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Simon Ray
Indian & Islamic Works of Art

Syria (Damascus), 17th century
Height: 84 cm
Width: 84 cm

A panel of nine tiles, finely underglaze-painted in cobalt blue, turquoise, apple green and manganese purple with an unusual design depicting the cross-section of a building, most probably a mosque. A central pointed arch flanked by two rounded arches are supported by four elegant spiral columns, with a pair of minarets between the arches above. A crescent moon surmounts each arch and mosque lamps on twisted chains hang below. Leafy sprigs ornament the spaces on either side of each lamp. The arches are decorated with blue and white cusped chevrons.

Inscribed to the geometric cartouche beneath the central arch:
“Glory to Allah”

Inscribed to the cusped cartouches on the sides:
“Uthman” and “Ali”

Inscribed to the top of the panel above the arcade:
“Allah, Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Umar”

Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali are the names of the first four caliphs.

Below the central cartouche is a large fluted vase with scrolling vine handles, a short splayed foot, widening neck and everted rim, from which sprouts a formal arrangement of carnation sprays. Little hyacinths quiver gently on the ground to either side. On each of the side cartouches are two spear-shaped cypress trees and an exotic palm, with flower-heads in between, and leaves and buds below. A stylised cintamani border frames the whole design.

A similar tile panel with identical inscriptions can still be seen in situ in the shrine of Muhly al-Din Ibn al-Arabi in the Salahieh quarter of Damascus, built in 1518 by Sultan Selim I and restored in the eighteenth century. This is illustrated in Gérard Degeorge and Yves Porter, The Art of the Islamic Tile, 2002, p. 217. Al-din Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) was an outstanding thinker, writer and mystic of Arabic lineage born in Murcia, Spain, and educated in Seville. Degeorge and Porter suggest that the arches, minarets and hanging lamps may be intended as a schematised version of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

Another tile panel is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (acc. no. 1215-1883). A related panel also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (acc. no. 258-1891) is dated AH 1102/1691 A.D.

all text & images Simon Ray

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