Saturday, 30 October 2010

Just Fallen Short

Quasi-periodicity in 15th century Islamic Art and whether it actually has been developed as a concept is still a matter of a somewhat controversial debate. There are three sites in the city of Esfahan which have been studied in this regard in considerable detail, two rather small patterns on a spandrel and a portal on the Darb-i Imam shrine in the Dardasht quarter of the old city (1453) and a huge pattern on the western iwan of the Great Mosque. Several authors have, in the meantime, tried to overlie Penrose patterns of kites and darts or thick and thin rhombuses in order to prove that medieval artisans were able to apply what had been described by Roger Penrose only five centuries later. See, for example, Lu and Steinhardt (2007), their response to some additional work by Makovicky (2007), or Cromwell (2008) here, here, and here.

However, while a certain desire for subdivision and self-similarity can easily be traced on the respective buildings, it is not perfect, in particular not at the Darb-i Imam’s spandrel and portal, and the Great Mosque’s western iwan (probably 17th century). The higher level of girih- or proto-tiles is composed of decagons and bowties in each case only. I have pointed some time ago to a possible solution for creating in fact a perfect subdivision if one had considered a special arrangement of girihs in the upper right corner of the spandrel of the Darb-i Imam, which is composed of decagons, bowties and, in fact, the elongated hexagon, or bobbin, which can be found all-over. The picture below indicates the higher level pattern originally found on the spandrel (left) and a suggested pattern (right) which takes into account a small portion of the lower level pattern in the upper right corner. See more information here.

On the western iwan of Esfahan’s Great, or Friday, Mosque, the highest level is composed of alternating half decagons while the spaces in-between are filled with half bowties. Both decagons and bowties follow mainly the suggested subdivision rule. However, the pattern is distinct as it introduces, at the intermediate level, a rhombus, which is otherwise missing in the subdivision. If one adds colors (picture below, left), it becomes clear that the artisans just fell short in creating a true Penrose pattern.

Certainly, it would have been possible to assemble the five-point star (purple in the left picture) by a bobbin and two bowties instead. How it would look then can be seen in the right picture above (by Benjamin R. Schleich from his dissertation, which can be found here). A nice animated gif, instantly explaining the concept of subdivision and self-similarity, can be found here.

The picture below shows the western iwan, or sofe-shāgird, the iwan of the student (sic!). Sofe-e ustadh (the iwan of the master) faces it, it is the eastern iwan.

That medieval artisans just fell short of creating something that would really have amazed us 500 years later may be regarded as indirect proof that they had not really penetrated the mathematical concept. But if they actually had, why would that have been more interesting? Medieval artisans were keen to produce, with the help of eminent mathematicians, interesting ornaments and designs on mosques and buildings, not mathematical breakthroughs. They achieved a ‘dazzling’ appearance anyway; I have pointed to that several times here on this blog, see here and here. By removing color as a common element, for instance in the case of the Gonbad-e Qabud in Maraghah (1196), they even created something what would absorb and dazzle scientists even eight centuries later.

That has made a lasting impact, hasn’t it?

First published at Freelance.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Intricate Patterns

Mathematic breakthroughs in the 10th and 11th centuries in Baghdad and, for instance, Esfahan may have resulted during the 15th century in an explosion of Islamic Art and Architecture. In particular the use of so called girih tiles, that is a set of polygonal prototiles with well-defined decorating lines may have allowed medieval artists in Iran and Central Asia to create decagonal tessellations with, in few cases, Penrose-similar patterns. Between the mid-14th and early 16th centuries, the Timurids ruled over much of the Islamic world. The highly sophisticated and strictly geometric (‘Islamic’) patterns on glazed tiles covering buildings and monuments became later more and more floral. Exquisite examples of this changing style can be seen in Esfahan's Grand Mosque and Darb-i Imam, Mashhad’s Gohar Shad mosque, or the Friday Mosque in Yazd.
The Timurids were repelled in Iran by the rulers of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736 CE) who established the Shi’a branch of Islam as state religion. Many historians regard specific achievements during these centuries as the true apogee in Islamic Art and Architecture. One marvelous example is the Naqsh-e Jahan in Esfahan. Geometric, calligraphic and floral designs cover both religious and secular buildings while ancient roots of the Iranian society, in particular the Achaemenid style of intricately carved wooden ceilings and slender pillars are well preserved in certain palaces, reminding of the grandeur of ancient Persepolis.

Another area where the specific designs of the Safavid period can still be studied is few surviving carpets of that time. Two years ago, Christie’s Auction House has sold an Esfahani silk carpet of about 1600 for an, at that time, record amount of $4,450,500. I was wondering at that time, how many of these inalienable carpets are still hoarded by wealthy Tehran bazaaris in their vast storages.
Well, some of these masterpieces have only survived in paintings of the European Renaissance period (14th to 16th centuries). Famous examples include paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1498-1543) and Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556). Saudiaramco World has dedicated an article in its recent issue to “Threads on Canvas”, i.e., mainly Anatolian carpets displayed on famous Renaissance paintings (by Tom Verde). Some of the carpet designs are even called after Holbein, and others may have been identified on still existing pieces. In particular Holbein’s portrait of merchant Georg Giese, or Gisze as the painting was entitled by the artist, (1532) is a fascinating masterpiece illustrating much of the life circumstances of the confident young man, for example his engagement (the carnations in a fragile vase placed too close to the edge of the table) and wealth, symbolized by the carpet on the table. The strapwork border and even the design of the central field can actually be seen in an Anatolian carpet in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Another example by Holbein is the famous Ambassadors (1533) which may strike the viewer by its surrealistic anamorphic skull in the lower third of the painting, which is only discernible as such when the picture is viewed at an acute angle. It is what nowadays would be called a gimmick, both to shock, or at least surprise, the viewer and impress him or her for the superior mastering of the complicated technique. Again, the table is covered by an Anatolian carpet with a ‘large-pattern Holbein’ design. A similar existing example can be found in the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin, Germany.

© Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Bridgeman Art Library; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Saudiaramco World.

More about carpets of the Ottoman era in general and Holbein carpets in particular may be found here.

First published at Freelance.

Saturday, 18 September 2010


I have visited northwestern Iran in 2005, just after the election of current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I stayed only 72 hours or so and went on to Mashhad but, as usual when in Iran, I have met a couple of nice people there, in particular Dawoud and Alireza, who didn’t mind to show me around. So, I had the opportunity of having a ride to Daryacheh Orumiyeh and another to Kandovan. I have reported on these trips here and here on this blog.

That memories lasted long was partly due to the purchase of a very nice small Shirvan rug for my own tiny gallery. Its owner Dawoud, a very knowledgeable carpet collector and honorable dealer in Tabriz, was rather reluctant to sell it to me since he had it in his own flat for 20 years. I knew at that time already that Shirvan was a region in Azerbaijan in Transcaucasia. Buying that small rug didn’t make me a collector, though. The people, exotic places, adventures, and the circumstances of finding collectibles in original places, the bargaining made it, which fascinated me. I have told the stories about Seyed and Mirwuis, Ali and Hussain, Mr. Okhravi and his eldest son Sirus here on this blog. Of course I was fully aware of spending most of the time money on rubbish. But I didn’t mind.

Well, that might have been changed since I am living in a much more boring region right now, far away from exotic places and with no time anymore for extensive travelling in particular in the Middle East. When planning this year’s holidays in Istanbul, I eventually dared to contact a German carpet dealer whom I had located in Munich before (but who currently has his business in Istanbul) and whose webpage with special antique rugs and textiles from the Middle East and Central Asia I had frequented for some time. I asked for a particular Shahsevan bag (khorjin) face displaying tastefully, indeed elegantly, arranged Memling guls and which was allegedly from 1800. It looked so new! Brilliant colors, no visible damage. The carpet dealer, Bertram, enlightened me that it had been restored, of course. By courtesy he provided me with a picture of the piece indicating how it looked when he had bought it. I admit that, given the price he mentioned, I lost somewhat interest in the piece. Should I pay the huge amount for the masterful repair or the antique? It seems so as if, well, sort of over-restoration had created a completely different piece of art here.

The following weeks, Bertram and I had a spirited exchange of emails. I could learn a lot from him, he told the novice. And he was right! We exchanged our differing experiences which we had made in the Middle East. He had travelled in the 1970s, as so many young people from the West, to Iran, Afghanistan, India. Morgenlandfahrer, as Hermann Hesse would have called them. After the Islamic revolution, though, he had avoided entering in Iran. Amazing that, when I recently asked Abbas Okhravi in Mashhad, he remembered a young German guy called Bertram whom he had actually met then.

I was interested in one of his pieces which resembled, in design, my Shirvan rug. He told me that it was not extraordinary but interesting anyway and had belonged to the collection of bag faces collected by a German engineer, Hans-Gerhard Bach, who had died in 2000. He had been commissioned to sell these pieces; some were of very high quality, most had been sold already. He had published the best pieces in a book and kindly provided me with a copy and another copy of his other gorgeous book about Shahsevan sumakh bags.

Due to some circumstances, I missed Bertram in Istanbul. He suggested visiting Seref Özen and Mehmet Çetinkaya in Istanbul, famous and knowledgeable carpet dealers with most interesting stuff.

The latter’s gallery, a temple of exquisite taste and a gold mine for both its owner and the opulent (I am not) connoisseur, impressed us very much. Mehmet’s catalogue with an explicit statement and beautiful examples of the very fact that tribal art of Central Asia might have antedated 20th century’s Modernism by several hundred years is stunning. The two pieces from Transcaucasia (Shahsevan, Moghan), which I bought there, were expensive but not so special.

The bag face below is from the Bach collection (plate 32). Initially classified as Shahsevan, Bertram now considers it Luri. It has a special patina and might be one of the oldest, from the early 19th century. The other piece is a Shahsevan from Qeydar, a small town south of Zanjan in the Khamseh district in Azerbaijan. It may be the other face of a mafrash displayed here; same but not identical.

More about the Shahsevan, a confederacy of nomadic tribes “loyal to the shah” at the frontiers of Azerbaijan, can be found in Richard Tapper’s book. More about their mainly flat weavings can be found here.


Monday, 6 September 2010

Kitties in Istanbul

It's a cat-friendly city. They are fed by the people and seem to enjoy life. Different from other parts of the Middle East. In Kuwait, for instance, stray cats are living in and from garbage containers and would not allow fondling. They are terrified. Istanbul's cats apparently are not.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Ramadan Kareem!

To all my friends in the Middle East: Ramadan Kareem!

Thanks for the wonderful crescent to

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Night Journey

When recently having read German Orientalist Tilman Nagel’s voluminous opus maximum on life and legend of the prophet of Islam, I became once more interested in the different versions of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven and his night journey to Jerusalem which had already been combined in the earliest surviving text on his life, Ibn Ishaq’s (d. 761) Sirat Rasul Allah (“Life of the Messenger of God)”, edited by one of his students, Ibn Hisham (d. 830 CE).

Largely powerless, his preaching oppressed, his followers brutally persecuted, Muhammad had tried, just 18 months before emigrating to the city of Yathrib, to reassert himself by telling strange stories about night journeys. According to the Kitab al-Tarikh wa al-Maghazi by another biographer, Al-Waqidi (d. 822), the prophet ascended to heaven on Ramadan 17 (621 CE) when having a nap at the Ka’aba in Makkah. A ladder (mi’raj) was put up by the two angels Jibril (Gabriel) and Mikhael (Michael) between the Zamzam well and the station of Ibrahim (maqam Ibrahim). Then, all three climbed up. After having met other eminent prophets and having had a close look at hell and paradise, Muhammad received the order to commit ritual prayers five times a day, and after having accomplished the descent, Jibril informed him about details of the rites.

Al-Isra’ wa Mi’raj
According to Ibn Ishaq’s account, the ascension took place in Jerusalem. At night while sleeping in Abu Talib’s daughter Umm Hani’s house, on Rabi’ al-awwal 17, one year before the hijra, he was brought al-Buraq, the mythical white-winged mare, and accompanied by Jibril, they rode to the “farthest mosque” (al-masjid al-aqsa), i.e., according to most Muslim beliefs, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Muhammad tethered the animal at a site now called Robinson’s arch at the south western flank of the Temple Mount. From there he climbed the divine ladder up and down, and the horse brought him back to Makkah. The Qur’an mentions the night journey (al-Isra’) in its homonymous surah 17, 1:

“Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque (Masjid al-Aqsa), whose precincts We did bless, – in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).”

Muhammad did not follow Umm Hani’s advice, not to talk about his night journey. The Quraysh quickly contested that it would have been possible to travel to Jerusalem in one night and scrutinized the story. According to a hadith by Ibn Katir “the Quraysh were asking me (Muhammad) about my Night Journey. They asked me things about Bayt Al-Maqdis (Jerusalem, the Temple Mount) that I was not sure of, and I felt more anxious and stressed then I have ever felt. Then Allah raised Bayt Al-Maqdis for me to see, and there was nothing they asked me about but I told them about it.“ So, it must be concluded that Muhammad had never been in Jerusalem before.

What Did the Prophet Actually See in Jerusalem?
But what had he seen when in Jerusalem? After its final destruction in 135 CE by the troops of Roman Emperor Hadrian who brutally cracked down the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews were no longer allowed to settle there. Christianity was still a forbidden religion. The city was renamed Colonia Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian ordered that a temple for Aphrodite was erected. The entire province of Iudaea became Syria-Palaestina.

When Emperor Constantine I (d. 337 CE) became a ruler of the Roman Empire in 324 CE, Christianity got its chance. His devout Christian mother Empress Helena, while having been travelling the Holy Land at a time when Christianity had been legalized throughout the Roman Empire, had discovered the hiding place of what was held the True Cross, used for the crucifixion of Jesus. Amazingly, her son, Emperor Constantine, renewed the prohibition on the residence of Jews in Jerusalem. Jews were only allowed to mourn for the destruction of their temple once per year, on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. In 325, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea which established a largely privileged status for the Bishop of Jerusalem.

Constantine discovered in the holy city the site where Jesus has allegedly been crucified, buried, and resurrected, and ordered to build the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of Resurrection, and the Church on Mt. Zion commemorating the Last Supper. As a result of Constantine’s promotion of Christianity, Jerusalem flourished again after several centuries and became a center of pilgrimage for the whole Roman Empire.

In the fifth century, the city was further expanded by Eudocia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II, who ordered to build further churches in Jerusalem. Emperor Justinian erected in 543 CE another large church in honor of the Virgin Mary, called Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos. It was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 746 and never re-built.

The Byzantine rule in Palestine ended when, after a siege of 21 days and massive bombardment of the city walls with ballistas, the Sassanid army under general Shahrbaraz eventually conquered and looted Jerusalem in 614 CE, and massacred its (mainly Christian) inhabitants. Most of the churches including the Holy Sepulcher were burned down. The True Cross was taken as a trophy to Ctesiphon. This was four years after declaring Muhammad’s prophecy, eight years before hijra.

Persian rule lasted for some 15 years, and in 629 Heraclius re-conquered the city, seven years after hijra. He triumphantly returned the True Cross to the re-built Holy Sepulcher. Only nine years later, the Islamic Caliphate extended its dominion to Jerusalem. The rashidun Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab signed a contract with Patriarch Sophronius assuring the Christians and their holy places that they will now be protected under Muslim rule. The Holy Sepulcher had been rebuilt and redecorated in 1048.

Coming back to the question regarding Muhammad in Jerusalem, what did he actually find on the Temple Mount? Oleg Grabar’s Book on early Islamic Jerusalem, The Shape of the Holy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1996) provides some computer-generated views of Jerusalem as it probably looked around 600 CE. While the Holy Sepulcher and Nea are prominent landmarks, the area of the former Temple is empty. (Note that the Al-Aqsa mosque has been built by the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid in 705, a couple of years after Abd’ al-Malik’s Dome of the Rock.) But these sacral (Christian!) monuments lay more or less in ruins when Muhammad arrived on his mythical mount in 621. When the Quraysh asked him about details and Allah raised Jerusalem before his face, did He show him the Christian city in ruins? Or the empty area on top of the Temple Mount?

The Two Qiblas
At least since the Mishna in 200 CE Jews face the Jerusalem Temple Mount in prayers. So did Muhammad even after having arrived in Yathrib, then Madinah, in 622. The following year, while leading the prayers in a mosque, he got a revelation by Allah (surah 2, 144) to turn the qibla to the Ka’aba in Makkah. So, two-and-half years after his miraculous visit to Jerusalem from where he ascended to heaven, he finally turned his interests towards Makkah.

The picture shows the Madaba (in Jordan) mosaic map of Jerusalem in the mid or late sixth century. The (northern) Damascus Gate to the left, (eastern) St. Stephen’s Gate as well as the Holy Sepulcher (west) and Nea church (south) are discernible.

First published at Freelance.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Mombasa's Old City

I have mentioned in a previous post that the special charm of Mombasa’s old city can hardly be perceived instantly. My Jordanian colleagues from Kuwait and I had booked at the Whitesands Sarova Hotel north of the city. The view of the Indian Ocean just outside the hotel with camels on the beach was breathtaking. The constant breeze from the ocean made humidity and tropical temperatures very comfortable. In fact a place to die, I was thinking.

My friends are not the ideal company when exploring exotic places. On my request, we went to Mombasa, but it was hot and dusty and I was told “we know all of this” from home. When I became curious about the 16th century Mandhry mosque with its strange minaret, I was informed by my Muslim friends that it was not prayer time, so asking to enter was hopeless. Nobody was either interested in the vegetable and fruit market. Was that a bazaar? We rushed through the lanes. Souvenir shops sold beautiful collectibles at reasonable prices.