The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art (Islamic History and Civilization)

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 The Dragon In Medieval East Christian And Islamic Art
  • Book Author:
Sara Kuehn
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The aim of this research is to contextualise and chart, as far as possible, the complex iconogra- phy of the dragon in the medieval Islamic world,1 by interrogating the many factors, contexts and contingencies that helped to shape and transform it 2

The study focuses on the identification of the dragon imagery in a medieval Central Asian3 cultural context, in what may be described as Irano-Turkish territories, from where it was dis- seminated by people of predominantly Turkic and Iranian stock 4

It necessarily draws on a vast corpus of imagery of long artistic and icono- graphic tradition which originates from an equally vast geographic area of enormous cultural and ethnic complexity, with a primary emphasis on the transmission of the dragon iconography from Central Asia to Anatolia

Importantly, the latter comprises to a large extent parts of the region that formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great at his death in 323 bc, constituting ancient Sogdia, Bactria, the Indus Valley, Parthia, Media, the Transcaucasus and Anatolia A common fea- ture of these regions is therefore to have been subject for three to four centuries to intermittent waves of Hellenistic influence

Arab conquests of Central Asia began to gain momentum from 86/705 when Qutayba ibn Muslim was appointed governor of Khurasan, from where he led incursions into neighbouring regions 5 This led to a process of Islamicisation in the city states of sedentary Central Asia and the subsequent transformation of the entire region

into a centre of Islamic civilisation It also resulted in the assimilation and subsequent Islamicisation of the steppe peoples of Turko-Mongol heritage Islamic-period Central Asia naturally inherited artistic traditions from preceding dynasties such as the Sasanians (c 224–651) and the Sogdians (fifth–eighth centuries)

A true melting pot of peoples and cultures, the region had from earli- est times served as a mediator and transmitter of artistic trends as they passed from east to west Asia and vice versa

This phenomenon was taken even further in the vast spatial entity of Islam, where economic links facilitated the transmission of knowledge as well as cultural and artistic exchange among peoples of different backgrounds and thus, in spite of the multicultural setting, conveyed a feeling of unity and a sense of belonging to a common civilisation 6 

Medieval Islamic society was a mixture of several regional cultures which included Muslims and non-Muslims speak- ing many languages, including Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Hebrew, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and various local dialects

The approach in the following essays is thus necessarily broadly comparative since evidently, as Julie Scott Meisami has aptly put it, “the medieval world does not stop at, say, the border between Christian Byzantium and Islamic territories, it is also clear that valuable insights may be gained from comparing the various manifestations of what is, to a great extent, a unified tradition, which shares certain basic attitudes and assumptions despite the particular local colouring of the individual cultures that make up the whole ”

Therefore, since it pertains to more than one culture and geographical region, the study necessarily addresses the multicultural and hybrid facets of the dragon motif as it evolved in these regions and examines how the motif was accepted and incorporated into the artistic repertory

An investigation into the visual phenomenon of the dragon, which evolved from its pre-Islamic origins to manifest itself in varied but analogous and interrelated forms across this wide spatial and temporal entity, necessitates a broad over- view of the entire spectrum of images as they appear on diverse media In doing so the study, moreover, inevitably exhibits some of the difficulties arising from the necessity of crossing aca- demic boundaries An interdisciplinary method of analysis has been pursued, involving not only art historical but literary, epigraphical and historical evidence

During the ten years it took to compile the vast body of data the sheer scope of the mate- rial, in cultural, confessional, geographical and chronological terms, threatened to overwhelm all attempts at containment and control Necessarily, given the vastness of the subject, only certain aspects of the multilayered and multivalent character of the topic can be treated

This study identifies and discusses specific themes pertaining to the dragon iconography which can be observed over a long period of time

The likeness of the dragon is commonly associated with Asia and more specifically with China, being a paramount Chinese emblem yet its iconographic expression was known and used in a Central Asian context during the Bronze Age period, ie from the late third to early second mil- lennium bc,7 and was again extensively employed in the so-called “animal style” which was trans- mitted in the wake of the migrations of the ancient nomads of the Scytho-Siberian culture 8

The late outflows of the culture which produced this style include, for instance, the Xiongnu of Mongolia and the yuezhi (Rouzhi), who were driven out of present-day Gansu province in China by the Xiongnu in the second century bc and migrated

to the region of Bactria that lies between the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the classical Oxus river (known as Āmū Daryā) Known as the Kushāṇas, they entered the Eurasian heart- lands and the Indian subcontinent in the first or second centuries ad Under subsequent Central Asian dynasties such as the Sasanians and Sogdians (who were closely linked with the Turkic empires and played the role of active agents of cultural interaction), the dragon motif continued to be extensively employed and was to become a prominent emblem of the Great Saljuq Turks

 This so-called “Saljuq-style” dragon was a motif in common currency from Central Asia to Anatolia (Rūm, the “Roman”/Byzantine lands) long before its place was taken by a so-called “Chinese-style” dragon, introduced in the after- math of the Mongol invasion during the rule of the Chaghatayids (624/1227–764/1363), the Batuʾids (624/1227–907/1502) and the Ilkhanids (654/1256–754/1353) when China marked one pole of the Mongol empire at its time of greatest territorial expansion This gave rise to a Chi- nese and Chinese-inspired but Mongol version of the dragon that began to appear for instance on the tile revetments of the Ilkhanid summer residence at Takht-i Sulaimān, built in the 1270s in the Azerbaijan region of present-day Iran, as well as in some early fourteenth-century manuscripts

The transmission of the visual rendering of the motif was the result of an acculturation process in which it was translated into a Central Asian context

The focus of this study is precisely on the manifestations of the dragon as evinced in the cultural and artistic context of the medieval Central Asian world before the phenomenon of the “Chinese-style” dragon occurred in the arts of Islam during the latter half of the thirteenth and fourteenth century with the establishment of the Mongols in Central Asia Examples dating to after the Mongol invasion are employed only in so far as they illustrate a particularly pertinent symbolic feature in the stylistic continuation of the “Saljuq-style” dragon (the term “Saljuq” being used throughout this study in an extended sense, geographically and chronologically)

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