History of pottery in Iran

The pottery is one of the most important and oldest artistic handmade works of the man that has remained alive from the ancient time to the present. Due to the specific geographical location of their country on the way of the highway of civilizations, Iranians have not only been one of the pioneers in terms of pottery-making but also have been regarded as the most dexterous nation in this field. The pottery-making has been practiced in four residential areas of Iran as follows:

  • The western region of the country in areas surrounding Zagros Mountains and close to Kermanshahan
  • Southern shores of Caspian Sea
  • Northwestern areas of Azerbaijan
  • Southeastern regions of Iran close to the desert and central areas

Some potteries have been discovered in Iran that date back to some 8,000 years ago. The oldest potteries discovered in the archeological excavations in Iran are those unearthed in Ganj Tepe Valley in the province of Kermanshah that date back to the 8th millennium B.C. Some of these ancient items (with the history of 8,000-year old) have been discovered in regions such as Qotri to the south of Mazandaran province and close to the city of Behshahr, Tepe Zaqeh in Gazvin plain, Cheshmeh-Ali in Tehran and Tepe Sialk in Kashan. Potteries discovered in these areas are coarse with a soft internal part. To get adhesiveness, some materials such as grinded straws and vegetables were added into the original compound of these potteries that were water and soil. The pottery wheels were not used at the time of making these items. At that age, the temperature of the kiln was not controllable. Therefore, the final product was not completely hard and it did not have a consistent coloring. Sometimes, the internal part of the pottery remained gray or black to the low amount of the temperature (it was the case in the 6th millennium B.C.).

In the later stages, the pottery-making experienced more evolution when the soft sand and sand powder were used together with the soil to make vessels with very fine and thin walls. In this period, making vessels with the concave bottom and the convex bodies began. In light of the invention of the pottery wheels and its application for forming the pottery vessels in the 4th millennium B.C., a new transformation began in the pottery-making industry and more diverse decorations appeared on vessels.

The oldest potteries discovered in the archeological excavations in Iran are those unearthed in Ganj Tepe Valley in the province of Kermanshah that date back to the 8th millennium B.C.

Pottery-making is an art that has preserved its valuable technical principles in its traditional forms up to now. Studying these objects precisely, one could not only appreciate their artistic values but also understand the crafts, industries, the material works of various tribes and communities in various cultural territories. According to these facts, potteries should be recognized and valued as the expression of mental activities, creativity and artistic inventions of the man in the past since the pottery-making is a collective art that not only shows the taste of its creators but also reveal certain signs of the social life as well as material and spiritual characteristics of a life over a certain period of time through which we can directly get to know the civilizations of cities, ethnic groups and life conditions of various periods since every nation has been using its specific signs, pictures, and decorations for decorating its potteries.

As a craft, the pottery-making has perpetuated in Iran from the early days of its civilization up to now. It has witnessed various changes over this long period of time. According to Ghirshman, the French archeologist, some people were living in Bakhtiari Mountains around 10,000 years ago who were not only engaged in hunting and preparing foodstuffs but also they were busy with making potteries. Their products that are regarded as the beginning of the pottery-making industry in Iran by most of the archeologists, are valuable works to study. As Arthur Pope has asserted in its seminal work entitled “A Survey of Persian Art”, evidence discovered recently prove that agriculture and its related industries such as making jars, weaving and pottery-making began in the Persian Plateau.

The evolutionary path of pottery-making in the ancient mounds quickly brought the early settlers to the understanding that they could meet their needs through potteries. Potteries are the best works remained after the primitive communities. Particularly in civilizations of the Persian Plateau, different stages of ancient civilizations have been named after these potteries such as the gray potteries of northern civilizations, brownish potteries of western civilizations, and painted potteries of the Elamite civilization.

At the initial stages, they paid attention to the interior of vessels but later the decorations were added to the exterior in the painted potteries. Most of these vessels were bowls, legged jars, glasses and vessels similar to statues of animals. The invention of pottery wheels in Iran in the 4th millennium brought about a huge transformation in the pottery-making industry. The potteries unearthed in Sialk and archeological sites of Susa, Chogamish and Tall-i-bakun in the Persepolis indicate that they were made by pottery wheels. At this period, a transformation emerged in the field of drawing images. Initially, the bodies of vessels were decorated using geometric images and decorations. Then, the images of animals became prevailing in potteries. Later, artists reflected their beliefs, the status of their environments and lives, and a particular theme on potteries. They mainly imprinted reflection of their daily lives such ad their religious, moral and artistic features on potteries. Discoveries of Tepe Sialk, Tepe Hesar, Tepe Gian of Nahavand and other ancient mounds indicate that people living in these areas were engaged in making painted potteries as of the 5th millennium B.C. In fact, the potter and the artists used drawings on potteries as a way of composing poems in the ancient history of Persia. They used simple visual elements to show objects, animals and men. For instance, the parallel wavy lines inside a circle and a rectangle represented water. The triangle whose surface was patterned represented mountains. The square divided by horizontal and vertical lines with some wavy lines on it probably represented the farms. Animals drawn on potteries were mainly rams, deer, cows and birds. Unlike the drawings of caves, the real images of animals were not highlighted in potteries rather their summarized and exaggerated schemes were taken into consideration since the decorative aspects of potteries were important for the potter. Hence, the potter transforms the natural form to an abstract one to reach its decorative goals. Bodies of potteries became tender and shiny during this period. In all of the ancient villages and mounds, all of these steps can be identified more or less.  It could be claimed that these staged depended on the civilizational period. For instance, when the potteries were coarse and uneven, the houses of people were made of the mud and clay walls. However, when the potteries got thin and smooth, the houses of people were made of adobes and bricks.

Achaemenides era

During the Achaemenides period, metals and various decorative stones were used for making vessels and little attention was paid to the beauty and delicacy of potteries. As the Achaemenides dynasty rose to power in the 6th century A.D., some great advancements were made in making potteries. In this era, some fine potteries were made in new shapes. Among vessels of the Achaemenides period, some pottery statues have been discovered that have imitated the lion-shaped golden statutes. This type of potteries is called the rhyton. Other objects made in this period included pottery canteens needed by the cavalry and the infantry as well as huge jars for storing the foodstuff. The surface of these potteries were engraved and decorated.

Parthian period

Potteries of the Parthian period can be categorized into four main groups as follows:

  • Simple potteries:

Simple potteries were diverse in terms of forms and diversity. The most common wares of this period were jars. Other objects such as huge pots, small pots, plates, trays, vats and bottles were seen in this period, too.

  • Clinky potteries:

The Clinky potteries are signifying element and guide of the Parthian era. The color of the surface of these potteries were orange, light red, brown and dark brown. The interior of the wares was dark or light gray. Grog, also known as fire-sand and chamotte, was not usually seen in these potteries. However, soft sands were occasionally used in these potteries that made their texture hard and dense. Bowls were the most common form of vessels in this category.

  • Glazed potteries:

These potteries contained glazes in blue, turquoise, green and other colors.

  • Painted potteries:

These potteries held some simple geometric images. One of the geometric decorations used for decorating these vessels was simple triangles. The color used in designing the images was brown.

Potteries were locally produced during the Parthian period and every region of Iran had its specific style and characteristics of pottery-making. As special attention was paid to golden and silver vessels during the Parthian period, the pottery-making declined. One of the features of pottery-making of this era was making glazed vessels whose colors were in the spectrum of light green to turquoise blue. During the mid-Parthian era, potteries were made with greater deal of precision and their glaze was more transparent. On some of potteries of this era, one can see designs of dangling lobes and hatched triangles in abundance. The potteries of the Parthian period were some huge burial casks with long bodies and open mouths whose bodies were decorated horizontally with some rope-shaped elements. Objects remaining from this period include huge casks for storing food, pottery coffins with the image of men on them, vase-shaped vessels, and canteens decorated with the glaze. The jars contained a woven rope ending in the petals.

Sassanians period

Although art-industries and architecture evolved during the Sassanians period, the craft of pottery-making did not progress that much. Like the Parthian period, potteries of the Sassanians period were coarse and relatively heavy. Vessels with indented double band rims gradually declined during the Sassanians period.  Like the Parthian period, potteries of the Sassanians period were locally or regionally produced. Commercial routes and trade contributed a lot to distribution of local potteries of this period.

Due to the prosperity of metalsmith and making metal vessels in the Sassanians era, the craft of pottery-making did not experience enormous progress in this period.

Common wares of this period include vats with open mouths and flat and thick rims, pale brown and light green vessels, dark gray vessels, ecru vessels, bowls, plates, pots, pitchers, bottles and bases. Jars with ban rims, big bowls with convex bodies and thick angular rims are some examples of potteries of this era. Small jars with handles, tallow-burners and dished plates are other examples of these wares.

Decorations on potteries of the Sassanians era are in the forms of reliefs, engraved images, and carved images in the compound shapes. Stamp images of lotus, concentric circles, crosses inside circles and rope-shaped added images are visible on these wares. The color of the glaze is greenish.

Islamic period

Generally-speaking, the first potteries of the Islamic period in the modern Middle East belong to the city of Samarra which was the capital of the Abbasid dynasty for a short period of time. These potteries reflect the prosperity of the art of pottery-making in the 9th century A.D. when three types of potteries entered into Iraq and Iran namely peacock-shaped potteries, green potteries and white potteries. Images on the potteries of the Islamic period mixed with religious beliefs and perceptions of potters about the world. Arts carried religious and divine meanings and all the images were connected to their beliefs.

Potters of the Islamic period made use of images that were originated from his emotions, perceptions and intuitive experiences. The Muslim artists get assistance from symbols to express the sublime truths in his spiritual arts since symbols are intermediaries in the transition from the material life to the mystical and spiritual life. The main point in the Islamic art is the monotheistic view which is greatly visible and perceivable in the first potteries of this period. Circles are the most fundamental and comprehensive symbol in the potteries since circles are the most visible and noticeable signs of monotheism. All the world and geometric shapes are placed inside these circles.

The illustrator of potteries moves its colorful pens in a perfect circle around the body of the pottery as the pottery wheel moves whereby all images are enveloped inside a circle. He starts his illustration with creating a limited geometric space and continues the work in such an exaggerated manner that sometimes draws the image of plants, animals and men within sizes of a geometric collection. The Muslim artists always try to show unity and monotheism in their works.

Samanid period

During the rule of the Samanid dynasty, glazed wares were produced at a high quality. In these glazed potteries a technique was applies which is known as the clay drawing. The clay of pottery-making was used as a coating for unglazed pottery vessels that resulted in a consistent ground color. Additionally, the clay was used for creating multi-color decorations. Colors used in clay potteries are colors that are naturally found in the soil.

Potteries of the Samanid period were made in various hues of white and brown as the color of the base surrounding various shades of yellow, orange, brown and red. The contrast between these colors and the background color of white were so impressive.

In potteries of the Samanid era, the framework used by artists were circles of ecru vessels marked by a yellowish background, ecru bodies and black, yellow and green decorations covered in a colorless lead-glaze. All the figurines carry drawings made in black pigments.

The limited colorization in the images of the Samanid potteries as well as the abundant use of yellow has created a static status in potteries. The limited use of colors was probably due to the inaccessibility of diverse glaze bases and colors. No shadows or darkness was incorporated in these potteries. All the objects were colored with colors extracted from the nature to have reflectivity.

Generally-speaking, the composition of images in the Samanid potteries enjoyed a kind of simplicity and showed a closed and limited space about events. Eyes were not placed in a specific fixed location and eyes followed a rhythmic circulation through the image in these works. Preference of the whole over the parts is the prominent feature of composition of pictures in the Samanid potteries. Composition of these potteries gives the impression of occupying the space. The huge volume and high accumulation of background themes disturb the vision of the man that makes the decorative combinations look more disorganized than what they are. No spot can be found on the vessels that is void of decorations or in simple and monotonous colors.

 Slip-painted ceramics is known as the Samanid ceramics since it was mainly made during the Samanid era and within the borders of this dynasty including Khorasan, Transoxiana and Kerman. Diverse decorative designs of these potteries and their compound designs such as the combination of abstract ideas, figurines and calligraphy as well as the extensive application of colors in them, made these ceramics one of the most attractive and secretive potteries of the Islamic period.

‌ Slip-painted ceramics is the most appropriate name for these potteries. This name suggest that these vessels have a slip-painted background. Decorations in the forms of paintings were made on them and then colorful materials were added slip-painted formulation in a sense that the clay body of the pottery made of ecru of red essence was covered with a layer of slip-paint. Finally, the surface of the pottery was covered with a transparent lead-glaze. Artists during the Samanid period got to know that the final solution for the problem of color movement in the under-glaze painting during heating in the kiln was combining the colorful element with a mud similar to the material used in the body of the pottery. Such colors when placed under the lead-glaze and heated in the kiln get fixed and do not move.


Seljuk period

Potteries of the Seljuk period are considered as one of the most important artistic media of the Seljuk period. On the one hand, they show the glory and beauty of the art and on the other hand, they reflect one of the most glorious periods of the history of pottery-making in Iran.

The growth and expansion of urbanization, the rise of the middle class and the ever-increasing power of businessmen, as the primary and main supporters of the art, resulted in the extraordinary growth of artistic works during the Seljuk era whose outcome was production of diverse and pretty artistic objects. The most important events in terms of producing pottery vessels during the Seljuk period are as follows:

  • White Seljuk vessels:

During the Seljuk period, it was made possible for Iranian potters and artists to produce white vessels. It was a dream that came true by producing vessels void of a clay mineral known as kaolin. This invention was made by potters of other countries through achieving a new technology for making handmade bodies of vessels. These bodies were called the material or heavy bodies. Prior to this innovation, Iranian artists and potters used this method and the pottery mud solely for making ordinary and cheap potteries.

  • Colorful Seljuk vessels with the mono-color glaze:

Mono-color vessels with a great deal of diversity in shapes and decorations comprised a huge number of ceramics during the Seljuk era. These vessels had a direct link to the colorless glazed vessels. A wide range of colors were applied in these vessels such a blue, turquoise, yellow, brown, purple, and dark purple. This method of mono-color glazing was utilized in plates, bowls of various shapes and sizes, jars, incense-burners, candlesticks, lighting device, trays, and tiles.

  • Vessels with shadowy design:

A black muddy mixture was applied on bodies of these vessels. Then the image was engraved on them. The contrast between the color of the body and the black mixture resulted in emergence of a pretty image. In some of these vessels, the main design was engraved rather than the background. This technique was mainly applied in designs with calligraphic compositions. The colorless and colorful glaze was used for glazing these vessels. The glazes were mainly blue and green.

  • Vessels with under-glaze paintings:

This category of vessels included ones with colorful and colorless under-glaze paintings. The colorful glazes used were hues of green, blue, and turquoise.  The under-glaze paintings were limited to two colors namely black and cobalt blue.

Enameled vessels:

Making enameled vessels was the last important step taken by artists of the Seljuk era for decorating potteries. Enameled vessels are those with multicolor geometric and figurative designs drawn in meticulous details on a background of white opaque and/or turquoise glazing. This method was applied on lots of vessels, bowls, plates, ink-containers, cups, vases and glasses.

Enameled vessels contain decorations on glazes. A very rich color pallet is used for decorating these vessels. Probably, they got inspirations from large manuscripts and frescos.

Ilkhanate period

During the Ilkhanate period, diverse methods emerged in terms of making, decorating, and designing potteries including under-glaze and over-glaze paintings, turquoise paintings, gilded decorations, and blue and white potteries. In all of these decoration methods, different principles and techniques were applied for designing images and their placement of potteries. It is worth mentioning that both the interior and the exterior of these potteries have been painted and decorated. However, one of them is regarded as the main space with more images in their designs and the other one is considered as the minor space in terms of application.

Based on their main spaces, methods of designing images and compositions of decorative image, the figured potteries of Ilkhanate period are categorized into three main categories as follows:

  • Potteries whose main spaces are divided by various elements and usually are decorated with repetitive images. Decorating images are designed for small spaces and designed in a way that it becomes easier to observe more proportion and coordination between images, shapes of potteries and repletion of images in spaces.
  • Potteries whose main spaces are decorated with integrated images. In this category of ceramics, decorative images are designed for all the spaces, no segmentations are made in the space and coordination of decorative designs and shapes of wares are of more importance and difficulty. Additionally, images are not merely used for decoration but they narrate a theme and a brief story.
  • Potteries whose spaces are a combination of two aforesaid categories. In the category of wares, a portion of the space is decorated with integrated, non-repetitive and theme-based images and another part of the space is filled with repetitive images.

In all of the painted wares of the Ilkhanate period, all the background surfaces are decorated with not only the main repetitive images but also are designed and decorated with finer repetitive elements. Accordingly, rarely does one see the image-free spaces. Even the internal spaces of the main and repetitive spaces such as the clothes of the people or bodies of birds and other animals are filled and decorated with finer repetitive images. Furthermore, the image of the man is drawn in all of the potteries in a circle void of any images around the head except for one case that seems to be the picture of the angel that falls into the second category of ceramics.

Design and decoration of the minor spaces including the exterior spaces of bowls and large plates and the interiors of jars, pitchers and albarellos are performed according to the cutting and changes in the orientation of surfaces of vessels in the space and they lack the diversity seen in the main space. For instance, when one looks at two similar ceramics, he can notice that they are diverse and different in terms of decorative images in the main surfaces (interior) but their minor spaces (exterior) is similar in terms of decorations. Due to its relationship with the users, the major space is more visible and accordingly it is of more attention of painters and designers. Making use of special methods in designing the interior of vessels, they make it possible for the observers to see a natural picture void of any distortions when they look at ceramics from the top. The minor spaces of these three groups are so similar to each other and elements used are so similar. The structure of their arrangement is similar and almost unrelated to the categorization of images in the main spaces of the earthenware. In all three categories of ceramics of the Ilkhanate period, the images of vegetation, abstract entities and images taken from the vegetation are mainly seen in the major part and in decorative images.

Shapes of potteries are not that much diverse and fall into four main groups namely bowls, big plates, jars and pitchers/albarellos. In some limited numbers, little differences are seen such as a few jars and some cups made in the shape of animals such as cows. It is worth mentioning that Iranian designers have made use of different methods of design and decoration in the potteries in order to create more harmony in the artistic works leading to more beauty in the eyes of users and the audience. Hence, paying attention to the audience has been the first priority in the artistic work determining principles and methods of imaging.

Timurids period

During the rule of the Timurids, relationships between Iran and China expanded. In light of this development and the ever-increasing need to the earthenware, production of some objects such as blue and white porcelains and mono-color ceramics began in some of Iranian pottery-making workshops.

Looking at potteries of the Timurids era, one can identify three different types of vessels as follows:

  • Celadons:

Celadon is a French word that has been used by European specialists to refer to the porcelains that are mainly pale jade green. Celadons were brought to Iran from the Far East. Timur, the founder of the Timurids dynasty, invited Chinese potters to Iran to train Iranians in terms of methods used by Chinese potters. This initiative resulted in the growth of these traditions in Kerman where Chinese potters made this earthenware together with their Iranian colleagues. Celadons include glazed vessels in green, gray or jade green that are baked under certain conditions and fired to high temperatures of 1,200 °C.

  • Kubacheh potteries:

Making Kubacheh potteries become common during the Timurids era. Decorative designs of these vessels include geometric designs, flowers and plants that are painted under the translucent glaze in blue or turquoise glaze and blue and white in a white background and blue decorations.  Probably, they were influenced by famous blue and white porcelain imported from China are were produced as imitation from them.

  • Blue and white porcelains:

Blued and white porcelains of China arrived in the Muslim world during the rule of the Timurids era. They were regarded as highly valuable vessels in the Timurids territories. These porcelains enjoy decorations in light blue glaze on a white background together with often-molded decorations. Two well-known deficiencies of blue and white vessels include application of inappropriate materials in these vessels and little knowledge about baking techniques in kilns particularly determining the heat to get to desired colors. Influenced by Chines blue and white porcelains, artists of the Timurids era made some great works. Main hubs for making potteries in Iran during the rule of the Timurids included Mashhad, Neyshabur, Varamin, Kerman and Herat.

The form of vessels during the Timurids era included plates, large plates, bowls, pitchers and cups which carried images of the man, flowers and plants. Rims of these vessels are rarely decorated with inscriptions. It is worth mentioning that no special development occurred in this period in terms of designs and colors of vessels. Artists of this period were not mere imitators rather they made some innovations in porcelains as the result of inspirations form Islamic-Iranian designs.

Safavid era

When the Safavid dynasty rose to power, a noticeable development occurred in all the industrial and artistic arenas such as pottery-making. Generally-speaking, potteries of the Safavid era are categorized into seven categories in terms of the production procedures and techniques namely celadons, Koobacheh, lusterware, white potteries (Gamberoon), white and blue ceramics, Iznik, and colorful potteries of Mashhad as explained below:

  • Celadons:

Celadons are one type of ceramics brought to Iran from the Far East. Like blue and white wares, these potteries were made as an imitation from Chinese porcelains in Iran. They gained popularity during the Ilkhanate and early Timurids periods in Iran. Kerman was one the main hubs of producing celadons. The glazes celadons produced in Kerman were an imitation of green-glaze Chinese celadons. Another production of potters in Kerman was potteries with engraved decorations such a Chinese Sung potteries. Another group of celadon vessels was small jars with hemispheric and fat bodies as well as open mouths and narrow necks. Known as spittoons, these vessels were made of a white tender clay. Their exterior was covered consistently with a yellowish green glaze, decorated with white lines and all the body of potteries were coated in a translucent glass glaze.

  • Koobacheh:

Tabriz was the hub for production of Koobacheh potteries. Artistically-speaking, this type of ceramics is closely connected to Tabriz school of pottery-making wherein one can see the harmony between images of potteries and works of Tabriz school of pottery-making. Some of the images used in these potteries include meticulously-painted birds and animals with specific anatomy, human figurines, and vegetation motifs. These ceramics were influenced by miniature works of Tabriz school of art. This type of ceramics gained popularity in Iran during the rule of the Timurids.

Bodies of these potteries are white and covered with purple, black, red, and magnesium line in brown, green, blue, yellow and bright glaze.

  • Lusterware:

Lusterware is a type of pottery or porcelain with a metallic glaze that gives the effect of iridescence. Its original name of Do-Atashe meaning fired twice. The gold layers placed under the glaze gives the effect of iridescence. The lusterware of the Safavid era were so fine and thin with a thoroughly whitened body. Sometimes, the body was made so thin that they looked semi-translucent. Human motifs went almost outdated in this period and they were replaced with motifs of animals, birds and/or fish with vegetation decorations and views. Colors used in these ceramics were red and dark brown. However, yellowish green and copper red were applied in these potteries, too. These ceramics were in various shapes including bottles, jars, casks, hookah bases, bowls, plates, glasses and cups. They were mainly made in small sizes.

  • White potteries (Gamberoon):

White ceramics (Gamberoon) have been named after the old name of Bandar Abas. This port was called Gamberoon from the late 17th century to mid-19th century. Cities such as Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman, and Isfahan were main hubs of producing these potteries. They were made finely with some engraved images. Sometimes they were decorated with cobalt blue in black images under a transparent or colorful glaze and/or patched decorations.

  • White and blue ceramics:

With their multi-petal floral motifs, design of date leaves, and occasionally the Kufic inscriptions, these vessels were made in artistic-industrial centers of Neyshabur and Susa. Some cases of potteries with blue glaze in the form of blue line and on an ecru glaze background made in Rey have remained from the 11th and 12th centuries B.C.

Development and expansion of producing these potteries in Iran began in the Ilkhanate era and continued during the Timurids and Safavid eras. They were influenced by Chinese motifs in Mashhad, Isfahan, Kashan, and Kerman. One of the most important hubs for these ceramics was Mashhad. The blue and white vessels of Mashhad were made in a very fine and thin manner whose decorations were mainly images on two sides in dark blue. These potteries were in the shape of large trays, small plates, shallow bowls, and/or semi-hemispheric bowls which were considered to be an imitation of Chinese vessels.

  • Iznik:

This type of pottery was made mainly in the west and by Turk artisans. The body of this pottery was made of the white mud and its popularity was mainly due to making extensive use of colorful glazes. This pottery was produced in the shape of plates, trays, vases, and jars with images of plants and leaves. The Iznik potteries began to decline in the 17th century but potters did not put them aside and their production continued until the 18th century.

Slip-painted pottery

With the advent of Islam in the first half of the 7th century, production of ceramics began to experience some great transformations across the Islamic territories. Initially, potters followed methods and traditions of their pioneers but this trend did not survive for more than two centuries. Extensive trade relationships with the Far Eastern countries particularly China and the flood of excellent Chinese goods and ceramics to Islamic countries on the one hand and the limitations imposed by Islamic laws and rules in making use of silver and golden vessels on the other hand, lead to prominent developments in production of potteries and emergence of a new and numerous types of ceramics. Islamic potters made several experiments and gained lots of experiences. Being inspired by some Chinese items, they used their own creativity and moved beyond mere imitation to invent some new techniques in inventing various types of invaluable and unique ceramics. The birthplace of this development was territories close to the capita of the Abbasids dynasty. However, this trend spread to eastern territories of the Islamic world within a short period of time where an artistic renaissance was in the process of formation.

Numerous archeological cases that have been unearthed and attributed to the eastern areas of the Islamic world indicate that the slip-painting has been the most extensive and public technique applied on the glazed potteries in Central Asia and eastern parts of Iranian territories in the early centuries of the Islamic era. As this type of ceramics was mainly produced during the Samanid era (204-395 A.D.) and within the borders of this dynasty in Khorasan, Transoxiana, and Kerman, it was known as Samanid Pottery.  Under the rule of the Samanids, a school of pottery-making developed whose products were completely distinct and recognizable compared to their peers in the Mesopotamia. This type of decoration led to the prosperity of potteries in the eastern parts of the Islamic world two centuries before the invention of alkane glaze and semi-porcelain bodies. These potteries reveal some aesthetical features totally different from other potteries made concurrently in Iran and Iraq. Diverse and compound decorative designs such as abstract, figurine and calligraphic ones as well as the vast application of colors in these potteries have turned them into some of the most attractive and secretive wares of the Islamic period.

Sociocultural context:

Concurrent with the beginning of Iranian social movements and establishment of independent dynasties such as the Tahirids and Samanids, most of the arts and especially pottery-making gained prosperity anew and a huge transformation emerged in the art of pottery-making in terms of techniques and decorations. The main hub for this renaissance was the glorious court of the Samanids.  Some rulers of this dynasty were great supporters of art and prominent artists.

The Samanid dynasty was of the important dynasties to the eastern part of the Muslim world in the early Islamic centuries whose territories included great regions such as Samarkand (ancient Afrasiab), Bokhara, Marv, Neyshabur, and Kerman. Undoubtedly, the Samanid era is considered as one of the most glorious and fruitful periods of the political, artistic and cultural periods of Iran.

During their rule, the Samanid rulers revived lots of ancient Iranian traditions and customs remained in Khorasan and Transoxiana. They showed great interests in the Persian language, poetry and literature. Some of the most invaluable and wonderful books such as the History of the Prophets and Kings (more commonly known as Tarikh al-Tabari or the History of al-Tabari) and Calila e Dimna were translated on their orders.


Decoration methods of slip-painted potteries:

Semantically-speaking, the slip-painted pottery is the best name defining this type of ceramics which indicated that they are based on the slip background upon which some decorations have been made in the form of paintings.  Initially, the clay body of the ware is made of red or ecru mixture, then they are covered in the slip and finally some paints are applied over them through colorful materials mixed with a type of a muddy intermediary. At the end of this process, the surface of the pottery is covered by a transparent lead-glaze. Artists of the Samanid era had understood that the final solution for movement of colors in the under-glaze painting in the course of firing in the kiln was mixing the color element with a slip that was of the same material as the body of the pottery. When applied, this method would make the colors fixed and stationary when put under the lead-glaze and heated in the kiln.

The muddy coverage was applied in different colors but they were mainly in white or pale white. In fact, the main purpose was transforming the decorated surface of the ecru or red potteries to a white surface so as that they would become the same as the common porcelains imported. It was also possible to make use of colorful materials on their own in lieu of painting by colorful materials mixed with the muddy additive in a way that their appearance and shapes would look like almost the same. Accordingly, artists of the Samanid era managed to produce potteries in their own way similar to the one practice by artists of Transoxiana with the technique of painting on the glaze.

Types of slip-painted potteries:

Across the whole territories of their production, slip-painted potteries were made through a more or less similar technique which was making use of colors mixed with the clay slurry to create images on the slip context under the transparent lead-glaze. However, diversity in details of their decoration methods, motifs and decorative patterns have led the researchers to categorize these potteries into various groups.

In his studies on the items unearthed in excavations in Neyshabur, Wilkinson made the first classification for this type of potteries. His classification done mainly on the basis of decoration techniques, colors of images and the ground of the work, has led to creation of a pattern which have been accepted by lots of researchers and they have applied his classification totally or partially (with some minor modifications). However, some other classifications have been made based on the type of images such as inscriptions, geometric, vegetation and human images. The following explains some main categories of this classification.

Ecru potteries

Due to the pale brown or ecru basis of these potteries, they are called “ecru potteries”. However, as most of slip-painted potteries have ecru basis, this title is not exclusively limited to this group of potteries. This group of ceramics is recognized by their yellowish and rarely mustard background upon which the multicolor concentrated decorations in green, magnesium, dark purple, dark red, yellow, mustard and white have been painted and covered with lead-glaze. In this category of potteries, colors are glossier than colors of other slip-painted potteries. All the surface of these potteries has been covered with rich and diverse decorations such as birds, animals, human figurines, leaves of dates, inscriptions and foliate ivies.

Ecru potteries are among the most excellent potteries of the Islamic era due to their heating process, movement, exotic abstractness in their designs and recklessness in their coloration. However, most of them have been made hastily and carelessly. In fact, the human figurines and animals have been designed in a simple and crude manner. These features have made these vessels to be known as commonplace or rustic vessels.

These vessels induce a strong sense of spatial occupation in the man. Numerous items in the design and background motifs disturb the sight of visitors and make decorative combinations look more disorderly than what they really are. No parts of the vessel could be seen without decorations or in simple and consistent colors. It seems as if that animal and human figurines have been influenced by early lusterwares.

Images and designs of human figurines in these potteries enjoy special features such as existence of strong lines on the borders of images, angular and rough forms, dull faces, emphasis on lines highlighting the face especially those of eyes and eyebrows, forms of sitting as cross-legged, ecru background and specially imitated patterns of decorating the hair. In many of these images, a central figurine has been painted as the character sitting with his legs crossed. Sometimes other human figurines have been painted as surrounding the main character in a portrait view.

Potteries with black paintings on white backgrounds

Potteries whose decorations created through painting dark magnesium purple images on the white or pale white backgrounds are among the most beautiful slip-painted potteries. Decorations of these potteries are mainly in the forms of inscriptions which have been written in the Kufic script in the center or across the vessel. Sometimes these inscriptions are seen on the internal rims of vessels or on their bottom as the horizontal parallel lines. In some occasions, the inscription is limited to merely a small arch on rims of vessels.

Inscriptions of these potteries could be categorized into two groups namely the legible inscriptions and semi-inscriptions. The content of legible inscriptions are mainly Arabid adages and sage words. Quranic verses have not been used in these inscriptions rather the statements of the prophet of Islam and Muslim saints could be seen on these ceramics. Lots of these inscriptions present virtues such as faith, generosity and good characteristics together with themes referring to foods or manners of eating. This very fact indicates that these vessels were used for practical purposes such as eating rather than being decorative items with some literary words. Nice characteristics such as happiness, health, wealth and power have been inscribed on these potteries and phrases such as “blessings” or “may be blessed its owners” have been written repeatedly on these potteries.

As the most common decorations of these potteries, calligraphic designs cover a widespread range from the high-quality works to simple abstract ones. Needless to say that these decorating inscriptions have gradually give more weight to the decorative characteristics and their inscriptions have lost legibility. Inscriptions on slip-painted potteries of the Samanid era are calligraphic in a real sense and present a different aesthetics styles whereas during the rule of the Abbasids, potters made some writings on the surface of vessels through direct paintings and in most of the cases the spaces finished before ending the last word or syllable. In addition to inscriptions, some geometric shapes and images of birds have decorated these ceramics, too. One prominent design seen in most of potteries made in Neyshabur is a bird painted at the bottom of vessels with its extremely decorative but unreal wings. In some of these vessels, the bird covers the whole surface of the interior. In some other bowls, a pair of birds could be seen with some letters written between their wings. This method was prevalent in Neyshabur and Samarkand. The excessive and extraordinary repetition of this feature indicate that this scene has been one of the most popular decoration used in Khorasan and Transoxiana during 10th and 11th centuries A.D.

Potteries with multicolor paintings on a white background

Potters of Khorasan and Transoxiana did not use merely the plain black color as decorations for potteries covered by the white slip rather they used black in combination of other colors. In the 10th century, the red slip was added to artistic works in a very skillful manner that was a very pleasant addition. The most common combination was that of the black and red. Other colors such as dark green, light green, and brown were used, too. If application of the black paintings on the white backgrounds is considered the first stage in production of slip-painted potteries, emergence of multicolor paintings over the white or pale white backgrounds can be called the second stage of development for the slip-painted potteries. Multicolor painted vessels have not decorated just by inscriptions rather they have been decorated with flowers, arabesques, and even images of jars. A sub-category of multicolor potteries is known as Sari ceramics (Sari is a city close to Caspian Sea). It is supposed that these potteries were made in a pottery workshop to the south of Caspian Sea where decorative vessels were produced in a similar fashion but offered a wide range of colors including a very eye-catching hue of green. The prominent decorative feature of these potteries was large birds, flat flowers with bright colors and occasionally with words in the Kufic script. The most common image in these vessels in a bird around which some flowers are seen. In fact, potteries known as Sari potteries show a late style of slip-painted potteries.



Potteries with colorful slip background

Some of the painted vessels have not been covered with the white slip; their surfaces have been covered with a colorful slip (mostly red or brown) and their decorations have been applied in white, green and yellow. As the potters of eastern Iran and Transoxiana had gained experienced in paintings through black and colorful paintings on the white slip, it was a natural process to reverse the position of design and painting in the white or bright background with a colorful background. These slip coatings are usually red that have turned into light brown as the result of heating. Another color seen there is the dark purple that has turned into dark brown under the glaze. A sub-category of these vessels is void of any slip coatings. In fact, the dark surface of the pottery has provided a colorful background for decorations.

Having seen the noticeable success of the style of black images of the white context, the potters embarked on creating diversity and another type of leaving impacts by some new innovations. In fact, the inversion of colorful common composition led to a glamourous contrast between the white inscription and the black background. The similarity of materials and techniques used in these potteries and ceramics with black images on the white background as well as the colorful images on the white background, strengthens the relationship revealing similarities in main decorations.

The simplest decorations of these potteries include some collections of dots or spots (in groups of three or four) and occasionally a series of dots on the margins. These decorations are usually made on small plates whose two sides are covered with a type of light red or black slurry coatings. Another simple decoration on these potteries is an image composed of a big circle surrounded by circular dots.

These margarites were frequently used in the Sassanians decorations and found on the attire, saddles and metal bowls of this era. Multi-petal flowers are another types of images used in these potteries and the Kufic inscriptions are used a lot on these ceramics like any other slip-painted potteries. Apparently, the pale images on the dark backgrounds were produced in workshops of Neyshabur, Samarkand, Iran and Central Asia since the early stages. This type of potteries did not prevail only in Transoxiana, Khorasan and Mazandaran rather they were frequently used in Kerman. Numerous examples of this category of potteries have been found in different locations across the province of Kerman including the city of Decius. A limited number of these potteries have been unearthed in the port of Tis in the southeastern province of Sistan in Iran and Shamshir-Qar Afghanistan.

Potteries with black paintings and yellow stains

Another category of slip-painted potteries are those recognizable with black materials. While heated, the glaze around the pottery emerges as a stain and creates a yellow halo. With their black decorations on white slurry coating and distinct gilded glazes, this group of potteries form a separate category of ceramics. Unlike various hues of black used in other potteries, the special colors used in decorations of these ceramics probably contain chrome. It is clear that potters were satisfied with the result of their works and did not look at them as something wrong. According to their decorations, these potteries are divided into two sub-groups. In the first group, decorations of vessels are relatively limited and designs are confined to the rim and the upper parts of vessels. These decorations are mostly calligraphic inscriptions in the Kufic script that are occasionally combined with dotted spaces or ornamented with scroll-type decorations. Sometimes a decoration is seen in the center of the bottom of the vessel which is a short inscription (mainly the word of righteousness) or a bird or a single dot. This type of potteries is prevailing in Neyshabur and Gorgan.

Inscriptions of the second sub-category are never formed by inscriptions. Their designs are sometimes limited to one or two contrasting semi-circles that are possibly filled with scroll-type designs or circles. Other designs show birds or a pair of animal figurines in a simple shape. Potteries of this sub-group are not limited solely to Khorasan and Mazandaran but they have been produced in the province of Kerman where some excavations have been undertaken in Qabira. Items unearthed in Qabira have been decorated with scroll decorations and crispy tendrils. Generally-speaking, these two types of potteries were not only produced in Neyshabur, Gorgan and Qabira but also were manufactured in Transoxiana. However, it is clear that they were not produced in Afrasiab (Samarkand).


Imitation lusterware

All the earthenware used in Neyshabur were not locally manufactured. Over the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. some potteries were imported to Iran from Iraq and China. Potteries imported from Iraq included excellent lusterware that potters of Neyshabur were not capable enough to produce. Apparently, the lusterware imported from Iraq made potters of Neyshabur envious about their Iraqi counterparts. Additionally, it is clear that potters of Khorasan did not have the knowledge of making use of metal oxide pigments and making gilded decorations on ceramics in early centuries of the Islamic knowledge. Therefore, in spite of lacking the technique for making the lusterware, they did their best to imitate both two types of early lusterwares (multi-color and mono-color lusterwares). As a result, the colorful slip pottery replaced the gilded colors and a king of white slurry coating replaced the main opaque white glaze. The color of slips is of great importance and include dark red, dark green, black and occasionally with yellow stains. Its importance is due to the fact that red, green and yellow are among the most common colors in the famous multi-color lusterwares of Samara (mainly in three colors) during the mid-9th century A.D. However, most of the items that belong to Neyshabur style of pottery-making are a mono-color imitation of three-color lusterwares.

Although the outcome of these works were totally different from the original lusterwares in terms of techniques and specifications and they were of lower quality compared to the original ones, the audacity of potters created a prominent and special quality in decorative designs that made these vessels more attractive.

The main characteristics of decorative designs in these potteries remind us the original lusterwares. One of these designs is the foliate shapes that are connected to each other through a central pedicel. This design was initially part of the decorations of multi-color lusterwares of the 10th century A.D. as well as the gilded tiles of this period. However, this design was completely developed in mono-color lusterwares of this era. Another imitated design was a bird with a leave on its beak.

Inscriptions on lusterwares were well-imitated. Sometimes these inscriptions were so similar to semi-inscriptions used by potters of Neyshabur of vessels with opaque white glazes. However, this form of semi-inscriptions on original lusterwares were not unknown.  Furthermore, the finest details of mono-color potteries such as the style of designing a narrow line through circular spots were imitated. Other imitations included peacock-eye motifs to fill spaces such as birds’ wings and the method of filling the background with dotted spaces. Additionally, scallops on the rims emerged on lusterwares and imitated vessels together with an extra line. Latticed birds are found in abundance on the lusterwares of the 10th century A.D. in Iraq. Eastern potters had extricated themselves from the pure imitation of the original works and designed some birds in a way that had never seen before in any lusterwares. The most well-known ones are those appearing in wavy wings on a background full of circles. Additionally, potters imitating the lusterwares not only used these weird birds but also used images of some birds such as pigeons and doves that were completely similar to the mono-color lusterwares.

Generally-speaking, the imitative vessels bear some indicators in terms of the vessel shapes and decorative designs that indicate potters had access to the original lusterwares and not merely a memory of something they had seen in the market or the house of the wealthy individuals ordering those items.


Application span of slip-painted potteries

Most of the researchers consider Neyshabur and Afrasiab (old Samarkand) as the hubs of making slip-painted potteries. It is not strange since at that time Neyshabur was the capital of the Taherid dynasty and Samarkand was the most prosperous city across the territories of the Samanids that remained their capital for a long period of time. However, these potteries spread to numerous locations in the Central Plateau of Iran as well as a widespread areas of Transoxiana.

In objects unearthed in Old Sirjan, some pieces of potteries and the slag have been found that have turned into the glass as a result of the excessive heat. This indicate the existence of kilns and local production of these potteries. Hence, on top of the main aforesaid hubs of pottery-making, we should account for Kerman as not only a consumer of these items but also as one of the main production centers of slip-painted potteries. Although the ceramics of southern areas of Iran are so similar to those of Sirajn, the potteries of Sistan reflect great similarity to potteries of Neyshabur in terms of the styles. One point that is worth mentioning is that slip-painted potteries have not been found in any locations in the western part of Iran. In the historic town of Harireh in Kish Island, only one slip-painted pottery has been found. It is suggested that this pottery has been brought to Kish from Siraf or other centers of Islamic ceramics. These kinds of ceramics were noticeably absent in items discovered in the widespread excavations of David Whitehouse in Siraf. Production and expansion of slip-painted potteries were closely related to territories controlled and dominated by the Samanids, that is, a wide area from the central and southeastern parts of Iran to the east and Central Asia were the territories that these potteries were used. It goes without saying that the little presence of these ceramics on the southern areas of Iran close to Persian Gulf and surrounding areas was due to the commercial functionality of these ports and import of these items from the main centers of their production particularly from Sirjan.




One of the most famous potteries of the Islamic era is the lusterware. The primary hubs of making these vessels were countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Iran. Production stages of these potteries are defined as three specific historical periods as follows:

  • Lusterwares of the 9th and 10th centuries
  • Lusterwares of the 11th to 15th centuries
  • Lusterwares of the 16th and 18th centuries

Iran is regarded as the primary and first center of emergence of lusterwares in Iran and the city of Rey in particular. Production of vessels with tin-glaze and golden or turquoise decoration was widely practiced in this city. The most important decorations of lusterwares include colorful golden lusterwares and mono-color golden lusterwares.

Colorful golden lusterwares could be seen in brown, light green and ruby together with crossed lines and images similar to eyes. The most common shape of colorful lusterwares are big plates and jars.

Baking mono-color golden lusterwares requires more skills. The clay of this kind of ceramics is yellow, ecru and gray. Decorations on these potteries were initially in the forms of vegetation images and gradually human and animal images as well as scripts were added, too.

Comparing colorful and mono-color lusterwares, one can conclude that the former has been made for the rich.

Over 11th to 15th centuries A.D., concurrent with the rule of the Seljuk, Anushtegin and Ilkhanate dynasties, some transformations emerged in production and techniques of pottery-making such as preparing the clay, glaze, decoration and baking. Some of the most important hubs of pottery-making in this period included Rey, Takht-e-Suleiman, Soltan Abad, and Gorgan. Each of these cities had their own styles.

After the collapse of the Ilkhanate dynasty, production of lusterware stopped to some extent and it regained its popularity during the Safavid rule with making use of white clay and hard bodies in ceramics. Colors used in these potteries were mainly brown and red. Their decorations were flowers, plants, scrolls, and occasionally images of the man and animals. Isfahan and Kashan were main hubs of these potteries over that period.

Lusterwares of Rey

Potters avoided making use of excessive images in the lusterwares of Rey. They sometimes separated the image of the man from other images by means of geometric and scroll images. For decorating these ceramics, artists usually painted images of the life of the royal families, coronation scenes, kings, cavalry, feasts and hunting ceremonies.


Lusterwares of Kashan

The Lusterwares of Kashan carried the image of the man in a Mongolian face. They were made in dark and light brown. They were decorated with images of water, trees and sky together with some poems by great poets such as Ferdowsi, Anvari, and Hafez written in the Kufic script. These ceramics were mainly bowls, plates, cups and decorative statutes.


Lusterwares of Gorgan

Lusterwares of Gorgan were decorated with images of the man, animals, and pretty flowers together with inscriptions in the Kufic script and poems in the Persian and Arabic languages. The compound image of the man and animals were prevailing in that period. The Anushtegin era was the heyday of the lusterwares of Gorgan. When Iran was invaded by the Mongols, unfortunately this city was levelled to earth and the prospering trend of this style of pottery-making stopped. During the rule of the Ilkhanate, the city was rebuilt and pottery-making became prevalent. Under the rule of the Timurids, this city was destroyed again. At the time a tough clay in ecru and a glaze in yellow, golden and brown were used. Gradually, this clay was replaced with a reddish one. The image of the man looking forward as well as clothes with dotted design gained popularity and animals were presented in a symmetrical fashion. One of the most common designs of this period was dividing the surface of vessels into six parts placed in a symmetrical fashion and decorated with flowers and inscriptions in the Kufic script that were poems and proverbs.




Lusterwares of Saveh

The lusterwares of Saveh are a combination of two styles namely Rey and Kashan styles. These potteries are decorated with images of animals, scenes of hunting, as well as chess and fish images.


Lusterwares of Takht-e-Suleiman

These potteries are comparable to lusterwares of Kashan. Takht-e-Suleiman was the hub for production of lusterwares for some time but its production relatively stopped in this region after the collapse of the Ilkhanate.