Timurid, 14th-15th century CE
Materials and technique
Ceramic; carved and glazed terracotta
31.5 x 23.5 cm
This piece aptly illustrates the mutations of architectural vocabulary in the Islamic world, the models for which were initially inherited from the classical and Ancient Near Eastern (Sasanian) worlds. The builders, whether they worked in the east or west of the territories of the Dar al-Islam, conceived and diffused original solutions for the coating and the transition from squared based vaults to circular ones. To do so, they invented the muqarnas, an architectural module whose genesis has been very controversial. Attributed to Egypt in the Fatimid period as well as to the Seljuqs of Iran, the muqarnas have also evolved from an essential architectural module for transition areas, with an important role in construction, to a purely decorative element. It soon becomes a repetitive element of groups of stalactites; the most brilliant examples are found in the sixteenth century in the vaults of the Alhambra (Hall of the Two Sisters and Hall of Abencerrajes) and later on, in Central Asia in the tomb of Ahmad Yasavi (Yasi, Turkestan in Kazakhstan, nowadays). This architectural element might have once belonged to a muqarnas vault, and could have once been affixed to the exterior façade of a mosque or mausoleum, a large group of which can be found in the Shah-i Zinda complex at Samarqand, one of the great Timurid capitals. Timur (r. 1370-1405 CE), a Barlas Turk who founded the Timurid dynasty, was a fierce ruler, but he and his successors were also grand patrons of the arts. The brilliant turquoise vaults and elaborately patterned façades of Timurid buildings are a familiar site in cities such as Samarqand. Along with the use of muqarnas, builders used a range of other techniques such as banna’i (glazed brick patterns), carved and glazed terracotta, tile mosaic, cuerda seca (dry cord), underglaze painted relief moulding, and even lustre, all revealing the virtuoso talents of these craftsmen.
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