Cultural Selection: Applied Arts and Metalwork
We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.
The history of metalwork during the 16th to 19th century throughout the Indian sub-continent, modern-day Iran, the region now known as Afghanistan, and Transoxania, is sparse. Oftentimes, the provenance of objects belonging to this “late period” is undocumented, and the specifics of how the object was acquired remain unknown. Moreover, manufacture dates were seldom inscribed on the objects themselves – only appearing later. It is only during this later period that dates become visible, which helps to build a chronological sequence establishing the development of ornamentation and traditional techniques used by metal workers in various regions. Despite the lack of information, it is essential to accurately determine the time and place of these surviving artefacts that were produced in copper, bronze, steel, gold, and silver. Written sources give little indication of the existence of metal ware manufacture. One source is a religious endowment (“waaf”) of Khwaja Ahrar from the 15th century, which gives reference to a “coppersmith’s bazaar” in Samarkand. A second document of the Juybari shaykhs dating to the 16th century references a “coppersmith shop” near Bukhara. Moreover, goldsmiths were working in Herat as early as the 15th century. Names such as the madrasa of Khwaja Malik the Goldsmith, or the Garden of Aqa the Goldsmith, clearly attest to this fact.
In the region now known as Afghanistan, “misgars” (coppersmiths), were active throughout Kandahar and Kabul in subsequent centuries. In modern-day Iran, the period extending from the mid-16th to the mid-18th silver and gold inlay disappear until the 19th century, at the same time that Persian inscriptions continued to replace those in Arabic. Only Arabic verses with blessings sought from the imams, and the owner’s name remain. These blessings are found in “magic cups”, while in the 17th and 18th century they are inscribed on a variety of objects. Inscriptions from the Qur’an, as well as Persian verses of renowned classical poets can also be found on these “magic cups”. Moreover, floral ornamentation begins to flourish in the 19th century along with images of animals and people, which were non-existent on works from the 15th and 16th century. In addition, 16th century background ornamentation reflects a technique called hatching that helps to date the objects during this period. Persian influence is also visible on copper and brass objects attributed to Transoxania during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the shapes of objects from Transoxania are different from Persian objects. In addition, living creatures and inscriptions rarely appeared on objects from the former, while they were used as decorative elements for the latter. Furthermore, the upper strata of society in Transoxania was privy to the use of gold and silver. These included a 16th century “goldsmiths’ bazaar” in Samarkand, a “goldsmiths’ mosque”, and a “goldsmiths’ madrasa” with a library in Bukhara in the late 17th century.
Throughout the Indian sub-continent, objects assumed many different forms that were unknown among Persian and Transoxanian ware, while skilled gold and silver craftsmen produced exquisite objects inlaid with precious gems for the Mughal court. The ornamentation of the vessels and metallic composition also distinguished them from other regions. Those originating on the Indian sub-continent were made of “bidri”, an alloy composed primarily of zinc, with quantities of copper, lead, and tin inlaid with silver and brass. Objects with Shi’ite inscriptions have been ascribed to Hyperabad or Oudh ownership, which reflect intercultural exchanges between Kashmir, Punjab, and Persia. This is evident with inscriptions, hatching, and ornamentation including arabesques and scrawling vegetation. These similarities reflect the transnational fluidity of objects, techniques, and savoir-faire of metal work throughout various regions along the Silk Roads, and beyond, and continue to influence contemporary artistic creations.
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