Friday Photo: Postcard from the Hijaz

Ottoman Hajj TileToday’s Friday Photo is a beautiful, if not strictly mediaeval, demonstration of the power and importance of the holy sites of Islam. This large tile plaque, which depicts the Ka’ba in Mecca, was made in the 17th century in the Iznik pottery workshops of Ottoman Turkey and is now held by the Walters Art Museum. In its lovely blues and whites, we can see the influence of Suleyman the Magnificient’s artistic patronage, which sponsored a unique style of Ottoman craftwork that developed from Chinese models.

Although it is unclear precisely why it was created, the tile could have served to functions: either exhorting Muslims to undertake the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, or celebrating a hajj that was successfully completed. The tradition of the hajj dates back to the earliest days of Islam, where it commemorated Muhammad’s triumphal return to Mecca with his followers. Unsurprisingly, considering the importance of the Hijaz in pre-Islamic trading networks, this Muslim practice became inextricably linked with long-distance commerce. It was both a duty and a matter of prestige for Muslim rulers to guarantee the safety and prosperity of pilgrims, and control over the holy sites themselves carried the ultimate ideological cachet.

This tile, with it’s birds’ eye view of the site, expresses the great interest in and access to these sites after the Ottoman expansions in the early 16th century, which not only brought control of territories around the Red Sea, but also allowed the Sultans to claim stewardship of Mecca and oversight of its pilgrims.

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