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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Glass from Islamic Lands

At the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D., glassmaking had flourished in Egypt and western Asia for more than two millennia and glassmakers in those regions went about their business despite the momentous political, social, and religious changes taking place around them. Glassmakers inherited many of the techniques of their forebears in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, including glassblowing, the use of molds, the manipulation of molten glass with tools, and the decorative application of molten glass. Islamic glass production from the seventh through the fourteenth century was also greatly innovative and witnessed glorious phases—such as those of superb relief-cut glass and spectacular gilded and enameled objects—that established its supremacy in glassmaking manufacture throughout the world.

While many of the objects may not have been made under a ruler’s patronage, they certainly are “fit for a sultan.” Islamic glass can be better studied according to the techniques of its manipulation—from undecorated blown vessels to mosaic glass to mold-blown, hot-worked, cut and engraved, and painted objects, though vessels produced after the seventeenth century and greatly influenced by the European trade may be studied in a proper historical context.

In the field of Islamic art, glass is a craft that often rose to excellence but has been largely overlooked by art historians. Thousands of anonymous glassmakers, from Cairo to Delhi, proudly transmitted their knowledge from one generation to the next, experimenting with the colors, shapes, techniques, and surface decoration of this extraordinarily versatile material. Their most outstanding results, from public and private collections worldwide, encourage a widespread appreciation of the artistic forms of Islamic glass—a fitting legacy for this ancient craft.

Tools of the Glassmakers
Since the invention of glassblowing in the first century B.C., glassmakers have been using the same tools to model, manipulate, and decorate molten glass. Two molds from the medieval Islamic world are the only ones to survive, but the basic technology of nonindustrial glassmaking and the tools employed have not changed.

The blowpipe is an iron or steel tube, usually about five feet long, for blowing a parison, or gather, of molten glass. Molds are used to impress decorative patterns on the parison. Dip molds have the typical form of a conical beaker, but two- or three-part hinged molds were also used in the Islamic world. The pontil, a solid metal rod that is applied to the base of a vessel to hold it after it is cut off from the blowpipe, became a common tool in the early Islamic period (seventh–eighth century). The pontil leaves an irregular ring-shaped mark on the base that is commonly known as a “pontil mark.” Wooden blocks, jacks, and shears are used to shape an object. Blocks are used to form the gather into a sphere prior to inflation; jacks, to shape the mouth of an open vessel; and shears, to trim excess hot glass during production. A marver—a smooth flat stone or metal surface over which softened glass is rolled—is also an essential tool of the glassmaker. Of course, no tool would be of much use without a glassmaker’s dexterity and talent.

Archaeological Excavations
Scientific excavations are extremely valuable for a better understanding of the history, art, architecture, urban planning, and everyday life of a specific site. In terms of material culture, glass objects and fragments are second in quantity only to pottery at most Islamic sites, offering a wide variety of shapes, colors, and decoration for analysis.

There are, however, a number of problems related to the study of excavated Islamic glass. Only in exceptional cases do glass objects bear informative inscriptions providing names and dates. Both as luxury goods that were traded and exchanged and as simple containers for oils, perfumes, and liquids of all kinds, Islamic glass circulated throughout the Islamic world and as far as southeastern Asia, northern China, and Europe. Glass was also shipped in large quantities as cullet (glass lumps and discarded broken vessels), suitable for remelting and making new glass inexpensively. Thus, the glass of a bottle created in Egypt, for example, may have been recycled as far as Central Asia; a new object may have been made that had a chemical composition usually attributed to Egyptian vessels but a shape and decoration that suggested a different origin. While it clearly is problematic for scholars to determine their place or date of production, excavated objects may be of great help in better understanding the chronology and origin of Islamic glass. The three most prolific excavated sites that have yielded glass in the Islamic world are Fustat (Old Cairo) in Egypt, Samarra in Iraq, and Nishapur in northeastern Iran.