Opening ceremony, UNESCO Paris, 21 January 2014

Emil Makovicky, Professor in Mineralogy

Highlights of Eastern Islamic ornamental art as seen through crystallographers’ eyes

Emil Makovicky


Islamic ornamental art is perhaps the richest ornamental art ever created. Although there are differences between the Eastern and Western schools, it transcended both the state boundaries and the language and national confines. We shall concentrate upon the Eastern branch of the Islamic world but we shall repeatedly compare their approach with that of Western Islam.

The glory of Islamic geometric patterns made of unglazed bricks is connected with the rule of Turcoman Seljuks in Central Asia and Iran. They adorned tomb towers and minarets. The advent of light and dark blue glaze helped to perfect these creations. In Anatolia, geology impressed upon artists another means of expression: carved ornamentation in basalt rock. Interlaced patterns are common, leading us beyond the usual plane groups of symmetry. The art of Mughal India was influenced by the availability of fine sandstones.

In Eastern Islam, artisans managed to free themselves from the world of periodic patterns for the first time at the end of the 12th century. In 1991, we described a decagonal quasiperiodic pattern adorning a Seljuk funeral tower in Maragha (Iran). Modifications from the following centuries are known today at several places in Esfahan, Konya (Turkey) and in more fragmentary form elsewhere. The depth of the artists’ geometric understanding is astounding. Comparisons with quasiperiodic decagonal and octagonal patterns discovered in the west of the Islamic world are very interesting.

The discoveries of perfect-coloured glazes eliminated much of the original virtuoso geometric art in Iran. Patterns became painted on square tiles, rather than composed of brick elements. One blossoming branch of richly glazed tiling art, however, concerned the Iznik tiles from West Turkey. Detailed studies show for the first time the symmetry of tilings instead that of individual tiles and a fascinating world of application and especially misapplication of tile symmetry during the tile-laying process.


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