The other day I had the good fortune to squeeze in a delightful breakfast and gossip fest with my friend Dahlia before Ramadan–which is not such a good time for ladies who brunch! I admire greatly the spiritual fortitude it takes her not to eat, or even drink water, all day long. It sounds very difficult to me, and yet the people I know, like Dahlia, who practice Ramadan don’t whine about not eating or drinking all day the way I imagine I would. In fact, they seem to find something very special about it. It seems to carve out a sense of sacred space and time, a different way of feeling, for them, in a waythat seems meaningful and connecting. I hope for all of my Muslim friends (and hello, Muslims everywhere), to feel that gentle, peaceful, open feeling I’ve observed this Ramadan season.
And in appreciation, I’d like to share something that I really treasure about the the Islamic world (besides saving civilization in Medieval times, algebra, Rumi, the number zero, and the usual list of accomplishments . . .) and that is art.
The Blue Beauty of Iznik Pottery
Take just one example–the elegant curving lines and patterns of Turkey’s Iznik pottery of the 15th to 17th century. To talk about Islamic art is always to talk about the sweep of history, of cultures meeting and melding. Iznik pottery is a perfect example of this quality of Islamic art. These earthenware pieces, distinctive for their lyrical cobalt blue floral patterns, were first made in western Anatolia, and are influenced both by China and the Ottoman Empire.
Iznik Pottery Dish with Saz leaves, rosettes, and other flowers. c. 1545-1550. (wikimedia commons)
The first of these pieces were made for the famous Topkapi palace. Later, Iznik pieces would be made in abundance for Suleiman the Magnificent. The styles changed over time, more colors were added, but blue was the fundamental underpinning color.Why? One reason was that blue was beautiful and it was also popular in China, which was at that time creating some of its finest blue and white porcelainware during the Ming dynasty. Chinese porcelain was the most sophisticated form of pottery in the world at that time. But more importantly, potters of Iznik were also able to get the cobalt ore earlier than they were able to get access to other colors–which would include first turquoise, then other hues such as purple, green, black gray, and red.
Iznikware often shows particular flowers, plants, and birds in rich, distinctive, curving patterns. There are peacocks and cypresses, prunus trees, carnations and roses, long, slender leaves of the saz plant, and tulips. In keeping The patterns are often ornate and fanciful. They call to mind a rich, peaceful, almost fairytale world of beautiful natural things in an earthly garden of delight.
One motif that catches at me is the tulip. Tulips are of course a very popular flower, and have an important role in the history of trade. In 1637, for example, during the end period of Iznik pottery, the Dutch had not only started mass-importing tulips from Turkey but they had a great economic crisis because people speculated on tulip bulbs, and the whole economy crashed. At any rate, it is interesting to see how they figure as a symbol of opulence in the Islamic world. (They were first cultivated in Persia, but had been cultivated in Turkey since the 10th Century CE).But Iznik tulips have an entirely different look and feel–more elongated, more lissome, more mobile-feeling, than one’s–my–image, anyway, of a field of Dutch tulips, which seem rather plain and hearty and vertical.
One thing is clear: The human beings who created these pieces lived in a civilized world where there were people like us who could be struck through the heart by the power of an image.. And they were treasured and cared for generation after generation by people who felt their value. What does it mean, just to be something so inexpressibly beautiful? I don’t have words for it. So I painted my own simple Iznik tulip, just to sing back to those potters half a world and half a millenia away.