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Unit 7: 500 BCE - 1980 CE

West and Central Asia

Images 181-191

Main Ideas:

  • As different leaders fought for control over areas dominated by a certain religion, they patronized religion in different ways through artwork to assert their control

  • Additionally, as different religions (such as Islam & Buddhism) spread throughout major trade routes, their artworks were influenced by the different cultures they encountered


Middle Eastern Art

  • Islamic mosques and buildings are designed to glorify the power of Islam through grand facades and mesmerizing mosaics, and they have large ambulatories and open spaces for pilgrims to gather

  • Islamic designs generally feature an intricate mesh of Islamic imagery to showcase the artistic capabilities of Islamic artisans

Image 181: Petra

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Petra, Jordan: Treasury and Great Temple


Nabataean Ptolemaic and Roman


c. 400 BCE - 100 CE


Cut rock

  • The complex's many works showcase Greek & Egyptian Influence, which is representative of the many cultures that came to trade in Petra due to its central location
    • The treasury (Khazneh) has a rock-cut facade with Greek & Egyptian influence

      • Bottom level has a triangular pediment with columns (Greek influence)​

      • Upper level has a broken pediment with a central circular building (tholos) (Egyptian influence from city of Alexandria)

      • Has ornate Corinthian columns

      • Above the pediments are the bottoms of two obelisks (Egyptian influence)

      • The upper pediment level has a central figure (on the tholos) that is likely Isis-Tyche

        • Isis is the Egyptian goddess of fertility, and Tyche is the Greek goddess of chance and fortune​

    • The Great Temple has a large colonnade, which also represents Greek & Roman influence​​

      • The column's capitals (the tops of the columns) have elephants and winged lions​ (griffins)​​

        • Griffins are a Greek mythological figure​

    • There are also many rock-cut tombs with niches and small chambers in the rocks for burials

      • However, no human remains have ever been found​

Image 183: The Kaaba



The Kaaba


Mecca, Saudi Arabia


Islamic; Originally a Pre-Islamic Monument


Rededicated by Muhammad in 631-632 CE; Multiple Renovations


Granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread

  • Represents the central spirits of Islam
    • Played a major role in the founding and central beliefs of Islam

      • Muhammad was driven out of Mecca in 622 but returned in 629​

        • During this period, the Kaaba was filled with decorations of idols and other things that weren't Islamic​

      • When Muhammad returned to Mecca in 629, he cleansed the Kaaba of all its idols and restored it to Islamic values → Represents a triumph of the Islamic faith

        • It's believed that Abraham and his son Ishmael constructed it

      • Because of its importance, Muslims pray 5 times per day toward Mecca and the Kaaba

      • Muslims try to make the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca once in their life (as it's one of the 5 pillars of Islam)

        • During this, the pilgrims assemble around the Kaaba and circumambulate it​

      • The Black Stone is a symbolic stone in the corner of the Kaaba → Believed that Muhammad had kissed the stone at one point

        • Because of this, many pilgrims try to touch or kiss the stone when circumambulating the Kaaba​

    • Its construction has symbolic Islamic motifs

      • Interior is made of marble & a limestone floor​

      • Exterior is covered with a black cloth called the Kiswa

        • Replaced every year

        • Has important verses (ayats) from the Quran written in calligraphy

      • Has been reconstructed many times to accommodate more people

        • The 2nd Caliph (Umar) expanded the area around the Kaaba to accommodate more people​

        • A civil war set it on fire in 683 CE → Caliph Abd al-Malik and Ibn Zubayr rebuilt it

      • Has a large mosque around it with long colonnades and 7 minarets

Image 185: Dome of the Rock

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Dome of the Rock




Islamic, Umayyad


691-92 CE with multiple renovations


Stone masonry and wooden roof decorated with glazed ceramic tile, mosaics, and gilt aluminum and bronze dome

  • Commissioned by Caliph Abd al-Malik as an alternate pilgrimage site to Mecca; also somewhat symbolizes a triumph of Islamic faith over Christianity & Judaism
    • Wasn't a mosque; it's initial function unknown

    • The rock in the center plays a major role in all 3 religions:

      • Islam: ​

        • Muhammad ascended on his night journey from the rock​

        • Ibrahim might have sacrificed Ishmael on the rock

      • Christianity:

        • Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac to God here​

      • Judaism:

        • God created the world out of this rock​

    • Its design has a lot of decorations on the exterior with 2 ambulatories (walking spaces) in the interior for pilgrims → Showcases the tenets and supremacy of Islam

      • The interior has 2 ambulatories around a symbolic rock, surrounded by an octagonal enclosure​

        • This would allow for pilgrims to come and circumambulate the rock, just like they do to the Kaaba (Image 183) in Mecca​

        • Also has a lot of mosaics​

      • The exterior has a lot of mosaics with Arabic script and vegetal patterns

        • The Arabic script has verses from the Quran, and the motifs of vegetation allude to Islamic control over the natural world​

        • The golden mosaics also shine brightly and showcase Sasanian and Byzantine crowns, alluding to the power of those empires

      • The overall design is similar to Early Christian and Byzantine burials (martyria) → This building seeks to combine Christian architecture with shiny mosaics to "outshine" or outcompete Christianity

        • Also, this building is similar in dimensions to the Church of the Holy Sepulcre (also in Jerusalem) → This uses shiny mosaics that shimmer in light to showcase the supremacy of Islam

    • Commissioned by Caliph Abd al-Malik during his civil war for power against Ibn Zubayr

      • Likely reason is that he wanted to establish a power base in Jerusalem because Ibn Zubayr was trying to use Mecca as his own power base​

      • Also, he likely wanted to show his dedication to the Islamic faith and bring people together in Jerusalem without force

Image 186: Great Mosque (Masjid-e Jameh)



Great Mosque (Masjid-e Jameh)


Isfahan, Iran


Islamic, Persian: Seljuk, Il-Khanid, Timurid, and Safavid Dynasties


c. 700 CE; Additions and restorations in the 14th, 18th, and 20th Centuries CE


Stone, brick, wood, plaster, and glazed ceramic tile

  • The experience of visiting the mosque gives viewers a feeling of spirituality and an understanding of the grandness of Islamic power
    • Interior: The intricate arrangement of the bricks, stucco, tiles, mosaics, and domes makes us feel mesmerized by the design → Gives us a feeling of spirituality

      • Walking through the mosque is like a journey of discovery (as if we're discovering our path to spirituality)

      • There are 2 major domes and many more smaller domes → The aerial view looks like bubble wrap​

      • The soffits (undersides of the domes) have intricate mosaics, and when light reflects on them, it feels very mesmerizing

      • The interior is mostly composed of hypostyle halls with many columns

        • The vaulting of the ceiling allows for light to shine even in places that are usually dark → Signifies that people can feel spirituality even in dark areas

    • Exterior: The design and arrangement represents the tenets of Islam as well as the importance of the mosque in the city life

      • There is a very big courtyard in the center to accommodate all the pilgrims → Signifies the large number of people in the Islamic community​

        • Each of the 4 sides of the courtyard has an iwan (a large facade like the one shown above)​

          • Only the iwan with 2 minarets above it faces Mecca

          • This iwan (that faces Mecca) and the iwan directly opposite it each have entrances to a domed interior

            • The domed interior in the side that faces Mecca is reserved for the ruler, and the other domed interior is for the ruler's vizier​

      • The mosque is located at the center of the city (and shares walls with other buildings) and has multiple entrances, allowing for lots of foot traffic → Represents its role as a commercial and mobility hub in addition to a prayer hub

    • Was established in the 11th century by the Seljuk Turks, but all the later dynasties (Il-Khans, Timurids, Safavids, and Qajars) added their own touches to it​

Image 187: Folio from a Qur'an



Folio from a Qur'an


Arab (during Abbasid Dynasty), from North Africa, or Near East


c. 8th - 9th Centuries CE


Ink, color, and gold on parchment

  • Its luxurious quality and preciseness reflects the spiritual importance of the Qur'an
    • This mushaf (manuscript) is part of the Surah al-'Ankabut (The Spider) from the Qur'an

      • Surah is like a chapter, and there are 114 in the Qur'an​

      • The main text is written in brown ink

        • Each verse is divided into many verses by the 6 golden circles (that form a triangle shape)​

      • The title of the surah is written in golden ink → Makes it easier to find on the page

        • It is ​surrounded by a rectangle filled with golden vines

          • This was because Islam forbade images of people or Gods, so vegetal motifs were always used​

      • This passage means that people who betray the words of Allah and become sinners will never live in peace

    • The scribe who wrote this used very precise calligraphy → Reflects how important and sacred the Qur'an is

      • Scribes were honored in their community for their contributions to promoting Islamic faith and for their calligraphic styles​

      • The horizontal lines are straight, and the letters seem to have a similar height in each line

      • It was generally a luxury to have such a fine and precise manuscript

      • Written in Kufic Script (an Arabic script that was generally used for artistic manuscripts)

        •  Has horizontally-elongated letters

        • The red dots indicate the vowel marks

Image 188: Basin (Baptistère de St. Louis)



Basin (Baptistère de St. Louis)


Muhammad ibn al-Zain


c. 1320 - 1340 CE


Brass inlaid with gold and silver

  • Uses visual imagery to showcase the power of the Mamluk sultanate in hunting and battle
    • Initially was a water bowl used for purification before ceremonies

      • Then, it was bought by the French, where it was used for baptism of the royal families​

    • The imagery depicts lots of hunting and battle scenes on the interior and more of a sense of order on the exterior to show how the Mamluks are able to ensure dominance in hunting and battles while maintaining order and proper governance

      • Interior:​

        • Bottom is an abstract array of eels, fish, crocodiles, etc. → Shows Mamluk success in fishing

        • Interior walls have continuous bands of animals and battle/hunting scenes with limbs and heads all over the place

          • However, there are 4 medallions: 2 have kings, and 2 have coats of arms → Represents Mamluk dominance over hunting​

      • Exterior:

        • Has 4 medallions, each depicting men on horseback in different positions​

        • However, the bands outside the medallions show figures facing and processing toward the king → Emphasizes the idea that the Mamluks can maintain sense of order during all this chaotic hunting and battle

        • Bottom band has 4 roundels with the fleur-de-lis (French royal symbol)

          • However, this is also a symbol associated with a Mamluk sultan​

  • Has little Islamic calligraphy even though it was made by the Muslims, likely because it was meant to be exported to France → Shows how the Mamluks wanted to express their power not with purely Islamic elements (that others don't understand) but by adapting their imagery to Western culture

    • In fact, the artist (Muhammad Ibn al-Zain) signed it 6 times (in the top exterior band)​

Image 189: Bahram Gur Fights the Karg



Bahram Gur Fights the Karg, folio from the Great Il-Khanid Shahnama


Islamic: Persian, Il-Khanid


c. 1330 - 1340 CE


Ink and opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper

  • Legitimizes the Mongol Il-khanid rule in Persia by alluding to the power of previous Persian kings and displaying them in a Mongol-style format
    • This is an illustration of a story from the Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings

      • Celebrates the Persian past before the arrival of Islam (in the Sassanid Empire, 3-7th Centuries CE) and its heroes through orally-passed tales​

    • In this tale, Bahram Gur (the king) defeats the Karg (a horned wolf)​

      • Bahram V was a Sassanid King who was sent to India to kill the monstruous Karg​

        • "Gur" refers to an onager (a fast wild donkey)​ → Alludes to Bahram's swift power

        • He killed the wolf, even though others said it was impossible

    • Mongols conquered so much territory throughout Central Asia → They fostered the growth of cosmopolitan cities and patronized the dissemination and honoring of past heroes​

      • This page has lots of international artistic styles​

        • The overlapping of elements, the twisted trees, etc. all suggest the ideas of 3-D perspective (spatial recession) in Chinese art​

        • Has some calligraphy, which was common in Persian art

        • Indian & Persian artworks generally had a hero slaying an animal

    • By alluding to a past Persian king on horseback, the Mongols are actually legitimizing their own power since they themselves were expert horsemen

      • They wanted to show how powerful horseback riders could be (by looking at past Persian Kings on horseback), so they could prove that the Mongols themselves could legitimately take over Persia​

Image 190: The Court of Gayumars



The Court of Gayumars, folio from
Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama


Sultan Muhammad


c. 1552 - 1525 CE


Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

  • Emphasizes the superiority of the Persians over the Ottomans and the rest of the world
    • This is an illustration of a story from the Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings

      • Similar to Image 189

      • Celebrates the Persian past before the arrival of Islam and its heroes through orally-passed tales​

    • Its artistic style represents the confluence of cultures and styles in Safavid Persia

      • Persia was Shi'a Islam, which was less orthodox than Sunni Islam, which is why this manuscript has many figures and idols (which would usually be prohibited in Sunni orthodox Islam)​

      • Has artistic styles from both Tabriz and Herat (both places were the commissioner studied painting)

    • Commissioned by Shah Ismail I (first Safavid King), and given as a gift by his son Shah Tahmasp I to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1568 → Likely meant to show Safavid superiority over the Ottomans

      • The calligraphic text at the top glorifies the power of Gayumars (the first king of Persia)​

        • Mentions that when the sun shined gloriously, Gayumars became the King of the World, his people wore leopard pelts, and food & clothing were ample​

      • The image in the manuscript emphasizes the supreme power of Gayumars

        • King Gayumars is at the top, floating above all his courtiers → Emphasizes his supreme power​

          • He is clothed in leopard pelts (because of the speckles on his garment), which emphasizes his wealth​

        • His son and grandson are below him, as if they're bowing to him

        • There are onlookers all over the place → Emphasizes the power of King Gayumars

Image 191: The Ardabil Carpet



The Ardabil Carpet


Maqsud of Kashan


1539 - 1540 CE


Silk and Wool

  • Its intricacy and wealth/breadth of imagery represents the wealth and power of the Persian Empire
    • Background: Ardabil is a town in northwest Iran named after the Sufi saint Safi al-Din Ardabili (whose shrine is in Ardabil)

      • After his death, his followers sought to spread his legacy, and one of them eventually founded the Safavid Empire in 1501​

      • This carpet was part of a set of 2 matching carpets, and the other one is at Ardabili's shrine in Ardabil

        • This carpet was likely commissioned as the royal Safavid court may have patronized Ardabili's shrine

    • Carpets were a valuable trade in the Islamic & Persian worlds

      • Were made of silk and/or wool and were very portable​

      • Could be hung on the walls to preserve a room's warmth or be placed on the floor as a rug

    • Has lots of rich geometric patterns & vegetation motifs, which are typical of Islamic art

      • Islamic art generally forbade icons, so they used vegetal motifs and abstract geometric patterns instead​

      • A carpet's complexity is measured as its number of knots per square inch, and this carpet is 340 knots per square inch

        • More intricate than most commercial carpets today​

      • Carpet is well-planned and has lots of details

        • Central golden medallion dominates the design, and it is surrounded by rings of ovals​

        • Two lamps hang from the central medallion (on the sides)

          • Could mimic lamps found in mosques​

        • The inner space is filled with vegetation motifs, emphasizing Islamic power over the natural world

      • The border has multiple frames, and they have a series of cartouches (oval-like designs)

    • Has a small inscription where the artist (Maqsud) humbly refers to himself as a slave to show himself as a respectable servant

Central Asian Art

  • The artworks represent the confluence of cultures throughout the Silk Road and how that confluence influenced the development of Buddhist art in the region​​

Image 182: Buddha




Bamiyan, Afghanistan




c. 400 - 800 CE (Destroyed in 2001)


Cut rock with plaster polychrome paint

  • Represents how Buddhism was able to spread throughout the Silk Road and receive influence from the various cultures in the region (such as Greek culture from India)
    • There are 2 large rock-cut Buddha sculptures

      • Destroyed by Taliban in 2001​

      • One of them is Buddha Vairocana (175 ft), and the other is Buddha Shakyamuni (120 ft)

        • Believed that Shakyamuni was the original Gautam Buddha (founder of Buddhism) in his life, and Vairocana is the Buddha that remains after Gautam Buddha's death​

      • These are the largest rock-art Buddha sculptures

    • The sculptures received a lot of influence from the various cultures along the Silk Road

      • Bamiyan was located in a prime location between Indian Subcontinent & Central Asia ​→ Many Silk Road merchants passed through the city

        • As Buddhists passed through the city, they openly practiced their religion → Other merchants were inspired by Buddhism and even contributed their own ideas to these sculptures​