Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 27, 2018
Marcus Milwright Islamic Arts and Crafts: An Anthology Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. 352 pp.; 14 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9781474409193)
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Marcus Milwright’s Islamic Arts and Crafts: An Anthology stakes an implicit—and sometimes explicit—claim for the place of objects and their production in the eastern Mediterranean and the larger Iranian world. Following the author’s work on a related topic, An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology (2010), it illustrates his mastery of written sources as well as the diverse materials, processes, and objects they discuss. With substantial scholarly apparatus in the form of notes, bibliography, index, and appendix, it will help shape the growing field of Islamic material culture as well as that of Islamic art.

Milwright, in the introduction, makes clear the intention of the volume: to give his readers a sense of how different sources discuss arts and crafts of the region, keeping intact as far as possible both specific craft-related vocabulary and descriptions. The focus on raw and semifinished materials, technology, tools, and labor, artisans in workshops and otherwise, and other related concerns distinguishes this book from D. Fairchild Ruggles’s Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources (2011), which largely pertains to the reception of art and architecture in the Islamic world. By including and even emphasizing humble objects, including baskets, terra-cotta drainpipes, and cotton thread, Milwright is also quietly challenging the hierarchies current in the field of Islamic art history, which place painting and architecture above all else. This welcome development will perhaps be feted most of all by curators, archaeologists, and historians of material culture, who work closely with the objects that make up the bulk of many finds and collections.

The book is divided into eight main parts, each with constituent chapters framed by short introductory essays. The first part, Foundations, lays a brief groundwork for the topic, relying largely on early sources (before 1500 CE). The second part emphasizes the human aspects of artisanal production, focusing on labor and biography. Milwright concisely points out that most artisans did not rate the type of biographies written for the “significant men.” He also refers to the burdens of art history as a discipline and the expectation that the study of such biographies will drive both research and methodology—a fact that has haunted the study of Islamic art. Here, a focus on archaeology is welcome, because it is capable of revealing the daily lives of workshops and nonelites, as noted by Milwright (57).

The third part focuses on resources: animal, vegetable, and mineral as well as cities and their structures. The passages themselves bring to the fore ephemeral but crucial substances: charcoal for firing kilns, natron for bleaching cloth, polish for pearls, and the like. While the introductory essay mentions market law (ḥisba), iterations of which are found across the Islamic world, none are included, though readers will find examples quoted in other sections. Parts four and five return to inorganic and organic media respectively: metalwork, glass, and pottery in the first instance and woodwork, basketry, leather, weaving, and similar in the latter. The sources combine famous and less famous accounts and provide a good number of terms for processes and substances as well as insight into daily tasks. Taken together, the sources illustrate the range of production within a single craft. For instance, kilim weavers working at home used simple vertical looms (158). By contrast, complex drawlooms with mechanized patterning devices were used in an imperial workshop in thirteenth-century Alexandria, to which the Mamluk Sultan paid an enjoyable visit (154).

Some descriptions of craft production may have been intended for didactic purposes. A lengthy quote from the inventor and polymath al-Jazari (d. 1206) details the way in which he crafted copper doors with complex geometric lattice work decoration (96–8). Al-Jazari himself is quoted, “This is [best] understood by studying the drawing, not from what I have described.” For al-Jazari, images took precedence. True to al-Jazari’s sentiment, the excerpted passage is accompanied by a drawing based on a manuscript illustration. However, images are scant in Islamic Arts and Crafts, numbering only fourteen, all black and white. In the case of al-Jazari’s doors, a color photo of a similar pair now in a museum in Istanbul—and complete with the same lion-and-serpent door knockers described in the original text—would inspire and instruct.

Part six considers paper, calligraphy, and painting. The importance of calligraphy in the Islamic world is emphasized in chapter 23, and Milwright’s introduction touches on some of the famous men of the pen, reminding his readers that emperors and sultans also found calligraphy a worthy pursuit. Calligraphy, and its status, remains a distinctive feature of Islamic art and culture in the modern period. Writing about a century ago, Gertrude Bell (d. 1926) was pleased to visit a calligrapher in Damascus and to collect several of his works (176). The chapter on painting necessarily supplies several sources about images and idolatry. However, Milwright has also selected readings on decorative painting—such as those used in “Damascus rooms”—which remind readers that the debate on figural images did not always, in fact, figure greatly.

Architecture is the topic of the seventh part, which is divided into chapters on techniques, engineering, and decoration. Milwright’s introduction to building techniques is useful, treating not only methods of construction but materials. The excerpts describe solutions for irrigation, damming, and in another case featuring al-Jazari, building a water clock. While the results could be remarkably sophisticated, such as in the qanāt irrigation systems of Iran, the tools and calculations used were relatively simple. This suggests a number of interesting theses about the training and formation of engineers, embodied process, and theoretical versus practical knowledge, and provides space for further research.

The last part, among the shortest, addresses economic factors. The first of two chapters considers reuse and recycling; Milwright gives an especially cogent introduction, which again emphasizes the importance of material: glass and metal could be melted down and reused, fired pottery could not; fragments of woven cotton, but not silk, could be used in papermaking. Among the most illuminating excerpts is that of al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), who lists the destinations for the different types of refuse from an apartment block in Cairo: pomegranate peels to tanners and dyers; date seeds to gazelle breeders; and broken glass back to the glassblowers (216–17).

The very last chapter considers the modern period. This is a tricky topic in itself as well as for its historiography, which has tended to assert, imply, or deny the idea of overall decline in this part of the world. The industrial revolution, and its manufacturing technologies, changed craft sectors around the globe, as did the increased speed and lowered cost of transportation, as Milwright notes. He also makes clear that there is no master narrative of either change or continuity: some types of craft production adapted, others continued to thrive as they always had, and others fell into abeyance. Less obvious factors are also implicated. In one excerpted description, women in Palestine no longer made water jugs because of the wider availability of water in nearby storage tanks, because of the introduction of petroleum tins which could be reused to carry or store water, because emigration had thinned the ranks of the shepherds, which meant there was no longer adequate animal dung to fire the kilns, and finally, because cheap ceramics from Europe displaced some of the local wares (226). This is a salient object lesson in the complexities of the study of craft production and consumption.

The volume has a glossary of terms in Arabic, Persian, and English as well as an appendix of terms for crafts across the three languages. An index is divided into three sections, including people and dynasties, places and objects, and terms. While this anthology is complete as a project and diverse in its topics and their sources, there are two criticisms that might be made. The first is scope: not all Islamic arts and crafts are covered. The book omits Anatolia and the Balkans, the Maghreb, Andalusia, and most of Central and all of South Asia, all of which are typically considered part of the Islamicate world. Milwright makes this clear, but offers no explanation, whether methodological or practical. The second is the manner in which the sources are notated and arranged. Each is briefly described in the introductory essay for the relevant chapter, but there is no information about date, author, or type of work given with the entry itself. Readers must triangulate between the essay, the excerpt, and the notes at the end of each chapter, which may or may not provide context. Historiographically, it is critical that the comments of British colonial officials be clearly distinguished from those of local fifteenth-century narrators. Practically, it will cause frustration to students and researchers hoping to find passages with which to understand their own subjects of study. These are perhaps small quibbles in the overall scheme of things. Islamic Arts and Crafts will find an important place in the field, for its range and its precision, for its brief but pithy essays, and for its accessible but accomplished discussion about the role of materials, process, and objects in the Islamic arts.

Amanda Phillips
Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Material Culture, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.