Fatimid invasion brings new life to art in medieval Egypt

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When the Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt in 969 AD (358 AH) and established the city of Cairo, the opulence of the court fuelled a renaissance in the decorative arts and made Cairo the most important cultural centre in the Islamic world.

Artists were keen to cultivate a distinctively Egyptian artistic style which led to the revival of ceramic lustreware.  This was a process of glazing with metals that rendered an iridescent shine on ceramics and porcelain and is considered to be among the most reflective of human life in the decorative arts.

Lustreware with geometric decoration

 In terms of the actual process, the clay is baked in moulded forms, then covered with a light coat of a mixture of diverse oxides which gives the appearance of metal covering a sheer or coloured veneer on the porcelain.

Scientists attribute the emergence of such metallic glazed lustreware to the prohibition of the use of gold and silver in pottery.  Given this limitation, Muslim artisans at the time ingeniously resolved this by giving the effect of gold and silver on the exterior of the pottery, without actually using those materials.

Potters experimented with and developed all kinds of decoration so that each piece made had special characteristics. Artists such as Ibn Al-Dahan, Ja’afar Al-Masri, Ali Al-Batar, Shareef Abu Al-Ashq and Ibn Al-Saji each sought to satisfy their patron and were known for a specific colour which eventually served as a signature among many of the products.

The different motifs and decorations ultimately developed into distinct groups:

Those that are decorated with purely geometric forms:

 Those decorated with elements of exclusively floral motifs filled with decorations, bordered by parallel and perpendicular zigzags and other such perimeters.

Those decorated with animals such as rabbits, deer, lions, elephants and fish.  They are usually featured in larger scenes, such as an animal carrying a branch in its mouth.

 Those representing scenes from everyday life, like drinking, singing and dancing at a celebration:

Other such scenes included favourite pastimes of the caliphs like hunting and fishing.  At the same time, more popular images of the common people were also featured.  Often these were of different Christian rituals which led some to believe that they were produced by Coptic Christians. However, it is important to note that the majority of pottery was made to serve the wishes of the patrons, and so were not reflections of the artist’s personal identity.

Examples of lustreware produced during this period can now be found in museums and private collections around the world.