Interview with Islamic arts expert Prof. Sheila Blair



Kourosh Ziabari – Fars News Agency: Prof. Sheila Blair, a prominent Islamic arts scholar, says the sense of hospitality is what makes the Iranian people distinctive in their deportment and demeanor than the other nations of the world.

Prof. Sheila Blair, who is a Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at the Fine Arts Department of the Boston College, says that Iranians have always been creative and innovative people and that is why the Iranian arts are so unique, subtle and delicate.

“Since Iran was often the bridge from regions further east to Arabia and beyond, Iranians quickly learned of the latest in artistic and technological innovations elsewhere, and people elsewhere learned of those things that had developed in Iran,” said Prof. Blair in an interview with Fars News Agency.

Prof. Sheila Blair is an expert in Islamic and Iranian arts. She has resided and taught in Iran for a relatively long period of time. She has written several books on the different aspects of Islamic arts and her co-written trilogy “The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture” has won her the 2010 World Prize for the Book of the Year of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her other book titled “Islamic Calligraphy” was also granted the 2008 World Prize for the Book of the Year Award by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Her husband Prof. Jonathan Bloom is also a researcher on Islamic arts and co-holds the Calderwood Chair at the Boston College.

Blair has extensively written on different aspects of Islamic and Persian arts and culture, including calligraphy, architecture, painting and carpet-weaving. She has published more than 200 articles in journals, encyclopedias, colloquia, and festschriften.

The 3-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (GEIAA), edited by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, is the first encyclopedia devoted exclusively to the arts of the Islamic lands. Containing 1,600 articles drawing on the work of some 375 scholars, as well as more than 600 photographs, black-and-white reproductions, color plates, drawings, maps, and plans, it treats the wide range of visual arts created in the lands where Islam was a prominent, if not the most prominent, religion in the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th century of the Common Era and the present.

Prof. Sheila Blair has taken part in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency and responded to some of our questions regarding her scholarly work on the Iranian and Islamic arts and the Persian civilization. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Prof. Blair; what made you interested in Persian culture, arts and the Iranian civilization in the first place? What makes the Iranian culture unique and outstanding among the various world cultures and civilizations?

A: In the 1970s, having finished university in the US, I decided to postpone graduate school and, like many of my contemporaries, put on a backpack and hitchhike to India. I did make it, but not before spending 18 months in Iran en route. I was fascinated and settled in teaching in Shiraz. It changed my life: instead of going back to school in sociology, I pursued Middle East Studies and art history, with a focus on Iran and a dissertation on the shrine complex at Natanz.

Q: You’ve been to Iran a number of times. What aspects of the lifestyle of the Iranian people fascinate you the most? What’s your viewpoint regarding the Iranians’ sense of hospitality which is praised and commended by all those who visit Iran?

A: I love Iran and Iranians particularly because of their warm hospitality. When we arrived as relatively naïve 20-year-olds, we had a wonderful time, and it has never changed. I have been wined (metaphorically) and dined continuously to this day.

Q: Why has the art of architecture made such enormous progresses in Iran following the arrival of Islam in the country? We can see that in the post-Islamic era, gigantic edifices and ornamented palaces were constructed in such cities as Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan, Tabriz, Yazd, Qazvin and Tehran and that a new approach toward architecture started in Iran. What’s your assessment of this new turn in the Iranian architecture?

A: Iranians have always had a wonderful sense of creativity. Just go to the Iran Bastan Museum – which we did on this last visit – and look at the ceramics all the way back to the 5th millennium BCE. In Islamic times, the focus changed to new types of religious buildings and their accouterments (minbars, mihrabs, Koran manuscripts, etc.), but the sense of architectural creativity and skill continued. One example comprises the inventive methods of encompassing space. Builders in Iran were some of the first to develop methods of constructing large domes, but in Islamic times the domes got larger and more complicated, first double-shelled (Sultaniyya) and then true double domes (Lutfallah). Color became more important, as builders took advantage of advances in ceramic technology to coat their structures and domes with glorious glazed tiles.

Q: What do you think of the impact of Islam on the flourishing and advancement of arts in Iran and other Islamic countries? How has the emergence of Islam created opportunities for the artists in the Muslim nations to move forward and make progress? Can we come to the conclusion that Islam was a religion that had a cultural root and as a result, made cultural and artistic achievements more plausible and prevalent?

A: One of the major impacts of Islam on the artistic tradition was the prevalence of the written word in Arabic script. Not only did manuscripts of the Koran become an important art form, but writing also covered virtually all types of art, from buildings to pots and pans. On religious buildings and works of art, these inscriptions are often verses from the Koran, but other objects made for daily use, these inscriptions often contain Persian verses. The Persian language became written in Arabic script, and the manuscript tradition broadened to include illustrated books of Persian poetry and prose, some of the most sublime works of art ever created.

Islam also fostered communication between far-flung regions, as pilgrims performed the hajj. Since Iran was often the bridge from regions further east to Arabia and beyond, Iranians quickly learned of the latest in artistic and technological innovations elsewhere, and people elsewhere learned of those things that had developed in Iran. Thus the new rounded script that seems to have developed in eastern Iran in the 10th century quickly spread and became the basis for virtually all the scripts used today, replacing the stately but cumbersome kufic. The dome too became a hallmark of mosques, as did minarets, a form that also proliferated across Iran notably under the Seljuks as a gratifying visible symbol of Islam.

Q: What similarities do you find in the architecture and fine arts of the Muslim nations that share a common history, such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf region? What elements can be found in the artworks of these countries that bring them closer together?

A: In Turkey, Iran, and India, the three major empires of the pre-modern period —the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals— all developed particular dynastic styles. In architecture this often included the use of monumental domes; in art, it typically included floral arabesques. Yet these elements were different in each of the three empires. The Safavids, for example, used a pointed ovoid dome, whereas the Ottomans used a more hemispherical one and the Mughals used a more bulbous dome.

Q: One of your books is dedicated to Islamic calligraphy. Would you please delve more on the emergence and development of calligraphy in the Muslim world? Which countries have the most elaborate and sophisticated art of calligraphy? There are currently hundreds of calligraphy masters and mentors in Iran who teach this delicate art to their students, and I think the basis of calligraphy is remarkably strong in Iran. What’s your take on that?

A: Yes, indeed, calligraphy is one of the hallmarks of Islamic civilization, as everywhere that Islam spread, people adopted the Arabic script. The use of calligraphy developed in part to write down the Koran, God’s word as revealed orally to the Prophet, in the most beautiful manner possible. Angular scripts such as kufic were first developed to write on parchment, but along with the introduction of paper, more rounded scripts developed. Iran was at the forefront of this change beginning in the 9th or 10th century CE.

Q: How had the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and Eastern Iran affected the state of arts in the country? Had the Iranian architecture, painting and other manifestations of Persian civilization been influenced by the Mongol conquest of Iran and other parts of Central Asia?

A: The Mongols introduced links not only to China but also west to Europe. Although their invasions were very destructive, the period of their sovereignty is one of the most creative. The arts therefore show a different picture than the chronicles, which dwell on war and destruction. Iranian textile weavers were taken to China. So were materials, such as cobalt, the pigment used to decorate blue-and-white ceramics. Many China goods came to Iran, including silks and porcelains as well as many motifs such as the peony, lotus, and dragon. It seems as well that Chinese models may have spurred the idea of studios for book production, another characteristic feature of the arts produced in Iran from the Mongol period forward.

Q: Persian carpet-weaving is unquestionably one of the most prominent and important manifestations of Persian culture and arts. Despite the fact that in the recent years, certain countries have entered a competition with Iran in producing hand-woven rugs, the Iranian carpet still has the highest quality and delicacy. Why is it so that the Persian carpets are the best products of this type in the world?

A: Textiles have always played a key role in Islamic art. Indeed, their production was often the driving force in the economy, comparable to the gas and oil industry today. Iranian carpets are particularly fine as they use asymmetrical knots, which can be packed more closely together. Therefore, carpet-knotters in Iran could make curves, in the same way that small-scale pixilation on computer screens creates the appearance of curvilinear designs. Carpet-makers in Iran also had access to fine dyes so the colors in their carpets are particularly bright.

Q: Nowruz celebrations marking the start of the Persian New Year just started. What’s your feeling about this ancient Iranian festival and the incarnation of Iranian arts in Nowruz, like the Haft-Seen table?

A: This is a distinctive and joyous festival that distinguishes Iranian culture from others.

This interview was originally published by Fars News Agency.