DR. MURRAY LEE EILAND
ARCHAEOLOGIST
UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

 

 












Problems of Islamic Heraldry (cont.)4 BACK

Secret Crosses?

Two other blazons follow ancient designs, and leave tantalizing clues for the imagination. Multi-level designs, that could be seen in more than one way, were appreciated by a number of early cultures.  Ancient Egypt revelled

Figure 6
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in them, and used ornaments similar to those portrayed on Figure 6 and Figure 7. The first evidence for such symbols in Egypt appears in about 3000 BC on tomb ceilings.  While figurative decoration could adorn the walls, the sky was often represented using geometrical shapes. This trend continued through the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BC, Dynasties XVIII–XX), and complex designs that could be appreciated in a number of different ways were devised.  While many of these roundels could be linked together with the eye to form different patterns, the principle is the same even for a single circle. 

Figure 7
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A good example of such designs can be found on the ceiling of the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers in Palmyra, Syria (Figure 8).  From there it is clear where the Islamic world adopted the design (Eiland & Pinner 1999). During the Medieval period such designs attained a high degree of perfection, as geometry was coupled with a widespread use of the protractor yielding complex non-figural ornamentation. Representations of living things, particularly humans, was frowned upon if not banned in a number of epochs. Similar prohibitions contributed to the decline of Islamic heraldry, though this is another issue. Figure 6 (potsherd, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, drawn from Mayer 1933, pl . XII b:7) can be seen as a four petalled floral form, or the negative space (represented as dark) could be appreciated as a cross. Figure 7 (potsherd, National Museum of Arab Art, Cairo, drawn from Mayer 1933, pl. XII b: 10)  is easier to comprehend when it is a cross, though the negative space could also be appreciated as a floral form. It is essentially a mirror image of the proceeding blazon, the only difference being the circle in the centre of the figure. Were such designs appreciated as crosses, and if so, can these blazons be linked to a Christian community?

Figure 8
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Such considerations have led to the discussion of who invented and disseminated various designs. One particularly provocative book, titled “The Christian Oriental Carpet” (Gantzhorn 1991) seeks the origins of many designs on Near Eastern carpets and textiles of the last several hundred years in Christian cultures.  Drawing particularly on the art of the Armenians, a group that had a much larger distribution before the violence of the early 20th century, he suggests that there are crosses in many rugs.  Indeed, this has led to a re-appraisal of who made some kinds of rug (Islamic or Christian weavers); yet in other cases it is almost certain that rugs with cross designs were woven by Muslims. Indeed, many rugs with crosses are woven by Muslims today, and when asked the weavers will simply say that this is a traditional design.  While Gantzhorn suggests that this confirms that the designs are therefore a Christian innovation, this still may not be the case. A cross is a common enough design—simply two figures that intersect or originate from a central point—and may be found in cultures that existed long before Christianity. As the opponents to psychoanalysis suggest, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Yet there are hints that the cross may have been appreciated very differently by early Islamic cultures:
The Book of As-Salât (The Prayer) Chapter 12. 

    If someone offers Salât (prayer) in a garment bearing marks of a cross or pictures, will the Salât (prayer) be annulled? 246. }isha had a Qirâm (a thin marked woolen curtain) with which he had screened one side of her home.  The Prophet said, " Take away this Qirâm of yours, as its pictures are still displayed in front of me during my Salât (prayer) [they divert my attention from the prayer].
    The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Sahîh Al-Bukhâri: Arabic-English.  Translated by M.M. Khân. Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1994. P. 165

When approaching a traditional Near Eastern Christian community, such as the Armenians and Georgians of the Caucasus, one finds that they easily identify subtle designs on their fabrics (both floor coverings and clothing) as crosses.  When asked why they are not more obvious, the answer is usually the same: that they want to sell their textiles to anyone who will buy and not simply Christians. This raises an interesting point. Perhaps these blazons were designed to be ambiguous. One could note that they had one meaning in one situation, and in another environment another aspect could be emphasized. This kind of duality is quite at home in the Near East, a place of changing allegiances for thousands of years.

 

 

 


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