The artist highlights the bird image, confining it into a regular circle in bright-red colour and framing it with a five-beam star also in red, and plaits a stylized ornament with stroke filling into thus formed sectors of the background. The outline of the bird is performed in soft but sure and supple lines that show the peculiarities of the species: the shape of its head, eye, beak, feet and wings. The wing is highlighted by many-petalled rosette with a stem descending towards the tail. The main part of the figure is filled with fine strokes which in a way connect the central image with other decoration elements. There is a striking combination of animalistically accurate drawing of the bird and mathematically verified details of the ornament (circle, pentacle, stroked triangles) – a living creature and dry geometrical shapes. Clarity and tectonics of the majestic image are also maintained by austere colouring that is based on a then classical combination of a white background and dark-brown and red colours of painting. With seeming heterogeneity of the employed elements of decorum, the author creates an surprisingly wholesome and expressive “show-case” piece.
A specimen of centric composition is in a way similar to the above described bowl, but this time the solution lies in a different plane of imagery and style implementation. At the bottom of the late 9th century bowl (picture No.2) found in the A. Kadyri Park there is an image of a fabulous bird whose kind is hard to identify. The image is positioned at the centre of the bowl, the bottom of which is emphasized by a fine red circular line. Further up, closer to the rims, the circle is inscribed into a polygon, and the bowl sides are decorated with arch-like wavy lines. The main elements of the design are performed in red colour and the inside space of created planes is densely covered with black-brown dots which brightly contrast with the overall white background. Sectioning of the inner surface of the bowl by the design emphasizes plastic architectonics of the vessel, clearly highlighting its main parts – bottom and sides, and makes the piece look compositionally complete.
The image of the bird is performed in light, expressive, flowing lines. Stretching out from a large body are ribbon-wings, feet are marked by few strokes, almond-shaped eye gazes in amazement, and rich tail is spread out. The image comes out effortlessly, creating from lines, dots and colour spots a kind of a fantastic creature that belongs to unknown and beautiful worlds. The bird is gliding with ease in the bright sky. At the same time, the main part of its body and tail decorated with white circles with dots of green glaze – the so-called “peacock eye” – strangely resemble a fish. It still remains a mystery what symbols and legends the ancient master implemented in this image.
A bowl similar in its imagery solution is reviewed in the article by S. Ilyasova (2). Centric composition device, however, is not the only option in zoomorphic themes in glazed ceramics. Often on the plane of a vessel masters portray two, three or more birds in different combinations. The example is a bowl fragment dating to the first half of the 10th century (picture No.3) from the same park.
The image of the bird, with certain degree of stylization, is very realistic and enables its identification with Central Asian dove. The bowl differs from the above specimens not only in shape (conic), but also in its overall compositional and colour solution. Based on the available fragment, one can justifiably assume that in this case the image composition consisted of two birds positioned in reverse relative to one another. This was what determined the departure from centric composition and put a complex task before the artist of placing two creatures on conic sides of the bowl, which he coped with excellently. Silhouettes of the birds, densely covered by olive engobe are separated from an intricately decorated background by a fine red line that leaves white uncoloured field which repeats the general outline of the birds. The artist emphasized eyes, neck band and head plumage. The remaining space is covered with stylized vegetable ornament filled with small olive dots, which, possibly, indicates an imitation of chased metal-ware. The rim of the bowl is decorated with scalloped borderline and emphasized by a thin red line that encompasses the entire composition and gives it a collected, complete appearance. High quality of the crock, “sounding” colours and clear shine of the glaze testify to the high level of workmanship of medieval ceramists and artistic value of the crockery.
A fragment of another bowl dating to the early 10th century (picture No.4) found on Farabi Street also shows two doves. Large birds froze in a solemn opposition to one another. The image fills almost the entire space of the bowl bottom, and the remaining white background is densely decorated with curls and leaves. The central field is encircled in a broad red band, repeated in a stylized vegetable pattern. The decorum is completed by the ring of repeated Arab inscription of well-wishing. This splendid specimen of parade crockery stands out by its well-considered composition, lush olive-brown colour range and careful workmanship.
Distinct from this “bird world” is a bowl fragment (picture No.5) of late 9th century from A. Kadyri Park. The bowl is distinct by many parameters: its theme, technical and colour solutions. Instead of the usual engobated background cover it features soft brown colour of pure terracotta, and image itself is created by white and dark-brown engobe. Positioned at the centre is one large fish resembling a carp. According to ethnographic data, fishes in Central Asia were considered to be creatures able to repel evil spirits, cure diseases and have a beneficial effect on a human being. A master carefully drafts the fish’s head with “Cupid bow” lips, emphasizes its large eye and scale plates, spread out small fins. The fish seems to swim in its habitual aquatic environment. Along the side of the bowl there weaves an unusually designed plait of white stripes and oval medallions, at the centre of which dot-filled ovals are inscribed. The main details of the ornament are performed in dark-brown engobe. With the overall reserve of pictorial and colour solution, there emerges a surprisingly wholesome and expressive image.
An additional accent in the composition is an intricate plait positioned above the fish – a so-called Knot of Happiness frequently found on medieval ceramics; its form resembles a cross. Perhaps this was not a chance element in the decorum, but a conventional sign indicating that the bowl belonged to a certain population group in Binket. Well-known are the facts that different religious confessions existed for a long time on the territory of medieval Movarounnahr. Nestorian Christian communities and Manicheans peacefully coexisted with Islam; Zoroastrianism and ancient folk beliefs still echoed. All this created a unique ideological and cultural environment in which medieval craftsmen perfected their trade. As fish and cross are the most ancient symbols of early Christianity, one cannot exclude that the potter had representatives from Nestorian communities among his customers.
We have analyzed only few of the most common zoomorphic themes in Binket ceramics, which are perfect examples of keen search of medieval artists in the domain of pictorial art, the proof of an uninterrupted connection with ancient images and beliefs, of everlasting love for nature in its diverse manifestations. Despite wars and political shocks, change in ruling dynasties and religious systems, folk artists created their works to embody festive hymn to life, peace and human being. And these finds enriched us with the knowledge of yet another facet of our culture and helped us to have a more diverse and full-blooded picture of that epoch.
Elena Iskhakova, Ravshan Igamberdiev