Tareq Rajab Museum

Kuwait           

 

By kind courtesy of ARTS OF ASIA (November-December 1994)

ISLAMIC POTTERY

IN THE TAREQ RAJAB MUSEUM, KUWAIT

by Dr Géza Fehervári

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The foundation and the very existence of the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait, unlike so many other collections, was entirely due to the imagination and initiative of one family: Mr Tareq Rajab and his wife, Jehan. Their enthusiasm brought together an unparalleled wealth of archaeological, art historical and ethnographic material. The collection was systematically built up, since every item, before its purchase, was thoroughly investigated, examined and considered how, why and where it would fit into the collection. Such work requires sound knowledge,, sharp eyes and, of course, considerable financial background. Since the museumís collections are not homogeneous, but include entirely different materials, the Rajab familyís knowledge in various aspects of the arts, archaeology and ethnography must be admired. While the larger part of the collection may be ethnographic, containing costumes, jewellery and musical instruments from all over the Oriental world, a considerable section nevertheless includes exquisite Islamic manuscripts, miniature paintings, pottery, metalwork and glass. In this article I propose to examine only one section of this large collection, namely Islamic pottery.

There are more than six hundred Islamic pottery vessels and tiles in the collection and chronologically these may be divided into three groups: wares of the early Islamic period (circa eighth to early eleventh century); vessels and tiles of the medieval Islamic period (eleventh to fourteenth century) and wares of the later periods (circa fifteenth to nineteenth century). These groups are unequal in numbers, since the earlier and medieval periods are far better represented than the later ones, nevertheless in quality the later examples equally match the earlier specimens.

Of the early Islamic period there are three major types of wares which are well-represented in the collection: the tin-glazed, the lustre-painted and the slip-painted wares. Tin-glazed wares, which initially were produced in Egypt and Iraq, were made, beyond any doubt, in imitation of Chinese white porcelain and stoneware. It was the whiteness, the translucency and the elegant shapes of these vessels which caught the eyes and attraction of the Near Eastern clientele. Written records testify that such Chinese white porcelain and stoneware were already imported into the Islamic world during the reign of the famous Abbasid Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, towards the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth century. While the composition of the porcelain remained a secret of the Chinese potters for many more centuries, craftsmen of the Islamic world tried to substitute it with fine white clay, which was then covered with a tin glaze. The tin glaze provided a greyish-white opaque surface which may not have equalled the white porcelain or stoneware of the Far East, but nevertheless was quite close to it. Such tin-glazed vessels were discovered in large numbers at several sites in Egypt, but mainly in Iraq, particularly at Samarra, some hundred kilometres north of Baghdad, which at that time in the ninth century was the capital of the Abbasid Empire. By then the empire stretched from the Atlantic in the west to Central Asia and India in the east. Though no pottery kilns were discovered in Samarra, the excavations at Basra produced evidence that this ware was manufactured, among many other places, in the city.

 

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