Timurid and Safavid Technology and Culture

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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Hailed as “one of the greatest mathematicians of his time” and “one of the greatest Muslim mathematicians,” Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Karajī (fl. at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh centuries CE) has been recognized for his contributions to various branches of mathematics. Of these the most important, perhaps, were Karajī’s formulation of the algebra of polynomials, and his extension of the algebraic formulations of his predecessors to include irrational solutions; innovations that had a major influence on the subsequent development of algebra. That Karajī was not only interested in mathematical theory can be seen in the contents of his surviving engineering book Inbāṭ al-Miyāh al-Khafīya (Extraction of Hidden Waters). The main topic of Inbāṭ al-Miyāh al-Khafīya is the construction and maintenance of the qanāt aqueducts, upon which agriculture on the Iranian plateau has depended on since pre-Islamic times. In this work, Karajī begins his presentation with theoretical knowledge regarding geology and hydrology, and continues with discussions regarding the legal and practical aspects of the qanāt. Karajī’s discussion of the theoretical aspects of hydrology draws on Aristotle’s Meteorologica and the tradition of al-āthār al-’ulwīya, which was based on Aristotle’s work. A comparative reading of this section of Karajī’s Inbāṭ al-Miyāh al-Khafīya and of related works in the al-āthār al-’ulwīya tradition helps locate the theoretical portion of Karajī’s masterpiece of engineering in the context of the prevalent geological theories of his era.

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Recent publications on Safavid or Shī‘ite material culture have placed great emphasis on the social, cultural and historical contexts of ‘museum’ objects. Accordingly, scholars today, are fully aware of the importance of the Arabic and Persian inscriptions upon them which may reveal ‘historical’ information. However, the lack of focus on tombstone/ceramic texts does not seem to have changed substantially since Sussan Babaie wrongly asserted that “[e]pigraphy in the decorative arts of this period is largely confined to metalwork and textiles” in the ‘Epigraphy iv. Safavid and later inscriptions’ entry of the Encyclopaedia Iranica in 1998. This study focuses on the ceramic tombstones produced between the late Timurid and the late Safavid period, when a limited number of pious Muslims had a privilege to mark their graves with tiles executed in lustre, underglaze, cuerda seca and sgraffito techniques. Particular emphasis will be placed on the content and context of the funerary inscriptions of those dated between A.H. 883 and A.H. 1122, when Persian verses composed by pre-Safavid and Safavid poets gradually replaced Arabic inscriptions such as Qur’ānic verses and the prayer to the Twelve Imāms. A detailed analysis of the content and context of Persian verses may contribute significantly to the study of the reception and circulation of Persian poetry during the Safavid period, and of its patronage by the elite, particularly within the funerary context. Such approach may even help in identifying the production site of ceramic tombstones, as in the case of Mas‘ūd al-Mu‘arrif al-Shīrāzī (A.H. 967)’s tombstone executed in lustre technique; its inscription contains verses specially ordered and composed by Muḥtasham Kāshānī (d. A.H. 996) who never left Kashan, which suggests that this lustre-painted tombstone was produced in Kashan, the foremost centre of lustre production in the Il-khanid period. In addition, the iconography of the tiles executed in underglaze technique and dated between A.H. 1009 and A.H. 1083, namely, the ‘Turban on a Stool’ type, will be discussed in detail in order to analyse this group within the context of Safavid/Islamic funerary practice. Although it was once believed that the tombstones belong to this group had been “a cheaper way of commemorating the deceased”, the social/religious status deducible from the images and inscriptions of ‘turban on a stool’ type tombstones seem to conflict with such notion.

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One of the many curiosities that attracted visitors to Safavid Iran was a mechanical clock (sa‘at-vaqt), installed in the maidan in Kashan. A particularly vivid and detailed description of this clock, its appearance and mechanism, is provided in connection with the journey to Iran made by the Tuqay-Timurid ruler of Transoxania, Vali Muhammad Khan, in the summer of 1020/1611, when the contraption was in the care of a certain Maulana ‘Inayat, who is credited as being its creator. This paper attempts to identify the Kashan clock that delighted Vali Muhammad Khan in relation to others, such as that recorded in a vaqf document of 877/1473, attributed to Maulana Fakhr al-Din ‘Ali Kashi, and another possibly associated with Muhammad-Hafiz Mukhtari‘ (“the inventor”) Isfahani, c. 928/1522. The presentation will also briefly relate the Kashan clock and its function to others of a similar nature that are recorded in the literature.

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Since the publication of their photographs and a brief discussion by Arthur Upham Pope in A Survey of Persian Art, the Mahan carpet fragments kept at the National Museum of Sarajevo (no. 1049) were the subject of scholarly attention in an article by Sbetko Popovic in 1955 with regard to their inscriptions, and the date of the carpet (1066-67/1656-57), and later in a presentation by Jenny Housego during the colloquium held in conjunction with the exhibition 'Carpets of Central Asia' in 1976 in which she established that the fragments were specifically woven for the dome chamber that houses the cenotaph of the Sufi and poet Shah Ne‘matollah Wali (d.1431) in Mahan. Although the unfortunate circumstances that have resulted in the closure of the Museum in 2012 have made the carpet fragments inaccessible, several aspects of them could be unraveled by a close study of the data already available. The aim of this paper is to deal with two of such aspects: the visual idioms shared by the carpet and the shrine’s interior, and patronage of the carpet by descendants of Shah Ne‘matollah Wali.

Woven in the style of ‘vase’ carpets that were common in Kerman at the time, the fragments originally formed two or four pieces to abut the cenotaph of Shah Ne‘matollah in his dome chamber where the interior is decorated with Timurid wall paintings that consist of vase and medallion motifs. A similar link is found in the inscriptions of the carpet and the epigraphic program of the shrine.

To my knowledge, the only discussion of patronage of the carpet has been its attribution to Shah ‘Abbas II based on the date of production. In the inscriptions of the carpet however, three descendants of Shah Ne‘matollah Wali are named: Mirmiran, Soleyman, and Mahdi, among whom the latter is mentioned as the patron of the carpet. Influential figures during the Safavid period, the family inter-married the Safavids several times. Ghiyath al-Din Mohammad Mirmiran (d.1589), his son, Soleyman Mirza (d.1640), and his grandson, Mirza Abo’l Mahdi (d. unknown) received suyurghals and endowments from Shah Tahmasb (r.1524-1576), Shah Safi (r.1629-1642), and Shah ‘Abbas II (r.1642-1666), and were appointed to positions such as governorship of Yazd.

This paper will contextualize the carpet fragments within their historical and architectural settings, and connect them to the Ne‘matollahi order and their social and financial status during the Safavid period.