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The Islamic Ceramic Museum
Museum of Islamic Ceramics
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Reviewed by:
Sumaiya Hamdani
George Mason University
March 2003

This website offers an image database of an important Islamic art form: ceramics. The museum is a state institution established in 2000 in the 19th-century palace of a prince of Egypt’s former royal family. Images of all 302 pieces of Islamic ceramics, spanning the Islamic period (7th-19th centuries), represent Egypt and other areas of the Middle East such as Iran and Turkey that were important ceramic production sites, making this an excellent resource for classroom use.

Ceramics are a central, if often neglected, art form of the Middle East and North Africa. Because of its ancient civilizations, this area has a long history of ceramic production. In the Islamic period, conquests and trade within the region and beyond resulted in technological innovations such as metallic glazing, a wide color palette, and the imitation and adaptation of Chinese production techniques long before these innovations reached the West. Despite the frailty of the medium, examples of these important, early ceramics often survived unscathed and are found in museums the world over. The biggest collections, however, are still in the Middle East and North Africa.

Ceramics constitute a valuable source of information on many aspects of human civilization and society, such as economics, art, technology, and domestic life. Islamic ceramics additionally serve as important evidence of secular or non-religious art in Islam. For example, although representation of the human figure was forbidden in Islamic religious art, products intended for domestic use—such as ceramic plates, cups, and bowls—often featured human figures, along with the calligraphy and more abstract vegetal and geometric designs usually associated with Islamic art. Images of such artifacts are therefore instructive in understanding the range of Islam’s artistic heritage, as well as how that heritage reflected important global economic and technological exchange.

The homepage links to Arabic-, English-, and French-language versions of the site. The collection link provides access to the image database, an explanatory text on ceramic dating and periodization, and a search function. The image database contains thumbnail images of all 302 ceramic pieces, with basic information on each piece’s place of origin, date, historic period, type, technique, and dimensions. Each image can be enlarged for closer examination. The images are clear and well-photographed.

The link to ceramic styles provides an inadequate explanation of dating techniques, as well as a basic description of the characteristics of ceramics from the following periods of Islamic history: Umayyad (8th century), Fatimid (10th-12th centuries), Ayyubid (13th century), Mamluk (14th-16th centuries), and Ottoman (or Turkish, 16th-19th centuries). Sadly the explanations provided for the specific styles of these periods are poorly written and aimed at specialists. A few things can be gleaned from the explanations, however: (1) Metallic glazing and the use of minerals in the firing process from the 9th century produced a type of lusterware that was unique and technologically advanced. (2) Trade with Asia, and the adoption of Chinese ceramic production techniques,occurred from the 13th century on, predating European borrowing of the same. (3) Different areas such as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Syria each had their own regional styles. The search function allows users to search for specific ceramics on the basis of their catalog number, type, technique, place, and period.

There are a number of ways to use these images in the classroom. As noted above, ceramic images can be contrasted with images of monuments and mosques for a lesson on private versus public (or secular versus religious) art in the Islamic world. Ceramic images can be used to discuss technological developments and exchange in history, as well as global trade before European expansion. And ceramic images can be used to explore the domestic life of pre-modern societies in terms of the specific types and functions of ceramic pieces.

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