Figure 9

Figure 9. Detail of south iwan with partial inscription Madrasa al-Nizamiyya, Khargird, Iran, 1068 CE Photograph by Donald N. Wilber, 1930s Visual Resources Collections, Department of the History of Art University of Michigan, 58.1

In Islam, God is revealed through the Arabic language, and it is an emphasis on the written word that makes inscriptions a major feature of Islamic art and architecture.20 However, not all inscriptions are religious or drawn from the Qur’an, even when they appear on religious monuments. Rather, the use of text on Islamic buildings may record a patron's name, a date of construction, a mystical poem, and blessings for its owners and visitors. Epigraphy, as a form of data-bearing ornamentation that can include anything from brief to elaborate statements, is indeed much more than a decorative motif.

Numerous buildings in the Islamic world include inscriptions, among them the Madrasa al-Nizamiyya built in a village outside of Khargird, Iran, in 1068 CE. The site is mostly in ruins today. However, the south iwan remains relatively intact and includes a frieze of inscriptions framing the doorway. Visible above the iwan is a partial inscription providing a date of construction and the name of the building's patron, the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (Figure 9).21 The inscription provides key information about the building's sponsor and its chronology, and thus functions as a historical document. In addition, the Kufic script, while ornate, is clearly visible to the visitor because it is located directly above the doorway.

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Figure 10

Figure 10. Detail of faience inscription Masjid-i Jami‘, Qazvin, Iran, ca. 1100 CE Photograph by Arthur Upham Pope, 1930s Visual Resources Collections, Department of the History of Art University of Michigan, 30.9

Its construction spanning centuries, the Masjid-i Jami‘ of Qazvin, Iran, is a Seljuk mosque that has undergone many renovations. Pope's photograph records what is likely the original construction of ca. 1100 CE (Figure 10)22 The photograph shows a horizontal band of faience inscriptions located below the muqarnas supporting the dome. The most common rectilinear script used in medieval architectural ornamentation is Kufic. Here, the inscription below the mosque's dome is executed in plaited Kufic, an opulently knotted form of this angled script. Some of the letters' hastae (tall, vertical lines) are ornamented with trefoils and tiny blossoms; also present are pointed finials and other vegetal decorations.23 The addition of these decorative elements makes the inscription more florid and hence more challenging to decipher and read.

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Figure 11

Figure 11. Detail of faience inscription Masjid-i Jami‘, Qazvin, Iran, ca. 1100 CE Photograph by Arthur Upham Pope, 1930s Visual Resources Collections, Department of the History of Art University of Michigan, 30.9

The Masjid-i Jami‘ in Isfahan also displays an inscription in the mosque's southern dome (Figure 11). This congregational mosque is one of the most impressive structures in the Islamic world, and it is deeply rooted to the city surrounding it. The mosque has undergone countless repairs, reconstructions, and additions over the centuries.24 The eleventh-century dome formed part of a building phase associated with the Seljuks, in particular Sultan Malikshah and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk (the patron of the Madrasa al-Nizamiyya). The powerful scale of the dome served to assert Seljuk visibility and dominance in the city of Isfahan. Moreover, the inscription on the interior of the dome showcases Seljuk authority through its naming of the dynasty's ruling elite, whose members intervened into the building's epigraphic program in competitive ways.25

These few examples lead one to wonder whether architectural inscriptions were intended to be read. As Richard Ettinghausen notes, in order to serve as an effective form of communication, "an inscription has to appeal to a literate person in his own language with clear, legible characters without nearby distractions."26 Such basic principles, however, are often undermined since architectural inscriptions throughout the Islamic world show texts in highly ornate forms, replete with ornamental "distractions," and placed in high locations beyond the visitor's eyesight.27 In addition, literacy in the premodern Islamic world was restricted to a small and educated circle of individuals. Despite a limited readership, architectural inscriptions comprised a method of communication and affirmation of power not only apprehensible by elite audiences. Indeed, the use of the written word, even indecipherable script, symbolically made claims to power explicit to all through literate forms associated with knowledge and authority.

Inscriptions certainly fulfilled a variety of purposes. Where an inscription is located on a building and its level of legibility indicate whether it is communicative or decorative, and hence its relative importance.28 Moreover, covering an edifice in Qur’anic verses and other texts endows the building with the symbolic ability to "speak" to the glory and power of God and/or its patrons.

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  1. Dodd and Khairallah 1981; and Blair 1989, 329.
  2. Herzfeld 1943, 17-18.
  3. Schroeder 1964, 991.
  4. Baer 1998, 62.
  5. Grabar 1990.
  6. Grabar 1990, 50.
  7. Ettinghausen 1974, 299.
  8. Ettinghausen 1974, 300; and Blair 1989.
  9. Dodd and Khairallah 1981, 71.