Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World

Issue #3-4 • 1070

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 1

Several major collections of Islamic art known worldwide through excellent publications include glazed bowls that stand out by their specific decoration. Their most characteristic features are the greyish-lilac or pinkish-grey slip that serves as background for polychrome slip painting, expressive images including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic ones, as well as epigraphic and vegetable-geometric motifs.

Vessels of the group in question decorate collections of the Kuwait National Museum (the Al-Sabah collection) (1, p. 223, cat. Cb.6, pp. 240-242, cat. Gf.1) (Fig 1, 2), the collection in the Prince Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art (Toronto) (2, p. 141, No. 106, p. 173, No. 147) (Fig. 3, 4), and the Harvey Plotnick collection (USA) (3, pp. 70-71, No. 29) (Fig. 5). Besides, a number of vessels that undoubtedly belong to this group have been included in the catalogues of Bonhams, Christie`s and Sotheby`s auction houses (Fig. 6-9).

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 2

Zoomorphic images constitute the largest group. These are fabulous birds with rich feathering, small ears and a stripe running from the beak towards the back; fish resembling a powerful sturgeon; leopard with curved bifurcated tail; hares whose ears form a triangle in the centre of a vessel. A conic bowl has a completely unique design featuring a siren – the bird with woman’s head crowned with a strange headdress. It is pictured with spread wings and a huge and complex tail; next to it there are two white pisces. Another unique theme shows a moon-faced beauty with long plaited hair playing lute. A number of vessels feature inscriptions performed in a simplistic, sometimes a bit rough, kufi script.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 3

The painting uses olive-green, ochre-red, pink, black and white colours. The characteristic peculiarity of a decor is shapes that fill the space, in which large red and white (sometimes only white) dots are painted over a black background. There are versions where the shapes are filled with white rather than black colour, and the dots are olive-green (Fig. 4 and 5). Along the rim there runs a black stripe with an imitation of a kufi inscription performed in fine white lines. Sometimes this stripe is also painted on the bottom of a vessel. In some instances the stripe is filled with wavy lines, zigzags and triangles rather than quasi-inscription.

The publications date the bowls to 9th-10th, 10th and 10th-11th centuries. The bowls are treated either as items from Eastern Persia or Transoxiana, or Central Asia, or “East-Iranian world”. When describing two items from the Al-Sabah collection, Watson mentions that these presumably come from Maimana, Afghanistan.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 4

The unusual and bright design of the ceramics in question that can probably be best defined as intricate excites significant interest from researchers and collectors. Yet, based on the literature available to us, there is no certainty as to the localization of this group of vessels.

It appears that some light onto the problem of origin of this ceramics group can be cast by two vessels: one was found by the author during excavations at Budrach site; and the other is displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Termez.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 5

Budrach site is located in Denau District of Surkhandarya Province and is, in all probability, the ruins of a medieval Chaghaniyan, the capital of a domain of the same name that occupied a territory in the middle and upper reaches of Surkhandarya River. It was Galina Pugachenkova who identified this site with Chaghaniyan (Saghaniyan in Arabic transcription) (4, pp. 14-22), and archaeological research led by Edward Rtveladze made it possible to bring some clarification into chronology and structure of the city and its surroundings (5, 1983a, pp. 173-187).

In 1986 and 1989-91 the Budrach unit of UzIskE [Uzbekistan Art Expedition] led by the author carried out small-scale excavations at Dunyotepa, a hill located in south-east corner of the Budrach site. Dig-1 (BDR-1), where the work began in 1984 by M. H. Iskhakov, occupies north-west section of Dunyotepa. Here we found the remains of 17 chambers dating 10th-11th centuries. Unfortunately, in 1992 as funding was stopped, excavation work was suspended and its results remained unpublished.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 6

Of the Dunyotepa finds the most interesting one in the given context is a fragment of a glazed dish we found on the floor of room 1 in 1986. The dish had a wall that bent in its upper third, a footring, rim diameter 27 cm, footring diameter 10 cm, and height 7.4 cm (Fig. 10). On the outside the entire vessel was covered with white slip, and on the inside – with greyish-lilac slip. The latter was also applied on the outside as an uneven band along the rim with occasional flowing over the white slip. Transparent glaze covers the inside of the bowl completely and only the upper third of the outside wall, again as an uneven stripe with runs. Painting against the lilac background is performed in white, dark-olive, ochre-red and manganese-black slip paints. The decor is a simple kufi inscription in white that runs across the bowl; the outline and details of the letters are done in black. Underneath the inscription (and probably above it) there are symmetrical vegetable tendrils with volute endings painted in dark olive-green colour. The outlines and details are black, and in addition there are ochre-red dots with white speckles inside. Along the rim there is a black stripe filled with an imitation of a kufi inscription (“baraka”?). The background is filled with various shapes in which the black base is painted with rows of white and red speckles as well as olive-green circles outlined with a fine black line, with a black ring and a dot at the centre. On the outer wall of the vessel along the rim there are triplets of slanting strokes in olive-green colour (Fig. 11).

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 7

The inscription is likely to be the Arabic word ‘akhlaq’ that means ‘character’, ‘nature’, or ‘disposition’, with an added decorative alifa at the end. This word, the derivatives of which are ‘morality’, ‘moral’ and ‘morals’, is part of one of the most popular aphorisms found on Samani ceramics: “Al-judu min akhlaqi akhli l-janna”, or “Generosity is a quality of the people of paradise”. This is the phrase that adorns a bowl from the Aga Khan collection (Fig. 4); similarity of scripts should also be noted.

The second vessel that enables localization of the ceramics group in question (Fig. 12) is displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Termez (code: И 13/73, SVAM 3523). The vessel, a one-handle jug with a pear-shape body, is interesting because, first, it is by far the only evidence that the design under study decorated not only dishes and bowls, but also closed-shape pottery; and, secondly, it provides yet another link to Surkhandarya region. We have not been able to establish yet on which site precisely the jug was found, but there is no doubt that it originates from one of the archaeological sites in Surkhandarya Province. The remaining height of the jug is 14 cm, and it has a flat base 7 cm in diameter. Decoration of the upper part of the vessel features a dark-grey background painted against which there are two red birds, one follows another in a procession; they have long tail feathers and white feet, but the heads, unfortunately, have not survived. At one point the birds are separated by an olive-green trefoil. At the bottom the composition is limited by a black band with an imitation of a kufi inscription performed in fine white lines. The background is filled with black shapes with rows of white and olive-green specks inside.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 8

A Budrach dish (Fig. 10) represents all the most characteristic features of the group under study: grey-lilac slip as background, shapes filled with white and red specks, a band under the rim with a quasi-inscription, and a kufi inscription. Olive-green vegetable elements and little circles scattered over the background that feature on our dish are identical to the d?cor of a bowl from the Al-Sabah collection (Fig. 1).

The decoration of a jug from the Termez Museum (Fig. 11) also fully complies with the typical properties of the group: this also applies to the quaint appearance of the birds (cf. Fig 6). The only difference is that olive-green specks are used instead of red ones.

As mentioned above, dating suggested in various publications varies within range of the 9th-10th, 10th and 10th-11th centuries. In our view, dating it to the 10th century is more appropriate: the argument is that two known vessels feature aphorisms written fully and literately, which is not typical for the 11th century.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 9

Thus, the two finds from Surkhandarya Province that we have published for the first time, give reason to argue that the place where the entire group of this peculiar glazed ceramics with rare polychrome decoration and exotic themes was manufactured could be this very region in the south of Uzbekistan. It is also possible that a workshop (or workshops) that mastered the manufacture of these products was located in Chaghaniyan, the capital of a domain of the same name that reached its heyday under the rule of the Samanids. The rulers of Mukhtajid dynasty who possessed Chaghaniyan held senior positions in the Samani government and played an important military and political role, which could not but facilitate the development of culture, art and artistic crafts in their capital city. It is no chance that amirs of this kin were the patrons of famous poets such as Daqiqi and Farrukhi (6, pp. 177-181). After the fall of the Samanids, Chaghaniyan went under the sway of Ghaznavi state, yet preserving its significance as crafts centre. At least this can be evidenced by the largest deposit of bronze items dating to first half of the 11th century we discovered in the shahristan of Budrach site (7, pp. 27-31; 8, pp. 294-306).

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 10

The Budrach site has numerous traces of ceramics production, but, unfortunately, there has been no specific research into it yet. Of course, one could confidently argue in favour of the Chaghaniyan-based ceramics production of the group in question only if spoilt items of this type were found at the Budrach site. Yet, unfortunately, we do not have such data.

Central Asian Ceramics in the Collections throughout the World
Fig. 11

Of course one cannot be confident about its local origin only judging by a single bowl discovered in Chaghaniyan, as it could well be imported. Nevertheless, even if we suppose, based on rather vague indications, that the items in Western collections originate from northern Afghanistan, then the “habitat” of the ceramics in question should also include the territory of Surkhandarya Province of Uzbekistan, or, according to the medieval nomenclature, the territory of north-western Tokharistan. In any case, this ceramics can already be confidently referred to as one of Tokharistan. Should we manage to find new evidence, we could finally solve the problem of localizing this most interesting group of glazed pottery and rightfully call it the Chaghaniyan ceramics.

1. Watson Oliver. Ceramics from Islamic Lands. London, 2004.
2. Spirit and Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection. Geneva, 2007.
3. Pancaroglu Oya. Perpetual Glory: Medieval Islamic Ceramics from the Harvey B. Plotnick Collection. Chicago, 2007.
4. Пугаченкова Г. А. Халчаян. Ташкент, 1966.
5. Ртвеладзе Э. В. Новые археологические данные к истории городища Будрач// ИМКУ. Вып. 18. Ташкент, 1983а, с. 173 – 187.
6. Ртвеладзе Э. В. К биографии Фаррухи// Художественная культура Средней Азии IX – XIII веков. Ташкент, 1983б, с. 177 – 181.
7. Ильясов Дж. Я., Русанов Д. В. Клад средневековых бронзовых изделий с городища Будрач// Общественные науки в Узбекистане. 1988, № 1, с. 27 – 31.
8. Ильясов Дж. Я. Будрачский клад бронзовых изделий // Ученые записки Комиссии по изучению памятников цивилизации древнего и средневекового Востока: Археологические источники. М., 1989, с. 294 – 306.

Jangar Ilyasov

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