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In the 7th and 8th centuries, an eclectic style of art developed in the lands conquered by the Arabs. It was based on widespread pre-Islamic traditions, amongst them Coptic, Byzantine and Sassanid, with pagan and Christian elements replaced by new interpretations of old motifs. Muslim artists and craftsmen learned from their local counterparts techniques of painting, coating and decorating ceramics, and the manufacture and decoration of glassware and metalware.
The Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam, remained somewhat isolated. But when the Sunni Umayyads established the first Islamic royal house, with its seat of government in Damascus (instead of Medina), it was easier to adopt the Roman-Byzantine styles and ideas that were dominant in Syria, and those of the Sassanids in Persia and Mesopotamia. In fact, the glassware of the period reveals Roman-Byzantine techniques, while the metalwork follows the Sassanids. These double traditions were apparent in ivory- and wood-carvings as well, with grapevine motifs particularly prominent. Plant motifs of grapevines and ivy were typical of Coptic art, popular in Egypt and Syria.
The Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) transferred its capital from Damascus to the newly built city of Baghdad, in Iraq of today. The regime was anything but monolithic, however. Independent dynasties emerged within the realm to challenge the central government, and Turkic invaders from Central Asia gradually replaced Arab troops with Turkish ones. The subsequent move of the political center to Samarra, a city in Iraq but with a strong Turkic presence, opened the way for Turkish artistic influences. The ceramics show the development of abstract decorative forms, and especially plant designs, which remained in common use in the Muslim world.
The development of trade brought Chinese porcelain to the Caliph’s palace, and with it an influence on Muslim potters who produced luxurious pottery for the first time in Islam. However, the most impressive achievement of the Abbasid potters was the development of a revolutionary technique of decoration: painting on the surface of the glaze with a metallic pigment known as luster. Another innovation of this period was the coating of vessels with a white tin glaze, embellished with fine calligraphy.
Midway through the Abbasid period, the attention shifts to the Samanids (874-999), an Iranian dynasty that had declared its independence. This culture was renowned for its extraordinary pottery, created for the most part in two cities, Samarkand and Nishapur, which were already important centers that supplied woven fabrics, metalware, glass, and chess pieces across the empire.
The potters developed a technique for achieving the remarkable colorfulness of their ceramics. Before the firing and glazing of the vessel, it was covered by a mixture of pigments, clay and earth. Another type of vessel employed a white background, with decorative calligraphy – in general, the name of Allah or a blessing – in purple or some other dark color.
The unified Muslim world under the Abbasid dynasty was undermined in the 10th century by the invasion of Persia and Mesopotamia by Fatimid and Ayyubid tribes from the Asian steppes.
The Shi’ite Fatimids (969-1171) conquered Egypt. Their capital of Cairo, and Cordoba in Umayyad Spain, became the cultural centers of the period.
The Fatimid rulers were known for the splendor and opulence of the royal court. Their love of luxury explains the abundance of gold jewelry, rock-crystal vessels, and wood- and ivory-carvings from the 10th and 11th centuries discovered in Cairo. Carved arabesque decoration was the legacy of the local Tulunid culture that preceded them, while the iconography had its roots in Abbasid art. Nevertheless, the Fatimids developed a distinctive style of repetitive motifs on large surfaces of geometric forms.