The Middle East is predominantly an Islamic society. Muslim art and architecture is heavily influenced by the religious attitudes. There is prejudice against pictorial representation of animal figure and human being due to the Prophet Mohammed teachings that are against idols and idol worship. This attitude influenced the development of geometric and stylized designs. Muslims have excelled mostly in the fields of architecture and decorative arts (Choueri 88: Ham 176: Graber 1). Islamic artists draw their inspiration from many sources: inspiration was drawn from Byzantine, Indian, Chinese and Persian models. These craftsmen then made their models in original and distinctive styles. Islamic architecture which boasts of large structures owes its inspiration from monumental builders such as the Persians and Byzantines (Marina 1). Slender towers and monumental mosques are a common feature in the Middle East. The walls and ceilings are beautifully decorated with decorations and ornamentations. As Muslim artisans are restricted against animal and human images, beautiful patterns from geometric figures and flowers form a delicate and graceful touch on the walls and ceiling of the buildings.
Conventionalized and lavish patterns have been created using tiles and mosaic. In spite of the regional diversity and change, there are defining features used in Islamic art; an absence of figural representations in the religious arts, Arabic calligraphy, arabesque and geometric designs. Arabic is the original language in which the Quran was revealed. The beautiful scripts on the Quran also serve as inspiration on ceramic bowls and stone inscriptions. The Arabic script used in the Quran has been used both as a method of decoration and communication. It is deemed as an expression of strength and will of Allah hence calligraphy is sacred in Islam (Choueri 88). This essay examines the history, developments and emerging issues in the art and architecture in the Middle East.
Arabesque is the new term used to refer to Islamic biomorphic patterns. This includes stylized plant forms of ornamentation and interlacing geometric works. The Islamic world was divided between the Byzantine and Persian empires, the Byzantine absorbed the Mediterranean while the Persian Empire absorbed the eastern Anatolia up to the upper Euphrates and central Asia to Yemen. The Greco roman culture was represented by the Byzantium while the Persian culture was represented by Sasanian artistic tradition. Artists working in the Sasanian and Byzantium patronage continued to work independently on their indigenous styles with the spread of Islam. Therefore, Islamic art is influenced by the early techniques but now blending with classical decorative motifs and themes. The biomorphic motifs, inherited from the early Islamic traditions can be categorized into three. These are; Flower rosettes, Islimi and tree of life. Flowers rosettes depict stylized flowers in their full blossom. Islimi represents patterns in a wavy line with stylized leaves, fruits, buds or flowers which turn sometimes turn spiral. Tree of life depicts plants with fruits, flowers and branches. With time this developed into a unique artistic expression where biomorphic ornaments, calligraphy and geometric patterns became the main styles of surface decoration. An earthly paradise was then represented by vegetal patterns (Marina 1).
The decorative arts
Between the 10th and the 13th century, great strides were made in arts in the Middle East. Egypt was the center of calligraphy. The artistic and aesthetic richness of the Middle East is characterized by a serpentine swirl of calligrapher pen, exotic arabesques, illuminated manuscripts and geometric patterning. This richness is also characterized by mosaic pieces that have microscopic detail and have been combined to provide a large scale mosaic masterpiece. Islamic restriction on portrayal of living things may have sounded as a death knell for the Middle Eastern art but served to motivate the exploration of artistic possibilities in Arabic script and geometric principles into the world’s decorative arts. The post Islamic forms adapted long standing figurative art traditions from art traditions in Persia and Asia (Ham 176). The illuminated manuscripts from Iraq and turkey which allowed for the glorification of the sacred provided a bridge between early art into decorative arts with extraordinary diversity. Islamic art has a great influence on the west in relation to areas of calligraphy, ceramics, glasswork, carpets, metalwork and textiles. Artisans and craftsmen from the Middle East have for 1200 years come up with sumptuous decoration applied on very ordinary objects to come up with extra ordinary decorations. These decorations have been displayed in the region’s museums such as the Topkapi palace. Decorative Islamic art for the Muslims are an expression of faith.
During the 13th century, silks, linen, rugs and brocades were produced in the Islamic world but only a few of this still remain. The same would be true for wood and ivory carvings whose existence has begun to diminish. In Baghdad, a secular school on manuscript painting was established and in this two distinguished categories of pictures. There are pictures that illustrate scientific world that originate from Hellenistic models and anecdotal pictures that display lively features. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century disrupted Iran hence scaring the Islam community in the west Mediterranean Sea. However, during the period of acclimatization, importation of Chinese artifacts and tastes revitalized the Iranian art. Book illustration reached great heights at this time and the arrival of Seljuk’s came with the introduction of novel ceramic techniques known as flit ware which is similar to the Chinese porcelain. This introduction led to the introduction of richly colored glazes. At this time, Syria and Iraq proceeded with the manufacture of turquoise-black pottery while the manufacture of textiles and rags was revitalized in the Islam community in the 15th century. The Mamluk carpets were also introduced and are known for their asymmetrical knots and complexity of design. Turkish ceramics began taking root in the 16th and 17th centuries known as Iznik ware. Turkish architecture frequently uses distinctive green tiles for decoration (Ettinghausen 18).
Calligraphy is the most sophisticated art that makes use of Kufic or Naskh scripts, which are an angular script made of stone and perfect for carvings. Calligraphy artist have a higher status when compared to other artists. Modern calligraphy uses a cursive style suited for the use of pen and ink. Religious verses are often included in objects such as coins, metalwork, tiles, miniatures and buildings. There can also be seen inscriptions recording ownership as well as poetic inscriptions. Quranic art refers to Islamic calligraphy in form of sculptures and paintings. Persian pottery has been described as the most epic form of art; it involved stylized inscriptions on epigraphic ware (Marina 1). In building complexly carved calligraphy is used as decoration. Additionally, tile made inscriptions with letters raised in relief or with their background cut form a refined decoration. Despite the small size of coins in the Middle East, majority of them are lettered. Important documents also exhibit decorations known as the Monogram or tughra from Ottoman sultan. Calligraphic designs can also be seen on single sheet albums often containing short Quran verses and poems (Choueri 88).
The best surviving form of art in the Persian world would be the miniatures which are contained in illuminated manuscripts. The Persian miniature which is strongly influenced by the Indian Mughals Miniature and the Ottoman Miniature has been dominant since the 13th century. Miniatures are not common with the public due to their depiction of animal and human figures, but are a common sight in courts. Human figurative art has continuously emerged in recent times most of which are used in the secular contexts of literature, history and science mostly in Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia. During the 16th century, portraits of rulers became Persian community. Mughals portraits in profile are finely drawn in realist styles while the Ottomans are intensively stylized. Picnic scenes portraying animals or youths of both sexes characterize the Indian album miniatures. China has also influenced paintings in the Middle East where a vertical format such as a book has been developed depicting hilly landscapes and high buildings wising up to leave little space for the skies. Figures are arranged on the background at different planes, the distance from the viewer achieved by pacing some figures of the same size, higher towards the sky in the given spaces. The colors used are contrasting some of which can be seen to use bright and dark colors and are well preserved (Graber 1).
Islamic metalwork is dominated by brightly colored decorations on enamel and modeled figures. These pieces are entirely made of precious metals such as brass, bronze or steel. This metalwork is monumental with its surfaces and shapes densely decorated with such colors as gold, silver, black niello and copper. The surviving objects of the medieval periods are precious enough to be preserved but not to be melted down. Some household items such as water pitchers were made of pieces of brass worked and soldered together. However, the Hadiths prohibited the use of gold or silver made vessels for eating, drinking or as finger rings. Metal work art can also be seen to make low candle sticks, lantern lights, dishes, basins, lamp stands, ewers, caskets and plagues. The basins and ewers which are mostly used in washing of hands before and after eating are often made of lavish material for the display during these activities (Ham 176).
Tiling and glasswork
Brightly colored tiles are used to decorate the interiors and exterior walls of domes and other building. These replaced the mosaic decorations that were prevalent in the early years before the 9th century. The early years saw the use of cut out tiles into shapes to make abstract geometric pattern. In recent times large painted schemes are used before firing, a technique that requires skill in firing. Often the inscriptions are molded in three dimensional reliefs, some of which contain figurative animal and human figures. These designs are often made u of plain colored tiles with intervals of fully painted tiles. The larger tiles show motifs of human or animal heads and plants in the eight pointed star shaped tile. The Indian mughals preferred to use a type of pietra dura decoration to tiles due to its affordability.
Islamic glasswork is the most sophisticated piece of work, with exports made to the Europe and Asian countries. Glasswork owes its origin from the fact that Islam took over the glass producing territory of the ancient roman glass and Sasanian. Persian innovations on decorations were quickly taken up in almost all parts of the Middle East. As a result, it would be difficult to relate a particular glass work to a particular country. Glass work is achieved by manipulating a glass surface by first incising it on a wheel and then cutting off the background to leave a relief design. This type of decoration can also be replaced by applying color on the smooth surface as was introduced by the Egyptians and Syrians. The glass industry did subside in Persia and Mesopotamia although advancements of the art continued in Egypt and Syria.
Carpets and rugs
The oriental carpets/ rug are common in the Middle East and whose versatility is used in the everyday life of the Islamic life. It is used to enrich the floor covering, architectural enrichment, is deemed a religious object as it used in prayer. These have been exported to other parts of the world, used even for table covering in addition to floor covering. Carpet weaving is deeply entrenched in the traditions of majority of the Middle Eastern community: seen as a trade by large factories and practiced by rural communities. Figurative designs are at times used, making use of human figures and in most cases abstract designs are used.
Arts in the Middle East follow an interesting progression which has somewhat been done intentionally or subconsciously. This art takes us through the high spirited calligraphy, personality morphs and pattern art. A troubled history of the Middle East has created an identity crisis and evidently posed a challenge to art. However, arts in the Middle East span over a wide geographic area and are growing at a very fast past. The result of this has been the formation of cultural centers such as those in Doha and Abu Dhabi in which large scale exhibitions, auction houses and art galleries are commonly held. The contemporary Middle Eastern art has gained significant growth as it has continued to gain recognition from all over the world. The Middle East art has increasingly experienced developments with an aim of maintaining its rich artistic legacy owing to the longstanding fascination from the rest of the world.
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