Explore artefacts made over a period of more than 1000 years in the heart of the Islamic world.
‘The people of China are the most skilful of Allah's creation, in designing and fabricating and all other types of work. They are not surpassed in this.'
(From the account on China and India by Abu Zaid Hasan ibn Yazid al-Sirafi, second half of the 800s-early 900s AD)
In the late AD 700s, trading contacts with China resulted in the import of large quantities of high-fired white wares to the Islamic world. These probably came as ballast in ships carrying more expensive cargoes of spices and silk.
Chinese wares were greatly valued in the Middle East - nothing as fine, hard and white had been seen before. Inspired by the quality and success of these wares, Islamic potters in Iraq started to make copies in a soft earthenware covered with a tin-based, opaque white glaze. Going beyond plain imitation, they soon began to add to their pieces an original decoration in new techniques.
Examples of Chinese wares imported to the Middle East in the early Islamic period.
In the 800s AD, Iraqi potters began to apply lustre painting on the newly developed tin glaze. It was a labour-intensive and expensive technique as it involved two firings. After being covered in tin glaze and fired once, each piece was painted with metal oxides and fired another time in a kiln with low oxygen levels. This gave the decoration its distinctive metallic sheen.
Cobalt blue painting
The opaque white tin glaze offered an excellent background for painted decoration. Potters in Iraq began to paint their wares with metal oxides (see the other side of the case) and cobalt blue. They seem to have held the monopoly of both techniques. Splashes of green were sometimes added to the cobalt blue painting.