Masterpieces of Islamic Art

The term ‘Islamic Art’ evokes images of flowing calligraphic bands, zellige-covered walls, carved wooden pulpits, Arabesque decoration, illustrated manuscripts, to the end of the long list of wonders and marvels produced from as far to the East as China and all the way to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether it is the Alhambra in Granada, the Sher Dor Madrasa in Samarkand or the Complex of Qalawun in Cairo, there seems to be a common storyline despite the profusion of styles. What is that storyline? What binds all these styles together across hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles?

While many historians opt to the easy answer of ‘unity of faith’, the answer is not at all a straightforward one, and some other historians reject the term altogether. This should come as no surprise given the fact that most of the art history terms used today are relatively modern inventions. How can we define ‘Islamic Art’ then? What are the criteria and the parameters? Is it art produced by Muslim artists and artisans? Is it art commissioned by Muslim patrons? Is it art produced in territories subject to Muslim rule? Is it religious in nature? Secular? Both?

The term Islamic Art, in my opinion, is both reductionist and misleading, as it reduces the art of the Islamic World to only one of its cultural determinants: religion.
Most historians and critics tend to fall into the classical mistake of examining this art through a western lens/mentality, applying classical concepts to an entirely different realm. Abstraction, movement, horror vacui, density and intentional absence of naturalism are some of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this art, while vegetal decoration, geometrical patterns and calligraphy are its three omnipresent elements.

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture titled ‘Masterpieces of Islamic Art’, during which I presented 8 masterpieces, namely:

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons
Miniature Painting
The Mughal Empire, India

The Ardabil Carpet
Textiles and Carpets
The Safavid Empire, Iran

The Blacas Ewer
Atabeg, Iraq

The Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey

The Corning Ewer
Cameo Glassware
Fatimid, Egypt

The Djenbereger Mosque
Earthen Architecture
The Empire of Mali, Mali

The Kutubiyya Minaret

Carved Wood / Carpentry
Almoravids, Morocco

The Pyxis of al-Mughira
Carved Ivory
Umayyad, Spain

From the Pre-Islamic civilizations and cultures in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant, the art of the newly-born Islamic world took some inspiration. Nevertheless, the strongest impact on Islamic Art during its early years was that of the Byzantines and the Persians, visible in Umayyad and Abbasid art respectively. Following this early phase, and as Islam expanded, a second phase followed that was characterized by an incredible profusion of styles that coincided with a golden age. This eventually gave way to the Three Empires Phase, in which the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Asia Minor and the Mughals of India controlled vast areas of the Islamic World between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

My gratitude to the 20+ attendees that made this course worth all the effort.

Published: A Tale of Two Cities (Granada & Cairo)

This year marks the millennium of the Andalusian city of Granada, founded by Berbers from North Africa (the Zirids) in 1013 as a fortified city during the civil war that ended the Umayyad rule over al-Andalus (present-day Iberian Peninsula).

Since its foundation and till it was taken by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the city had its ups and downs, its golden age and its doom. The Zirids, its founders, were once agents of the Fatimids that had founded Cairo earlier in 969. Only 44 years separate the foundation of both cities. To what extent were the Zirids (and hence Granada) influenced by the Fatimid culture? Did Granada resemble Cairo in any way?

My latest article in Ahram Online tackles this issue and many others. You can read it all at:

Inside the Alhambra

Remains of a mosque in Albayzin

The Zirid Portal of Elvira

My 10th Article in El Legado Andalusí: al-Mahdiya, under the sign of the Lion

Another article of mine was published by El Legado Andalusí, this time about a marvelous little city in the Tunisian coast, called al-Mahdiya.
The city, once a Fatimid capital, is dotted with monuments and archaeological sites from the tenth century. Apart from being a picturesque Mediterranean port, it was once home for such figures as the poets Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi and Ibn Rashiq al-Kairuani. Following a brief period under the rule of the Norman kings of Sicily, the city fell to the Almohads in the twelfth century, signed peace treaties with Sicily, and flourished economically and culturally. Ibn Khaldun would refer to it in the thirteenth century as the richest Berber city of the era.

You can read the original article in Spanish at:

You can read the English translation for excerpts from the article below:

Mahdiya, the first Fatimid capital

Better said, the first capital founded by the Fatimids, who had lived in Raqqada (some 8 km from Qayrawan) before moving to Mahdiya.
The city bears the name of the caliph al-Mahdi who ordered its construction in 916. It’s a Mediterranean city that occupies a rocky peninsula whose isolation allowed for defending it by land, while the solidity of the Fatimid float guaranteed the security of the port against possible attacks form the sea. Moreover, Mahdiya was far enough from Qayrawan, whose religious scholars and people were known for their religious rigor and their rejection of the Shiite doctrine of the Fatimids.

The Fatimids, famous for their obsession with astrology and astronomy, waited till the lion (the Zodiac sign of Leo) dominated the constellations to start building the city, according to the astrologers’ instructions. Historians mention a very similar story that would take place later in Egypt with the founding of Cairo by the Fatimids in 969: only this time it was the sign of Aries that dominated, and the city was called ‘al-Qahira’ (the conqueror or invincible), the feminine form of ‘al-Qahir’, the ancient Arabic name of planet Mars which controls Aries.

Is this for real or is it just one more example of what we can call ‘the magical realism of the medieval chroniclers’? What we know for sure is that the lion (a symbol of power in Islamic iconography) became the city symbol, according to the travel accounts and the symbols seen in the walls.

With the exception of Cairo, one cannot compare Mahdiya to other Islamic capitals like Fez, Damascus or Baghdad. A typical medina of the Islamic World would have the great mosque more or less at its heart, surrounded by markets, caravanserais, hamams, etc. The Fatimid model is distinct because of the Shiite doctrine: In Mahdiya like in Cairo, the heart of the city is occupied by the palace of the Fatimid caliph, who represents the shadow of God on Earth.

Charla en la Universidad de Granada: El Cairo Fatimí y Granada Zirí (May 21)

Today I gave a lecture at the University of Granada (Faculty of Translation) on the historical and cultural relationships between Cairo and Granada, two cities that –at first glance- would seem like worlds apart. Historically however, they were founded only 44 years apart by the Fatimids (Cairo, 969 AD) and their agents in Ifriqiyya, the Zirids (Granada, 1031 AD).

An offshoot of the Zirid rulers in central Maghreb crossed to al-Andalus to take part in the Umayyad civil war that resulted in the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate around 1030 AD. During the civil war, several taifa kingdoms started to appear, including the Zirids (Banu Ziri) who founded Granada in 1013 on the ruins of an ancient Roman city.

Their rule (1013-1090) corresponds to part of the Fatimid rule in Egypt, and their art is influenced by the Fatimid style that they once marveled at in Mahdiya and other Fatimid cities in present-day Tunisia. Upon visiting the Archaeological Museum of Granada, the Museum of al-Monastir, the Bardo Musuem and the Raqqada Museum of Islamic Art, one can easily establish the cultural and artistic links.

Storytelling Walk in Historic Cairo: Fatimid Cairo (Jan 24th)

Today I organized a storytelling walk in Historic Cairo. The focus was on the Fatimid dynasty, which ruled Egypt between 969 and 1171. All in all, there were 14 Fatimid caliphs, and they turned Cairo into one of three caliphate seats in the Muslim world during the 10th century, the other two capitals being Baghdad (seat of the Abbasid caliphate) and Cordoba (seat of the Umayyad caliphate).

The Fatimids are best remembered as founders of Cairo and of al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest universities (970 AD). The eccentric lifestyle of some of the Fatimid caliphs, coupled with their Shiite faith; distanced them from the people, despite all the cheerful social and religious celebrations and festivals that they introduced in Egypt.