Vol. 2    Issue 19   01-15 February 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
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Courtyard of a madrasa in Fez, early 14th century

Traditionally, madrasas have occupied a highly important place in Muslim societies across the world. They served as custodians of Islam’s religious, intellectual and cultural legacy. Many of these madrasas can be regarded as monuments of Islamic architecture.

The Attarin Madrasa in Fez, which has survived the ravages of time, is one of the most beautiful monuments of Fez. The walls and ceiling of the madrasa are decorated with colourful mosaic tiles, fine stucco panels, exquisite wood carving, and striking foliate and calligraphic motifs.

Quranic calligraphy by Yaqut al-Musta’simi, 688 AH

Quranic calligraphy is one of the most striking features of Islamic art and culture. Wonderful specimens of Quranic calligraphy have been executed on parchment, paper, wood, stone, marble and glass. Manuscripts of the Quran have been written in a variety of beautiful and marvellous calligraphic styles, including Kufi, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Maghrebi, Naskh and Nastaliq.

Yaqut al-Mustasimi (d. 1298) is considered the most accomplished and celebrated calligrapher of the 13th century. He began his career at the court of the last Abbasid caliph al-Mustasim and later worked under the Mughals.

Waterwheel in Cordoba, 10th century

In the beginning of the 10th century, Cordoba was perhaps the most beautiful place on earth with 900 public baths, thousands of shops and hundreds of mosques. Well-lit streets and running water from aqueducts made Cordoba the envy of the world. The Muslim rulers of Andalucia introduced new and innovative methods and techniques of agriculture and irrigation. Windmills and waterwheels were extensively used for supplying water to the cities as well as for irrigation.

Royal robe, made in 1181 in Palermo, Sicily

During the Middle Ages, a variety of luxury textiles and garments manufactured in Islamic lands were highly popular in Europe. They were largely exported to different parts of Europe through Venetian merchants. The names of many fine fabrics in English and other European languages betray their Islamic origins. A fine silk fabric, known as taftah, named after the town in Persia where it was manufactured, was much in demand among the European nobility and came to be known as taffeta.

The Norman kings of Sicily were great admirers and patrons of Arabic arts and culture. This taffeta robe is embroidered in gold and set with pearls and precious stones. Interestingly, it bears inscriptions in two languages—in Latin and Arabic—recording that it was made in the Sicilian capital of Palermo for King William II. It was later worn as a coronation robe by King Frederick II in 1120 and by Charles V in 1520.

This robe is now at Kunshistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, 10th century

In the Middle Ages, Muslim artists and craftsmen in Egypt and Syria had been undisputed leaders in glass technology, technique and artistic decoration. For centuries, artistic glass making in the Islamic world had no serious rivals in Europe or the rest of the world. Enamelled and gilded glass objects and rock crystal glassware were highly popular among European knights and princes and members of the nobility. Church treasuries and museums in many European countries have preserved a fairly large number of exquisitely crafted glass objects obtained from Islamic lands.

This water ewer was originally in the Treasury of Saint-Denis in Paris and is now at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Silver coin from Cordoba, minted in 967

Muslim rulers in the Iberian Peninsula introduced highly important and wide-ranging innovations in trade, water harvesting, agriculture, urban planning, finance and administration. Abd al-Rahman II (822-852) was the first ruler of Andalucia to establish his own mint at Cordoba. During his reign, state revenues reached one million dirhams a year, which attests to the level of prosperity in the country.

This silver dirham was minted in Madinat al-Zahra in 357 AH.

A manuscript of Ibn Sina’s Canon

Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in Europe (990-1037), was one of the most talented and influential scientists and philosophers of the Islamic era. He made seminal and wide-ranging contributions to physiology, medicine, philosophy and psychology. His most celebrated work is Al-Qanun fit-Tibb, known as the Canon in Europe. It was translated into Latin in the 13th century. The Latin translation was first printed in Venice in 1595 and served as the principal textbook for medical students in several European Universities till the 18th century.

This manuscript is preserved at the National Museum in Damascus.

Decorated tiles from Iran, late 13th century

Beautifully decorated coloured tiles form an important part of decoration and ornamentation in Islamic architecture. Such tiles are notable for their vibrant and striking colour combinations, lustre, mosaic and geometrical and floral designs. Turquoise or cobalt blue colours were generally preferred for tiles.

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in 691

Dome of the Rock is one of the holiest shrines of the Islamic world. The Prophet undertook his Night Journey (mi’raj) from this site.

The monumental building with exceptional grandeur and majesty was constructed by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 72 AH. The building, which is a domed octagon with a double ambulatory encircling the rock, was erected on a very high platform. Beautiful wall mosaic has been used to decorate the interior and exterior parts of the structure.

Silk shawl from Cordoba, late 10th century

Luxury textiles produced in Islamic lands in the medieval period were renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship, vibrant colour combination and intricate designs. They were used for personal use as well as for decoration in palaces and in public ceremonies. Government-run textile factories, known as tiraz, produced luxury textiles bearing inscriptions with the name of the ruling caliph.

This beautiful silk shawl was made in Madinat al-Zahra during the reign of Hisham. The borders of the shawl are lined with Kufi inscriptions.

Decorated door panel, Syria, 14th century

One of the most common motifs used in Islamic decoration is the star—in various dimensions and extensions. The multi-pointed star could be extended almost indefinitely in elaborate geometric patterns and could be used on a variety of surfaces, including stone, marble, wood, tiles, glass and leather.

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