Fragments of Heaven

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Entrance Gate at the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (Image © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis)

The art of mosaics

By Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare

The mosques, madrassas and palaces of the Islamic world are a riot of colour, their roofs and façades encrusted with millions of miniature tiles made from bright glass, stone or ceramic. If you look closely, you can see their individual gradations in colour, the characteristics of the materials and also the way light falls upon them, but it is only once you step right back that you can see the overall picture and appreciate the building in all its glory.

Though generally considered a Roman art form, the first mosaics were in fact laid down in Abra, Mesopotamia, in the third millennium BC. These earliest mosaics were made with slivers of coloured stone, shell and ivory: it would be another thousand years before artisans in Susa (in modern-day Iran) made the first glazed ceramic tiles, and the pictorial scenes we all remember were developed later still, refined by the Greeks and the Romans.

Although mosaics had their birth in the Middle East, it was the Romans who truly popularised them, picking out scenes of the gods, hunting and feasting (as well as geometric designs) on the floors of villas and public buildings from North Africa right across the Roman Empire to Britain.

Echoes of Asia: The interior of Casa Batlló, a mosaic-adorned building by Antoni Gaudí in the centre of Barcelona, Spain (Image © Ken Kaminesky/Corbis)

The colours of these mosaics tended to be somewhat muted as they relied primarily on the colours of the natural stones used in their construction. The tesserae, the cubes used to make the mosaics, were often made from marble or limestone. Larger scale mosaics (opus tessellatum) were laid on site; and the far more intricate opus vermiculatum, which required tesserae no more than four millimetres across, were produced on panels in workshops and then transported to their final location once complete.

In the early centuries AD, the Byzantines took mosaic making to a new level: they pioneered the technique of backing glass tesserae with gold leaf so that it shone. This new technology was put to fine use on the walls (rather than the floor) of the newly constructed Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, first to depict roundels and other motifs, and then, a short while later, in portraits of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other holy figures.

The Byzantine Empire lay at the meeting point of East and West, Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity, and so the now more sophisticated methods of mosaic production and design spread rapidly along the Silk Road to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Here, the easy geometry of tile work made mosaics a popular choice: repeating patterns not only were easy to reproduce on a large scale, but they also kept the Islamic orthodoxy on side, as such decorations did not contravene religious prohibitions on figurative art. The simplest tiles (far larger than their Roman and Byzantine predecessors) were made from fired mud or clay and they were interspersed with more expensive glazed tiles coloured with ground turquoise (mined in Iran or the Sinai Peninsula) or lapis lazuli from Badakhshan in northern Iran.

A pilgrim emphasises the glorious details at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh, Afghanistan (Image © Jane Sweeney/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

The artisans were not satisfied with these humble mosaics, however: they recognised the potential of the medium and allowed their imaginations to run wild. The result is some of the most extraordinary craftsmanship in the world, entire buildings covered inside and out with every precious colour of tile. Standing inside the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, your eyes almost blur with the intricacy of the work, while further to the east in the medieval cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, mythical beasts swoop and soar across the façades of religious and secular buildings alike. These mosaics stand as an enduring testament to the skills of the artisans who made them, but also in celebration of the most humble cubes and their remarkable transformation into masterpieces of visual art.

For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 110.

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