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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture


Islamic dynasty that ruled from several capitals in Iraq between 749 and 1258. The Abbasids traced their descent from al-῾Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, and were thus able to claim a legitimacy that their predecessors had lacked (see Umayyad, §I). The Abbasids rose to power in northeast Iran by channeling disaffection with Umayyad rule, but they soon established their capitals in a more central location, founding Baghdad in 762. Although they initially encouraged the support of Shi῾ites, the Abbasids quickly distanced themselves from their erstwhile allies to become champions of orthodoxy. Upon accession, each caliph adopted an honorific title, somewhat like a regnal name, by which he was later known. For the first two centuries, the Abbasids’ power was pre-eminent, and their names were invoked from the Atlantic to Central Asia. From the middle of the 10th century, however, real power was transferred to a succession of Persian and Turkish dynasts (see Samanid, Buyid, Ghaznavid and Saljuq, §I), who paid lip-service to a series of puppet caliphs. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1256, a nominal Abbasid caliphate was maintained in Cairo until 1517.

The shift in the center of gravity from the Umayyad capital at Damascus to Baghdad involved not merely a geographical adjustment of 500 miles but had potent repercussions in politics, culture and art. Baghdad became, in a way that Damascus had not, an Islamic Rome. It absorbed ideas, artifacts and influences from the Islamic world, India, China and the Eurasian steppe and then exported them, transformed, throughout the Islamic world, stamped with its own unique cachet and glamour. Nine-bay mosques in Afghanistan and Spain, iridescent lusterware in Tunisia and Sind, Baghdadi textiles laboriously copied in Andalusia—even down to the inscription identifying the piece as made in Baghdad—and Iraqi stucco forms in Egypt and Central Asia all attest the unchallenged cultural dominance of Baghdad. The cumulative gravitational pull exerted by the eastern territories broke the grip of Mediterranean culture, and specifically of Greco-Roman Classicism and its Byzantine descendant, on Islamic art. Classical forms can still be dimly discerned on occasion—the triumphal arch underlies the portals of Abbasid palaces, and all three styles of Abbasid stucco-carving (see Beveled style) are foreshadowed in early Byzantine art—but they have undergone a sea-change. New contexts and new functions transform them. In architecture (see Architecture, §4, A, 1), the secluded, relatively small-scale splendors of the classically inspired Umayyad desert residences gave way to vast sprawling palaces or rather palace–cities at Baghdad, Ukhaydir and Samarra, mostly urban and conceived on the Perso-Sasanian model, where massive scale is the dominant factor. Proportional ratios (often 3:2) and strict axiality hold these structures together. Inferior building materials—principally mud-brick—are disguised by lavish revetments, and acres of less important wall surface were cheaply and expeditiously covered with molded and painted stucco featuring increasingly abstract vegetal and geometric patterns (see fig.).

The figural iconography of these palaces (e.g. the Dar al-Khilafa or Jawsaq al-Khaqani at Samarra) attests the gradual consolidation and refinement of a cycle of princely pleasures (music, banqueting, hunting, wrestling, dancing and the like) to be interpreted not literally but as a sequence of coded references to a luxurious royal lifestyle, summarized by the 11th-century Persian poet Manuchihri in the rhyming jingle sharāb u rahāb u kabāb (“wine, music and meat”). This cycle was assiduously copied by Abbasid successor states or rival polities from Spain (Córdoba and Játiva; see Umayyad, §II) and Sicily (Palermo, Cappella Palatina) to Armenia (Aght’amar) and Afghanistan (see Lashkari bazar). It occurs on marble troughs and ivory boxes (see Ivory, §II), on bronze buckets and ceremonial silks, on the exteriors and interiors of Christian churches, and of course in numerous palaces.


Muqarnas vault in the so-called Abbasid palace, Baghdad, early 13th century; photo credit: Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

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The immense financial resources of the early Abbasid empire generated luxury arts galore. Rock crystal workshops flourished in Basra (see Rock crystal, §I). Gold and silver vessels with figural decoration including hunting scenes and dancing girls are described in the Bacchic poetry of the court laureate Abu Nuwas (d. c.813). Byzantine ambassadors marveled at the 38,000 precious curtains displayed in a caliphal palace. Textiles bearing laudatory or benedictory inscriptions with the name of the ruling caliph (see Tiraz) made the courtiers who wore them walking advertisements for their monarch. Molded two-tone glass with relief inscriptions and luster painting typified the technical advances achieved by Islamic craftsmen (see Glass, §I). Nearly all the objects in such precious materials as ebony, ivory or alabaster described in medieval texts have vanished, but they must be borne in mind when reconstructing the ambience of Abbasid art. It is all the more regrettable that the fullest sequence of any imperial Abbasid art form should survive in the humblest material of all—pottery (see Ceramics, §II, B). Yet this material provides a paradigm of the radical innovation that characterizes this period. Pottery was suddenly promoted from largely domestic use to an art form. The impact of Chinese ceramics—porcelain, stoneware and glazed earthenware—was probably the galvanizing factor. Abbasid wares valiantly imitated Tang splashwares and celadons but with a diagnostic change: the Chinese emphasis on form, body, touch—even the sound a piece made when struck—was replaced, at least in part, by applied decoration not encountered in the prototype. This change of emphasis lays bare the profoundly different principles of Abbasid taste. The Islamic invention of the technically difficult craft of luster painting transformed pottery and allowed for the vulgarization of more expensive art forms and materials that became characteristic of Islamic art.

The other art form that has survived in substantial quantity is calligraphy (see Calligraphy, §§II, A and III, B). Under Abbasid patronage the somewhat haphazard penmanship of the earliest manuscripts of the Koran, expressed in irregular letter forms, skewed lines of taut spasmodic illumination and a general indifference to visual effect, was replaced by a solemn discipline appropriate to holy writ and redolent of epigraphy on paper. Horizontal parchment sheets often accommodated no more than four lines of text, so spaced and with letter forms subject to such extremes of stylization as to slow down recognition of the words themselves: an objective correlative to the awesome enigmas found in the text itself. A supple system of extension allowed calligraphers to balance words on a page with the utmost finesse and thus create striking visual harmonies. This style spread throughout the Abbasid dominions with only minor local variations. It thus typifies the prestige and paramount authority enjoyed by the art of Baghdad: a fact of life epitomized by the courtier Ziryab, the Baghdad arbiter elegantiarum who imported the lifestyle of the Iraqi capital in food, language, clothing and art to far-off Córdoba in the 10th century.


  • Enc. Islam/2: “῾Abbāsids”; Enc. Islam/3: “῾Abbāsid Revolution”
  • K. A. C. Creswell: Early Muslim Architecture, ii (Oxford, 1940/R New York, 1979)
  • R. Ettinghausen: “The ‘Beveled Style’ in the Post-Samarra Period,” Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld (Locust Valley, NY, 1952), pp. 72–83, repr. in R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art and Archeology Collected Papers (Berlin, 1984), pp. 182–201
  • D. Sourdel and J. Sourdel: La Civilisation de l’Islam classique (Paris, 1968)
  • L. Golombek: “Abbasid Mosque at Balkh,” Orient. A., n. s., xv (1969), pp. 173–89
  • J. Lassner: The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages (Detroit, 1970)
  • M. M. Ahsan: Social Life under the Abbasids (London, 1979)
  • H. Philon: Early Islamic Ceramics: Ninth to Late Twelfth Centuries (London, 1980)
  • R. Hillenbrand: “῾Abbasid Mosques in Iran,” Riv. Stud. Orient., lix (1985), pp. 175–212
  • T. Allen: Five Essays on Islamic Art (Sebastopol, CA, 1988)
  • J. Bloom: Minaret: Symbol of Islam (Oxford, 1989)
  • F. Déroche: The Abbasid Tradition: Qur῾ans of the 8th to the 10th Centuries AD (1992), i of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London and Oxford, 1992– )
  • D. Sourdel: L’Etat impérial des califes abbassides, VIIIe–Xe siècle (Paris, 1999)
  • S. Blair and J. M. Bloom: “Iraq, Iran, and Egypt: The Abbasids,” Islam: Art and Architecture, ed. M. Hattstein and P. Delius (Cologne, 2000), pp. 88–127 [good pictures]
  • C. F. Robinson: A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra (Oxford, 2001)
  • T. Leisten: Excavation of Samarra (Mainz am Rhein, 2003)
  • H. Kennedy: When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty (Cambridge, MA, 2005/London as The Court of the Caliphs, 2004)
  • A. Northedge: The Historical Topography of Samarra, 1 (London, 2005)
  • G. Curatola: “The Islamic Era,” The Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia, ed. G. Curatola (New York, 2007), pp. 149–208
  • E. J. Hanne: Putting the Caliph in his Place: Power, Authority, and the Late Abbasid Caliphate (Madison, NJ, 2007)
  • A. Northedge: The Archaeological Atlas of Samarra, 2 (London, in preparation)
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