Middle Eastern and Islamic Art

Topic 1: Middle Eastern and Islamic Art

  • The Middle East (West Asia) forms the eastern edge of the Mediterranean world. Prior to the emergence of Islam as a cultural and political force, it was part of the Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds, and it continued to play an intermediary role in contacts between Europe, Asia, and even Africa. The Hellenistic architecture of Petra, a city cut directly into the rock in what is now Jordan by the Arabic-speaking Nabatean people in the first century CE, exemplifies these colliding cultural influences.

  • Many of the region's characteristic art forms, especially ceramics and textiles, were prized trade items. Ceramic styles, especially the Iznik ware produced later in Turkey, were strongly influenced by Chinese porcelain that made its way into the region via trade along the Silk Route. Fine ceramic tiles became a characteristic feature of the region's architecture. As the term "Silk Route" suggests, silk was also introduced into West Asia from China, and became one of the staples of a luxury textile trade based in the Middle East. Middle Eastern textiles and rugs were prized throughout Europe from the Middle Ages onward, as were Middle Eastern metalwork and glass.

  • The religion of Islam developed in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century CE. Subsequent conquests saw much of the Middle East, North Africa, Persia and even Spain under Muslim rule, and Arabic language and culture spread throughout the region. The Kaaba, a shrine in the city of Mecca in the Arabian peninsula, remains the most sacred site in Islam and the destination of Muslim pilgrims. The most important architectural form associated with Islam is the mosque, which always features a Qibla wall, facing Mecca; larger mosques feature a Minbar, or pulpit, and a Minaret used to call believers to prayer.

  • In the first half of the Middle Ages, the Islamic world saw a great flowering of both science and culture; much ancient Greek learning reached Europe via Muslim scholars. In the later Middle Ages, the Muslim world was devastated by the invading Mongols. After this period of disruption much of the region was again united by the Turkish-speaking Ottomans, originally of Central Asian origin.

  • Islam is aniconic, meaning it does not make use of images, and it forbids representation of the human figure in a religious context. Human representation is allowed in the secular art of the Muslim world. However, stylized geometric and floral motifs, often incorporating or evoking Arabic calligraphy, have largely dominated Muslim decorative arts; these motifs are often referred to as "arabesque".

Related Links:
West & Central Asia Quiz
Persian Art
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes