Colour in the Temurid Architecture. Elmira Gyul

Issue #3 • 1207

Ornamentation fragment of Sher-Dor madrasah. Samarqand With the introduction glazed facing, colour becomes the most important factor determining the appearance of a medieval city, and it opens a new page in the evolution of architectural ideas. Tiles filled the dusty streets of infinitely plane adobe walls hiding people’s homes with buoyant harmonies of colourful symphonies and sapphire- and turquoise-blue mirages shining in the sun. As American historians of Islamic culture (R. Ettinghauzen and O. Grabar) noted, “The use of colour in architecture was a very special and unique achievement of Muslim Culture” (1, p. 213).

Early Islamic cult structures were distinguished by the almost complete absence of decoration, which was associated with contempt for all earthly things and denial of worldly goods that was characteristic of early Islamic period. It was a time when theologians called for modesty and asceticism, urging people to reject silk garments and the use of gold and silver ware, prescribing hair-shirts and pottery instead. Extreme asceticism was also characteristic of the views of the first Sufi communities. However, “in the 9th century, when the believers’ piety grew so secular that it required a decent mosque ornamentation and aesthetic environment for religious service” (2, p. 270), and with the official recognition of Sufism by orthodox Islam (by the 12th c.) and the separation of it from asceticism, ornamentation and colour became increasingly manifest in construction and decoration.

Fragment of Sher-Dor madrasah dome. Samarqand Starting from the 11th-12th centuries, monochrome brickwork and carved surfaces were increasingly often enlivened with turquoise glaze elements that accentuated individual ornamental friezes under minaret lanterns, above portal niches, etc. Coloured glaze was also used to highlight the names of rulers, in whose time the building was erected, and of architects, as well as construction dates (Magoki-Attari mosque and Kalyan minaret (Bukhara), a minaret in Jarkurgan, etc.), religious symbols, including the inscribed words “Allah”, “Ali”, “Muhammad”. Later on, with the help of coloured insertions, entire verses of the Koran were reproduced. Much more picturesque was the decoration of interiors, where artists played with polychrome painting on dry plaster and with carved painted gypsum (ganch); orange-red (ferriferous compounds), blue (ultramarine) and white were dominating colours; black outline was quite prominent, and gold-plating was used too (3).

More extensive use of glazed tiles on the exterior can be traced from the first half of the 14th century, when architects widely employed carved terracotta of predominantly blue and turquoise palette. One example is the ornamentation of ziarat-hana in the Kusam ibn Abbas mausoleum (1334), the Khoja Ahmad (1360s) and the Nameless (1361) mausoleums – all in Shahi-Zinda). The walls of Buyan Kuli Khan’s tomb in Bukhara (1360s) were also completely covered with carved glazed terracotta of saturated turquoise-blue and white colours with added manganese-brown and deep-blue.

Sher-Dor madrasah. Samarqand “Turquoise-blue style” prevailed in architecture up until the Temurid renaissance. In the late 14th century the introduction of new types of facing and dyes prompted a real revolution in the colour domain. A new trend arrived as an accentuated deep-blue, obtained from imported cobalt (the “Muslim blue”), and compositions combining turquoise and saturated deep-blue colours become the classics of Temurid ornamentation.

The use of coloured glazed tiles, which give more saturated and intense colouring compared to painting, was a new step in medieval architecture. The expansion of colour palette to a large extent encouraged the use of majolica painting and mosaic techniques; as a result, one-colour carved terracotta is replaced by polychrome ceramic compositions, where other colours appear alongside the already traditional range of blues.

The evolution of colour priorities represents itself clearly in the structures dating to the second half of the 14th century. Building exterior of pre-Temurid epoch (the aforementioned Shahi-Zinda mausoleums) is consistently decorated with predominantly turquoise-and-white or white-and-blue shades. Different shades of blue against terracotta-yellow background of brick walls were complemented with white, green-bluish, black and manganese brown colours. The same colour range is maintained in the Shadi Mulk aka mausoleum (1372, Shahi-Zinda), the exterior of the Ak-Saray palace, and in other buildings erected in the early years of Temur’s rule.

The first examples of widespread use of painted majolica immediately show the change in the colour palette: from 1380s it starts featuring deep-blue, yellow and red colours (the Amir-zade mausoleum, 1386, Shahi-Zinda, etc.). Eventually, the mosaic technology placed even greater emphasis on colours, as the ultimate appearance of a building depended on the right choice thereof. Thus, the Temur’s epoch saw the heyday of polychrome artistic style, which became a symbol of the Temurid architecture. The brightness of multicoloured tiles was emphasized by the mat texture of polished bricks.

During the reign of Amir Temur, quite often tiles were used all over the structure, completely covering the walls in sapphire-turquoise shell (Shahi-Zinda mausoleums); the technique made buildings look like gigantic jewellery boxes glittering with gemstones. The infinity of patterned “veil” related to the notion of “filling the void”, which was characteristic of Islamic aesthetics and linked to the idea of ceaseless creation of God who “first creates, then repeats it” (the Koran, 30:10/11) (4). Colour priorities were to identify the most important structural elements of a building from different points of its perception: thus, the bright blue domes, as a symbol of heaven, became an expressive visual accent in the cities. Throughout the 15th century, yellow-green palette and emphatic red and purple are being introduced more actively; black and brown are used to outline contours in the design. Towards the end of the 15th century, the accent shifts again to a more reserved presentation of colour in the exterior.

Ornamentation fragment of Ak-Sarai mausoleum. Samarqand Colour in architectural ceramics is exclusively local and saturated, always in complementary harmonious combinations chosen with impeccable taste. Clever selection of shades helped to identify the most subtle details of a pattern. S. Dudin, one of the first researchers who dedicated a number of their papers to the studies of architectural ceramics, noted specifically that the background for vegetable patterns was ultramarine, stems and leaves were turquoise, whereas flowers, rosette and rims were white; green was used in backgrounds and additional insertions; yellow – for the rims, flowers, leaves and inscriptions; black – for backgrounds and rims (5, p. 55).

While making buildings look more expressive, colour also performed not less important symbolic function. Until now the question of symbolic implication of colour in Temurid architecture has not been at the centre of attention of local researchers. Although it was recognized that “many believed colour symbolism to be the secret of the ancient people’s attraction to certain colours” (6, p. 431), still the prevailing viewpoint was that the choice of colour was influenced by “the method and technology of finishing works, as well as by “local environment and its optical phenomena” (6, pp. 431, 432).

Representatives of Sufism paid specific attention to the development of the colour theory. Colours were given certain characteristics, and this was related to the belief that with the help of colour one can express the realities of not only external, but also internal life. Thus, besides making architecture look impressive, colour carried a concealed information about the sacred knowledge. Like ornament that played the role of the metaphorical image of the universe (7, p. 190), colour related to the tradition of interpretation, when the external, the presented (zahir) concealed in itself a sacred, undercover essence (batin).

Ornamentation fragment of Khoja-Ahmad mausoleum. Samarqand In one way or another, attitude to colour as a carrier of certain information was reflected in architecture. As already noted, the first step towards introducing colour into architecture as early as in the Karakhanid period was the use of turquoise and greenish-blue glaze. Researchers associated the preference for this colour range exclusively with the technological aspects of decoration work: the widespread use of turquoise that already appeared in the decoration of pre-Temurid buildings was made possible due to accessibility and simplicity of blue glaze production (6, pp. 431). Meanwhile, for the Karakhanides who used to be the nomads of steppe not so long ago, colour had a very important connotation: turquoise, or blue-green more precisely, for which the Turkic word is kok, had long been associated by them with the colour of sky they worshiped (Kok Tengri), and Turkic peoples always considered it a peculiar colour (8).

Kok is also the colour of grass, of the vegetation element and fertility. It was also associated with noble origin: the name of one of the ancient tribes of Ashin meant “blue”, “deep-blue” (9). It is no coincidence that the names of a number of Temurid monuments preserved the word kok (kuk) – Kuk-Saray, Kok Gumbaz, etc., thus reflecting the age-old affection of the Turks for the colour of eternity they idolized. The colour itself, a blend of blue-green shades, had to do with the fact that “Turks had a different idea about boundaries between the colours of spectrum, compared to notion of the Europeans. Thus, kok was the blue-green colour; yashil was green-yellow, turbid; sary was yellow-orange, bright”, as noted by L. Gumilyov (8).

Fragment of Tuman-aka complex. Shakhi-Zinda. Samarqand As for sedentary/farming cultures, pure colours dominated among them. The image of sky, space, and the upper divine world also logically related to deep- and light-blue. It was the “divine and heavenly” blue that was used to picture cult items and gods’ attire in Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, in Mithraism and Christianity (clothing of Mithra, Jesus, the Mother of God). At the same time, negative notions could also be associated with deep-blue. Whereas for nomadic Karakalpaks blue (kok) was the colour of wedding dress (kok-koylek), sedentary peoples of Central Asia regarded blue (bright-blue) as a classic colour of mourning, sorrow and repentance; clothing and headdress in this colour were worn at the funerals. Deep-blue was also particularly popular among Sufis, who, therefore, were often referred to as kabud-pushan, i.e. “dressed in dark-blue” (10, p. 114). The choice of this colour was determined by the fact that deep-blue was the colour of asceticism and mourning (2, p. 233). According to colour theory proposed by Najmeddin Kubra, the founder of one of the Sufi orders, “deep-blue dress indicated that the Sufi who wore it was at the very beginning of the path of spiritual perfection”, and “clothing of black and blue colours should be worn when a mystic overcomes the stance of ‘lower soul’ (nafs ammara); a higher position is associated with wearing light-blue clothes” (10, p. 118).

Whereas in the pre-Mongolian period, in the time of Ghaznevids, Karakhanids and Seljukids, when yesterday’s nomads were actively integrating into urban civilizations, turquoise dominated in architectural ceramics as the colour of manifested divinity, heavenly abode and paradise, in the Temur’s era colour range changes. The time when deep-blue appears in the architectural ornamentation of Maverannahr coincides with the arrival of Iranian masters. The combination of turquoise and deep-blue had become a kind of Turko-Persian fusion that characterized the dialogue between the two cultures.

A classical addition to the light- and deep-blue spectrum was first white, then yellow colours. White, the symbol of purity, light, and unity, has always been revered by Sufis. Much deeper is the interpretation of the innovative blue-yellow combination that was to become classics of Islamic art; the combination was made of colours that were both partners and antipodes. One of the first buildings with majolica facing wrought in this colour range is the Nameless mausoleum of usto Alim Nesefi (Shahi Zinda, late 14th c.).

Yellow is a warm colour associated with positive energy, the colour of the sun, earth and gold. In combination with cold blue it creates the effect of unity and struggle of opposites, and also embodies the same sacral ideas about the path of spiritual perfection, which evolved in Sufism: if blue was the colour of the first stage on the “path” – “shariah”, then yellow is the colour of the second stage – “tarikat” (11, pp. 194-205).

Yellow-blue combination acquires a special significance in the context of Sufistic notions. A famous Persian Sufi poet Faridaddin Attar (1141 – ca. 1228/29) wrote: “The sea was asked, why it dressed itself in blue, the colour of mourning, and why it became so agitated, as if the flames made it boil. And the sea replied that blue speaks of bitterness of separation from the Loved One, and fire of Love makes it seethe”. In this case yellow represents the aforementioned flame, the fire of love. The combination of deep-blue and yellow is found in Sufi dress too: blue gown with a hood, rimmed with yellow band. Together, these two colours produce green – the colour of dedication and life, truth and immortality (11). Perhaps, this is the secret of the popularity of yellow-blue range in Muslim architectural decoration, as the combination of these colours imply green – the colour that has always been recognized as important symbol of Islam. Green was associated, on the one hand, with the notion of Paradise, “the emerald mountain that embodies the colour of Eternal Life”, situated beyond seven heavenly spheres of different colours (11, pp. 194-205), and, on the other, with life on earth, awakening nature, spring-time flowering, and fertility.

At the same time, the choice of deep-blue and yellow palette could be considered as the influence of the Tengri cult that survived in the Turkic-Muslim environment, with its worship and deification of the Father Sky Kok-Tengri (deep-blue, light-blue) and Mother Earth Sary Yer (yellow, golden).

Over time, the blue-yellow (blue-golden) combination became canonical and typical of the refined urban culture of the East, and was present not only in tiles, but also in the colouring of “palace” carpets and manuscript ornamentation. This colour solution culminated in wall painting that employed deep-blue (cobalt) and gold. Polychromatic ornamentation that developed in the late 14th century as part of the Temurid architectural practice became known in the Muslim world as haft rangi – the Persian for “seven colours” (heavenly rainbow). In Islamic culture this accentuation of the seven colours was also symbolic and originated from the ancient cult of seven planets, where each of the deified celestial bodies related to a particular colour with sacred meaning attributed to it: the Moon (green), Mars (red), Mercury (deep-blue, turquoise), Jupiter (grey), Venus (white), Saturn (black), and the Sun (yellow) (12). Muslim astrology inherited these ancient ideas about seven luminaries, the orbits of which represented seven heavenly spheres.

The idea of “coloured” planets revolving around the supreme deity, the golden Sun, was repeatedly implemented in architecture: one may recall ancient observatories – pyramidal zikkurat-temples of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, where each level was painted in different colours, as well as the acropolis in Median capital Akbatan (mentioned by Herodotus), which was built in the shape of seven differently coloured ring-walls rising one after another around the royal residence (13, p. 54). The combination of the seven “divine” colours in architectural facings can be regarded as the expression of heavenly harmony that embodies harmony on earth, and the buildings – as the symbol of paradise and divine beauty on earth.

Thus, colour in the architecture of Maverannahr evolved from dominant turquoise and white in pre-Temurid structures to turquoise-blue and yellow shades characteristic of the Temur’s time, and, finally, to rich polychromatic combinations. In the latter that has largely decorative value, one can see the manifestation of secular trends. The understanding of colour symbolism also changed. For instance, deep-blue as the colour of eternal heavenly abode and the colour of mourning becomes a vivid expression of refined court culture, the colour of luxury and riches. Colour harmonies built with the sacred knowledge in mind, never contradicted the laws of colour proportions. As a rule, artists followed the technique of contrasted selection of shades using a contour line, as well as the method of combining similar colours. Colour palette used in the Temurid architecture was also supported by the colours of local natural environment, which predetermined its resilience through many centuries.

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Elmira Gyul

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