Ornament in Bukhara

Mir-I-Arab Medressa (16th c). It is still a working institution of Islamic learning.

To many in the West, the most notable aspect of Islamic art is the ban on figurative depictions of people and animals. This ban is, I believe, based upon passages in the Qu’ran warning against the creation of false idols. In truth, however, the rigidity with which this ban has been enforced over the centuries has varied – especially, for reasons unknown to me, in the Shi’a Persian world. After all, Persian culture is famous for its miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.

The "aiwan" at the Bolo-Hauz Mosque (1718)

Although belonging predominantly to the Hanafi Sunni branch of Islam, culturally Central Asia has belonged more to the Persian world than to the Arab; hence, it is not unusual to find figurative depictions of animals even in pre-Soviet Central Asian arts. Uighur carpets supposedly (although I’ve never seen this) occasionally even contain images of people or faces.

But Bukhara’s architecture testifies to the fact that, exceptions to the figurative ban aside, Islamic art does not suffer even in its non-figurative forms. Whether visiting the large civic and religious institutions – the mosques, medressas and bazaars – or former and current private homes, I was struck again and again by the complexity of geometric forms, the incredible use of color and the transformation of the materials of construction themselves into art. For example, the patterned brickwork on both the exterior and interior of the otherwise unpainted Samani Mausoleum (a picture of which is included in my last post about Bukhara) creates an ingenious play of shadow and form that animates the surfaces of what otherwise would be an undecorated domed cube.

Tile detail

It is not uncommon for Western art historians (primarily prior to the 1950s, although arguments have long shadows) to deride such things as mere “ornament” and applied arts, suggesting that these are lesser forms of artistic expression. Of course, Islamic art historians contest this disparaging attitude, and the vast majority of art historians and art lovers have evolved past this contemptuousness.

Robert Byron book The Road to Oxiana, which details his art historical and archeological adventure through Iran and Afghanistan in the early 20th century, both educates the reader about how one might appreciate Persian-Islamic “ornament” as art objects in themselves (and therefore not just for their historical value) and eloquently captures his emotions upon beholding the finest examples of Persian architecture and applied art. Tile patterns have color, rhythm, movement; buildings have weight, proportion, volume. Moreover, he evaluates buildings of different styles with a relatively even hand, recommending some structures as fine examples of the ornate, fulsome tastes that predominated in some centuries and praising others as exemplary of refinement and succinctness. This is not to say that he finds virtue in all buildings – the passages in which he derides some buildings are among the most enjoyable – but that he spots the best of contrasting ideals.

19th century door detail

I have not yet acquired either Bryon’s depth of knowledge nor his evident discernment, but it was certainly very enjoyable to walk amongst Bukhara’s many buildings comparing the woodwork on one door to the patterns on another and, with the help of a knowledgable friend in Bukhara, begin to understand the historical progression of certain motifs or artistic habits. Once again, I cannot shed any more light on the subject than this but am happy to share with you some of my “details” pictures.

What I think makes this art so compelling in its best instances is the ease with which the craftsmen and creators seem to tackle designs of the most incredible geometric complexity without sacrificing proportion of the natural elements that often serve as the base form. In the example of the door, for instance, the design’s unit is a three-petaled flower that is repeated in every direction, sometimes embellished (as might be a motif in a fugue) and linked by stems. The units are then composed into a set of vertical, off-set “X”s that might be represented: x+x+x. This is visually pleasing because of the repeated geometry provides symmetry and rhythm, but the “organic” shape of the unit masks the underlying patterning. There were many other, and often much more complicated, examples of this principle in other forms – but I couldn’t get good pictures of everything.

Two adjacent, contrasting wood panels on the roof of the Ark. The panels repeat along diagonals, like squares on a chessboard, creating a similar visual effect.

Details of tiling inside a mosque courtyard.

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