Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque), 1609-1616
Art,  English

The Language of Gesture: Exploring Symbolism in Islamic Sculptures

– Introduction video credit: Entrance of the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi of Norbert Yanzon from Pixabay
– Ending video credit: Islamic Mosque Cycle Movement video of Muhammad Rahad (RAHADstudio) from Pixabay

The text below is the excerpt of the book Art of Islam (ISBN: 9781783107681), written by Gaston Migeon and Henri Saladin, published by Parkstone International.

When Abd ar-Rahman, the Caliph of Córdoba, founded the city of Madinah al-Zahra, to cater to a woman’s whim, popular legend holds that he placed the statue of this favourite concubine, which resembled ancient Flora, right in the middle of the palace.

Ibn Bassani recounts that one day when Abu Arab, a Sicilian poet exiled to Spain, went to see Mohammed, the king of Seville, he found him busy admiring some amber figurines.

Elsewhere, in Mesopotamia, the statue of a knight wielding a lance can be seen on the koubba of a mosque in Baghdad, and on another koubba there is the statue of man showing time. Over the entrance of a mosque in Homs, there used to be a strange sculpture, the bust of a man culminating in the tail of a scorpion.

Statue of a woman with a basket of fruit, second half of the 8th century, Art of Islam
Statue of a woman with a basket of fruit, second half of the 8th century. Gravestone. Khirbat Al-Mafjar, Palestine.

The 14th century traveller Ibn Battutah saw in many cities statues of animals, especially those of lions.

A reading of Makrisi reveals that even before the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, under whom Islamic law had already relatively declined as a standard, Tulunid sultans such as Khumaraweh had their statues, those of women in the harem and of their children, as well as those of royal musicians, in one of the halls of their palaces, along the Nile. These statues, of beautiful artistry, were made of wood, a custom that apparently drew from that of some of the great statuary workshops of the pharaohs, whose enduring masterpieces are conserved in the Museum of Ancient Egyptian Art in Cairo.

Whereas none of these works have survived, we can appreciate the art of Arab sculptures in Egypt only by examining the sculptural decoration of monuments faced with stone, stucco and wood.

Eagle, 796-797, Art of Islam
Eagle, 796-797. Bronze, height: 38 cm. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Since stucco had been in use from the outset in Egypt, it was consequently used in early architectural decorations. The Ibn Tulun Mosque, dating back to 876, as well as the Al- Azhar (971) or the Al-Hakim (1012) mosques, still have some of their original stucco decorations, not mechanically moulded, but sculpted by nimble and skilful hands. In the 13th century, this technique was very reliable, as can be deduced from Sultan Kalaoun’s tomb-mosque, or that of Mohammed Al Nasir, whose decoration is rather reminiscent of early Moorish art in Spain.

Notwithstanding the fact that stone was most highly esteemed, the use of stucco in decoration still persisted, as in the fabulous frieze of Kufic inscriptions in the Hassan Mosque, and in the beautiful decorations of the dome of the Al Sunkur mosque in Darb El-Ahmar (1347).

Whereas the use of this technique was apparently discontinued in the 15th century, a monument still proves the contrary: the interior of the tomb of Al-Fadaouieh in Cairo is coated with decorations and inscriptions in stucco.

War mask, Anatolia or west of Iran, late 15th century. Bronze. Khalili Collection.

We noticed the rather late use of stone in monuments constructed by Arabs in Egypt. Its use, nonetheless, introduced a more supple material into the decoration. The domes especially had to agree fully with it, just as it obtains in Barkouk’s funerary mosque (1405-1410). Stone was used as decorative material first in Souyour-Gatmieh’s mosque (1356-1359) and later in Sultan Hassan’s.

Here, the decoration is basic, limited to the floral representation of buds and leaves, as if it were left to artisans not used to working stone; they are rosettes in the form of rinceaus of buds and flowers around a central bud. Here, the stone is enhanced with beautifully sculpted motifs in all of Sultan Kait Bey’s monuments (1468-1496), and nowhere else are they more stunning than on the arch in the sanctuary of his mosque’s interior, more especially in its wekala or khan, south of the Al-Azhar Mosque, whose exterior decoration offers an inexhaustible source of gorgeous geometric motifs and arabesques. In addition to huge edifices, stone was equally used to decorate dikkas or tribunes, minbars or pulpits used to preach in mosques, and cenotaphs and grave steles. A striking monument that has survived to our day is the white sandstone minbar which Sultan Kait Bey built in Sultan Barkouk’s funerary mosque in the desert. This late 15th-century (1483) work of art is one of the most beautiful types of Arab decoration. This triangular object was fully made of decorated stone slabs with a range of carved motifs, rather than of wood as were many jointed wood minbars.

Mshatta Palace lion, Jordan, 743-744, Art of Islam
Mshatta Palace lion, Jordan, 743-744. Gravestone. Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin.

These tombstones or grave steles (chahid) were generally made of serpentine or diorite, materials from ancient monuments. The often undulating surfaces of these monuments comprise prayer formulas and names of the deceased and the date of their death engraved in Kufic characters on a slightly dotted background or, better still, sculpted in relief on a carved background. Generally, these grave steles date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Hijra; earlier dates are extremely rare. The oldest of them are from the Ain Al-Sira necropolis in Cairo and the Aswan cemetery in Upper-Egypt.

Also produced in Cairo were large ovoid jars, shaped in open marble blocks, which could stand only with support from marble stands (kailaghi) hollowed out to form a basin into which they are placed. These jars are ornamented. Square-shaped stands preceded by a large tilted spout from which liquid could flow from the holes in the bottom of the jars, were also decorated with ornaments, Kufic inscriptions and even with seated human figures or lions in two small niches arranged in the corners of the room.

Prince Bahrâm listening to the story of the princess of the blue pavilion, 1553, Art of Islam
Prince Bahrâm listening to the story of the princess of the blue pavilion, 1553. Miniature. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Other works of art included large boards of white marble fountains that were carved and installed at the bottom of niches, out of which water flowed to allow the entry of cool air. One of these jars, preserved in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, presents undulating lines, and its rim is gracefully decorated with a stunning and bold string of animals such as large-eared rabbits, dogs and panthers. It was originally from the public bowl or fountain, built in 1400 by Sultan Faraj, son of Barkouk.

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