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.