History of Glass in Iran

Scientific investigations on the history of glass indicate that the early men living near the volcanoes discovered the raw material of the glass at locations where the molten rocks went cold swiftly. Using the glass, they embarked on making sharp items such as arrows, knife blades, and other practical tools. They finally got engaged in creating decorated items of glass. Looking at the history of glass working, one could identify three historical periods in terms of formulation and raw materials used for soda-lime-silica glass as follows:

  1. Since the discovery of glass till 800 B.C.: During this period almost all the glass found in Iran and other countries were soda-lime-silica glass extracted from plant ashes.
  2. 800 B.C.- 800 A.D.: They used natron fluxes in Europe, West Asia and Mesopotamia whereas soda extracted from plant ashes was used in Iran and some other countries.
  3. After 800 A.D.: In Europe, the potassium-based glass replaced the previous type while in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Turkey they returned to soda extracted from plant ashes.

According to historical evidences, glassmaking origins should be searched for in Mesopotamia where probably pebble and alkaline existed next to each other. Peoples living there and surrounding civilizations had the first experiences of melting the glass. Civilizations of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia were at the center of this competition whereby Alexandria in Egypt, Damascus in Syria and Ninawa in Mesopotamia turned into the hubs of glassmaking of this historical trend in the ancient age. Together with this trend, the glassmaking industry of Babylon, Sumer and Assyria developed. Some of the first glassware found in Iran include cylinder seals discovered during excavations in Tchoga Zanbil in Khuzestan.

Achaemenides Period

As the Achaemenides Empire dominated Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt and got familiar with different centers of glassmaking, this industry entered a new phase of its life. Glass vessels of this era have mostly been discovered in excavations in Persepolis. Glassware of this era were made through engraving or molding.

Parthian Period

Glassworks of the Parthian period included bottles, alabastrons, bowls, cups, legged glasses and ornaments. Glassware were mainly green and greenish; however, other colors such as azure, pale white and brown could be seen as well. The technique used for making glass during the Parthian era was mainly free blowing; however, previous methods were used to some extent, too. Majority of glassware of this period was simple and void of any decorations but some of them bore some circular threads and decorations.

Sasanians or Sassanids Period

Glassware industry grew both qualitatively and quantitatively in most parts of Persian Plateau. Not only did they make use of various methods for making glassware such as smoothing, cutting and polishing, but also they made use of the free-blown method to make thin glasses and the mold-blown method for thick glasses. The free-blowing method of glassmaking results in increasing the volume of production and diversity in the early forms. Glassware of Sassanians era included alabastrons, bases and bodies of vessels, cosmetic containers and ornaments. The forms of bodies of discovered vessels were mainly cylinder-shaped and circular that mostly were void of any decorations. However, some hive-shaped decorations as well as concentric circles could be seen on them. Ornaments (such as glass bracelets) are all covered in shells and bear some groove-shaped and spiral decorations. Shades of colors seen in these items are green, pale white, yellow, reddish, and brown.

Islamic Period

Glassworks of early Islamic centuries were actually a continuation of glassmaking art of the Sassanians period. As the Abbasids took power over the Umayyads, this industry regained its prosperity as their caliphs supported production of glassware in Iran and Mesopotamia. During 9th and 10th centuries A.D., cities such as Neyshabur, Rey, Jorjan and Samarkand were main centers of glassmaking. Blowing into molds and/or glassblowing to form bubbles were the main technique for glassmaking and this glassware was cut, decorated, compressed and shaped adding some other elements. It is worth mentioning that the glass cut in Neyshabur was of a great quality since it carried the glassmaking tradition of the Sassanians. The only difference between glasswork of the Islamic period and that of the Sassanians period is that during the glass cut during the Islamic period focused more on the linear cut rather than the surface cut. Additionally, glass vessels of the Islamic era in Iran do not look like those of the Sassanians. The glass was mainly cut as hollow ovals and circles during the Sassanids whereas various geometric, plant and animal designs became popular during the Islamic period that were enormously attractive.

The Islamic glassware of 8th and 9th centuries A.D. include small and thick alabastrons that are like prisms and formed into molars using vertical and horizontal lines and grooves. These alabastrons are made of glass that is mixed with the lead. These types of glass are blue and green and they are found in all Islamic counties and territories

The art of glassmaking during Muslim Middle Ages

During the Islamic period, Fustat and Cairo were main producers of glass and glassmakers migrated to these cities from various Islamic territories. During this stage of glassmaking, not only the overall forms of glasses were changed but also application of drawing and calligraphy on the glass using glazed colors and furnace colors became common. Consequently, a specific type of glass emerged that was called enamel glass. Egyptian glassmakers gained popularity as a result of their skills in making ornamental vessels. When glassmaking was prosperous in Egypt and Levant over 7th and 8th centuries, valuable and delicate chalices were made that were often legged and sometimes they were stretched or had circular and semi-cone bodies or legged cups.

Decorations on the glassware of this period were based on either the old designs or followed new styles invented and developed by Egyptian artisans. Glassware bearing thread or bar decorations were made in Egypt as embossed or compressed glassworks. During the reign of the Fatimids, other techniques such as drawing with burnishing, vitreous enamel and gilded drawing were common among glassmakers, too. These small vessels and bottles are green or red decorated with geometric designs, scrolls and Kufic script inscriptions. They carry some green or silver drawings that have been burnished. During the reign of the Ayyubid dynasty and Mamluk Sultanate, pictured of the man, animals, arabesque and Arabic inscriptions were common and popular. These decorations were usually located on the horizontal parts with different width and separated from each other by some narrow margins. Items remaining from this period such as cups, chalices and bottles bearing human pictures were among the most beautiful glass vessels of the Islamic period and they incorporated themes such as playing polo, hinting and wars. Another noticeable category of vessels passed to us from that period is lamps that were made at the decree of kings of Mamluk Sultanate for mosques. Family signs of these kings were often incorporated into the bergamot designs and large reliefs on the bodies of these lamps.

The Seljuk period

The art of the Seljuk era is a part of the Islamic era that dates back to the time when this dynasty ruled Central Asian, Iran and Anatolia. As Seljuks entered Iran in 12th century A.D., they brought about prosperity for various types of arts such as glassmaking. Cities such as Neyshabur, Gorgan, Rey and Saveh were active in the field of making or trading glassware. Two methods were used to shape the glass of the Seljuk ear namely free-blown and mold-blown methods. Vessels made through the mold-blown method were decorated by delicate decorating cut or adding some items. The type of cut was mainly the linear one and the surface cut was less common. Compared to the ones made previously, the quality of the glass made during the Seljuk era was higher.

During the rule of the Seljuks and before the invasion of Mongols, some fantastic glass vessels were produced at glassware kilns of Gorgan that were as thin as papers. They were enameled, cut or carved out.  The glassware art experienced some great innovations and inventions in terms of manufacture and colorful decoration during this period.

Technically-speaking, free-blown and mold-blown techniques were prevalent during this period. As the type and composition of molds underwent transformation, more intricate and diverse designs were marked on the glassware.

Various decorations such as the added-motifs that are considered as one type of the warm status of glass were so common during this period. The first glassware bearing some gilded decorations appeared at this age. The gilded material added to the glass were usually for creating reddish and brownish colors that were added to the colorless glass.

Generally-speaking, artefacts of this period are a result of intermingling different civilizations in Iran such as Byzantine Empire, Parthian and Sassanians. Forms made during this period are diverse in terms of types of design and coloration. Compared to previous periods, glassware of this period were bigger in size.

Vessels such as cups, glasses, and cressets were added to the glassware art over this era. Other items such cressets, chalices, special pharmaceutical vessels, medical instruments, laboratory tools and pouncet boxes were so common during this period and older forms with more proportionality and symmetry gained more diversity. Decorations added on these artefacts were so diversified and luxurious. Some luxurious decorations such as enameling and gilded glazing were added to the glassware during Seljuk period and various forms were made in terms of design and decoration.

Cut-based decorations of the glassware rose to its peak over this period and skillful works such as curved and Islamic lines were added to these items, too. The enameling decorations took its first steps and just some basis items were made. Plant designs on the glassware included flowers, fruits such as apples and grapes, leaves, buds, and tendrils. Additionally, plant designs were accompanied by animal, geometric and script designs. Designs were applied on practical vessels. In terms of plant designs, flowers were at the center of attention of the Seljuk artisans. Some common designs of this period included tetramerous flowers inside squares and circles with petals like drops of water, oval-shaped designs, and small disorganized triangles and circles. Additionally, some circle designs were seen whose arrangements formed shapes of flowers as well as petals, astral designs and other designs at the bottom of these vessels as abstract flowers and/or close to forms of natural flowers. The second most common design used on glassware were designs of leaves including palm tree leaves with various diverse forms, zigzag-shaped leaves and tripetalous leaves.

Qajar Period

As the ties between Iran and the west expanded and the impacts of Industrial Revolution spread to Iran during the reign of Qajar dynasty, the traditional glassmaking entered the industrial production stage.

Prior to the Qajar period, the traditional glassmaking was common in most of Iranian cities. However, the glass was not regarded as one of the main needs of people. Consequently, the economy dependent on the glassware play little and marginal role.

The Qajar period in Iran (1789-1925) coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Europe. As the foreign relations of Iran expanded, the handicrafts were at the loggerheads with the industrial commodities. Consequently, these commodities replaced traditional workshops and glassware factories were no exception to this general rule. The best glassware was produced in Qom and Shiraz that then expanded to other cities such as Isfahan, Tehran, Tabriz and Kerman. These traditional workshops could merely produce bottles, cups, glasses, flagons and in some cases rose-water sprinklers and hookah bases.

The mold-blown technique of glassmaking was used at that time. Glassmakers made items with different and alien forms that were decorated with flowers or small suns. When glassware is produced using the blowing technique, its size was controlled by tongs. As a result, some organized pieces were produced that were occasionally connected.

In fact, the traditional glassmaking moved away from artistic creative works and turned into a merely complementary industrial endeavor. Decorative and artistic aspects in the products of workshops were confined to rose-water sprinklers and vases. With some minor modifications, decorations such as mold-based designs and margins were added.

As a result of mass production of industrial commodities that coincided with the expansion of political ties of Iran during the Qajar period, Iranian markets turned into a great place for offering industrial products of European countries. Hence, the glass imports to Iran from countries such as Russian, the UK and France began. The Iranian government made some efforts to confront the ever-increasing trend of glass imports. These efforts resulted in the establishment of glass factories that encountered numerous problems such as lack of raw materials, shortage of suitable coals, and high costs of transporting raw materials. One of the main reasons for failure of these workshops was lack of persistence in continuing these efforts.

Glassmaking factories of this period could be categorized into three main groups as follows:

  • Factories that were constructed by means of the financial support of the government to strengthen the independence of Iran from the imported glassware. The glassmaking factory located in Khaniabad neighborhood of Tehran was one example of such factories. This factory produced some glassware including globes, glasses, hookahs and lamp sticks whose demand was high during the reign of Qajar dynasty. Governmental factories were much more active than the private ones during this period.
  • Factories that came to streamline as the result of investment made by foreign businessmen and governments and at the support of the royal court. The Belgian glassmaking factory in Tehran was one example of these factories. This factory was established to meet the market needs in terms of window glasses and its products were the flat glass.
  • Factories that were constructed by domestic businessmen and investors to stand against the excessive imports of the foreign glassware. One example was the Glassmaking Factory of Aminalzarb. This factory was built to meet the needs in terms of consuming glasses and its products were similar to those of the National Glassmaking Factory such as chalices, hookahs, globes, and lamp sticks. Concurrently, traditional glass factories were active and offered some products to the market whose qualities were lower.

Additionally, some other factors such as lack of access to high-quality and suitable raw materials, lack of skill of Iranian glassmakers in terms of familiarity with new techniques and their incapability for making metal molds left negative impacts on the trend of glassmaking during the Qajar period. However, the unsuccessful presence of foreign glassmakers in Iran left some positive impacts such as making Iranian glassmakers familiar with techniques and methods of glassmaking that led to producing some items with great stability, delicate bodies and more pleasant forms compared to the previous domestically-produced local glassware in this period. Although industrial investments in the field of glassmaking in Iran experienced early defeat, they left some great impacts on Iranian traditional glassmaking in terms of manufacturing techniques and decoration designs and methods.